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Little thoughts on the death of Lou Reed

29 Oct

Lou-ReedIt was Nick Cave who told me. “This is for the great Lou Reed, who died today,” said Nick, from the stage of Hammersmith Apollo, at the beginning of the end of his set, as The Bad Seeds started playing ‘Push The Sky Away.’ I’m not going to say much but I want to say something. I don’t know much about the man, own only a few of his records and haven’t even heard his most famous solo LP, Transformer. So I don’t know much but I do know what most people who ever responded to one of his records knows: that this was a difficult, indefinable, ungoverned artist, a man whose life and music were his own.

I think that by then Lou Reed had been in my life for 21 years, since a girl called Liz made me a tape of the Retro compilation, the last track of which, The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin,’ led to me buying, on cassette, almost certainly from Bee Bees in South Woodham Ferrers, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which became and remains one of my favourite records ever.lrvu

A vivid memory of my teenage years, one which returns every time I hear the song, is walking home from school via the creek in Woodham, shortly after being given Retro, with Lou Reed’s ‘Coney Island Baby’ playing inside my head. I don’t even remember if I was listening to the song through earphones but it’s almost certain I wasn’t as I never use them- yet the memory of the song, its feel, matched the perfect summer light and heat and the blue cloudless sky and the green shining grass of Saltcoates Park.

This would have been around ’93 and The Velvet Underground (I’ve still only heard their first record) were reforming (I later learned they headlined Glastonbury that year); their box set was released, there was a documentary about them on Channel 4 followed by a broadcast of Chelsea Girls in full (I didn’t make it through that, though this should remind us how great Channel 4 once was) and I saw (or was this later?) the short version of their ‘Velvet Redux’ Live MCMXCIII, that ends with a new song, the wonderful ‘Coyote’.

I missed out on tickets to his show at the Royal Festival Hall last year and never got to see him perform a full set, but I did get to share a room with him and see him play, with Metallica, on Later…With Jools Holland, performing two songs from their collaboration Lulu as well as ‘White Light/White Heat.’ Reed was also interviewed by Holland and what the TV viewer didn’t see was at the end of the interview Lou being helped across the room, back to his place alongside Metallica. I was a bit shocked at the surprising frailty of the man (then 70) who minutes earlier had been fronting an “avant-garde theatrical” rock group.lou reed 2

I’ve never heard Reed’s famously antagonistic full-frontal feedback assault Metal Machine Music but I love it anyway. And I’m so pleased that his last record, the Metallica collaboration Lulu, seemed to piss people off nearly as much. It didn’t just win a host of negative reviews; some enraged Metallica fans sent Lou Reed death threats. It’s a brilliant record- bonkers mad and psychotic mad; it’s difficult, indefinable and ungoverned, which is where we came in.

I was in the room when this performance took place and couldn’t believe what I was seeing:

So this isn’t an obituary or career overview, it’s just some of my thoughts and feelings about the impressions this man has left on me so far. For me there’s still much more of him to delve into, deeper to go. Lee Ranaldo called him ‘irreplaceable.’ That’s certainly true.

A real and genuine loss of a unique artist: tough, punk, trans; wild, soulful, untamed. I’m grateful I got to see him. RIP Lou Reed.

lou reed

1942 – 2013

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Kelvin Arena

3 Sep

Kelvin Arena is a very exclusive live music venue, recording studio and creative space in North London. It’s recently been announced that these legendary rooms will cease to exist as we know them at the start of November.

You might never have heard of Kelvin Arena. Few if any places in London have managed to maintain such a semi-mythical exclusivity. I mean where these days doesn’t have a website? You won’t be able to Google Kelvin Arena.

The Chorus playing live at Kelvin Arena in 2005

Of course, despite being named an ‘arena’ the live area is smaller than the smallest club. Original artworks hang on the walls. A cat, Billy, reaches out a paw from under the red velvet sofa by the entrance and swipes at your ankles. I first found myself in Kelvin Arena after the singer-songwriter Robin Elliott got me to send a demo he & I were writing there. When the song was finished I travelled up from Essex to visit Robin at Kelvin and for the first time, late one night, walked into the main room. There were artists there, designers, jewellers and us musicians.

(The song we wrote, ‘Fiona, We Gotta Quit Drinking,’ would eventually appear on Robin Elliott & Sodi Cookey’s brilliant, ultra-rare ‘Live At Paul’s’ LP, along with a version of The Chorus’ ‘Mary Harper.’  I urge you to hunt that record down if you can.)

This was before I’d seen any bands play there. Anyone who has watched a gig at Kelvin Arena will know that the intimacy (it’s tiny in there), the rudimentary sound, the lack of entrance fee (or stage) all provide an atmosphere no other London venue has ever delivered. Robin and Sodi played there, as did Hatcham Social, Nine Ashes and my own band The Chorus. Nine Ashes’ gig was brilliant, perhaps the best time I ever saw them. When they eventually morphed into Shakers In The Dark the band recorded many of their strongest tracks in the studio upstairs.

