Sunday, 30 October 2016


Well, that was interesting. I searched through the blog looking for a couple of Joni Mitchell posts to paste end-to-end like the previous efforts with Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and it seems there aren't any. That's not strictly true, of course. I have mentioned or invoked Joni Mitchell far more often than either Dylan or Cohen, and also discussed several of her songs, but nearly always as a way of putting something or someone else in context. She is my gold standard, my benchmark, my constant star (but, hey, constantly in the darkness, where's that at?). In fact, there's really only one substantial post I can find, which I wrote way back in 2009.

Rather than simply re-post it, I've modified and expanded it quite a bit. Partly because I think I can write it rather better after these eight years of practice, and partly because I decided enough time has passed to be a bit more forthcoming, for example about the name and fate of the friend who is, I suppose, the true subject of this piece.  Apologies if this one seems a bit long, a bit personal, and a bit self-indulgent, but I think, if nothing else, it's a demonstration of what I suggested about Dylan: that most true fans are not students of a musician's whole body of work, much less their life and deeds, but are people who have used that artist's work in their own lives, selectively, and adapting it to their own needs. It is that personal resonance, and the memory of those resonances, that is the real life and meaning of the music.

Warning: if you are not completely conversant with the Mitchell oeuvre, you may find some of my language in this piece a little odd. This is simply because I have used, unattributed, many bits of the lyrics and turns of phrase from Mitchell standards like "The Last Time I Saw Richard" and "A Case of You". If you really don't have these classic songs by heart, you know what to do.

Songs Are Like Tattoos

I realise that Joni Mitchell is not everyone's cup of tea. Her music is not so much an acquired taste as a hard-wired taste: something you either like or you don't like. Flip or flop, hit or miss, love it or loathe it. As a result, I find I own more copies of her album Blue, in various formats, than is strictly necessary, and have owned several more, simply because I have occasionally made the offer: "Buy it, and if you don't love it, I promise I'll buy it off you." I now know that enough people won't love it no longer to make this foolish offer. I have quite enough spares, thanks. I also realise it's more unusual for a man to have that wiring than a woman. Clearly, most men are idiots, and I don't know what women see in us.

I first heard Blue in the company of a friend's older sister in 1970, and have liked Joni Mitchell, in an on-again/off-again relationship, ever since. "Like" is a silly word to choose, though: I like salted peanuts, single malt whisky, and the Welsh Borders. My appreciation of Mitchell is on a different plane altogether. What word to choose for it? Admire? Love, even? Well, the feeling is rather less than the love I might feel for a real person, one I have actually known in the real world, but definitely includes some of that mix of exasperation and devotion, dedication and repulsion that a real love for a real person inevitably stirs up. So "love" will do.

In fact, long ago I did have a sort of channelled love-affair with Joni Mitchell through the medium of someone to whom I was once very close, and who was also a Mitchell devotee. We met through mutual friends at that liminal age when you have left secondary school, and not yet started a new phase in your life, and we clapped together like two magnets. My home town was, in effect, one enormous council estate, with an unusually "flat" social profile – so much so, we thought our state secondary teachers were rather posh – but the father of my new friend Sandie Gill was a dentist (roughly equivalent to minor royalty, in our universe) and they lived out of town, in one of those satellite villages of North Hertfordshire which the progressive professional middle classes (Orwell's "sandal-wearing vegetarians") had made their own, long before the New Town of Stevenage was ever conceived and built.

To me, at 18, she was simply the most glamorous and intriguing person I'd ever met, from the most upscale family; what I was to her, I have no idea. Before visiting her home, I'd never seen a duvet, or eaten muesli, or – on a memorable occasion I will never forget – drunk fresh orange juice from a litre carton, cold from the fridge on a hot summer's day. Small things perhaps, but a first glimpse of another, more affluent and culturally-open world. To her family, the fact that I was headed for an Oxford college did not render me extraterrestrially weird, merely interesting. There are few things more seductive at that age than simply being accepted for who you are or, better, being seen for who you might become.
It was a rainy night
We took a taxi to your mother's home
She went to Florida and left you
With your father's gun alone
Up on her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see who in the world I might be
Rainy Night House
When she went away to university, a year before me, we would write frequent long letters to each other which riffed on Joni Mitchell themes. I would visit her there at weekends, either alone or with our tight little gang of friends. Those were joyful but also strange and sometimes dark times, when drugs and androgyny had slipped their aristocratic-bohemian leash and gone mainstream, perfectly recalled by the moods of For The Roses, released that year, but also by records like Jackson Browne's first album and David Bowie's Hunky Dory; "Bewlay Brothers" somehow captures it exactly. We got up to some wild times, a lot of which I recall, and a little of which I have chosen to forget, but I found that there was always a melancholy edge when we were alone together.

Gradually that darkness intensified. I think I had always known Sandie was unhappy, that at some level she nursed a deep hurt, but it was dismaying that it seemed to get worse, not better, as time went by. Any number of Joni Mitchell songs express quite precisely the complexity of the conflicted, compacted emotions she always seemed to be struggling with. Once, she copied out these lines from "Lesson In Survival" and sent them to me in a letter:
I went to see a friend tonight
Was very late when I walked in
My talking as it rambled
Revealed suspicious reasoning
The visit seemed to darken him
I came in as bright
As a neon light
And I burned out
Right there before him
I told him these things
I'm telling you now
Watched them buckle up
In his brow
When you dig down deep
You lose good sleep
And it makes you
Heavy company
I will always love you
Hands are like
Magnets and iron
The souls.
And because she struggled, I struggled, too. I was confused. I simply lacked the maturity to disentangle truth from fiction, to tell where Joni ended and Sandie began. It began to occur to me that we might actually be toxic for each other, and that our already slightly odd relationship might be heading for a bad ending.

