29 June 2007

The End Of The World

No, I'm not feeling especially apocalyptic today; it's just that on my way home from the gym, the old Skeeter Davis tune "The End Of The World" popped up on my iPod. For those of you who don't know the song, it's a particularly plangent tearjerker (Why does my heart go on beating? Why do these eyes of mine cry? Don't they know it's the end of the world? It ended when you said goodbye.) that struck a chord with me when I was a young teenager and which I've loved ever since.

I discovered it, as I did many of my favorite pop songs from the early 60s, while walking my paper route with a primitive transistor radio (twenty times the size of an iPod Nano and delivering only the local AM radio stations through a tinny speaker that somehow managed to sound like Carnegie Hall to my impressionable young senses) stuffed in my bag as I languidly wandered the mostly deserted streets flinging the unloved and unwanted Detroit Shopping News at porches and/or bushes depending on my mood.

I don't know why that song resonated so strongly with me. When I first heard it I'd never been in love or anything resembling it, so it would have been hard for me to identify with the notion that life wouldn't be worth living if some special someone walked out of my life. Star-crossed romance, or romance of any kind, seemed as abstract a concept as traveling to Greenland or Mars; I was much more concerned with getting my hair to stand up the right way and finding the right pair of sharkskin iridescent trousers to wear when hanging out with my gang on Friday night.

But the song stuck with me; when I got my first guitar, I learned to play it and often inflicted it upon anyone unwise enough to remain in the vicinity. Eventually I collected a suitable set of heartbreaks and doomed loves for which it could serve as a soundtrack, but ultimately it was supplanted in the misery department by the more artsy plaints of the Smiths and Joy Division, and became more of a private nostalgia thing for me.

Which was how I took it today, until for some reason I started calculating and discovered that it had been almost 45 years since Skeeter Davis and "The End Of the World" entered my life. I've been having an increasing number of these disconcerting moments lately, wherein I come face to face with a memory that for the majority of people alive today is practically ancient history.

And that in turn gets me ruminating on how much - and how little - has changed. Ipods and cell phones and the internet would have been completely unimaginable to the 15 year old Larry who sang along with Skeeter's heartbreak without having any real idea what it was about, but the feelings of sadness and desperation were as timeless then as they are today. It's odd: in the past, my memories have tended to be vague and romanticized things, subject to much editing and rewriting as the moment or the emotion necessitated, but lately they've been vivid sense memories, including things like how my first cigarette smelled and tasted, or what the sun felt like as it beat down on my back that first day of summer vacation as I headed for the railroad tracks to meet up with the gang.

And most of these memories, the vivid ones, anyway, are coming from those early teen years, just before alcohol and drugs drew a curtain over many of my darkest maunderings, when I was still clear-headed enough to get the full effect of the world I was being cut loose in, and still sufficiently bamboozled by hope to understand the true meaning of desperation.

27 June 2007

Frisco Potheads Hate The Disabled

San Francisco marijuana dealers look to be hoist on their own petard: having, in the wake of Proposition 215, set up numerous quasi-legal dope houses masquerading as "medical dispensaries," they're now facing a city requirement to make those facilities accessible to the disabled.

It's nothing that wouldn't be required of any other new business, and seems particularly appropriate considering that Frisco's potheads have been peddling the line that they are engaged in a humanitarian - albeit highly profitable - mission to provide "medicine" to the sick and suffering, many of whom we'd have to assume would have limited mobility. In reality, of course, most patrons of the "marijuana clubs" are afflicted with no ailment more serious than terminal hippie-itis, and you can't expect them to sit there smoking their "medicine" while surrounded by a bunch of cripples in wheelchairs. I mean, that would be such a bringdown, maan!

26 June 2007

(Almost) Missed The Boat

No, this is not about the Steinways; it's about what almost happened to me on Friday night when I unwisely relied upon New York City's public transportation network to get me to the Weakerthans boat cruise/gig on time.

Not that I had a lot of alternatives: driving/cabbing it would probably have taken twice as long, being that it was the height of rush hour, and apart from persuading a helicopter to pick me up at my house, walking was about the only other choice.

So I trustingly showed up at my local station, allowing 45 minutes to make a trip that might amount to three miles or so. At that hour of the day, trains usually come every 2-4 minutes, so I wasn't anticipating any difficulty until I noticed that the entire platform was clogged with people, many of whom looked as though they'd been standing there for a very long time. The overhead indicator said the next train wouldn't be for another 14 minutes, by which time I figured members of the crowd would be getting shoved onto the tracks by new arrivals trying to force their way onto the platform. Which of course would only delay things further as the train would have to wait while they scraped up the bodies.

