Friday, 21 January 2022

 Going back to Graceland 

After spending many a pandemic half-hour listening to the consistently entertaining 1001 Album Club podcast, I decided to set up my own club of music-loving friends. The people at 1001 have taken on the herculean task of discussing every one of the albums form Robert Dimery’s 1001Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. It’s a good listen mainly because most of the friends are musicians with broad tastes. As a result, they respond thoughtfully to whatever they have to hear and tend to give the albums about five or six listens each. As they have some studio experience, they speak quite authoritatively on the various techniques employed by the artists but they wear their knowledge lightly and never lay it on too thickly. As with most podcasts I’ve heard, it’s a wee bit too pally at times and the contributors tend to laugh at one another very easily, but that is what happens when friends have a chat, isn’t it? 

I have enjoyed listening to albums in advance of the podcasted discussions and feel pleased when I appear to be singing off the same hymn sheet as the contributors. Only occasionally have I had a clash of views with them. They couldn’t take Ian Dury’s songs, sound or singing while as much as I admire Bruce Springsteen and recognise his songwriting talent, I found Darkness on the Edge of Town painfully overwrought. 

Anyway, when I proposed a form of album club to three music fan friends, there was enthusiastic agreement (if you can trust how people express themselves on WhatsApp). I didn’t mention the 1001 Album Club, which is a good way to force yourself into sampling things you ordinarily wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, suggesting that choices be open. 

The tallest of the group suggested Graceland, an album he’d never heard but which he’d read mentioned in a recent interview. 

I have a history with this album. It was the first album I ever got, a Christmas present on cassette, bought in the shop next door to ours on Xmas Eve 1986. That shop was a kind of jack of all trades one-stop, stocking stationary, cheap plastic toys, board games, ornaments, a few sweets,  cigarettes, greetings cards, records and tapes. Unwrapping Graceland with its cryptic tribal art tile image on pale yellow cover, was no surprise. After all, it was me who had purchased it the day before. But this would turn out to be the album I listened to more than any other. 

I was unaware of Paul Simon’s history in one of the most successful musical duos when I saw ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ video on TV. At the time, chart radio and TV were still a mixed bag of radically different pop sounds, and ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ with its opening accordion line followed by fat, threatening bass and a detached-sounding voice singing about shattering shop windows, slo-motion CCTV and ‘the automatic earth’ sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. 

Of course I was unaware that this was a South African sound. It just sounded extraordinary. Over the remaining days of my Christmas holidays, I must have listened to Graceland at least a hundred times and over the course of 1987 I probably listened to it several hundred times more. It became a kind of joint soundtrack for my Dad as we did a painfully intricate jigsaw puzzle.

As seems to happen when you binge on an album, there comes a point when you are almost allergic to it, and I remember never wanting to hear Graceland again, and even finding it a little embarrassing to think about my brief but heavy crush on it. 

Going back to it last week in advance of our album club has been both a confirmatory and revelatory experience. I used to wonder why I had been so stuck on the album as a twelve-year-old. I quickly realised why when I played it through for the first time last week. The music, the playing, and the backing vocals are gorgeous from beginning to end, and the production is immaculate. 

I felt myself moving to it and feeling like dancing, and I wondered what it might be like to listen to a version that omitted all of Paul Simon’s vocals. Most of it would make a fine party album. As is common knowledge, most of the songs were pre-existing numbers written by other people, onto which Simon placed his sometimes wonderful and sometimes lightweight lyrics. 

The aforementioned ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ builds up a kind of dystopian vision of a world on the cusp of environmental and technological disaster while ‘Graceland’ itself features that great observation about heartbreak: ‘She says losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart / Everybody feels the wind blow’. 

On the other hand, some of the songs have a daffy mid-life crisis feel. ‘Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?’ and ‘Aren't you the woman who was recently given a Fullbright’ asks Simon in ‘I Know What I Know’, while a group of female singers whoop beautifully over a muscular bass riff. It feels a bit like Woody Allen on a visit to Africa. ‘You can call me Al’, ‘Gumboots’ and ‘Crazy Love Part II’ also have a kind of ‘navel-gazing shlub’ feel to them, the musings of guys who have been left temporarily unmoored by the vicissitudes of life. In normal circumstances, that might be hard to listen to, but here the music is so beautiful and Simon’s voice is so coolly unobtrusive, that the overall sound is unharmed.

There were a lot of mysteries to the album when I listened to it back in the 1980s and thanks to wikipedia I have discovered that the mysterious but alluring lines from ‘Diamonds on the soles of her shoe’ (‘She makes the sign of a teaspoon / He makes the sign of a wave’) relates to sign language and might describe how the couple are dancing. 

One question remains. Why did Simon employ the Everly Brothers, two of the most distinctive singers in the history of popular music, to sing backing vocals on ‘Graceland’ only to mix them so low as to render them anonymous?  

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

The Best Books I Read in 2021


The Best Catholics in the World by Derek Scally

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

East-West Street by Philippe Sands

Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait by Francis Steegmuller

Wunderland by Caitriona Lally

1971: Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth

The Dark Stuff by Nick Kent

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

At this time of year, I usually take stock of what I’ve read over the previous twelve months and try to identify the titles that particularly impressed me. Of the thirty-three books I read this year, just five were published in 2021. I don’t tend to keep up to date with what’s new on the shelves and I have a long list of books I have yet to read from years ago. I am also conservatively inclined to be sceptical of new books as they all tend to be raved about in the hype industry of publishing. 

