Mary Harron on the RBP podcast

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In this episode we welcomed the wonderful Mary Harron, director of cult movies I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho. After a brief digression on dating Tony Blair at Oxford, the Canadian relived her memories of the punk rock scene at New York’s CBGB club, including her interviews with the Ramones and Talking Heads for John Holmstrom & Legs McNeil’s pioneering Punk magazine. Mary also talked about her friendship with ZE’s Michael Zilkha and her long fascination with Warhol and the Factory. Along with her hosts, she heard clips from Martin Aston’s 1987 audio interview with Tom Verlaine, prompting her recall of his seminal band Television and a general discussion of 1977’s classic Marquee Moon album.

Mark & Barney paid heartfelt tribute to tragic blues-guitar hero Peter Green, ruminating on what made the Fleetwood Mac man so much more emotional a player then his UK blues-boom peers. They also said goodbye to the hilarious CP Lee, former frontman with Mancunian satirists Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias. After bringing Mary’s directorial career up to date – with an aside on the American Psycho soundtrack that afforded Jasper a chance to wax lyrical about Huey Lewis & the News – Mark selected his library highlights, including notable pieces about Brian Jones, Labelle, the Bush Tetras and, erm, the Knack. Jasper rounded things up – and brings matters back down to earth – with remarks on pieces about “superstar DJs” and Stock Aitken Waterman teaboy Rick Astley…

Loyd Grossman on the RBP podcast

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In this episode we were joined by self-professed “failed musician” and pasta-sauce mogul Loyd Grossman, OBE, to wax nostalgic about the most important years of his illustrious career: those he spent as a contributor to Fusion, Rolling Stone and other American music papers. Loyd reminisced very amusingly about seminal late ’60s shows at the Boston Tea Party, before explaining how he moved to London and reinvented himself as a British national treasure on TV and in every kitchen in the country. He also recounted how he came to play guitar, three times a year, with Jethro Tull.

After a digression on the sad passing of Fairport Convention’s original singer Judy Dyble, Loyd joined us in hearing clips from a 1982 audio interview with Queen’s Brian May in which that poodle-headed plank-spanker describes, among other things , working with David Bowie on the classic ‘Under Pressure’. I dragged Loyd into a discussion of the wrath heaped upon his compatriots the (Dixie) Chicks, whose new album Gaslighter afforded the opportunity to examine the close links between country music and hyper-patriotism. Loyd turned out to be a country fan and gives a special thumbs-up to the Chicks’ defiant 2006 song ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’.

Mark Pringle brought the episode to the boil with remarks on new library pieces such as Lillian Roxon’s 1966 review of James Brown at Madison Square Garden, Roy Carr’s day out in Hyde Park in summer 1970 watching Pink Floyd and Kevin Ayers, and David Keeps meeting Madonna at the Hard Rock Café. Jasper Murison-Bowie’s chosen pieces included Ian Penman on hip hop and John Calvert on OK Go…

The late Milton Glaser on Woodstock, N.Y.

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I WAS SAD to read of the passing of the great Milton Glaser, even if he had reached the august age of 91. He was gracious enough to grant me an interview for my Woodstock/Bearsville book Small Town Talk, so I thought I’d post the salient quotes I extracted from our conversation back in 2013. He was a lovely man and had some valuable insider insights into that “strange man” Albert Grossman

“Woodstock always had a kind of modest cultural history. It had a population of modest artists, some more credible than others. In those days the artist colony was a glamorous thing, but only at a distance. As you got up close it was just like any other poor town in the Catskills.

“We started going up there because it was a cheap place to go and because there were occasional art galleries and things to see. We first went up about fifty years ago, mid-to-late ’50s. We stayed with friends who’d bought a barn, and we used to sleep in the corncrib. It was always an attractive place that never quite got chic, for reasons that we didn’t fully understand. It was the kind of anti-Hamptons. Certain people at the extremities of the arts felt an affinity for the place and would go up there, but it hadn’t quite coalesced into anything discernible.

“We used to drive up in a little yellow Volkswagen. We started renting over the summer for a couple of years, and then one year I tried to see if we could operate the studio from Woodstock. Push-Pen Studios. There’s even a picture of us somewhere. And then a year or so later we found our present house on Lewis Hollow Road, which we bought for $18,000. And it came with 80 acres of land, but the land was considered so worthless in those days. It had belonged to an artist named Bruno Zinn [Zimm?] The area was known for having rattlesnakes, so no one wanted to be up there. Friends would come up from the city. Most of our friends were weekenders. This kid in the local supermarket told Shirley about the Striebel house, and we didn’t know a single person that had $50,000 except for Albert [Grossman].

“Albert had seen or heard of my work, and he called and asked if I would do some work for him. The first thing he did was ask us if we would like to go to a concert in a club. He had just spoken to a group that he was considering putting together, and he wanted our opinion. So Shirley and I went to the Café Wha?, I think, and it was Peter Paul & Mary’s first appearance, and shortly after he signed them as a group. Peter moved into the same building where we lived on West 67th Street. And then we started working regularly for Albert. We got to know The Band and Janis.

