Woodstock taking

I watched the director’s cut of the Woodstock movie this weekend. It was, I would say, moderately entertaining, although there was not really enough of what you’d call the best music, and way too much of stuff that wasn’t very good to start with, and which has dated badly.

Jefferson Airplane, I ask you.

Not a lot of it, actually, is really my kind of thing, but a glance at the list of artists omitted from the film (including not only The Band, but Creedence, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The Grateful Dead) and then what was included (Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe & the Fish), and there’s a disconnect. I’m sure a lot of it came down to licensing issues and record company dicking, but you do wonder, sitting through the screeching of Joan Baez, the irrelevant ramblings of John Sebastian and the interminable noodling of Jimi Hendrix, what the editors were thinking. And Jefferson Airplane’s melody-free caterwauling is just the capper really: unbearable, unlistenable, tosh. A load of old wank, as a fine woman once said.

Which is before you get to the lengthy interview with the toilet cleaner, the extended sequence of the awful peace hippy clown Wavy Gravy acting as MC, and the ten minute interlude of chanting through the rain. Then there’s the gratuitous hippy nudity and so on.

Of course, the director was trying to capture the whole weekend in all its facets, and you certainly get a real feeling for how devastating the rain was and how utterly unprepared the organisers were for both the size of the crowd and the weather. The lateness of many of the performances was testament to the amateurish, spoiled rich kid organisation. I think everyone after The (not included) Band was technically performing on Monday, the fourth day of the three days of peace, love and, largely indifferent, music.

The performances that have gone down in legend are the ones who turned it up loud. The Who and Hendrix, Ten Years After, Santana. But apart from Hendrix, there’s not enough of these people in the film.

I went on YouTube and discovered a (mostly audio) clip of what purports to be The Band’s performance, and it seemed to be fine. Nothing wrong with it at all. And since they were objectively at the peak of their game, their exclusion from the film is strange. Were people disappointed that Dylan didn’t join them?

Anyway, it ends up being a document of the times, I guess, in much the same as the last 20 minutes of Let it Be capture London in January of the same year, and Gimme Shelter captures the death of the dream on the other coast in November. Never forget, also, that the Tate-LaBianca murders were just the weekend before Woodstock. 1969 was the full spectrum hippy fuckup.

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Rewatching Let it Be

Someone uploaded Let it Be to YouTube and so I watched it again for the first time in at least 25 years. It’s a kind of 50th anniversary: it was this last 10 days or so in 1969 that The Beatles convened, miserable, at Twickenham film studios and desultorily banged at a few instruments, took heroin*, argued, and fell apart. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the film and album release, and maybe we’ll get a blu-ray? I mean, I expect we’ll get a 50th anniversary boxed set of Abbey Road this year, won’t we? Let it Be is problematic, and there has already been the …Naked version (which wasn’t very good, turns out), but however miserable it makes us, the film needs to be preserved, and a digital remaster and blu-ray/digital release would help that. 

But maybe it’s already too late. I’m still haunted by learning that The Who’s The Kids Are All Right documentary was in a very sad state of decay before the 2003 re-release, at which stage it was under 25 years old. The Kids… was restored from the master positive, as none of the release prints had survived. What state is Let it Be in, after 50 years? It was filmed on 16mm, too, which limits the options for a high definition version.

Then again, rumour has it that Scorsese is making a documentary of The Rolling Thunder Revue, and I bet will be using a lot of the footage Dylan filmed for Renaldo and Clara. So maybe Let it Be can be rescued by being repurposed.

I have to say, watching it this time around, it wasn’t as long and depressing as I remembered. The really awful bit at the beginning is over quite quickly, and then there’s a better atmosphere at Apple, bar one or two moments, and then the rooftop concert, which is a real joy to watch. A lot of people can’t watch this film because it’s so sad, but if you think of it as a Spinal Tap type mockumentary, it’s more bearable.

George was playing the part of Put Upon Guitarist, and eventually walked out, went to Liverpool, and refused to return until they agreed to knock Twickenham (and the Big Comeback Concert) on the head and do everything in the Apple offices. The awkward argument between him and Paul as Paul tries to get him to play something a particular way and George instead turns up his Passive Aggressive Hippy knob to 11 is still the worst moment in the film.

Ringo plays Bored Drummer to great effect, smoking and sitting at his kit, joining Paul on the piano, desperate for something, anything, to happen. Ringo must have spent so much of the late 60s sitting around waiting for the others to get their shit together. A candidate for the second worst moment in the film is the bit where John and George (and George Martin) are helping Ringo with “Octopus’ Garden”, and it all seems to be going lovely, and then Paul walks in and it all grinds to a halt. Awks. Maybe it was the editing made it look like it happened that way.

Paul Plays Musical Director, which was a role he’d been used to playing for a couple of years, since John Destroyed his Ego with LSD and generally took a back seat in terms of Hit Making. Without Paul’s contributions in 1968 and ’69, the last of the Beatles would have been a sorry thing indeed. Here is a list:

  • Lady Madonna
  • Hey Jude
  • Back in the USSR
  • Blackbird
  • Helter Skelter
  • The Long and Winding Road
  • Let it Be
  • Get Back
  • Two of Us
  • Side Two of Abbey Road

For sure, Lennon wrote some good ones too, often after realising that Paul was getting ahead of him, but he also phoned a lot in, riding the avant-garde repetitive lyrics train (Don’t Let Me Down, I Want You), glomming things together from fragments (Happiness is a Warm Gun) or ripping off Chuck Berry (Come Together).

