02 August 2006

The City Of Tiny Lights

The above header could refer to Patrick Neate's City Of Tiny Lights - a sort of Raymond Chandleresque pulp noir with a West London multi-culti twist - which I read earlier this week and greatly enjoyed. But it doesn't, actually; I was thinking more of the view from atop the London Eye, which I finally got around to ascending the other day at what I've always thought would be an ideal time: just past sunset, as London's millions of lights - and yes, from that height, they are indeed tiny - burst into incandescence at your feet and all the way to and beyond the horizons.

As it was, I sort of got dragged along for someone's birthday celebration, but I was quite happy to be. While we were milling around waiting for everyone to get organised and come back from the loo and get another coffee and gossip about the club they went to last night, I overheard an American couple walk by, the female half proclaiming (as Americans are notorious for doing), "26 dollars they want to ride that thing, and you only get to go around once!"

I repeated what I'd heard to the others, exaggerating the cowboy-nasality of the accent as Londoners generally do when imitating Americans, which kicked off a merry bout of American-bashing, during the course of which I acknowledged being a Yank myself. "You are?" said Julia, "But you don't have an accent at all."

This surprised me, especially since Julia's girlfriend is also an American who, even though she's been in England for many years, still retains strong traces of her southern-fried (she's from Georgia) manner of speaking. When I first came to Britain, I was very self-conscious about my own American accent and deliberately tried to modulate it for the sake of fitting in, which often left me sounding like a cross between Madonna and the egregious Loyd Grossman. But as the years went by I thought about it less and less, and while I didn't sound English to most of the natives, neither did I sound American. People most frequently guessed Irish or Canadian.

But lately, even though I've been spending more time in America, and even though my friend Paul complained that I'd pronounced his name as if I were "one of those loud-mouthed New Yorkers," it's not at all unusual for people to assume I'm English, as Julia had done. Why, I don't know; to myself, I sound more American than ever, especially when I talk fast, which I tend to do more often than I should. The irony of it, I guess, is that I've apparently become fully fluent in Britlish just as I'm contemplating leaving the country and returning to the USA for good.

If you'd asked me last week, I would have told you that it was about 95% certain I'd be abandoning London in favour of New York. But that was before my unexpected trip back here, and I must admit this place is going to be harder to leave than I thought. Not just London, either; yesterday I took the train out to Bristol to visit Danny (longtime readers of my Punk Planet columns may remember him as Danny the Anarchist who hedged his bets by speculating on the stock exchange just in case the revolution didn't work out as planned), who recently shattered his leg and kneecap in a paragliding accident. The English countryside was mind-bogglingly glorious, and at every turn I was reminded of places I haven't seen yet, villages I've always wanted to visit or re-visit, and I cursed all the days, months and years I spent moping around the house or mooching around the same old streets when I could have been out exploring England's generally green and more often than not pleasant land. It was a bit like being on one's deathbed and wondering where the hell the time had gone.

The downside of going to Bristol (apart from feeling as though I was on my deathbed) was that I missed out on the chance to get to Brighton last night to see The Leftovers on one of the last dates of their UK tour. I had worked out an ambitious plan where I'd leave London at 9 am, get to Bristol by 11, leave Bristol by 4 and be in Brighton by 7:30, but I didn't tear myself away from Danny and Bella in time, and by the time I left their house, got lost in the twisting, tortuous streets of Bristol ("Just keep going downhill and you'll find the railway station, no trouble," Bella assured me), missed a train by one minute and caught the next one an hour later, only to have it get stuck behind the Toonerville Trolley for the last 80 miles, it was nearly 11 when I got back to London.

I did, however, get to see the Weakerthans tonight at the Mean Fiddler (formerly the London Astoria 2). I was not in the best of moods when I arrived, partly because I'd misjudged the schedule and arrived while the opening act, some German fellow who talked more than he sang, not that I was partial to either, was still in mid-set, partly because I don't especially enjoy the Mean Fiddler. It's kind of like dining at McDonald's: on the plus side, you know exactly what you're going to get every time; on the not so plus side, you know it's going to be basically crap.

