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Posts Tagged ‘popular music’

Clive AliveC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

Ink TuneNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reaktion Books 2013)

Stan’s FansAwaydays, Kevin Sampson (Vintage 1998)

Words at WarPoetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (Oxford University Press 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Nick Drake Dreaming England by Nathan Trowse-WisemanNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reverb/Reaktion Books 2013)

I picked this book up thinking that it was another biography of Nick Drake. Wrong: it’s a critical study of his music instead. I wasn’t pleased. It’s irritating when interesting topics are slathered in pretentious jargon: terms like “locus”, “hybridization”, “performance of class”, “articulations of authenticity” and “musico-topographical features” do not go well with Drake’s delicate and melancholic music. To use the same jargon: they don’t “resonate”. Or rather, they do: jarringly and crudely. Putting cultural theory to work on Nick Drake is like driving through a bluebell wood in a tank.

A rusty, badly maintained tank. Exhaust fuming, gears grinding, driver drunk, unshaven and unkempt. But this book could have been much worse and if Drake can survive having some of his songs covered by Elton John, he can probably survive cultural theory. The topics remain interesting despite the jargon: Englishness, pastoralism, nostalgia, modernity, the end of empire, the continuing appeal of a singer who died young and a failure. Or so he must have thought. But it was a good career move: Drake died young and became very famous. If he’d lived and got old, he might now be almost unknown. Lots of good musicians never get what they deserve, just as lots of bad musicians get what they don’t.

I’d prefer Nathan Wiseman-Trowse, a “Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture” at the University of Northampton, to have examined that side of Drake’s story in greater detail. His early death, probably by suicide, is central to his cult. And cult is an appropriate word: mythical figures like Adonis and Hyacinth prove the psychological power of handsome youths who go before their time. So do Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. But those two were thunderous musicians, playing rock and filling arenas. Drake’s music was quiet and introspective: acoustic, not amplified; English, not American; for the countryside, not the town. But he was influenced by American music and “Eastern mysticism” and he lived in a very big city while he tried to make his name. That’s where Wiseman-Trowse comes in, trying to unpick the paradoxes, classify the hybridities and problematicize the construction of Drake as quintessentially English.

As he might have put it somewhere. But he puts other things better, as in the chapter on “Melancholia and Loss”, where he discusses Peter Akroyd’s book Albion and its “exploration of English culture”:

For Akroyd, the melancholic strain is to be found in the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, focussing on transience, decay, desolation and dustsceawung, or the “contemplation of dust”. It manifests itself through the elegy, the lament and the dirge. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meditates on the passing of all things, while melancholic themes run throughout the work of John Donne, Thomas Browne and Samuel Johnson to the more contemporary poetry of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. (ch. 4, “Melancholia and Loss”, pg. 96)

Dustsceawung is a beautiful word and I’m glad to have discovered it here. But words, concepts and speculation are all you’ll get from a book like this: I didn’t need to spot an occasional “in terms of” to be sure that Wiseman-Trowse is a dedicated Guardianista. This means that he will regard biological explanations for English character and culture as unacceptable and appalling. Race doesn’t exist, after all. We’re all the same under the skin. Except that it does exist and we aren’t the same. Those old ideas about the English weather influencing the English mind are not ridiculous. The brain did not stop evolving when human beings left Africa and the new environments found by the migrants re-shaped their psychology and sharpened their intellect. Higher intelligence was useful in colder climates and so was neuroticism: people who didn’t worry about the approach of winter were less likely to survive it.

So Nick Drake will eventually be explained by biology and brain-science, not by cultural theory. Will that unweave the rainbow and empty the gnomèd mine? Perhaps it will, but it will also end the ugly jargon and the pseudo-profundity. And Drake himself is beyond caring. That’s part of his appeal and his appeal can’t be killed by cultural theory. Indeed, it’s an important fact about Drake that his music attracts cultural theorists, even as it evades their apparatus. I’d have preferred less jargon and no “in terms of” in this book, but you could see them as a contrast with the subtlety and beauty of its subject. Either way, Dreaming England contains some good photos and some interesting ideas about the music, the man and the myth. It isn’t a biography but there is a lot about Drake’s life here, with a detailed timeline and a discography. It has a good title and index too.

