Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Seashore out of Season

The last day of September. A strong westerly wind and a darkening sky mean that I have the beach to myself. Up above, I can see a solitary figure trying to light a cigarette outside the hotel. He could be the thin man; if he begins to assemble a telescopic rifle I am in trouble. I can never walk on a deserted seashore out of season without thinking of the closing scene of ‘Get Carter’. Michael Caine, black mac and shotgun, laid low by the sniper’s bullet and the incoming tide engulfing his prone form. But this is genteel, well-heeled Cooden and not the black sands of Blackhall Beach, shifting slag into the sea from the Durham coalfields. As I get closer, the smoker is wrapping himself up in a coat retrieved from a car with a “Love Europe, Hate the EU” sticker. I need not have worried, only my sensibilities were at risk; the biggest threat here is from latent xenophobia.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Best of Times

When Kevin Rowland was living in Sussex in the 1990s, it was perhaps not the best of times for him. To say it was the worst of times is to make a judgement on recreational cross-dressing and cocaine use; but if we judge Rowland purely on the genius of his musical output then his barren sojourn in Brighton must rank as a low. Returning to the city this week with Dexys, now shorn of their nocturnal athleticism, to treat an audience at the Dome to new album, ‘One Day I‘m Going To Soar’, must have been anticipated by him with something of a bitter sweetness.

Dexys Midnight Runners’ three albums from the first half of the 1980s are the stuff of legend: the brassy stomp of ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’, the Celtic soul of ‘Too-Rye-Ay’ and the complex and misunderstood ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’. To release an album 27 years after your last, that is of such boldness, beauty and brilliance only adds to the legend. Stax and Philly-tinged, with Rowland’s strong, stylised voice same as it ever was, and complete with the usual curious vocal tics (“Now, now, now, now, now), the album is incredible. With Pete Williams and Mick Talbot back from the very first album and ever-present Big Jim Paterson, the band is tight and soulful with the drums high up in the mix of an uncluttered “live” sound. With plenty of spoken-word sections and call and response vocals between Rowland and Williams and Madeleine Hyland, the album drifts to the very brink of musical theatre. One of my mates thinks that ‘One Day I‘m Going To Soar’ is “possibly the greatest album ever made”. Strong stuff, but he knows a thing or two about music. What makes it great, he says, is that they mean it despite the fact that they perhaps should not. Failure to make the recent Mercury prize shortlist seems puzzling.

It was well trailed that Dexys’ performance on their current tour would consist of the new album played in its entirety, and in order, followed by a set of classics. This does not prevent a little restlessness from a tiny minority in the audience who have come to hear the hits. But mostly there is a hushed respect and restrained applause as the band go through the album. The songs sound even better live: the vocals soar and the band is inspired. Lucy Morgan’s viola and Big Jim’s trombone combine perfectly to create the wistful power of Dexys’ sound. The conceptual nature of the album comes across with even greater clarity live as Rowland sings to images of Hyland projected on a screen in the build up to their duets on ‘I’m Always Going To Love You’ And ‘Incapable of Love’. When Hyland appears on stage to deliver her powerful vocal performance, her dress alone should walk away with the Mercury prize. And the rest of the band are all sartorial elegance with their Speakeasy/On the Waterfront retro stylings. Rowland starts off in a chalk-stripe zoot suit and fedora, later shedding the jacket to reveal a shirt, the likes of which have not been seen on stage since Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

When the reprise of ‘Free’ finishes off the album and the first set, the audience explodes from its reverence into a wild standing ovation. Rowland is visibly moved, thumping his heart with his fist and declaring over and over “this means a lot” and adding “especially in Brighton”. The band then run through a selection of earlier songs containing only one hit single, a reworking of ‘Come On Eileen’. I think this is a beautiful song but it is almost impossible to extricate critically from its status as wedding reception floor-filler in succession to ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’. What made the second set so pleasurable, apart from the bizarre role play with Williams as a policeman, was the selection of less well known songs that were clearly strong audience favourites. Tracks such as ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’, ‘Liars A to E’ – my personal favourite – and the mighty ‘This Is What She’s Like’ were met with waves of approval and, when Dexys left the stage after more than two hours, the audience were emotionally spent. Whether this was the greatest gig I have ever been to, I am not sure, but what I do know is, it was amongst the very best of times.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Curiosity Shop

A white-coated grocer smiles indulgently and hands provisions across the shop counter to a tall be-hatted figure. The customer is dark-coated and his smile is less easy to read: not full enough, and obscured by the broad ebony striations of his face, he has a look of hesitancy at this scene choreographed by a Brownie-wielding photographer. It is the early 1950s and the keeper of the Ripe village shop and Horace Ridler are illustrating a story on the villagers’ acceptance of a curiosity in their midst.

I saw that photograph and article a few years ago in a local newspaper’s archive. Quite why the most famous tattooed man of the twentieth century – or of all time – chose to live in East Sussex, it did not say; many of the details of Ridler’s life are vague or lost. But what is known is that Horace Ridler, better known as the Great Omi or the Zebra Man, retired at the height of his fame in 1950 to a caravan park in Deanland, between Golden Cross and Ripe. Only 10 years earlier he had been touring America with the Barnum and Bailey circus and was reputed to be the world’s highest paid showman.

Ridler was born into a wealthy family in 1892 and, as a young man, was commissioned as an officer in the army. He had inherited, but quickly frittered away, his father’s wealth before the age of 22, when he left Britain for active service in the First World War. Despite experiencing some of the horrors of the Mesopotamia campaign, Ridler survived and was demobbed at the end of the war with a small pension and the problem of how to earn a living.

Acquiring some crude pictorial tattoos, Ridler found work exhibiting himself at travelling fairs throughout the 1920s; but this was never enough to support him and his wife, Gladys. In 1934 he decided to take drastic action. Subjecting himself to 150 hours of tattooing at the hands of George Burchett of Waterloo Road, London, Horace and Gladys travelled from their suburban home in Mitcham, Surrey three times a week for six months. At the end, Ridler had transformed himself with broad, black stripes over his entire body, face and skull. Augmented with piercings to his ears and septum, filed teeth and native costumes, Ridler became the Great Omi – after Omai, the Tahitian native Captain Cook brought to London in 1774.

The effect was instant: Ridler became one of the biggest attractions in England and France, exhibiting himself to thousands. But it was when the Ridlers sailed across the Atlantic in 1939 that his career as the world’s most tattooed man really began. The Great Omi was the star of that year’s World Fair in New York and he spent the next three years touring America and Canada. Wanting to help with the war effort - an unsuccessful attempt to re-enlist with the British Consul in New York had already been made - Ridler returned to Britain in 1942 to entertain the troops and promote government war bonds.

After the war, Ridler returned to performance with Gladys as his compere, Omette, and became even more popular in Britain than he had been before. And then at the height of it all, the Golden Cross Caravan Park beckoned. At 6’ 4” tall, and with his alabaster skin accentuated by the thick, black lines of his tattoos, Ridler was an imposing sight; but by the time of his death in 1969 he was a benign and familiar figure in the country lanes around Ripe, heading off to the village store with his shopping bag.