*John plays Heroin Addict Rock Star with Heroin Addict Girlfriend and Extra Heroin, and a year ago yesterday gave an interview for Canadian TV which is notorious for the bit in the middle where he gets the Heroin Addict Rock Star Sweats and goes off to be sick. And he’s so, so boring. Up his own arse with self importance and Portentous Statements. A year later his “etchings” would be seized by police in a trumped up obscenity panic. There’s a bit in the film where Musical Director Paul is trying to be Persuasive about the Big Comeback Concert, and Lennon just sits and listens (or does he?) and says not a word.

After 10 days at Twickenham, they canned it and went back to Savile Row to finish up, abandoned the idea of a Big Comeback Concert, and went up onto the roof to finish up. The film finishes almost miraculously, with actual music which is Quite Good (almost all composed by Paul with Paul on lead vocal). There are a few songs performed in the studio (including “Let it Be” and “Two of Us”), and then they’re on the roof, in the cold, with people gathering down below to see what all the fuss. George huddles in his fur coat and green trousers and John plays the fucking lead guitar on “Get Back”. Which clearly confused the hell out of camera people and editor.

This is worth 21 minutes of anyone’s time, because it is brilliant, not just because of the music, but because of the vision of Britain you get on the streets below, as people stop and wonder. There are some nice cameos as people stop and give opinions (top tip: say something positive if you want to be in the film), and you see men in bowler hats mixing with the youngs. Dirty hippies are noticeably absent, but there are lots of young women who worked in offices, all out for an exciting lunchtime. They’re all in their late 60s and 70s now: think about that.

Of course, the narrative goes that the police were called, business was being disrupted and traffic was being stopped, but it’s not as if The Beatles had much more material. I half-suspect the phone call came from inside the Apple offices. Please stop us.

Anyway, it’s not that bad. And further proof that The Beatles falling apart were still better than most bands at their peak. There’s no album quite like Let it Be for giving me a certain feeling. “Two of Us” is such an evocative song, and my flashbulb memory of the first time I played the album will be with me forever.

Leopards break into the temple: re-enacting The Last Waltz

Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie.
Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.

Franz Kafka, The Zurau Aphorisms, translated by by Michael Hofmann

I mentioned before that I might have more thoughts on the regular re-enactments of The Band’s The Last Waltz. Here they are. I used Kafka’s aphorism (some term it a parable) as the epigraph to my PhD thesis, Events and Local Gods, which had its focus events and narrative in the works of Don DeLillo. My argument was that the eventhood of events persists, even after the cause/effect sequence has been re-narrated in the light of new knowledge. In other words, we cannot help but continue to be shocked by events, even if it turns out to have been inevitable. We just incorporate the leopards into our ritual.

I love The Last Waltz. I force it on friends, I watch it regularly, I’ve purchased and repurchased the film and soundtrack almost as many times as I have Bruce Springsteen’s The River. I even used to use it in the classroom, as part of my Film Studies course, as a wonderful demonstration of how nothing you see on screen in a feature film is there by accident. Teenagers always like to argue, re literature and film that the author/director didn’t really mean for us to interpret things. They think they’re being original when they say this. So I would put on a clip of Rick Danko singing “It Makes No Difference” in The Last Waltz, and then I’d pause and point out how the colour of the backdrop changes at the emotional peak of the song, and that Scorsese uses one camera and pulls focus between Rick and Robbie and then Garth as he comes in with his saxophone: because the concert had not just been rehearsed but more or less storyboarded. It was a concert film and a documentary, but it was also a film, and nothing you see in a film is there by chance.

As a farewell concert, then, it already had the quality of a ritual, as much of a retirement as Frank Sinatra’s was a few years earlier. And that’s before you take into account the idea that a “farewell” concert did not have the full and enthusiastic support of all Band members, and that a few short years later most of the group would reconvene to tour again, until the tragic death of Richard Manuel put a stop to that. Even then, the surviving members minus Robbie recorded three more studio albums in the 90s. Only Robbie stayed true to the original vision, and withheld his labour.

So the whole thing is played out as if it were a farewell concert, but only one person really wanted that to be the case.

So we end up with a double vision: from one perspective, The Band gave a magnificent farewell concert in 1976, with lots of special guests (inc. Canadian rock aristocracy and Bob Dylan) which was captured on film by director Martin Scorsese and cut down and released as a feature in 1978. End of story.

From another perspective, The Band participated in a special musical event to commemorate their years in the business, took a few years off the hard life of the road and then got back on it with a slightly adjusted line-up in 1983.

When they “retired” in 1976, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko were around 33 years old; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson, the Bill Wyman of the group, was 39.

The very idea that this collective of incredible talent would step back and fade away in their mid-30s is nonsensical. But Robbie had other things to do: film soundtracks, production, solo work. So they went through the ritual ending, and then the leopards broke into the temple.

In one sense, of course, it was the end of something. It was the end of feeling good about The Band on stage, because the 80s touring was retrospectively tainted by Manuel’s suicide, and the 90s recordings, mostly cover versions, were tainted by two absences and Rick Danko’s death at 55 from the effects of alcoholism. And I can’t watch the later Levon Helm performing through the ravages of throat cancer without crying.