“Albert was a strange man, but I genuinely liked him and we had a very intimate relationship compared to most professional relationships. He was a curious mixture of aggression and shyness. In some cases he was so withdrawn, and in other cases he would just bully people into submission. Sometimes when people come from Chicago they feel very intimated by New York, and with him there was certainly a kind of estrangement. He was not adept at social occasions, even though he was always in the midst of hundreds of people and organizing things.

“Shirley also heard about the house that Dylan bought on Camelot Road, so you might say she’s totally responsible for everything that happened to Woodstock.

“We drove up to Woodstock on the night the festival began, and there were at least fifty people walking up Mill Hill Road looking for the festival site.

“Albert started the Bear, which is still one of the few decent places to eat anywhere in that area.

“It’s interesting that the town never became self-conscious about the musical component, or about the fact that so many famous musicians of the time were there either regularly or from time to time. There was no sort of cool place to be, no gathering spots, unlike in the Hamptons. The town is very dissipated. You can live in that town without knowing anyone. There’s no social scene of any kind, no group of cool people. There were all these artists, but they always lived at the extremities and they were there because it was so cheap and they were not part of regular events that were occurring. There was no sense of a weekend calendar like you had in the Hamptons. That’s what has saved the place for us – that there’s nothing to see and nothing to do! It was a place where people could do their work, as opposed to benefiting from your notoriety and money wanting to be part of a visible community for whatever egocentric or financial gain there was. Also, there was no class distinction. If you had money it was irrelevant because there was no way to display it. If you had a big car you kept it outside like everybody else. Most people went there to disappear, and that’s why we went there. Something preserved that town so that it was never really transformed.

“Albert was essentially reclusive. He came up to disappear too. Every once in a while, he used the house to entertain, but mostly he used it to isolate himself. Of course, he was carrying out some business, because a lot of people like The Band were up there.

“John Court would often come by this office with something Albert had given him to bring.

“I was always very touched by Albert, partly because he always had this reputation of being a tough guy and a big power in the music world, whereas on a personal level he was always very kind and sweet to me.

“I did albums after albums, and some nice work that I’m pleased with.

“Albert had no direct reason why he would be interested in Bearsville, outside of the fact that people often called him bear-like. The fact that the Bear still exists, and that the theatre was built, is really impressive. As a place, neither the restaurant nor the theatre are really appreciated.

“There was a period in the artistic community where hard drinking and that kind of ruffian-like artist behavior existed, but it sort of disappeared.

“There’s still an unspoiled bucolic sweetness about the place. We always compare it to our friends in the Hamptons who are busy all the time and where the idea of a protective enclave doesn’t exist anymore. I think that’s one of the reasons Albert went there. He hated that kind of social activity, it wasn’t natural for him. And he was not impressed by people who had a lot of money.”

The RBP Podcast

In last week’s episode of the Rock’s Backpages podcast, we welcomed special guest James Fox, author of 1982’s bestselling White Mischief and the man who, 10 years ago, made Keith Richards’ Life one of rock’s outstanding autobiographies. James talked us through his long and distinguished career as a journalist in Africa, and as a features writer during the golden era of The Sunday Times Magazine. He described how his friendship with “Keef” was cemented by the pieces he wrote for that publication about the Rolling Stones in 1973 and 1976, answering his hosts’ questions about the great man’s rhythm guitar playing.

The fantastic Mr. Fox also offered his perspective on Little Richard, whose death last week prompted discussion of the gay black southerner’s explosive role in the birth of rock & roll. We heard a clip of the sometime Mr. Penniman speaking in 1985 – as well as one of the late Betty (‘Clean Up Woman’) Wright owning up to being a shameless show-off in 1978. James was on hand, too, to reminisce about the importance of Moe Asch’s legendary Folkways label – as revisited in the week’s new audio interview, a conversation with folk elder Pete Seeger conducted by Tony Scherman in 1987. Clips followed of Seeger talking about Asch and recalling Folkways legends Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie…

It was a hoot.

My Corona

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It seems to render all irrelevant:

the selfishness of each of us,

the tiny hopes and dreams we held,

as if a shroud had dropped upon us all,

a leveller if ever there was levelling,

our lives on hold, the future now postponed.

 

Or is it only in my head? For when I step outside

the cordoned zone that is our home,

the world looks pretty much the same.

There are no bodies in the lane,

the strapping dads are pushing strollers in the park,

the planes are roaring overhead.

 

But sure as hell, my missus and her mate

will not be seeing Rome in May.

We may be dead by June.

More likely we will wonder at contagion,

at this tabloid Armageddon

and the rumours pushed by half-informed buffoons.

 

The core of all is insignificance,

irrelevance of what one’s done:

these words in notebooks, washed away and powerless

against the force of what is coming anyway.

