Thursday, December 28, 2006

Al Gore, Global Warming, And How The Internet Can Solve The Crisis of Democracy

On 28 August, Al Gore introduced the British premiere of his film, An Inconvenient Truth, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He answered questions from festival director Shane Danielson and the audience, and his optimism and good cheer contrasted with the damning tone of the documentary. Oddly, for such a passionless politician, he was evangelical about the prospects for effective action against the causes of climate change, even suggesting that President Bush would heed the green message. "I don’t want to be Polyannaish about this," he told the Cineworld audience. "This is the most difficult challenge we’ve ever faced. It is eminently do-able." An edited version of Gore's remarks follows:
"In order to solve the climate crisis we have to address the democracy crisis. Especially in the US. I believe that in all democracies the conversation of democracy has been crimped and squeezed into little television soundbites and 30 second commercials. And as a result, people, average citizens, voters, have been pushed out of the conversation. A politics based on the public interest in the future dimension requires a very high level of ideas, in the political dialogue. Of course the Scottish Enlightenment was the epicentre of that kind of politics. It transformed the world. It started here.
"I believe that a campaign that’s based on a very large set of ideas focused on the future and the public interest now faces such a withering headwind that a higher priority is to change democracy and open it up again to citizens – to air it out – and to democratise the dominant medium of television, which has been a form of information flow that has stultified modern life.
"After World War Two there were a group of very thoughtful, humane, decent philosophers – Germans – who were so horrified, humiliated, shamed by what had happened in Germany that they became what is known as the Frankfurt School – Jurgen Habermas is probably the best known. They devoted themselves over decades to exploring the question: what in the hell happened? And one of them, a philosopher named Theodore Adorno – conducted a philosophical autopsy of the Weimar and the emergence of the Third Reich. And he identified the first significant symptom of their descent into hell. He said this: ‘All questions of fact became questions of power’.
"The Enlightenment and particularly the Scottish Enlightenment enshrined a new sovereign – the rule of reason - and questions of fact were no longer questions of power. They were questions to be answered by the body politic, using the best evidence and the rule of reason, and free debate with an implicit shared goal of finding the right answer for the best policy. Before the Enlightenment, before the printing press generated the meritocracy of ideas accessible to individuals, there was a mediaeval information monopoly controlled by the church and questions of fact were questions of power. That’s why Galileo was put in prison. And for the first time, with the Enlightenment – empowered by the printing press, and the information ecology that flowed out of it -knowledge became a source of power, in the hands of an average citizen who could mediate between wealth and power for the first time in historyon a sustained basis.
"The information ecology defined by the printing press was displaced 40 years ago in my country by the television, and it’s now so dominant that the average American watches television for four hours and 39 minutes a day. It has a quasi-hypnotic effect, and the internet’s a great source of hope and it replicates that meritocracy of ideas but it does not have that hypnotic effect that television has.
"I see the internet as a source of hope. To use the Star Wars analogy, the rebellion is alive and well on the internet on some far galaxy, connected to ours, and it is growing, and I do believe that it is changing the operation of our political dialogue, democratising it, opening it up, so that questions of fact become questions of truth instead of power, so that there’s not censorship of global warming studies. Two days ago evolutionary biology in the United States was removed from the list of subjects that qualified for low income graduates to get grants to pursue – isn’t that horrible? There are these little things - but we have to change the political environment in order to have a conversation based on these kinds of ideas. But it is happening. We are beginning to see those changes."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Echoes and Earbleeds in a Diving Bell: the Undersea World of the Pixies

Pixies memory #1. Fifteen years ago, the Pixies played the SECC in Glasgow. The SECC is a big tin can with all the atmosphere of a diving bell, but that night the Pixies did something strange. They came, they played for maybe eight minutes, and they left. Something had collapsed – the safety barriers; the stage; the cracked carapace of grunge – and someone decided that it was too dangerous to continue.
But they achieved a lot in those eight minutes. The details of the songs they played escape me – maybe Debaser was in there – but I can remember the sound. It was fierce and loud and sharp, an earbleeding noise, like heartbeats thumping against the cochlea; brutal and melodic, but somewhere near pain. It was too much, really. They couldn’t have gone on like that. It was too dangerous to continue.
And so the Pixies split. They didn’t do it that night, but maybe they should have. Walking off a collapsing stage would have been a better way to go than what actually happened. In January 1993, Charles Thompson IV, then known as Frank Black, and previously as Black Francis, told Mark Radcliffe on Radio 5’s Hit The North that the Pixies were finished. Which, apparently, was news to the Pixies.
He later explained this decision to the NME, saying he had grown sick of the Pixies, and bored of singing Monkey Gone to Heaven. He needed new challenges. “It’s like a film-maker who’s started out making cowboy movies - after a while, if he were to be forced to only make cowboy movies, that doesn’t seem like a very good proposition. It seems it’s like it’s holding you down. And that’s the way I feel about it. I don’t wanna just make cowboy movies, I wanna try and see if I can make another kind of film.”
Pixies memory # 2. My friend, Gina Arnold – who wrote Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana – was talking recently to a class at Stanford University in San Francisco, and mentioned that she had once been on the road with a band in Europe. She didn’t name the group, assuming that the young students would not have heard of them. When she finally revealed that it was the Pixies, the class reacted as if she had witnessed a miracle, a feeling which intensified when Gina explained that the Pixies’ 1990 show in Vienna was the best live performance she ever saw, not excluding the Sex Pistols at the Winterland, Bruce at the Garden, or Nirvana at the Croc.
Gina didn’t bother with the Pixies reunion shows in 2004, as she didn’t want to sully the memory. In which case, she won’t need to seek out loudQUIETloud, the documentary of that tour, either. Here is what the Pixies were like when they toured in 1990. “Back then, the Pixies all loathed each other and sat on opposite sides of the bus. Kim [Deal, Pixies’ bassist] is a totally strange person. I loaned her my lipstick in Vienna and it was the first time she’d ever worn any. She covered grey in her hair with shoe black, and hated the Replacements cos she thought they were corny. She was fucking awesome!”
Plenty has happened to the Pixies in the years since they split, but the main thing was that, somehow, they became legendary. This was a neat trick, as none of the band died, but it could just be that the world has caught up with their music.
This film starts with the quote Kurt Cobain gave to Rolling Stone, trying to explain the magic of Smells Like Teen Spirit: “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.” Well, Smells Like Teen Spirit does have the loudQuietloud thing you get in a lot of the Pixies’ songs, but it really is a different animal. With Nirvana, the meaning was never obscure: it was all about pain and rage and self-disgust. Kurt’s was a loser’s refrain. Even now, it’s hard to say what the Pixies songs are about. The music is a kind of alien rock’n’roll. The ad placed by Thompson and guitarist Joey Santiago seeking band members asked for a “bassist into Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary” and they got Kim Deal, who as Arnold once noted, was like a cross between Keith Richards and Doris Day. The Pixies sound is all of those things mulched in a blender, with stray chunks of surf music and hardcore bursting breathlessly to the surface. The lyrics, meanwhile, are like fragments of B-movie screenplay, cut up by William Burroughs, then re-assembled by Herschell Gordon Lewis in the back of a comic shop. Take the first lines of the song that Thompson grew so tired of singing: “There was a guy. An underwater guy who controlled the sea. Got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey. This monkey’s gone to heaven.” Compared to that, Smells Like Teen Spirit is Summer Holiday.
So what happened to the Pixies? LoudQUIETloud starts with a Spinal Tap-style inventory. Thompson, as Frank Black, has maintained a solo career which has never quite matched the success of his previous identity. He has separated from his first wife, and teamed up with Violet, who has two kids. We see him taking delivery of a people carrier, and looking forward to a new baby. Joey Santiago also has a family, does a bit of soundtrack work, and plays to small audiences with his wife in The Martinis. Deal has had success with her sister Kelley in the Breeders, but is characterised by the film as a woman on the verge of a relapse into drug and alcohol abuse. Her mother is pleased that the Pixies have reformed, suggesting that otherwise, Kim would be “making snowflakes and doing all that crappy stuff, and sleeping all day.”
It falls to drummer David Lovering to provide the light relief. His introductory caption reads: “After the Pixies split, David gave up the drums to pursue hobbies including magic and metal detecting.” No doubt the chapeau shop would have followed if the Pixies had not regrouped.
What happens? The band gets together, and the film follows their progress from the first faltering rehearsals of Hey, to their triumphant final show. Along the way, Kim drinks at least one bottle of beer, consoling herself with the knowledge that it is only 5% proof, this being the alcohol content of most beer. (Thompson has stated that this aspect of the film was toned down, as Deal objected to her portrayal).
Lovering provides the main drama, as the stress of his father’s death prompts him to numb his feelings with Valium, causing considerable disturbance among the band. At a show in Iceland, he keeps drumming long after the song has finished, to the evident consternation of everyone. “I thought I was watching someone having a breakdown,” says Santiago, the George Harrison of the group.
Thompson, meanwhile, allows the cameras to observe him in various states of undress, which is brave for a big man, but not necessarily wise. In one peculiar scene, which is never explained, he clambers into his tour-bus bunk, wearing nothing but big pants, and plugs himself into a personal stereo. Soon, he is repeating a mantra, as if from a motivational tape: “I am a good person. I have a positive intellect. I can do it. People like me. I’m cute.” He then makes some throaty noises, whilst rubbing his bare chest; an odd moment of insecurity.
Thompson has criticised the film, saying that the filmmakers were naïve, and seemed to believe that being in a band would be similar to being in the Monkees: “Always up to mischief. But we’re boring, you know. And touring is boring. You just sit around not talking to each other.”
This may be true, but the film’s tension comes from observing the various ways in which the group members fail to communicate. In a phone interview with the NME, Thompson offers a glimpse into his understanding of the group dynamic. “We don’t talk to each other that much. And it’s not because we don’t like each other. It’s just the kind of people we are.”
The inability to penetrate those silences may be the film’s failure. On the other hand, the Pixies seem to exist in a state of nervous tension, with Thompson reluctant to admit that he needs his bandmates, and his bandmates unwilling to submit to his will. He clearly wants to write new songs as the Pixies, but he never quite manages to relay this information to his colleagues. Deal, at least, makes positive noises about recording together, but only to her sister, Kelley. On the disc of extras, Thompson suggests that, instead of making a record, they make a feature film. “Neat,” says Deal, while Santiago stares blankly through the windows of the bus.
And the music? Holy Jesus! It’s unfailingly, weirdly, great. There never was anything wrong with cowboy movies.
Originally published in Product magazine

