Friday, 23 July 2021

 How Oliver Stone Destroyed The Doors

Of all the qualities a performer needs to be a star, one of the most important is mystique. 

When I was a teenager, there was a host of relatively silent icons to admire and dream about. One of the most popular posters was a black and white image of a shirtless Jim Morrison with arms outstretched, staring with almost cross-eyed intensity. A transgressive depiction of a defiant young man in Jesus pose, it also appeared on the sleeve of The Doors’ Greatest Hits album. 

         It was Morrison who drew a lot of people to The Doors. When you listened to their songs, you were always aware of the singer’s rebel image and that’s what made tolerable the often sluggish or camp blues rock they produced. For a teenager, Morrison’s lyrics, with their lizard kings, crystal ships and funeral pyres seemed powerful and eerie.

I got into The Doors later than my peers and listened to little else throughout 1990, the year Oliver Stone announced he would be directing a biopic of Morrison. This was exciting news: I had seen and admired Born on the Fourth of July and the idea of a heavyweight director taking on the life of a seemingly heavyweight pop star was intriguing. 

But the film effectively ended my interest in the band. The figure whose voice I’d only heard in the songs or in his posthumous poetry album ‘An American Prayer’, whose leather-clad image had adorned several walls in my boarding school, and who died at the glamorously young age of 27, was suddenly speaking on the screen and doing things off-stage. And what a dick he was. A selfish drunken goon, the kind of person I’d have crossed the street to avoid. I don’t think it was Stone’s intention to do a hatchet job on Morrison but that is what The Doors essentially is. In every scene, he seems irredeemably stupid: here he is throwing a strop in film school because other students think his art film is daft, here he is leading a chant in the desert. And he is surrounded by fawning eejits who think he is a genius. Meg Ryan is smitten when he talks bullocks to her; Kyle MacLachlan is thunderstruck when Jim sings him a song at the beach and two seconds later they are in the studio recording Light my Fire. By the time the film was released, I had been losing interest in The Doors but the film made me resistant to them. 

Thirty years later, I had another listen to them via Spotify. Some of the songs have worn well and Morrison remains a terrific performer with an attractive baritone voice and an ability to vocally explode.  But the film effectively destroyed the mystery of Jim Morrison by showing what a relentless gobshite he was and how somehow lots and lots of people were impressed by that. 

There are plenty of biopics that show their famous subjects behaving horribly but most viewers will be willing to accept that if the quality of their work is superb. But The Doors were only so good and a lot of Morrison’s lyrics now sound pretty silly. I suppose the longest lasting legacy of The Doors will be the model Morrison left behind as the frontman of a rock band. All that brooding, dark sexiness and self-absorption has been mopped up by hundreds of singers who came after him, and several of them, most notably Iggy Pop and Ian Curtis, turned out to be superior artists to Jim himself.


Sunday, 18 April 2021

Review: Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait by Francis Steegmuller


Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait by Francis Steegmuller

(First published 1939)

It’s been a long time since I read Madame Bovary but on finishing this enthralling story of the creation and publication of the novel, I can't wait to return to it. Re-published by New York Review of Books Classics, Francis Steegmuller’s biography charts the decade in which Flaubert made an abortive attempt at a first novel, embarked on a grand tour of Egypt and surrounding countries and then wrote his most famous book. Much of A Double Portrait comprises of letters from Flaubert to various important correspondents such as his wayward lover and muse, Louise Collet (who became a model for Madame Bovary herself) and his close friends, Alfred, Maxime du Camp and Louis Bouilhet.

Friendship is at the heart of this story with Flaubert’s friends proving to be essential guides on his route to ultimate success and he helping them in kind. After he completes his first novel, The Temptation of St Anthony, his three closest confidantes condemn it out of hand as a total failure, and urge him to write instead about reality as he knew it, and to pare back the rich imagery. Though initially depressed by their response, once he returns from the east, Flaubert gets to work on three new ‘realist’ stories, before deciding to stick with the one inspired by a recent case of an adulterous woman in his native Normandy. 

As he writes Madame Flaubert in his quiet home town of Croiset, Flaubert receives weekly visits from Louis Bouilhet, an exacting critic who drives Flaubert to greater heights. Flaubert later helps Bouilhet to attain success as a playwright by coaching him in how to flatter and coax the various grandees of the Parisian theatre scene. 

Prone to melodrama, Flaubert is often comically excessive, though the scheming and selfish Louise is perhaps the greatest source of comedy in the book. At one point, she describes habitual garlic-eater Bouilhet as smelling ‘like a whole coachload of Southerners’. 