Nonetheless, she and I went travelling in Europe together in the summer of 1973, through Paris, Rome and Athens, ending up deep in the Greek Islands. It felt as if Ladies of The Canyon and Blue had come to life, although that original party had passed through some years before. There was an outbreak of cholera that year in southern Europe, but we had taken the precaution of getting inoculated and had certificates, so were able to stroll like red-carpet VIPs past a seething mob of angry, uncertificated, would-be travellers held back by armed police, and sailed for Greece on a half-empty ferry, so self-obsessed that we failed to notice that a military coup was taking place.

Although we didn't rent us a grand piano in Rome, we did get invited to crash in a Greek pop star's flat in Athens, who insisted on repeatedly playing us Tubular Bells, that summer's musical sensation. I can never hear its chilly complexities now without being conjured back to that airy apartment, with its ultra-chic interior decoration, a row of bushy cannabis plants growing on the balcony, and the Acropolis tastefully deployed on the horizon beyond.

After some further adventures in Athens and on Mykonos, we arrived at the tiny island of Ios, which was very remote back then. From the port you had to ride a donkey up the steep track to the main village, Chora, where we rented a place without electricity next to a lively bar. Wandering further up the coast, we ended up sleeping on the sand of the (then) even more remote Mylopotas beach, infamous for its casual nudity and, um, party spirit. That beach and its surroundings acted as a sort of quarantined asylum-cum-hostel for the island's youthful blow-ins. There, sitting one late afternoon rather self-consciously unclothed on the sand, in one of those astounding moments that prove everything and nothing, we saw approaching, traipsing along the water's edge, another travelling pair of friends from our home town, the red-haired male half wearing his partner's long red Laura Ashley dress to relieve extreme all-over sunburn. In those days, this sort of improbable encounter somehow seemed expected and inevitable.
Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will
Buy you a bottle of wine
And we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down
Let's have a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let's have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town
I was keeping a journal, convinced, as only an idiotic 19-year old can be, that my biographer would be amused by the cunning way I'd woven together lyrics from Blue with bits of Keats and Shelley. (My biographer?? I know...). I rediscovered it recently, and was disturbed to find large chunks of our adventures had vanished from my memory, like blackouts. It seems that, although we were having the time of our lives, in fact we were also spending a lot of time being scared, bored, or angry with each other. At the end of the summer Sandie had a rendezvous to keep with a penfriend somewhere in France, and I returned home alone, with pockets still dribbling sand, and a strong sense of an ending.

Then off I went to university myself. Court and Spark came out, an album I have never much enjoyed, and it somehow helped to break the melancholy Mitchell-inflected spell I had been living under. Sandie came to stay a couple of times, but we were clearly drifting onto separate tracks. Joni Mitchell still kept me company in my quiet hours, but I was mainly going noisily upbeat and cynical with the likes of Steely Dan, or tripped-out and futuristic with Can, Terry Riley, and jazz fusion. I was intoxicated by a heady mix of political protest, cultural theory, Marxism, anarchism and Zen, argued over and explored late into the night with a cadre of new soulmates, while she, mystifyingly, seemed to have graduated with her ambitions set no higher than waiting tables in the most fashionable restaurant in town. We still both felt obscurely angry with each other, culminating in a bizarre, drunken argument one night in 1977 at an after-hours "lock-in" drinks session at her latest waitressing gig, which ended with me physically ejected onto the street by the owners.
You criticize and you flatter
You imitate the best
And the rest you memorize 
You know the times you impress me most 
Are the times when you don't try 
When you don't even try
Woman of Heart and Mind
And thus came to an end one of the most important friendships of my early life. We quickly lost touch, which was so easy to do in those pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days; a few changes of address was all it took. Besides, I had already met another infuriating-yet-intriguing woman, who was challenging pretty much everything I thought I already knew, and with whom I was having an on-again, off-again relationship of even greater intensity. She, too, liked Joni Mitchell, though – a good sign, I hoped, though I was pre-prepared to bleed.

Still, we're burning brightly
Clinging like fire to fuel
I'm grinning like a fool
Stay in touch
We should stay in touch
Oh! Stay in touch
In touch
Stay In Touch
As to Joni Mitchell's music, boringly, I like the same albums everyone else likes: everything (except Court and Spark) up to and including Hejira in 1977, the recordings of what has come to be known as Joni's "Blue Period". There then followed that big gap when she became entranced by jazz-lite sounds and lost touch, lyrically and emotionally, with the Zeitgeist and her original fanbase. As we fans faltered, broke stride, and hit the sofa or the bottle (ideally both), swapping our wild and shining nights for disposable nappies and kids' TV, Joni glided far overhead, still serenely self-obsessed, "everything first class..."  Her return to form in the 1990s with Night Flight Home and Turbulent Indigo did get me back in the fold, but good as those later albums are, she never quite delivered a classic Late Period to compare with that Blue Period, for me at any rate. Although I was bowled over by some of the orchestral arrangements by Vince Mendoza, and in particular this performance of "Both Sides Now" from 2000. Incredibly, she was 23 when she wrote that song in March 1967, but by 2000 she really had seen both sides, several times over, her voice dropping an octave in the process.

