White Trouble

‘You know what, people? I’m not black, but there’s a whole lots of times I wish I could say I ain’t white.’
-Frank Zappa

So, I don’t normally like to share ugly crap I’ve found on the internet, and I have been known to ask people not to do so, which I realise is a bit presumptuous of me. But I say this more as a warning than as a curio.

Tonight I opened a private browsing window and visited a white nationalist website I knew about and visited years ago, when I first became aware that there were such things on the internet. I won’t share its name unless asked very, very nicely in private, because I don’t want them to have the publicity. But if you track these things, you’ll probably know who I mean. Back then it seemed like a bunch of nutters in a dark corner of America. I thought, back then, that it was hideous but darkly amusing, because I didn’t see any way it could ever amount to anything.

It was still the same, in many ways. A core of nothing but racism, surrounded by an intellectual framework that was internally sturdy and consistent, just unsupported by reality. They want to live in a part of the world where there are only white people. They think people who aren’t white are inferior to them. They back this up with…well, as far as I can tell, nothing: made-up crime statistics without citations which don’t correspond to actual research, and quotes from other white nationalist people saying how inferior people are who aren’t white. But, because it’s prejudice, and because they know most people don’t agree with them, they wear it with the air of people who have reluctantly accepted the painful truth. (Of course, that’s a classic bullshit move: I was once a nice person like you, but then I got mugged by reality. But mugging victims shouldn’t be the only people who get to determine what happens to muggers.)

I was curious to see how they, or at least a respected member of their community, responded to Trump. I found an article written the day after the election by a guy called…no, fuck him, I’m not going to give him the publicity. I’ll call him Smegma McCock, because it’s not that far from his actual name, if you know your Celtic patronymics. He welcomed the Trump victory, because although he regards Trump as too pragmatic to be a white nationalist, he was enthusiastic about the fact that Trump had promised to deport immigrants. The numbers of immigrants that Smegma McCock wanted deported was far in excess of any that Trump himself had ever thrown around, but little Smegma clearly regards Trump as a useful idiot for white nationalism. He was looking ahead to 2024, and Donald Jr running for president. Smegma McCock knows that the traditional white nationalist base is declining in demographic terms, but he also knows that there are going to be millions of younger angry, uneducated white men out there who don’t think of themselves as white nationalists because they’ve never fucking heard of it, and he regards it as his and his pals’ job to be a white nationalist elite that recruits these people and educates them and mobilises them, so that 20-30 years down the line, they can have a white America.

It was frightening. I don’t think it’s very realistic. But these people now regard themselves as having a big chance, and they must be immensely heartened by some of the people who appear to be in the running for Trump’s administration.

One of the things that I read was the site’s Introduction, in which they were clearly trying to give a warm welcome to disaffected white people and make them feel at home and articulate their grievances. I’m not going to quote exactly, because I understand how google searches work, and if I did, you could then do a text search and find the article, but the gist of it was: don’t you feel angry at how many dark faces there are in the streets? Don’t you feel that immigrants are overrunning us? Aren’t you concerned for the future and for your kids, with all these Third World people running around?

In other words, it was the same old shit I encountered 14 years ago in Ireland when a small fringe group calling itself the Immigration Control Platform put a flyer through the letterbox of the house of my then-girlfriend, now my dear wife. (Read her blog. It’s way better than mine.)

And my answer is, no. If I’m angry, it’s because you presume to speak for me. If I’m concerned for my kids, it’s because people like you are out there. You presume to talk to me about ‘Western civilisation’? Do you even speak any language other than English, or maybe German? There was a quote from Horace on the homepage; needless to say, it was in the form of a rhymed English couplet, not the original Latin. Horace, of all people: the ultimate court insider, a self-confessed crap soldier, one of whose most appealing poems (Satires II.6) is basically A Portrait of the Artist as a Craven Political Functionary.

Well, it’s never fun to tread in the shit that is modern bigotry, but I will be on my guard for these fuckers, and I urge you to be, too. Education is the key. Let kids grow up around kids who are both different from them in ways that don’t matter, but also just like them in all the ways that do matter, and the sooner we can all get together and figure out how to fix this planet before it turns to a ball of salty dirt.

I will end as I began, with Frank Zappa’s great warning cry about racism. Reader, I don’t know you, but if you’ve read this far and not wanted to troll me, you’re okay by me.

White Trouble

Letter to America

Hello America.

I write to you on the eve of the most controversial, the ugliest and possibly the most important presidential election of my lifetime. I’m writing to you not in the hope that you’ll read this, because I know it’s a bit late in the day, but in the hope that you, as a nation, will do the right thing, as you (in my lifetime, anyway) have always more or less done, even if you’ve taken your time about it.

First off, America, can I just say, love your work? Seriously. I am Irish. I was born in England and grew up in Ireland but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think that just so much cool stuff came out of America. Could I just list some of those things, here, just to show my appreciation? Because you have done some shit that the rest of us can only sit back and applaud. Let’s just remind ourselves of that.

The Revolution. The Founding Fathers – yes, I know some of them were kind of assholes and more than a few were slave-owners, but for a bunch of 18th century lawyers, they outlined a nation state which has proved to be remarkably enduring. And Thomas Jefferson, in particular: hell of a turn of phrase, man. What next? New York City. Never been there, bar an hour or so in a terminal at JFK during a stop-over in 1999, but I glimpsed the Twin Towers. San Francisco! Now, there, I have been. Wonderful city. Amazing breakfasts. The Golden Gate Bridge. The BART. Berkeley. The Mission burrito. I’m getting sidetracked. These are tourist sights.