But you can, thanks to the magic of celluloid, watch Levon at his absolute peak, performing with exuberance and joy in a concert film that manages to capture something of the elusive alchemy of live music.

But, still, it’s only a film, with focus pulling and lighting changes. It’s there on a screen, and you can see and hear it but you can’t experience the direct, sweaty, barely controlled tumult of it, and you can only try not to think about how Richard Manuel doesn’t sing much.

And Robbie Robertson’s Stratocaster was dipped in bronze.

And fucking Neil Diamond was there, not because he belonged, nor even because he wrote “I’m a Believer”, but more prosaically because Robbie Robertson had just produced an album for him. And he doesn’t fit and he doesn’t go and some people skip over his chapter on the DVD, but he’s part of the ritual now, so someone has to be him, just like someone has to be Major General George McClellan when they do Civil War re-enactments.

And so the leopards keep breaking into the temple, and recreate the ritual, over and over, in annual re-enactments that pay tribute to the elusive emotions The Last Waltz evokes. It’s an affectionate tribute, and it’s an acknowledgement that, then, Thanksgiving 1976, was the Peak of Rock, and everything after that was remixing and rebooting and simulacra. It’s the last day of the Holy Roman Empire of Rock and the barbarians are at the gate. Quick! get everybody on stage (even you Ronnie Wood) and let’s sing “Forever Young”.  It’s stuck culture at its stickiest.

Most of all, it’s a chance, for those who go, to experience live music that is paradoxically somehow more spontaneous and exciting than a modern Rock Aristocracy live tour.

By the time the film is released, Dylan has found God and Ronnie Wood has found The Rolling Stones.

And the Fender Custom Shop borrowed Robertson’s preserved guitar and took it apart and measured it, and tested it, and copied it and reproduced it. So those are out there, more leopards, drinking to the dregs what’s in the pitchers, yours for $17,000, if you can find one.

I have thoughts: 1, 2, 3

A snippet of John Roderick playing Neil Diamond

1. For example, I have thoughts about Travelers, season 3 of which just landed on Netflix. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show delivered on the promise of its first two seasons and is definitely worth your time. I reviewed Season 2 this time last year, and my dearest hope is that I’ll be reviewing Season 4 this time in 2020. That said, this third season might perhaps have rounded off its story and given it a decent ending, about which I cannot complain. It was a proper ending with proper emotional hits, and if it were to return for a fourth season, the show has the option to completely reinvent itself with an entirely new set of host bodies. Highly recommended.

2. I also have thoughts about Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy in his First Law series (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; and The Last Argument of Kings). One of Abercrombie’s short stories pulled me back into reading fantasy which I’d kind of sworn off of after being a bit bored by A Song of Ice and Fire. But here we are: I ploughed through the 1800 pages (!) of this trilogy fairly quickly, and only started to lose interest about 1500 pages in. Which says something. In the end though, I’m not sure whether to recommend these. Not as boring as Tolkien, nor even as dry as GRRM, these are written in an easy, engaging style that keeps you turning the pages. But the vivid descriptions of bloody and brutal fighting do start to get repetitive and the few women characters are weak. And overall, and obviously on purpose, very few of the characters have any redeeming characteristics. 

The premise is fairly familiar. There is a mediaeval type world with kingdoms and wars and a little bit of magic, the last of which is draining out of the world. And there are consequences of using magic and supposedly rules about it, which some people are cavalier about breaking.

So there are invading armies and people going off on long quest-like road trips, but in the end you can’t pick a side because everybody is horrible.

3. Finally, I have thoughts, which may become longer thoughts on something I had only the vaguest awareness of, but which came into sharp focus this morning when I was listening to the most recent episode of Roderick on the Line. John Roderick mentioned as part of an anecdote that he regularly takes part in an annual re-enactment of The Last Waltz in San Francisco, playing the part of Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.’

And, as I said, I kind of knew this went on, but it was only at this point that I realised that it’s a regular, recurring thing that happens all over the place (Indiana, Glasgow, San Francisco), with various collectives of musicians putting it together. It’s like The Rocky Horror Show, but for Dad Rock. Part of me loves this more than I can say. I genuinely think The Last Waltz is both a brilliant documentary of one of the greatest bands of all time and also manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, so that the presence of the likes of Neil Diamond and the various cocaine buddies and the fairly shoddy afterthought of the Staples Singers somehow still manage to be brilliant. And it’s this, isn’t it, that makes people want to re-enact it? Because it’s both perfect and not perfect: it works because it does not work, as my pal Michel Serres said.

On the other hand: zombie culture and sigh sigh sigh. So, more thoughts to come, when I’ve had them, as we enter my 17th year of blogging solitude.

Rams – documentary by Gary Hustwit

Braun T3

One of the treasures of my digital movie collection is Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s documentary about the world’s most ubiquitous (and my second least favourite) typeface. So when, a few years ago now, I saw the publicity for a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about Dieter Rams, the influential product designer, I signed up.

Last week, I finally got a secret code that enabled me to watch it.

Rams was born Weisbaden, Germany in 1932, and studied architecture in the period of post-war reconstruction. You can see in his work and the others he worked with the influence of Bauhaus: that no-frills, clean lines philosophy that still has such a hold over our modern world. In 1955, he was recruited by Braun, the German consumer electronics company, and he remained their chief design officer from 1961 to 1995, when the   company was sold (to his chagrin) to Gillette.

