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11 June 2013

Aloha and welcome back!

I was beginning to think I'd never get there. But here we are. After an endless series of misunderstandings and bits of misinformation in my dealings with the web provider, and several unrelated computer issues, I'm finally web-mobile again. Hooray! More idle social media chit-chat to fritter away my spare time and yours with.

That's right, that's me in the picture with Dizzee Rascal. In a marquee in Dizzee's garden! It happened a couple of weeks ago, but the contract I had to sign stipulated that I only talk about it now. I also had to promise not to tell anyone Dizzee's address. Funnily enough, the secrecy seemed to include the driver of the coach that was meant to take a bunch of journalists and record company execs and interns to Kent for a celebration of the completion (nearly) of Dizzee's new record. Somehow, between the record company and the driver, the post code of his address underwent a crucial change. Following the Sat Nav sheepishly, we duly ended up in a cul-de-sac in Byfleet. "We can't get through here, but it doesn't matter, we've arrived anyway," said the driver. "What!" exclaimed the record company. We arrived an hour and a half late at our destination, enjoyed fine chicken tikka, champagne, cocktails, etc., plus, of course, the new Dizzee album which is sharp, funny and catchy, as we've come to expect (the picture was kindly donated by the record company, by the way).


Thanks a lot to Cage, Dizzee's manager from the beginning: He urged me to get a Curtis Mayfield album I'd never heard of before, the soundtrack for a film called "Short Eyes". It's arrived in the post today, and it is indeed excellent. I'm a Curtis fan since my early days in London. Each year I had to go to Croydon in South London to have my visa re-stamped. On one of these occasions I wandered into a local record store and perused the bargain bin. For 49 Pence I bought Curtis's seminal "There's No Place Like America Today" - an inspiration to Matthew E. White, by the way. I saw Mayfield live just the once, at an open air free festival in Crystal Palace. I remember the event well not just because of the music: it was a hot day, everyone was in underwear and bikinis - and I was stunned how many people had tattoos. Not today's type of trendily tribal or wittily post-modern tattoos, though, but the old type: anchors in fading blue, names of vanished girlfriends, plus, of course, many, many "love forever mum" and "love forever dad".

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15 June 2013
My Oblique Strategies have arrived, packed in a neat and - hopefully - indestructable cardboard box numbered 77/500. I've always wanted one of these, ever since Brian Eno started mentioning them in the 1970s. Devised by Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, it is a pile of cards, each with a crisp and often baffling piece of advice or instruction. They are designed to help the user out of a cul-de-sac. We are meant to pick a card when we are stuck, and apply whatever it says on the card to our particular situation. "Oblique Strategies - over one hundred worthwile dilemmas", it says, and: "Sixth, again slightly revised edition, 2013".

The first card I pick: "Honour thy error as a hidden intention". I take this as a timely reiteration of a belief I've held for a long time. However, I'm now faced with another dilemma. I have a burning desire to read all the cards in one go. On the other hand, surely the surprise effect will be part of the fun of using Oblique Strategies (although, Eno and Schmidt, being the authors, never experienced this surprise effect themselves). What should I do? Ha! Pick a card, of course. It says: "What to increase? What to reduce?"

