Friday, 22 June 2012

...And out again

When Brighton's notoriously sticky and sweaty Free Butt finally closed its battered doors after many many years of hosting some of the finest and most frenzied gigs I've ever attended (take a bow, Man or Astroman), I thought live music as I know and love it (small gigs by up-and-coming/down-and-dropping bands attended by people who care about music and haven't had any cocaine and so won't talk inanely and loudly to their mates over the music) was over in this town. And it did tail off a little for a while, until the Green Door Store opened eighteen months ago and revived us all. It's another comforting dive of a venue, located in a disused railway shed round the back of the train station, with a brick floor, peeling paintwork, and a sweatbox of a live music room at the back that has surprisingly good acoustics. No visit to this preening ponce of a town would be complete without a visit (they don't have a 'no hipsters' door policy as such, but they're definitely in a minority here.). It'll make you like the place more.

I went along twice this week, on consecutive nights (my hedonism apparently knows no bounds) to take in shows by two definite survivors from earlier eras, who, had they met (and they may be chums for all I know) would certainly have had some fascinating conversations. On Tuesday night, former Can front man and legendary head Damo Suzuki was in town. Damo is on a never-ending tour, a bit like Bob Dylan but without the ghastly noise and awful songs. Wherever he pitches up, he is joined by a fresh group of local musicians, and with minimal preparation they get together and knock out a new and unique version of his repertoire each time. This means every gig is a completely fresh and original musical experience, and as I've seen a few of these now I can say (with a great deal of love in my heart) that some ensembles have proved more successful than others. Which is, of course, inevitable.

What is undeniable is Damo's enthusiasm and passion for what he does; his tiny frame tense as wire and his face squeezed into a simian grimace of concentration as he pours forth his unintelligible lyrics in what could be English, German, Japanese, or a fusion of all three. I made out a few words, which were 'why can't you' in one song and 'boogie woogie' in another, but quickly forgot about straining to listen and just let it all happen on the stage. He was ably backed by a tight trio of electro-droogs, with very deft use of a theramin and melotron adding to the spaced-out vibe, speeding and slowing as his voice veered between monastic whispers and what often sounded like credible Louis Armstrong impressions (trust me, this was way better than I'm making it sound.). The audience were captivated, as witnessed by the almost total absence of inane chatter during the songs, and Damo appeared to notice us all for more or less the first time as we burst into an explosion of cheers at the end, opening his eyes and beaming in happy surprise. On the way out I noticed several people who'd been at Moon Duo the previous week, which made perfect sense. All of us getting back to prog roots that we never knew we had (and which I'd have scornfully derided in my teens.). Anyway, if Damo's coming to your town, do pitch up and give him your support. If you bring your flugelhorn you might end up getting a gig with him, whether you've ever had a flugelhorn lesson or not.

Things got much more confusing the following night when I turned up for Lene Lovich. Lene was a heroine of mine back in the day; she arrived in my life via the slightly more trendy kids TV programme 'Magpie', which ran on British TV once a week as a rival to the hugely popular but far more priggish BBC front runner 'Blue Peter'. Blue Peter's version of youth culture would have been a feature on the Cardigans of Roger Whittaker; Magpie was much more down and dirty, had presenters who wore jeans and had hair like Brian May, and had its nicotine-stained finger much closer to the youth pulse. Thus there was Lene Lovich, in her massive black lace headdress and layers of rags, swinging her thick knee-length plaits and rolling her wide eyes while making the most amazing vocal noises on 'Lucky Number', her novelty hit of 1978. Sexy but not sexual, strong but not aggressive, she was a great role model who proved capable of so much more than that one hit, duetting superbly with Nina Hagen as well as penning some more fine songs of her own before vanishing from public life to raise her family and run an antique shop in Norfolk.