Blues! Jazz! America, your contribution to world music is incalculable, and although you all had a hand in it, I think we have to hand the garlands here to African-Americans. I live in Scotland and occasionally I find myself in a situation when I have to listen to Scottish country dance music. Whenever I do so, I say a silent prayer of thanks to African-Americans, because without them, all Western popular music would sound like Scottish country dance music. Blues and jazz are of course wonderful in themselves, but they also provided the mitochondrial DNA for pretty much all subsequent popular music of any value, from rock & roll to ‘Ima Read’. Thank you, guys. A fervent thank you. We’re sorry that for so many decades, most blues and jazz musicians lived in poverty and died young. There is no compensation, except to say: you were right all along. Scott Joplin. Louis Armstrong. Duke Ellington. Charlie Parker. Bud Powell. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. Billy Strayhorn. Cecil Taylor. Anthony Braxton. Jimi Hendrix.

Hollywood. Where would we be without the dreams and nightmares of the movies and TV? Perhaps saner, perhaps wiser, but I think also more boring. The internet! You invented it, America! We still don’t know whether that was, on balance, a good idea, but American know-how and American money got that sucker up and running! Grace Hopper. Richard Stallman. Dennis Ritchie. Most of my literary friends no longer know who the fuck I’m talking about, at this point.

What else? America, I believe it was you that first put pepperoni on pizza, and that was A Good Thing. Wallace Stevens. Flannery O’Connor. Herman Melville. Walt Whitman. Emily Dickinson. Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. Leo Fender. Orville Gibson. Paul Auster. Sylvia Plath. Kathy Acker. Langston Hughes. Lorraine Hansberry. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr. Muhammad Ali. All your sports! Which I don’t understand, but never mind.

Well, you’re starting to get the idea. Bob Dylan. Frank Zappa. Elliott Carter. I’m appreciative, is what I’m saying.

So there is a history, there, America. A history of fantastic achievement. In 2008 you elected your first African-American president, and can I just say that most people outside America think that a.) Barack Obama is just awesomely cool and b.) it’s a shame that he didn’t manage to get stuff done.

This is because most people outside America don’t understand that Barack Obama had to battle a remorselessly hostile Congress to get anything done at all. For years, the Republican party has controlled Congress and has stopped government from functioning — and has then held this up as evidence that government is ineffective. In practical terms, that’s like allowing the army to exist but denying it weapons, and then claiming that you might as well get rid of the army because it’s useless in combat. In my adopted country, the UK, the Conservative party does the same thing to our beloved National Health Service: it denies it proper funding, works the staff to death and then bitches that it doesn’t work properly. So, this is what conservative parties do. They hate government, because they want everything to be owned by the rich, because they themselves are the rich, and they want more money. They have worked out a simple-minded theory about economics that says that the market will fix everything, in spite of the fact that it won’t. Then, when they get to control a public service, they cut its funding and then cite its resulting performance as evidence that public services don’t work.

Fuck them. When the UK rail network was handed over to a private company, Railtrack, you know what happened? The private company behaved like a responsible private company, and sought to maximise profit for its shareholders. It cut many of its safety checks and lowered maintenance standards on the grounds that they were too expensive. The result was that people died in multiple rail accidents. In the 1920s, in rural America, the utility companies did not bother to extend electricity and water to rural areas because it wasn’t cost-effective enough to do so and the government didn’t think it was right to force them to do it. The result was that millions of people, mostly women, were condemned to back-breaking work just to keep their families in fresh water and clean clothes, all because the government believed that business knew best.

I’m side-tracked again. You can’t trust business, is what I’m saying. Greed is not good for anything except making rich people richer. Greed will not keep you clean and healthy and well-fed. Only service will do that.

You are facing a big decision. But there is no point in addressing you as though you are a unified nation, because you clearly aren’t one anymore, if you ever were one. So I’ll talk to each group of voters in turn.

To Hillary Clinton voters:

Hi. If you are reading this, you’re going to vote for her anyway, so what can I say except, please do so, and know that even if she doesn’t get elected, she will have made history. Because it will then be clear that, given the right circumstances, too many people regard even a supremely qualified and dedicated woman as less worthy of the highest office in the land than a stupid, racist, bullying, rich, incoherent fuckwad who just happens to have a penis. If she does get elected, and I hope she will, then…well, thank fuck. I am too tired of worrying about this election to be as elated as I should be by the prospect of the first woman president, but I can’t think of anyone who’s deserved it more.

To Jill Stein voters:

Good for you. But if there is any chance that Trump can win your state, please don’t vote for Jill Stein just because your conscience won’t let you do anything else. This is not a regular election. This is a war against misogyny and entitlement, and we are trusting you to take up arms. If Clinton gets in, you can at least be heard. If Trump gets in, look forward to 1-2 years of utter chaos and then six years of Mike Pence rolling back everything you stand for. And that’s the best case scenario.

To Gary Johnson voters:

…Um, okay. I don’t really know what to say to you. I mean, I’ve seen your candidate on TV and…well, maybe it’s some sort of lifestyle thing. But you do realise that…no, probably you don’t. Sorry. I am a left-wing anarchist. I don’t even like nation states. I can’t regard your guy as anything but a rich idiot who wants the laws to be changed so that he can do whatever he wants.

To Donald Trump voters:

I’ll keep it short, not because I think you are all dumb white guys. I know that some of you are highly-educated white guys who see power within your grasp and want to turn America into a fascist state, so there’s no talking to you. But some of you, probably not you reading this, because chances are you’ll never read this, but some of you are God-fearing people who, for reasons I’m not sure I understand (but I’m about to speculate about), genuinely think you’re doing the right thing.

I’ll just say this: with Obama, never mind the whole birther thing, never mind that his middle name was ‘Hussein’, never mind the Affordable Care Act as socialism by another name, I know you don’t even know what socialism is, even though I have heard at least one senior US military officer describe the US armed forces as the biggest socialist organisation in America (well, the government pays the salaries, what else do you want to call it? Or would you privatise the army too?) Never mind the policy stuff.

It’s because he was black, right? Can you just admit it?