I went to see Shane Meadows's "Made of Stone" film about the Stone Roses the other day and came out a reformed human being. I'd never really "got" the Stone Roses, I must admit. Their one album (the second doesn't count) passed me by quite harmlessly at the time of its release, 1989. And that incessant provincial bragging - "We don't care about the rest of the world, we want to be the biggest band in Manchester" - seemed puerile and, well, provincial, and got on my nerves.
This film, however, is extraordinary. There is absolutely no attempt to explain anything. No "whys", no "wherefores". Just a few bits of grainy, deeply grey footage of miserable Hulme at the time the Roses were kids. The lack of analysis makes it a film about emotions, and the experience becomes all the more intense, the "message" more convincing for it. The film is made up from three strands of narrative. First, we have the band preparing for a handful of massive reunion concerts in Heaton Park in 2012. Second, we get the history of the band, told mostly through old footage with a bit of commentary. Third, there is a warm-up gig for the Heaton Park shows in Warrington in front of 1000 fans. Announced only on the afternoon before, anyone wishing to attend has to race to the venue and present an item of Stone Roses wares that proves they are a genuine fan. Meadows awaits the stream of fans that soon begins to flow with his cameras, quizzing them, talking to them as a fan himself. Which Meadows clearly was and is.. He can barely contain his excitement when he "interviews" himself before the band's first rehearsal, or the Warrington show ; he is grief-stricken when, instead of playing an encore in Amsterdam, drummer Reni walks off and, for a minute, the whole reunion is thrown in doubt. What makes the film especially special, however, is Meadows's eye as a film director. His feature films - "This is England" the best known - have received quite a few awards. Here, his eye for detail, perspective and colours makes for a rich spectacle that oozes warmth and showmanship in equal parts. The footage from Heaton Park, finally, is staggering: a band in top form, the rhythm section locked incredibly tightly into their grooves, John Squire an extraordinary guitarist. Together, they make even lengthy guitar improvisations sound exciting. Also the songs, of course: all of a sudden they have a hymnic intensity which I certainly never felt the first time round.


Apropos "first time round": I was there at the Spike Island open air show in 1990 which in Stone Roses folklore was the pinnacle of their achievement (one of those concerts where, if everyone who now claims he had been there, had been there, would have filled the whole of Wales). In my experience and memory, it was an inmitigated desaster which put an end to any major global billion-selling success for the band. It started the day before with a huge press conference in Manchester. Media had flown in from everywhere, from Australia to Japan, from New York to Berlin. The band in their elephant jeans and kagouls sauntered into the press conference room and instantly went into passive aggressive rebel stance. They clearly meant it, "we don't care about the rest of the world...", or at least that was the act. It wasn't an act that went down well with anyone not au fait with the Northwestern English chip-on-shoulder sense of humour and "self". After about ten minutes' worth of cantakerous, mono-syllabic and piss-taking exchanges, an American journalist challenged the band by accusing them of a lack of respect. As a result, only the swift action of security people prevented a fight breaking out. The press conference was duly ended there and then.


At the actual show the next day, the wind blew all the music in the opposite direction, and what we were left with was mostly a mixture of low-down bass and Ian Brown's flat squawking. Apart from this, my main memories from the trip North are, a) the drive to the Spike Island which only made me realise just how run down, gray and joyless this part of England could be, and b) the moment when the journalists realised that the beer in the media tent was about to run out and stormed the bar.

17 June 2013
I witnessed quite possibly the shortest-lasting band split in music history last night. The venue - as always on a Sunday night - was the Prince of Wales in Willesden Lane, the band the Red Hot Sunday Band, a hydra-like assemblage of fantastic musicians with serious day jobs in the week (drummer Richard Bailey, for instance, works with Stevie Winwood, and guitarist Winston Delandro is in Ali Campbell's band). On Sunday, they meet up to have fun, play a bit of Jazz, a bit of Soul, a bit of Reggae and a bit of Funk. Nothing pretentious, just fabulous musicianship and a great groove. Yesterday, however, Frank, one of the saxophonists, was obviously in a huff. This would be his last time with the band, he announced after the first number. He was still grumbling loudly during the break whilst selling the raffle tickets that pay for the band's petrol. By the end of the night, however, after another storming second half set, he seemed to have completely forgotten about his threat, announcing happily: "see you in two weeks' time!"

The Prince of Wales


99-101 Willesden Lane,

Kilburn, London, NW6 7SD
020 7624 9161

4 July 2013
To the Winehouse exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Camden. Curated by Amy's elder brother Alex, the exhibition gathers together a variety of artefacts from Amy's house when she died two years ago. I have to say, it's a quite charming selection of stuff - shoes, fridge magnets, a bakelite house bar, photos, records, books - which betrays quite a fixation on Fifties aesthetics. "This isn't an attempt to tell people what my sister was like, or what kind of people my grandparents were," writes Alex in his introduction. "This is a snapshot of a girl who was, to her deepest core, simply a Jewish kid from North London with a big talent."