I was thrilled to discover she was performing again, only I made the mistake of not reading the small print in my excitement, and so found myself seeing Lene as part of an ensemble show themed around Kurt Weill (ok in small doses as far as I'm concerned) and free jazz (a problem area for me.).  Lene arrived looking splendid in her Edwardian bonnet and black lace, and proved that her voice is as strong as ever by belting out a creditable 'Alabama Song' with a male singer whose voice was painfully flat and a good semitone out of tune with hers. She was as lively and charismatic as I remember, still wide-eyed and quite beautiful at 62, and I was ready for more when she left the stage and the free jazz ensemble got going. From the rapturous reception of most of the audience (some, who had been lounging on the floor at the front pretending to be Greenwich Village cats from 1961, merely adjusted their facial expressions) this was clearly a hugely respected and talented group of men, and I could tell that great skill was required to make some of those trumpet noises sound like more than just a duck being drowned in a bath of hot soup, was the ten minute drum solo ( done mainly with beaters and brushes) which segued into an eight minute double-bass solo, after which I just knew that there would be an equivalent length discordant keyboard solo, which finished me off. I had to high-tail it. I'd given them twenty minutes and they were just getting into their stride; I couldn't handle any more, man. I am simply not mature enough to embrace free-form jazz. And this wasn't the first time I'd tried; I just can't do it. And yet, I mused later, I have no problem with stoner prog-noodling of the kind I'd lapped up last week with Moon Duo, the previous night with Damo, and will be lapping up again in a week - in Hamburg, folks! - with the wonderful Wooden Shjips. What interpretations is my brain making when it hears an atonal trumpet solo, and I have to leave the room?

We're strange cats, us humans. Have a good weekend, man. Here's Damo in his heyday to give you some inspiration.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Farewell to a friend

A couple of days before I went on holiday, I found out (via Facebook, how modern) that an old friend had committed suicide. We hadn't seen each other for many years, but there was once a time when we saw each other every day in that urgent need for constant connection that you have as teenagers, when only a select few seem to speak the same language and feel the same important things with the requisite degree of intensity as yourself.

So it was with L. We met while doing our A Levels, both of us recently released from restrictive Catholic schools into the relative freedom and relaxation of a sixth form college, which among its other melting-pot qualities could could boast an ease in enabling girls and boys to form what were often their first, hugely important opposite-sex friendships. L and I met in History, and quickly discovered a shared love of the West End, non-mainstream music, and old films that was only matched by our shared disdain for Farahs, football, and "funk" (the prevailing mainstream culture of Essex and North London at the time.). We would smoke St Moritz in the refectory and plan our escape, which would always involve a flat in the Kings Road and regular visits to Berlin and Paris. Confined to reality, we made do with lounging around my bedroom listening to 12" singles, and taking black and white photos of one another sucking our cheeks in and looking intense. 

Of course I knew he was gay before he did, as did my mother, who worried about his terribly emaciated frame and the fact that his own mother never seemed to have time to cook him a meal. "Doesn't she care about him at all?" she would ask, as he bedded down on the sofa yet again, having "missed" his last bus because we were too busy taping ourselves singing 'Heroes' upstairs. Things were fraught at home and had been for many years; he was not his father's child but the result of a 1960s fling his mother had had with a Greek nightclub owner, and as he grew older and increasingly unlike his macho, stocky 'Dad', his status as cuckoo in the nest became pronounced and unbearable to all concerned. The spare beds and squat floors of friends were a welcome, if uncomfortable escape for him. 

 His sexuality was seldom discussed directly between us, although once we started hitting the New Romantic clubs I made several unsuccessful attempts to propel him at one or other of the beautiful boys we met, who, more confident than L, were so boldly and so defiantly 'out'. He would panic and cringe, and never short of more definite offers, the boys would drift away and leave him dancing with me to 'Memorabilia' once more. I didn't really mind. Though in an effort to up his nightclub profile, I persuaded him to let me dye his hair burgundy - an experiment which went horribly wrong and left me cramming his orange head back into our sink again and again in an effort to try and rectify the appalling mess I had made, until my mother came in and gave the game away by screaming "Jesus Mary and Joseph, what did you do to his HAIR?". He was angry at me for a day and then forgave me, which given the Heinz Cream of Tomato job I'd done on him, was very generous. 