Likewise, with Hillary Clinton. It’s not the issues, really, is it? It’s not Benghazi, it’s not the foundation, it’s not Bill, it’s not the finances — your boy is in no position to attack anyone else about crookedness, given his record of multiple bankruptcies, unpaid contractors, failed casinos.

(The casinos! When the mob developed Vegas, they placed casinos in territory where you had to commit to go there, and so you had to bring money with you, so that they could be guaranteed to have a stream of affluent gamblers who would spend days in town making money for them. Trump opened casinos in fucking Atlantic City! At a time when the clientele consisted of elderly, not very affluent New Yorkers who’d pop down for a day trip, drop a few bucks, have dinner and go home on the evening train! You call that business genius? No wonder they fucking failed!)

No, it’s not anything Hillary Clinton has actually done.

It’s because she’s a woman, right? Come on. Just own up.

You really would prefer to have this toxic fucking asshole in the top job, because you think presidents should be men. White men, to be precise. And all the other white men who were queueing up were a sorry fucking bunch, weren’t they? At least your boy was gripping to watch. He’s great TV. Cruz is a humourless shit. Rubio, Christie, the others, they were nothing. Your boy can do a punchline.

And that’s all. He’s good for a sidebar headline: oh, what’s Trump said today. Oh my. What a scoundrel. But what has he done? What has he transformed? How has he made people’s lives better? What makes you think he could do anything for anyone but himself? (And, at a stretch, his immediate family? Not the rest of his family, because…well, google ‘Trump will nephew cerebral palsy’, and you can read just how much of a fucking shithead the guy can be to members of his own family.)

If you can just admit that you hated Obama because he’s black, and you hate Clinton because she’s a woman, we can all move on. Well, we can’t, but it would be a start. Because I don’t see any other logic to your choices. Unless you think that America is not for you any longer, and so you may as well bring it down for everyone else.

–Well, that’s my semi-hysterical screed done. Thank you, America. I salute you. I hope you will do the right thing. Because that’s what America was built on: trust in a common undertaking. Not trust in a mighty father who can do everything. You got rid of the mighty father when you told George III to fuck off. You have our respect for that. And that’s why we’re so alarmed to see that so many of you have chosen the kind of approach that we had in Europe back in the day, and which you helped fix: blind faith that one strong man can live up to his own bullshit. It didn’t work, America. Germany is proof. Trust us, you don’t want to be like Russia or Hungary or North Korea. You want to be you. So, remember the song you’ve always sung — it’s an old one, based on a previous tune, but you do a memorable version of it.

It’s not the one that goes ‘I alone can fix this’.

It starts like this: ‘We, the people…’

Letter to America

All About That Bass

I don’t know exactly when I first fell in love with the guitar.
 
I remember when I first wanted to be able to play music. I grew up in Ireland. My Irish dad came from a Protestant family but had never been particularly religious: his US Army dog tags gave his religion as ‘EPISCOPALIAN’, which for the early 60s US Army was by way of saying ‘[INSERT RELIGION HERE]’. Nevertheless, when I was a small boy he began to show signs of having faith, which was and still is a bit baffling to the rest of us, who didn’t. We used to go to church on Sundays and I was too shy to sing hymns, but I liked the predictable sound of the music, and I used to sit there working out what you could sing as well as the melody; what else would sound good, besides the boring old tune that everyone else was singing? I didn’t know it at the time, but my instinct was to harmonise.

Later, we would go round to my grandparents’ house for Sunday lunch and I would hear my grandpa’s Oscar Peterson LPs, and I liked the smoky, intimate, predictable-but-not-too-predictable sound of the music. I soon found out that that was called ‘jazz’, so I decided that I wanted to learn to play jazz. I liked the Beatles, but I couldn’t figure out how you played a guitar, so I expressed a wish to learn piano because I thought it’d be easier. The fact that we didn’t own a piano did not strike me as much of an obstacle.

So, when I was nine, we bought a piano from a family friend and schlepped it to our house. It got tuned, and I was sent off to have piano lessons with another family friend who was a professional piano teacher. I didn’t know at the time that my teacher loathed jazz. It was more that we couldn’t very well have me taught the basics of piano by anyone else, because she was the only person we knew who taught piano, and it would have been rude not to ask her to teach me.

My piano teacher’s daughter was one of my best friends from school, and she in turn was learning the guitar. I used to look at her big acoustic guitar on my way out from lessons, and wonder how you made a note with it. Compared to a piano, it looked ferociously complicated. But I soon found that learning piano didn’t agree with me. I realise now that if I had had a teacher who sympathised with my desire to be able to make stuff up on the piano, things might have been different. But my teacher was more about showing me how to sit and how to hold my wrists and how to play simplified versions of ‘Hall of the Mountain Kings’. I don’t blame her. She taught classical piano, not jazz; we just didn’t realise that, or my parents didn’t notice, or something, anyway, but she was never the right teacher for me to be the kind of musician that I might have become. She drilled into me the basics of scales and harmony, and after a few months of me being increasingly bored at never being taught how to improvise, I asked if I could stop.
 
The piano sat in our living room for a few more years and my mum figured out some tricky Scott Joplin pieces on it before we eventually got rid of it. In the meantime, I discovered rock.

I followed my brother’s taste. He liked Status Quo, to begin with; not the relatively tame Status Quo of the early 80s but the somewhat rougher Status Quo of the early 70s. I wasn’t all that taken with the songs, but I liked the sound of the records. I realise now that what I responded to was the coarse, blunt sound of twin overdriven Fender Telecasters.

