Posted in music, musings

Some of me Music

The Proper Stranger. My future brother-in-law got a 4-track cassette recorder, so we started meeting up on Wednesday evenings and recording songs that I’d written. The more we recorded, the more I wrote. It was me and my then best-friend at first, but after a while he gave up on it, probably feeling he was contributing nothing. He was the first one to even write a song, which started me off. Once you realise you can do it yourself: oh. But then he didn’t write any more at all, and I was coming up with a new one (or more) every week. It turned out that, on tape, we sounded very similar anyway.

There’s a drum machine, Curly (Mark Ridout) on backing vocals and guitar, and Pete Austin on on bass. I think I’m just singing on this one. We didn’t have access to Curly very often. We put his amp in the bath for the rhythm part.

Is It Any Wonder? My first song, which was recorded for the 1984 cassette release Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, and then for our 1985 EP, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare. This was recorded onto an 8-track, then pressed onto 500 vinyl 45 rpms. We had to speed up the tempo so we could fit all the songs we wanted on. Thinking back, my major influence at the time was probably Jonathan Richman. The idea was a kind of cool detached, pastiche/homage to old rock ’n’ roll, singing with a smile on my face. That cool detachment is the central characteristic. No real emotion, except that which might be evoked by the lyrics, if you cared. I hated the drum machine sound, and when we played live we had a real drummer (Olivier, who was half French), but we didn’t have the facilities to record a real drum kit. That’s Curly on lead guitar and Pete on bass again.

Sway. About five years after we started the recording project, I ended up with a lot of Pete’s equipment in my back bedroom. By this time it was an 8-track reel-to-reel and a mixing desk. I wrote this one about a girl I was seeing, Sarah, and recorded it just on acoustic guitar in that back room. A few years later, when I was experimenting with computer recording for work purposes (which is how I ended up getting back into it), I got hold of an Adrenalinn, a kind of drum machine, with guitar delay effects. You plugged your guitar in, and it created textures and rhythms based on the drum pattern. So I played “Sway” through it, and then my work friend Simon played some whale sounds on his guitar.

Latest News. I’d started teaching Media Studies, and I wrote this song, which wasn’t based on anything real, just all the different media I was thinking about. It takes you through from news and the BBC and the internet through radio and magazine articles, and then a film. And I recorded it with a selection of the instruments I’d begun to accumulate, and Roy played some guitar on it. His is the laid back rhythm in the left channel. At the time I had a Variax, which had the banjo sound on it, and I had an Ovation mandolin which was pretty cool.

You Don’t Belong. When I was in my early 20s, songs were like diary entries. I would take real emotional stuff that was happening and turn it into simple little songs that didn’t sound like anything much (emotional detachment being my watchword). When I went back to writing songs in my 30s and 40s, I had to dig down deep into memories. This was written about my ex-best friend, and his habit of creating legends about his life, the kind of bullshit I eventually tired of. I saw him from my car once, filling up his motorbike at a petrol station on the A5. It was about 15 years after he’d bored my tits off with his fantasies about emigrating to Australia. And there he was in Northampton, with his characteristic sloped shoulders and his motorbike. Went home and wrote this. Some of the recordings are so vivid I can remember recording every instrument.

The Conversation. In the 80s, I wrote a short story, and then I turned it into a kind of epic poem, which I turned into a song. I used to perform it at poetry readings. It was long and full of detail, quite funny. And then about 15 years later, the original long forgotten, I wrote a 3-minute version of it, what I could remember of it. I still like the guitar on this, and the flow of the lyrics. And every time he repeats. “the one I’d always loved” the meaning changes, until you know he’s singing about how he always picks on unavailable women. Story of my life.

And Then You Fall. This and “You Don’t Belong” were my first experiments with piano sounds. I’d got some kind of amazing plug-in software piano that sounded great. So I started programming one chord at a time into the software and then building on them. I’m also pleased with this because what sounds like some kind of mandolin solo is actually a guitar solo recorded at half-speed and then played back at normal speed. Pete plays bass on this. And then there’s an actual mandolin on there somewhere. I’d edit this to make it shorter if I did it again.

