Holiday Reading

July 19th, 2017

Stuart Cosgrove’s 2016 Detroit 67: the year that changed soul is primarily about Motown (the label was based in Detroit until 72) and, as such, complements Nelson George’s classic history of Motown, Where Did Our Love Go? the rise and fall of the Motown sound. Like that book, there’s a lot about The Supremes (this was the year that Florence Ballard left the group). There’s also plenty about my favourite Motown group, The Temptations, although, curiously, he doesn’t mention that the classic five line-up recorded and released one of the (possibly the) best Motown live albums that year, Temptations Live! Another odd omission is that, according to the introductory essay in the 1967 box of the Complete Motown Singles (my companion listening while reading this), Motown had a sales convention in Detroit that year, as riots broke out. The riots are discussed at great length, but the convention isn’t mentioned. Minor carps, for this is a gripping, informative read which weaves in a great deal of social history, especially where it interacts with the music scene (for instance, John Sinclair and the MC5 were kicking out the jams motherfuckers! in Detroit at the time). Highly recommended.

Anthony Cartwright’s new The Cut is a fascinating, beautifully written, commissioned novella that takes an oblique look at Brexit via two starkly contrasting characters, Grace and Cairo. It’s a great read and has one of those endings that requires you to reread the beginning (or maybe the whole, short book). Cartwright’s Black Country is as compellingly drawn as ever and this one, if not his best (try Heartland first) will undoubtedly add to his ever-growing reputation.

The other novel I finished, Tony and Susan, was twenty-odd years old and had been retitled in the light of the success of the film based on it, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, which is the name of the novel within the novel by Austin Wright. The film very closely followed the book within the book, which is sparsely written, tightly plotted and uncomfortable to read/watch. The ‘real’ sections are longer and somewhat different – it’s rather easier to write about someone reading a novel in a book as against a movie. A modern classic, maybe. I’ll certainly be checking out more by Austin Wright.

Finally, I devoured a book about book collecting, by the redoubtable author and film critic John Baxter. Critic Ian Penman put me onto the out of print A Pound of Paper, because of the stuff in it about collecting Graham Greene first editions, which I do, in a small way. Funnily enough, I had a good chat with the singer/songwriter John Murry after his terrific Rough Trade instore at the weekend. He’s also a bit of a Greene collector, and had enjoyed Baxter’s book. Even if you’re not, Baxter has loads of great stories about living in London, LA, Paris and elsewhere, the legendary book scout (and guitarist) Martin Stone, and much more. So thanks for the recommendation, Ian.

It was only a short break so, a pile of New Yorkers apart, that was my poolside reading, except for a novel by scriptwriter Paul Bassett Davies which I started reading on my Kindle on the plane and am now 2/3 of the way through. At first I thought it was rubbish (sorry, Scott). It’s undoubtedly uneven, but if I read fifty pages of a book, I always finish it. Moreover, I still need to know how this odd novel (which the publisher sent me for free) turns out. It’s called Dead Writers in Rehab and the narrators include Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Wilkie Collins, Hunter S Thompson and… eh, Doctor Watson, plus a couple of equally fictional contemporaries. Some are voiced rather more successfully than others, but it is, undeniably, a fun read (update: until you reach the last 10%, which is, frankly, dire). Oh, and John Murry’s second album, A Short History of Decay (named, he told me, after this book) is terrific. Here’s a cheerful little number from it.

John Murry – One Day (You’ll Die)

Garry Tallent, Kevin Montgomery & thoughts on Election Night: The Glee Club, Nottingham

June 12th, 2017

This is an extended version of the review that appeared in Saturday’s Nottingham Post with a few added comments about the election.

Quite a coup for Glee and promoters Cosmic American Music to get Bruce Springsteen’s bass player on election night. Tallent is the only remaining original member of the E Street Band (unless you count the boss himself). A youthful 67, Garry might seem old to be launching a solo career, but Bruce isn’t touring. And no expense is spared. The Tennessee Terror has brought along renowned singer/songwriter Kevin Montgomery to open for him. Montgomery, whose dad used to partner Buddy Holly, pays tribute to Holly with ‘Heartbeat’ (especially touching for my companion, who used to write for the series) and a lovely ‘Flower of my Heart’. He does a nice Bruce cover, too, the relatively unknown ‘I Wish I Were Blind’,  but it’s his own songs that shine most. Close your eyes and you could be listening to early Eagles ballads.