After five years of doubt and exasperation, it’s hard not to feel happy for Flaubert when Madame Bovary is finally published to instant acclaim and commercial success in his friend Maxime's literary magazine in October 1856. His aim had been to create a ‘thunderclap’ and such was the noise that the novel created, it was still ringing in the author’s ears right up until his death in 1880, overshadowing all of his subsequent novels. 

    Steegmuller's biography makes superb use of Flaubert's intense and effusive letters: of particular note are the incredibly sensuous descriptions of North Africa that he includes in his correspondence with his mother.  

Saturday, 17 April 2021


        Just finished reading Graham Kibble-White’s The Ultimate Book of British Comics: 70 Years of Mischief, Mayhem and Cow Pies, a diverting and occasionally very funny collection of pen pictures of weekly anthologies for children produced mainly by IPC and D.C. Thompson between the 1950s and 1980s. While not a definitive history of the UK scene - it begins with 1950’s Eagle and ends with late eighties effort Wildcat - this lively book captures the essence of the comics output of the era: the stock characters, the often ludicrous premises, the chummy editorial voices, the endless mergers, the bog-standard bogroll paper. 

Kibble-White mainly focuses on the first issue of each comic, pinpointing the USP, describing the initial line-up and the inevitable free gift stuck to the cover. As children in the monochrome world of the fifties and sixties were starved of colour, it was relatively easy to snare an readership of 200,000 youngsters with boarding school and ballet tales for girls, straightforward cowboy/astronaut/soldier derring-do for boys, and ho-hum japes featuring grumpy park-keepers and platefuls of sausages for the younger ones.  Girls’ comics were almost all had female monikers such as Judy, Tammy and Mandy (though Jinty remains a strange one) while boys’ comics had rugged-sounding titles like Victor, Tiger, Valiant and Hotspur. Hugely popular, they were being cranked out in their millions right up until the early seventies. 

But as Kibble-White demonstrates, there was a growing sense of desperation in the industry from the 1970s until its virtual collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was manifested in their attempts to compete with TV and then later with video games. With the advent of colour TV, and the emergence of blockbuster movies, children were now exposed to a host of shiny pop stars and slick, violent cop shows and disaster films that made the weekly comics fare look stale and tame. Traditional boys comics like Eagle, Lion and Valiant couldn’t compete with the more visceral delights of Dirty Harry and The Sweeney. And so DCT responded with gritty war comic Warlord and IPC with similarly martial Battle and then the bloodthirsty Action. Girls comics stories became crueller and nastier and the new humour titles took a turn for the zany with characters breaking the fourth wall and celebrities making regular appearances. Despite brief bursts of interest, and the uncovering of seriously talented writers and artists still plying their trade today, all-round sales of comics continued to plummet.  

Now, just three of the hundred or so titles Kibble-White writes about are still in existence - The Beano, 2000AD and Commando. The continued success of Commando is beyond me as war went out of fashion in the weeklies some time in the mid-1980s but Beano and 2000AD contain instantly recognisable characters who have attained iconic status over the years, and have gathered a loyal fanbase many of whom are much older than the actual target audience.  

Kibble-White’s book will provide a bit of a nostalgia buzz for certain middle-aged people from Britain and Ireland (and anyone with a love of the daft old titles such as ‘Spooky Cookie: He Cooks for the Spooks’ or ‘Pansy Potter, the Strongman’s Daughter’).  It’s also fun to read about the first issues of comics where desperate attempts are made to appeal to increasingly sceptical children. And it’s remarkable to see Look-In clone Tops feature a story starring Adam Ant as a kind of time-traveller adventuring through the centuries. Highly reccommended. 

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Prince Philip's Death Coverage

 The record number of complaints to the British Broadcasting Authority about the BBC’s blanket coverage of reaction to Prince Philip’s death last Friday evening was indicative of changing times but was probably also connected to the pandemic. 

By replacing all advertising programming on their three terrestrial channels with lengthy tributes to the late consort, Britain’s national broadcaster was probably following the dictates of the ‘important royal deaths’ protocol. The last time a person of Philip’s stature died was in 1952 when Elizabeth II’s predecessor shuffled off his ermine furred gown. At that time few people had televisions - the coronation of EII the following year was a major catalyst for TV purchasing and viewing - and a cancellation of programming on the single available channel would have made sense to most British folk following the death of the head of the world’s largest empire. 

Flicking away at the remote that Friday evening, though, it just looked a bit odd to see the same glum, respectful faces on three consecutive channels while life went on as usual on the 97 other ones. Yes, there was extended programming on Philip on ITV, the BBC News channel and on Sky news, but at least there were different people, on different couches talking about life and times of the Greek.  