Thus, the exhibition doesn't try to explain anything. It simply lays out some of the decorations of Amy's house as well as the essence of her record collection, and therefore, by extension, her psyche.
What comes through loud and clear is the strength of Amy's 50s obsession. Where did this obsession come from, one wonders? A time when women - as well as many men - squeezed themselves into all sorts of shapes to fit the roles that society had prepared for them. Interestingly, the record collection - or, at least the record collection as presented by brother Alex - is dominated completely by non-contemporary music: Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett (a posthumous Grammy, one of her six, for a duet with Bennett, is also on show), Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington - the only exceptions being a few old-skool rap albums, Beck and the Small Faces.  
Another thing that struck me as I read the captions of the pictures and the various comments, was the frequent attempts to present the most difficult character traits of an undoubtedly complex person as a reflection of her genius. We learn, for instance, that her attempts to get herself thrown out of primary school were the expression of a playful nature and an attempt to do something cool. Later on, her clearly chronic misbehaviour at the Sylvia Young drama school is presented as, basically, the school's fault for being unable to teach her anything she didn't already know, and therefore bore her into militant rebellion. Hmmm...Alex Winehouse writes that he thinks Amy was a bit "ashamed of how intelligent she really was", leaving trashy Jackie Collins novels lying about the house but hiding away her Dostoyevsky volumes in a wardrobe. Strange, then, that amongst the handfull of books exhibited there are none by the Russian (there is Bukowski's "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" and something by Hunter S. Thompson).

On the left is a picture of Ex-Hüsker Dü man Grant Hart. I realise it's not ideal to use a stolen picture. I promise I will use more of my own again once I've sorted out a camera that works. I'm going through a patch of everything going wrong just now. The car, the fridge (naturally, they delivered the wrong replacement model at the first attempt), the camera, the laptop, the website...Not forgetting Pigeon, the cat: he has spent the last two days at the vet's, with a variety of ailments mostly relating to old age. Well, middle age, really: he's twelve.

Actually, I set out to write about my wonderful encounter the other day with Grant Hart rather than the health of my cats. However, I'm sure Grant won't mind that he is being talked about next to the picture of a feline. Especially as the dreadful story about the fire at his home also involved cats. When he arrived back home to find smoke billowing out of his windows, the fire brigade told him that no animal would still be alive inside. Distraught, he let the fire fighters do their work before finally being able to enter the smouldering ruins of his past life. It turned out that both cats had survived: one had escaped outdoors and returned two days later, the other had managed to hide away inside a double bass.
Of course, the real subject Grant and I had met up to discuss was his soon to be released album "The Argument" (see this website's "play list" page). On vinyl a beautifully presented double album ("you will love it," promised Grant, and I'm sure I will) he has set William S. Burroughs's adaption of Milton's "Paradise Lost" - "Lost Paradise" in Burroughs's version - to music. I liked the record before I met Grant, afterwards I liked it even more. It was a truly refreshing encounter, at least for me, devoid of any showbiz banter and make-believe, simply a musician who loves what he does.  
12 July 2013
After a bit of a crisis on Tuesday, Pigeon is a lot better, thank you very much. - Instead of writing these lines I really should be in the middle of transcribing a certain interview. The icon of its MP3 file has been malevolently glaring at me for weeks whenever I looked at my "desktop". Yes, it should have been done and dusted weeks ago. But I'm still procrastinating. Argh! The thing is this. Typing out an interview is a rather odd activity. Basically, it means partaking in the same conversation twice, only this time there's nothing you can do to influence the outcome. Sometimes - as in the Grant Hart interview - it is a positive pleasure to relive a genuinely inspiring encounter in this fashion. Here and there, we even discover explanations and comments we missed in the intensity of the original meeting (unlike a normal conversation, in an interview you don't just listen to what the other person is saying, you are at the same time also thinking about what the next question might be). At other times however, the prospect of transcribing an interview can be an absolute horror. This particular interview I am not working on at this very moment is one of those. It wasn't a bad interview as such, I don't think. Not like the truly unpleasant one with Norah Jones who was chippy and defensive to the max, possibly because my Austrian colleague had earlier disturbed her equilibrium with a mildy probing question of a political nature. No, this interview was just so hard-going that even on the recording it makes you want to scream. After a while the interviewer gets tied up more and more in all manner of over-complicated questions in his eagerness to demonstrate a) his genuine interest in the matter, and b) how well-prepared he is, in the face of an interviewee who simmers with the vibe that he thinks a) this whole conversation is a waste of time, and b) the interviewer's tiny brain will in no way suffice to comprehend his own superior insights. The consequences of my procrastination: I'll have to sacrifice part of my weekend to the task. Grrr.

