Beautiful Game

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IT WAS ALL David Platt’s fault. The outrageous extra-time goal that put Belgium out of the 1990 World Cup was the orgasmic moment that made me want to play football again – and not just play it but follow it, fantasize about being good at it.

Alas, I was never much good at it: a functional and uncertain player who often found himself – a 30-year-old with a serviceable right foot, no more – stuck resentfully at left-back because no other bugger wished to play there. (Karl Ove Knausgaard writes in The End of being put at left back, where he would cause “least damage”.) And this in a game that I had started in the early summer of 1991.

Football had never been a consuming obsession of mine. I’d followed rugby through the ’70s and ’80s. It’s true I stayed up late to suffer Maradona’s goals against England in 1986. (After the imperious slalom of the second, I actually muttered the words “Well, you just can’t argue with that,” as though I were commentating on the game.) But it wasn’t till the altogether lesser talents of “Platty” put England through to the quarter finals that the fever got me.

Nominally, ever since a housemaster let the boarders stay up to watch the replay of the 1970 F.A. Cup Final at Old Trafford, I was a supporter of Chelsea. I was a Londoner, and London had beaten Leeds to win the Cup. In the morning I felt strangely triumphant. Osgood’s diving header from Charlie Cooke’s cross lodged itself in my brain and replayed there all day. (Osgood played at the first Chelsea game I ever saw, when I sat behind the goal as the 13-year-old guest of photographer Roger Charity. Years later I nearly got to interview Ozzie for the only football piece I ever wrote, but torrential rain prevented him from getting down to Ron Harris’ place in Wiltshire.)

My interest in football waned and drifted as rugby took hold at my South London prep school. Slight and puny though I was – and cripplingly self-conscious about it – I was a usefully nifty outside-centre when the occasion demanded. The first time I saw my name on the 1st XV team sheet I thought there’d been a cruel mistake.

I did not see England’s 1990 exit at West Germany’s hands – not as it occurred, anyway. Instead I watched a stiff and shaky Frank Sinatra going through his saloon-song motions at the unlovely London Arena, where many of us (in those pre-smartphone days) sat wondering uneasily what was unfolding in Turin. But the trauma of the penalty misses and the nation’s disappointment put no dampener on my new enthusiasm for the beautiful game. Match of the Day soon became de rigueur, with Channel 4’s new Football Italia a close second. Come the European Championships of 1992, I’d boned up on Serie A and the continent’s other top leagues and knew which Brazilians played for Parma and Sampdoria. I even saw the latter at Wembley, losing the 1992 European Cup Final to the Koeman free kick that won it for Barcelona in extra time.

I was fascinated, infatuated – addicted, as so many men are. (For 30 years I’ve trotted out the line that “football was only invented so men have something to talk to each other about”.) When I found myself, late one Wednesday night, watching highlights of a third-round Coca-Cup replay between Grimsby and Peterborough, I knew I’d crossed the fine line between passion and insanity.

I still watch the game religiously (or just addictively). It’s still my go-to televisual comfort food: the Sky Sports double-bill on a Sunday afternoon, the Champions League clash on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening. If I’m lucky I get to watch with my wife, who loves football almost as much as I do. (Her gateway player was the gorgeous George Best, whose poster she stuck to her bedroom wall as a teenager.) I’m seldom more relaxed than when watching two teams – other than my own – trying to outwit and out-muscle each other in a vast stadium in a faraway foreign city. I live for football’s moments of art and daring, instinctive vision, sudden surging breaks, one-on-ones and give-and-gos. In those 90-plus minutes, the obscene wages and agents’ commissions and pervasive corruption don’t bother me as they should: these men seem heroic to me, playing through fear, intimidation, self-doubt writ large.

