Saturday, 7 September 2013

Bread and circuses

God only knows why, but tonight I sat down to eat my delicious dinner, switched on the TV, and found myself watching the steaming pile of shite which is "The X Factor UK." I should've switched to something else immediately (eventually I settled on an unwatched DVD, the excellent documentary "Blank City"), but for some unknown reason, I stuck with it for a few minutes. One hopeless middle-aged Scotsman and one very promising teenage singer-songwriter from Middlesbrough later, there appeared on my screen this man, Colin Stacey.

I recognised him immediately, not only because I've seen him several times recently on the streets of East Dulwich, where we both live, but, more to the point, because we lived across the street from each other for a decade.

Once upon a time, in a different life, I owned a house on the decent part of Upland Road in fashionable SE22, and Colin Stacey lived just across the road, a couple of doors down. He lived with his elderly parents, and seemed to dutifully drive off to some job, somewhere, every day, sporting short hair, a suit, and a briefcase, and always talking to himself incessantly (though inaudibly - maybe he was singing). I never got to know him, because in the many times I passed him on the street, he didn't give the impression that he was particularly open to expanding his social circle.

Now, in 2013, he appears with long hair, a stud in his ear, as a minicab dispatcher with a passion for singing. And unfortunately, no musical talent.

Not that this should matter to the predatory producers of "The X Factor UK." Their sole agenda is to deliver this year's crop of disposable musical heroes, punctuated by a plethora of possibly deluded, almost certainly troubled, and undeniably freakish, audition victims, which the judges, themselves ghastly caricatures of humanity such as Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh, can snigger at.

I think that most people watching the show dismiss all this as an abstraction. It's just some fat loser from Birmingham who has no business in show business, or some sweet, but tone-deaf, no-hoper from Liverpool, who should really just focus on his job as a quantity surveyor. What hit me tonight was the fact that I have observed this man first-hand for many years, and I think he's probably vulnerable. I wonder if he realises he's a figure of public ridicule across a country of 61m people tonight, and how that would make him feel if he knew it.

This is a truly insidious industry, in that Cowell and his minions would, no doubt, only argue that someone like poor Colin ended up on the show because he signed up to audition. Therefore they are innocent. But the mere existence of an audition in this desperate and star-struck economy will inevitably draw all sorts of desperate and hopeless candidates. There's certainly no artistic grounds to show this on TV, and the very fact that it's available to "go viral" on the programme's YouTube channel within an hour of broadcast is a very pointed indication of what exactly is at work here.

So, what's next? Paraplegic children, thrust onto the floor from their wheelchairs, singing "Crawling from the Wreckage," while Ashley Banjo and his crew street dance inventively around their writhing bodies? Maybe Cowell can find a modern equivalent of Joseph Merrick, but with a beautiful voice? Or maybe one of the humiliated tops himself once he realises he's been played like a violin on national television. Cruel and exploitative. I'm afraid it's a "No" from me.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

¡Viva la musica Norteña!

Though I call myself a Memphibian, it is not by birth. My family comes from Texas originally - indeed almost all my extended family still lives there - and I was born in Fort Worth and lived in Arlington until 1970. We then moved to New Haven, Connecticut, for four years, before moving to Memphis. One set of my grandparents lived in the (then) overwhelmingly white northeast Texas, not far from the Louisiana/Arkansas border (the "Ark-La-Tex"), and the other set lived in Fort Worth, which had a significant Latino presence.

Back in the 1970's and early '80's, when we would make fairly frequent trips down to Texas at Christmas time and in the summer vacations, one thing I would look forward to was switching on KTVT, Channel 11, in Fort Worth (which was just around the corner from my grandparents' house, and I thus imagined that the signals were coming directly from there) early on a Saturday evening, and seeing mariachi and Norteño groups performing in the studio, on very low-budget music shows. And there were radio stations which played nothing but cumbias, rancheras, polkas, and all the other styles associated with this music. I remember beach holidays in and around Galveston where I would entertain myself out on the breezy deck at night (this was lonnnnng before the advent of the internet or satellite TV) with my radio, scanning up and down for Mexican stations, and immersing myself in hours of accordion fuelled musical revelry.