At some point I started obsessing about guitars and their shapes and what they sounded like. Aged 14, I did a work placement in Eason’s newsagent in Dublin city centre and they rewarded me at the end of it with a £15 Eason’s voucher. I spent it on the first edition of Ralph Denyer’s The Guitar Handbook, still one of the most massively useful guitar tuition books you can get. It contained jewel-like pictures of some of the more famous guitars; scale diagrams; brief biogs of great players (it was where I first heard of Robert Fripp); information about setup, maintenance, and even basic electronics. I befriended the guys in my school that played instruments and quickly began to annoy them by not wanting to talk about anything else, whereas to almost all of of them it was something that they did for fun. By that point, I was listening to Cream, Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker — musicians that, in early 80s Dublin, meant little or nothing in the mighty shadow cast by U2 and their clones.

I decided that I had to learn to play guitar. But then I made a fateful decision.

I reasoned that I had not shown any great talent as a pianist, and the only person who was encouraging me to play music was my mother, who did so not on the grounds that I had any talent, but on the grounds that I didn’t have many friends, and she (rightly, as it turned out) thought that this would be a good way of making some. I wanted to be a great guitarist, but there were already half a dozen guitarists in my school.

However, there were no bass players. 

If I learned bass, I thought, I would be in demand. Plus, only four strings. Two less to learn.

I had some money saved up, so one Saturday I went to Walton’s in Dun Laoghaire and bought an East German Musima knock-off of a Fender Precision, and a 10 watt East German bass amp called Sound City, no relation to the much more famous and better brand. I also bought a strap and a cord. But not, for some reason, a gig bag. I think I didn’t have enough money.

I took my black-and-white Musima home, plugged it in, and spent an hour or so figuring out where to put my fingers. Then I spent the rest of the weekend learning how to play the bass line for ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. By Monday my fingertips were raw and bleeding, but I could play it in such a way that my older brother could recognise it and give me an approving nod.
 
I started to listen to everything with an ear on the bass line. In so doing, I made one of the biggest ever leaps in my own musical education. I learned to appreciate the solid, laconic style of Phil Lynott; the ominous, dramatic style of Jack Bruce; the clipped, classic style of 60s Motown, which was then having a bit of a mid-80s revival. I bought Stanley Clarke’s School Days and marvelled at it; I got given Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and Jaco Pastorius blew my mind.

Over time, my taste broadened, especially when I discovered Talking Heads and realised that everything didn’t have to be virtuosic. I first heard ‘Psycho Killer’ in the Stop Making Sense version, but when I heard the original I loved it all the more for Tina Weymouth’s fantastic, implacable bass line. 

But I was putting off the inevitable. I had to learn guitar. I had to learn to make the sound that had made me fall in love with rock music: the entire gamut from David Byrne’s weedy clang to Jimi Hendrix’s Cinemascope Armageddon. In 1987 I had saved up enough, and I went to Musician Inc in Dublin and paid out cash for a black and white Squier Stratocaster with a rosewood fingerboard.

By that point I had a respectable 30w Vox bass amp, but not enough money to get a guitar amp. I compensated by getting a ridiculously complicated Digitech programmable distortion pedal with two channels, one a fat valve-like overdrive, the other a screaming metal fuzz. That was my only effect, for years. It served for me. I learned about true valve distortion when I experimentally plugged my Strat into my parents’ Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder, a legacy of their shared professional past in TV production. I wasted my late teens in failing to study enough to earn decent places in university, preferring instead to learn how to imitate Adrian Belew. I named my guitar Kathy, after the American writer Kathy Acker, and when I would get frustrated at a plateau in my learning curve I would hack at it with a screwdriver, then covered up the scars with black duct tape. I dive-bombed so hard I snapped the tremolo arm; I used the screwdriver instead. I wore out picks so fast that I made my own metal ones, hammering out Irish 20p pieces on the concrete floor of my parent’s cellar and then filing them into a pick shape.

I sold my bass to a schoolfriend and wasn’t sorry to see it go. My bass-playing apprenticeship was behind me.
 
Over the years, I sold the Vox amp and somewhere or other I acquired another one – I forget what, now. I stopped playing for a few years in my early 20s, but I kept the Strat. In my mid-20s I took it up again, and soothed that I-need-a-new-guitar itch by buying an Epiphone LP 100 that I couldn’t quite afford. For a while, I loved the fact that I could sound like a low-rent Robert Fripp. But the Epi was fragile, and when one Christmas the flat below mine caught fire, I had to move all my stuff out and store it in the hallway of my flatmate’s boyfriend. He was a classical guitarist and he looked down on my lowly Japanese Les Paul copy. When I got it back, it was temperamental and I sold it to a friend who’d coveted it for years.

In the 2000s, I decided that I deserved a new guitar. I didn’t, but I had a bit more money. Influenced by the fact that Fred Frith in Massacre had played a Burns, and the fact that Musician Inc had some gnarly-looking Burnses in their shop, I got one. I told myself for some weeks that it was great and I loved it, but I didn’t. It was fiddly and it misbehaved and it sounded weedy. I went back to the shop and pointed out that it was less than perfect quality. Plus, by that point, I already had my eye on another guitar.

It was a display model, a black and white Standard Telecaster, Mexican-made, slightly grubby, slightly scuffed. It was about €600, more than I’d ever paid for an instrument. I’d never played a Tele, being in love with the elegant, eloquent Strat, but this thing was hanging there staring at me, defying me not to take it home, and I’d never owned a guitar with a really cool name on the headstock. I asked the shop if they’d part-exchange my almost-new Burns for this grubby Tele, and they said yes.
 
That was how I got my main guitar. I immediately had problems with it.

The strings on a Tele are noticeably further apart from each other than on a Strat or a Les Paul. You can no longer just place your right hand there and make gentle moves with your fingers. You have to play the damn thing. I was used to five pickup selection options; now I had three, and let’s be frank, the neck pickup on a Tele is more like a condiment for the other pickup, than a sound source in its own right.