Given how sublime so many of her songs are, it's interesting how little covered they have been by mainstream artists. Other than a couple of early hits, and a few songs from Blue which have become "standards", Mitchell covers are both infrequent and usually unsuccessful. Other singer-songwriters have written songs which others can perform, often better – even idiosyncratic stylists in their own right, like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen – but JM is almost literally inimitable.

The main, obvious reason is her voice. Her unique range and style – full of grace notes and octave-swooping decoration – are integral to her tunes, her phrasing inseparable from the lyrics. It's almost impossible to sing a Joni Mitchell song without a degree of mimicry which amounts to parody. You can't cut them loose from that voice. The estimable K.D. Lang is one of the best and most distinctive singers in popular music, and her album of covers of Canadian songwriters, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, is one of my favourite albums. But even though she can find and reveal the soul of Neil Young's "Helpless" and Leonard Cohen's much-covered "Hallelujah", she fails to own and recast the two Mitchell songs on the album. It can be done, however: this version of "River" by Madeleine Peyroux and K.D. Lang is pretty darn good, and I enjoyed discovering this fado-ized version of "A Case of You" by Portugal's Ana Moura.

Kids today are awash in music, and perhaps undervalue it. It's become a disposable, free commodity. But at the time I fell under Joni Mitchell's spell, I must have owned ten LP records, tops. When Sandie Gill gave me her own copy of Song For A Seagull not long after we met, it was a powerful, definitive gesture. Shared music was important, a declaration of allegiance, a token of affection, a tribal tattoo. As I sit here surrounded by clattering heaps of CDs, with all the resources of Spotify a keystroke away, it's easy to forget how precious it was when we were young.

Youth, of course, is famously wasted on the young. You're free to lay waste your brain cells or rampage on the streets or simply idle away the time, with nothing yet to offer the world beyond your youthfulness and promise, naively unaware of the stake you already have in whatever you happen to be kicking against. Pop music is essentially innocent music, concerned with the pure drives and simple difficulties of the young, and with no time for the grey compromises of age. Singer-songwriters, as the thoughtful wing of rock and pop, are less limited in the range of emotions and issues they can address, but still struggle to escape the confines of the form and find ways to express adult concerns for a mature audience. Joni Mitchell's use of jazz inflections in that "middle period" was a bold move in this direction, but never quite worked – I think she mistook the sizzle for the sausage – but later work like "Two Grey Rooms" or "Nothing Can Be Done" is surely fully grown-up music, matched only by the best work of other long-game survivors like Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne. At her mature best, she stands with those who have understood but not quite reconciled themselves to the cycle whereby certain kinds of reward and regard properly belong to youth (not just love, though love is Mitchell's primary subject and metaphor) but are only truly appreciated (although sometimes too late) in later age. Not surprising, given "The Circle Game" was one of her earliest and most enduring successes.

But, for me (and perhaps for you, too, if you've had a similar journey) Joni Mitchell is now an infrequent indulgence, and almost unbearably poignant. I can hardly listen to, say, "A Case Of You", "The Last Time I Saw Richard", "Emilia", or "Cold Blue Steel & Sweet Fire": they all reduce me to tears or brown-study introspection. This can be very enjoyable, but is not something you want to do in front of the kids.

In the end, the terrible, boring truth is that we seem to be fated to become those socially-compromised characters we despised in the songs we loved when we were young, strong, and single-minded. And, sad to say, virtually none of us will be needing a biographer, however boldly we first set out on our path.
There's a man who's sent a letter
And he's waiting for reply
He has asked her of her travels
Since the day they said goodbye
He writes "Wish you were beside me
We can make it if we try"
He has seen her at the office
With her name on all his papers
Thru the sharing of the profits
He will find it hard to shake her
From his memory
And she's so busy being free.
The Cactus Tree
But a few years ago (actually, I now realise, a whole decade ago) I was curious. Whatever did happen to Sandie? Was she still out there busy being free, or was she drinking at home now most nights with the TV on, and all the house lights left up bright? Lacking any other point of contact, I approached the alumni organisation of the university we had in common, the University of East Anglia. To my profound shock, I discovered that she had died the year before. I was put in touch with a friend, who told me the rest of her story: two marriages, three children, a full and happy life, then a losing fight with a brain tumour. Yes, the friend knew who I was; Sandie sometimes talked about me and her other old friends from home. Did I want to get in touch with the family?

Well, on reflection, no, I thought it probably best not to. What grieving family would want to hear from some guy who all-too-briefly knew the bride when she used to rock'n'roll? It was enough to know that she found her happiness in the end. But songs are like tattoos, and I've still got a few on my arm – faded blue reminders that I, too, once had a Blue Period.

i.m. Sandie Gill1954 - 2005

Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Stranger Comes To Town (On Landscape)

I have published another piece in the online journal On Landscape, "A Stranger Comes To Town". It's pretty much identical with what follows, but please do click through and give the journal some traffic: it's a worthy enterprise with some interesting contributions from dedicated landscape enthusiasts. To see all of everything you'll need to sign up for a paid subscription, but a lot of the articles (like mine) are "free to view", provided you take up a free subscription. I was particularly pleased to make contact with cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose work I admire, in order to get permission to use his strip "The Hills" in my article.

A Stranger Comes To Town

Postcard from Powys: Llynheilyn Lake, March 2016

Someone, it may have been Tolstoy, once claimed that there are really only two stories: "A Person Goes On A Journey", and "A Stranger Comes To Town". This was obviously intended to be provocative, but there is a debatable truth in there, and it strikes me that a similarly reductive provocation might be applied to landscape photography.