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Front cover of Doll by Peter Sotos and James HavocDoll, Peter Sotos and James Havoc (TransVisceral Books, 2013)

Peter Sotos and James Havoc are undoubtedly the two most transgressive authors on the planet. They’ve been flagellating the frontiers of ferality, exterminating the envelope of extremity, for over three decades. And when – at long last – they collaborate on a book, you can expect them to deliver something pretty darn special to their slavering armies of fetidity-fanatics. Doll is exactly that: special. I have never read any book before that so fearlessly eviscerates forbidden territory, exploding sacred cows with cerebral scalpels of clandestine commitment and viral volatility. TransVisceral Books are to be congratulated on spotting the performative potential of an interview conducted by Cor.tex Journal with James Havoc a year ago in a Cambodian café in Bangkok. The interview is used as an introduction to the book and, to rip the lid off Doll, I can do no better than reproduce part of it right here:

Tina Robinsey: Well, James, what’s the best way to put this? We’re here to talk about your passion for under-sized females.

James Havoc (laughing): Yes.

Tina Robinsey: And it’s a long-standing passion, I believe?

James Havoc (laughing again): Yes. Very long-standing. I’ve kept it up for decades.

Tina Robinsey: And there are few better places to pursue this passion than Bangkok, I guess.

James Havoc: Yes. Very few.

Tina Robinsey: Because they’re available on street-corners, aren’t they?

James Havoc (taking sip of herbal tea): Well, it’s not as blatant as that. Not nowadays. They’ve tightened up on enforcement of the international regulations a lot, in recent years. But if you’ve got the contacts, yeah, it’s still an excellent place to pursue this, ah, hobby.

Tina Robinsey: And other members of the counter-cultural community have flown in to take advantage of your contacts and local knowledge, I believe?

James Havoc: Yeah. Loads of big names. Pete Sotos, Dave Mitchell, Sam Salatta, they’ve all been over to check out what’s on offer and to admire my harem, as it were. Pete offered me cash on the nail for my best girl, but I turned him down flat.

Tina Robinsey: How much did he offer?

James Havoc: Oh, I’m not saying. But it was a lot, believe me. When you see her, you’ll understand why. Just hang on a sec.

[Unzips the shoulder-bag he has brought, carefully removes cardboard box, opens it, lifts out contents…]

Tina Robinsey: Oh, James, she’s gorgeous!

James Havoc: Thank you.

Tina Robinsey: And that cerise beret! It’s to die for!

James Havoc: Thank you.

Tina Robinsey: Did you make it yourself?

James Havoc: Yes. I make all their clothes myself.

Tina Robinsey: Can I have a closer look?

James Havoc: Sure. But be gentle with her, please.

Tina Robinsey: Oh, but she really is gorgeous! And the stitching is wonderful. So tiny! And so neat!

James Havoc: Thank you. My mum always said I was the best seamstress in the family. Far better than my sisters or my aunties.

Tina Robinsey: And does she have a name?

James Havoc: Of course. Say hello to Tina, dear. [Puts on cutesy ickle girl’s voice.] “Hello, Tina. I’m Belinda Barbie. Pleased to meet you.”

Tina Robinsey: And pleased to meet you, Belinda. Do all your Barbie-buddies have names starting with “B” too?

James Havoc: Yes. There’s Betsy Barbie and Bella Barbie and Beth Barbie and Barbarella Barbie and a whole bunch of others.

Tina Robinsey: Oh, James, she is sooooo cute. I think I’ve fallen in love! No wonder Peter Sotos wanted her so much.

James Havoc: Yes. He’s a fanatical collector too.

Tina Robinsey: And what about Sindy? Do you collect her at all?

James Havoc (shaking head, pulling face, and making gagging noise): No, no, never. Barbie’s the only girl for me. I accept no alternative.

Tina Robinsey: And what about Ken?

James Havoc: No, he’s never interested me. [Starts singing] “I’m a Barbie-boy, in a Barbie world…” A Barbie world, note. Ken can go take a flying fuck at a rolling ringpiece, as far as I’m concerned. (Interview text © Cor.tex Journal, 2012)

Having seen the interview, TransVisceral Books approached Havoc and asked him whether he’d like to collaborate with Sotos on a book devoted purely and simply to Barbie. Doll is the result. Sotos and Havoc trace the roots of their passion, describe their ever-expanding collections and offer low-cost, high-quality tips on customizing Barbie’s clothes and accessories to keep pace with the ever-changing worlds of fashion and popular music. There’s an extensive photo-section too, so you can meet Belinda, Betsy, Bella, Beth, Barbarella and all the rest. Barbie’s appeal has never been so clearly explained or so passionately celebrated, but the book may leave you – as it left me – with one nagging fear. How are Sotos and Havoc ever going to match it in future, whether solo or in collaboration? Quite honestly, I don’t think they will – and from the proud, Barbie-boy grins they wear in the photos, I don’t think they care

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