Posts Tagged David Bowie
It was a good year for superheroes. Most specially because of Wonder Woman, not because it was the best of its genre this year necessarily but because for the first time with a superhero movie I didn’t have scroll through hundreds of images to find one where a woman was centre screen, in charge. I wrote about the film, how it made me feel, the exhilaration of seeing all the tropes I love about superhero movies but with a woman, a glorious, magnificent woman, where usually there is a man, or mainly men (quite possibly glorious and magnificent in their own right, but still).
I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warming to it despite a phase when I wearied of some of the schoolboy humour, until I realised what that was telling us about these lost children, and how they were forming a strange, new family. There was plenty of daft humour too in Thor: Ragnarok, as one would expect given that Taika Waititi was directing (responsible for last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople and for What we do in the Shadows). And it was perhaps a sign of changing times (and not a moment too soon) that Valkyrie is played as a cynical, world-weary, boozy mess who comes through when she is needed, such a male archetype. As well as obviously kicking ass in a most splendid way. Spiderman: Homecoming was charming, funny and really used the notion that Spidey is an adolescent boy, cleverly and with heart. Logan, though, of all the films that belong broadly in that genre, was the one to break your heart. With gripping valedictory performances from Jackman and Stewart, and a mesmerising and terrifying one from Dafne Keen.
Star Wars is not so much my thing. I did enjoy the first trilogy, albeit critically, but I never felt them to be mine, and I have never even seen the prequels (nor do I intend to). But I loved The Force Awakens, and I loved Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi before long.
War for the Planet of the Apes was brilliant – referencing Biblical epics, Westerns, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and probably other genres and specific films as well, whilst maintaining the power and emotional heft of its predecessors.
My efforts to find an image for each film in which a woman is prominent were doomed in the case of Dunkirk. That’s fair enough, given the premise, I didn’t expect women to feature other than in traditional roles – as nurses, or serving tea and jam sandwiches. There has been a more serious issue raised, that of the absence of non-white faces. I don’t honestly believe this was a deliberate whitewashing, nor do I accept that just because Farage liked the film it was a pro-Brexit parable. But it would have taken very little to ensure that there were visible representatives of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, or the lascar crewmen on British merchant vessels that took part in the evacuation. They were there, and this could have been conveyed without changing the basic structure of the film and its deliberately narrow focus on a few of the rescued and rescuers. But having said that, whilst watching the film such considerations never crossed my mind. I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
The opposite for the next two movies – three women foregrounded in each of them. I wrote about Twentieth-century Women for International Women’s Day,
and Hidden Figures we missed at the cinema but caught on DVD – uplifting and inspiring even if, oddly enough, the sexism and racism they encountered was actually ramped up for the benefit of the story. Who would have thought that could ever be necessary?
Baby Driver was beautifully described by Empire as:
not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.
Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
La La Land inspired me to write about musicals. It was gorgeous and delightful and poignant and much more that I wanted to say was expressed so well in a piece on the marvellous That’s How the Light Gets In blog.
And one more cinema outing, a rather lengthy but entirely captivating one, for Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. It is what it says, a journey and a personal one at that, through French film from Tavernier’s first childhood moment of enchantment, on through the decades as he goes from a kid in the audience to a film maker himself. I believe there’s a follow-up in the making, bringing his journey more up to date, to which I will happily commit as many hours as it takes, as soon as it’s out.
Mind you, speaking of French cinema, I should really note that we did go to see Elle. However, my feelings about that film are so predominantly negative, that despite my overwhelming admiration for Huppert, and despite moments of brilliantly black comedy, I shall pass over it without substantial comment.
On to the smaller screen.
As always a good deal of crime fiction. The dramas noted below are not an inclusive list of what we watched. There were others that were workaday, or that strained credulity with plot craters and characters who behaved with a stupidity that was at the same time predictable and utterly inconsistent with what we already knew of them. I’m not going to name the guilty parties, just those that we were gripped by and that managed to avoid the worst clichés and pitfalls of the genre.
