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

Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer Interview

I just came across this fantastic interview from Musician magazine in 1981, long before it became the boring industry wank mag that it was when I first read in the late 80s, in which Vic Garbarini got Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer together on the intuition that they had more in common than they seemed to have, and it turned out he was absolutely right. What’s especially inspiring is the obvious mutual admiration Fripp and Strummer have for each other — two smart Englishmen who had both thought long and hard about the life of a musician. It’s next to impossible to imagine them collaborating on anything, and Strummer is gone now, so won’t be anyway, but it’s a great read. Kudos to for archiving and posting it.

Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer Interview

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

Isolated thoughts about Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga: sure, she’s derivative. But so were her predecessors. The thing about Lady Gaga is that she is open about it. Madonna, her most obvious precursor, behaved as though nobody except Madonna had ever behaved like that. Whereas Lady Gaga’s genius, which makes her perhaps a greater artist than Madonna, is that she behaves as though she knows what it’s like to be a pop music fan because she is herself one. With Madonna, it’s a kind of shell game in which we’re supposed to not point out that she ripped off this look from Cyndi Lauper and that look from Marilyn Monroe. This is why Madonna’s work seems so corporate and impersonal. We can believe that Madonna herself wants it that way, but it looks the same as if it had been designed by a committee, because Madonna herself thinks like a committee. Whereas Lady Gaga’s brilliance is that her work, although openly derivative, has all the messiness and embarrassing degree of apparent overshare of indie music. She knows that her fans worry about her and care for her, whereas Madonna always behaved as though she doesn’t give a fuck and can overcome trouble with sheer force of will. Gaga dramatises her own trouble in her work: look at her mastery of new media like the long-form video (Marry the Night). Madonna’s effect is of ruthless self-will, whereas Gaga gives the impression of someone who’s constantly trying to reward her fans for their loyalty — there are stories of her buying pizza for fans queuing up at signings, which you really can’t imagine Madonna doing. (Madonna as modernist, compared to Gaga as postmodernist; Madonna is like T.S. Eliot, Gaga more like Frank O’Hara).

Isolated thoughts about Lady Gaga

Kristin Hersh – Paradoxical Undressing review

Paradoxical Undressing. Kristin HershParadoxical Undressing. Kristin Hersh by Kristin Hersh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Paradoxical Undressing just before reading a book which is in some ways comparable, in that it’s also a memoir by an American alternative rock icon: See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould. Over the years, Kristin Hersh’s music — mostly Throwing Muses’ early output, to be honest — has meant a great deal to me, and so has Bob Mould’s, especially his work with Husker Du and Sugar but also his first couple of solo albums. Of the two books, Hersh’s is about one year in her life, apparently her nineteenth, in which her band first got a record deal, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and she became pregnant with the first of her four children. Mould’s book is an apparently straightforward autobiography: the tale of how Bob Mould, self-hating teenager from Macalester, New York, got to be Bob Mould, alternative rock star and benign gay icon. Hersh’s book, which is based on her diary of the period, is self-consciously artful; Mould declares his book to be a reckoning, an attempt to tell the truth about how he’s lived his life. Hersh makes no such claims.

Okay, anyone with the slightest awareness of the pitfalls and triumphs in autobiographical writing should not be surprised to learn that Hersh’s book is far, far better than Mould’s. Not just because it’s better (because more vividly) written, funnier, more moving, more insightful. It’s also more honest about the difficulty of writing about yourself. Mould’s book is a bald, meat’n’potatoes chronicle, occasionally enlivened by the odd anecdote, but above all it suffers from the fact that Mould is apparently unaware of the traps that memoir can lead the writer into. Precisely because his recall is apparently so good, we can’t help but mistrust it. The far more diffident Hersh, on the other hand, self-consciously writes her own history with a literary flourish; she can’t help recounting the adventures and conversations of the teenage Throwing Muses with something like the same style of affection that JD Salinger lavished on his own creations, the difference being that the Muses were not fictional. Her accounts of what it was like to write songs and rehearse and perform them live are not exactly lavish in technical detail, because only nerds like me would want to know e.g. where she got the idea to write the last section of ‘Call Me’ as a country waltz — but they are painfully vivid, because of the way she describes her own songwriting as being deeply involved with her bipolar disorder. See A Little Light makes you feel bad for angry young Bob, but it’s clear that he’s never going to be able to tell you what it was like to write and record Zen Arcade, because of all the beer and drugs he was doing at the time.

