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.

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