A couple of years ago I had an exhibition in Innsbruck, Austria, and on the back of it was invited to do a ten-day residency in the city. I was hardly going to say no, but I did have some serious misgivings. I had last visited Innsbruck as a teenager, hitchhiking in Europe in summer 1972. Forty-two years is a long time between visits, and although mountains are not much subject to change, cities and their inhabitants most certainly are. Not to worry, my host said, we want to see what we look like through your eyes. A stranger comes to town...

Postcard from Powys: Evening Snow at Hiraeth, April 2012

I suppose what troubled me was that virtually all of my previous photography had come from the perspective of a thorough, repetitive exploration of a well-defined "local" territory, and I had come to see this largely self-imposed constraint as a virtue. Sure, some talented stranger could parachute into "my" patch and walk away with some impressive work, but they could never really engage with the true spirit of place, would never see beyond the obvious clichés that I had stopped making years ago. Surely, the story "A Stranger Comes To Town" has to be told from the perspective of the locals, and not that of the stranger? Otherwise, it's "A Person Goes On A Journey", isn't it?

Others, naturally, see their own story very differently. Landscape photography for them is precisely about the stimulus of travel to new locations, the further away and the more exotic the better. Why photograph Hertford, Hereford or Hampshire, where 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen, when you could be in Oklahoma or the South Pacific, or indeed some mountainous place where the hills are rumoured to be alive with the sound of music? And who would disagree that, if you are chasing the "wow" factor, then the story you are telling probably does need to be some version of "A Person Goes On A Journey"? Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore...

Postcard from Powys: Fields near Dolau, April 2012

Postcard from Powys: Valley Fog at Dawn, April 2013

Obviously, one expects and accepts that on holiday – off-turf and off-duty – one's photographs are souvenir snaps, self-made postcards. But this divergence becomes a dilemma for me in my own work, when it comes to photographing in Wales.  My partner and I have been visiting the Welsh Marches every year, now, for over 35 years; ever since, as impoverished students, we started taking advantage of her parents' holiday cottage near Presteigne. I've taken a lot of photographs there. But we're still really just fleeting visitors, holidaymakers returning for a week or two of escape, and we know a very different place to that experienced by the year-round residents. We notice the physical, economic and social changes, but have played no part in bringing them about, and do not have to live with their consequences.

And changes there have been, over those four decades. Sadly, these have often not been for the better. In many ways, the Welsh Borders are a depressed area, trying to cope with the decline in hill-farming as a way of life, a steady loss of population and employment prospects, and a disappointing inflow of income from tourism. It seems not enough strangers are coming to town, and too many young people are going on a journey. Beautiful it may be, with some of the most alluring hill-country to be found anywhere, but the region lacks obvious centres of attraction and offers too few opportunities for lucrative "outdoor leisure pursuits".  Radnor's hills will never rival the Lake District.

Postcard from Powys: Hailstorm over Llandegley Rocks, March 2016

I have often wondered what it must be like to grow up surrounded by all this useless beauty, with little or no prospect of a job, and to long for the bright lights, diversions and opportunities of city life. There isn't even a bus service worth the name. It's clear that very few locals who are not engaged in farming ever venture into the hills. Indeed, a good many of the "locals" are not local at all: they are retirees from the Midlands, local government employees, New Agers, artists and, increasingly, unemployed youngsters from other parts of Wales surviving on benefits in the surplus hotel accommodation in faded Edwardian spa towns like Llandrindod Wells. There is even a small but significant population of Latin American immigrants, a sort of inversion of the fabled Welsh-speaking community that once settled in Patagonia.

But these incomers do nonetheless live there. Talking one night this Easter to the landlord of a pub who had taken over the premises just 18 months ago, having moved into Wales from Surrey, I had the unsettling revelation that in actual elapsed time he had already spent longer in the area than I had; seventy-five continuous weeks versus my sixty or so spread over thirty-five years. He might not yet have a clue about the local history or geography, and may never know very much about where he has fetched up – running a pub is not a job for anyone who values their leisure time – but he already has a greater stake in the local community than I will ever have. Does that also mean that the glorious ridge rising above and behind his pub, which I visit every year, and which he may never find the time to climb, is more "his" than "mine"?

Postcard from Powys: Bright Wet Dawn near Dolau, April 2011

No, of course it doesn't. But the fact remains that Powys is no more "my" turf than Portugal or the Pyrenees; I am a stranger in town, making a regular stop-off from this other journey I'm making. For example, after all these years, I notice I have virtually no photographs of the valley landscape, of the towns, villages, industrial estates and edge-of-town hypermarkets where people live and work; yet I have a rich backfile of photographs of those lovely, deserted hills. They do photograph so well, those hills, and fit so easily into a story I know how to tell, not least because I've seen so many other photographers telling it about other lovely, deserted places. Which may be no more than to say that I am not able to engage with the true spirit of place, or see past the obvious clichés, like that imaginary talented stranger parachuted into what is my own turf. Or, to get really reductive, that what I have accumulated is 35 year's worth of holiday snaps and postcards.

Or perhaps a hill is a hill is a hill, a beautiful backdrop to any story we choose, that belongs to everyone and no-one, but which also has its own mysterious story to tell, unfolding on a narrative timescale that is measured not in weeks, but in geological time. To the hills, we are all strangers, just passing through.

"The Hills", cartoon by Tom Gauld, used by permission

Friday, 21 October 2016


I thought this would happen. Or, more accurately, I hoped it might. Tinkering around with monochrome after such a long engagement with colour photography has turned out to be a lot of fun and – like viewing a scene through a strong red or yellow filter, if you can remember doing that – it has brought out certain qualities and connections in my backfiles that I had either overlooked or failed to appreciate before. In fact – and you probably won't be amazed to read this – a substantial, coherent, book-sized collection of images is emerging, this time around the theme of visiting museums. What, another one? For now, let's call it "museology".