On top of that, I reckoned, if every station along the line had a similar number of people waiting to board, the train would be so full by the time it got to us that nobody would be able to get on anyway (this happens quite often during the morning commute, which, thankfully, I don't participate in). But, lo and behold, the train showed up a mere 12 minutes later, rather than 14, and even more wondrously, was only about half full. In fact there were even a few seats available.

Not that they'd do us (or the cause of getting to the Weakerthans show before the ship sailed) any good: the train just ROLLED ON THROUGH THE STATION WITHOUT STOPPING. I suppose the reasoning (assuming any was involved) was that they needed to get trains to Manhattan as quickly as possible so evening commuters could get home. Fine for them, but now there was serious doubt about whether I was going to see the Weakerthans. A few hours earlier, disconsolate because I hadn't been able to find anyone to go with me, I'd been grousing that I might not bother going myself, but suddenly I was filled with rage and regret at the image of the boat fully of happy revelers sailing away while I stood on the dock with my mouth hanging open at the injustice of it all.

When a train finally did show up that also deigned to stop for us, it was completely packed, but I forced my way on board nonetheless. But then it proceeded to crawl into Manhattan, and because there were so many people entering and exiting, each station stop took a small lifetime. I reckoned that at this rate the only way I'd have even a remote chance of making it on time was if the uptown A train arrived almost in the same instant that my train arrived at 8th Avenue, and even then, I'd have somewhere between five and seven minutes to make it from the Port Authority at 8th and 42nd down to the river. Possibly doable if I ran all the way.

Amazingly enough, the A did show up just as I hit the platform, and got me to the Port Authority with a couple extra minutes to spare. But I'd overestimated my running skills, with respect to both endurance and to what amounted to broken field running through rush hour pedestrian and vehicular traffic. By the time I'd got to 10th Avenue I had come close to knocking two people over and being knocked over myself by a speeding cab, and was panting with exhaustion. I got out my phone and tried to dial while running, thinking if I could reach Frank Unlovable, who was waiting in line, that perhaps I could get him to beg the ship's captain to hold back the sailing time for a few more minutes.

But for the longest time nothing came through on my phone except static, and when Frank finally did answer, I was in sight of my destination. A few stragglers were still boarding, and after all my panic and frustration, the boat didn't end up leaving till something like a quarter to seven anyway.

I had been looking forward to watching the skylines of New York and New Jersey (all right, I'm taking some poetic license in the latter case) glide by as I enjoyed the music of the Weakerthans, but the way things were set up, you pretty much had to be confined to a cramped indoor space if you wanted a good look at the band. Oh well, I said to Frank, if it was just a boat ride I was after, there was always the Staten Island Ferry.

The Weakerthans were as sensational as ever, not perhaps in quite the same lean and hungry way they were when I first chanced upon them (actually I was dragged to see them by Grant Lawrence) some nine years ago this month, but what they may have lost in youthful spontaneity was more than made up for by supremely self-assured musicianship and John Samson's inimitable way of combining passion, grace and profundity with his down home/aw shucks manner.

I'd never seen John enjoying himself so much on stage before, and he seemed equally relaxed when he stopped by for a chat afterwards, despite having to field requests for autographs or photos on an average of every 15 seconds. This feeding frenzy of fandom only intensified a few minutes later when Blake Schwarzenbach joined the party. Because of the East Bay/Gilman Street connection, people always assume I know Blake, but in actuality I've only met him twice previous to this, and only briefly at that. So it was a real treat getting a chance to talk with him in a little greater depth, and to discover our mutual love for the Weakerthans.

The one thing about the show that struck a slightly discordant note (literally) was the way the fans tended to drown out the band on some of the quieter songs. I've often remarked at how I've never seen another band where the fans not only know the lyrics so thoroughly (and in the case of the Weakerthans, there are rather a lot of lyrics to know), but also sing them so loudly that at times John could go out for a beer and many people wouldn't even notice. In the past I've found this quite charming, but this time the fans, at least where I stood, resembled a pack of drunken frat boys baying somewhat tunelessly at the moon, which tended to clash with the delicate imagery and melody of songs like "My Favorite Chords" or "Left And Leaving."

Oh well, no live show is ever perfect, and if I want flawless harmonies, I'll just put the records on at home and sing along by myself. No doubt those beer-sozzled vocalists surrounding me at the show felt similarly about their own efforts.