Outside My Window. In my teens, I was kind of in love with my then best-friend’s girlfriend, Linda. I was eaten up with jealousy, which I would never admit to myself of course. I was horrible to her and ended up deliberately cutting her out of my life, hoping all the time that she would say something and we could have it out. But before I did that, we were very close. When I left home and lived in Kent for a while, she wrote to me at least once a week. And she came down to stay one weekend, and we spent a couple of precious days together without him around. I wrote this song about that weekend, and the rest of it. I piled too many instruments into the mix, but it kind of fits because of all the emotions I piled into that relationship. I would get snippets of news about her from him, when I could casually ask without making it seem obvious that I really wanted to know. But he lost touch with her himself in the end, so I lost that lifeline. I regret this almost as much as not being able to whistle with my fingers.

Saturday Night. This has a lazy tempo, but I like it, especially the line, “All those eight o’clock girls, trying to straighten their curls…” Another song aimed at my introverted younger self, for whom Saturday nights in the Saracen’s Head in Dunstable were a form of torture. Fake it for fuck’s sake.

Walking Shoes. I was just playing with song arrangements on this, copying that of a record I liked. This is another “digging deep” one, written about a girl I liked when we worked together in Bejam in Dunstable. She really did used to frighten old men, Juliet. This is a phase when I was capable of some decent guitar because I’d been playing so much.

Everything. You can tell all the ones recorded about the same time: had my Orange guitar amp, and was just recording the sound straight from it. Play with some chords, make up some words. Whoever this was about? Lost in the mists.

Without You. I think I aimed this at my younger self, and the stupid games I used to play when trying to get women interested (qv “Outside My Window”, above). One of the last times I recorded with the mandolin, which I was too rubbish to play properly.

Yours Faithfully. One of the last things I ever did was February Album Writing Month (FAWM), in 2009, maybe? You write 14 songs in 28 days. Easy! Except I never did much justice to the recordings, focusing too much on working quickly. Also, most of my good software wasn’t working anymore, so I had a much more limited set of sounds. But this one I liked, because of the bits about, “There is no ex in loneliness, etc.” It’s about being dumped by text, which people were doing by then, it says here. I used pitch-changing software to add the backing vocal.

Tell Me a Movie. This is another one kind of based on a short story I wrote. This was a FAWM song. Again, I didn’t do the recording justice, and the vocal is not the best. I’m embarrassed by it really, but I still like the idea behind the song. Always thought there were too many verses but couldn’t bear to cut one.

Little Red Riding Hood. As best I can remember, this was the last one I wrote and recorded. Just messing around with different sounds by this stage. One of a series written about my younger, hopeless self. Sold the amp after this, and the electric guitar, which about two years later the kids were really annoyed about.

Posted in Books, musings, Publishing, Review, Writing

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

Posted in bastards, musings

Shut down, log off, fade away

Mini DV TapeWe are surrounded by digital ephemera.

A while ago now, I reactivated the Facebook account (total of friends = 1), just so there would be one place on the internet where you could find me by my actual name. My timeline consisted almost entirely of my Instagram feed. But I hate Facebook, always have, and as Zuck appears to be preparing to run for office (as a Republican, according to one thing I read), it’s time to kill it. So that’s gone.

I still use Instagram. Although owned by Facebook, it’s fairly harmless, and since I stopped using Flickr (destroyed by Yahoo), it’s the only place I upload photos. But my finger does hover over the button sometimes.

I was attempting to put together a Photos book for 2016 the other day, and I had an enormous number of those red warning triangles, because the “original image could not be found”. Massive database corruption in my Photos library – perhaps caused by my use of CleanMyMac. The photos are there – I can export them and re-import them and fix the triangle issue – but the application doesn’t know they’re there. So that is a massive pain in the arse, and brings to stark relief the eternal problem of what is going to become of all our digital photos in 5–10 years. Apart from low-resolution uploads on early Flickr, I’ve got whole clusters of photos missing.

This came up again when I was rewatching my kids’ childhood DVDs a while ago. A couple of years have gone missing, and one of the DVDs wouldn’t play (though I managed to rip the file off it). I noticed an old MiniDV camcorder at work the other day, which nobody (probably) is ever going to use, and it reminded me that I have a case full of MiniDV tapes with my kids’ (unedited) childhoods on, and I have nothing to play them on.

