Friday, January 27, 2017

Trudge Life

At one point on stage at the Con Club in Lewes last night, bass behemoth Jah Wobble chuckled to himself that he loves “trudging through the Wobble back catalogue.” If this was trudging, I highly recommend it. Him and his fantastic Invaders of the Heart propelled us through two hours of sterling musicianship, wise-cracking philosophy and some stellar tunes – all underpinned by Wobble’s low-frequency basslines.

It is not all sternum-shredding sub-bass, though: I last saw Jah Wobble in the early 90s when I went to a couple of his gigs in London at the Jazz CafĂ© and the Astoria. This was at the time of his commercial apex with the Rising Above Bedlam album and I remember, at the Astoria gig in particular, being almost induced into a transcendent state by the higher power of the rising and spiralling bass on Visions of You. The same happened again on that song last night and on the final encore, a rendition of Public Image’s Poptones, which must be one of the most gloriously hypnotic basslines ever created.

There were other examples of his work with PiL in the seventies: a drum and bass version of Socialist from Metal Box; a skanking version of the debut single; an epic treatment of the sprawling closer from the debut album, Fodderstompf – still with falsetto chant of “we only wanted to be loved!” But Wobble had a life beyond Lydon and Levene and has an impressive range of collaborations to his name: he has worked with Paul Oakenfold, The Orb and Primal Scream from the dance end of the spectrum and, from the avant garde, Brian Eno and members of Can. How Much Are They?, from his eighties' work with the latter’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, gets an outing and Liebezeit, who passed away this week, is remembered fondly as “the best drummer I ever played with.”

These days, Wobble also strays beyond his own material: the Harry J. Allstars’ Liquidator gets the audience dancing – some of it interestingly interpretive – and features an interval with Wobble at a metaphorical mixing desk orchestrating an hilarious zoomorphic description of all the instruments in the band; and one of the encores is jazz musician Roy Budd’s theme from the 1971 film, Get Carter, with flashes of Jeff Clyne’s elastic bassline.

With a two-hour set and three encores, it was a great gig; band and audience seemed to really enjoy themselves and Wobble cut a dash in his trademark pork pie hat as he prowled the stage. At one point he even choreographed some moves with the guitarist and trumpeter - but they were swaying not trudging.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Do What Thou Wilt

On the 1st December 1947, a 72 year-old man died at the Netherwood Guest House on The Ridge in Hastings. He had lived there for two years and had been in ill health throughout that time; he finally succumbed to chronic bronchitis, pleurisy and heart disease. This was not an unusual occurrence for a seaside town boarding house with an elderly clientele. And this particular guest was typical: he had spent his days unremarkably, taking local walks and beating all-comers at Hastings Chess Club. What had marked him out from the others, however, were the parcels he received from around the world, occasional visitors from London and Europe and the fact that he spent the nocturnal hours in his room at Netherwood reading, writing and taking heroin.

The elderly man was Aleister Crowley and his incredible life had led him, not many years before, to be regularly dubbed ‘the wickedest man in the world’ by the tabloid press. An occultist, he had devoted his life to the search for wisdom through an exotic mix of mysticism, paganism, magic, sex and drugs - it was the last three that really got the press going. Born into a wealthy family in Leamington Spa, Crowley had rejected his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and, in his early twenties, joined The Golden Dawn occult society and was soon practicing ceremonial magic. His inheritance allowed him to travel and, after spells in Mexico, Egypt, India and China, where he studied religions and climbed mountains (he was a serious mountaineer), he published The Book of Law, espousing the idea that people should be free to follow their own will. This book, and its motto ‘do what thou wilt’, had supposedly been dictated to Crowley by a messenger from the Egyptian deity Horus and it became the cornerstone of his own religion, Thelema.

Crowley also established an order, the A:.A:., based in Victoria in London, where his religion was practiced. He had become interested in the ritual use of drugs – particularly hashish – in his search for objective truth and had been privately experimenting with bisexuality and sadomasochism. Influenced by his close links with a German occultist group, Ordo Templi Orientis, Crowley began to incorporate ‘sex magick’ – the use of sexual activity and arousal - into his Thelemic ceremonies. His spelling of ‘magick’ was to differentiate his sorcery from the popular stage magic of the early 20th century.

Crowley’s chaotic personal life – one of his two daughters had died of typhoid in Burma and his alcoholic wife had been institutionalised in Britain - worsened as his money ran out. He was a prolific writer of books on mysticism but also wrote poetry, plays and articles; and when war broke out in 1914 he travelled to the United States and earned a living there as a journalist writing for Vanity Fair and other publications. He became involved in the pro-German movement in New York and wrote for the propaganda newspaper, The Fatherland. This led him to be condemned as traitor in Britain but Crowley had been, in fact, working as a double agent for British intelligence.

Back in London after the war, he was prescribed heroin to treat his asthma and so began an addiction that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He published Diary of a Drug Fiend in 1922 and was demonised in the popular press as a result. This was compounded when details began to emerge of the goings-on at the Abbey of Thelema that Crowley had established in Sicily. Stories of degradation and depravity led to the Sunday newspaper, John Bull, declaring him to be 'a man we'd like to hang'. In 1923, he was deported back to Britain by the new young Italian Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini.