Unlike in 1952, when a small, select group of individuals decided what those with televisions should watch, the growth of online streaming means that today’s viewers are used to watching what they want when they want to. Another possible factor behind some of the outrage was the changing stature of television during the pandemic. Over the course of the lockdowns, TV has provided more comfort than ever to millions people with reduced options for entertainment and little to look forward to. The cancellation of ‘Gardener’s World’, a show greatly boosted by the increase of horticultural interest during the ‘stay at home’ era, was understandably a bridge too far for some. Of course, the BBC is an easy punchbag for anyone feeling frustrated with modern life and it gets a regular kicking from those on the right, those on the left and a fair number in the middle. 

But the filling up of three channels’ worth of screen-time with the same content as a mark of respect for the duke did seem like a gasp of stale air from a more deferential time.  

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

'Very 20th Century'

             I was recently teaching a novel set in rural Ireland in 1981 and was drawing the students’ attention to the influence on the community of the Catholic Church: the ban on contraception and divorce, the deference to priests.  One student commented that it was ‘very twentieth-century’. And after a moment’s thought, I realised she was right. The status of the church in Irish society began to crumble in the early to mid-nineties following the revelation that the Bishop of Galway had fathered a child and then the exposure of cases of clerical child abuse and the subsequent attempts to cover them up. Though the largely-discredited church retains a tight grip on education and still owns vast tracts of land all over the country, Ireland post-2000 is a very different place. But it felt strange to hear of something being typical of the century in which I grew up. 

‘Very 20th century’ was a term I’d never heard before.  I have used the term ‘19th century’ many times, though ‘Victorian’ is a more common appellation used to evoke a sense of strictness and deprivation, as well as bushy moustaches and music hall acts. I have also regularly referred to the post-war period, the fifties (characterised in cliche by rock n’roll, communist paranoia), the sixties (revolution, experimentation), the seventies (decline of the industrialised west, brown clothing), the eighties (nuclear threat, capitalism ascending). 

One decade I don’t tend to think about is the nineties because it was a formative time for me, a time when, like many 15-25-year-olds,  I was centre-stage in the film of my life.  In lazy shorthand, it was a time when it looked as though the west had won, and freedom was on the rise everywhere. And that of course, was a myth born of a kind of baby boomer triumphalism crystallised by Fleetwood Mac playing ‘Don’t Stop...thinking about tomorrow’ at Bill Clintons’s inauguration in November 1992. This was of course, a world dominated by privileged (and in hindsight, extremely complacent) white westerners. 

But while we regularly define the key characteristics of decades, how will we remember the entire last century? As my student suggested, there will be little debate about how we characterise twentieth century Ireland.  But on an international scale, I suppose we will also call it the age of the car and the age of the assembly line, maybe the great age of pop music. All of those are ‘very twentieth-century’. It might also be known as the century of nationalism and of brutality.  It was a time of mass destruction, a time when long-range weapons of mass destruction were created that put a desensitising distance between the perpetrators and the victims. 

There is now a growing divide between the last century and this one: issues that were bubbling beneath the surface (and in some cases, suppressed) such as climate change, immigration, the status of women and minorities, and the mechanisation of labour, are now at the forefront of daily discourse. And the pandemic is re-shaping our lives in a multitude of different ways. In the years to come, I expect to hear a lot more utterances of ‘very 20th century’.   

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Changing Attitudes: Star Trek and Sub-Cultures

       Needless to say I’ve watched a lot of TV in the last twelve months, and various clips on YouTube. Thanks to the rise of the latter and to the large number of TV channels devoted to recycling old material, it’s now easier than ever to make lazy judgements on the mainstream culture of the past. Recently, two clips, both from the 1980s, stood out for me and got me thinking about the how attitudes change.

The first was of Terry Wogan asking Joan Collins about her appearance on an episode of the original Star Trek.  At the time, Star Trek was a growing cult with a relatively small number of devotees. The movies were being released every few years to healthy box office sales but the show had yet to become part of the world’s cultural wallpaper. When Wogan mentioned her guest starring role, Collins hooted with embarrassment, hinting that her career had been  at a low ebb when she took the role. The audience reaction was gleeful. Sci-fi, like fantasy and horror, was still on the fringes, usually considered frivolous and lacking in substance. My father would have fitted in well in that audience. He was generally open-minded as a film viewer but had a complete blind spot for science fiction - he couldn't accept imaginative worlds though he did enjoy A Clockwork Orange probably because it was so obviously grounded in reality. 

Looking at the clips over thirty years after they first appeared, it struck me how much has changed since then.  Dynasty now seems much more ridiculous than the ambitious, innovative Star Trek with  characters that are as recognisable and iconic as any in 20th century fiction. The long-standing jokes about Star Trek (the creaky sets, the primitive special effects, William Shatner’s overacting) have been superseded by an appreciation of the makers’ ideas and its afterlife has had a cultural imprint far deeper than the likes of Dynasty, which is a story that has been re-told constantly before and since: the recent Succession is a brilliant recent spin on power struggles inside a wealthy and entitled family. 