This is hardly an original topic, I know. A very important body of work in my own development as a photographer was Gathering Light, an exhibition by Richard Ross in our own quirky campus art-space, the John Hansard Gallery, which was published by the gallery as a splendid book in 2004. Ross had previously published a book about museum displays, Museology (Aperture, 1989), and developed a compelling way of using the interrupted and refracted light that penetrates into institutional spaces, and finding those ironic juxtapositions that happen where unintended clutter surrounds the intended display. He has subsequently moved on to a very different kind of socially-aware documentary photography, but I remain a fan of this older work. Rosamond Wolff Purcell is the other influence to mention: her published collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould are well worth getting hold of, especially Finders, Keepers (1992), a book about early collectors of natural history. In contrast to Ross, she is unrivalled in the business of constructing a compelling image out of the museum objects themselves. It helps that she has a taste for the bizarre and the grotesque; few people seem to have been drawn, like her, to photograph the transparency and luminosity of preserved, deformed foetuses, for example.

Both of these photographers work with colour; Purcell, particularly, is fastidious in her signature use of light, colour, texture, and composition. Perversely, I have only come to see virtue in my own work in this area by draining out the colour and bumping up the granularity a bit. There is quite a lot of it to consider, too: I have visited and photographed in many museums over the years. I was aware of that already, obviously, but it had never before struck me as a useful thematic connection in and of itself. A lot of the work from my Innsbruck residency, for example, seemed irrelevant to my purposes then, but when transmuted into monochrome and put into the context of other, similar work, it has gained in significance and impact. Similarly with visits to Florence, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, San Sebastian, London, Oxford, Brighton... I may have little to say about the urban realities of those unfamiliar cities, fleetingly visited, but their museums and galleries may be seen as constituting a single, multi-faceted, virtual world, one which happens to be distributed around the globe, but in which I am always on home ground.

Suddenly, I find I have the urge to visit the Natural History Museum in London, something I haven't done for many years. As a "civilian", that is: I used regularly to attend meetings there, behind the scenes, to discuss library automation and related matters in the rather august surroundings of their library and print room. But I don't think I've had a proper look around the collections since taking my son to see the show of animatronic dinosaurs about 15 years ago. I'm prepared for disappointment, though: I'm fully expecting that taxidermy and vitrine displays will have yielded yet more ground to electronica and interactive "interpretation" for school parties.

And it's looking like 2017 may be a year of two calendars...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Leonard COHEN??

While we're in lazy mode and reposting old posts, I thought I'd compile a similar two-fer from even longer ago, that also considers what one of the great singer-songwriters has done for ME lately. This pair address that other contender for the throne, Leonard Cohen.

Dylan himself rates Cohen very highly, placing him at Number One, in fact. Though at the same time placing himself at Number Zero, which probably tells you everything you need to know about Bob Dylan, that big tease.

I suppose some cut'n'pasted vintage thoughts on the true Number One / Number Zero singer-songwriter should follow in due course. She can paint, too, unlike some Nobel laureates I could mention. And I don't mean Günter Grass, who is a brilliant artist (those memorable book cover illustrations? All his).

Anyway, here we go: two more blasts from the past:

Hallelu-You, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma (15 December 2008)

Once, there was this great song by Leonard Cohen. Like a lot of Leonard Cohen songs, it was slightly bitter, slightly angry, but with a huge reserve of irony and resignation in its tank. A quasi-religious song composed by a Jewish Zen monk ladies' man, with an eye for the rip in a famous blue raincoat. My kind of guy.

I first started listening to Leonard Cohen around 1969 on a reel-to-reel tape copy of Songs From A Room and Songs of Leonard Cohen that a friend made for me, and it became a secret vice. It was OK to listen to Joni Mitchell (boys had no idea about Mitchell, and girls were simply delighted that you did) but everyone knew Leonard Cohen was strictly for depressive freaks. Friends would pull his albums out of your box with a whoop of surprise ("Leonard COHEN??"). It's only since other singers have started covering his songs that people have retrospectively added Cohen to the ever-growing list of music they "always" used to listen to (usually the same liars who despised Motown or Atlantic Soul or Reggae at the time, but now claim always to have loved it).

But back to this song. You know the one I mean. It has the clever but tongue-in-cheek rhymes, more than a hint of sexual humiliation, and a magnificent sense of the redemptive value of staying true to your song, even while worshipping something or someone who shows no reciprocity, and whose chief pleasure and aim is to steal your strength and render you powerless. It's quite an adult song, to say the least.

I believe there are over 170 cover versions of Hallelujah. My personal favourite is the one by K.D. Lang, though I can't say I've heard them all. You just know she knows what the song is about. But now... Good grief, now it's going to be a Christmas Number One, as sung by an X Factor contestant. Soon everyone will know this song. Holy shit: will it join that relentless Christmas medley played in supermarkets? Will the ladlefuls of syrup drown the song's bile? Or will the lyrics insinuate themselves and subvert the show-stopper treatment? I fear not: the chorus makes it sound like a hymn, and the biblical references reinforce that impression. It may only be a matter of time before the song's content becomes its own fate.  Tied to a kitchen chair while some warbling choirboy over-enunciates those words originally groaned by Leonard Cohen's world-weary baritone.