Unlike Montgomery, Garry Tallent doesn’t have a great voice, but he has a terrific, six-piece band. Particularly guitarist Eddie Angel, a veteran with craggy good looks that could see him cast in Twin Peaks. We get an instrumental before Garry takes the stage with ‘Bayou Love’. That title tells you a lot about what to expect: rockabilly with an occasional Cajun bent. Accordion and violin feature. The album’s called Break Time and that’s what Garry’s on: a break. He’s having fun with old friends, including Christy Rose on occasional vocals. Songs have titles like ‘Ants in Your Pants’ and ‘Ooh La La’. Lightweight, yes, but none of the songs drag on and the band’s enthusiasm is infectious.

I have to confess that my mood for the evening was greatly lifted when I popped to the loo at ten and turned my phone on. I’ve been a bit of a nay-sayer re Labour’s electoral prospects under Corbyn. However, he had a brilliant campaign, while May was worse than anybody could have possibly imagined. Even so, she seemed bound to win and inflict untold further damage on the country. Instead, the exit poll said it looked like we were heading for a hung parliament, which is how it turned out. And Corbyn, a man who never wanted to be party leader, much less PM, is now poised for one more push. Good luck to him. And us. Pity that my own vote had to go to the odious Chris Leslie, a lightweight lickspittle imposed on Nottingham East by Gordon Brown, whose leadership election campaign he had run. Instead of keeping quiet in the wake of the result, or eating his words as so many others (and I) have done, Leslie went on the Today Programme to say that Corbyn’s victory wasn’t good enough. He seemed to think that his own, massively increased majority was a personal one. Clive Lewis today described him as a ‘sad, lonely, bitter man’ and I won’t add to that, except to say that I hope I won’t be asked to vote for him again. To face his constituency party after this he’d have to be more brass necked than the PM. And with that, back to the gig and the present tense…

Both Montgomery and Tallent make play of being in a comedy club, telling jokes, sending themselves up. Tallent, too, does a Buddy Holly song. He tells good stories about working with people like Duane Eddy and Robert Gordon. He does two songs he wrote with Southside Johnny. He also pays tribute to Chuck Berry (with a strong pastiche and a shout out for Chuck’s last album) and Levon Helm, whose Band number ‘Move To Japan’ closes the main set.

The highlights of the evening, for me, are three instrumentals. Mid-set we get a terrific version of The Shadows’ Apache and The Ventures’ Walk Don’t Run, both featuring Eddy Angel to great effect. For the third and final encore of the hour fifty show, they pull out a number they’ve not done before, but pull off to perfection: The Tornados’ ‘Telstar’. Wonderful.

Everybody’s Girl – Kevin Montgomery

Telstar – The Tornados

 

Not Meeting Bob Dylan

May 6th, 2017

‘Mr Dylan is not able to take up your invitation’, said the email from Bob’s manager on Thursday evening. I confess to feeling less disappointment than relief. Yesterday was Bob Dylan’s first visit to a UNESCO City of Literature since he became a Nobel laureate. NUCOL’s director, Sandeep Mahal, knew what a huge Dylan fan I was, and what a coup it would be to have his Bobness visit our headquarters, so, a month ago, she wrote to  his manager to offer Bob a private tour of Bromley House Library. His manager said it was unlikely, but possible, so she’d written to remind him of the invitation that morning.

I collect signed first editions of books by my favourite authors. Not signed albums, which have never interested me. But it would be great to have something from my large Dylan collection signed by Bob (only, which of his two books – Tarantula or Chronicles to take? The latter is better, the former rarer.).