Sherlock: The Final Problem certainly didn’t give us genre cliché. What it all meant, and indeed, whether it meant anything at all or was just a clever game, is uncertain. The Guardian‘s reviewer was a bit cross about it, but identified two main strands in the narrative:
One was a subtle, beautifully crafted backstory about Sherlock’s childhood. The other was a fun if unfulfilling gameshow of wild hypotheticals, where everything was at stake yet it often felt as though very little was.
It was frustrating and baffling but it didn’t make me cross, I was perfectly willing to believe both that it did mean something and that it was just a fascinating puzzle that I would probably have no chance of unravelling.
Line of Duty series 4 was just superb. Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley was absolutely compelling, and the plot twisted and turned as we were made to question everyone’s motives and integrity, at least briefly. It had the classic LoD set pieces in the interview room, plus shoot outs and chases, and a plot that at least started to weave together strands from series 1-3, whilst leaving plenty to look forward to in series 5, which cannot come around too soon for me.
The Missing had only one character in common with series 1, the grizzled detective (Tchéky Karyo) who I was very glad to spend another few hours with. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were both excellent, as always. The narrative begins, in a sense, at the point that one might expect it to end, with the return of their missing daughter. Of course, it’s not that simple, it’s complex and agonising, and unexpected.
Broadchurch 3 was much better than 2 (which I quite enjoyed at the time but actually struggle to recall what it was all about, really, apart from Joe’s not guilty plea). The handling of the rape case was generally excellent even if the resolution left a few dangling plot threads that didn’t quite make sense. Julie Hesmondhalgh was wonderful, as were, obviously, Tennant, Colman and Whittaker.
Strike was an excellent adaptation of the first two of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike novels. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were perfect in the lead roles, and I look forward immensely to the adaptation of the third and any future novels in the series.
I Know Who you Are was a fairly bonkers Spanish series in which most characters were pretty despicable, and one of the two genuinely sympathetic people didn’t make it out alive. The only morality that prevailed was Family and within that there was a hierarchy of loyalty – to attempt to murder one’s sister in order to protect one’s son was seen by most characters (including the intended victim) as pretty reasonable. It was all thoroughly enjoyable.
Unforgotten 2 was profoundly different, as Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar unpicked another cold case. They are both deeply sympathetic characters and the whole thing is imbued with a kind of compassion and empathy that draws in the damaged people whose lives have been twisted in various ways by the past crime.
Rellik very cleverly subverted the way in which the detective story must follow a retrograde narrative path, starting with the crime and working backwards, by starting with the crime’s (apparent) resolution and working backwards and backwards, until in its final episode it leapt back to the beginning/end and a shocking dénoument. The structure took a bit of getting used to and never quite stopped being unsettling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It was produced by Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) and featured, amongst other excellent performances, the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as an early suspect.
Witnesses was the second series of the French crime drama starring Marie Dompnier. This one also stars Audrey Fleurot, who we know from Spiral, and whose return in that series we look forward to impatiently. Witnesses was compelling and baffling and ended most enigmatically (none the worse for that – I’d rather have honest to goodness open endings than ostensibly tidy endings that actually leave loose threads all over the place).
Fargo 3 brought us not one but two wonderful female cops. Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). And not one but two Ewan McGregors, as he plays twin brothers. One David Thewlis was more than enough, however – his villain was quite the most revolting, viscerally unpleasant character I’ve seen on screen for some time. That’s a compliment (I think) to the writing and the acting. Lord knows where this one is going next but we’ll be more than happy to go along. Fargo also introduced the wonderful phrase, ‘unfathomable pinhead-ery’ into our vocab, for which we are truly thankful.
Telly sci-fi had an altogether brilliant year.
Agents of Shield had an outstanding season with a multi-layered narrative that messed with our heads and our hearts. Beautifully played and written, and quite breathtaking.
Orphan Black reached its fifth and final season, having maintained its form throughout the four years that it has been running. The weight of the series is carried – seemingly effortlessly – by the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who plays not only various clone ‘sestras’ but at various times plays one of them masquerading as one of the others. It’s dazzlingly done. It also stars the rather wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs S.