Anyway, that's the Weakerthans, and that was my Friday night. Too bad it took me until late Tuesday to write about it. They're back in New York this autumn, with a brand new record to follow shortly.

22 June 2007

Summer's Always Gone Too Soon

The first full day of summer (the solstice was yesterday afternoon), the longest day of the year, and already there's an autumnal nip in the air.

Actually, summer hasn't gotten properly started so far. There've been a few days here and there when it was genuinely hot (usually days I was stuck indoors for some reason or another), but we still haven't got to the point where I can safely throw all my jackets and sweaters and even long sleeve shirts in a cupboard and forget about them for a few months.

Today, in fact, is genuinely cool, with a stiff wind blowing down from Connecticut or some place similarly chilly; not the best conditions for tonight's boat cruise featuring the Weakerthans, which it looks as though I'll be attending solo, despite having bought an extra ticket for an unspecified someone who I was sure would be thrilled to come along.

Several unspecified someones, actually; I think at this point I've asked at least seven people if they wanted to go and all had "other plans." New York is a city awash in and replete with plans, it's true, but in the darker recesses of my soul I still can't help wondering whether it's me or the Weakerthans that's the offputting factor.

It's up early tomorrow morning, too, for the first day of the MoCCA convention, featuring - at the ungodly hour of 11 am - a Drawn and Quarterly showcase of Anders Nilsen, Kevin Huizenga, and the ever-fabulous Gabrielle Bell. A host of other events await this weekend as well, leaving me little breathing space between now and Monday morning, but I'm still feeling a little flat and melancholic at the thought of summer rushing by so fast and leaving me with nothing to show for it.

What are you supposed to have to show for summer anyway, the rational side of me asks, apart from a suntan and some happy memories (and even the suntan should be dispensed with these days if your dermatologist is to be believed)? At any rate, my angst, my Weltschmerz is more than seasonally related, I suspect, having been building up for some weeks or even months now.

One symptom of it has been a disinclination to write anything here (or anywhere). As many of you no doubt already know, Punk Planet magazine, which I've written a column for since it first launched in 1994, has announced it was shutting down, and I'm kind of ashamed to admit that my first reaction was, "Well, there's one less deadline to worry about." Not my only reaction, true, but my first, almost instinctive one. And it's not as though I've overwhelmed with deadlines, either; the bimonthly one for Punk Planet was one of only a handful I've had to contend with in recent years.

But having had a few weeks to think about it, it finally occurred to me (I'm a slow thinker) that this is the first time in over 20 years that I haven't a commitment to write for some publication or other on a regular basis. And, distressingly enough, the question that insinuates itself into my mind is: does it matter? Do I really have anything to say that isn't already being said and re-said by millions of writers and bloggers and drunks falling off barstools across the land?

I know that when I first published Lookout magazine back in the mid-80s, producing that amateurish little mess of stapled-together xeroxes felt vitally important, as though I had some absolutely essential message that might never get out to the world except through my efforts. What exactly that message was supposed to be, apart from some cobbled-together rehashes of some Dead Kennedys lyrics and Earth First propaganda, I'm not sure, but I never doubted that people needed to hear it.

Now here I am with a good deal more experience and education, and hopefully with some more developed writing skills, wondering if there's anything I can tell you that isn't already being told just as well or better by someone else. Or several someone elses.

I guess the certitude of youth - not that I was exactly a kid in the 80s, either - lends itself nicely to the output of polemics and vituperation which seemed to be what my readers most appreciated in those days (I even got a note from the late great Herb Caen complimenting me on my abundance of vitriol, which he contended journalism needed more of), and I just don't possess that certitude today.

Opinionated, I may be, but my opinions are subject to constant and rapid change in response to new information, whereas during my time as a firebrand and rabble-rouser, I was more wont to follow the old journalist's dictum of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. "Your articles are this crazy mix of truth and made-up stuff, and it's almost impossible to tell which is which," one admirer wrote to Lookout. "It's just like Time magazine!"

Anyway, I've got a pile of stuff on my desk that I've been intending to write about for the last week or two. The usual stuff: hippies, transportation, the Middle East, blah blah blah. I had all sorts of things I wanted to say about them, but not, apparently, enough to actually say it. Maybe I've got to take some time off to really reflect on just what the point of my writing is, or even if there is a point. I mean, it's not as though there's a shortage of writers, is it?