This felt very exotic to me, as Memphis, at that point in history, had a Hispanic population which could be counted on the fingers of one hand (this is no longer the case). I thought at the time, and I still do today, that I could listen to this music every day and never tire of it. And there is no better representative, in my book, than Flaco Jimenez, featured in performance in San Antonio (where my Fort Worth grandparents were from) in this segment from the excellent documentary which follows. 

Friday, 30 August 2013

Cruel Summer

I certainly have been very neglectful of my blogs recently, but work and life sometimes just have to override all else. It was just this time last year that I unveiled a project, which I called "About a Girl," which involved my recording 14 songs in 14 days, alone, all written (or co-written) by female songwriters. I had various reasons for doing this, and it was a huge challenge. Just selecting the material was tough, and then there was trying to work out interesting approaches to each song, and then finding a way to execute them, all under self-imposed time pressure. It was a real journey of discovery, and a year later, I'm still very pleased with the result, despite the fact that some of it sounds sloppy and ragged in places. I feel as though I've learned more about how to record effectively with my primitive set-up (GarageBand for iPad), and that the things I do today sound better.

Anyway, at the time, a close friend urged me to continue with the project, make it open-ended, and try to build a live performance around it. I didn't follow his advice (perhaps I should have), but went on to record other things, though I have played some songs from that project live. Now, a year later, and in the same late summer doldrums which inspired the first project, I have resumed the quest, albeit without the self-imposed deadline or any other constraints. I'm just trying to discover interesting material and find a unique way to present it, as and when. I have plenty of interesting stuff on my list of to-do's. Here's what I've done so far.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Swim and Sleep

I like this Ruban Nielson song a lot (well, I like all his stuff a lot), and one day I woke up thinking it might be interesting to try it in 6/8, with more of a sort of gospel feel to it, so that's what I did.

Cambodia 2013

I've ended up working on a project in Cambodia, which I've been fortunate enough to visit twice in the past month. It's an incredible place, and I've come away from my visits feeling pretty deeply affected by it. I find it hard to explain, but the feeling I've had upon returning home both times is one of appreciation for being alive, and for the life I have. Now, for some photos.

Scenes from London life


Archive recordings

I've finally made good on a threat I made some time ago - to transcribe a bunch of old cassettes I've had lying around for years. Some of them are more than 30 years old, and I'm astonished they still play at all. Contained herein are some early recordings I made with my friend, and eventual band mate, Mark Edwards, the first recordings we made with Linda Heck, some live and studio stuff by our first band, Pseudobop (1982 - 84), Kings of the Western Bop (1984), some live tracks from our friends Shagnasty (1984), Linda Heck and the Train Wreck (1987 - 88), some four-track recordings I made of The Marilyns (1988) and a live radio broadcast by The Grundies (1992). Unleash the lo-fi!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

New York - Wimborne

Well, the Adrian Belew video I posted earlier took me right down the rabbit hole, and I emerged on the other side to find this 30-minute documentary about his musical foil, Robert Fripp. Also features a cameo from Andy Summers, during their short-lived "I Advance Masked" collaboration.

Adrian Belew: History & Future of Guitar Noise

One of the most unique guitarists in the history of the instrument, talking guitar history and sound techniques. A very entertaining hour, if you've got one to spare.