More pressingly, what do you say when you meet your heroes? It’s OK to have a conversation with them, I’ve found, in the context of a promotional interview, as I have with Kevin Coyne, Richard Thompson, Aimee Mann and a few others over the years. Or socially, if – say – introduced by a mutual friend. But I’ve never been tempted by meet and greet type events for fans. I haven’t chased an autograph since meeting Leonard Cohen when I was seventeen. The safest thing would be to talk about the historic building, answer his questions about Bromley House, ask him to sign a book or two, and wish him well for that night’s gig. But that would feel like a wasted opportunity. Was it safe to ask Bob what he thought of Eddie Marsan playing him in that silly play on Sky last year? Or wonder aloud whether he’s considered reviving It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding in the age of Donald Trump? I’m pretty good at making conversation with people I’ve not met before but Dylan is Dylan, and there’s nobody who would daunt me more. There was a pretty good chance of my saying something that would embarrass me for the rest of my life. Happily, as I warned Sandy from the outset, there was virtually no chance that Mr Dylan would take up the invitation, and so it transpired.

Which leaves me at the gig where, due to luck as much as superb planning, I found myself in the middle of the third row, the best seats I’ve ever had at a Dylan show. This is my 40th year of going to see Dylan. The first time, in ’78, I queued overnight outside Leicester De Montfort Hall to get tickets for the first night at Earls Court. The last time, in 2015, was only the second time in a concert hall, Manchester Apollo. It was bittersweet, as it was only a few days after the death of my oldest and closest friend, Mike Russell, who I had seen so many Dylan gigs with over the years. This time, I was with my friend Terry, veteran of more than fifty Dylan gigs since the Isle of Wight Festival, and playwright Michael Eaton, who had only seen Dylan once in recent years, from a great distance, at his first Nottingham appearance, a notoriously dull concert, lifted only by a rare rendition of ‘Blind Willie McTell’.

This was my fourth time seeing Bob really close up, which is always a thrill. The sound was tremendous, the band in great form and the setlist a terrific blend of new songs, old songs, and standards. We got a jaunty ‘To Ramona’, which I’ve never heard him play live before. Yet again, he changed the words of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, my favourite song of the night (doubless someone will transcribe his improvised ruminations along the days of ‘today might as well be the future’). Terry and Michael loved it. He played for an hour and fifty minutes, concluding with a fantastic ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. The standards were nicely peppered through the set (Sean at the Post has the setlist with his review). My favourite was the first, an entirely appropriate ‘Why Try and Change Me Now?’

The setlist has stayed the same for a while, by the way, but there was one unusual thing about the show, which I’ve never seen at a Dylan gig before. Bob kept smiling. He was really enjoying himself. And so were we.

I obeyed the instruction not to take photos during the set but did snatch a slightly blurred one at the end, just before the stagehand removed two props that were illuminated throughout the performance, even when the stage was black. One was the Oscar that Bob won for the song ‘Things Have Changed’, with which he’d opened the show. The other was the small statuette that came with his Nobel Prize for Literature. A few seconds after I took the shot above, it was put into a bright green plastic bag, which was then put into a large hatbox and taken off stage, ready for the next show, and the next. My twelfth Dylan show, and, if it turns out to be the last, a brilliant one to finish on.

Mind you, I’ll be pissed off if, when I go to Bromley House next week, the librarian says to me: ‘guess who showed up at our door on Saturday morning?’

Roy Fisher 1930-2017: a tribute & film of his last reading

March 22nd, 2017

I came late to the poetry of the great Roy Fisher. Early this century, my friend John Lucas persuaded him over to the Lowdham Poetry Festival, where, on a blustery day, under a tent, Roy read some of his poems and played a little piano (he was a fine Jazz pianist). Roy talked with my partner about their shared experience in teacher training and we were given his new and selected, The Dow Low Drop, the first of many books that Roy signed for us. A few years later, planning the Beeston International Poetry Festival, I suggested we try and get Roy to give a reading, though he didn’t get about much, being wheelchair-bound. His friend, the poet, Ann Atkinson was still alive then, and acted as chauffeur. Roy read with Matt Welton at the Flying Goose Café in Beeston. He began his set by establishing his bona fides, as he put it, with ‘Poetry Promise’. I filmed this poem and ‘Inner Voice’ for a facebook group. Last year, with his permission, I put both of these videos on YouTube. The quality’s not great, as they were taken with a Flip-camera, but this was the last reading that Roy gave and it was a lovely, packed event. I filmed all of the 13 minute second set that closed the evening. Today, in tribute to him, I’ve uploaded the whole thing. You can watch it above. That’s Ann Atkinson, sat to his right, and John Lucas on his left.