Enough of that; I'm off to see the Weakerthans now on a boat sailing around New York harbor. Despite all my misgivings and self-doubt, don't be surprised if I'm back in a few hours to tell you all about it.

P.S. The title "Summer's Always Gone Too Soon," while having its own appropriateness and pertinence to the subject matter, is also a nod to the song of that name on the new Ben Weasel album, which I believe is coming out in the next few days. Last time I checked, it was being streamed here.

11 June 2007

In The Darkest Depths Of Mordor

One of the things I've missed most about England has been my monthly outings with the West Country Walking Society, and yesterday all six of us were reunited for the first time since last summer, meeting up in a car park in Shaftesbury, Wiltshire, and setting off on a meandering odyssey that took us over hill and dale (following a lengthy ridgetop discussion and a subsequent visit to the internet, I FINALLY - after a lifetime of wondering, learned what a "dale" is), past hundreds of hopelessly beautiful stone cottages and English country gardens, through some stone gateways and tunnels that looked as though they had been there since, well, the Stone Age, past a number of markers and walls with mysterious Latin engravings, including one milepost pointing the way to Sarum, which I momentarily mistook for someplace or someone out of Tolkien until I remembered that it was the original name for the settlement that eventually grew into the town of Salisbury.

Which probably explains why I kept thinking I heard people talking about "Mordor" when in fact it turned out to be Wardour, as in the ruined castle pictured above. It suddenly appeared on the horizon at about five miles into our walk, and loomed larger and larger as the trail wound its way down into the valley until we were face to face with its rather spooky remains. The illusion was slightly dented, however, when we rounded the bend and discovered a large car park packed with tourists and their squalling offspring, many of them clutching wooden swords or bows and arrows (the castle was used a backdrop in Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves and apparently does a brisk business in associated memorabilia).

We'd been looking forward to exploring the ruins, but that was before we discovered it a) was already crawling with visitors; and b) cost £3.40 ($6.80) to enter. So we had a picnic on the front lawn instead and discussed cricket and motor racing, each of which had one adherent among us and varying degrees of ignorance or disinterest among the rest. Several miles later and a potentially perilous trek through a field clogged with cows and the attendant cow muck, we arrived at the Royal Oak pub in the village of Swallowcliffe, where I kept trying to initiate a conversation about chavs and Richard kept - to my bewilderment - shushing me, until I realized the group at the next table were prime specimens - albeit rather well-dressed ones - of the genre.

Our next animal adventure came when a troupe of enormous and very muscular horses surrounded us demanding tribute. Bella passed out carrots, but there weren't nearly enough to go round, and things looked as though they could get ugly, especially with Richard warning that, "At any moment they could decide to take a huge bite out of you." But we escaped over the fence and carried on, Bella's whingeing ("Wouldn't it be much more pleasant and sensible just to drive to somewhere nice and have a picnic?"), back to our starting point near Shaftesbury, arriving eight hours and 13 1/2 miles after we'd started out.

It was a quintessentially English day out, and one of the highlights of my trip. Today I'm sitting under more traditionally gloomy skies (yesterday featured loads of sunshine and almost American-style summer temperatures) here in Bristol, and tomorrow I'll be on my way back to New York. It's also worth noting that yesterdays 13 1/2 miles was the farthest I've done since last year's foot operation, and I did it virtually without pain, so that was a hopeful sign. Today, if Danny gets his journalism work (he writes for one of the national dailies) done, we're off to either the Wye Valley or South Wales. If not, I'll be knocking around the house and looking at the internet, in other words, just like home. Either way, a fine day, and a fine way to conclude my first English holiday as a born-again American.

07 June 2007

Oakland: Going Nowhere Faster As Mayor Remains MIA

Apparently I'm not the only one who sees the parallels between David Dinkins and Ron Dellums: the East Bay Express's Chris Thompson delivers a damning portrait of the new Oakland mayor's disappearing act.

One connection he makes that I'd failed to remark upon was the tendency of both Dinkins and Dellums to flounder about helplessly while looking to state and federal government to come and save their bacon: it's the "look pitiful and hope people will feel sorry for you" tactic which rarely works well for street beggars either, unless they happen to be a lot cuter than the mean and pathetic city of Oakland is ever likely to manage.

While it's always possible to dredge up some forms of financial aid, it will never be enough to effect real change, especially when bureaucracy and corruption will always swallow up the bulk of it. But as Thompson points out, the worst thing about this approach is that it sends a stentorian message to investors and developers that this town has no future, can't guarantee the security of their enterprises, and is best left to the government to run as a semi-permanent underclass reservation.