Then we fell out, badly, and something was said by him which I could never forgive. To make my point I marched into the shop where he was working at the time and berated him horribly in front of his customers and co-workers. He had behaved atrociously, and I met and matched him point for point. There was no way back from there. Without L around I fell in love for the first time, went off to University a few months later and my life took a whole other trajectory. Our paths never crossed, apart from once when I  ran for a Tube train that closed its doors in my face, just as I realised L was standing on the other side of the door, staring back at me from inside the carriage. We continued to stare at one another as the train pulled out of the station, and I never saw him again. 

Ten years ago, he contacted me out of the blue through Friends Reunited (seems so quaint now.). I was amazed to read that he'd married and fathered two children, and horrified to read that his eldest had quite recently died. He was understandably broken and lost, and had become very, very embittered towards the world. We had a reconciliation of sorts, he keen to meet up but me quite resistant, sensing his complexity all too clearly and feeling a reluctance to re-open what felt like an inevitably complicated relationship. I kept it to email, 'listened' and offered support where I could, and always made sure to send a message on the anniversary of his child's death. Contact dwindled, but with the new modern lack of personal privacy I still heard snippets; he had left his wife, he had finally come out, he was living with a male partner, he had a lot of cosmetic surgery, he was happy, he was not. 

He was not. And I am so sorry. 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Far Out

There's been a lot of noise around this week, most of it bizarre and most of it high quality. What you can see here is a photo of a man called Robert Curgenven noodling around at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, and coaxing a series of atmospheric pops and drones from five decks on which various (presumably related) discs were spinning. He was second on the bill at the 'We Can Elude Control' festival of experimental electronica which ran last weekend, and which is the sort of crowd-dividing venture that often evokes quite violently strong positive or negative reactions in the listener.

As I was completely in the mood for a bit of barmy old postmodernism, I was more than happy to stand there and look serious to what others might have described as the amplified hum of a dozen domestic appliances overlaid with a rhythm track from an electricity transformer station sited on a busy roundabout. Less successful was the woman whose soundscape comprised a 'live broadcast' from a microphone placed at the top of Beachy Head five miles away; the sound of crashing waves and shrieking gulls, whilst possibly a technical marvel to obtain, really just sounded like exactly what we could all see going on outside the window - ie, crashing waves and shrieking gulls. The Sussex coastline just doesn't change that radically in five miles, I'm afraid. The second session in the middle gallery below was far more mellow and hypnotic, with the 'artists' twiddling their bits in front of a largely supine audience lolling among the huge Cerith Wyn Evans SUPERSTRUCTURE light and heat installation. The radiating warmth and mesmerising illumination of the artworks infused the crowd with a kind of collective atrophy, and four big jolly pensioner ladies who had wandered unaware into the De La Warr simply couldn't understand (or bear) what they were seeing or hearing. "They're all just lying there nodding like they're in a bloody trance!" one of them bellowed, heading for the exit with her hands over her ears. I've tried to add a sound file from a section I recorded on my phone but I can't do it, so you'll just have to trust me that she was wrong. Partly.

We had something else on in the evening back in Brighton so had to leave before the high point, which was to be Cosi Fanni Tutti from Throbbing Gristle in a rare live appearance, but my guess is it would have been more of the same, which is to say I haven't a clue what it would have been like. Still, what we saw was great fun if you're in the mood, or the worst excesses of self-indulgent art wankery if you're not. I had a great time (and how nice it was to see old punk war veteran Kirk Brandon among the audience, looking quite meltingly handsome. I was a bit hurt that he didn't recognise me from that time he danced with me at the Zap Club, but I guess it was eleven years ago.). And all for free!