Ah, but the bridge: that is the soul of the Tele, that resounding clang. Telecasters don’t have much natural sustain. They were designed for country music. But turn them up and give them some grit, and they are among the filthiest guitars. I reconnected with that shabby, seedy sound I knew from early 70s Quo albums. Then there was the fact that it worked equally well for Talking Heads (Jerry Harrison was the resident Tele player in that band) or early Zeppelin or Bill Frisell. A Telecaster produces one of the purest electric guitar sounds you will get; what you do with it, having obtained it, is entirely up to you.

I love my Tele. It’s called Marcos, after Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. It sits in my office on a stand, waiting to be picked up, which I do often. Of course, as time went by and I earned a bit more money, I wanted a completely different guitar. I ended up getting a lurid orange-red Ibanez AF-75D, a cheap but very well-made jazz box with pretensions as a rockabilly instrument; it’s faster than the Telecaster, although much bigger, and on it I managed to unlock such secrets of bebop as I’ve been able to get into my fingers. It was after doing this that I met my old piano teacher in my parents’ house, one day, at a party. I told her I’d been studying jazz.

She looked at me intently, paused, and said “Why?”

That was when I realised what had gone wrong with my piano lessons.

Which brings us to the present. I now live somewhere else, with a full-time day job and two kids aged nine and two, and I get to play from time to time with very much better and more experienced musicians than myself. I bring the Tele and my Digitech Whammy and an E-Bow, with which I can cover most of the registral and timbral ground that I want to cover.
 
And then, one day about six months ago, having time to kill which I don’t normally have, I wandered into Red Dog Music on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, just out of curiosity. And I saw, hanging on the wall among the basses, something I’d never expected to see.

Remember how, before I’d ever owned a guitar, I’d owned a book about guitars? That’s typical of me: I tend to read about experiences before I ever have them. In that book of cool guitars that I knew I’d never, ever get to own, there was one that had grabbed me.

Fender invented the bass guitar. It was the greatest single innovation they ever made, in that it was an entirely new instrument. There had been electric guitars before the Telecaster, and there had even been solid-body ones, but nobody had ever made a guitar that played an octave lower than a regular guitar until Fender brought out the Precision in 1951. They followed it up nine years later with its classier, slinkier, more versatile sister, the Jazz Bass.

Then, in 1962, they brought out the Fender VI, popularly known as the Bass VI. It was tuned like a bass guitar, an octave lower than a regular guitar, but it had six strings, was shaped like Fender’s ineffably cool Jazzmaster and Jaguar models, and had a slightly shorter neck than the Precision or Jazz. Denyer’s Guitar Handbook has a picture of one, with the withering comment ‘however, the Bass VI was never very popular and Fender discontinued it early in the 1970s.’

But I knew, even as a teenager, staring at that picture of a scuffed, sunburst, heavy-looking six-string monster, that I wanted one. A six-string bass? Hell yes! All the low end of a bass, but you could go higher! Plus it has a whammy bar! Jack Bruce played one in Cream! He then painted it in psychedelic colours and it never dried properly so he had to switch to another guitar, but still!

Of course, in 1984, it was all academic: I knew I’d never find one, or if I did find one, be able to afford one. I didn’t reckon on the marketability of nostalgia. By the early 2000s, Fender Japan was bringing out a replica VI and in 2013, Fender brought out two: a Fender model which was pointlessly messed-about-with, and a much cheaper Squier model which was essentially an Indonesia-made replica of the original instrument.

It was one of these Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI’s that I found hanging on the wall in Red Dog Music. I asked them if I could try it. The assistant enthusiastically took it down and plugged it in for me, and as soon as I started playing, I fell in love with an instrument in a way that I hadn’t done since I first picked up Eoin O’Brien’s Squier Strat in Sefton Lucas’s front room in 1986 and wanted one for myself.
 
It so happened that both my birthday and Christmas were on the far horizon. I suggested to my dear wife that the ever-present problem of what to get me for birthday/Christmas could be put aside, basically forever, if everyone in the family who wanted to get something chipped in some cash towards a Squier VI. She replied, basically: Of course, lovely, but you’re going to have to go and get it yourself, because we’ve all got more important things to do than mess around in guitar shops trying to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.

And so, a few weeks ago, I went back to the shop. I’d expected to have to order one, because their website said they were out of stock. I was surprised to find the exact model I wanted still hanging on the wall, probably the very one I’d tried out back in March. I tried it out, and while I was at it, I tried out many other basses, within the same price range, just to be sure: a Squier Jazz Bass, a fretless model of the same, a five-string Jazz Bass with a low B string.

None of them made the grade. Apart from anything else, it’s so long since my fingers had to handle regular bass guitar strings that I’ve lost the strength in my right hand needed to play one. I had a last fling on the VI, took it to the counter and paid for it. It is currently sitting in its box under my office desk, where it will remain until Christmas, screaming at me to take it out and plug it in. But for the sake of ceremony, I will leave it there until I officially get given it.

My late encounter with the VI has shown me something that I’d forgotten: that although I have learned to be able to operate a guitar to a certain extent, I still think like a bass player. I love the way that bass can change the way you hear other instruments. Bass players steer arrangements in a way that guitarists simply can’t. Also, the VI is an unusual instrument in that there is no definite agreement about what kind of instrument it is. It occupies a liminal space between guitar and bass: some people regard it as definitely a baritone guitar, albeit lower than normal, others as a bass with an unusually high range, but nobody seems to be willing to say that it’s definitely one or the other. Plug it into a bass amp, turn the treble down and the volume up, and it’s very much a bass. Plug it into a guitar amp, engage the so-called ‘strangle switch’ (one of the four switches on the guitar’s body, a high-pass filter) and it’s the twangy guitar from hell.

So that’s how I’ve come to fall back in love with bass playing. I’ve owned the thing for three weeks; I am honour-bound not to play it till Christmas. But I can’t wait. Except that I can, because honour, etc. Incidentally, apart from my lollipop-coloured Ibanez, the VI is the first guitar I’ve ever owned, and plan to keep owning, which isn’t black and white. Its colour scheme is, in fact, factory sunburst.