Elvis Costello, on the other hand, was a great pleasure to meet again. He is in town to perform in Hyde Park tonight (promoted to the top of the bill, thanks to Elton John's absence). He used the opportunity to drum up some interest in a remarkable album he has recorded with the Philadelphia hip-hop/soul group The Roots, to be released in September. He did so in one of those small "preview theatres" - essentially a private cinema - which most hip West End hotels seem to have installed nowadays in their basements. Before our meeting, Elvis was interviewed in front of about 30 other journalists from the UK and Europe by the excellent Dorian Lynskey. The Guardian writer is one of those people - like Elvis Costello - who make me constantly marvel and curdle with envy at how he manages to do some many things at the same time without a dip in quality control. Anyway, the Elvis/Roots album is called "Wise Up GHOST" (sic) and choc-a-bloc with sharp, funky blasts of musical adrenaline. Driven by the incredibly hard drumming of ?uestlove, a lot of it is a sort of louder version of a Curtis Mayfield-groove crossed with Prince. Sometimes EC's word-salvos (here and there they reprise older songs like "Pills & Soap") are couched in typically croony EC melodies. At other times, he comes across like an exceptionally melodic rapper. One of the most interesting things he told me in our face-to-face interview was that he had always felt that his singing style in its wordyness was quite close to rapping: "It's really difficult to do. It's got a lot to do with phrasing and timing. That's why there are so few good cover versions of my songs - they're so difficult to sing."

Another stolen picture. Less than ideal, yes. At least Elvis is wearing the same hat as when we met yesterday.
19 August 2013
The main event of the last few weeks was a return visit to the Yorkshire town of Todmorden for a reportage for Beobachter Natur. In Todmorden, a few years ago a group of guerilla gardeners started to transform unloved and dirty grass and sand patches belonging to the council into vegetable patches. They called their venture "Incredible Edible Todmorden". Today, two hundred members participate regularly in their activities, and the organisation, supported by council, police, job centre and others, has spawned a separate farm and an aqua farm. I spent three hugely enjoyable days in Todmorden. One afternoon I was able to tag along to a guided tour with the trustees of an organisation called the Federation of City Farms. Todmorden, at least in high summer, is a great place for walking - especially along the canal. It is rather strange, we're quite high up in the rolling Yorkshire hills, and yet there is a canal, populated by countless geese and houseboats, with a lock every few hundred yards, leading all the way to Manchester.

Lunching with the Incredible Edibles and the City Farmers in the Unitarian Church, Todmorden

I bought a fine new hat in Todmorden!
At the end of July, it was time for my bi-monthly working trip to Zurich. The highlight was a rare gig by legendary local hero Rudolf Dietrich at the Frauenbadi in Zurich. "Frauenbadi" means "women's public baths", and that's exactly what it is, a cosy and idyllic Victorian wooden structure in the river Limmat, during the day the exclusive domain of women. In the evenings, the place is transformed into a open air venue for parties and small concerts. Next to the seats and the bar, the swimming pool is lit, with myriad small silvery fish leisurely drifting this way and that. Rudolf Dietrich was a member of Zurich's first punk band, Nasal Boys. With Blue China and solo he later moved to a bluesier and Joy Divisionish kind of singer/songwriter music. Nowadays, he operates under the baffling name Rural Sr.’s Le Vodou Sports Club http://www.youtube.com/user/rudolphdietrich. Simultaneously playing guitar and drums, he reminded me a lot of the wonderful Medicine Head. Many old friends were present, plus a few new ones. Also there was Thomas Wydler from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds who played with Rudolf in the early 1980s.