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: Face to Face With Prime Evil

When she describes her meetings with Eugene de Kock, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela mentions Hannibal Lecter. The obvious difference is that Lecter was a fictional embodiment of our fear of murderous psychopaths, and De Kock – nickname Prime Evil – really did commit ruthless acts of barbarity, as the commander of the Vlakplaas death squad, working covertly for the South African government towards the end of the apartheid era.
De Kock was imprisoned for two life sentences plus 212 years for crimes against humanity, and was chained to the floor when Gobodo-Madikizela first encountered him. She subsequently met him 46 times, and developed an unsettling rapport with him, which is chronicled in her book, A Human Being Died That Night. The book mixes memoir – the chapter about her meetings with de Kock are as taut and sparse as an existential thriller – and the psychology of forgiveness.
The Lecter moment comes right at the start. Working as part of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and encouraged by the example of Pearl Faku and Doreen Mgoduka, (who had met de Kock and forgiven him for the murder of their husbands), Gobodo-Madikizela began by wondering whether forgiveness might be wasted on such a man. As she hears his story, her attitude begins to change, though she initially feels guilty for experiencing any sympathy towards him. She writes that she: “wondered if my heart had actually crossed the moral line from compassion, which allows one to maintain a measure of distance, to actually identifying with de Kock.”
This worry was prompted by a moment during one of their meetings where, in a reflex gesture of reassurance, Gobodo-Madikizela reached out and touched de Kock’s hand. The next time they met, the prisoner seemed excited, and thanked her for “the other day,” telling her that the hand she had touched was his “trigger hand”.
Gobodo-Madikizela wrestles with the implications of this charged moment, deciding that the way he referred to his trigger hand was “an illustration of how fragmented he was – a person broken into bits struggling to achieve some sense of wholeness.”
It may also have been the first time a black person had ever touched him in a spirit of compassion. “His world was a cold world, where eyes of death stared accusingly at him, a world littered with corpses and graves – graves of the unknown dead, dismembered or blown-up bodies. But for all the horrific singularity of his acts, de Kock was a desperate soul seeking to affirm to himself that he was still part of the human universe.”
This empathy was not granted lightly. Gobodo-Madikizela, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town, is as forensic in her dissection of her own feelings as she is with de Kock’s. In the end, she concludes that he was consumed by guilt, and was sincerely remorseful.
“There were real human moments which drew me into community with him, for instance when he said our sons were the same age. I felt a little shaken, that my world was actually the same world as this man. But those moments helped to deepen the understanding about exactly what happens when human beings turn the other way, into becoming what we call monsters. It gave me insight into the dangers of being drawn into these situations. It may be small steps at first, as it was with him: he was fighting in the army, and then he was drawn into fighting a war in the shadows, which meant fighting without rules. It meant anything goes as long as you achieve your goal. The more he was drawn into that, the closer he came to what we like to call a monster.”
Even in his apparent remorse, there were glimpses of the old de Kock. “There were moments when he seemed to be revelling in his power in subtle ways. I would find him in the midst of describing how he worked and I could see that it looked as if he was becoming spirited by describing his role. I struggled with this, and I decided: he is remorseful, but the level of remorse evokes weakness in him, and he doesn’t like that kind of weakness. He has been someone commanding huge power and fear, so he would slip into those moments where he wants his power back, even if that was only in the way he tells the story of his role in these atrocities.”
What makes de Kock’s story interesting is that he was not a disturbed individual with psychopathic tendencies. His upbringing was fairly typical. His father was a staunch Afrikaner nationalist who drank too much, and held strongly anticommunist views. But the father also told the son that if he had been born black, he would have joined the supposedly-communist African National Congress. Gobodo-Madikizela also accepts that the Afrikaner cause had a logic to it, however warped; apartheid was even couched in Christian principles, built around fear of the “Black Danger”. “They thought it was a righteous war, blessed by God.”
In this context, De Kock was not so exceptional, and may even be seen as a scapegoat for the moral bankruptcy of South African society in the apartheid era.
“The apartheid government had many people like Eugene de Kock working in the security forces. But the country was looking for someone to identify as the source. I think it’s a psychological need, after these kinds of atrocities. For people who are even remotely associated with these tragedies – for example, white people who benefited from what Eugene de Kock did, who voted for the apartheid government for all these years – it serves their purpose to identify one person as responsible. Confronting the evil of apartheid, as people who supported apartheid, would threaten their sense of themselves, because they see themselves as moral, even God-fearing members of society.”
Gobodo-Madikizela unpicks the notion of evil, a word which usually acts to distance barbaric acts from the realms of ordinary life. “Eugene de Kock has been called Prime Evil: the embodiment of apartheid and therefore he should be quarantined. I use the word to interrogate this notion of evil. The book is a journey to interrogate the meaning of these crimes that are committed under state authority. With evil deeds that are sanctioned by the state, one has to be careful about judging. We do judge, of course. We know that with hindsight these people like Eugene de Kock could have taken a different path. But could they have done that, given that this was a society that seemed to think it was under attack? Not only that: a state government which created laws that allowed these atrocities to take place. And a society in which the majority of white people voted for the government which perpetuated these actions, and voted for it increasingly in the 1980s and kept it in power, and made it successful.
“When a person like Eugene de Kock believes that they are doing the right thing for their country, for law and order, you can really see the problem of human weakness. Ordinary people were believers in this government. They felt that Eugene de Kock and others were protecting them. I don’t know how I would have behaved if I had been white under apartheid. It’s only by the grace of God that I was born black, that I was on the other side of this oppressive regime, that I did not benefit from apartheid.
“But recognising that it’s only by the grace of god that I was not born white, should allow us to understand the problem of human weakness. We will never know with certainty how we would have behaved. Until we are in a situation where we are forced to make those choices, we don’t have the right to stand on a higher moral level and say we would have behaved differently. We don’t know.”
In the end, Gobodo-Madikizela describes de Kock as a victim of lost ideologies, provoking a sad response as the old soldier describes his feelings: “We fought for nothing … we could have all been alive having a beer. And the politicians? If we could put all politicians in the front lines with their families, and grandparents, and grandchildren – if they are ever in the front line, I don’t think we will ever have a war again.”
A Human Being Died That Night, Portobello Books, £8.99

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pure Sex And Heavy Psyched: The Sensational Rise Of The Fratellis