The greatest players – Messi, Zidane, Ronaldinho and co. – have given me pleasures, breathless ecstasies, that few other human phenomena afford. “A pretty pass, for heaven’s sake,” wrote the great Uruguayan writer Galeano, who understood that football is art, a choreography of mathematical judgements. (Clearly I’m not speaking of Vinnie Jones or “Razor” Ruddock. But even a hitman such as Sergio Ramos is an athlete of sublime grace and gliding beauty.) How I longed to play with such style and panache; how I wished the Mitre ball I’d bought would glue itself to my boots as it did to Gianfranco Zola’s.

To this day, when people ask what I’d really like to have been, I do not say a rock star or a bestselling novelist or a paradigm-shifting philosopher. I say: “I’d like to have been a great footballer. A playmaker. A No. 10.” I know other men who’d say the same: men of wealth or eminence or erudition who suddenly come alive when asked how their team played at the weekend – who’d rather talk about Kevin De Bruyne than about even their bonuses. They too imagine themselves as playmakers, flying wingers, “cultured” centre-backs.

Sometimes, in the midst of a game, I wonder how something so crudely simple – a spherical polyhedron, two nets with posts and a crossbar, a few white lines on grass, and 46 legs (including the referee’s) – can inspire such devotion, and such heartache. Why is it so addictive to so many? The singer Bjork, whose tiny nation inflicted a great humiliation on my own in the 2016 European Championships, thought that for men the game mimicked the struggle to reproduce – that the ball was like a sperm determined to find its way to the back of the female “net”, hence the orgasmic sounds emitted when the ball crossed the goal line. Certainly there’s something cathartic about goals, an explosion of the tension in the buildup to them. But often the real art is in the foreplay, explaining the greater respect accorded the playmaker than the goal-poacher: anyone can be in the right place to stick a leg out, goes the reasoning; not everyone can split a defence in two with a disguised through-ball.

All of this is why, at the age of 30, I got hooked on football and why, at the age of 31, I started a Saturday morning game on Clapham Common with a motley throng of friends (and friends of friends, and occasional strangers). Some of these friends were, inevitably, rather good at football, where I was barely proficient. While I did all I could to improve, I realized that some attributes – strength, balance, vision, co-ordination – could never be learned or earned. When I watch flickering home video of little Lionel Messi, weaving like Maradona round the helpless limbs of bigger boys, I clearly see that he was born with this “talent” – that all he had to do was hone it.

One of the friends of friends who showed up for that Saturday game – in a vintage ’80s Real Madrid shirt – was a stocky left-footer who reminded me of Maradona. He was Jewish, multi-lingual, mordantly funny, a self-effacing comedy critic. Another was a thin Liverpudlian poet with a long chin and goatee beard who quoted Rilke but supported Everton. His friends, in turn, included a brutish-looking midfield stopper from Crawley who later moved to Chiswick and became a psychotherapist. Not everyone got along famously: when my pal Oscar scythed down a slim reviewer for The Wire magazine – to be upbraided instantly by every player within ten yards of the tackle – he snarled at one and all the unforgettable words, “Didn’t your mummies ever tell you football was a man’s game?!”

I only ever played in two properly competitive games. In the second of these, colliding with my own keeper in a mistimed effort to cut out a cross, I fractured my jaw and wound up in Guy’s Hospital for three nights. In a later game, back in Clapham, my 36-year-old legs failed to keep up with a lanky young Somalian and I hyperextended my right knee, tearing my ACL in the process.

Not long after the first of two knee ops, I said goodbye to the Clapham game and moved with my young family to Woodstock, New York, where my six-year-old son Jake soon became the star of the Under-8’s soccer side – and where his father, largely on the strength of his English accent, was pressed into service as the team’s coach. Like many a touchline dad I believed my son was a special player – which he was, at least relative to the general ineptitude of the local hippie offspring. As I watched him chinking his way through clusters of mesmerized children with names like Zak and Zephyr, he might have been Manchester City’s Messi-esque maestro Kinkladze (with bright blond hair). Thus commenced three years of exasperated training and rising at dawn to drive my boy to tournaments in depressed Catskills towns such as Cairo (“Kay-Ro”), Delhi (“Dell-High”) and Chichester (“Chai-Chester”).