All I really knew about Rams when I signed up was that he was a key influence for Jonathan Ive; there’s a clear line between the Braun T3 radio and the original iPod. His designs for record players, music systems and radios still take your breath away. Braun were a but like Philips: not just music systems but mixers and shavers. And Rams wasn’t solely responsible for many of their iconic designs: he had a talented team around him, but he nevertheless became the public face of their design philosophy.

And of course, philosophy is why we came. At the beginning of the documentary, Rams is shown fielding questions from aspirational designers and others, one of whom seems asks him about automotive design. Rams shrugs off the question: no particular interest: all the car industry ever wanted was to make things go faster and we don’t need cars to go faster. “What about Tesla?” he’s asked. “Aren’t they trying interesting things?”

Tesla is something of a shibboleth for me. If you’re the kind of person who thinks Teslas are cool, you go down in my estimation. Their huge, shitty, expensive cars are just another way that the rich have of shitting on the poor, and they’re a perfect example of making something that can go unnecessarily fast, solving problems that aren’t the problems our society needs to solve. 

Once again, Rams shrugged off the question. Tesla isn’t doing interesting things, he said. We need to be thinking about what transportation needs to be. What will transport look like in 50 years?

As well as consumer electronics, Rams applied his architectural training to home furnishings, and you can find designs he created in 1960 still for sale by furniture company Vitsoe. Hand crafted, modular furniture that you can keep adding to. You can start with a single (astonishingly expensive) chair and then add another to make a sofa when you can afford it. Or a small shelf unit that can grow with your requirements. I like this kind of modern stuff, but it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.

What I found interesting about the film was that, while Rams’ influence on Jony Ive was mentioned early on, Ive himself doesn’t appear, and Rams makes no comment on Apple’s work. But there is an implied criticism made of excessive consumerism, the inherent wastefulness of insisting on new designs every year, and the ways in which the digital is taking over. He speaks of how sad it is that people walk around with their faces pressed to their screens these days. In not so many words, then, Apple and Jony Ive get short shrift.

While I’d have liked the film to have dwelled more on some of the Braun designs (the lovely watches didn’t even get a mention), it is (probably rightly) more interested in the man himself and his principles, and his slightly grumpy take on the modern world he helped to create.

Recent viewings

The-Good-PlaceSeason 2 of The Expanse (finally) dropped on Netflix UK recently, and I struggled my way through it. Never has Lennon’s line from “A Day in the Life” been more germane. I kept watching, had to look, having read the book, but it was really hard not to give up on it because it was rubbish in so many ways.

Viz: 

  • The script was terrible. You can write this shit, but you can’t say it. Apparently. A perennial problem with filmed science fiction. The protomolecule and the asteroid belt and the thrusters and the vac suits. Somehow, saying it out loud makes it seem silly.
  • The acting was awful. Some really good actors can make something of a terrible script, so long as the story was good. But none of these people are convincing. Some are given too much screen time, others not enough.
  • The story was incoherent, fragmented, and slow moving. Nobody has an FTL drive, but they can hop across the solar system in minutes, when it suits them. Game of Thrones teleportation machine suited the plot in the recent Season 7, but in The Expanse, you just ask yourself what slab of rock people are running around on, and forget why.

Norsemen (Netflix), the Norwegian comedy about Vikings is like the old Chelmsford 123 with a bigger set and costume budget and a lot more gore and swearing. I found it okay, because I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly funny. With low expectations and a tolerance for nasty jokes, violence, and juvenile humour, it was watchable. The other members of my family, however, leave the room when it’s on.

Meanwhile, over on the NowTV box, Tin Star (Sky Atlantic) is a vehicle for Tim Roth, who plays a British cop relocating to that Canada for a quieter life. First episode starts off a little Northern Exposure before becoming something akin to the opening beats of Edge of Darkness. But then the whole thing becomes more like Blue Velvet, and any sense of tight plotting of a story arc deliquesces into apparently improvised scenes in which people do things that make no sense without any apparent motivation other than a thanatic* drive towards self destruction. The series had its moments, but I was left with a strong feeling that ten episodes should have been six.

American Vandal (Netflix) as a mockumentary in the style of Serial or Making a Murderer, only instead of a miscarriage of justice about murder, it’s an act of vandalism: spraying dicks on staff vehicles in a High School staff car park.

Hmm. The problem I find with a lot of American humour is that it descends into scatalogical or sexual references that are probably funny if you’re the kind of person who thinks drawing cocks on whiteboards or exercise books is funny. In other words, this sophisticated parody of a certain style of documentary has a platform problem. It wants us to laugh at the serious treatment of a trivial subject — but it has a serious obsession with the trivial subject and not much else. You can’t really poke fun at these people if you are one of them.

Technically, it’s very good, and it was a good idea, but the dick jokes wear thin, and the point was well made after 3 episodes. There are 8 episodes, and the humour, notwithstanding certain reviews, was not subtle. When a reviewer says “subtle humour”, do they really mean, “not funny”? The twist ending was telegraphed too early on, also.

Finally, I got around to watching season 1 of Happy Valley (Netflix), which is well done but unremittingly grim. Like so much modern TV, it leaves you wishing for some escapism from your escapism, which is why I’m looking forward to The Good Place, which appears on Netflix UK from today.