It is a measure of how far the Fratellis have come , and how quickly, that when I arrive at their hotel in Bloomsbury, London, at noon on a wet Wednesday in winter, the band’s road manager, Gideon, is involved in a stern discussion about Champagne. This is not a matter of rock’n’roll excess, or even record company largesse – though the Glasgow three-piece have had much to celebrate over the last three months. (Their debut album, Costello Music, entered the charts at number two, and they recently played two sold out nights at Glasgow’s Barrowland ballroom.)
Specifically, Gideon’s point is that the two bottles of bubbly the band were promised as compensation for having their morning’s rest disturbed by hotel staff have failed to materialise. Never mind that the disturbance happened because two of the band were unable to work out how to illuminate the “Do Not Disturb” sign; this is a matter of principle. Champagne was promised; Champagne must be delivered. The hotel manager mumbles something about putting the bottles in the band’s rooms. “Yes,” says Gideon, “but we’re checking out now. So if you get the bottles now, they’ll take them with them.” At this point, the hotelier’s face is a picture of agonised tolerance.
The Fratellis, it’s true, do not look like men who are used to debating the finer points of viticulture. But such is the momentum of their career that they must be in danger of developing a taste for sparkling wine. Gideon, it turns out, used to work for Whitesnake, so we may assume that he has talked his way out of tighter corners than this. “He’s brilliant,” says Jon, the Fratellis’ tousle-haired songwriter. “Even the smallest little thing, like the taxi driver taking a wrong turn; he pure lets them know that it’s not acceptable. ‘Do you know who you’ve got in the back?’”
In truth, the Fratellis’ rise has been so swift that cabbies could be forgiven for not recognising them. Indeed, when we walk through Bloomsbury towards the British Museum, they turn some heads, but there is no overt Fratellimania.
But if they haven’t quite cracked open the public consciousness, there is every chance that they will, and soon. In Glasgow, it has already happened. Those Barrowland shows sold out in record time, and the atmosphere at the shows left the group speechless. “Unless you’ve got a great command of the English language you run out of words,” says Jon (the group have all adopted Fratelli as a surname, in the manner of the Ramones). “I don’t know what words you would use – it was pretty special.”
“Pure sex,” says Barry, the bass player, adding that as a punter at the Barrowland, he used to fantasise about what it would be like to be on the other side of the lights. “I thought: how cool would it be just to be up there, playing?”
“It’s beyond explanation sometimes,” adds Jon, “that people love us that much. I always just figured that we would love us that much, and that people would like us. They wouldn’t get as excited as we do. But they’re actually more excited. It’s still a big mystery to me.”
The band met when working at the shows in Glasgow: “I can say the shows to you,” says Jon. “With English people you’ve got to say ‘the fairground’. And the fairground just sounds pants.”
They moved around, doing stints on Andy’s Waltzers. “I always just ended up on the stalls,” says Jon. “You got less hassle at the stalls. I wasn’t very good at dealing with bams who were up for fighting. There were always loons that were just there to fight. I suppose it sounds like a romantic thing, but it wasn’t really. It was scummy.”
They played their first show in February 2005, at O’Henry’s pub in Glasgow. “We weren’t really interested in doing what you usually do in Glasgow which is to go on a bill of four bands and give all your ticket money away to promoters,” says Jon. “We found a basement in a little pub that held 70 people and put on our own nights. It was brilliant, man. It wasn’t about money – it was about leaving with a bit of dignity.”
“It was great,” says Barry. “At the end of the night we made £25 each and some beers. You’d never get that from playing at King Tuts.”
They recorded their album at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, with producer Tony Hoffer, who has also worked with Beck and – more significantly for the Fratellis’ sound – Supergrass. They were in studio 3, which is full of vintage gear. “It makes you feel a bit more like you’re part of something you were interested in,” says Jon, “like when the Who and the Doors and Zeppelin recorded there. Dylan recorded there. When you’re using vintage gear, it’s got a lot of dust on it, and it ends up on your stuff.”
“It smells legendary, man,” says the amiable drummer, Mince.
“I think that’s cos we kept blocking the bogs,” says Jon.
“It was the hot dogs from the 7-11,” says Barry. “They didn’t agree with me.”
Other highlights from that trip included standing beside the actor James Woods at a urinal, seeing Chandler from Friends, and crossing the street at the same time as the porn star Ron Jeremy. On their first night out, Mince and Barry bumped into the stars of the dope-smoking movie Harold and Kumar Get The Munchies. “I was heavy psyched man,” says Mince, “and I ended up pished.”
In true Spinal Tap-style, the band hired a black Mustang convertible to get around LA. Mince was the designated driver, but was, by his own admission “always smashed”.
“Driving was a two man operation,” says Barry. “I had to keep reminding him which side of the road to drive on, and navigating. I had more stress than him. He just had to operate the car.” Mince also had some objections to his room. “The curtains were white, so it was bright as f***. I had to sleep in the walk-in wardrobe.”
The campaign takes another step up soon when the group embark on an arena tour with Kasabian, but they are impatient to make another album. The new material will be less obviously commercial, says Jon. “When you make your first album you’re not sure how it’s going to go, you err on the side of ‘let’s try and write some hits’. The songs that were picked were the most obvious ones. I can’t do the first album again in any shape or form, or I’ll go nuts. I’m desperate to make a second album. I’d rather make loads of albums – like three albums a year.”
Barry cautions that this is unlikely to happen, now that the group are signed to a major label. “Maybe we just need to break the mould,” says Jon. “Just do it. I just feel like going, ‘Here’s the deal, we’re going to make a couple of albums a year and a couple of tours and that’s what you’ll get out of us’. And see what they say. What d’you reckon? Type a memo and laminate it?”

Friday, October 27, 2006

New Documentary Highlights The Real Price of Coffee: Starving Farmers in Ethiopia

After watching Nick and Marc Francis’s documentary about coffee you might wonder what you can do. On one level, Black Gold is about the iniquities of world trade, which is not something the average consumer can solve in their coffee break. On the other hand, the film’s scenes of poor farmers in Ethiopia, and of a child being refused medical care because it is not yet malnourished enough, do add a moral dimension to that morning latte. To illustrate the question, Marc makes a suggestion: go into Starbucks and ask for a latte made with Fairtrade coffee, and see what happens.
So on Sunday afternoon, at Starbucks on Highbury Corner in London, I do. At first, there is confusion, and “Fairtrade” is misheard as “frothy”. I am then assured that the two special blends of the day, Verona and Estima, are Fairtrade, and that while I can’t have a Fairtrade latte, I can have a cup of one of these, topped up with frothed milk. The resulting coffee is a horrible compromise; too milky and too weak.
Black Gold has been compared to Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s film, Supersize Me, but its target is broader than Starbucks. Four corporations – Kraft, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, and Sara Lee – dominate the world market. Coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity (after oil) and is subject to fluctuations in price which bear no relation to the cost of production.
The film follows Tadesse Meskela as he tries to bypass the New York commodities market to sell the product of the Oromia farmers’ co-operative. Amid a blizzard of statistics, one of the most illuminating scenes show Meskela explaining to the farmers how much a cup of coffee sells for in the North. The answer is shocking. In Ethiopia, a coffee is $0.12. In the US: $2.90. A kilo of coffee will make 80 cups, and sells for $230 in the US market. Of this, the Ethiopian farmer will receive 23 cents. The farmers’ families live in crowded houses with no running water, and no school for their children – a scene which contrasts painfully with the glitz of the World Barista Championships in the USA, where contestants coax patterns in the froth of their cappuccinos. “When you have a cup of coffee, you are immediately linked to a global economy,” says Marc Francis. “We made the film to show what’s at the bottom of the cup.”
The Francis brothers began their film 20 years after the television images of the Ethiopian famine prompted a flurry of aid projects, and they hope to change the perception of what the developed world can do. “Should we dig in our pocket to give them a well?” asks Marc. “Or should we make sure that the community in Ethiopia get more money for growing coffee so we don’t have to give them a well? The first positive step as consumers is to be able to vote with our wallets.”
Fair Trade can be part of this, though there are arguments about whether the system is fair enough. “If you buy a Fairtrade pack of coffee, you can be guaranteed that the farmer’s being paid a minimum price,” says Nick. “But if everyone switched to Fairtrade tomorrow, the farmers would still be in a similar position. They won’t fall into a crisis, but they won’t be able to have running water and all the basic things that we take for granted. The challenge is to switch the structure so they can catch more of that £2.50 cup of coffee.”
Marc, the more pragmatic of the brothers, argues that consumers should quiz companies about how ethical they are. “Don’t be afraid to say: ‘I like your coffee, but what’s the deal here? I want to buy into quality, but I don’t want to buy into exploitation – where do you sit on this?’ If the signal is being sent that the consumers genuinely care that the producers of the raw materials get paid fairly, the companies will respond.”
There is another reason to pay attention to the coffee you’re drinking: taste. Ethiopia is the home of fine coffee, and that quality is worth paying for, regardless of arguments about Fairtrade. “We should be making decisions based on what is good quality,” says Marc. “We shouldn’t pay an extra 30p to do someone a favour.”
In the film, Meskela visits Waitrose, and struggles to find a fine Ethiopian coffee – eventually locating a jar of Mocha Sidamo. It is on the shelves, but hard to find.
In recent weeks, the trademark has been granted for Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, which could turn it into the coffee equivalent of Champagne. “Any coffee co which uses that name would have to be licensed and pay a fee,” says Nick. “That could revolutionise this conversation.”
POSTSCRIPT: Starbucks has opposed the Ethiopian bid to trademark the names of its coffees. Send an email to Starbucks CEO telling him what you think via this link .

And phone Starbucks to tell them what you think. See Oxfam press release here.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Jonathan Franzen: Why Am I So Angry?