Or maybe not: the clever rhymes may yet save it. You can't sing "do you" or "to you" and expect them to rhyme with "hallelujah" – it can't be done, it's got to be "do ya" and "to ya," and that will always have an undermining cutting edge, will resist the attempt to sentimentalise the song or make it polite and proper. There is hope. Hallelujah!

I'm Your Fan (20 June 2009)

Longer-serving readers of this blog may recall the post I wrote back in December 2008 about Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" (Hallelu-You, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma). In it, I proposed that the song inoculated itself against appropriation because of the way the rhyme with "hallelujah" insisted on "do ya," "to ya," "outdrew ya," rather than "do you," "to you," etc. I thought it was a subtle but telling argument, and I admit I was rather pleased with myself.

Well, wouldn't you know? Last night the BBC4 TV channel had a bit of a Leonard Cohen night, and showed several bits of Cohen-iana, including Leonard Cohen Live in London – a 17 July 2008 gig at the O2 Arena (sorry, it'll always be the Millennium Dome to me) from his recent, pension-plan restoration world tour. It was really very good, even though I was continually struck by how much the elderly Cohen has started to resemble not so much a ladies' man as a raffish cousin of William Burroughs (the hat may have had something to do with it). "Suzanne" and "Bird On The Wire" were predictably moving, and I was impressed all over again by the prescience of "First We Take Manhattan." Is it really 21 years old?

But the thing was, when it came to "Hallelujah," he crouched forward and, grinning at the front rows, sang "But you don't really care for music, do you?" Not "do ya" but "do you." I was amazed. No doubt every other fan was stunned, too. All the way through, too. Every verse. No accident; absolutely intentional. Well!

It's almost as if he knew what I was going to write just four months later, and decided to have a little fun. Well, thanks a lot, Leonard.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Who, Where?

OK, that's enough of that, I've put the restrictions back on comments. You wouldn't believe some of the stuff that I've had to mark as "spam" in the last week. Unless, of course, it was you that sent it, which is highly unlikely.

It's been an interesting exercise. Unless there are still some extremely shy (or deeply sinister) lurkers out there, your responses have confirmed – rather to my surprise – that the stats delivered by Google Analytics actually seem pretty reliable. It seems I have a regular core of around 50 visitors, which very occasionally swells to 200-300, but never more. I'm still unclear how far the use of a service like Feedly (which quite a few of you do use) obscures your presence from Analytics, but I suspect not much. It's far from a large audience – I use several email lists which are larger  – but it is what it is. I wish there were more of you but, as my mother used to say, if wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

I have been impressed by how many of you chose not to be anonymous, and was encouraged by the kind and occasionally effusive words you chose to add beyond "regular reader". There were a significant number of such testimonials from regular readers who have been following this blog for many years and yet whose names were completely new to me. It was also a pleasant surprise to hear from some people I thought had drifted away long ago.

But perhaps the most impressive thing is the geographic scatter. Google Analytics can analyse users by location down to city level; here are the top 40 locations for the preceding 30 days (out of a total of 236): I presume most of my "regulars" figure in there somewhere. I've alphabetized the list to avoid creating a league table:
Auburn, Alabama USA
Bakewell, Derbyshire UK
Basingstoke, Hampshire UK
Bellingham, Washington USA
Clifton, New Jersey USA
Crawley, West Sussex UK
Colorado Springs, Colorado USA
Coventry, West Midlands UK
Derry / Londonderry, N. Ireland UK
Dublin, Ireland
Ecublens, Switzerland
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
Essen, Germany
Fort Lauderdale, Florida USA
Geneva, Switzerland
Halmstad, Sweden
Helsinki, Finland
Innsbruck, Austria
Lausanne, Switzerland
Leeds, W. Yorkshire UK
London, UK
Ludlow, Shropshire UK
Lund, Sweden
Manchester, UK
Montclair, New Jersey USA
Montreal, Canada
New York, New York USA
Newcastle, Tyne & Wear UK
Oswestry, Shropshire UK
Parkville, Pennsylvania USA
Pasadena, California USA
Portsmouth, Hampshire UK
San Martin de los Andes, Argentina
Scarborough, N. Yorkshire UK
Seattle, Washington USA
Southampton, Hampshire UK
Sydney, Australia
Toulouse, France
Trier, Germany
Tucson, Arizona USA
Readers from those locations have clocked in at least 10 times in the last month, and many more than that in the more populous locations (e.g. London). Go just a little lower in the list, and locations in India, South Africa, and Mexico start to figure. Obviously, I have no way of knowing who you are, which is why I asked in the first place!

My conclusion is that this is still worth doing, but perhaps at a lower frequency. It is, after all, a useful exercise in itself, and one which I recommend to anyone, to get your thoughts in order, put them into suitable words, and then – crucially – make them public. If you've never tried it, you'd be amazed how radically you will revise some, if not all, of your idiotic opinions when you know 50 other people are definitely going to be reading them. And, in the case of far too few, commenting on them.

My sincere thanks to everyone who responded. Now, that's enough of this meta-stuff; let's get back to business as usual.

Thursday, 13 October 2016


In view of today's leading headline, I have been enjoined by my loyal readership to do something unprecedented: that is, republish two posts from a few years back. Never one to resist the easy route, I'm amazed I haven't thought of doing this before.

Me and Bob Dylan (24 May 2011)

The media are all over Bob Dylan this week, for obvious reasons. But, in case you haven't been paying attention, he turns 70 today. Seventy! He's only gone and won the Nobel Prize for Harmonica!