  • Thanatos = death drive. Eros = sex drive. So Thanatic/erotic?

Notes on Shit Town

Now, I’ve had enough, my box is clean

You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean

From now on you’d best get on someone else

While you’re doin’ it, keep that juice to yourself

Odds and ends, odds and ends

Lost time is not found again

Bob Dylan, “Odds and Ends”

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 17.03.16

Spoilers for S-Town below.

Since the original Serial (and consider this your regular reminder that I listened to it before you did), podcasting has exploded all over again into a smorgasbord of true crime, true stories, true documentaries, true meditations and true history.

Serial itself spawned an array of spin-off shows, with mixed results. The original Adnan Syed / Hae Min Lee story was continued and given more detail and depth by the Undisclosed crew, who (notwithstanding patchy production quality) managed to bring a nitpicking legal rigour to the story that led to a landmark court case. It’s fair to say that Adnan wouldn’t have got his post-conviction hearing without the tireless work of people who picked up the thread abandoned by Serial, once it had reached its concluding shrug of a final episode.

Then there was Serial season 2, which focused on a case (Bowe Bergdahl’s desertion of his post in Afghanistan) that had far less global resonance, and in the end a lot less human interest than they’d perhaps hoped. It too ended on an inconclusive note, and perhaps people started to yearn for a less open-ended style of podcast. It must be hard being Serial.

Meanwhile, true crime stories spring up all over the place, and the recent Missing Richard Simmons tried to create a fascinating mystery over the abrupt retirement of a minor celebrity. Again, the global recognition wasn’t there, and I’m afraid Missing Richard Simmons (which credited three production companies) was being hyped by certain media organisations trying to muscle in on the success of podcasting. (Stitcher)

The second season of Undisclosed was a salutary lesson for the Serial people. Rather than casting the net wider, it focused on another potential miscarriage of justice, this time in a small town in Georgia. Giving the people what they want, in other words. The case of Joey Watkins lifted the lid on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small community, and gave an insight into the aimless and violent lives of American teenagers living on the edge. It demonstrated the sad poverty of outlook and opportunity in such towns, and how ordinary teenage angst and upset can lead to deadly violence in the land of the gun. It also revealed how easy it is to end up rotting in jail, all avenues of appeals used up, even though nobody believes anymore that you committed the crime for which you’re in.

Counting against this second season, however, was the nitpicking detail brought to the case by the team of lawyers, which dragged the narrative into the weeds of 24 episodes. It turns out that 8-10 episodes is a sound length for a pod-umentary. Very few people can stick the course for the full 24.

Which brings us to what might have been Serial Season 3, but which instead has been spun off into its own brand: S-Town, or Shit Town. All seven episodes dropped at once.

It’s focused on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small town in… Alabama. At the beginning, it seems to focus on a possible murder and possible miscarriage of justice (in the form of a cover-up). It features a colourful, larger-than-life character who is flamboyantly (probably) gay in a redneck community, not unlike the missing Richard Simmons had been when he was young. So it seemed to be a mash-up of the original Serial, the second season of Undisclosed, and even Missing Richard Simmons.

But then things take a turn.

At first, as I listened, I thought this was going to be a meditation upon what you might call Broken America, the Deep South of grinding poverty, not just in economic terms, but cultural and aspirational poverty, which manifests itself in racism, sexism, Trumpism. What would it be, the show seemed to be asking, to be an intelligent, educated, liberal in a small town to the south and west of Birmingham, Alabama? And are there corrupt police, and senseless violence and cover-ups and favours and sexual assaults, and a disproportionate number of child abusers?

Then came the turn, and the show became instead about the death by suicide of an individual who seemed complex and strange, a puzzle of a man whose contradictory personality seemed to be embodied in the hedge maze he’d created on his land, a labyrinth with multiple solutions. Who was this man? Was he a millionaire, or was he broke? Did he have gold buried on his land? Did he leave a will? If he hated tattoos, why did he have so many of them? Who are all these people who claim ownership of his stuff?

So then it was about that: a still-interesting, but perhaps smaller story of a life lived in a small town, of a man so depressed at the state of the world that he couldn’t bear it any more, and all the people whose lives he touched.

And then, I think, as I listened to the sixth and then seventh episodes, I came full circle, and decided that the show was about Broken America, and that the central metaphor of the podcast was not this man, or his maze, or his gold, but his profession: clock restorer.

The show’s opening episode talks about the marks left on old clocks by the people who make and repair them: witness marks. And by the end, you understand that this “deep dive” into the intimate life of a lonely and depressed middle-aged man is all about looking for the witness marks of a well-lived life, but also about thinking back to the lost time that is not found again. And then there’s the lost America, the great democratic experiment, which has descended into a mere sketch of the country of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.

As America sinks into its swamp of wilful ignorance and denial of reality, here is the story of a man, a modern-day Ben Franklin, an inventive polymath and raconteur, who tried to face up to the truth but who gave in to despair. And, at this time, at this precise moment, we are all facing this choice. Whether you consider climate change, which is being officially denied by America’s new buffoon of a president; or Brexit; or the erosion of the tax base and the end of social cohesion: there are a great many reasons to despair. And here is a show about a man who got lost in the maze of that despair and then gave into it and killed himself. And the question is, what do we do? How do we bear witness to our times and also live through them?