Digital ephemera. We live in a streaming world. Timelines flick by, news churns 24 hours a day, people are up in arms about one thing after another, ricocheting between issues of import and issues of no import as if it were all the same.

I spent half an hour this morning unfollowing a bunch more people on Twitter. People I like and respect, even admire, but I cannot bear to read their political and news tweets, because they make me feel impotent with outrage, powerless, depressed. Muting keywords doesn’t work because things always leak through, and in the end I came to the conclusion that, for the foreseeable future and for my own sanity, I’ll probably end up unfollowing most of the Americans on my feed, and many more besides.

I’ve said it before: complaining on Twitter achieves nothing; the people you need to reach are not on there; it’s not a substitute for activism. Twitter is for jokes, for people-watching, for aphorisms, art, wit, photos, videos, all of that digital ephemera. But it’s not for politics or climate change, or bringing down capitalism or fighting nazis. People get mad about stuff, sure, but never so mad that they put down their phones and do anything.

 

Posted in bastards, movies, Review

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

photoThis 2016 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s first S&A book sank without trace as far as I was concerned. I remember reading about the pointless name change from Titty to Tatty, which smacked of the kind of asinine decision that gets made when there are six separate production companies involved. How anything gets made with so many captains on deck, I don’t know.

I rented it on iTunes, and watched with a kind of fascinated horror – mixed with tearful nostalgia for the books I read as a boy and the 1974 film adaptation (which, for the record, had one production company and one distributor). That version featured my schoolboy crush, Kit Seymour, as the “Ruthless” Nancy Blackett, an actress who appears to have been plucked from obscurity, immortalised on celluloid, and then forgotten by posterity. The children in the 1974 film were, for the most part, cast for their ability to handle a boat rather than their training at some stage school. They were clearly non-actors and yet, for all that, were natural enough in their parts. The magic of film is that you only have to capture that one good take.

To be fair to 2016 Swallows and Amazons, then, it couldn’t hope to compare to that slice of my childhood, even if it had stuck to the fucking plot. But these charlatans, these bunglers, couldn’t even do that. Alarm bells begin to ring almost immediately, in the sequence featuring the children travelling up to the Lake District. There’s some nonsense involving men chasing each other around on the train. It’s as if a drunk editor was editing this film and The 39 Steps at the same time, and got mixed up.

Sure, Arthur Ransome was a spy and adventurer who witnessed the Russian Revolution, but we don’t need that biographical nonsense in the film. Its presence is a clear sign that the producers had nothing but contempt for the material and the audience: what could we do to make this shit interesting? The spy crap continues throughout, taking up valuable screen time that should be devoted to the children and their story, which at times seems so neglected it’s reduced to the status of a sub-plot.

And after all this indulgent espionage peril is spooned into the film, like so much thin gruel, it doesn’t manage to whet the appetite. As one reviewer pointed out, the sequence in which the kids lose their picnic hamper overboard is more gripping, by far, than the attempted kidnap by Russian spies of the Captain Flint character – who could so easily have been left as grumpy uncle novelist trying to finish a book instead of indulging his nieces’ pirate fantasies. The food the children manage to procure, in the hungry 1930s, is such an important part of the story that the loss of the picnic hamper is as devastatingly dramatic as this film manages to be.

Still, there are moments. Or, there is one moment. The discovery of the Swallow in the boathouse had an emotional impact that was squandered by the lack of attention that the film paid to the actual sailing. The shame of it all is that, what you really want out of this is the chance to make some of the other books into films: Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Pigeon Post, The Picts and the Martyrs… there are some really good storylines to be had, and all of the books had really strong female characters baked in, with no retrofitting required.

And it’s with the female characters that this film falls tragically short. Nancy and Peggy get precious little screen time, about which I have mixed feelings. The actress cast as Nancy just seemed completely wrong to me. Wrong colouring, wrong age (in year 11 doing GCSE drama, when picked). In a way, it was a mercy, but Nancy is supposed to be the heart and soul of the stories, so it really matters that they go it so wrong. I don’t blame the actors at all. This was clearly a scrambled mess of a production, made by people with no feel for the stories and no understanding of their appeal.