If you read this post hoping I was going to say something about the Meghan Trainor song: cute song, smart production, great sentiment, and I fully endorse and applaud the message decrying body-shaming. But it’s not a song that reveals more depth on repeated listening. I say this because my two-year-old son has an iPod and a dock ,and he sometimes puts that song on repeat. Bless you, Meghan Trainor. But I have heard your song plenty of times, now. Thank you.

All About That Bass

I don’t care who you are, that’s funny: on some confusions in comedy

So, I was thinking about comedy lately. I was thinking in particular about comedians who specialise in saying stuff that they know that their audiences are likely to find offensive, but who say it in such a way that they can get their audiences to laugh at it. (The crucial thing here is the plural: ‘audiences’. Not all comedians have the same audience. We’ll get back to this.)

Now, one of the basic axioms of our understanding of modern comedy is that its fundamental function is to make you laugh. You can find it articulated here, in this archive review from 2007, on the website of my current employers, of a show by Australian comedian Jim Jeffries: ‘Through all of this, Jeffries’ humour borders on the visceral, but you can’t write him off as simply a shock merchant; anyone can be gratuitously offensive but Jeffries never forgets that his prime task is to make us laugh.’ I think that this is something that most comedians, and most lovers of comedy, and most comedy critics, would agree about: the ultimate function of comedy is to make you laugh.

Now, here is where I depart from the consensus. I think that most comedians, and most comedy lovers, and most comedy critics, are mistaking the medium of comedy (or, perhaps, ‘genre’, but let’s go with ‘medium’ for now) for the functions of individual comedians.

I think that, to claim that the ‘prime task’ of any comedian is to make us laugh, is like saying that the prime task of any novelist is to assemble words into sentences that compose an extended narrative sequence, or that the prime task of any painter is to produce canvases with paint on them. Saying that comedians are supposed to make people laugh, only describes how it is that comedians do what they actually do.

Making the audience laugh is not the prime task of the comedian. Making people laugh is just what distinguishes comedians from non-comedians. Making people laugh is what Michael McIntyre has in common with Stewart Lee, and what Jim Jeffries has in common with…okay, well, any comedian you can think of who is exceptionally family-friendly. The prime task of the comedian varies, depending on whatever it is that that particular comedian is using the medium of comedy to do.

The medium of comedy is that you go up on stage and make people laugh. But the reason why comedy is still in so many ways such a confused, immature and thoughtless art form, is that too many comedians still think that all they really have to do is make people laugh, By Any Means Necessary. This is why comedy reviews are usually so fucking boring. The reviewer sits there and reports on whether or not a show was, In The Reviewer’s Opinion, funny, without usually taking the effort to describe what the comedian was doing; what the comedian’s stance was with respect to the audience; whether the jokes were intended to bring the audience in or drive them off; whether the jokes were jokes on the comedian or jokes that enlisted the audience with the comedian, at the expense of some third party, etc. And the reason why most comedy reviews don’t talk about stuff like that, is that most comedians haven’t thought about it either.

Of course, there are some comedians who have thought about it. Stewart Lee is probably the most glaring example, but really, any great comedian has confronted these questions on a visceral level, and with any great comedian’s act, I would submit that their solutions to these problems become very complex. Lenny Bruce, at his best, offered himself up as a kind of sacrificial lion to the priests of bigotry, rhythmically deploying the N-word and other offensive phrases in a noble if doomed attempt to defuse their power. Richard Pryor made comedy out of his own almost helpless self-destructiveness. Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and other black American comedians made comedy out of their rage.

Eddie Izzard makes comedy out of his own weaknesses as a performer. I once attended a discussion on performance at which Phelim McDermott was one of the speakers. Phelim McDermott talked about classes he’d once given on improv, which a young Eddie Izzard had attended, and Eddie had been, by Phelim’s assessment, seriously bad at them, and everyone had felt bad for him and wished he’d stop coming, but Eddie kept coming and kept doing what he was doing and kept honing it, and after a while, Phelim realised that what Eddie was doing was polishing the appearance of ineptness, until finally the very fact that Eddie couldn’t do accents and couldn’t really become anyone else convincingly was what became incredibly funny: part of the whole point of Eddie Izzard’s act is that he takes the least possible effort to convince you that he is now someone else. His Darth Vader impersonation consists solely of putting his hand over his mouth and being a bit more assertive than usual. He constantly drops the thread and picks it up again, pretends to take notes on any moment that doesn’t get a laugh, etc.

But this brings me back to my original argument. Stewart Lee’s comedy keeps people’s attention by making them laugh, but his prime task is to make them think about comedy and about society. Larry the Cable Guy’s comedy keeps people’s attention by making them laugh, but his prime task is to reassure them that it’s okay to have their prejudices. Jim Davidson’s prime task is the same as Larry the Cable Guy’s. Jo Brand’s prime task, by contrast, is to bluntly confront the audience with its own prejudices. Victoria Wood’s prime task as a stand-up was to tell stories about vulnerability and failure. Michael McIntyre’s prime task is to maximize his brand potential by being no better than his audience thinks it would be if it tried its own hand at stand-up. And so on. The title of this post, ‘I don’t care who you are, that’s funny’, is one of the catchphrases of Larry the Cable Guy. If you insert the words ‘the fuck’ between ‘who’ and ‘you’, you can begin to see the anxious aggression of the comedian who is becoming uneasily aware that the audience is beginning to wonder why, exactly, it’s laughing.

If we laugh, we tend to think that the comedy has been successful, even if it goes against our better instincts about whether or not we enjoy hearing what the comedian has to say. I may or may not find Andrew Lawrence’s delivery funny; I do, however, find what he has to say toxic, bigoted, entitled, self-pitying and depressing, and my sense of humour is not so well-formed that I laugh at him anyway. I just want him to shut the fuck up and go away.