Sneerial: Season 2

nn_01_jmi_berghdahl_140602I deliberately didn’t post an instant response when Serial Season 2 started. Those who listened to Season 1 from the very beginning were obviously hanging on the release of the new season, and the temptation to react hotly, instantly, and disappointedly (Prometheus style) was strong. I wanted to give it a chance.

On its own terms, Season 2, about Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl, was okay. It’s a high quality production from the same team and it’s not doing anything wrong, per se. But it doesn’t hold the fascination that the miscarriage of justice featured in Season 1 does. Bergdahl deserted his US Army military post in Afghanistan, got captured by the Taliban, and was held captive for five years, but his story didn’t chime with me. He’s certainly a bit of an odd character, but I don’t care about him, nor about the Americans’ misadventures in war.

While the Adnan Syed case was unknown to almost everyone outside Greater Baltimore, the Bowe Bergdahl case was more notorious – at least to some. To be honest, it was as new a story to me as the Season 1 story was, but I’m aware by now that it has been widely discussed in the media, and certain presidential candidates have weighed in with their opinions. I don’t know what other choices they had, but it seems odd to have gone for this.

So there’s that: the sense that Season 2 was raking over ground already ploughed by Big Media, which made it less gripping. Season 1 worked because it shone a spotlight onto a single murder case in a city that sees a couple of hundred homicides a year. In other words, there had been another 2800 homicide cases in that city alone since Syed was jailed. Picking his case out of thousands and making it such compelling listening was a great feat of journalistic detective work, and made you, the listener, feel part of something special. Bowe Bergdahl’s case doesn’t have the same obscure fascination.

Then there’s what happened as Serial started to broadcast. Just as it was building up a head of steam, with weekly episodes at least being listenable and the details of the case starting to get a grip, they decided to swap to a fortnightly release schedule. Obviously, they had their reasons, but any momentum that Season 2 had gained was lost. And we’re up to 9 episodes now (the 10th is out this week), which means it must be nearing the end, but I just don’t feel the same level of anticipation. In fact, I barely notice its releases among all the podcasts I consume.

One interesting side effect of the slightly subdued reaction to Serial 2 has been that the ancillary podcasts that came into being around the original are struggling for relevance. Some, like Crimewriters on Serial just spun off and started to do more of their own thing (such as talking about Making a Murderer instead). The Bowe Bergdahl case didn’t really fit with the Crimewriters On theme, and anything else they discussed was of less interest to me (I didn’t think much of Making a Murderer), so I’ve unsubscribed. Meanwhile, Undisclosed has clearly come into its own when it comes to the Syed case, and has put forward more new evidence in its run than Serial ever managed. With the recent PCR hearing in Baltimore, Undisclosed remained on top of its detail-oriented game, while the Serial updates from the first few days of the PCR seemed detached and superficial.

Meanwhile Season 2 seems to meander around, poking into Bergdahl’s case in sometimes interesting ways, without ever feeling like it’s going anywhere important. While they could have gone for the military and foreign policy jugular, it feels to me like they’ve back pedalled, taking care not to offend the military industrial complex and their supporters.

So it’s a shame, but in retrospect, Serial 1 was something of a black swan, impossible to reproduce, and should have been left in its own unique category. In the meantime, its parent podcast, This American Life has lost a lot of its mojo and really misses those standalone episodes that Sarah Koenig used to produce.

After this showing, I’d be really surprised if Serial spawned a third season. It’s a shame, because now it will be remembered for a failure, which is neither fair nor just. Still, if it means Sarah Koenig is let loose on a wider variety of stories, it will be a blessing.

The State vs. the State vs. Adnan Syed

fax_cover_disclaimerI have of course been following the Adnan Syed post-conviction relief hearing on the Twitter and via podcast updates. These hearings can only take place if the defence team has new evidence to present, which means their scope is very limited, and cannot, for example, continue arguments from the original trial, or include stuff like, hey, the internet thinks Jay was probably lying. It’s interesting to contrast the carefully impartial journalistic updates from the Serial team with the more partisan and personally involved updates from the Undisclosed podcast crew. Less professional, but with more of a stake in the outcome. And do I detect, in the studied way that Serial is ignoring all of the things that Undisclosed has uncovered, a certain chilling in the atmosphere between the two podcast organisations?

So this PCR hearing rests on two bits of ‘new evidence’. The first is an alibi witness who was not called in the original trial, being presented in support of the idea that Adnan’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective assistance of counsel by not including her testimony. The second is a complete rebuttal of the original trial’s cellphone location evidence, which sounds like it might not be ‘new evidence’, except it includes part of an exhibit (a fax cover sheet) that was perhaps deliberately excluded by the prosecution the first time around. This is – possibly – what is known as a Brady violation, which is when the prosecution doesn’t disclose evidence under the rules. What the cover sheet discloses is that the cellphone company, AT&T, included a disclaimer saying that the data was only reliable for outgoing calls. Obviously, if this had been introduced into evidence at the original trial, the whole cell tower narrative would have been called into question.

The alibi witness undermines the original prosecution narrative of the case, which argued that Adnan murdered Hae at a certain point in the afternoon after school. Asia says she saw him in the library opposite the school during the 20 minutes or so that he couldn’t account for previously.