All I want to do now is watch the ’74, to restore my memories.

 

Posted in Baking, musings

Going off the gluten

img_7427I’m not really the kind of person who would give up something like wheat just because, under my 21st century clothes, I’m still a caveman who didn’t evolve to eat refined white flour. I’m aware of course of the one percent of the population who have a genuine health reason (coeliac disease) not to eat gluten, but I’ve also been peripherally aware of a number of people who have taken to a gluten-free diet for unspecific lifestyle related reasons, in much the same way as one might give up red meat, or go organic.

But, see, I’ve had this eczema-like itchy rash for several months now, and I was at the hospital for a biopsy, and the doctor asked if I had tried giving up gluten.

Well, I said, I cut it out for a couple of days in the summer (because I’d been reading widely about possible causes for my mystery rash), but it made no difference.

A couple of days isn’t enough, she said. You have to go for several weeks at least.

Urgh.

So, okay. I’m giving it a go. It has been a week and a bit, and no change is yet perceptible in the itching. It tends to be worse when my brain’s processor is idle; it’s almost like restless feet in that respect. So I’ve been sitting here thinking, two, three more weeks, maybe. And then I read this:

It is important to appreciate that a gluten free diet may have no effect on the rash for approximately six months and sometimes, even longer.

That sound you hear, like water going down the plughole, is my life draining away. I’ve spent 30 years of my life, for example, perfecting my home-made pizza(s) recipe. I’ve got a 25kg bag of Italian 00 pizza flour in the cupboard and home-made sweet fennel sausage (containing gluten) in the freezer. And I want to cry. Obviously, I can still make it for other people, but not to be able to eat it myself is like (*reaches for grandiose comparison*) Moses not being able to enter the promised land or Jonny Ive not being able to use an iPhone.

The supermarkets are making a lot of money out of the gluten-free crowd. It’s kinda criminal. A teeny tiny loaf of urky bread full of holes costs more than a full-sized standard loaf. A ciabatta roll costing twice as much as a standard one is also half the size. If something costs a couple of quid, the gluten-free version is £1.50 more, and has a weird texture and tastes worse.

So here’s hoping my biopsy result is negative for that thing, that dermatitis herpetiformis thing.

Anyway, I’ve tried quite a lot of gluten free food over the past week or so. Oats for breakfast, and oat biscuits: acceptable. Almost every variety of bread: glop. Pizza: cardboard*. On the plus side: Pieminster chicken pie: good; quiche: also decent. Tesco carrot cake: actually pretty similar to the real thing. So it seems that cakes, biscuits and pastry can be replicated, but anything bread-based is a big fat nope.

*The pre-packed pizza problem is not aided by the fact that I KEEP FORGETTING the damn things are in the oven. They don’t cook like a normal pizza. They seem to use weird cheese that doesn’t MELT, which means I usually end up carbonising it, like the one above.

Posted in bastards, Television

So, Farewell then, Amazon Prime

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I’ve got a few months to run, since I pay annually, but I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription. It’s a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts. Not really. But it is a kind of protest. Here’s why I’m cancelling.

I’ll start with the most concrete reason why: although I’ve had a lot (too much!) of use of the free delivery side of things, I’ve not really accessed the video content much lately. Partly, that’s because it’s not very convenient. I’ve got an Apple TV, which I quite like. It’s got a good interface, it’s reliable and stable, and most of the things I now watch can be accessed through it. But Amazon have dug in their heels and refused to develop an Apple TV app. They’ve got apps for the iPhone and iPad, and you can watch on your MacBook, but they’ve arbitrarily picked on this one device not to support.

I can still throw stuff from my phone onto the Apple TV using Airplay, which works fairly reliably. Problem is, when I do that, I can’t use my phone for anything else. My other way of watching Amazon content is via the shonky app on my (old) Sony Blu-Ray player. The interface on that is terrible, and finding content is painful and slow.

So reason number one is this: Amazon are playing stupid games with Apple and their lack of support for AppleTV is nothing short of malicious.