Kelvin Arena’s most common live events were the after-hours acoustic sessions that sprang up in the kitchen area whenever a musician got asked. No one ever said no.

One of the many drunken, late-night kitchen sessions, this one in 2009

So, I was back at Kelvin Arena this week to rehearse a couple of songs with Paul Green; we’ve been asked to play at our friends’ wedding on the weekend and were keen for it to be perfect. We did the rehearsal and made a recording and it occurred to me this might be the last recording I would make at KA. I was left alone in the old place the following night and couldn’t resist switching on the webcam and making one last video there. I’ve recorded videos here before: ‘Mary Harper,’  ‘Open Season’ and a cover of ‘Come As You Are’ were all shot there, just for fun, to upload on YouTube. No other footage I know of has been shot at Kelvin Arena. So, I just shut the door behind me and Kelvin Arena’s quiet; if this Hank Williams song I just filmed myself playing really is the last recording made at Kelvin Arena then I’m pleased it’s me that made it.

A well-known jewellery designer has recently used space downstairs to create bespoke pieces while upstairs tracks were recorded and people got drunk in the kitchen. The current tenants are splitting. There are other spaces like this in London, I’m sure. This was one. It’ll soon be gone. It was great and I’m glad to have been a part of it.

Eye Con: Some people are imaginary.

4 Nov

Louise Brooks

Yesterday I saw a photograph of Louise Brooks. Not the Louise Brooks you’d have just imagined, the one from the twenties with the sleek jet bob and the pearls, the one that was and will always be Lulu in Pandora’s Box. This photo was of her but it was taken fifty years later. She was in her apartment, smiling happily, the hair long, and grey. That’s what I got in the brief moment anyway, because as soon as I saw the photo, I instinctively slammed the book closed.

Why? Well, like I say, I did it automatically. I felt, though, in that moment, that I was seeing something I wouldn’t want to have seen. Like those clips you see where an actor fluffs his line and the director yells ‘Cut!’ as everyone cracks up, or the monster’s roar is deafened as the human hand dips into shot revealing it as clay. I don’t want to know that King Kong wasn’t real. He is.

Why should Louise Brooks be like that? Or any person? I wasn’t ready for the shock cut, that’s all. But when someone’s identified with the way they looked in their youth, that’s them, that’s how they are, especially when they’re locked in amber on film.

It’s not always like that. If the person in question is someone who’s had a long career and we’ve aged on our side of the screen as they have on theirs, that’s one thing. Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Roger Moore, Woody Allen, even are just the first of many names that come to mind. These days the papers, not to mention the internet, show us and tell us more than we should ever see if anything like mystique’s meant to abide, if such a thing still exists. There won’t be another Hollywood Babylon. Anyway, degraded celebrity culture’s another subject.

BB in 'And God Created Woman.' She's naked behind that sheet.

When someone was young and beautiful and slipped out of the public eye do we want to see them when they’re older and look less perfect? Why shouldn’t we? We don’t owe our young selves anything, do we? Reputation is something that goes beyond aesthetics, obviously, but in showbusiness, where image is a primary constituent of appeal, reputation and collective memory get smeared together. Lady Gaga has said she’d never let her fans see her putting the bins out or wearing what she’d wear sat in front of the TV. That’s the idea of mystique that the Hollywood studios of old would so carefully manage. Stars as escapist symbols, idealised people, images to look up to. That’s gone now. Reality TV is just reality on TV. Anyway, again, that’s a whole other thing.

"Former sex kitten turned activist...' 2010

I was in my late teens when I first saw Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman. She socked me with wow. It’s been nearly thirty years since she retired and while there’s no denying she remains a fine-looking woman I think I’d probably have been happy having never seen her as she is now.

In music, the trend-spate of reformed tribute acts has shown this. Take That have done well, of course. But would we really want The Jam back, or The Smiths? Stuart Copeland posted online how ‘lame’ he felt The Police reunion tour was while he was still on it. 

When I heard The Libertines were returning (after just six years, that’s how fast things move on) my first thought wasn’t thrill at this band I loved getting back together for one last job but regretful concern at something that, while it could work, couldn’t conceivably be better.

The Libertines reunion, Reading Festival, 2010.

There was a band whose ramshackle bluster was part of their core, their spontaneity an essential ingredient that made a poor show by them almost as good as a great one.When I saw them play those reunion shows I got what I knew I’d get and that was the worst part- a band like that doing a gig for the (big) money, running down the setlist track by track until the last song. And that was all. Great to see them friends again, playing again. But was it really The Libertines? No, and this is the thing- it never could have been. You can’t recreate something organic and birth-bright. It was better than nothing, better, at least, than some cobbled-together Libertines with replacement members. That would have been unforgiveable. 

When The Specials reformed did their reputation benefit? When The Stooges, a band whose reputation was secure as influential, punk-starting milestone with those three wild albums then a split really need to add a fourth? Did Pixies need to come back? In their case they admitted it was for the money, though Kim Deal at least nixed a proposed LP. Why shouldn’t they? And didn’t I scramble to the front during most of these gigs? And love them? Who am I kidding?