Serial, of course, started with that question: can you remember what were you doing at a particular place/time six weeks ago? The podcast framed this as Adnan’s key problem: because he couldn’t account for about 20 minutes of his time, because he didn’t remember, or he had nobody to corroborate his memory, he was screwed. (My personal theory about why Adnan had such trouble remembering that day is because it’s possible his whole day revolved around either smoking or obtaining weed.) So Asia’s testimony is important because she’s accounting for that time in the afternoon, when Adnan said he was in the Library. Though apparently, he himself didn’t recollect speaking to Asia. (Why not? Weed? You see how it goes.)

So it really was a big fucking oversight that Gutierrez didn’t contact Asia.

But here’s the thing. If Asia’s testimony gives Adnan an alibi for the prosecution’s timeline of the murder, the cell tower evidence completely destroys the prosecution’s timeline, which they painstakingly constructed around their understanding of (selected highlights from) the cell tower data.

If the cell tower evidence is invalid, the timeline is invalid and Asia’s alibi isn’t relevant to it. So it’s not so much the alibi that matters as it is that the original defence counsel didn’t follow it up.

All of which means, in my mind, mistrial, and should certainly lead to a new trial.

But I called this post ‘The State vs. the State’ because, as we all know too well, the State hates to be wrong. The judge sits between Defence and Prosecution but is also a representative of the State, connected to all the other judges who have passed sentence and turned down appeals etc. over the year. The reluctance of a judge to overturn a verdict rendered by colleagues is inherent in the structure. So while the judge might not be personally biased against Adnan, they are going to be biased in favour of the System – because to admit that the System isn’t perfect is to dismantle the State.

In a larger sense, too, the defence is part of the State, because the (perfect) system cannot function perfectly when accused persons don’t have access to a defence. This system, by all accounts, is under extreme pressure both here and in the US, where public defenders, for example, get an average of a few minutes with their clients. As portrayed in a recent episode of the always-zeitgeisty The Good Wife, this means that detained people with no financial support get very little chance of a fair hearing.

This situation isn’t helped by people who sneer at the idea of defence lawyers trying to defend guilty people. The tenor of many of the Adnan Syed trolls on Twitter is that ‘he did it’ and therefore all these liberal campaigners are in the wrong. But the thing is, nobody can be that sure of anything in this case, other than the person or persons who actually murdered Hae Min Lee. If that’s Adnan, so be it, but I don’t know, and nor do any of the internet people who make such strong assertions. The kind of people who get angry when a person is released ‘on a technicality’ are similar to the people who try to justify torture. The State has to be held to account, has to prove the case, and cannot be allowed to conduct themselves dishonestly – even in the name of justice for victims.

The problem with the evidence in the original trial was that it was, on the one hand, constructed and presented by the prosecution in a way guaranteed to mislead the jury in certain ways. They didn’t point out that Jay was getting away with his supposed accessory role. No mention of the Crime-stoppers witness who received an oddly specific amount of money, for example. No mention of how the State’s star witness managed to change his story so many times to precisely match the eventual narrative of the cell tower pings.

The standard of evidence is supposed to be, as any fule kno, beyond reasonable doubt, but though the jury in the original trial were (reportedly) leaning towards not guilty, that at the second trial got an entirely different impression (perhaps because the star witness was more convincing second time around). Now, taking into account the Asia testimony, the doubt now clouding the cell tower data, without even mentioning the possible police and prosecution misconduct, I think we’ve got nothing but reasonable doubt here. Case not proven. No matter what you suspect, no matter your prejudices or theories, there isn’t enough evidence for the conviction to stand.

As to that misconduct, I think that Undisclosed have done a sterling job of uncovering Brady violations, blatant witness coaching (tap tap tap), junk science and a complete lack of effort in pursuing any other suspects, as well as a history (in Baltimore) of similar misconduct in other cases. Whereas Serial finished on a note of open-ended (but reasonable) doubt, I feel that if you followed the case through the incredible detail work of Undisclosed, you’d now be assured that (at the very least) a new trial is what this case needs. It’s a shame, I think, that the family of Hae have to go through this, but their anger should be directed at the police and prosecutors who did such a shitty job all those years ago.

The Ties That Bind – The River Collection

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I’ve written quite recently about The River, and it has been at the forefront of my mind lately, mainly because my younger daughter has grown to love Springsteen, and we have conversations about which is my favourite album. And it comes back to this, the Springsteen album that I got for my 18th birthday, and which was still new and fresh to me throughout the year that followed: the year I left school, left home, experienced life on the dole, the economic realities of the Early Thatcher period.

One of my enduring regrets is that in the summer of 1981, when both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen played in London, and I was offered the chance to see one of them, I chose Dylan. At the time, I loved Dylan more, had loved him for longer, and when there was just enough money for one gig, it was him I chose. That was during his evangelical period, but the news was that he’d lightened up on the concert front and started playing some of the old hits again. I didn’t know then what I know now, which is that a Bob Dylan concert will always be an event, but that he will never play the songs you love in the way you love them to be played. Wanting to see Dylan live was a hangover from my school days; a friend of mine had gone with her big brother to see him on the 1978 tour, maybe the Blackbushe Aerodrome concert, and I remember feeling envious. So 1981 was a way of getting over that, I suppose.