Will I miss the actual content? Not really. Some of their stuff is okay, but none of it has that hooky, addictive quality that makes you care if you miss it. The show I enjoyed the most, Bosch, is pretty decent, and beautifully made, but it’s not so wondrous that I’d continue to pay for the service, as inconvenient as it is.

In fact, decent and beautifully made is a good descriptor of quite a lot of Amazon’s content. The Man in the High Castle looks incredible, but as far as character and story go, it’s just not that compelling. Red Oaks is pretty good, but I didn’t find season 2 as charming as the first. Then there’s Mr Robot, which is brilliant, and which is must-see TV, but since it’s not actually an Amazon production, I should be able to get it on DVD.

Which brings me to my most petty and childish reason for cancelling my subscription. The biggest ballyhoo Amazon has ever made about its content concerns The Grand Tour, Clarkson and co’s self-indulgent money pit show. Now, I’m sure many people over the years threatened not to pay their TV Licence because of various things Clarkson said or did. I wasn’t one of them, but I came to hate everything Top Gear stood for, so now I’m taking the opportunity to cancel my Amazon TV licence, because I don’t want to contribute one more penny to Clarkson’s lavish Chipping Norton libertarian lifestyle.

This last reason is petty, and if Amazon were to suddenly about turn and produce an AppleTV app, I might think again. But I’ve waited long enough, so the cancellation is in.

Posted in bastards, musings

Kill All Humans

proxima-stephen-baxter-gollanczI’ve been reading Stephen Baxter’s novel Proxima and its sequel Ultima. I’d been prevaricating about these for a while. I always quite like Baxter when I read him, but I don’t quite trust his prolificacy. Let’s take a chunk of time:

  • In 2006, he published Emperor, the first in the Time’s Tapestry sequence, following it with two sequels in 2007 and a third in 2008. Emperor came in at 368 pages, the first sequel 320, and the final two 336 pages each. So that’s 1360 pages in three years.
  • In 2007, he also published Firstborn, the third volume in the Time Odyssey trilogy, a collaboration with Arthur C Clarke, which was 388 pages. And a YA novel, H Bomb Girl, which was a mere 288 pages.
  • In 2008, he also published Flood, which was the first of two books dealing with catastrophic flooding caused by climate change. 548 pages.
  • In other words, between 2006 and 2008, he published works totalling over 2500 pages, and this period of time is not unusual; it’s fairly typical, in fact.

So I didn’t quite trust that these two novels would be any good, coming as they do amidst his multi-volume collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, the Long Earth series, which was concerned with the multiverse, or the idea that we live alongside multiple parallel universes.

At first, Proxima seems like it’s going to be a space colonisation narrative, with the twist that all the colonists have been press-ganged into participation. But there is a parallel narrative about a mysterious source of power (“kernels”) that appear on Mercury, which turns into a story about a mysterious Hatch that appears; and then all of a sudden we’re into Long Earth territory and alternate histories. Huh. Oh, and there are artificial intelligences, some of them robotic.

And it’s all perfectly readable and it rolls along, but it’s a bit of a mess, thematically, and you kind of get disappointed that the characters you invested in at the beginning never really get a chance to develop satisfactorily, or that other characters just appear and then disappear without really doing much.

So in the end, I was probably right to feel wary, but these were library loans, so never mind. This isn’t even a review, not really, but it made me think about some things.

Those robots, those AIs.

There’s a Cory Doctorow story that pokes fun at the idea that you would risk actual humans in human bodies in space exploration rather than constructing robot explorers or using AIs. Imagine: instead of having to develop cryogenics to enable human bodies to travel long distances, you send off a ship and then later on transmit (at the speed of light) an uploaded intelligence into an artificial body or robot in time for the exploration to take place.

Because it seems obvious by now that, where humans can be replaced by robots, they will be. Robots don’t need tea breaks, holidays, sleep, maternity leave, or regular pay rises in line with inflation.

So if you’re a human, and I’m assuming you are, you probably want to be in a profession in which you can’t possibly be replaced by a robot. But what is that, exactly? In Proxima, the colonists are aided by a robot/AI that can make soil, produce genetically engineered crops, offer medical treatments and assist in births. So it’s a farmer, a scientist, a doctor and a midwife. Oh, and it could teach children as well.