We visited Roy at his home near Buxton the summer before last. He didn’t get about much, but had plenty of friends who came to help, and was good company. I gave him a DVD with highlights of the many Jazz and Poetry evenings I’d filmed, which he would have enjoyed being at. He gave us a copy of An Easily Bewildered Child, his collected occasional prose. We would have gone again, but my partner became seriously ill, and now Roy’s gone. He died this week after, I’m told, slowly fading for a couple of weeks. I’d hoped to see him in the summer, and take a copy of the next issue of New Walk magazine. I’ve written a review essay called ‘Poetry and Old Age’, about Prynne, Ashbery and Roy’s final book Slakki: new and neglected poems. He had stopped writing by 2015 and there will be no more. It is to Peter Robinson’s great credit that this book came out.

Here’s a bit from that review:

These may be final poems, but there is no falling off in them, only an inevitably elegiac quality. The last new poem, ‘While There’s Still Time’, from 2014, threatens that the poet will return ‘in the form of a nut-brown silver banded bassoon.’ In its comic, confident conclusion, the great poet imagines himself being played ‘on the tarmac triangle/at the crook of Kentish Road’.

Make no mistake:

My voice will be heard once again,

and as never before.

I was pleased that Ian McMillan (one of Fisher’s biggest fans – Ian chose Roy’s collected poems as his book on Desert Island Discs) chose the same lines to cite in his review for The North. I’ll have to add another paragraph to my piece now. Not of mourning, but of celebration: for a sweet, sweet man, a fine jazz pianist, a true educator and poems that will last for as long as poetry is read. He had a life well lived and we’re lucky to have been around for some of the same time. R.I.P.

Buttress, Collishaw, Simons & Sleaford Mods

March 6th, 2017

It was World Book Day last week and I meant to spend the evening in a bookshop, celebrating the life of my friend, the writer Derrick Buttress, who died in December, aged 84. But hospital duties prevailed so I was represented by the video I took of one of his readings. Derrick was the last of the generation of Nottingham writers that included Stanley Middleton and Alan Sillitoe. Derrick, a modest man, would never have put himself in their company. He was, however, just three years younger than Alan (he was born in Broxtowe in 1932) and, though he got his start in writing even later than Stan did, his work was as much infused with Nottingham working class life as Sillitoe’s. He studied English in his late 30s and, from his early 40s, had plays produced on Radio 4 and on BBC TV. He began to publish poetry in, I think, 1991.

John Lucas’s Shoestring Press became Derrick’s publisher at the start of this century, which is when I got to know him. His 2004 memoir Broxtowe Boy, which I’ve been rereading, is widely considered a classic and the 2007 sequel, Music While You Work, which picks up the story when Derrick was 14, is also well worth tracking down. Most of all, I think, he was a very good poet. I could never get him along to read at Jazz and Poetry, as, these last few years he wasn’t much for going out in the evenings. But I was at his last, early evening launch, at Lee Rosy’s a couple of years ago. The collection’s title, ‘Welcome To The Bike Factory’, might suggest that Derrick’s main interest was recording a bygone industrial life – which would be fine, but there was more to Derrick than that. After he died, I discovered that when he became a secondary school teacher, in his forties, he did his teaching practice at the same school where I taught for ten years, Rushcliffe Comp in West Bridgford. John Lucas has just done a limited reprint of Broxtowe Boy, with Derrick’s annotations. Five Leaves Bookshop may have a few copies left.

I wasn’t able to be at Five Leaves for Stephan Collishaw’s book launch either, as I was teaching, but I did read his third novel The Song of the Stork last week. It’s a beautifully written second world war story, set in Lithuania. Not the sort of thing I’d normally pick up if it weren’t by a friend (I’m not big on war novels or films), but I’m very glad I did. The style is spare, almost YA in tone, which is appropriate as it is told entirely from the point of view of fifteen year old, Yael, who turns sixteen during the course of the novel. Yael is Jewish and hiding from the Germans, who would send her to a concentration camp. She seeks shelter at the run-down, remote cottage of a strange mute, but initially he will not help her, for that would mean execution for him. This is a powerful, beguiling story, almost fable-like in tone, and quickly draws you in. It’s been way too long since Stephan’s second novel, Amber, and I hope that, now he’s back in the groove, the fourth won’t be far behind.