More upbeat but just as bizarre were San Francisco's Moon Duo who entertained me hugely on Tuesday night at Brighton's Green Door Store. Immensely hairy dude Ripley Johnson is Chief Head with the absolutely far-out drone combo Wooden Shjips, and lissom keyboard minx Sanae Yamada is his lady (he's done well, I'm telling you.). Together they grab you and smash your ear against their wall of cosmic sound, all deep fuzz guitar and repetitive driven riffs, with Mr Hairy's sinister vocals buried helplessly a long way down in the mix. She puts on a bit of a show from behind her bank of effects boxes, a bit like she's  the little sister of Stacia from Hawkwind but without the massive distracting knockers (Stacia without the massive distracting knockers, I hear you cry, what would be the point of that?). Anyway, it's a bit like Suicide getting together with Neu! and coming up with a rock operetta about Jeffrey Dahmer. All very dark, all very unsettling, and all making for a fine night's entertainment. The crowd - mostly over 35s but with a pleasant sprinkling of well-pleased twentysomethings - were very happy indeed, if a little tinnitused, by the end.

If you'd like a little taste of the gig, turn all the lights off and turn this up as loud as you can. But I won't be hurt if you hate it. This stuff is not for everyone...

Friday, 8 June 2012

As a matter of fact, I'm back

I have a friend who comes from Turin (which as any Torino will tell you, is the rightful and true capital of Italy, a city of unsurpassed grace and culture whose title and status have been cruelly usurped by the 'putana' that is Rome.). Of all the former city states which were rammed together to make Italy, just one comes lower down the evolutionary scale than Rome, and that, according to my friend, is Sicily. So when I told him I was returning there for the second time a fortnight ago, he was predictably aghast. "Why do you go there?" he interrogated me, "They are animals." He is of course hopelessly biased and chauvinistic, but his reaction is a perfect illustration of how little Northern and Southern Italy actually have in common. I've had a good time in both, but for me Sicily is the one I would return to again and again (and I will), despite the supposed bestiality of its populace.

 Palermo is a force to be reckoned with, a rough, chapped brute of a city packed with ancient labyrinthine streets where life is lived in full public view and where the crumbling, pitching buildings appear to be holding one another up like amiable drunks. Drama is everywhere. Even on the train from the airport, a minor Italian opera was enacted before my eyes as the patient, quietly-spoken guard remonstrated gently but firmly with a wild-haired old man who had boarded without a ticket and was outraged at having been asked to pay. When politely escorted back on to the platform and directed to the ticket machine he had chosen to ignore on his way in, his indignation knew no bounds, and with great, expansive, handwringing gestures he enacted his disgust at the evil guard with his blatant disrespect for his elders and betters. For the whole of the remainder of the journey - some 40 minutes - the man maintained his tirade from his seat and demanded the support and attention of his fellow passengers, while his body odour, which was not unlike that of a fox, penetrated the carriage ripely in the strong midday heat.

 Driving in Palermo (or or that matter anywhere in Sicily, or for that matter anywhere in Italy) is like being inside a Gameboy; all cars try to overtake, cut up or tailgate one another constantly. It's almost compulsory. I have never been so glad to be inside a Volvo with all its thoughtful Scandinavian safety features and surplus airbags. But walking the streets feels safe, though the levels of poverty in some neighbourhoods are shocking in a European city, and the groups of aimless, unemployed men making a single coffee last a morning while they talk urgently outside the cafes look haunted and hollow-eyed. They watch us walk by with disinterest but no visible resentment.

 We seek out the Focacceria San Francesco, one of the oldest bakeries in the city and one which has acquired more recent fame for its public stance against Mafia 'protection', feeling it would be a small gesture of support to give them some custom, but the stress must be taking its toll on the staff as they are uniquely bad-tempered and hostile, and the food so bad that we have to consign it to the first bin that seems a discreet distance away. It turns out to be the only bad eating experience of the entire trip; every single mouthful beyond this point is a delight. Simple pasta dishes cost no more than eight or ten euros, and all burst with flavours imparted by the fantastic, picked-or-caught-that-morning fresh ingredients. As in most Italian cities, the least flash and showy restaurants deliver the highest quality food, and reconfirm my long-held view that you cannot, or do not need to "do posh Italian" ( and I've tried it at Locanda Locatelli - a colossal waste of money.). Our time in Palermo is spent wandering, watching, and learning to dodge the traffic as we sprint to cross the racetrack roads. Oddest sight (possibly of my life so far) goes hands-down to the 8,000 mummified corpses in the Capuchin Catacombs, which hang fully-dressed from the wall in their Sunday best, parchment faces frozen in silent screams or decayed beyond features into crazy masks. It's a macabre but oddly touching sight, though definitely not one to take the kids along to unless yours are at least 25. The Sicilians have always had a close relationship with death, which goes on to this day as you'll see if you wander through any cemetery with its grand mausoleums (and disproportionate numbers of 26 and 28-year old men whose Cosa Nostra killings are gaudily commemorated in black marble and gold.).