Back To The Old House

I didn't want to go, but I kind of had to. All this week I've been putting off going past or near my old flat, even taking a circuitous route when I went to Portobello Market so I wouldn't even walk on any of the streets that ultimately led there.

It's been a long-standing tradition/habit/compulsion with me that when I visit a town where I used to live, I walk past not just any houses I lived in, but houses or shops or hangouts where anything of significance happened to me. But for whatever reason, I didn't want to do that during this week in London. Maybe it's too soon, maybe I didn't want to be turned into a pillar of salt, maybe I just wanted to experience London in a different way than I did during all the years I lived here.

But as it happened, it was only my old flat that I ended up avoiding. The rest of the time I trod familiar paths, going to the same gym, the same restaurants and cafes, the same backstreets of Soho, and hanging out with most of the same people. And finally, today, came the day when I could no longer avoid Westbourne Park and the yellow brick semi-brutalist modern block of council flats that I first saw in 1975 when it was practically brand new (and, under the astute management of the council, already beginning to fall to bits), lived in on a part-time basis from the 70s through the mid-90s, and lived in full time (well, apart from my peripatetic globetrottings) since I left Lookout Records in 1997.

I was hoping the new owner would bring me the mail that's accumulated there these past few months, but he lives way out of the way in South London and wasn't up for making a special trip, so it was down to me. I boarded the dodgy old Hammersmith and City Line - also for the first time during this trip - and exited at what used to be my station, only to find that the tenant at the flat hadn't made it home in time after all, and that I would have to kill an hour or two waiting for her.

I spent the first half hour outside the door, making phone calls and musing over just how strange it was that I no longer had a key to the comforts of home on the other side, and what's more, that I had now become one of those mysterious, vaguely threatening characters who sometimes hung around the corridors for no apparent purpose. Several people walked past looking dubiously at me, and a foul little fat girl from the other end of the building started riding her bike up and down the hallway while her mother looked on obliviously.

When I lived there I was forever telling kids off for riding bikes and skateboards in the halls; not only did it destroy the floors, but it made a lot of racket, occasionally knocked over old ladies, and was just plain annoying in that there was acres of pavement right out front for any normal kid to ride on. Plus I was a member of the tenants management committee, and it was kind of my job to remonstrate with people when they ignored the rules and/or damaged the building.

Out of habit I very nearly spoke to the brat, then spent ten minutes debating whether I should, each time getting more incensed as she smugly rode past me, to the point where I was afraid I might deliver a swift kick to her hind end if she came close enough again. I decided - rationally enough, I suppose - that it was no longer my business, and thought it best to get out of the building before irrationality intruded on the scene once more.

I walked down to Portobello Road and strolled slowly from one end to the other of the main drag - the part you'll have seen Hugh Grant striding back and forth over if you happened to watch the film Notting Hill - and grew exceedingly depressed. A little angry, too, though why I should take personally the failings of a neighborhood I no longer live in, I have no idea.

It was just after 8 pm and the place was closed up tight as a drum. Apart from a few pubs and restaurants, mostly colonized by the just-off-work suit-and-tie brigades, the street was deserted. If you're not sure why this should be remarkable, consider New York's Greenwich Village, a rough counterpart to Notting Hill in that both are one-time bohemian enclaves now primarily owned and occupied by the extraordinarily rich and privileged. Would you see all the shops in the Village closed and the streets empty at 8 am? Or 4 am, for that matter? Perhaps if a hurricane or World War III were on its way, but not bloody likely otherwise.

So just what is London's/Notting Hill's problem? I have no idea, but I felt immensely glad that I no longer live there, and made a firm resolution that if I should ever move back to London, it won't be anywhere near W11. Walking back toward my old flat, I saw three teenagers apparently trying to break into the front window of one of the million-pound flats in full view of several passersby and what was more or less full daylight (it doesn't get dark till around 10 pm this time of year). No one seemed to care, so I didn't either.

The tenant at what used to be my flat finally got home and invited me in, despite my initial intention to simply collect my mail and get out of there. I recognized the carpeting I'd installed downstairs and the one or two pieces of furniture I'd left behind, but that was about it: a new paint job, new flooring, furniture, artwork made the place look positively elegant, something I never achieved in all my years there.