Monday, 8 April 2013


In case you missed it, Margaret Thatcher died today. I didn't live in the UK during her reign, but since I arrived here nearly 18 years ago, I've been consistently overwhelmed by the depth of enmity with which she is regarded, even by people I would consider to be fairly normal, certainly not political radicals in any sense of the word. It's a genuinely unique talent to be able to divide a country so definitively for over three decades, to the point of generating public jubilation at one's demise. While many of us from the same generation in the US obviously had disdain for Reaganism at the time, it could never approach the virulence of enduring hatred I have sensed towards Maggie in the UK. Economic history will decide whether she did more good than bad, but from an artistic perspective, she undeniably inspired a huge amount of great work, and this is the greatest example I can think of. I was captivated by this song when I first heard it, and when I saw Elvis on tour supporting this album, this piece was the show-stopper, hands down. Plus, the album version was my introduction to Chet Baker, for which I am eternally grateful.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

New Day

A new video (shot by Price Harrison) from the new album by my friend Mark Harrison (a.k.a. "Snakehips"), who was kind enough to give me a lift home from a wedding reception back in January in Memphis. He is a great guy, and it was a fun ride. I really like the Bucksnort, Tennessee, reference here, though it's almost certainly lost on anyone who has never driven between Memphis and Nashville.

Snakehips "New Day" from Price Harrison on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


I've been thinking for some time of covering a Madonna song, and narrowly avoided doing so on last summer's runaway smash success trans-gender project. There's so much in her work that is crying out for subversion/perversion/inversion, but "Borderline" has always really been my favourite. Until I settled on this song and began researching it, I had been completely unaware of the Reggie Lucas connection (which, sweetly, leads us to Mtume and Miles Davis - isn't life grand?). Anyway, one morning recently, I was lying in bed, less-than-half awake, and in my sleep-addled brain, somehow I formed a connection between this song and Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should've Come Over."

One Sock Missing

Dang! Turn your back for just a moment, and suddenly it's the 20th anniversary of a classic album. The Grifters were either feeling very charitable, or possibly masochistic, when they invited me and a few other primitive/non-horn players to perform on the bonus track (or "bogus track"), "I Arise." Hardly my finest recorded moment, but I do remember it was a fun evening in the back room of the flower shop at Poplar and Mendenhall where Dave Shouse worked as a delivery driver, and where the Grifters rehearsed and recorded. And it was such a nice and talented group of people in that room that night, even if the "Skronkadelic Orchestra Unlimited" didn't cover itself in glory.

I'm reliably told that, in honor of the 20th anniversary of this seminal gem, an individual video for each track on the album has been/is being produced, and here's the first, "Bummer." I miss the Grifters.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Let's Go Back to Bed

A good candidate for universal theme song of the recently unemployed, and I speak from personal experience.

In Memphis, no one can hear you scream

I was a huge sci-fi fan as a child and a young man, but nothing could have prepared me for the release of "Alien." It's one of those films which has been so influential that those who can't remember a time before "Alien" couldn't possibly appreciate just how shockingly different it was at the time. (It even inspired The Clash to appropriate the film's tag line, etching "In space... no one can hear you Clash!" on the inner groove of the "Sandinista!" album.) I saw it with my parents, at either the Paramount or Park Theaters (both of which are long gone) in Memphis, on its first release. My dad was so shocked and scared by the "chest-burster" scene that he hit the floor of the cinema and stayed there until he was convinced the coast was clear. We still laugh about it today. This is an interesting documentary on how the film came into being, though, as with so many great works, it sounds as though there was also every chance that it either wouldn't have been made, or would have been made badly. Imagine a world without this beautiful and terrifying vision of the future.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Rock in Peace, Mick Cock

At the risk of sounding like a boring old git (which, by the way, I am), I think it's entirely true to say that life brings a lot of revelations as one gets older. Some have to do with decisions made which could have been better, others with roads not taken, still others with the often sizeable gaps between what we think we need in life and what we really need, and some with people we should have gotten to know better. The latter seems to be a particularly relevant theme in my own life, and the passing of time, and of a friend, only underlines this. Sometimes we don't have the time, sometimes we don't make the time, and all too often life pulls us in different directions, despite our better judgement.