However, Andrew Lawrence, although not in the same league as the aforementioned comedians, is an interesting case, because he proves my argument. When he was younger, his relative youth and extremely dark take on comedy placed him with supposedly similar young comedians of a similarly dark disposition. But Lawrence’s early success as a comedian was based on his performance of tortured guilt about having the kind of opinions that he had. He would deliver up his gags as if he felt bad about making them. (Sample joke, actually pretty funny: ‘I admire these phone hackers. I think they have a lot of patience. I can’t even be bothered to check my own voicemails.’) But as he’s got older, he’s become less and less apologetic.

As Lawrence has entered his late 30s, he’s become more and more honest about how he’s just a right-wing bigot. This is, of course, his right as a human being. What’s surprising is that he’s so bitter that his audience has abandoned him. They liked being teased by his hints at how dark he was, as long as he was willing to look like he felt guilty about it, but let’s face it, all along, he would have been way happier telling racist jokes at Ukip fundraisers to florid middle-aged men in blazers, instead of to Fringe audiences who didn’t agree with him about the EU. But it goes to show that if the comedian’s prime task (which, in his case, has become to unapologetically vent his bigotry) is completely at right angles to the audience’s own sensibilities, then they will no longer find him funny.

So how does he prove my argument? This Independent article from last year quotes him: ‘If you present yourself as a comedian, your job is to be funny, not to educate audiences…Just make me laugh.’ If Andrew Lawrence truly believes that his job is to be funny and not to educate audiences, then you do have to wonder why his Twitter feed as of the third week of June 2016 has become nothing but a conduit for Brexit propaganda.

The only conclusion is that comedians do comedy for lots of different reasons. Some, to pull everyone together. Some, to divide people up. Some, to heal. Some, to wound. The only thing that unites them is that the medium by which they do this involves making people laugh, for one reason or another. It’s when the laughter stops that the failing comedian has to face the difficult questions. And the fact that we still talk about comedy as if it was solely there to get a laugh, is the reason why so few of them ever do.

 

I don’t care who you are, that’s funny: on some confusions in comedy

Prince and Victoria Wood

Jeez. Prince and Victoria Wood. Within a day of each other. One a global music superstar, the other a ‘national treasure’. Both of them turned out to be phenomenally talented at whatever they put their hands to. He could play any instrument; she could write drama, play piano, tell jokes, be charming, sing funny songs, and even do straight acting if she wanted to.
 
When I was a teenager in the 80s, I was passionate about music (well, still am) and I read the then-as-passionate-if-not-more-so music papers, the NME and Melody Maker, every fortnight, spending my lunch money on them instead of on my lunch. (Sorry, mom, I lived on Manhattan popcorn in those years.) I read about Prince’s genius, his brilliant synthesis of rock and funk and soul, his mastery of guitar, his sexiness, his devastating music. And in the evenings, with my family, I tuned into Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, which I never read anything about.
 
And I heard Prince’s music. And I didn’t get it, ever. It always sounded to me like crappy pop music.
 
And, watching Victoria Wood, I laughed my ass off, and was sometimes moved and disturbed by how far she was prepared to go to explore the lives of desperately cheerful people who went on being desperately cheerful even when they didn’t seem to have a hope in hell. (And sometimes, they didn’t; sometimes, they lost hope, or just lost.)
 
Now I’m in my 40s, and they are both dead, both enormous talents, both of them much too young. They could have gone on to do way more. I know much more about music now, and I can finally hear how original Prince was, and how he brought different kinds of music together, and I appreciate how he was in many ways colour- and gender-blind when it came to hiring musicians, and he boosted people who deserved boosting, and he fought for his right to deliver his music the way he wanted to.
 
I know it’s not a competition. As someone who writes about music, and as a guitar player, I have nothing but respect for Prince and his music and his legacy, which I can’t even begin to grasp. I know he affected way more people than I can imagine, far more deeply than he ever affected me.
 
But the one I’m actually going to miss is Victoria Wood, because she changed the way I thought and felt about the world.
Prince and Victoria Wood

The Guardian publishes a stupid article about comics

The Guardian today has this article about how comics aren’t just for kids and nerds anymore. To be fair, it does give praise to some comic writers and artists who deserve it.

Comic artist and writer Dylan Meconis published this article in 2012, in which she advises people who want to write about comics not to do pretty much everything that Andrew Harrison does in his article.

Let’s just assume, at this point, that  Meconis’s points are well-taken, and have no more of this comics-are-at-last-being-written-for-grown-ups bullshit.

The Guardian publishes a stupid article about comics

Mozart in the Jungle

I’ve not been exactly binge-watching this show, but certainly watching the whole two seasons in the course of about the last fortnight or so, occasionally interrupted by our 20-month-old son having a shit-fit in his cot because he can’t locate one of the three dummies he has to have positioned in there in the event of him arising from deep sleep to semi-wakefulness. But enough personal detail.

So, in case you haven’t noticed, this show is a ‘dramedy’, which is the 21st century equivalent of what used to be called a ‘gentle comedy’ (meaning a basically comic take on  a subject which doesn’t quite have the balls to be full-blown comedy) about a fictional orchestra, the New York Symphony, which in episode 1 kisses goodbye to its incumbent chief conductor Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) and says hello to its new one, Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal).

There are obvious casting gags going on here, notably in having Malcolm Mc-Bleeding-Dowell playing the supposed Old Fart character. McDowell was once one of the most terrifying actors out there, thanks to his spectacular work in A Clockwork Orange and If …, and in this show he’s definitely playing a Young Turk Grown Old. Thomas is said to have conducted his generation’s definitive performances of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which I guess identifies him with Carlos Kleiber, except that Thomas, unlike Kleiber, is gregarious, outgoing and still has this idea that he’s really a composer, which Kleiber didn’t seem to be too bothered about. Rodrigo himself is what TV Tropes would call a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of the LA Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel, except that Rodrigo is Mexican and Dudamel is Venezuelan. (Also, while most famous musician cameos in the show have seen people playing themselves, Dudamel’s cameo was in a brief scene where Rodrigo was guest conductor for the LA Philharmonic; Dudamel played the LA Philharmonic’s stage manager, joking with Rodrigo about how their usual conductor wasn’t very good.)