I’m a teacher. One of the key pieces of jargon in the profession these days is the word consistency. We all need to be doing the same thing. Managing behaviour in the same ways. Following the same classroom routines, setting homework on the same days, issuing sanctions and rewards. It’s easy to dismiss all this as Emerson’s “foolish consistency” that is “the hobgoblin of little minds”, but of course the agenda is far more sinister.

The latest aspect of the hobgoblin is the idea that, within departments, we should all be teaching the same stuff at the same time. A manager on a tour should be able to visit the classrooms while, say, Year 9 are being taught, and find the same lesson being taught by all the teachers. So as well as following the marking policy and the behaviour policy, we’re all expected to subsume our individuality as teachers and just follow the scheme of work… or the textbook… or whatever piece of courseware the corporate education publishers produce.

The first step is, can we replace expensive qualified teachers with cheap unqualified teachers? That’s easier to do if you have a bunch of pre-made lesson plans and schemes of work. But of course, the end game is, can we replace the warm body in the room with a robot and some software?

Bang.

So: raise a glass to inconsistency, to unpredictability, to not planning, to winging it, to charisma, to the messy, disorganised, impossible to programme, human being in the room.

Posted in Books, entertainment, music, Review, Writing

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (book)

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Elodie got this for Christmas, but she also got Johnny Marr’s book, so I nabbed this to read quickly. I confess, I’d been looking forward to Elodie receiving it.

Springsteen writes very well – you can hear his voice behind the long sentences, full of detail, full of lists and parataxis. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, full of honesty about his early life, his career, and his battles with depression, which seem to have got harder as he’s got older. He doesn’t mention the incident, but what you read herein puts the 30th birthday cake-into-the-crowd hurling into a new perspective.

The best section is probably the one covering his early life, his extended family which had fallen on hard times, and lived in a crumbling house with just one heater. Springsteen’s often described as ‘blue collar’, but that doesn’t really do justice to the crushing poverty and hardship he experienced. He’s very articulate about his father – the figure who lurks in the background of so many of his songs – whose own mental health battles are so much a part of Springsteen’s formation.

He considers himself lucky to have been born when he was, able to experience rock’s first and second waves directly (Elvis and the Beatles, in shorthand), and then to be part of a vibrant local music scene that was driven and inspired by those waves. And when he finds himself, years later, on stage between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, he reflects on how extraordinary it is that he, just one of thousands of young kids to be inspired to pick up a guitar by the Stones and the Beatles, should end up on that stage.

The early life, the early musical experiences, these are the more interesting parts of this book. He spares us, however, the details of his life on the road, or even too much about the months spent in the studio. He mentions key events, key dates, the well-known difficulties he’s had with capturing the right sound (“stiiiiiiick!”), but he doesn’t dwell too much. He does mention that the hardships of his early life with a road band (cruddy motels etc.) were nothing compared to the cruddy environment he grew up in – it was a step up.

I was looking forward to reading about the times he abandoned (and then re-formed) the E Street Band, though he only hints at the reasons why. It seems clear he grew tired of the ‘Daddy’ role that being The Boss entailed, and it’s even clearer that it was the two members of the band who died young that were the source of greatest pain. The chaotic lives of Danny Federici and ‘C’ (Clarence Clemons) seem to have been ongoing issues. Of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, the ones that preceded his first non-E-Street tour, he says nothing.

I lost interest a little towards the end. Maybe because I was reading too fast, but I suspect because of the way this book was written. The chapters are short, full of pleasurable passages, but also saltatorial, jumping from point to point, and sometimes repetitive. He says at the end that he originally wrote it out in longhand, over seven years, and it bears the hallmarks of something that has been written as a series of chunks. From about halfway through, there’s less of a narrative, and it becomes more like a memoir than an autobiography. Here’s the time I met Frank Sinatra. Here’s the time I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the time there was an earthquake. And so on.

But that’s a quibble for someone who likes to read for the plot, and should not detract from the many interesting chapters and sections that the book contains. It’s a great read for the Bruce fan, or for someone interested in the music business, and maybe even for those with an interest in mental health. In his introduction, he hints that the idea of the book is to explain not just how he can get up on stage and play 3+ hour shows every night, but why. And, of course, the why is the more interesting question.