She was a fabulously beautiful and incredibly friendly Spanish violinist; we ended up talking for almost an hour, and agreeing that it was ridiculous that the neighborhood should close down even before darkness fell. In Spain, as in New York, street life barely gets started until long after dark, and in fact, she'd finally made up her mind to move away to Berlin, where she could enjoy twice the action at half the price.

That made me sad; the idea of my not living in the flat any longer was made easier by the thought of someone so elegant having taken my place. But I understood her motives and wished her well. She gave me the loveliest hug goodbye despite never having met or seen me before, and I walked down the hall, out the door, and into the Tube station without ever looking back again.

06 June 2007

Ben Weasel, The Leftovers, And The Fest

It's only a month away now, and while I haven't been going out of my way to hype it - not least because it's been sold out pretty much since the day it was announced - the second annual Insubordination Fest celebrating all things pop-punk and wonderful looks to be the event of the year, if not the decade.

Once again situated in the unlikely (and, some might argue, unlovely) locale of Baltimore, this year's event features appearances by more bands than I can easily count, including some that few among us believed might ever grace a stage again. Foremost among these must be the Mr. T Experience and - believe it or not - Ben Weasel, who this month will also be releasing his first record in - well, I could look it up, but you probably know better than I do. Let's just say it's quite a while.

And now the official Fest page has put up a track from the upcoming album, and if you've ever been a fan of any Weasel-related enterprise, you're probably going to want to rush over here and check it out. Along with it you can hear an equally sensational track from the Leftovers' new record and another from the Retarded, a band I'd never heard before but look forward to hearing again. For those of you not lucky enough to be going to Baltimore, my sympathies (though word is that at least you'll be able to savor the entire event on a DVD to be released shortly thereafter); to those of you who are: can't hardly wait!

This Is England?

I'm sure it's just a sign of encroaching age, but I'll have to align myself with the tens of thousands of appalled Brits who are in an uproar over the new logo for the 2012 Olympics as seen at left, for which the taxpayers forked over a not insubstantial £400,000 ($800,000) and which has shown itself capable of driving epileptics (and, I suspect, some non-epileptics as well) into fits.

Cue the usual outrage to the effect of "My eight year old kid could draw something better than that," but in this case, it's very possibly true. Well, not my eight year old kid, as I don't have one, but certainly almost any of the numerous graphic designers I number among my friends could have come up with something better. I've found that as a general rule, the quality of logos is inversely proportional to the amount spent on them, and it will probably be a long time, if ever, before I come to understand how someone can throw a few squiggles on a piece of paper and then say with a straight face, "Here's your professionally prepared graphic design, that'll be 20 squillion bucks, please."

On second thought, I can understand that bit, as there is a never-ending supply of chutzpah in this world, especially in the "artistic" sector thereof, but I'm not so clear on how there can be so many people in possession of so much money and so little sense that such demands of cash for trash actually get paid. Oh, but wait: we're not talking about real money here, we're talking about taxpayers' money, which of course is very real to the people who had to earn and pay it, but completely unreal and unaccountable to those charged with spending it.

Which reminds me of one of the reasons I was glad to get out of England when I did: the enormous boondoggle that is the 2012 Olympics is going to end up costing London taxpayers thousands, probably many thousands of pounds over the next 10 or 20 years, and the bulk of that will be due to the quango and consultant-ridden style of management that maximizes costs, minimizes productivity, evades all forms of responsibility, and which has become inexorably entrenched in this country over the last couple decades.

A similar process can be seen in Tony Blair's much-vaunted "reform" of the NHS: billions spent on talking shops, "blue-sky thinking," and NASA-scaled computer programs that so far haven't even been shown to work. And in much else that is done or attempted in post-modern Britain: the new Wembley Stadium, that came in two years late and £200 million ($400 million) over budget, the Millennium Dome, £750 million ($1.5 billion) worth of nothing that the government couldn't even give away when it reached almost instant obsolescence and ultimately had to pay someone to take it off its hands.

Then there's the national rail network: the country that invented the railroad and installed excellent, still-functioning systems in many of its colonies, can't manage to keep its own trains on the tracks without charging the highest fares in the world for a service that frequently compares unfavorably with the 19th century, and the similar ongoing fiasco of the London Underground. In every one of these cases, the same pattern can be seen: enormous, obscenely wasteful outlays of public money with virtually no accountability, a barrage of bureaucratic bafflegab from the officials meant to oversee these projects, and a blithely British "mustn't grumble" on the part of the long-suffering public.