Living for the City: Remembering Charlie Gillett, 10 years on

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50 YEARS AFTER his landmark Sound of the City was first published (and a decade since his death), Rock’s Backpages remembers the great Charlie Gillett: listen to Bill Brewster’s 1999 audio interview with the writer, broadcaster and label-owner, and read Alex Ogg’s long conversation with him from 2008. Plus RBP writers pay heartfelt tribute after Charlie’s passing in March 2010… mine was as follows:

NO ONE COULD overstate the importance of The Sound of the City, the first significant attempt to make sense of the tangled genealogy of American popular music. Acquired in a Pan paperback edition circa 1974, the book was my portal to the history of myriad music genres, record companies, and assorted behind-the-scenes protagonists.

I never imagined I would one day meet The Sound of the City‘s author, let alone play football with him – along with a motley band of Africans and Latin Americans – on Clapham Common. I shan’t ever forget Charlie’s lithe 60-year-old frame in those games. Though he rarely crossed the halfway line, he patrolled his defensive beat like a man half that age. Which makes it that much harder to comprehend how he has now gone: he should have lived into his nineties.

Charlie was one of the elders, a man of true integrity and unceasing curiosity. His love of soul and swamp music laid tracks for me and many others. He was so helpful and encouraging when I set to work on my first book, a study of “country soul” (the term came, ironically, from The Sound of the City). The love of southern singers and storytellers was a passion we shared for years, culminating for me in the night he brought Dan Penn, Allen Toussaint, Joe South, Guy Clark and the late Vic Chesnutt together on the same South Bank stage. When I strayed outside of that orbit he sometimes seemed nonplussed. I’m not sure he ever forgave me for sullying his “Radio Ping Pong” show with what I’m sure he heard as the antiseptic jazz-funk of Steely Dan’s ‘Babylon Sisters’.

Though Charlie’s evangelising for world music prodded me to invest in sublime albums by everyone from Youssou N’Dour to Salif Keita, I always felt slightly guilty that I hadn’t – through sheer laziness – wholly converted to the world music cause. Typically the last communication I had from him was a testy email about the long list for RBP’s best albums of the Noughties. “What an embarrassing, disgracefully white and inbred list this is,” he fulminated. “Reminds me of the NME Top 100 albums back around 1972 when only two black albums made the list. Have we really not moved on even by an inch to embrace the rest of the world?”

Thanks to you, Charlie, we have.

Neil Tennant on our podcast

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Fighting for our lives: Shoshana Zuboff’s Age

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SHOSHANA ZUBOFF’S The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has followed me around for the last two months, ever since my eldest son gave me the paperback edition for Christmas.

I’m relieved to report that I have finally reached the end of its 500-plus pages (not including the even denser 130 pages of notes) and feel compelled to recommend it – more than that, to urge everyone to read it, however slowly, as an act of what Naomi Klein in her blurb called “digital self-defence”.

Subtitled The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, The Age is a truly phenomenal thing: a bible of indignant protest at the deeply sinister manoeuvres that Google, Facebook et al. have gotten away with in the last 15 years. Zuboff writes a rigorous, hypnotic, almost monotonously poetic prose that rams home the jaw-dropping infringements on not just our privacy but our human nature – hoovered up as “behavioural surplus” for Silicon Valley’s “renditions” of every move we make and every breath we take.

More than anything, the great fear is that the numbing impact of Big Tech’s “inevitablist” appropriation of our souls – and distortion of our democratic values – has been so stealthy and so uncontested that the youngest human generation will not realise their freedom has gone, allowing a new totalitarianism to take root and take control of all human life.

Reading Zuboff – a true prophet for our terrifying times – prompts me to dig up a poem I wrote almost four years ago on a trip to San Francisco: a visit on which I witnessed how the soulless geniuses of “the Valley” had destroyed the social fabric of a great American city… and how, unchallenged and unchecked, they will inevitably destroy the social fabric of human trust, reciprocity and freedom.

Zuboff deserves a medal of honour for this heroic book.

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Disruption

 

Was I ever young and thrusting?

I was young but dumb – and timid too.

I typed out words with clattering keys

before the words got processed by PCs

and all got sucked into the seas.

 

I have a foot stuck in the past,

the other’s stepping terrified.

A crazy scrum of lemmings on a cliff,

we drop into abysses hollowed out by billionaires

and nerds in UberCHOPPERS

scheming to replace us with machines.

 

We’re prey for predators, we’re tapping at our phones,

the zombie surfers of the shallow flats:

too busy sucking up the glut of pointless stuff to see

we are the product we’re consuming,

mere regurgitated selves.

 

And so I sit, a broken frightened man, half in, half out.

My soul’s been digitised to death,

an insect flailing in their web.

 

Perhaps it all will be alright:

the maniacs may yet recall

that life is flesh and feeling,

writhing mess and mass that can’t be mapped

by algorithmic fiends.