Granted, some of this must be because I'm getting old. The charms of being squashed into a cramped space with a thousand awkward, jabbering 20-somethings largely elude me these days, especially when that awkwardness is expressed through chain-smoking and shouting inanities. The clouds of carcinogenic smoke literally billowing up in front of the stage lights had me wondering whether any musical experience could be worth the several hours my life would probably be cut short by breathing that poisonous atmosphere, and railing against the barbarism and backwardness of an English culture that still allows, even romanticises wallowing in toxins as part of a night's entertainment.

Even leaving the smoking aside, I was unimpressed by the crowd. In my eight years of attending Weakerthans gigs, I've come to think of their fans as a cut or two above the average. A tad fey and cloying, true, but that's a hazard with any indie-type audience. But generally they're more considerate, more intelligent, even better looking than you'd find elsewhere. Not tonight, though (nor in New York a couple weeks ago); these largely looked like the sort of schlubs you'd find down the pub in some suburban high street on a random Friday night.

I suppose that goes with the territory of becoming popular, which the Weakerthans definitely seem to be doing. On their last visit to the Mean Fiddler two years ago they played to a small and desultory audience; tonight the place was packed and the fans were singing and shouting out the lyrics as though they were homegrown Winnipeggers one and all. It made me feel a bit more favourably disposed toward them, but looking around, I still couldn't spot a single one I'd want to take home with me, or even go for coffee with afterward. Luckily the band were on top form, and eventually made me forget all my complaints. The set list was virtually identical to what they'd played in New York, which normally might have bothered me, but instead I just marvelled at how much better they played it tonight (New York was good to excellent; tonight was excellent to outstanding). I especially enjoyed watching guitarist Stephen Carroll, not least because he reminds me of one of my other favourite guitar players, Patrick Hynes. Both of them have an understated manner, share a penchant for black shirts and neatly trimmed hair, and a matter-of-fact, seeming almost effortless way of wringing unspeakable magic from their instruments. John K. Samson gets most of the credit for the Weakerthans' greatness, and understandably so, as he's clearly one of the best, if not the very best, songwriters of our time. But what a band he's managed to assemble around him. That's got to be a stroke of genius in itself.

Now it's getting toward four in the morning, I haven't even started to pack my suitcase, and I'm due to leave for the airport at nine am. Pretty much par for the course. I went out to dump the rubbish a couple hours ago and it was damp and cool, with intermittent showers. It felt and even smelt like the North Coast of California, somewhere like Eureka or Arcata, and positively autumnal compared with the heat wave Britain's been enjoying (or enduring, depending on your point of view) these past two months. Apparently it's going to be about 1000 degrees, or at least 100, when I hit New York tomorrow. I can hardly wait.


Sebby Zatopek said...

I was at that Leftovers show in Brighton - it was very good, but very early. They played at around 9:30 and it was all done by just gone 10. We also had the unexpected pleasure of Stefan Stardumb and Foek showing up for an impromptu afterparty!
I was also planning to go see the Weakerthans last night too, but was very tired after the previous night so didn't make it.
See you when you're next back in London.

JoeIII said...

Did you see the FIGHT that broke out at The Weakerthans show in NYC?? Between some guy and girl?? Granted, it was nothing overly threatening, and they both sounded like they had it coming, but I couldn't help but think "Out of every show I've been to, THIS is where the fight breaks out..."

Anonymous said...

Are you in England? You're a lovely writer and I imagine you do that professionally. So here it is, half-two in America, and I'm quite wide-awake as were you, some earlier post. I came across your site by absolute accident, looking for the definition of "wry." I knew it. Just had to be sure b/fore I used it. (Kind of anal that way. *s*) Serendipitous for me. To find such engaging prose at what most might think a rather disengaging time of morn.

All the best... :- )

Katherine said...

Hello, apologies for invading your blog. I was at the London Weakerthans show as well (sorry I didn't measure up to your audience expectations) and I've been trying to find a complete setlist ever since. Any help you could give me with songs you remember them playing would be GREATLY appreciated. E-mail is in my profile, cheers.