Nowhere were this nation's diminishing-to-the-point-of-nonexistence expectations more clearly visible than in watching tonight's Euro 2008 qualifier against lowly Estonia. If England failed to win this match (as it has failed to win nearly every other qualifier thus far), it would be out of the competition, going down what onetime manager Graham Taylor called "the same road as Scotland and becoming a second division team in world football." And this the country that invented the game.

The pubs were packed tonight, so much so that I couldn't even get inside and had to watch from out on the pavement, and to see so many Englishmen absolutely desperate for victory in a match that should have been the equivalent of Man United playing a local pub team - and fearful that they might not get it - really put into sharp relief just how substandard a performance people have come to expect - and accept. When a goal finally went in just before halftime, the cheering and celebrating practically blew the windows out into Shaftesbury Avenue, when you'd think fans would have been indignant that it took almost 45 minutes for a several hundred million pounds worth of soccer talent to break down a side ranked #110 in the world.

But never mind, England survived comfortably in the end, and may even struggle though to the quarterfinals again before being handed its semi-annual humiliation, and you know what? For all my griping, and that of the great, grumbling British public, this is still a great and amazing country. The fact that it still thrives and prospers under such incompetent and bumbling leadership should be evidence enough of that; ten years of New Labour doublethink following hard upon 16 years of Tory vindictiveness and malfeasance may have helped turn Britain into one of the drunkest and most violent countries in the developed world, but it's barely dented the basic decency and optimism of what is ultimately and still a green and very pleasant land. I'll be glad to get back to New York next week, not least because I'll be able to wear summer clothes again instead of lugging around several layers of outerwear to be applied and removed at various times of the day, but just as in the old poem, there remains in my heart a corner that will be forever England.

P.S. For those of you who inferred from the header that this post would have something to do with the newish film This Is England, I fully intend to see it and will report back as soon as I do.

02 June 2007

No Sleep Till Brixton

I left New York Wednesday evening, flew all night and landed in London just past 6 in the morning. Wandered around for a few hours, checked into my hotel, poked around on the internet and the cable TV for a while, and finally nodded off for about two hours before rushing out to meet some friends and check out what I guess would qualify as a literary event in the Borders shop in Charing Cross Road.

I don't know why I'm equivocating about it; it took place in a bookshop, involved the selling/promoting/hyping of books, and featured two long-established authors. I guess it's just that the subject was music, or rather the analysis and criticism of music, and it just seemed a bit, oh, I don't know, foofy.

To be perfectly honest, I was expecting a complete load of rubbish, balderdash, codswallop and bollocks, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear some interesting ideas sprinkled in among the usual fare. And to be quite fair, the R, B, C and B ended up emanating more from the audience than the authors, who were Don Letts, who's probably best known for his film documentary of the Clash, Westway To The World or his work with Big Audio Dynamite, and Simon Reynolds, one of those Oxford-educated British music journos who periodically reduce me to teeth-gnashing catatonia with their overegged litcrit theories about pop music (the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones, who's probably the most heinous example of the genre, proves that the Yanks can pull it off too, even without the posh accents).

I was prepared to be more annoyed by Letts for reasons I can't even recall now. Oh, yes I do: it was the way his otherwise excellent documentary Punk Attitude lost the plot in the mid-80s and veered off into Sonic Youth and Nirvana as if they had anything to do with punk rock (read my thoughts on that here). But Letts, who was plugging his book Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers, turned out to be unpretentious, down to earth, and quite likable, despite his occasional tendency to echo my former brother-in-law in rabbiting on about 1970s Notting Hill in highly romanticized terms.

Reynolds, on the other hand, who resembled a 30-something Harry Potter (not bad, since his bio reveals him to be a 40-something Harry Potter), stammered and stumbled through a reading of his own text, Bring The Noise. It seemed odd, considering that on the printed page he can toss off page after page of glib theory with the same cocksure élan that a freeform jazz guitarist tosses off notes, and is only slightly less expansive when speaking off the cuff. I couldn't help but wonder - uncharitably, I'll admit - if the reason he found it difficult to read his own material was that hearing it spoken aloud made him a bit too painfully aware of what utter rot he was talking.

It's not that he's unintelligent - far from it - and I didn't doubt for a moment his sincerity, either. He really, really wants to believe in the power of music to change everything, and like many people who've grown up in some ways and not others (if you're looking at me as you read that, I plead no contest), he tends to oscillate between a desperate desire to prove he didn't waste his youth at all those gigs and a bitterly cynical suspicion that he may indeed have done just that. Also like many muso-journos of a certain age (see again the aforementioned Sasha Frere-Jones), he's all but given up on white people and conflated Rousseau's Noble Savage with the Great Black Hope.