We’re not far through Star Trek: Discovery yet, but from episode 3 on were hooked. Yes, OK, that coincides with the arrival of Jason Isaacs, but it’s not just because Jason Isaacs. Sonequa Martin-Green is excellent, as is Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman as cadet Tilly. It’s visually brilliant, and the plot is loaded with moral ambiguity from which it does not flinch. It promises much and we look forward to it developing further.
I remain loyal to The Walking Dead even though no one could claim that it’s unproblematic. The tone and pace are extremely uneven and it depends far too often on (a) plot armour, (b) magically inexhaustible ammo and (c) people who we know are capable of good judgement behaving with unfathomable pinheadery. Nonetheless, I cannot envisage giving up on it. I have to see how this plays out – and there are episodes which grip and compel and convince.
Possibly the only one of my top TV shows which features in the critics’ lists is The Handmaid’s Tale. I also read the book for the first time, as part of my 60 books in 60 days challenge. So much has been said about the series that I don’t feel I can add anything especially insightful – it was horrifying and terrifying and brilliantly done.
And of course there’s Doctor Who. I wrote about the (to me, brilliant) news that the next Doctor will be a woman. Nonetheless, much as I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role I will need to grieve first for Peter Capaldi’s doctor, who I have loved – and for Pearl Mackie who has been a wonderful companion. PC’s final series was excellent, and the finale was heart-stopping and moving.
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor
Three docs worth mentioning. Suzie Klein’s Tunes for Tyrants explored 20th century music in the context of Nazi and Stalinist oppression. She’s an excellent presenter and the material – and the music – was fascinating and powerful.
Bowie’s departure from this dimension was – for me amongst others – the greatest loss of 2016, a year of losses. Bowie – the Last Five Years brought us the final phase of that extraordinary story, as he worked on his last two albums, and the stage musical Lazarus. We were reminded, as if we could forget, not only of his talent, but of his humour and intelligence, his warmth and wit. And that last body of work is not only a worthy finale to his career but imbued with a sense of mortality and the fragility of life.
Neil Brand is one of my favourite music-explainers. Charles Hazlewood and Tom Service have got that nailed in terms of classical music but for the music of stage and screen, for the popular song, Neil is your man, and The Sound of Musicals was a delight.
We loved Poldark, and not just for the scenery.
The Replacement was a bit bonkers but both Vicky McClure (see also Line of Duty) and Morven Christie (also in The A Word, series 2 of which isn’t covered here only because it’s yet to be watched) were excellent.
And another favourite of mine, Suranne Jones, was magnificent in series 2 of Doctor Foster.
We got to see Jodie Whittaker pretending to be a doctor in Trust Me. Plot holes a-plenty (unless they’re just an indication of a second series coming up?) but well done, and well played by JW – looking forward to her being a real Doctor shortly.
Homeland was on excellent form, with the dynamics between Carrie and the new female PotUS adding a new dimension to the plot.
And Spin took us back into the shadowy world of French political manouevering.
It wasn’t all screen based culture. I made several visits to Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North productions, some of which I reviewed for The Culture Vulture (see the Reviews page of this site, which also features my review of the Sheffield Crucible’s production of Julius Caesar). I also saw at Leeds Grand a magical production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, at the Crucible, an intense Desire Under the Elms, and in the Crucible Studio various splendid Music in the Round chamber music concerts.
So, thanks to all who’ve shared these delights with me. Liz, Viv, Arthur, Ruth, Aid, Dad, and of course him that I’ve been watching telly and going to the pictures and going to gigs and plays with for >40 years…
I’m very conscious that I’ve watched very few of the series which are getting the Best Of accolades from the quality press. Some of them are sitting on our BT Vision box waiting to be watched, others we didn’t catch on to until they were underway and so are now waiting for the repeats.
Some of what we did watch was old stuff, the crime series that circulate on the Drama channel or ITV3, of which the best was undoubtedly Foyle’s War, for its meticulous attention to historical detail and the wonderful, understated central performance by Michael Kitchen.