Jonathan Franzen might admit that he sometimes comes across as a man at odds with the world. The titles of his last two books, How To Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, are a clue. The first contained essays on the banality of mass culture, as well as the author’s reflections on his own accidental entry into this conflict, when his reservations about his novel, The Corrections, being selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club ignited a row about elitism. Usually, in reports of this spat, Franzen is cast as the snob, which is not accurate: the snobs are those who question the merit of The Corrections on the basis that it is “soapy”, as if accessibility had no place in a literary novel.
On paper, Franzen is supremely confident, to an extent that sometimes overwhelms his sense of irony. In a grandstandingly vicious review, the New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani suggested that The Discomfort Zone offered an “odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed”. Franzen, not quite disguising his irritation, responds by calling Kakutani a “national embarrassment”.
If his writing is assured, he does seem to treat interviews as occasions on which he is a witness at his own trial. In the hour I spend with him, we move between three rooms. He is happiest squatting on the floor of an alcove in an eyrie of his Kensington hotel. “This is the kind of area that as a kid I just loved,” he says, blocking the door. “This little secret room.”
Kakutani’s criticisms are odd in the sense that they seem to misunderstand Franzen’s self-mocking tone. He is self-absorbed – this being the condition of the memoirist – but he is also his own toughest critic. Oddly, he balks when I suggest he has been hard on himself.
“Is that the impression you have?” he asks.
Yes, I say, or were you really that geeky?
“Um,” he says, now crestfallen. “I don’t know how to answer that question. When did you stop beating your wife? I didn’t make anything up.”
Fortunately, we get over this, and he explains that he is fond of writing – memoirs and fiction – in which there is moral scrutiny of the central character. “One of the great mysteries of my life is why I’m so angry. I know I had essentially good loving parents, great brothers; nobody was ever mean to me. There were no spectacular dysfunctions in the family. My health was good. Even in the worst periods of Seventh Grade I was not without friends. There were even more geeky and disdained 13-year-olds than I was. So why have I spent so much of my adult life so enraged?”
Much of Franzen’s anger was directed toward his parents. His father (who, like the father in The Corrections, developed Alzheimer’s) had a dismissive phrase, borne of Lutheranism, with which to undermine his children’s fun. He would shake his head and say, “One continuous round of pleasure”. The Protestant work ethic was deeply ingrained, as was the concept of delayed gratification, both of which were likely to cause friction in a family with three boys maturing around the time of flower power.
“It’s strange to be approaching the age my father was when I laid down my first memories of him. I can’t remember anything before he was nearly 50. I think in my own angry perfectionism, I’m recapitulating a lot of what made him such a harsh judge of other people; the feeling of ‘I’m working really hard to do a good job here, why can’t they just be competent?’ You feel dumb and innocent for caring so much about something that other people evidently don’t care very much about.”
At this point, a man pushes at the door. Franzen wedges himself in: “Is he going away?” He is not. We are soon involved in a negotiation with the man, who wants to use the computer. He is persuaded to leave, and we sit back on the floor like guilty teenagers.
This switching between adulthood and childhood is something Franzen mentions in his book, but it usually occurs the other way round, with the young Jonathan behaving like a 50 year-old for his parents. He has come to a different understanding of them. “It wasn’t their fault that I had to get away for 25 years. I now feel it was a misfortune that I came late in their life because I probably would have been ready to come home around the same age.
“I always felt that they were exceptionally strict, surveillant parents, yet when I went back to write these scenes, I kept asking myself, where were they? You walk in at six in the morning and there were no questions? My summers were utterly unstructured. My mom was a hospital volunteer and she would leave at 7.30 in the morning and be back at four, and I had day after day to myself. So now they seem like incredibly relaxed, confident, hands-off parents, even though at the time I thought they were … Gestapo.”
The impression Franzen gives of his childhood is that there was always another person he would rather have been, if only someone would give him permission.
“I still have that feeling! I feel morally and temperamentally and aesthetically constrained in innumerable ways.” He says he wishes he could churn out a half-baked book in six months and move on. But, “I couldn’t feel OK about something whose flaws I could see. I always used to think that if I could just care less about other people, life would be easier in so many ways. More casual sex. It’s never casual. It’s terrible! It’s a burden.
“So, what was the question?”
The question, really, is why someone who is so obviously discomfited by public exposure should devote his life to exposing himself? Franzen circles round this in a chapter which centres on an uncharacteristic incident of exhibitionism.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say that the most shameful thing I ever did, was a seemingly innocuous moment where I pulled my pants down for the neighbourhood girls. That just haunted me for years. It was so deeply antithetical to my character, that I was 35, and I still felt shame about it, and it had never occurred to me to scrutinise that. It never occurred to me even to find it remarkable that that moment had such status in my imagination. That was how conflicted I was.
“The book is an implicit conversation about that problem. One is drawn to reading and writing out of a native furtiveness and a native need for privacy and yet the fundamental fact is you are blowing your cover every time – you’re broadcasting the most intimate things. That’s a little bit less of an issue in fiction: there, all you’re doing is unscrewing the cap off the top of your head and showing what your dreamlife is like. But in a memoir you’re showing what your constructed memories are like, and that’s even more exposing. And yet this was a more fond and satisfying book to write than anything I’ve ever done.
“People ask me: was it painful to write this book, did you have to overcome enormous resistance? I wish I could answer yes.”
There are limits to his exhibitionism. When I ask whether the woman he meets in the book is the same woman who wrote an essay in Granta about her relationship with an author like him (Envy, by Kathryn Chetkovich) he rolls his eyes and stares at me with the whites, eventually conceding that it is, and that he felt that having someone write about him “helped the karmic account”.
But, really, Franzen’s memoir-writing is not about exhibitionism. At their best, his essays trade information about himself in pursuit of a larger truth. His most recent piece, My Bird Problem, is ostensibly about twitching, but is really about the wrecking of the planet, with human dysfunction symbolised by the author’s failing marriage. We may never know what the former-Mrs Franzen makes of this. Franzen, though, finds himself on a scrubby wasteland in Florida, identifying with the peeps and plovers, “the brownish gray misfits on the beach.”
I tell him he seems to like birds more than humans. There is a five second pause. Then he says: “Smile when you say that, pardner.”

Friday, October 6, 2006

Dr Thompson, the Great Gonzo, Has Not Left The Building

Ralph Steadman was reading from his book about Hunter S Thompson in Borders, Islington last night, when a book fell on the floor. The cartoonist swivelled like a gunslinger, shouting "Gotcha!" Then he explained that when Thompson shot himself, his son was in the next room, and heard a noise like a falling book.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The Killers: Not Killer Enough

Many years ago – while the Killers were still in short trousers – I met a man who worked with Lloyd Cole. At the time, Cole was trying to break into the US market, and his US record company had hired Ric Ocasek of The Cars to remix some of his songs to make them more acceptable to American ears. This seemed odd, as Cole’s music was steeped in Americana. His album Rattlesnakes might have emerged from the English literature class in a Glasgow that was still in awe of Postcard records, but it had the manners of Lou Reed, and a fascination with American writing. But then, if you’re American, and you hear a sullen boy from Derbyshire singing “read Norman Mailer, get a new tailor” it will sound odd. So Ocasek was called, and the Commotions were tweaked. And, according to the story, while they were in the studio, Ocasek opened some mail, including a royalty cheque for $4m. You can get pretty rich making bland pop for FM radio.
Now, the above story may not be true. But at the time, it sounded plausible, and unjust, because in the years after punk there was still something unfashionable about mass popularity, unless it came wrapped in the post-modern tinsel of ABC. It seems appropriate to mention it because Brandon Flowers of the Killers was inspired to make music when, at the age of 12, he bought The Cars’ Greatest Hits. “It was really weird,” he told Spin magazine, “because other kids were buying Tool and Nirvana and I was buying the Cars and the Psychedelic Furs. I was pretty alienated as a kid.” Kurt Cobain, put down your gun.
And the Killers? On paper, they sound great. Mormon kids from Las Vegas, raised on the British (mostly English) pop of the early Eighties. They liked the Cure and Morrissey and borrowed the manners of English new wave, getting it all slightly wrong, and thus sounding new. Transatlantic misappropriation is an honourable tradition, of course, and on a grander scale than Lloyd Cole tipping his beret to Lou Reed. After all, the Beatles were trying to sound American.
But the Killers are not the Beatles. In their more high-flown moments, they sound like ELO trying to sound like the Beatles, but that’s different. They’re a little less pompous than Jeff Lynne, because their songs are infected with new wave energy, but there is a cartoonish aspect to the sound. There are moments on Sam’s Town where everything goes a little bit Queen, but without Freddie Mercury’s operatic voice, or his command of the ridiculous.
The Killers emerged as a more nakedly commercial version of the new new wave which delivered the Strokes, but with the choruses of the Scissor Sisters, and a comparable fascination with kitsch. The Killers are less gay, but only marginally so. And what choruses! Hot Fuss is one of those big pop records that sounds confident of its own brilliance whether you hear it on catwalk, in a shop doorway, or as the soundtrack to the Goal of the Month.
On their difficult second album, the Killers have started to take themselves too seriously. They have a sleeve photograph by Anton Corbijn, whose moody portraiture loaned gravitas to the gloomy post-punk pages of the NME in the early 1980s, and did so much to reposition U2 as the torch-carriers of rock myth. The video to When We Were Young casts them as desert-dwelling desperadoes. Occasionally, in the spiralling guitar lines and strained choruses, there are echoes of U2. The big gestures are even grander now.
No doubt these songs will work in stadiums, but the odd thing about hearing them in the context of the home is that they actually sound better coming from a computer than from hi-fi speakers. The Killers are a very trebly band, and the bigger the woofers, the thinner they get. Which makes them ideal for the iPods of the Google generation.
And now the bad news. The Killers have been listening to Bruce Springsteen. Not the current Bruce, with his retro folk; not the sensitive Bruce of Nebraska; but the big bold broad brushstroke Bruce of Born to Run. You can imagine why this might appeal to Brandon Flowers - a Mormon kid raised in small town Nevada, longing guiltily for the scuzz of Glitter Gulch – but that doesn’t mean he has the chops to carry it off. Springsteen is a narrative storyteller and has created his own fictional universe. The Killers have borrowed some of his moves – the sense of swelling grandeur that infects the songs, and the occasional sonic boom – but they deliver it with all the power of a ringtone on a discarded mobile phone. In their more self-important moments – and there are many - they sound like the Muppet Show band blowing smoke rings. At their best, they have the fairground gaiety of a futurist carousel: those nagging choruses will do well on the waltzers, but there is something eternally Vegas about them. They never sound sincere, which is OK if you’re as happily plastic as the Scissor Sisters, but not if you’re attempting to remould the screeching tyres of the Boss.
There is art to be made from mixing punk neuroses with the vocal mumblings of Vegas Elvis, but Springsteen does that himself when he encores with Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream. Get it wrong, and you’re the new Boomtown Rats.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Jah Wobble: From Public Image to Ponders End