And in case you really haven't been paying attention, Bob Dylan is a highly-rated but controversial popular music artist, a self-described "song and dance man", who emerged in the New York folk scene in the early 1960s, and came to rapid prominence, partly on the coattails of the Civil Rights movement, and partly due to his uncanny ability to channel the Old Weird America into something poptastically new and strange. Once in the door, though, they couldn't chuck him out, even when he lost interest in being a "protest singer", and he spent the next 45 years annoying, frustrating, enchanting, intriguing, entertaining and generally mystifying everyone and anyone. Yes, that Bob Dylan.

I took the opportunity of watching the second part of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home the other night, as it's there on the BBC iPlayer. It's a superb piece of work, but fails, I think, to explain the Dylan phenomenon, simply because it's an insider's picture (you have to wonder how often the likes of Joan Baez, Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson can stand to repeat their well-honed reminiscences of "Bobbie" to camera one more time). It also reminded me of how viscerally I dislike Pete Seeger. I'd cut his power line with an axe any day. Green corn, green corn... Thwack.

Neither, at the other extreme, does the portrait of extreme head-case Dylanologist A.J. Weberman (Tangled Up With Dylan, also on iPlayer) tell us much about the phenomenon, either, though I think this does get closer. Few, if any, artists have attracted creepy obsessives as much as Dylan has, and continues to do. Brrr... No, the best thing I've heard recently was the BBC Radio 4 programme in the Saturday night "Archive on 4" slot, Bob Dylan and Me, in which performers, writers and even academics who have been influenced by Dylan spoke of their relationship with the music.

This is the whole point, surely: the vast mass of Dylan fans never got to know "Bobbie", or stand on a stage with him, or even shout "Judas" at a concert; they simply knew his albums, inside out, back in the days when a vinyl LP was a statement, an item of contemplation, an event. For every Baez or Weberman, there are a thousand ordinary folk in their late middle age who have had an intense relationship with at least one Dylan album, probably more intense than their early relationships with girl- or boyfriends.

It's curious how often it is only one or two albums. Or perhaps not, given the unevenness of Dylan's output. In my case – and I am far from being a Dylan fanatic – it's Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks. I know most of the other albums released before 1980 pretty well, and a few of those released after, but it's only those two that count for me. Why? Simply because they're the ones I owned, at a time when it mattered.

I know Blonde on Blonde is indispensible to many people, or The Basement Tapes to others, and it sometimes seems that I must at some time have owned copies of Desire and Highway 61 Revisited, but I simply don't care about any of those albums. But the songs on Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks – their lyrics, their attitude, their irony, their wise foolishness – are in my bloodstream. Every note, every inflection, right down to the stoned laughter that breaks up the start of Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, or the bass playing on Simple Twist of Fate.

This is odd, really, because – if I can put it this way – I 'm not aware, at a conscious level, that I have ever really liked Bob Dylan that much. I can't remember the last time I played a Dylan album. But I only have to hear the opening notes of one of those songs to recall the intensity of my relationship with it. Only to forget it again. I think part of it is that Dylan was over, in a sense, before I was old enough to pay attention. He belongs to the over-65s; I have watched several highly-intelligent people of that ur-boomer generation tear up and dissolve into mumbling inarticulacy, trying to describe what those early albums meant to them. Blood on the Tracks – released in 1975 when I was 21 – was a comeback album, for God's sake!

The music aside, though, what is so striking in watching video of old interviews and press conferences, and what may be the true root of his significance, is how far Dylan's modernity as a personality was in advance of the times. Not least here in stuffy, stick-up-the-arse mid-60s Britain. It's embarrassing. You cringe as a pack of plummy-voiced, RAF-moustached reporters ask their wordy, patronising questions. And you wonder as Dylan, like an unflattering mirror, reflects back the absurdity of the literal sense of the words falling from their lips. He is Andy Warhol with attitude. He is a visitor from the future, fey and amused, a real-life Dr. Who.

My favourite moment like this is that press conference in LA in 1965, featured in No Direction Home:
Reporter:  How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers? That is, people who use their music, and use the songs to protest the, ah, social state in which we live today. The matter of war, the matter of crime, or whatever it might be.
Dylan: many?
Reporter:  Yes. How many?
Dylan:      Uh, I think there's about, uh ... 136.
Reporter: You say about 136, or do you mean exactly 136?
Dylan:      Uh, it's either 136 or 142.
Look out, kid, it's somethin' you did – God knows when, but you're doin' it again...

Me and Bob Dylan, Slight Return (25 May 2011)

I remember now. I remember why Dylan seemed less than essential when I turned 14 in 1968. Two simple lists might do it:

List A: Dylan releases:

1967 John Wesley Harding
1969 Nashville Skyline

List B: World events:

1967 list here
1968 list here
1969 list here

From those lists, I suppose I would highlight the escalation of the Vietnam War and anti-war protest, the dangerous nuclear face-offs of the Cold War, race riots in the USA, the events of May '68 in Paris, the RAF (Baader-Meinhof), the "Six Day War" in the Middle East, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shootings of Rudi Dutschke and Andy Warhol, Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Days of Rage, British troops in Northern Ireland ...

It was a turbulent, angry time. People who focus on the "Summer of Love" have no idea what they're talking about. Dylan's turn to quiescent Americana and away from politics at that precise moment in history seemed merely to underline his irrelevance. Radical left politics was on the upturn, and a singer who had formerly seemed a spokesman for radical youth was recording in Nashville with Johnny Cash (not then the apotheosis of Cool he has somehow subsequently become).

I rest my case. I also note that those Wikipedia lists record the first performances of Fairport Convention and Led Zeppelin. One might also note the launch of Island Records' "pink label", surely a defining event in anyone's chronicle of World Events.