But I do think Derek Scally’s The Best Catholics in the World deserved the many plaudits that came its way. It’s a cool and steady appraisal of the role of the church in Ireland over the last 150 years and because the author has lived in Germany for over twenty years, it has a distance that gives it extra resonance. Scally draws some unsettling but insightful parallels between the relationship between Irish people and the Catholic church and the relationship between Germans and the Nazis. He skewers the popular narrative that the clergy represented a brutal regime that oppressed the public and instead puts the spotlight on the tendency of the public to collude with the church authorities. His conclusion that Irish people need to follow the Germans and take collective ownership of the atrocities committed by the church is fascinating. 

The quiet collusion of laypeople in a system that brutalised women and children is also explored in Claire Keegan’s sad and beautiful novella, Small Things Like These. Her long-awaiting follow-up to the similarly slender but powerful Foster reveals the rot beneath the Catholic poster-child Ireland of the 1980s. 

Unlike the protagonists in this novel, I grew up in privileged circumstances, but Keegan’s depiction of life in a small rural town still caused me to feel a shudder of recognition. This could well be something that my imagination has filled in for me but I’ll see what my mother thinks of it. Everything about the book was perfect save for the silly, forgettable title.

Some of my favourite books were brutally honest memoirs. David Sedaris is perhaps the only author whose work makes me laugh out loud every few pages and his collection The Best of Me is a juicy collection of prime cuts. In the last section, he writes with extraordinary candour about how frustrated he is with his sister’s suicide and how it left him having to deal with interviewers’ questions about her and the impact her death had on him. When one asks him how he felt about the event, he says he is angry with her because the bitch owed him five hundred dollars. 

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was also hilarious and startling, a graphic novel in which the author explored her relationship with her closeted father, a complicated and troubled individual who had been arrested after being caught in sexual congress with some of his male English students and who later died after being knocked down by a truck. I read this one after my friends and I had chosen the follow-up novel, I am my own Mother for our Zoom bookclub. And I quickly tracked down a copy of her recent The Secret of Superhuman Strength. 

An examination of her lifelong obsession with health and fitness, The Secret of Superhuman Strength also featured illustrated extracts from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, which I read straight afterwards and loved. 

It had been years and years since I had read On The Road and imagined that Kerouac might be dated, proto-hippy stuff. But apart from the miserable attitude to women, The Dharma Bums was a thrilling read based around some mountaineering escapades with Gary Snyder. Reading of their freewheeling rambles into nature inspired me on my own, modest two day bike ride from Maynooth to Mullingar. Few books have so successfully communicated electric enthusiasm and a sense of utterly unfettered freedom. Sixty years down the road, it’s not hard to see why Kerouac was a publishing sensation in his day. 

Another book that had a strong personal element was Philippe Sands’ masterly examination of the history of the main movers in the Nuremberg Trials: East-West Street. 

Also wonderful was Francis Steegmuller’s story of the genesis and creation of one of the world’s most famous novels. In Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait, he uses Flaubert’s brilliant letters to create a picture of a volatile and frequently hilarious man whose life was changed forever following the tortured birth of the book that launched his career. What I liked most about this one was its exploration of friendship. The childless and unmarried Flaubert managed to cultivate a group of friends who were as loyal and frank as friends could be and they helped one another out to an admirable degree. 

       There are few novels on my list but I did get an almighty kick out of Caitriona Lally’s second novel, Wunderland. The story of a brother and sister whose personalities range from the eccentric to the disturbed, the brother’s exploits as a wayward cleaner in a miniature world museum in Hamburg were weirdly, hilariously fascinating. I frequently laughed aloud while reading though I was sometimes uncertain as to whether that was the desired effect. 

To be honest, I probably got more joy from books about music than any other reading matter this year. Maybe it’s the pandemic effect, but I’ve never listened to so much music or discovered more albums in the last twenty months. Eight of the 33 books on my list were about music and the best of them was probably David Hepworth’s thrilling 1971: Never a Dull Moment.

A book that really lived up to its title, it made for a convincing argument that 1971 was the greatest year in the history of modern pop. It was one of four books by Hepworth I read this year and along with an impressive wealth of knowledge, he also had some sensible things to say about music appreciation. The most notable for me was his insistence that a person’s interest in a certain kind of music or artist was simply linked to whether or not it made them want to move, hence his love of the long discarded term ‘beat’ music. Despite our frequent wish to appear sophisticated, our love of music is at heart a primitive thing.

The other music book that excited me this year was Nick Kent’s ‘best of’ collection, The Dark Stuff. It’s one I should have read years ago as I was aware of its reputation as one of the greatest pop tomes. Kent managed to get intimately acquainted with just about all of the main players in the 1970s and very few come out of the book with reputations enhanced. There is a seediness running through each of his essays and many of the stars are depicted as abusers of drugs and of women (a surprising number of them appear to be wife-beaters). Kent is brilliant at character sketches that are both grotesque and hilarious. 

My last pick is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, a two volume comic that was a joy to read from start to finish, a wondrous combination of superheroics and extreme science fiction executed by creators with a gorgeous light touch. Very much the way I like my comics. I am by no means a fan of Superman but this was irresistible. 

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’.