But it could have been Springsteen, that June in London, it could have been Bruce. The Dylan concert wasn’t terrible, but it was indifferent at best, and the next time Springsteen came to London, when I finally got to go, in 1985, it was a stadium gig. It was a different kind of show. I know the lore. From The Bottom Line club days, through to the arena concerts, that was a different vibe. By the time he was playing the big stadia, that was a different kind of show altogether. The sweet spots were the ’78 and ’81 tours: he had so much good material by then, but was also still playing a venue small enough for there still to be a connection with the audience. Back then he catered for the larger audience by playing multiple nights in the same venue. Hard on the band, sure, but such a band.

The 1975 E Streeters were funky and I want to say loose but they weren’t loose in the sense of out of time. They were tight in that sense, but had that soulful swing that went with the flared trousers and the long hair, beards, and floppy hats. You can see them at their best in the Hammersmith Odeon show. Back then, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, and Steve Van Zandt were all fairly new to the band, which was really much more of a backing group for Bruce the frontman. By 1978, supporting the hyper-real Darkness on the Edge of Town, they were hard driving, disciplined, road-hardened rockers. The shows were brilliant, and they were really focused on Bruce and Clarence, the mutual adoration and interplay between those two. By the time of The River tour, this version of the E Street Band had so many miles behind it they could do anything. And the shows were different again: there was Bruce the frontman with impressive sideburns and a quiff, along with his sidekick Clarence, but also, moments when Garry Talent and Steve Van Zandt would bounce down the stage in unison. The entertainment was growing larger to cope with bigger venues, and the breadth and depth of the material was astounding.

The River, as I wrote before, is Springsteen’s best work. This new boxed set attempts to place it in a context: the third in a trilogy, yes, but also an attempt to capture something of the live shows because of that oft-repeated criticism that Springsteen on record was nothing like as good as Springsteen live. Which is saying something, when you consider how brilliant both Born to Run and Darkness are. This was an attempt to capture on disc the sound of the band, with basic tracks recorded ensemble, allowing the sounds of the instruments to mesh together with overspill. The history of music is often a history of the battle between musicians who know how music sounds live, and sound engineers, who want to control everything.

The boxed set does a good job. First of all, you get the aborted single album version of The River, which is packed full of decent songs but ultimately feels thin and insubstantial. Springsteen wanted to include some light and shade, but it just didn’t work at single album length. So he did what he seems to always end up doing: he took it back and went to work again.

Amazingly, there are several songs on the 10-track single album version (“Be True” being the most notable) that didn’t make it onto the 20-track double. You can’t help observing that Springsteen throws away more good songs than most other artists have good songs. Listening to the 22 songs on the Outtakes disc, I was struck by the thought that this album of rejects was obviously better than The Clash’s London Calling, which always seems to make critics’ lists of “best albums”, probably because they wouldn’t want to be accused of ignoring that whole punk/new wave era.

In the accompanying documentary, Bruce laughs ruefully at the notion that he left “Roulette” off The River and instead included the insubstantial “Crush on You”. But he was right, I think, because “Crush on You”, “Ramrod”, “Cadillac Ranch” and others manage to capture the irreverent life-affirming joy of the live shows. The River is an album that captures the struggle and despair of working people’s lives and at the same time includes the escapist, wondrous music that saves those same lives. How is it possible to feel so good and so bad at the same time? Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

So my big issue here is with the documentary. While it’s great to hear Bruce talk about this stuff, and his process, and his struggles with sequencing, balance, and tone, I would also like to hear from some of the other people involved. Springsteen mentions how he kind of deliberately set his perfectionist manager Jon Landau against the Wall-of-Sound advocate Steve Van Zandt, creating a conflict that he could resolve as the one in the middle. When he said that it made me think of the “Classic Albums” documentary about Damn the Torpedoes, and the clash between Jimmy Iovine and Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch. I would like to hear from Miami Steve, the other musicians, from the engineers, from Landau. After all, what happened next speaks volumes.

First of all, Bruce abandoned the band, and the recording studio, altogether in favour of a TEAC home 4-track and the stripped down Nebraska. And then, during the recording of Born in the USA, Van Zandt left the band, to be replaced on the subsequent tour by Nils Lofgren. After that album, it was a long time before Bruce attempted to record with the E Street Band again. So I think there’s a story there about how hard he is to work with, and how frustrating he has always found the recording process.

But there it is. Maybe one day, we’ll learn something more. For now, this is the fourth version of The River I’ve bought/owned. I really wanted this for the live show on the DVD, but the rest of the package is good, too. The photo book is hefty, and there’s also a facsimile of a note book with scribbled and typed lyrics, mostly of songs that didn’t make the cut.

So who is this for? Fifty quid bloke? Fifty-something bloke? Yeah, probably. That’s me. I can’t see this as an entry point for someone, and I’d struggle, actually, to come up with a way in for the genuine newcomer. Anything you might offer as a playlist would be horribly patronising and off the mark. Probably watching some YouTube clips would be the best bet, these days. But how do you make the leap from watching a 5-10 minute clip to sitting through all the albums or a whole show? How did my own 15 year old daughter get into Bruce? He was just there, in the house, in the same way that Frank Sinatra and The Beatles were for me. For the record, she says it was the song “Wrecking Ball,” which she discovered on the iPad and played over and over, and then went from there.

People these days will fall over themselves to get tickets for the live shows, but how many of them are really there for their first experience? What is music, anyway, in 2016? I just… I just… I just don’t know.