A wink from the Queen of Heaven

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


Meanwhile, as we wait for the less frequent regular visitors to clock in (see previous post), here are some frogs.

Museo "La Specola", Florence

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Is There Anybody There?

The first post on this blog is dated 9th October 2008. I started out on this journey merely to see what this blogging lark might be about, and hoping to sustain regular posts for a year. It seemed a reasonable target: beyond that horizon it seemed unlikely that I would have anything worthwhile left to say. This eighth anniversary, 1287 posts later, seems like a good time to review that assumption.

Like many bloggers, I've been noticing a steady decline in the number of daily visits and comments in recent times. I suppose I may finally have run out of worthwhile things to say, but I prefer to believe this has more to do with the overwhelming noisiness and distraction of the Web and social media. A blog like this might be compared to that carousel of belts in a quiet corner of a busy department store: always there if you need a belt, but hardly competing for attention with the storefront display of this season's fashions, much less the electronic gizmos one floor up. No point in complaining: we accessories know and accept our place.

The real scale of this decline is hard to judge, however. As I've said before, Blogger's own stats are totally misleading: apparently I had 3000 visits in just one hour last week, up from a mere three the hour before, and back down to five the hour after...  Yeah, right, спасибо большое, but don't hurry back, Russian robot! Google Analytics isn't (aren't?) necessarily much more accurate, either, though always more reassuringly sober to the pessimistic of mind, and much less plagued by robotic visitors and false accounting.

But I'd really like to get a better sense of how many regular, returning visitors I'm getting, not least to figure out to what extent I am wasting my time here, when I could be writing 2018's Booker Prize winner, or just watching more TV *.

So: help me out here. Here's what I propose:
  • Temporarily, I will allow anyone to comment on this post, including anonymous comments.
  • If you regularly visit this blog (let's say, once a week or more) please submit a comment to this post – anonymously if you prefer – simply saying "regular reader".
  • I won't publish these comments, obviously, merely count them.
  • After, say, a week I'll change the comment settings back to "no anonymous comments".
That's it! Please don't be shy – I really do want to know you're out there. If you are a regular reader, enjoy what you read, and want me to continue, an anonymous, two-word comment doesn't seem a lot to ask.

Naturally, I also look forward to the inevitable flurry of unsolicited testimonials, such as the following:
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I mean, if I can make just one young lady become shiny today, it has all been worthwhile, hasn't it?


* I recently discovered there are eight series of House, M.D. on Netflix, each with twenty-four episodes, each a witty variation of exactly the same plot-line; my favourite kind of TV! And I still haven't got around to watching Breaking Bad... What was I saying about the distractions of the Web?

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

There's Weasels In The Jar

I'm still working on the necessary moves to make convincing monochrome photographs, which amounts, I think, to creating images that at least look like they were conceived in monochrome, and which play to monochrome's strengths. I've also been fighting off the temptation to go down the road that leads to the faking of stained and cracked glass-plate negatives, apparently printed on hand-coated platinum-palladium paper. Although, to be honest, I have nothing in principle against exploring what lies at the end of that road; it's all fakery, after all. It just seem disrespectful to those who go to the (enormous) trouble of doing it for real. As I've said before, the problem is that you're chasing a look that is not native to digital, and the only real guides are your own taste and judgement.

But sometimes colour is simply the best way to convey – and for the eye to appreciate – the full-on surreal beauty of the grotesque. I mean: bottled bats and weasels in a jar? It doesn't get better than that, does it?

Unless, of course, it's a very exotic brand of tequila... I'll have an alligator sunrise, barman, and make it snappy! (sorry...)

Monday, 3 October 2016

Booth Museum

How quickly the three years of a university education fly by! It seems only yesterday that I first made the journey with my daughter along the south coast to Brighton, to the University of Sussex open day for prospective undergraduates. This summer she graduated and I did the return trip for the final time with all her accumulated stuff loaded into the back of the car.

Having no real reason to do that drive again (or desire, the A27 not having become one of my favourite routes across the country) I needed to seize a last opportunity to visit the Booth Museum, something I'd meant to do on every previous visit to Brighton, but always somehow failed to accomplish. Although I will generally go out of my way to visit any collection of stuffed birds and animals and natural history curiosa, I think I was probably fairly sure it would turn out to be small, tatty, over-interpreted for parties of children, and not really worth the effort.

I was pleasantly surprised. The collection is much larger than I expected, deployed in glass cases down two very long corridors, which enclose a couple of small rooms of skeletons, rocks and fossils, and a replica of a Victorian naturalist's living room. Unfortunately the lighting is dim and the angles of view are limited, so I took what photographs I could, and simply enjoyed some classic Victorian dioramas, a form of museum display Booth is credited with inventing. It's a static collection, now, pretty much as bequeathed by Booth to Brighton Council in 1890, but that is what gives it its considerable charm.

What can you say about Edward Thomas Booth, Victorian naturalist-exterminator, other than that his was a splendid example of what happens when a completist head-case is armed to the teeth, and determined to bag at least one of each variation of every feathered thing living on these islands for his collection of taxidermy? The man must have stunk of gunpowder. Mind you, he was also a heavy drinker and, being a bit of a misanthrope, an equal-opportunity exterminator. He is said to have turned his gun on another hunter in the Norfolk Broads for having had the damned cheek to come too close. He even took pot-shots at passing postmen from his home on Dyke Road in Brighton – named by him, would you believe, Bleak House – which is where the museum is now housed.