One of the weirdest things about Paradoxical Undressing is Hersh’s account of her peculiar friendship with Hollywood actress Betty Hutton, who (as an old lady) attended the same college as the teenage Hersh and who befriended her. Hersh recognised at the time that Hutton, with her constant advice to Hersh to not let herself be exploited by rich moguls, clearly regarded Hersh as in some ways her younger self, and Hersh bittersweetly and somewhat ominously felt bad that of all the younger selves Hutton could have chosen, she picked the young Kristin Hersh, who even then was battling the mental problems that land her in hospital half way through the book. If anything, Hersh downplays her own struggles with bipolar disorder. Compare Henry Rollins, another non-mainstream rock icon of the 80s and 90s, who in his Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag reprinted swathes of his own early-20s diary without the benefit of his older perspective, and who seems more like somebody who would have dearly liked to be genuinely crazy but had to compensate for it by being suffocatingly intense instead. Fortunately, Rollins matured into a wiser, funnier and more sensible person; like most people with a chronic illness, Hersh never seems to have got any sort of kick out of her own maladies.

Paradoxical Undressing progresses in brief flickers. Insofar as there is an overall narrative, it consists of the run-up to and the recovery from a suicide attempt; I’ve read that there have been others, but there’s only one in this book. What shines out of it most inspiringly, if you want to be inspired, is Hersh’s devotion to her fellow musicians. She honestly admires the fact that her bandmates are willing to help knock her tortured and sometimes ‘evil’ songs into shape, and one of the most touching bits of the book is when she first plays a new song to them and then is blown away when they join in the second time around; Kristin in the book experiences her own songs as devastating visitations, but when her bandmates join in, she feels less lonely because they inhabit the song with her.

Rock memoirs tend to be self-justifying, or score-settling, or grandstanding. They tend not to be love letters. Paradoxical Undressing is, among other things, Kristin Hersh’s love letter to Throwing Muses. Simultaneously very funny and utterly harrowing, it’s probably the best-written rock memoir you will ever read. As I write this, Throwing Muses have a new album out (Purgatory / Paradise); Hersh herself is just this side of fifty, and I calculate that the baby born at the end of this book, her eldest son, must be not far short of thirty. She’s still grappling with her demons and still making brilliant music. (Dave Narcizo, one of the great comic characters in this book, is still the drummer in the Muses.) Throwing Muses have long been underrated, at least by comparison with their more cartoonish labelmates, the Pixies, whose output was far less consistent. Hersh, in the book, puts it down to her conviction that her band was like spinach, ‘ragged and bitter’, but ‘good for you’. The Pixies were like takeout pizza; instantly satisfying, but you can’t live on it. Throwing Muses’ best stuff goes on being good, and this book does a great deal to illuminate the extent of the sweat, viscera, puke and tears that went into why that’s so.

View all my reviews

Kristin Hersh – Paradoxical Undressing review

Cee-Lo Green and the classical style

One of the side benefits of having a seven-year-old daughter is that you can rely on Wii Just Dance to keep you up to date on the pop hits of four years ago. One of these hits, which actually crossed my never very alert pop radar at the time, is Cee-Lo Green’s ‘Forget You’, which is of course the smash hit radio-friendly version of ‘Fuck You’. Since Cee-Lo released no less than three official versions of this song, all sorts of interesting-ish questions are raised about canonicity and which is the ‘real’, ‘authentic’ version, but I’m going to pass them up for another time by confining myself to ‘Fuck You’, because it’s just the most fun.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s such fun, and in doing so I keep coming back to the late Charles Rosen‘s discussion of classical style in his oh-so-appropriately-titled book The Classical Style.

‘Fuck You’ is constructed and produced like a classic Motown song, with an arrangement of what at least sounds like classic Motown instrumentation: multiple guitars, piano, bass, drums. Even if it’s all been done in Pro Tools or Logic, which may very well be the case (the piano, for example, is exactly tracked in the lower register by a distorted version of the same part, as if someone had fitted a piano with a vintage fuzzbox), Cee-Lo clearly meant this to say something about ‘classic pop’ in general and Motown in particular. The song sets up its stall with a title drop in the very first line: ‘I see you drivin’ round town with the girl I love, and I’m like, fuck yooo-oo-ou.’