There is, with Jah Wobble, a problem of protocol. Friends call him "Wobble", but that seems presumptuous. Calling him "Jah" seems bizarre. "Mr Wobble" is hardly more satisfactory. The reggaefied moniker is a comic mispronunciation of his real name, first coined, Wobble believes, by John Lydon (also known as Rotten), though legend has it that the nickname was invented by Sid Vicious (nee John Ritchie). Fortunately, Wobble offers a way out telling me to ask for John Wardle.
The three Johns - Rotten, Vicious and Wobble - were pals from Kingsway College of Further Education - so it seemed natural that Wobble should be asked to join Public Image Limited, the group Lydon formed after the Sex Pistols. The fact that Wobble didn't know how to count in a tune was incidental. Lydon and Wobble shared a taste for reggae and dub, and PiL was conceived as an experiment: Lydon's bitter lyrics were wailed over Wobble's loping bass runs and Keith Levene's wiry guitar.
PiL were one of the first post-punk groups to abandon the R'n'B template of rock, forging a link between the sound experiments of Jamaican dub and the avant-rock soundscapes of groups such as Can. This was an instinctive thing, to the extent that it is possible to hear the joins. Wobble cites PiL's "Bad Life": it has a rumbling bass, and the tune is propelled by a ride cymbal, so it remains close to a pop production, but the music is heading towards a darker place. By their second set, Metal Box, PiL had journeyed further into modal music.
Wobble uses a comparison with art to explain the progression. "They always say music trends follow art trends 30, 40 years on. That post-punk period is a bit like post-war modernism and expressionistic art. It's kind of modernist, monolithic. Maybe because me, John, and people like Sid, grew up on council estates in towering modernist architecture, it's towering, brutal music."
He has mixed feelings about PiL now. "John was full of fire with his lyrics. I found the first album more interesting than Metal Box. You can almost hear decision-making, and formative moments in the music.
"As it progressed and got into Metal Box, something desperately dark was going on. It was desperately sad around that time. You had heroin users, amphetamine sulphate users. I'm sure if crack had been around we would have taken that, but coke wasn't on the itinerary because it wasn't as powerful as methadrine crystal. There was a lot of booze about. It was a very poisonous atmosphere."
PiL set itself up as an alternative corporation, but never got around to achieving its grand ideals, and was a disaster as a business. Group funds were kept in a shoebox at PiL HQ - a house off London's King's Road - and when he left, Wobble felt justified in taking the shoebox with him. But time has been kind to PiL. The post-punk music of the early 1980s has never been more fashionable, and Wobble has found himself fielding phone calls about a reunion. His answer is a qualified "no". If they had good new material to play, he might consider it. "I'd like to get hold of the money, but not have to deal with John and Keith," he says, laughing heartily.
"That's not dissing anyone. I watch Withnail and I, I think of John and have a tear in my eye. Seriously. I do." (He has the Withnail character in mind.) "He'll probably hate me for saying that, but, bang on, that is John. If you chucked a bit of Kenneth Williams in there, a little bit of Ian Dury, and you make an amalgam of them. A little bit of Margaret Thatcher even. That would be him. Completely fuckin' awkward at all times."
Wobble's relationship with Levene was never straightforward, though he only stopped talking to him in 1994, 14 years after leaving the group. His attitude has softened slightly. He now suggests that Levene should be fired from a cannon to somewhere far away - possibly Turkey. "Funnily enough, I saw John Hurt in The Sweeney the other night, and he was like a better looking version of Keith. He was playing a very bitter character who works a drugs heist. Everyone else gets caught, but he gets away with it. He fucks off to Rio with a hundred grand. It reminded me of Keith, so I wanted the Sweeney to catch him. But they didn't."
The music business, says Wobble, is full of people who find it easier to manoeuvre than to make music. "The seven deadly sins do apply, and I suffer from them, of course. Pride is the biggest. That's my biggest woe. The others are like little mountains compared with that. But the one I noticed is laziness. The music business is full of lazy people who'd rather hang out, get high, get other people to carry their bags. With that laziness, gluttony comes in, and then sloth and envy. You're struck with indolence. PiL was that thing, unfortunately.
"It is interesting; in the way that watching those warped up weird freaky films of the Sixties or Seventies is interesting. Or watching Performance, which was a big favourite of people in PiL. There's a certain louche quality, a certain charmlessness that you don't get now."
Wobble argues that the ideas behind post-punk were more interesting than the music, and allows himself the luxury of imagining that he could go back to that time knowing what he knows now, and pursuing it with the energy of an 18-year-old. "There are fantastic areas to explore there, texturally: the concrete thing, the German thing, those weird soundscapes.
"Then again, we were all coming at it from a post-industrial landscape, literally. That David Lynch, kind of empty factories feeling. Maybe that's not there now. It was a thing that grew out of decay."
Since PiL, Wobble has pursued an idiosyncratic path. He touched on mainstream success with his album Take Me To God, a double set with 12 guest vocalists, but with typical obliqueness, decided to follow it with an album in which he offered a tribute to William Blake. His other albums have pursued the far shores of ambient and world music, including fine collaborations with Eno, Bill Laswell and Can's Holger Czukay.
"There's a feeling of natural progression, of everything moving along without trying too hard. I just follow my instincts really. I've got more inside of it somehow, understanding rhythms. That's the basics of music, really - a gut understanding of rhythm."
His new album, Mu, is a collaboration with Mark Lusardi, a Pil associate, who cut his teeth on reggae productions, and who shaped the dance music of the Nineties, with his invention, The Mutator, a form of oscillator which can be heard on records by Massive Attack. "That kind of Nineties dance music was similar to Lee Perry productions, with phased reverb, a phasing quality to the sound."
Mu was initially planned as an experiment in 5.1 sound, which Wobble explored on the soundtrack to a French film Fureur, but the complexities of recording meant that he and Lusardi reverted to stereo, while still employing the shifting layers of sound which 5.1 allows. The result is a lush, accessible record; from the endearing reggae of "Viking Funeral" to the geezerish philosophy of "Sansara". "Kojak Dub" takes the theme from the cop show for a stroll in the souk. At times, the album sounds like the soundtrack to an intergalactic kung- fu movie.
Wobble wanted the album to have a relaxed feel: "Like the French football team of two or three years ago, consistently playing within themselves." As the work progressed, he sensed that the concentration on production was making the music too bland. "I normally work off the cuff, like a chef frying fish and vegetables. Twenty minutes, it's done, there you go. It might be weak on the presentation, but it's a hearty dish. "On this one it was, let's take a bit a time, so we went back and re-did stuff because it was a bit too much like wallpaper."
Though Wobble now lives in Cheshire with his wife, the Chinese musician, Zi Lan Liao, the album was inspired by the bleaker corners of north London, from the Lee Valley to Ponders End, where it was recorded: "It's as close as London gets to New Jersey. But it's one of my favourite places for walking, through the Lee Valley. It gets beautiful in that urban way, but then you go through soap factories up near Ponders End. It's got a wonderful, dislocated, alienated feeling."
The title refers to Wobble's interest in spirituality. He represents a collage of impulses: believing in God, but admiring the directness of Zen Buddhism, which he discovered through his passion for martial arts. In Zen meditation, Mu is reflecting on nothingness. "You can never get to the core of anything. I certainly think that's the case with music. And I do meditate. There is a feeling of nothingness sometimes. In a good way. It used to scare me 15 years ago."
In 1986, Wobble quit drinking and taking drugs, and worked away from music for a period of months, first as a courier, then on the London Underground. He was soon drawn back into music. "I remember listening, when I worked on the Underground, to a lot of Salif Keita, and thinking 'I still fancy this job'."
Wobble describes himself as "a primitive self-taught savage of a musician", but is disturbed that some profiles refer to him as a thug; something he puts down to class prejudice. He is a working class boy from Stepney, and a compulsive character. "I'm a geezer. I was living in squats, started to do a lot of drugs. God knows what would have happened to me, because PiL and the bass gave me a direction. But I wasn't an evil fella. I've never mugged anyone, I've always tried to be respectful to people."
Nor is he stupid. In 2000, he gained a humanities degree from Birkbeck College. "There is a class thing in Britain, so I still get treated like a thick barrow boy. You take it in one ear and out the other. If you're working class you have to learn not to be like Don Quixote. You'll end up tilting at every windmill if you're not careful."
Last year he released I Could Have Been a Contender, a fine career-spanning compilation, showing how he has developed a style which allows his bass - a thumping, pervasive presence - to act as the glue in various forms of music, from reggae, to ambient, to Molam Dub. It's what happens when you let a reggae fan from Stepney dream while tuning into Radio Cairo on shortwave radio. "The line I wanted to take was: 'I've been lucky. This is what happened.' The one thing I was good at, I stuck at it. I stayed at it like a dog with a bone. Somehow I need to. If I don't, I'm anxious. It's like an appendage, this big bass, these big stacks; I don't want to be bothered with it, but you have to."