We came late to the Scandi party, having missed The Killing altogether, and caught up with the Bridge only on the most recent series, but did enjoy Follow the Money (financial shenanigans), Blue Eyes (politics and right-wing terrorism), Trapped (murder, human trafficking and a heck of a lot of snow). And whilst we wait for Spiral to return, we saw its late lamented Pierre being an unmitigated shit in Spin.
We enjoyed the latest series of Scott & Bailey, Shetland and Endeavour. But the prize here goes (again) to Line of Duty. Vicky McClure and Keeley Hawes were both formidable and the tension brilliantly ramped up.
The Returned returned. Series 2 was as full of mystery and atmosphere as Series 1 and thankfully did not feel the need to offer tidy solutions. It left loose ends, but in a way that suggested the cyclical nature of events rather than anything that could be resolved by a third series.
Orphan Black’s penultimate series was as always thrilling and funny and complicated, with Tatiana Maslany triumphantly playing multiple roles, with such confidence and subtlety that I still occasionally forget that it’s all just her.
The Walking Dead ended its last season on a horrific cliffhanger, and the opener was pretty grim as well. I have doubts about the series – it is inevitably repetitive: our group finds what looks like a haven, the haven is compromised/invaded, a few of our lot are offed, a few new bods tag along, and on they go to the next apparent haven. The big shift is that as the series have progressed, the greatest danger is no longer from the walkers, since their behaviour is predictable and the survivors have developed effective tactics for defence and despatch, but from other more ruthless survivors. This is interesting territory (the walkers themselves are pretty dull, after all), but I’m not convinced by the way the writers are handling the current storyline. And they’ve shown a worrying tendency to make people act out of character, to do utterly stupid things that they know are utterly stupid, in order to move the story along. So, the jury is out, but I will be watching, whatever.
We also thrilled to The Night Manager, London Spy and Deutschland 83, and to the latest adaptations of War and Peace, and Conrad’s The Secret Agent.
The A Word was wonderful – I know that parents of autistic children had some quibbles, particularly about the way in which children who are ‘on the spectrum’ so often are shown as having special abilities, like Joe with his encyclopaedic knowledge of 80s pop, which is not always the case. But this was the story of one child, and his extended family. The performances were superb, the writing subtle and nuanced, and the image of Joe marching down the road, earphones on, singing ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ or ‘Mardy Bum’, will stay with me for a long time.
Raised by Wolves had a splendid new series, and then was inexplicably and inexcusably cancelled. Still hoping that Caitlin Moran’s crowdfunding project gets sufficient support to bring it back.
Normally my TV of the year would include Doctor Who, but we’ve had a hiatus this year, and will have to wait till Christmas Day for the special, and then 2017 for a new series (and a new companion). Meanwhile there was Class, on BBC3, which got off to a promising start, but as I’ve only seen 3 episodes so far, all comment and judgement is reserved until we’ve caught up.
At the theatre this year we saw two Stage on Screen performances at the Showroom – the Donmar Warehouse production of Liaisons Dangereuses, with Dominic West and Janet McTeer, and Anthony Sher’s magnificent and heartbreaking Lear.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen at the Lyceum Theatre in Pinter’s No Man’s Land were deeply unsettling as well as darkly funny.
And we saw a glorious reimagining of The Duchess of Malfi, transported to West Africa, as Iyalode of Eti.
Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre – Andrea Chenier, Giordano’s French Revolution tale of loyalty and revenge and love. And a glorious Puccini double bill – Il Tabarro, and Suor Angelica.
Of course there was Tramlines, about which I have rambled euphorically already. There was also Songhoy Blues in a Talking Gig, performing (and talking) after a showing of the remarkable documentary They will have to Kill us First, about the repression of music in Mali by Islamist extremists. Malian music is something else I have rambled euphorically about, and Songhoy Blues in particular.
Two gigs in the Crucible Studio, the first under the auspices of Sheffield Jazz – The Kofi Barnes Aggregation, a collaboration between two splendid, but very different, saxophonists. And the Unthanks were as spinetingly and goosebumpy and lump in the throaty as I could have imagined, whilst being, in person, down to earth and funny and delightful.