I continued to play myself, my broken knee in an ugly and constricting brace, until the mysteriously debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome turned my calf muscles to sticks. (Thankfully it proved temporary.) I also watched what “soccer” was available on ESPN and Fox Sports: frequently my sons and I would wake early on Sunday to catch the lunchtime Premier League fixture. Three thousand miles from the feverish action, I remained obsessed with the fortunes of Chelsea, driving down to Manhattan to watch them – in an Upper East Side bar – win their first silverware in an eternity in the 1997 FA Cup Final win over Middlesbrough.

Returning to London in the summer of 1999, I became a season-ticket holder at Stamford Bridge and was duly treated to a decade of trophies that made Chelsea the most loathed team in town, if not the land. I shared the general distaste for my fellow supporters, many of whom seemed to be racist plumbers from Weybridge. But I loved the way we played in 1999-2000, when our cheeky-chappie skipper Dennis Wise gave us the best football of his career and we were spoiled by the joyous skills of Zola, Flo, Vialli and Desailly. I watched us beat mighty Barcelona at the Bridge – marvelling at the mere presence of Figo, Rivaldo and co. in a stadium which had once had to make do with Gareth Hall and Frank Sinclair – and then flew to Catalonia to see us being torn apart 5-1 in the return leg.

Spain’s La Liga became, if anything, even more of an obsession than the Premiership. Here, surely, was the best football the world had ever witnessed, even if it was dominated by two teams. Perversely I went for Real Madrid as my Spanish team of choice, seduced by the galactico glamour of los blancos without fully understanding the club’s odious political history. With my two older sons and with Brendan, another literary Evertonian who’d become a Saturday fixture on Clapham Common, I went to Madrid in 2001 to see my all-time favourite player Zidane at the Bernabeu – along with the treacherously-transferred Figo, and with Raul, Hierro, Guti and the marvellous Roberto Carlos, though not that night with Makelele, the slight but superbly spry midfielder who’d soon come to Chelsea. Walking into the vast stadium was one of the dizzying thrills of my life.

I remain good friends with Brendan, and with the Jewish Maradona, and with the empathetic bulldog from Crawley. At least twice a year we convene for chat and banter, though these days it’s more likely to be about books, music, film, politics or just random cultural minutiae – free-flowing and overlapping repartee born of deep affection and solid mutual respect. They’re not pals I otherwise see much of during the year, though it’s always a pleasure when I do. It’s as if we need to be together for the dynamics to work.

Very occasionally we reminisce about those long-gone Saturdays on the common: about who actually heard my cruciate snap that day; about Oscar’s hacking-down of the Wire scribe; about the Sunday League team – “Clapham St. Germain” – they formed after my career-ending injury.

None of us plays anymore. For some years I trotted out to the park with my sons and stepsons to play three-a-side in what were often treacherously muddy conditions. The pathos of my old slow body, and the laughs it produced from my lads, became increasingly humiliating. Two Christmases ago, aged 57, I again went out to the park with them and – within minutes of stumbling around with these very fit young men – pulled my left hamstring. It pretty much spelled the end of my “playing days”.

As I limped home, I knew it was over. But there was still Match of the Day to look forward to.

A Song for Her: Back to Amy Winehouse

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I was honoured to be asked to contribute to Charles Moriarty’s book of photographs of the great Ms. Winehouse. My essay “A Song for Her” is included in Back to Amy, published this week by Octopus. I dropped into the piece this review of Amy’s awesome show at London’s Somerset House in July 2007:

From Silver Lake to Somerset House, via a Miami wedding and a Mercury Prize nomination: would Amy stand me up a second time? Well, she didn’t, and she told us – more than once – how she’d looked forward to this for “months”. I’m guessing she’s caught a show or two here herself, experienced its summer-piazza feel for the pleasant change it makes from your average concert venue.