'Mu' is released on Trojan

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Destination Soulsville USA

Soulsville USA
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey.
Looking for the birthplace of southern soul, I came across the Hooper Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopalian church which used to stand in Duncan, Mississippi, 100 miles south of Memphis on Highway 61. It was a spartan building with hard pews, an ornate pulpit and a piano that was never tuned. By the right aisle was a case containing a paper fan with a portrait of Mahalia Jackson on it, and a notice, with an explanatory message from Deanie Parker, whose grandfather founded the church in 1906: "The full moon would shine brightly, casting a shadow on the bayou. The sounds of the bullfrogs and crickets were drowned out by the stirring music that reverberated from thigh-slapping male quartets. The visiting preacher, along with the unrehearsed choirs singing R&B selections, could be heard way down the road past the silos and bamboo thickets."
The Hooper Chapel is the second thing you see when you enter the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. First comes a film in which Ray Charles explains that soul is a music in which church, blues and country "all intertwined, some kind of way". Solomon Burke states that "country music is soul music - it’s the soul of the country". Al Bell, the former president of Stax, tries to explain the music. "It wasn’t political. It was pure. It was tough." Then comes Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a stern matron in a flowery dress, knocking merry hell from an electric guitar. Somewhere, Booker T Jones makes a pointed remark. Stax died, he says, when Dr Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis in 1968.
Walking past the chapel, we may learn that the term "soul" was first applied to music in the 1950s, referring to a blend of hard bop, gospel and blues. Before soul, there was gospel, a style which aimed for transcendence and purity of expression, in which devotion walked in step with humility, and which was made commercial by Johnnie Taylor and Sam Cooke, who sang about love as if seeking salvation. We can appreciate that, with the growth of the civil rights movement, the songs became more nuanced: Respect or Soul Man could be heard as expressions of black pride. But, as Greil Marcus has noted, Respect sung by Otis Redding is different from Respect sung by Aretha Franklin. Otis is chiding his woman, Aretha is addressing all men.
The museum gives you this, while also being full of the ephemera of soul. Here, in a glass case, are the clothes of Ike and Tina Turner. Tina’s dress is yellow with silver swirls, her shoes are gold. Ike’s jacket, folded beside his Telecaster, is silver. Here is Rufus Thomas’s white spangled cape, his red snakeskin boots. There, the rabbit fur coat worn by Norman West of the Soul Children and the patchwork boots worn by Don Nix of the Mar-Keys.
In the case dedicated to Booker T and the MGs: Al Jackson’s jacket; Steve Cropper’s first amp, a Fender Princeton; Donald "Duck" Dunn’s customised pipe, with his own head carved on the bowl. In the Otis Redding display, the singer’s suede jacket. There, the tape recorder on which he recorded Respect. And there, Phalon Jones’s King Super 20 sax, retrieved from the plane crash which killed its owner, and took Otis.
Around the corner, demanding attention, are the cast-offs of a man known to one generation as Black Moses, and to another as Chef. A reversible fluorescent cape, circa 1971, in orange and pink; a yellow suit with the man’s face on the back. And - can you dig it? - a peacock blue Cadillac Eldorado with a white fur carpet: a perk of Isaac Hayes’s 1972 contract.
Next to the car, a sign: "While some members of the black community criticised Hayes for the ostentatious nature of the car, the gold-plated Cadillac was, for many, a symbol of upward mobility."
When he was looking for a line to sell his records, Stax president Al Bell came up with "Soulsville". In laying claim to a genre, Bell was guilty of cheek, but his arrogance was justified. Detroit had Motown, a brand of soul which was accessible and poppy, or, to Bell, "cosmospolitan" . Stax was something else. It was hard and immediate. At a time when pop production was tending towards lushness, Stax’s records were clear, compressed joy.
The word people use is "integrated". By an accident of geography, when Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton set up Stax in a disused cinema on McLemore Avenue in south Memphis, aiming to record pop and country artists, they sited themselves in an evolving neighbourhood. The area was white, changing to black. The membership of the house band, Booker T and the MGs (with MG standing for Memphis Group) was mixed, as was that of the Memphis Horns. "A lot of the artists came from this neighbourhood," says museum curator Nashid Madyun. "Booker T Jones walked up: when Green Onions was cut he was in tenth grade. He just wanted to see what a recording studio was like, and, here goes, he’s a prodigy. David Porter, Aretha Franklin, Nat D Williams, all from this neighbourhood."
To this list of local talent, add the names of Rufus Thomas, William Bell, horn players Andrew Love and Gilbert Caple, plus members of the Bar-Kays, the Mad Lads and the Soul Children. ‘When I listen to the music today, I feel the same way I did when we cut it. I have to fasten my seatbelt.' Another who tried to insinuate herself into the Stax family was Deanie Parker, who cut a couple of records before taking charge of publicity, sending 45s to radio announcers with a metal addressograph machine. "Stax was an incredible place for anybody who thought they had any talent at all," says Parker. "They had an open door policy." Parker played a few shows with Booker T and the MGs, before deciding that performance was not her forte. "I didn’t like singing in front of large audiences. I didn’t like being on the road. It was difficult, you couldn’t stay in nice hotels, you couldn’t eat in restaurants. You couldn’t stop and use the rest rooms. It was a hard life."
Between the lines of Parker’s remarks is an acknowledgement that, though Stax was integrated, Memphis and the South were still in the grip of racial segregation.
What happened? Stax expanded and the purity of the sound was diluted. After 1968, the family spirit of the company began to weaken. Integration became difficult when, after King’s assassination, Memphis was gripped by riots. The studio closed in 1975, ownership transferred to the church and the building was left to rot. It was demolished in 1989.
Throughout that time, Deanie Parker had a dream. "I was afraid to share it with anybody, because I knew it would be a monumental task. I was afraid that I could never assemble the kind of support, financial and otherwise, to make it happen alone, and I had been around long enough to know that when you share a dream, people kill the dream.
"I also hurt a little bit, because we didn’t get a farewell. We were put out, those of us who were at Stax Records. We were, what’s that word for when you’re in a home and you don’t pay your rent? Evicted."
When Stax folded, Parker left Memphis, and refused to visit the derelict site. She returned in 1983, and was asked to join a group who planned to obstruct the bulldozers. "I was frozen. I couldn’t do it because, to me, what was left here that was decaying, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, was symbolic of nothing more than bricks and mortar. The lives of people had been interrupted and destroyed. That was the most important thing that had happened.
"The worst part of it was that this was an organisation whose greatest strength was that it had an open door policy, that it was a mentoring environment, that there were people here who enjoyed cultural exchange. We were a seamlessly integrated organisation. We were atypical of everything else that was going on in Memphis and the South.
"You can’t put that together again, you can’t make up for that lost time, but the music saved us. The music is timeless. The music has made a statement. The music has given us a reason to do what we’re doing today. Because, I tell you, when I listen to it today, I feel the same way that I did when we cut it. I have to fasten my seatbelt."
Parker is president and executive director of Soulsville USA, which has rebuilt the Stax studio, and which plans to use the profits from the museum to support an academy where local children can learn to play music. Soulsville is now a defined geographical region encompassing two zipcodes in south Memphis. The area, no less depressed than it was when Stax was extant, is benefiting again from the visceral power of soul music.
Outside, a few steps from the Michael’s Magnificent Cuts and Styles barber shop, I meet Curtis Johnson, who used to sing with the Astors, and had a hit with Candy. He has just toured the museum, and was impressed by the reconstructed studio, which reproduces the old sloping floor, inherited from its days as a cinema. "The old control room is what got me: the way it’s set up, the Billboard magazines on the floor and the Coke bottle sitting on top of the mixing machine. The same way Steve [Cropper] and the guys used to do when they were working at the machine.
"We spent many, many hours listening to playbacks after we’d go out there and record. But with the two-track system you couldn’t edit the way you do now. You had to just go back and re-do it over and over, so we may sing the same song 25 or 30 times, and we had to listen to the playback each time to make sure that it was right.
"We didn’t realise at the time that we were going to be a part of history. As a matter of fact, I got rid of all the old outfits and uniforms that we used to wear, and the posters. Had I known that anything like this would develop I would have kept a lot of that stuff."
Johnson’s voice is heavy with emotion. "I’m just blown away by the whole thing," he says. "Deanie’s dream of bringing this back and doing this ... we’re in her debt forever for, in a sense, making us immortal."
I ask Deanie Parker about Dr King. She says that Stax had been trying to fulfil his dream, but at the time, Memphis wasn’t ready.
"This community did not deserve to lose Stax records. This was the crown jewel of this community. It was the hope, the pride. Now we’ve come back even better because we’re able to do something for the future. For the children who are looking for the same kind of opportunities, the same kind of attention, patience, for somebody like Steve Cropper to say, ‘OK, Jimmy King …’"
It seems as if Parker is thinking about absent friends: Jimmy King and Carl Cunningham of the Bar-Kays died in the Otis plane crash in 1967: "One of the things Steve said to me when we were talking about memorabilia was, ‘If you’re talking to the King family, ask them if they still got that guitar that I let Jimmy have. And I’ll guarantee you that if Al Jackson Jr were living he’d probably say, ‘Hey, you can have these drumsticks. Carl gave them back to me, he’s gone on to be a great drummer now.’"
"This kid, Carl, used to roll his little apron across his waist and come from across the street down at the corner from the shoeshine shop and sit there mesmerised by these guys in the studio.
"This is what we have to do. You reach a point where you do things and you look back and you say, ‘Well, what is my life really worth if I can’t share these things that have benefited me?’"
Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 East McLemore, Memphis, tel: 001 901 942 7685;