A few interviews came my way, too. Jessie J. was a good deal grander - at least in terms of interview venue - than the first time I met her before the release of her debut album. Then, we sat in a tiny record company office. This time, she held court in a large hotel suite in Whitehall, with a personal assistant as well as a "road manager" present throughout the encounter. She was friendly but a lot more guarded than in the past. 

I also spoke to Andreas from Danish group Pinkunoizu for whom I even suspended my normally unshakable rule that I don't do telephone interviews. Their new album "The Drop" is so good, however, that I couldn't wait to talk to them until their UK tour in the autumn.

Also over the telephone, though for different reasons, I spoke to Tim Jarvis, the Australia-based explorer who has visited both the North and the South pole. Earlier this year, he and his crew recreated the trip Shackleton had to make almost one hundred years ago in order to alert the outside world of the dire fate of his team and rescue them. Thus, Jarvis and five others spent twelve days in a rowing boat no bigger than a New York limo to row around Antarctica, and then spend another five days crossing glaciers and mountains to reach a whaling station in the North of the island of South Georgia.

Last Friday, I met up with Jon King, formerly of the wonderful Gang of Four, to talk about his transition from musician to director of a global communications agency he co-founded a few years ago. He was extremely generous with his time - clearly a man of many ideas. He is also in the middle of writing a thriller.

Pigeon, the cat, has a new home - under a young rose bush in the garden.

1 October 2013

Pitlochry, I must say, was a somewhat strange experience. For starters, I was staying in the very much faded grandeur of the Atholl Palace hotel, a large pseudo-castle atop its own green hill park on the edge of town. Everything about the decor was heavy and large, except the tiny round plastic (or a similar material) tables in the bar area. A variety of local produce was displayed in the corridor - as large as the display cabinets were, they were still made to look cramped like a child's toy box with the higgledy-piggledy assortments of garish porcelain, twee trinkets and "luxury" whiskies they contained.


About Pitlochry itself my notebook contains this entry: "A place of unspeakable dreariness and naffness". Well, it was a gray day. But I'm sure even in the sun the heavy gray stone houses wouldn't have looked any more inviting, nor the shops - tweed, haggis and trinkets non-stop - any more tempting. Even the shop belonging to the large and relatvely modern Festival Theatre contained barely any books, for instance, but row upon row of porcelain rabbits, whiskey-map hand towels and dainty ladies' gloves. No wonder the place is popular amongst walkers - in their desperation to get away from this hell hole the unfortunate travellers waylaid here by some unscrupulous tourist guide can't even wait for the next train to take them away, they have to get out right now!


The Edradour distillery, needless to say, was a delight. Thanks especially to Roy's enthusiastic tour of the facilities. Equally needless to say, I failed to resist the temptation to buy a bottle - a ten year old Ruby Port Cask Matured Single Malt. And before anyone mentions the word "bribery" - no, I wasn't offered a discount.

I seem to be spending a suspicious amount of time writing about food and drink of late. Am I falling victim to another obsession? After spending a couple of days in Pitlochry, Perthshire, last week to write about Edradour, "Scotland's smallest whisky distillery", I have just a few minutes ago put the phone down after talking for forty minutes or so with Michael Pollan, a man with an extraordinarily clear and convincing vision of what's wrong with modern industrial agriculture and how we can eat better both for our bodies and the environment. Michael has written several highly readable books on the subject, including "In Defence of Food", "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Cooked", all of which I can heartily recommend (and they involve neither brown rice nor sandals).

Edradour: behind these tidy white walls, a fine tipple is being born

Pitlochry: a typical shop window (left), a typical street corner(right)

10 October 2013

Truly shocked this morning to read in Music Week of the death on 3 October of Danny Wilder, aged 27. Danny was the lead guitarist and singer of an excellent band called Kings of the City. He was also a great photographer and painter - his "triple shark" print and his spooky photo of my cat Pigeon are amongst the favourite things on my walls. His dedication to his art was incredible - when I last met him he had a gardening job starting at 6 in the morning so he could afford a studio to paint in and also be in a band. A truly sad loss - R.I.P.