So this is not going to be a song which is uncomplicatedly about being abandoned. Cee-Lo is not going to gnaw on his exclusion and wonder if it’s his fault. The second line appears to build on the first, but it also complicates the matter of who the ‘you’ in this song really is: ‘I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough, and I’m like, fuck you and / fuck her too-oo-oo.’

So the song is sung both to the girl who has rejected the singer for a guy with a better car and more money, and also to the guy with same, but it’s the girl who’s going to get the worst kicking. As the song builds, we find out that it’s not at all a song about being lonely at all. Cee-Lo sings ‘I said “If I was richer, I’d still be wid ya” — ain’t that some shit?’, to which the sassy backing singers agree ‘Ain’t that some shit!’, an effect beautifully amplified in the video by having the singers pop up every so often to throw in their wide-eyed disapproval of the hero’s hopeless pursuit of this girl. In fact, everyone the singer knows is aware that there’s just no point in him going after her: ‘Oh she’s such a gold-digger / Just thought you should know, nigga’, they chorus.

Rosen’s discussion of the classical style in his book is technical and involved, dependent on showing how composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven forged a new style from the musical language of their predecessors that was capable of expressing much more complex emotions than music had been able to show before. It’d be wrong to suggest that Rosen’s classical style can be uncomplicatedly mapped onto Cee-Lo’s deployment of the musical language of Motown, but two elements in Rosen’s argument do chime with Cee-Lo’s recording: the emphases on balance and on wit. ‘Fuck You’ is, at the same time, a bitter rejoinder to the person the singer is singing to, and a joyful dismissal of the same person. It doesn’t wallow. It seeks to make the listener aware of the singer’s pain, but it doesn’t try to pretend that the listener can share it, which would be sentimental. But neither does it try to pull off that cynical Beautiful South trick of cloaking a bitter song in a charming, radio-friendly arrangement. The ‘fuck you!’s are right up front. It makes saying goodbye to someone sound like some of the most fun a person can have. This, too, is in keeping with Rosen’s argument that the classical style is fundamentally, you know, comic. ‘Fuck You’, unlike its radio-censored offspring, is a great recording because its joy and defiance are in exact proportion to its level of abjection; it recognises painful human emotion and makes space for it, while at the same time refusing to give in to it.

Cee-Lo Green and the classical style

Brahms and being misquoted

For years, we had a toy for our daughter’s cot/bed: a chunky lump of yellow plastic shaped like a star which, when turned on, played a variety of lulling tunes and projected a moving image of cuddly cartoon bears onto the ceiling. We’d put it on and play it to help her get to sleep, and one of the tunes, well known to anyone who’s ever watched a vintage Looney Tunes cartoon in which a character has been rendered unconscious, is the melody from Brahms‘ Wiegenlied, a.k.a. ‘Brahms’ Lullaby’.

However, the plastic star thing used to play this tune in a way that used to make me annoyed ever time I heard it, because of what I regarded as the inept coding of whoever had programmed the melodies. Cartoons and TV have always taught us that the opening few bars of the melody go like this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 12.19.13

Or, for those who can’t read music, da da dee, da da dee, da da dee deee, deh-dee deee.

The Tomy Lullaby Light Show, on the other hand, played it like this (taken from further on in the same document, hence the absence of 3/4 time signature:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 12.21.52

In syllabic terms, da da dee, da-daaa dee, da da dee deee, deh-dee deee.

That slight stutter in the second bar, the way the two quavers in the first bar weren’t just repeated but were turned into a quaver and crotchet the second time around, used to drive me nuts as a crass error in programming. I couldn’t believe it had survived the product testing process. It interrupted the rhythm and stopped it from sounding so immaculately lullaby-ish.

However, I was wrong, and the Tomy Lullaby Light Show was right: that’s what Brahms wrote. Cartoons and TV have been misquoting him for years. And not just them: google ‘Brahms Lullaby’ and you’ll find sheet music websites repeating the same error:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.26.45

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.28.07

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.28.39

But here it is, scanned in from a copy of the 1868 edition of 5 Lieder Op 49:

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 23.57.35

(Musicians among you will also note that this is in a different key, E flat major instead of F.)

What does this mean? That people are stupid and/or careless? Or is it that they automatically ‘correct’ complexities because they feel things ought to be simple? Brahms had a low tolerance for stupidity and, it could be argued, for people in general, but he knew what he was doing. More on Brahms later.

Brahms and being misquoted