Room 8, Guest Book

Room 8, Guest Book
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey.
The guest book from Room 8, at the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons died, with entry by Evan Dando of the Lemonheads.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Square Go Time: An Encounter With The Great Scottish Actor/Director Peter Mullan:

Peter Mullan is a great actor and an accomplished film director, and a man with a keen interest in politics, but it is fair to say that he is no Kofi Annan. In Edinburgh to publicise his latest film, Cargo, Mullan was halfway through a funny story about an exchange of insulting letters with the executives of Scottish Screen when his conversation was interrupted by a figure in a dark suit and sunglasses. The Man in Black was Shane Danielson, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. “Stand up,” Danielson instructed.” “Oh Jesus,” joked Mullan. “He’s going to search me.” Danielson then directed Mullan to a shady part of Edinburgh’s Festival Square, where fifteen minutes of handbags ensued.
“Prick!” exclaimed Mullan on returning. Danielson, it transpired, had been offended by remarks Mullan had made onstage the previous night. Asked why he had chosen to premiere his film, The Magdalene Sisters, in Venice and not Edinburgh, Mullan had replied that it was like choosing between the Champions’ League and the SPL. Unfortunately, in telling the story, he had forgotten Danielson’s name, and referred to him as “the prick who’s leaving”. All of which led Danielson to haul Mullan to a dark corner of the playground.
“It was square-go time,” Mullan explains. “He was like ‘I finish on Monday, I’ll see you after’. I thought he was at it. Prick. I thought he was joking. To be honest, I didn’t know who he was. What a tube. ‘This is my festival, you don’t slag me at my festival.’ I said, ‘no, this is the people’s festival, comrade. It belongs to us. I pay for it.’”
To those who know Mullan, this is meat and drink. In films such as Orphans and My Name is Joe, he has established himself as a master of the patter. He is a passionate man and a fine storyteller, albeit one who is incapable of calling a spade a garden utensil. When one of your films has offended the Vatican, an attack by the director of the SPL of film festivals needn’t be a matter of grave concern.
But Mullan is also political, and a high profile supporter of the Scottish Socialist Party. He made the party’s television broadcast at the last election, and has been named as a potential supporter of Tommy Sheridan’s proposed new party.
After Sheridan’s sensational victory in his libel trial against the News of the World, some suggested Sheridan would join with George Galloway’s Respect party, but Mullan says this is impractical. “There couldn’t be any set up with George. He’s a unionist, he doesn’t believe in an independent Scotland, and Tommy does.”
The new party will not be significantly different from the SSP, Mullan says. In which case, why form it? “For those of us that are grassroots members, the court case became a seminal moment. We saw something that we suspected had been there for some time. For whatever reason, there’s a personal antipathy towards Tommy, and the relationships are irreconcilable. If it’s got to that stage, you’re probably better off setting up another party.
“My only concern about any new party is that it can’t be politically sectarian. I would never see someone, like those that remain in the Scottish Socialist Party, as my enemy. They ain’t my enemy. They’re comrades. If they choose that party, that’s fine by me. If we choose to go with another party, that’s fine by us. I hate that political sectarian stuff. We’re supposed to be fighting a much bigger enemy.”
Mullan says that feelings are running high on both sides of the SSP’s divide. “There’s been a lot of physical attacks on people. On both camps.”
All of which makes the circumstances surrounding Sheridan’s fall, and subsequent rebirth, all the more incredible.
“It was a libel trial, it wasn’t OJ Simpson. There’s wasn’t a corpse. There wasn’t a rape victim. There was no crime had been committed. And yet you wouldn’t believe it by reading the newspapers.
“It was one huge soap opera. But it became something much bigger, which was that thing with comrade-versus-comrade. I was dismayed by it. I never thought so many would have lined up, not to praise Caesar, but to bury him. And to volunteer information, or what they said was information, to the press.”
Mullan concedes that the majority of the SSP members who testified against Sheridan “thought they were doing the right thing. Personally, I thought they were politically naïve. I also felt that there are ways of interpreting anything. So when you stand up you really do have to ask yourself: what’s the context? They kept saying it was about truth, but somehow none of it was about truth. The whole thing was farcical. For any camp to stand up and say ‘but we represent truth’ it’s like… for me, and obviously this an extreme analogy, but if a Jewish man or woman is in front of the Gestapo, you don’t say they’re Jewish, and you don’t expect them to say they’re Jewish. Because within that context, so-called truth is obviously absurd, because you’re assigning a death sentence to yourself.
“For me, that’s what the truth’s about. You can never divorce it from its context.”
He takes a moment to reconsider the seriousness of this statement.
“It’s almost the politics of the schoolyard. Which is, if you’re with your mate and he puts a brick through the headie’s window, if the headie comes out, you either both done it, or none of you done it. You don’t turn round and go: ‘he done it’. You just don’t. Now, obviously if the brick goes through a window and it hurts somebody, then it becomes different. But even then, you would both have to put your hand up, because you stood next to him as he through the brick. You didn’t stop him.
“As regards that case, I never understood why they stood up and volunteered. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that some of them took pleasure in it. They strolled into that court room, with no great doubts on their mind. If anything there seemed to be pleasure in what they were doing. And that broke my heart.”
Mullan is no fool, so it’s hard to reconcile these views with his other observation that he wishes no ill-will to his former comrades. But the analogies are troubling in another way. Would he hold the same views if Sheridan had been guilty of the indiscretions alleged by the News of the World?
“Whether he did the right thing in going to court is more than open to debate – but as regards did-he-or-didn’t-he, I’ve never asked him. I would never turn round to a mate and enquire about their private life. If it was volunteered, obviously we’d talk about it, but I would never ask.
“I never understood why there was this weird allegation about hypocrisy. My understanding of hypocrisy is that you say one thing and do another. To my knowledge Tommy’s never stood on any moralist platform – he’s never said ‘this is how you should lead your lives’. What it brought to the fore, Galloway summed up quite nicely, when he talked about a Calvinist Trotskyism. It brought out a certain kind of puritanical outrage that masked itself as socialism – and for me the two are incompatible. I don’t see how you can stand up and be a socialist and want to peer in through people’s bedrooms. That’s totally inconsistent. It’s about tolerance. It’s not about imposing your own viewpoints, particularly as regard sex lives.
“I never asked because I never thought it was relevant. I only thought: you’ve decided to take them on. Then he won it, which was pretty damned amazing.”
Mullan concedes that Sheridan’s strength, his charisma, has been turned against him.
“He’s a great orator. There’s a charisma there. There’s no getting away from the fact that envy had a lot to do with it. I think some people within that party, felt he was getting all the limelight, which saddens me. On a film set, if you’re working with a great actor, you don’t go up the road and think about how you shaft that great actor. You’re just honoured to be around a great actor.
“For whatever reasons, certain people figured Tommy was bigger than he should be. That amazed me, because he’s good at what he does. And he’s in your party. You should be pleased.”
He says he is glad Sheridan apologised for calling his former colleagues “scabs”. “He was knackered and he was upset, but he should have taken more time to decide what he was going to say. He shouldn’t have said it, and he knows it. You can’t enter into that kind of slagging match. It’s not right.”
He pauses again. The wind whistles across Festival Square.
“And there’s me, slagging off the Edinburgh festival guy. To be fair to him, I couldn’t remember his name, and it was wrong to call him a prick.”

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

He wore his fringe like Roger McGuinn's

Edwyn Collins
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey.
Edwyn Collins: Orange Juice lead singer, Aberdeen 1981ish. The eye patch was the result of being beaten up. Glasgow was less tolerant of fops in those days.