I was instantly smitten by Winehouse’s sophomore opus Back to Black: not by novelty item ‘Rehab’ per se (I’m bored to fuck by Priory Rock) but by the album’s other treasures, which all did something I didn’t think possible: take the basic Sixties soul template, tweak it just enough for a tattoo’d post-hiphop generation, and turn the whole ritual into something vitally personal and contemporary.

Me? I was never convinced by Joss Stone and never will be. But this little slip of a Jewish street princess comes over 100% credible, customising her soul and ska influences to fit her fucked-up persona. Someone said Winehouse’s lyrics read like pages from a drunken teenager’s diary, but they’re more than that: they’re piercingly believable, achingly sharp, rid of cliché.

Great artists combine artfulness with something that’s rawly their own: the key is that we can’t separate the two from each other, to the point where it ultimately doesn’t matter anyway. With Winehouse we’re drawn in by an uncanny mix of hip (hop) toughness and about-to-implode vulnerability (which might just be part of her “act” – how can we know and why, frankly, should we care?)

Here she is, this skinny slumming hiphop Ronnie Spector with her mascara mask and piled-high beehive, the sole female onstage with a besuited band that look like rude-boy bodyguards: the two black dancer-singers, the three white hornmen, the guitarists and drummer who resemble some late Sixties Kingston session band.

Here she is, underplaying every vocal flourish and girlish provocation, and we can’t tear our eyes from her dark elfin figure. We want to know more, to know how dangerous this really is. The remarkable thing is, she’s not a brat at all. She lets her music do the talking. (Stop the press: she’s a total pro!)

She sings brilliantly, saving herself and placing every line just so, periodically letting herself go in a melismatic cry from the heart. The voice is essentially Lauryn Hill’s, as the passage from ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ tacitly acknowledges, but you don’t actually think Fugees or Miseducation when you hear it.

While the whole effect – the iconography and the choreography – is a hair’s breadth away from Stax-Motown pastiche, it never feels like that. In fact, the essential feel of Back to Black isn’t Stax/Motown at all but the early Sixties girl-group soul that came out of Chicago and New York’s Brill Building, infused with the street-sharp mood of ska and bluebeat (and even 2-Tone, as the cover of the Specials’ ‘Hey Little Rich Girl’ makes clear). ‘Me and Mr Jones’, perhaps her most startling song, almost feels pre-soul. ‘Wake Up Alone’ and the heartbreaking ‘Love is a Losing Game’ are more Luther Dixon or Berns/Ragovoy than Berry Gordy or Booker T. and the MGs. The genius of Back to Black is that it recreates the ornate feel of that music while emphatically yanking it out of the museum.

“What kind of fuckery is this?” I’m not sure I know, other than that Winehouse gets me deep in my gut. I dare say she’ll crash and burn like every other codep dipso celeb in London, but even if she does she’ll have left behind at least one remarkable record. As she winds up with the Zutons’ ‘Valerie’, everyone is smiling and jumping with untrammelled joy: live music doesn’t get any better than this.

O-o-h child

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A Friday, Fleet Street, and a flow

of men and women power-dressed

and knocking off for weekends

in the rolling Cotswold hills.

 

And me, who never had a proper job at all,

now gazing over hipster latte

at the stripey men and at the women in stilettos

as the next song in the café starts.

 

A blast of brass and then a slinky groove,

a woman’s warming voice intoning to her child

that things will soon get easier, that life will brighten

in the darkness of their struggle to survive.

 

The suits and the stilettos pass, but in my mind

I see the starving child and hear her momma’s words,

their chances less than average of finding

ease and sunlight on the lethal streets.

 

The world still fortified against their kind,

designed by men in suits

and ladies in stiletto heels.

Stan Lewis, 1927-2018

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In southern soul news: I confess I only just registered that Jewel/Paul/Ronn owner and Shreveport legend STAN LEWIS passed away a month ago.