On the whole I think it’s a greatly enjoyable show, except for the times when it stops trying, and resorts to being broadly satirical. Most of these moments involve the character of Anna Maria, Rodrigo’s Wacky Performance Artist wife. You feel bad for poor Nora Arzeneder, the French actress given this steaming-pile-of-horse-shit of a role: Anna Maria’s schtick is that she’s a superbly gifted violinist but in her performances she always subverts her own talent by playing something beautifully and then smashing her violin as part of a ludicrous rant about the ‘bourgeoisie’, or some such. Anna Maria behaves like a 13-year-old’s idea of a romantic artist; in one episode, Rodrigo persuades her to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto in front of the NY Symphony, and she gets as far as the actual performance and plays the first couple of dozen bars beautifully, before stopping and insisting that she can’t go on and that it’s all bullshit and she can’t play for these ‘pigs’, going on to implore Rodrigo to leave this idiotic life and come away with her, etc. It was all very predictable, and I won’t spoil the rather predictable outcome. Nobody as chaotic and stupid as this would have risen in the arts to the kind of eminence that we are invited to believe Anna Maria has; in real life, she would never have agreed to play the thing in the first place, because it would have meant giving up all control as an artist about how she was presented, but they wanted to give Rodrigo a tempestuous private life, so that’s where they went.

Still, the show has great things about it. One of these is Lola Kirke’s performance in what’s actually the main role, Hailey Rutledge, a talented oboist who starts out playing in pit bands and teaching oboe to a rich kid more interested in her tits than in practising. Hailey’s dramatic arc in season 1 is about her desperately trying to find a place for herself in the orchestra, which already has a perfectly good oboist in the seriously badass Betty Cragdale, played with wonderful acidity by veteran Broadway actress Debra Monk. Lola Kirke is the sister of the better-known Jemima Kirke, star of Girls; as Hailey she nails the gloomy, obsessive quality of good classical musicians, utterly dedicated to practising because that’s the only way you get anywhere, but she also conveys Hailey’s lack of social skills and her general awkwardness by means of Hailey’s peculiar goofy laugh, a sort of feminine variation on Muttley from Wacky Races‘s ‘Huhhh-huhhh-huhhh!‘.

There are three other great women characters in the show. One is Cynthia Taylor, head of the cello section, played with immense calm and inner steel by Saffron Burrows. It’s established fairly early on that Cynthia is both a.) a good sort and b.) seriously up for it; when Hailey is trying out for the oboe section, Cynthia takes her out on the town, gives her a good time and good advice, and pairs her off with a sexy bartender who happens to be a talented dancer. Cynthia is also Thomas’s mistress, which is less interesting than you might think; her character comes into much better focus in the second season, when the orchestra runs into labour troubles and hires its own lawyer, Nina, played by Gretchen Mol. Nina-and-Cynthia becomes a story in itself, one that itself riffs off Saffron Burrows’s own visibility as a bisexual woman. But the coolest thing about Cynthia is not, in my view, her sexuality, although it’s nice to have a character who is attracted to whoever she’s attracted to and doesn’t worry about it. Cynthia’s true quality is that, unlike the nervous and would-be devious first violinist Warren Boyd, she’s the real leader of the orchestra.

The next is Gloria Windsor, head of the orchestra’s board of directors, played by Bernadette Peters. Peters’ screen career has been relatively limited — if you’re like me, you probably saw her in Steve Martin’s The Jerk and not a lot else, but that was in 1979. She has has a seriously distinguished career on Broadway, most famously in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and a lot of that feeds into Gloria, who besides being dedicated to the orchestra is also a born performer, which serves her well in fundraiser nights with sponsors. This part of her character culminates when she turns out to have long-abandoned ambitions as a lounge singer; in a season 2 episode, Gloria shows up at an open mic night in a NYC bar, and delivers a show-stopping performance of Rosemary Clooney’s 1951 hit ‘Come On-a My House’, very much modelled on Julie London’s version rather than Clooney’s, but, in context, eclipsing both.

The third is Hailey’s roommate Lizzy, played by Hannah Dunne. In the earlier episodes, Lizzy is rather annoying, a sketch of a hipster, but to the show’s credit, they gave the character more background and Dunne’s commitment makes Lizzy into one of the show’s most appealing characters. Lizzy at her best injects energy into every scene she’s in, and when in one episode she delivers a seriously good impersonation of Billie Holiday, that too gives her character some needed depth.

So, why am I writing this? Just to give more boost to a show that’s already been given a Golden Globe, one of the less-respected awards on the circuit? Mozart in the Jungle has some genuinely sound things to say about the life of a classical musician, and the differences between being a professional musician and an amateur, and the power of music. It sometimes lurches into silly caricature, but not too often. With a bit of audience love, it could mature still further and be a genuinely great show. Right now it’s just very good.

I haven’t mentioned Gael Garcia Bernal because most of the interesting roles in this show are female, but he takes to TV like a natural, he’s a wonderful comic presence without ever losing the character’s basic dignity and intelligence, and his best scenes convince you that Rodrigo is a bit of a genius at finding ways to connect people with music. All this happens in spite of the fact that he never, ever conducts in a convincing manner. But he talks such a great game that you buy it anyway.

OK, that’s me done raving about this show. I neither expect, nor will be disappointed by the absence of, grace and favour from Amazon, whose show it is. You can read all my Amazon customer reviews here. No, I’m not bitter that I wrote all that for nothing.

 

 

 

Mozart in the Jungle