Letts, who's black himself, had a far more reasoned and balanced view: although he's a big partisan of old school Jamaican music in particular, he freely admitted to being a huge fan of overwhelmingly white 60s rock, and unhesitatingly criticized the racism, sexism, homophobia and violence endemic in modern dance hall culture. Reynolds, on the other hand, sheepishly but with a naughty little boy smirk playing across his features, admitted to having a vast collection just that sort of music. Perhaps I'm too quick to judge - after all, the event only lasted an hour - but it seemed that Reynolds was doing that typical overeager white boy thing that starts out saying, "Now we mustn't judge black people's music by the same standards we apply to our own because they're coming from a culture of oppression" and eventually devolves into an Orwellian mantra of "Black music good, white music lame."

Meanwhile Letts was saying that, "In the 70s we knew where Babylon was, it was in the coppers stopping and searching young black men all over London. But today it's not so clear; we've got all this black-on-black crime, so it's like we're getting hit from both sides." It's a good point, only slightly weakened by the fact that there was a lot of black crime in the 1970s too: in fact the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot that Joe Strummer so idealized was triggered by a police crackdown on widespread pickpocketings and muggings by the black youth in attendance.

Then the audience was invited to ask questions, and that's where the real lunacy ensued, with one bedsit philosopher after another ranting about the "commodification of the culture" and how music "really meant something" back during whatever his/her favored period was (ranging from the 50/60s up to the early 80s; unsurprisingly, no one offered the opinion that modern music was anything but rubbish. At this point you'd have thought you were at a convention of old granddads, but most of them were in their 20s or 30s and might not even have been born when the "real" music was being made. Whenever I run into that phenomenon, which these days is rather often, I wonder why during the 1960s there wasn't a cult of wild-eyed young people championing the music of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, but whatever. Strangely enough, I still enjoyed the event quite a lot, and not just because I was punch drunk from lack of sleep. Contrary to what some of you may think, I actually do enjoy hearing other people's opinions.

Then it was off for more hanging out; I got back to the hotel at midnight and stayed up all night reading the PPMB, writing some emails, and, I don't know, listening to the radio or something. I finally fell asleep for a couple hours at about 10 am, and then I was up and about again. Friday night I ran into a whole passel of friends down the West End, ditched them temporarily to watch England play football and almost (but of course not quite) recover some of their long hoped for form by coming within a minute of beating Brazil. My friend Patrick, who both hates football and is Irish (so even if he did care about football he'd be cheering against England) observed, "Why, you're going to have a perfect English weekend. Whatever happens, you'll have something to whinge about."

He was right. Like a lot of people I was half wishing England would be humiliated so they'd finally get a new manager, but at the same time, I was aware that no suitable replacement for Steve McClaren seems to be on the horizon. A victory for England, on the other hand, would mean we'd be stuck with the dire mediocrity that has hung over the national team like a soppy blanket for longer than many fans can remember. So I guess a draw was about right; now we can whinge about how England typically stuffed it up at the last minute again.

Then it was off clubbing, something I rarely do these days, but I went along with an excellent group of friends who, like most of the other excellent groups of friends there, huddled off in a corner talking amongst themselves as if they were the only people there that mattered. But in a very nice and stylish way, of course.

The club was or at least appeared to be a converted whorehouse, with red velvet flocking on the walls and mirrors and chandeliers everywhere. The crowd were a bit more elegant - I mean that in a glammy rather than posh way - than I've been used to lately, but one of our group opined that "Clubs like this are ten a penny in New York," which surprised me, since I'd never seen one. Turns out he'd never been to New York himself, but no reason that should stop someone from having an opinion.

Got home from there at 3am after a battle with Adrian and Phillip over whether to take a cab or wait for the night bus (at £12/$24 for a cab, you can guess which side I was on) (I won, by the way, but only because no cabs showed up and the night bus finally did), and stayed up all night again. At about 8:30 this morning I put my head down and tried to go to sleep, but just couldn't, and shortly before 10, someone underneath my window started what sounds like either a gospel service or a rave, which has now been going for nearly an hour. Anyway, the sun is shining, it's a gorgeous day, and I want to get out and take advantage of it. Hopefully, despite the title of this piece, almost anywhere but Brixton.