I don’t know. I do know that when I saw New Order headline the Reading Festival in 1998 and they played a three-song Joy Division set in the middle of the show, that I didn’t want to see that. No Ian Curtis, no Joy Division. Ian Astbury is not the frontman of The Doors. Buckler & Foxton touring as From The Jam could scarcely have been more reputation-withering.

Put it this way. Rich Hall: “So Iggy Pop’s selling car insurance now? Does this man have no shame?” I guess we’re going into Selling Out territory. Marlon Brando’s 1990 film The Freshman saw him playing Don Corleone. For laughs. In a Matthew Broderick comedy. Sure, get some guy to do an impression of Brando’s legendary performance if you really really must. But asking Marlon Brando to play the role? And him agreeing? No one wants that. No one really wants to see Robert De Niro in The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle. But getting him to parody, of all things, his role in Taxi Driver, and seeing him do it, is just too much. Why do they do it? Why would Iggy Pop, who, though he’s looked little different for years now than the rubber puppet of himself in those woeful ads, need to do it? He was the frontman in The Stooges. Don’t parody that.

Sure, careers go downhill, people put on weight, lose a bit of something they once had, we know this. And these people need to work. The camera’s locked gaze does funny things. When you’re perfect, is any less broken? No, of course not. Louise Brooks was never not lovely. Audrey Hepburn lived and died untarnished, like many. But here’s my last example.

’76

Sex Pistols. Maybe the ultimate flash of unrepeatable noise. Getting together again twenty years on is one thing. Calling the tour Filthy Lucre and doing it for the money is another. Nevertheless, ten years after that, the thirtieth anniversary shows at Brixton Academy. There I am on the barrier. Despite Filthy Lucre, my thinking was that when the four of them start to play ‘Bodies’ where else would I want to be? I bought my ticket. I got down the front. They were never going to be the Pistols of the Punk and they had no new material to show us. A band so from and of and shockingly inside their time, with a single album and generations of reverberations still being felt in the bands of today could only play what was once the future, that is, show us their winning hand, their one winning hand, that won once, then. Matlock was there. Cook was there. Jones huffed and puffed at the back like a roadie. Like Louise Brooks, they belong young. Not diminished by reality. Lydon, then.  

’06

He mock-snorted snot from his nostril. He pulled up his shirt and slapped his middle-aged spread. This was him now. Sure, that’s fine. John Lydon. But this guy was Johnny Rotten, once, and hasn’t he ever let us forget it. At the time, after the Pistols, he aced everyone by leaping forward and making PiL. He understood the force of current. Annie Nightingale’s face when PiL played ‘Careering’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test. He didn’t need the Pistols. He didn’t even need Sex Pistols. And he didn’t need any reunions. He understands image, cool, selling out, all that stuff. Go on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here– why should you care what people think of you? Only don’t walk out in a pathetically contrived rebel stance. Don’t advertise butter. But if you do, don’t reference the past in comments on British this- or that-ness. Be John Lydon but don’t be Johnny Rotten. I’m aware I may be taking this a bit seriously (they weren’t that bad at Brixton)* but that’s because it’s so important. This is heroes and dreams stuff. Some people transcend themself. Ray Davies has said he wished he was as good as ‘Waterloo Sunset.’

One man understood this: Julien Temple. In his brilliant Sex Pistols documentary The Filth And The Fury he interviews the band, as he has to. But unlike other documentaries that cut between the artist of today and the wild young thing they once were, Temple understands what legacy means, what image, the record of then that people have kept, carried, looked up to means, despite the dull fact that we’ve all changed, aged- and he films the band in darkness. John Lydon’s silhouette talks about Johnny Rotten. And it feels right that way.

When I started writing this, I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say, and I’m still not, except to have a vague notion that the perfect place to be (if you’re creative and fulfilled by creativity) is a position like Bowie’s, or Dylan’s, or Radioheads’s, or maybe Johnny Depp’s, where your work has remained current. Trying things, some that work, some that don’t. “One is always nearer by not keeping still,” Thom Gunn wrote. It’s tough getting fixed as something. Limiting. But even if you’re in the same groove and development doesn’t come naturally, don’t feed off the past with anything other than respect, or how can those who loved you then keep the faith? I’m not even talking about Brooks or Bardot or any of the beautiful young. Just the idea of imagery that is actually iconic, a word I hate hearing casually used.

Sometimes the past can’t be surpassed. I’d hate knowing that about myself, or that anyone thought it when they looked at me. Some people have managed to look, to seem, perfect. Some people are imaginary.

 Bowes Park, 3 November, 2010.

 

 

*Putting this together I noticed on YouTube that Julien Temple had filmed the gig, as Sex Pistols: There’ll Always Be An England Live From Brixton Academy – November, 10th, 2007. It shows a room full of people having a great time. Just goes to show you can get too pseud about this stuff. What do I know?