In the 1930s, Crowley continued his nomadic existence moving from Tunisia, to France, to Germany. He wrote his autobiography in Paris and exhibited paintings in Berlin before moving back to London at the start of the Second World War. After periods in Devon, Buckinghamshire and Surrey, he settled, for the last time, in Sussex in 1945. After his death, he was cremated in Brighton where one of the few mourners read from The Book of Law. The tabloids reported his final ceremony as a Black Mass but were disappointed in the lack of sex and drugs.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fantastic Voyage

If I was a person who was uninterested in David Bowie, and I am prepared to concede there could be the odd one or two of them out there, then I may be a little puzzled over the intensity of the reaction to the release of his final two albums, his death last January and its anniversary this week. But I am passionate about Bowie and I have been unashamedly emotional since the song Where Are We Now? appeared online out of the electric blue on his birthday in January 2013. That morning, John Humphrys broke the news that put an end to my anxiety that Bowie was at death’s door: throughout the previous few years, I had been boring my family rigid with my fears every time I checked his frozen and unyielding website. To find out that he was making music, that he was in the world, was a relief; oh, the irony.

David Bowie has been a constant in my life since I was ten years old. Not the legendary 1972 Starman Top of the Pops appearance for me, being July I was probably still out playing football when that was aired, Bowie first captured my attention in the autumn of that year listening to John I’m Only Dancing on Radio Luxembourg at a youth club. Two things stood out: the relationship confusion (“John, I’m only dancing/she turns me on/but I’m only dancing) and Mick Ronson’s stuttering guitar feedback at the song’s close. From there on in I was hooked: those seventies albums were my comforts in the misery of being a teenager. Bowie made it acceptable to be creative, different and even pretentious in a brutal time. I first picked up a guitar because of Bowie, he introduced me to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and he turned me onto books with his trilogy of Orwell-inspired songs on Diamond Dogs. Most of all, he made me look at the everyday differently (“It was cold and it rained and I felt like an actor”) and he made the world romantic (“I’ll kiss you in the rain”). It rained a lot in the seventies.

Locked away in the back bedroom of a south-east London council house, I listened to little else until punk came along; but even then I never neglected Bowie and I wrote about him in the fanzine I produced with my mates. Expelled from school in late 1977, I then had to travel some distance to attend Bowie’s alma mater in Bromley for the fag end of my secondary education. I scoured the year photographs in the corridor and there was the class of ’63: rows of boys with short back and sides and National Health specs all facing the camera lens. Except for one. There was Bowie. Unmistakeable: level gaze, blonde quiff, left profile. He watched over me like a guardian angel for the torrid six months I was there.

It was only those two dreadful albums in the late eighties that caused me to temporarily lapse my faith; but in the nineties, a decade overlooked in the current reappraising of his career, his voyage was back on course again. In 1993, he released two redemptive albums: Black Tie White Noise and the largely ambient The Buddha of Suburbia. I had recently learned to drive (always a late starter) and that year, thrilled with the novelty of car travel, I used to take pointless journeys out of London with these as my soundtrack as I drove around the Kent and Sussex countryside. And when my parents died in 1999 it was his album Hours (“I’ve danced with you too long” - anyone who has not heard Something in the Air really should) and, a few years later, Heathen (“how I wonder where you are”), that I think of fondly now as my bereavement counselling.

Then came the hiatus, so thrillingly ended with The Next Day, and then the stellar swansong. I was in Victoria in central London on the day Blackstar was released and – a sign of the times, this - I could not find a shop anywhere where I could get the album; I ended up buying it in a supermarket when I got off the train back in Sussex. All that weekend the house was filled with the sound of yet another Bowie step change: the driving jazz of Donny McCaslin’s band mixed with the tender balladeer of old. And then on the Monday morning, it was Nick Robinson who broke the news of Bowie’s death. I was making breakfast for the kids and involuntarily burst into tears. They had never seen me cry before and were stunned. So was I. Not that I don’t cry - I do - but I have always thought that it would be unsettling for young children to see a parent so upset. Very quickly people were sharing their grief, and what Bowie had meant to them, publicly on social media. The trolls were not far behind, generally following the ‘it’s-not about-you’ line. But they were wrong: it was about us and it still is. Yes, a man had died and his family were grieving but so were we. Those of us, like me, for whom Bowie was important, were feeling the loss acutely. I realised that morning, he had been in my life longer than my parents had.

How could this be when Bowie was essentially a remote figure? I did not know him; he was a huge rock star; I had never even seen him live. Having been to countless gigs, the latter may seem odd; but when I reached the age of gig-going I was a punk and on the 1978 Low/Heroes tour he played Earl’s Court, the sort of impersonally large venue that belonged to a less egalitarian age. I declined. Then there was a gap of five years before he played live again and I got tickets to see him on the Serious Moonlight stadium tour; but in the wake of Let’s Dance, he had become massive in the mainstream. When one of my friends said I would hate sharing Bowie with so many thousands of Johnny-come-latelies, I sold my tickets. And then it dawned on me: I could never share him with anyone else. He was the most important cross-cultural person of the last 45 years but he was my mentor, my personal tutor; he enriched my experience of culture – of music, literature, art and film - and I think that is why I mourn him selfishly, as if he were mine alone.