From Palermo it's off through the interior - giving scary Corleone a swerve - and down to the coast where we've rented a perfect house in the middle of nowhere for a week. If you don't mind a rough drive down a long pot-holed track  to get there, and if you like seclusion, outrageous views, and being awoken by the sound of cow bells and birdsong, this is the place for you. It's certainly the place for me. Owned by a local couple whose kindness and hospitality would be hard to beat, this is the get-away-from-it sanctuary of my dreams, though within easy striking distance of dreamy Sciacca down the coast, and graceful Agrigento in the other direction, with its access to the simply outrageous Valley of the Temples. I'd done a bit of reading up on this incredible archaeological site with its abundance of Graeco-Roman remains, but nothing had prepared me for the scale and magnificence of what I was seeing. We spend a slack-jawed day in the almost laughably photogenic structures, marvelling at the ancient technology that enabled them to still be standing so proudly after thousands of years. It's briskly busy but far from crowded, and with a little patience and planning it is easily possible to enjoy some of these buildings in almost perfect peace and silence. Wonderful.

Our laptop wheezes and dies on day 3 of the trip so we are cut off from Internet access, which I'm afraid I mind terribly. How I'd love to be cool, and say I didn't miss it. Though I do use the time to get plenty of reading done - 5 books are devoured in ten days - I have to confess that I am sadly dependent on being able to log on and check in, and being without Radio 4 and BBC 6 Music is a torment. But I survive.

We leave the lovely house after a week, with a huge bowl of freshly picked apricots from the owners, and head down the coast for a brief detour at the dazzling Scala Dei Turchi, where the Sicilians are at gleeful play, with packs of boys coaxing one another to leap from the bright white ledges into the turquoise sea below. The cliffs are breathtaking, smooth and rounded in places like sugarcraft sculptures, and sunbathers arrange themselves into the hollows so they can benefit from the extra tanning effects of the reflected sunlight. We spend an hour taking far too many photos before we head off across the South of the island to ravishing, irresistible Siracusa.

It can be a risk returning to somewhere you visited and loved - what if it's changed, been spoiled, commercialised, with a Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner? Luckily Siracusa is just as I left it seven years ago; simply one of the most beautiful cities in Southern Europe. Easy-paced and gentle as opposed to rapid-fire Palermo, this is the perfect place to wind up a holiday with a meander round its intertwining alleyways that all seem to lead to the fabulously-restored Cathedrale, where the Saturday evening passagiata gets going once all the weddings of the day are done and everyone has eaten. The atmosphere is fantastic; a babble of voices as four-generation families ramble contentedly along, eating ice cream and playing with their kids. There is not a single raucous drunken voice to be heard, much less weeping hen parties weeing in the gutters, such as feature in any UK town on a Saturday night. Not for the first time, I resent my home country. We join in the passagiata before a well-fed night's sleep back at our B&B. The following day we seek out the wonderful restaurant where we ate seven years ago, and find it just as good as we left it. I have the best sea bream I have ever eaten, drink red Martini with freshly squeezed orange juice, and as am happy a middle-class ponce as you could find in the world.

We round off with a lunchtime visit to classy little baroque Noto, and a quick salute to Mount Etna, which grumbles and smoulders in its shawl of ragged clouds. One day, Etna will blow its top, and it's impossible to imagine what will happen to the clusters of villages and vineyards that cling to its sides. It seems a strange decision to build your village on the slopes of an active volcano, but as my friend from Turin would confirm, Sicilians are not like other Italians.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Emerges, blinking...

I've been away without Internet access for two weeks. Most odd. More follows...