Of course the year began with, in the space of just a couple of days, hearing the new CD from a musician whose music has been part of my life since I was a teenager, and then learning of his death. David Bowie is far from being the only important musical figure to pass away this year – indeed, that great gig in the sky is looking pretty crowded now, with Prince, Leonard Cohen, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, Sharon Jones, Mose Allison, Pete Burns, Prince Buster, Gilli Smyth, Alan Vega, Dave Swarbrick and George Martin, to name but a few, rocking up over the course of the year. But Bowie was the one who meant the most to me.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan lately. Early stuff – Witmark demos, basement tapes, that sort of thing. Raw and rough, but with such immense power.
Do his lyrics constitute poetry? I’ve often considered this question, and argued with others about it, not just in relation to Dylan but to other songwriters whose lyrics are held up as shining examples of the art. I don’t think there is any absolute answer.
Many brilliant song lyrics absolutely only work when they are sung. On the page they might seem flat and clumsy, but when you hear them they take wings and fly and soar and take your heart with them. To be a great songwriter does not require one to be a poet – Lennon & McCartney rarely achieve the kind of lyrical brilliance that I would want to defend as poetry; for the most part there are moments, rather than whole songs, as sublime as those moments are. The brilliance of Holland, Dozier & Holland does not lie in their lyrics, and whilst Smokey’s are witty and clever, and less prone to ‘confusion/illusion’, ‘burning/yearning’ cliches, I can think of no individual songs that I would want to present as poems. R Dean Taylor’s wonderful ‘Love Child’ works because of the way the lead vocal and backing vocals are woven together, especially in the coda where Diana Ross’s voice takes the melody with ‘I’ll always love you’, with the urgent rhythms of the backing singers pleading with the lover to wait, and hold on. On the page though, all that is lost.
So do I believe that Dylan is a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Yes, yes I do, despite all of the caveats that so often apply.
Firstly, the lyrics are quite clearly the driving force of his songs. Not accompaniments to the music, nor a vehicle for the voice (indeed the voice divides opinion considerably more than the lyrics), rather the reverse. Secondly, the immense variety of his work deserves recognition. Even just considering his earlier work, which is what I know best, you have the pared down, desperate simplicity of ‘Hollis Brown’, the jaunty viciousness of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, the surreal imagery of ‘Hard Rain’… Thirdly, these are words of visceral power that stay with you and whose portent transcends the time of their writing and the specific concerns that inspired them.
Take ‘Hollis Brown’. The relentless rhythm is matched by the relentless words, the repetition hammering home the hopelessness
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
This kind of repetition is a feature of many folksongs, presumably to help with their transmission in an oral tradition, but here it’s more than that. Hollis Brown walks his rugged mile, walks the floor and wonders why, and his babies’ cries pound on his brain, on and on until he can see no way out other than to spend his last lone dollar on those shotgun shells.
Critic David Horowitz has said of this song:
Technically speaking, “Hollis Brown” is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown’s plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other….
On the same album as Hollis Brown, there’s ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’.
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The invocation of Medgar Evers’ name and brutal death set up expectations which are undercut at the end of the first verse as Dylan asserts ‘He can’t be blamed’. And the final verse contrasts Evers’ burial, lowered down as a king, with the unanmed assailant’s future death and his epitaph plain, only a pawn in their game. I know I was not the only person who found those words circling in my mind after the murder of Jo Cox, and again after the upsurge in racist harassment and attacks post-referendum.
Then there’s ‘Hattie Carroll’. That killer final verse:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six month sentence…
Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
If that weren’t enough the album also includes ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘The Times they are a Changing’, ‘North Country Blues’ – and from the viscerally political to the personal and the melancholy of ‘One Too Many Mornings’.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind
which reminds me of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘You and Me Baby’
Except for you and me baby
This is journey’s end
And I try to hang on to all those precious smiles
But I’m tired of walking and it must be miles
That’s just one album, by a man in his early twenties. And his first two albums had given us the satire of ‘Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues’, ‘Hard Rain’ and, in real contrast to the melancholy and reflective farewell expressed in ‘One Too Many Mornings’, this:
I aint saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
A much less well known song than some of those above, one which I might not have come across had Jimi Hendrix not covered it, is ‘Tears of Rage’.