Friday, July 21, 2006

the cure

the cure
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey.
The Cure, setting up for the BBC2 series Riverside at Riverside Studios, London, 1984. Robert Smith (foreground) tunes his guitar, Lol Tolhurst is on drums. The performance involved ballet dancer, and an old lady, who girned on a chair.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Lloyd Cole, in happier times

Lloyd Cole
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey.
Lloyd Cole (left) and Commotions' bass player Lawrence Donegan, backstage at the Caley Palais, Edinburgh, 1984ish. Lawrence is now the golf correspondent of the Guardian, which gives him less opportunity to wear his Left Bank beret.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

RIP Syd - Shine On

RIP Syd - Shine On
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey.
I had to meet someone near Abbey Road, and got there early, so I sat by the zebra crossing and watched the tourists come to photograph themselves crossing the zebra, some of them removing their shoes, like Paul, who was supposed to be dead, and all of them laughing. There was a boy in an Ireland football shirt, but he had a military jacket, like Sgt Pepper, or The Libertines, depending on how derivative he was feeling, and a Scandinavian guy with a girlfriend like Jean Seberg in A Bout De Souffle, and she kept fluffing the photo, so he had to keep crossing the zebra in his bare feet. And there was a nervous Japanese boy who didn't understand that the traffic would stop if he stepped out, so he kept putting his foot out towards the road and withdrawing it, until eventually he ran across the stripes and back, moving like a flick-action book, all jerky, with arms like scissors. So I went to the wall outside the studio, and there was a grey-haired man there, writing graffiti, and photographing it. He was a very distinguished looking vandal, with a very nice pen. I'm not sure if he wrote it, but he seemed to be photographing the little tribute to Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, who had just died. Then again, maybe he wrote "Merci". It looks like it was scrawled with a fine pen. Which means he must have been called Pierre

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Real Sex In All Its Artless Banality - Michael Winterbotton's 9 Songs

When, against all expectation, he found himself in an arthouse movie (Anatomy of Hell), the porn star Rocco Siffredi explained the difference between his usual line of work and “straight” acting. In straight movies, he said, the actor was trying to show emotions. In porn, the emphasis was strictly on the visual. What you saw was what you got. But there was a trend towards explicit sex in straight cinema.
“It’s the new fashion,” the star of Rocco Ravishes Russia explained. “They showed everything you could do with violence. The only thing which has been repressed is sexuality.” Siffredi predicted that, before too long, a big star would shoot a real sex scene. He imagined a film like Basic Instinct, with “more sex, more organs”.
Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs isn’t quite that movie, but it does fit the description. There are more sex and more organs in its 69 minutes, though the film is a picture of modesty when compared to another recent work: Lukas Moodysson’s brutal A Hole In My Heart. Both films include imagery that would have been unthinkable five years ago, but there the similarities end. Moodysson’s film can be seen as an essay in degradation in which the audience is implicated. Winterbottom’s is a love story, though it is questionable whether the characters are in love, and there isn’t much of a story. He shows a relationship almost without words, focusing instead on the sex.
When Winterbottom couldn’t get the rights to the Michel Houellebecq’s existential erotic novel, Platform, he conceived a film in which sex was the point, rather than an incidental feature. He wanted to reclaim sex from pornography.
On an intellectual level, the director’s argument is easy enough to follow. Sex is a routine human function, yet it has been pushed to the margins of cinema. And, as films such as Anatomy of Hell and Catherine Breillat’s earlier collaboration with Rocco Siffredi, Romance, have employed erections in the cause of intellectual engagement, it was time, surely, for a straightforward exploration of sensuality.
It’s a fine notion, but not everyone will share Winterbottom’s idealism about the visual depiction of sex. Nor will they necessarily understand the intellectual distinction between pornography – where the display and function of the organs is everything - and art, where the organs are supposed to play sweet tunes in the mind.
Already, 9 Songs has generated its share of salacious comment. When it screened at Cannes last year, the female lead, Margo Stilley, asked to be kept out of the publicity. Needless to say, by trying to opt out, she unwittingly brought it upon herself. “Margo – the porn again Christian” was just one of the tabloid headlines that greeted her cinematic debut. “Mother of Beauty in ‘Real Sex’ Film Shocker Prays For Her ... Oh God! Oh God!” was another.
The newspapers had contacted Stilley’s mother in North Carolina: “What happened was they called my mom and she didn’t even realise she was speaking to a journalist. She thought she was speaking to someone who knew me in London. They said ‘Are you a Christian?’ She said, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian’. They said, ‘Well, do you pray?’ ‘Yes, I pray.’ ‘How often?’ ‘Twice a day.’ ‘OK, who do you pray for?’ ‘Well, I pray for my daughter twice a day.’
“So it suddenly becomes ‘I pray for my daughter twice a day’. And she said, ‘Is she is in trouble?’ And when momma says ‘Is she in trouble?’ she means like, ‘What, Lassie? Timmy’s in the well? He’s in trouble?’ She means: ‘is she in the hospital, why are you calling me from London?’ And they took it to mean to ‘Oh my God, what has this troublemaker done again?’
“I was like ‘Huh?’ because I’m not a troublemaker. It took me a long time to decide to do this movie. I made a well-informed, educated decision to do this film, and in that sense, my mom supports me 100%.”
Stilley has now had a chance to reflect on the experience, and – while somewhat chastened by the way she was misrepresented – remains proud of the film.
“I’m petrified of doing interviews now,” she says. “I need a Xanax any time I do any press. I found out very quickly that people are working for themselves in this business.”
When Winterbottom was casting the film, there was no shortage of volunteers for the male lead, but no one wanted to play the woman. Stilley, a student and sometime model, agreed to do it because she liked the idea, though she admits she may have underestimated the controversy it would cause.
“While Michael Winterbottom has made mainstream British films, this is an independent arthouse film. I guess I didn’t expect his name to carry it as far as it’s gone. There have been quite a few sexually explicit arthouse films in the past decade, and they haven’t gotten as much press as this. So I was surprised, yes. But, come on, I was as naïve as any 21 year-old.”
Her attempt to avoid publicity at Cannes was, she says, based on the idealistic notion that audiences should consider the film, not the biographies of the actors. “It’s not that I didn’t want my name on the film. You don’t just wake up one morning and go, ‘Oops, I just spent six weeks on a set and made a film’.”
The film’s male star, Kieran O’Brien, has attracted no such attention, though it is in the depiction of his body that taboos are stretched. O’Brien is a more experienced actor, and had worked with Winterbottom on Cracker and 24 Hour Party People. “I’ve known Michael for so long that as soon as he said: ‘Do you want to do this film?’ we had a brief discussion, I said ‘Yeah’ His description was: ‘I want to make a film that’s a love story, where one character looks back on a love affair, and all the sex is real.’ I think that’s one of the reasons he cast me; because I wouldn’t be thrown or concerned. Once I’d committed to it, there’s certain things you need to shoot that day, you get on and shoot it. But how difficult is it? Well, I don’t usually have sex in a room full of people.”
The shoot, O’Brien notes, was “fairly mechanical. It amused me with Michael trying to give me notes in between scenes, and him sort of … Ha-ha! Looking at the appendage. And then saying: ‘Look, will you put some clothes on?’”
O’Brien was not, and is not, embarrassed. “People going to the cinema see me having sex: so what? I’m not really particularly bothered by it. I think it looks all right.” He laughs. “I’m breathing in a lot, so I think I get away with it.”
9 Songs is a reflection on a short relationship, viewed through the memories of O’Brien’s character. It is, the actor says, appropriate that those memories should be related to sex and music: “It’s about the things that you remember, the salient points, which tend to be the intimate moments: the excitement of a relationship that’s just beginning.”
Nor does he believe that he or Stilley were exploited.
“There was nothing exploitative in 9 Songs. Anyone who didn’t want to be involved in it didn’t have to be involved. Also, anything that was suggested on set that anyone wasn’t comfortable with, we didn’t shoot.”
O’Brien has emerged unscathed from 9 Songs, and has already been involved in Winterbottom’s next project, A Cock And Bull Story, an adaptation of Tristram Shandy. For Stilley, a woman at the beginning of her career, the stakes are higher. Even if the worst happens, and she falls victim to the skewed morality which attaches itself to sex in Britain, she is confident she can reinvent herself. She also believes that the film, though explicit, is coloured by innocence.
“While everyone is on at me about ‘How could this girl do this?’ - she’s in control of this relationship. She’s with this guy and then she leaves him when she sees fit. It’s sort of empowering for women.”
She thinks for a moment. “But that’s not the bandwagon I want to jump on! I am not doing this for women’s rights. I’m doing it because it’s sex, and I think sex should be shown in a good light, and I think this film is monogamous and beautiful and sweet. I like that. The thing that I found about other sexually explicit films is that they’re scary. What was that one with the orgy scene at the end? Intimacy. It was really strange. And in Ai No Corrida she cuts his penis off. That’s creepy and really scary. This is not. It’s sweet and it’s nice.”
Sexually explicit films, she says, are “usually rape scenes or orgies or fade to black and you wake up with a sheet underneath your arms covering up all your bits.” 9 Songs, she thinks, represents “a nice middle ground”.
“The most difficult part was deciding whether I was going to do the film. Once I’d make the decision, it was just a question of waking up and going to work in the morning. But, before that, that was hard: wondering, do I really want to take this on? What if my future husband is a conservative Republican?” She laughs. “I’m going to ruin everything! But we’ll see.”
When his partner, Kerry Fox, appeared in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (in which she performed oral sex, but simulated intercourse), the journalist Alexander Linklater wrote a thoughtful essay in which he noted that his reaction to the film differed according to the circumstances in which he viewed it. It was a reminder that the vogue for realism in cinema can have consequences in real life. So far, Stilley has been spared such calculations.
“I don’t have a boyfriend and I don’t have a husband, so I have no idea how that’s going to go, when the time comes to cross it. I know my parents aren’t going to watch the film, only because they’re not interested in” - she laughs and raises her voice to shouting pitch - “seeing me have sex!
“I know that if it was my boyfriend, I wouldn’t be interested in seeing his holiday pictures with his ex-girlfriends. I can’t imagine why someone I’m dating would want to see me doing that with someone else. Because, while it is a film, and it’s not real at all – it’s acting, completely – ultimately you’re looking at someone you know doing something.”
Insofar as it has a point, 9 Songs is about the definition of that “something”. In place of love, it offers infatuation: it’s real and it’s not real, but you can’t help staring.