Basel

basel-1We went to Basel. Strange that we’d never been before, because it’s only 88 kilometres (55 miles) away, an easy enough drive. Closer than Strasbourg and Freiburg, about the same distance as Colmar, a little further than Mulhouse. But Basel is in Switzerland, so there’s that.

Anyway, we were thinking of going to the Christmas market in Montbéliard, which is fairly close, but also tough for parking, and someone recommended Basel instead, and an underground car park under some kind of retail space.

We didn’t need our passports. This, in spite of the fact that Switzerland isn’t in the EU, and another reminder that Britain is a shit country with a shitty, xenophobic national character and I wish I didn’t live there. Another piece of good news is that our phones (on the Three network in the UK) continued to have a data connection in Switzerland at no extra cost. The list of countries that you don’t pay roaming charges in on Three is now pretty comprehensive. So Google Maps kept working, and we sat-navved our way into the centre of Basel (Bâle in French), and parked in the underground car park.

One Swiss Franc (CHF) is worth 79 pence, so fairly comparable to the €uro (85 pence). There’s an Apple Store in Basel, so I’ve now realised we could have bought my daughter’s new laptop for 1999 CHF (£1584) instead of £1749. I guess exchange rate smoke and mirrors would take care of the rest. Anyway, some places would take €uros instead of Francs and give you change in Francs, a good deal for them.

But we weren’t there for shopping, and our only transactions were for blow-your-face-off mulled wine, pretzels, and bratwurst. We were there for the market, and the lights, and to wander the streets. I’m assuming there’s one big Chinese town that supplies all the tat for Christmas markets? There can’t be that many artisans making laser cut wooden ornaments and suchlike. We saw truffles for sale at CHF 3.33 per gram (so, um, 33 francs for 10 grams), and enjoyed wandering around the Harrods-like food hall of the Globus department store.

The Christmas market was defended by strategic concrete barriers, and I noticed the police turning away all commercial vehicles from around the area – even a van was not allowed.

Apart from that, what was most pleasant about walking around Basel was the almost complete absence of cars. Trams everywhere, lots of them, quite old-fashioned looking, but charming, and frequent. But everywhere else, you could pedestrian without being molested by the Busy-and-Important motorist types. Now, there are pedestrian zones almost everywhere, but in my experience, you almost never walk down a pedestrian precinct without having to dodge multiple delivery/service vans, and a seemingly endless procession of people who, for whatever reasons, have decided that the No Motor Vehicles sign doesn’t apply to them, and that they are therefore perfectly entitled to drive their car up and down the narrow cobbled streets. Everywhere you go, there are mini Clarksons with sharp elbows and rumbling engines, telling you that they’ll relinquish their cars when you pry their cold dead hands from the steering wheel.

The other really nice thing about Basel was that there were lots of places to sit. I mean, benches and seats and all kinds of sitting-down surfaces were everywhere. And no spluttering exhausts. Sure, your stereotype of the Swiss would have them exceedingly well-behaved, and the streets were remarkably clean and (unlike Berlin) almost graffiti-free, and there were no visible homeless people, all that, but it was just really nice to walk the streets without being annoyed by cars. And cars, as we should all by now have realised, have basically ruined everything. Without cars, everywhere is a nicer place to be. It’s just one of many reasons to look forward to the apocalypse.

 

Posted in musings

The quick and dirty no-cook pizza sauce

pizza-1Readers of The Pizza Bible will know that there is within it an excellent no-cook pizza sauce recipe. If you have the time and the ingredients, it’s definitely worth making.

Some of the time, however, I find I haven’t quite got around to it, and I need to improvise something quickly. This one is quick and easy, but also makes a great sauce. You need:

  • 1/2 a small (350g) jar of Cirio Passata Rustica
  • 1/2 a jar of Sacla sun dried tomato paste
  • Pinch of salt
  • Squirt/glug of olive oil
  • generous pinch of marjoram or oregano

Add everything to a small bowl and then stir it around quickly with a spoon. And that’s it. You need a couple of generous dessert spoonfuls per pizza.