Here’s a great shot my pal Muir Mackean snapped of Stan outside his record store, on the 1985 travels that produced (the newly-reissued) Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted… more detail at https://www.offbeat.com/news/stan-lewis-obituary/

Bearsville 1971

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From my Small Town Talk:

Less supportive [of Todd Rundgren] by this point was Michael Friedman, who was nurturing a new Bearsville artist named Jesse Frederick. “Todd didn’t appreciate anything, and I’d really stuck my neck out for him,” Friedman says. “I think he felt that I’d deserted him for Jesse, but I stopped being interested because he was pissing people off and I was putting my name on it. He was a good engineer, but I preferred John Simon’s productions. With Todd, everything was sort of molded after the Who and the British sound, which was a much harsher sound than the funky Southern blues style the Grossman artists were involved with.”

More appreciative than Rundgren, Frederick moved into Friedman’s house in Shady and began rehearsing for an album made at the same Nashville studio where Great Speckled Bird had been recorded. 1971’s Jesse Frederick—rootsier and more soulful than The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, though hardly as original—was the first Bearsville album released under the label’s new Warners deal, while the second was a soft-rock effort by three long-haired Christians calling themselves Lazarus, produced at Bearsville by Peter Yarrow.

The third in the Reprise 2000 series—not counting reissues of Rundgren’s first two albums and of Jesse Winchester—was by eccentric Los Angeles duo Halfnelson, produced by Rundgren after he’d been introduced to them by Miss Christine. When Grossman suggested they rename themselves the Sparks Brothers, Ron and Russ Mael reluctantly compromised on Sparks, though success only arrived when they later signed to Island in London.[1]

[1] Following the 1971 release of Halfnelson, Miss Christine left Rundgren for Russ Mael, the more conventionally handsome of the two Maels. She was the subject of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ unflattering “Christine’s Tune’ and a member of Frank Zappa’s protégées/nannies/groupies Girls Together Outrageously. In November 1972 she died of a heroin overdose.

Say it again: the return of my Country Soul tome

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The author copies of BMG’s “30th Anniversary” edition of my first book just showed up, complete with a foreword by country-soul king William Bell (right) dozens of previously-unseen photos taken in 1985 by my accomplice Muir Mackean. Here are the first few paras of the new introduction I wrote for it…

NAMED AFTER an extemporary yelp in the fadeout of Kip Anderson’s bereft 1968 single “I Went Off and Cried,” Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted was my first book. Revisiting it for the second time in 30 years, it feels, in places, as callow and earnest as I was myself at age 26, when I wrote it. I’d retroactively fallen in love with a sub-genre of American popular music that barely had a name, and I was close to evangelistic in my desire to turn people on to it.

The book’s original 1987 subtitle was The Country Side of Southern Soul, its cover sporting an awkward splice of a tuxedoed Ray Charles wearing a Stetson hat. (Tuxedo = soul, Stetson = country: you get the drift.) Brother Ray had, of course, been one of the prime movers in bringing black and white music together—he followed up his groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music albums from 1962 with the even more explicitly titled Country & Western Meets Rhythm & Blues, a.k.a. Together Again, in 1965—but not even he used the term “country soul,” which became part of the revised subtitle for Say It’s 1998 reissue and stays in place for this updated edition. I’m fairly sure I first encountered the phrase in Charlie Gillett’s groundbreaking history The Sound of the City (1970).

As I now look back to the early 1980s, when I first wrote about music for the NME, I ask myself why “country soul” got under my skin to such a degree that I decided to write a whole book about it. Naturally I loved the music, but there was more to it than that: something poetic, something almost mystical. Learning, as a schoolboy, that Aretha Franklin had recorded her breakthrough Atlantic single “I Never Loved a Man”/“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” in a tiny studio in (of all places) Alabama—engineered, moreover, by a local white man named Rick Hall—gave me a thrill and instilled a curiosity that led me on a long and winding journey to—well, the very studio where Franklin made that record…

Don’t delay: Buy Say It One Time for Brokenhearted here…