Today, in Memphis, Michael Cupp, a.k.a. Mick Cock, left this world after losing a hard-fought battle with liver disease. To those who knew him, or his work, I don't need to explain anything. For the other people reading this humble bloglet, the best analogy I could make would probably be a three-way head-on collision between Iggy Pop, George Clinton and a redneck bastard child of Frank Zappa. Even that description is a massive disservice to him.

With the various bands Mike (he was first introduced to me as Mike, and that's how I always knew him) fronted over the years (the ones known to me are Cock Rock [so far ahead of the curve for Memphis, I can't even begin to describe], Four Neat Guys [in which I had the pleasure of playing with him a few times], Eraserhead, Voodoo Village People [the name a brilliant portmanteau of The Village People and the misunderstood Voodoo Village community in Memphis], Florescent Butt Jam, The Menstruls [a drag band in which I was the drummer on one or two occasions], and Whateverdude), there was always a common thread of spectacle, genre satire, self-deprecation, and fairly gentle mockery of others. Some found it offensive at times, but it was never malicious. I tend to think of Mike as court jester, satirizing everyone and everything around him, but typically placing himself in the most absurd context possible.

However, what I observed about Mike's work was that it was always done with the utmost passion and attention. Even though I only played with him a handful of times in the mid-80s and early 90s, my recollection is that he was the first "amateur" or "primitive" musician I ever played with who impressed me as having a genuine sense of professionalism and confidence. As I noted in my post on the Four Neat Guys, whenever Mike was in the mix, the band sounded much better, more together, with greater drive. He wasn't flashy, or pushy, but upon reflection, I think he understood (even at that young age) that he was a natural and extremely charismatic performer, with a very solid musical talent. His sense of humor spoke for itself, as it will now forever, beyond the grave.

Apart from all the obvious reasons to mourn Mike's passing, I have another. In the autumn/early winter of 2009, I was in a bad place emotionally. My marriage had ended, I was living apart from my kids for the first time, I had taken a sizeable financial hit, and my career was in the throes of the financial collapse (as well as a bit of my own lack of judgement). We had become friends on Facebook at some point I can't recall, but I hadn't actually seen him since the early 90s. One day, for some reason still not clear to me, I got an instant message from Mike on Facebook, engaging me in conversation.

Though we'd known each other socially for years in a fairly superficial way, as a function of playing together sporadically, we'd never really had anything resembling a serious conversation, that I could recall. Yet, in 2009, he was on Facebook instant messaging, asking how I was doing, because, for whatever reason, he was concerned. I explained the situation, and where my head was at. He was entirely sympathetic and was similarly open and transparent about the impact of losing his beloved wife Sylvia, and raising their son, Jarek, on his own. He expressed very poignantly how much he loved Jarek, how proud he was of him, and how close the two of them were. And he was reassuring in his message to me, to stay positive and focus on the people and things I loved, and the things in life which I could actually control.

This was all a bit of a revelation for me, because, in my limited exposure to Mike, I'd always thought of him as someone who tended to deflect things through his sense of humor. Maybe that was the case. I will never know, because I didn't know him well, and that's a regret I feel deeply right now. However, at that moment (in truth, it was a number of IM sessions over a few occasions), his kind words and concern, and the strength he'd found in enduring his crisis, gave me a source of strength. Yes, I had very close friends and family around me, doing and saying wonderful things in my time of need; however, in this case, here was a person who had no real investment in me, still reaching out to see if I was okay, and offering what he could by way of consolation.

I was moved at the time, and I am very moved now, and full of regret that I didn't get to know this man better when we were both much younger, let alone alive. I told him that I was due to play a "comeback" show, with Linda Heck and posse, on New Year's Day, in Memphis. This was New Year's Day, 2010, and not only did he come to the show, but he brought me a Whateverdude t-shirt and handed it to me between sets. We had a brief chat, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

I offer my heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, collaborators, and fans.

  Gift from Mick Cock