I’d heard that one of my favourite novelists, J.David Simons, had decided to retire from writing novels after the excellent An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful four years ago. So I was delighted when I found out that this was not the case. Indeed, he’s landed up with my publishers, Freight, which means that I got an advance copy of his new novel, which is out on Kindle now and in paperback later this month. I devoured A Woman of Integrity over the weekend. It’s a hard book to put down. Simons gives the story of two women, one born on the first day of the Twentieth Century, the other a present day actress in her early 50s with a Hollywood career that is starting to fall apart. The life of Georgie Hepburn is told largely through a first person account which we’re discouraged from entirely trusting. It would be unfair to say too much about her life, which early on involves Hitchcock, silent movie acting and the dawn of the talkies, for it is full of surprises. Laura Scott is portrayed from her own point of view in the third person. She’s a Gillian Anderson/Kristin Scott Thomas style actress – not quite as successful but recognised wherever she goes. Her last boyfriend, Jack, was a kind of Hugh Jackman figure and the reader builds up a lot of curiosity about him. Then an attractive American documentary maker turns up and wants Laura to play Georgie in a film. But first they have to get access to her archive.

Simons’ Glasgow to Galilee trilogy is very serious work and may well turn out to be what he is most remembered for. By comparison, A Woman of Integrity is a jeu d’esprit. Simons is clearly out to have fun, a point emphasised when Laura goes to see Jack in a movie based on Simons’ previous novel, and notes that the producers have knocked twenty years off the hero’s age so that Jack can play him. This is a delicious, hugely enjoyable, very satisfying read that deserves to be a best seller. If I’m asked for holiday recommendations, it’ll come top of the list. Pacy, full of great characters, with multiple twists and surprises, it’s brilliant for the beach or if you need cheering up.

But if you need to vent your rage at the state of the world, as I often do, I’d recommend the Sleaford Mods’ fourth album, English Tapas. Early evening Saturday I went with my brother and his partner to see their instore album launch at Nottingham’s Rough Trade. We squeezed into the back of the small area in front of the stage, the front half of which was a beer throwing mosh pit, while they played most of the new album and ‘T.C.R.’  This and new track B.H.S. were the highlights of a manic set. Odd only to be able to see their heads but we did avoid having beer thrown over us. Jason apologised for messing up one new number and threw in an extra one at the end, ‘Jobseeker’, which led to a full stage invasion (see the screengrab above by @tanyalouiseray on Twitter). Anyway, don’t get out much at the moment, and that forty minutes of madness was just what I needed. I’m looking forward to seeing them again twice this year, at the Green Man festival and at Rock City in November.

Talking of Twitter (I know that some non-Twitter users read my feed in the box on the side left), always the early adopter, I’ve now been on there for ten years. In celebration (and in order to generate a few more reviews), we’ve halved the price of my latest book, Provenance: new and collected stories, on Kindle, to a mere £2.99. That’s a tenner less than the print version, which is still available from Shoestring Press’s website or at all good bookshops.

Here‘s the video for B.H.S.. What are the Mods doing in a books blog? Well, if you were lucky enough, you did get a large pamphlet with the new album, documenting every Mods gig to date before they forget them. They do say that they’re bound to have left a few out. Indeed, missing from the list is the first time I saw them, supporting Scritti Politti at the Rescue Rooms on August 2nd, 2012. I’d never heard of them but my mate Mike Atkinson urged me to turn up early and, as so often, he was right. I gave them their first review in the Nottingham Post. It’s no longer on line, but here’s what I wrote:

Early arrivals were treated to Sleaford Mods’ sardonic take on modern Nottingham. This duo – shouty vocalist and tape machine – have echoes of The Fall, John Cooper Clarke and LCD Soundsystem. They feature the most authentic Nottingham accent since Gaffa’s Wayne Evans. Check them out.

Here’s one they did earlier.

Sleaford Mods – Jobseeker

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Holiday Reading
Stuart Cosgrove’s 2016 Detroit 67: the year that changed soul is primarily about Motown (the label was based in Detroit until 72) and, as such, complement...

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