There is a possibility that Joan Collins will ultimately be better remembered for her sole appearance on Star Trek than for anything else she ever did. For billions, the brilliantly versatile Alec Guinness is Obi Wan Kenobi; for a dwindling number, he is a sophisticated actor in David Lean and Ealing classics.  Like Collins, he was scornful of his foray into science-fiction even though he took a chunk of the toy royalties as part of his fee.  

Now that Hollywood depends so heavily superhero blockbusters and TV, and streaming services are on the look-out for the next Game of Thrones, the sneery attitude towards celluloid fantasy and sci-fi is no more. Some argue that this is indicative of the infantilisation of mainstream culture but I prefer to see it as revenge of the nerds.   

         The other old clip that indicated changing times was an RTE investigation into youth culture in the late 1980s in which a reporter wandered the streets of Dublin city centre on a Saturday afternoon, looking for distinctive groups of young people - goths, punks, rockabillies - and asking them about their choice of clothing and make-up. The reporter had a bemused tone when interviewing her subjects and sometimes got a frosty reception.

Watching the RTE clip, I was struck by how the person who now looked the strangest of all was the reporter herself. Her big, big hair, big shoulder pads and big, big glasses make her look dwarfed by her clothes and accessories while the young people didn’t look remotely peculiar. And yet it was the reporter who was representing the mainstream, conventional world of the 90 per cent.   

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Music 20/21

       I can remember the last gig I attended: the basement of a pub in Dublin City centre, a Sunday afternoon, all the way back in March 2020, the launch of a friend’s new album. The cosy faux-’old pub’ room was decked with an odd mixture of posters and pictures - black and white images of Ireland in the 1950s, GAA teams and scantily clad females - and planted against one of the walls, there was an awkward snug, done up like a shebeen with lattice windows. I gave in to temptation and had two of what tasted like the creamiest pints of stout that had ever passed my lips.

As ever, the drink knocked the itchy Sunday feeling out of me and I successfully unwound. A few numbers into the support act’s set, one of the songs sent me somewhere else for three minutes and as a result I was open to whatever was played for the rest of the afternoon. I find that happens at gigs: one good song or moment leaves you receptive to the rest and more generous and supportive of the artists. 

I had the usual little chats with familiar faces from previous gigs, some of them barely more than an exchange of a few words, and I ordered a bowl of chips with my second pint. I could feel the velvet balloon of wellbeing swelling up inside me and I smiled when I saw lovers entwined on a couch in one of the nooks in the venue.  

Stepping out of the venue, half-drunk and ready for a curry, the streets were lightly buzzing. A meal in a popular Indian and then a cycle home, my last night out in town for thirteen months. A few days later, Leo Varadkar delivered that unnervingly understated speech that introduced some ominous words like ‘wave’ and ‘cocooning’. The live music scene as it was went into hibernation, and musicians were limited to broadcasting performances from their own homes on social media platforms. I checked out a few of these but because I was already spending so much time online I wasn’t very enthusiastic about looking at screens again outside of work.   

Martin Carthy live from his house in Robin Hood’s Bay gave me cheer. He was rusty for the first half hour, inevitably I suppose, but then got into his stride, finding his unmistakeable foghorn voice and fluidity in his playing. The quality was of secondary importance to me. He is someone I have seen in concert five or six times so it was comforting enough to see him and hear him again in whatever capacity. A reminder of his tremendous knowledge and good humour.  

During the pandemic period, I finally bought a smartphone and then headphones and began to access as much music as possible using the Spotify app. This was facilitated by the daily dog walks and by my semi-regular runs. Thanks to Spotify’s enormous catalogue, I was able to dive into the works of Black Sabbath, sampling the first six albums, re-visit The Fall’s mighty oeuvre, listen to albums I’d always meant to try like PIL’s first two, The Human League’s Dare, The Court of the Crimson King, a lot of post-punk, a lot of krautrock, New Order, plus a fair amount of new music. 

Because it’s been such a long winter, I have found myself leaning towards bright electronic sounds - early albums by New Order, The Pet Shop Boys’ Very - and venturing into contemporary pop music which often sounds like the aforementioned acts. HAIM, Thundercat, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift. Light, optimistic-sounding stuff, not very demanding, delightfully surface-y, a lot of it designed to be played in heaving pubs and nightclubs filled with shiny young people. A far cry from my last ‘gig, stout and chips’ outing but a cheerful vision to have in these times.