Danny Wilder's sharks
11 October 2013

Turns out to be quite impossible to take a non-shaky picture of the new kitten in the house, Chicken (seen here hazily on the left) - truly an all action cat. Pingu, on the other hand, who used to drive Pigeon round the bend with his constant playfulness, is all of a sudden becalmed.
A couple of things I failed to mention in earlier posts - first, a splendid appearance of the ever-brilliant Roy & the Devil's Motorcycle at the unspeakably cool Old Blue & Last in Shoreditch. They had a good crowd, too, despite it being a Monday. Second, and most embarrassingly, I managed to miss an appointment with Sir Macca! Totally and completely convinced that the interview was on Friday, I looked at the e-mail again on Thursday evening to figure out how to travel to the venue only to discover to my horror that it would have been three hours earlier on Thursday. Alas, I don't suppose any of the other 18 journalists around the table or even Sir would have noticed my absence.
Just put the phone down after a long inteview with Vashti Bunyan. It turns out the long pause since her last album "Lookaftering" is not in anyway sinister. She's just a slow worker, she says - eight songs "nearly ready" for another album, her third proper one (as opposed to a collection of old recordings) at the age of nearly 70! There was one, much sadder reason for the delay, though: the unexpected death of arranger Robert Kirby, two weeks after meeting up with Vashti and talking with her about working on the new songs. For a while after that she couldn't bear going near those songs. The resutls of our conversation will be published in German Musik Exprsss.

Yes, it's the real vinyl thing - bought in about 1971 in Zurich and still with me: Vashti Bunyan's "Just Another Diamond Day"

14 October 2013

Have I mentioned before that I'm an enthusiastic follower of Robert Fripp's blog/diary? It is in equal parts informative, droll, wise, witty, grumpy and homely. WillyFred the rabbit and Robert's wife, the Minx, make frequent appearances; days often end with a spot of "gentling". The diary is also rather envy-inducing: I wish I had the discipline to keep my time-wasting to a Fripp'ian minimum, manage to get up as early as him - very early! - every morning to read philosophy books, and still get down to hours of music-making and business-tending-to (not to mention wandering off into "Bredonborogh" to purchase fine cakes - and not get fat eating them all!).

The reason I'm mentioning Robert's blog now is the news that there is going to be a new version of King Crimson. Originally formed a couple of doors down from one of my own previous addresses (105, Brondesbury Road, NW6) They were/are truly one of the very few bands started in the 60s that have never stood still ever since.  Here comes the real sensation, though: the new outfit will contain an eye-watering triple helping of drummers! Read it here

Two typical images from Robert Fripp's diary

16 October 2013

Robbie Williams is, it has to be said, one of the more amusing and charming interviewees in the pop world. Yesterday, by the time it was the turn of my roundtable encounter with him (share with eight others), he had already done nearly ten face-to-face interviews, several TV chats and a few more roundtables. And yet, he showed no trace of weariness or boredom. His new album is called "Swings Both Ways" ("You can't call it that!", "Yes I fucking can!") and will be released on 18 November. More, I'm not at liberty to divulge at this stage. Except, perhaps, that duet-partner Rufus Wainwright "definitely swings one way!"

It wasn't always like this with Robbie. The first time I met him just before the release of his first album I encountered him parked in a Cadilllac-sized sofa in he middle of  a gigantic hotel suite, staring disconsolately at a Backgammon board. His first words to me were: "Do you play Backgammon?" No, sorry. "A shame. Backgammon's the only thing worth living for .

The view from the 6th floor of the Savoy hotel where the Robbie interviews too place. Thanks for the photos, Olivia!
Today, on a grey day, it was a trip to a grey industrial corner of Wimbledon where Midlake are rehearsing for a few dates in Europe. Guitarist Eric Pulido explained with words as precise as a typical Midlake vocal arrangemet the changed circumstances of the band - with Pulido himself moving forward to the microphon after the departure of Tim Smith, previously the main provider of songs. The departure, I'm happy to report, hasn't had a negative effect on the music whatsoever.