We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day,
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way.
Oh what dear daughter ‘neath the sun
Would treat a father so,
To wait upon him hand and foot
And always tell him, ‘No’?
Tears of rage, tears of grief,
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief
Andy Gill, in his 1998 book, Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages, suggests a link to King Lear:
Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions’, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.
and to the Vietnam war:
In its narrowest and most contemporaneous interpretation, the song could be the first to register the pain of betrayal felt by many of America’s Vietnam war veterans. … In a wider interpretation [it] harks back to what anti-war protesters and critics of American materialism in general felt was a more fundamental betrayal of the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Sid Griffin in his Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band, and the Basement Tapes, noted the strong Biblical theme running through the song, particularly the ‘life is brief’ motif which links to Psalms and Isaiah, and Greil Marcus wrote that
in Dylan’s singing—an ache from deep in the chest, a voice thick with care in the first recording of the song—the song is from the start a sermon and an elegy, a Kaddish.
So should we worry that this prize is the thin end of the wedge, that, as some BTL commentators have claimed, this means the next Nobel Prize for Literature could go to Lady Gaga or Elton John, or whoever. Seriously? The prize has been awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Who could really dispute that Dylan has done that? His influence on other musicians has been extraordinary and creative – Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in direct response to hearing ‘Blowing in the Wind’; Jimi Hendrix drew on Dylan’s work to create his innovative take on the blues; John Lennon’s songwriting was challenged by Dylan’s songs to become rougher and edgier and to go beyond the teen romance preoccupations of the Beatles’ early ’60s output; Bowie parodied Bob Dylan’s 1962 homage to Woody Guthrie, “Song to Woody”, addressing Dylan by his ‘real’ name: “Hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you”.
And undisputed poet Simon Armitage has talked about the impact of Dylan’s songwriting on his poetry:
1984 was also the year I started writing poetry. I wouldn’t claim that there’s any connection, that listening to Dylan made me want to write, or that his songs influenced my writing style. But I do think his lyrics alerted me to the potential of storytelling and black humour as devices for communicating more serious information. And to the idea that without an audience, there is no message, no art. His language also said to me that an individual’s personal vocabulary, or idiolect, is their most precious possession – and a free gift at that. Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.
Of course Dylan resisted being ‘the spokesman for a generation’ – who would want that pressure, that endless demand? In the past, too, he’s demurred at being described as a poet, calling himself ‘only a song-and-dance man‘. He’s been said to have chosen his nom de plume in tribute to Dylan Thomas, but has (at least sometimes) denied that. Indeed Dylan has given us many different narratives – that’s how he has defied definition, alternating between telling us stories about himself, often contradicting the previous story he told, and telling us nothing at all.
As is the case right now. From Dylan himself, on the subject of his award, not a word from this man of powerful words. An acknowledgement appeared on his website, and then disappeared again.
So who knows? And who, in any case, would want it to be any different?
Finally, I get to do my Desert Island discs. Kirsty Young appears to have lost my contact details, but no matter, because this year the 24 Hour Inspire featured a pop-up radio station, and I was asked to choose 6 tracks, a book and a luxury, and to talk about them with interviewer Chella Quint.
But how to pick just 6 tracks? It would not, realistically, have been easier if it was the BBC 8. Or even 12, or 20… Not when music has been such a huge part of life, not when it matters so much.
Listening, as I often do, to contributors to Desert Island Discs, I can see a range of different approaches to the task of selection. Some take the biographical approach – linking the tracks explicitly to key points in the life story they are describing. This is interesting, and enriching to the biography, but it may mean that the music doesn’t stand up in its own right, and has purely nostalgic value. Some just pick 8 tracks they kind of like – but you can tell in this case that music is not a passion, not an obsession but a pleasant accompaniment to other things. They have not agonised about those choices, they haven’t felt as though they have personally betrayed the artists who don’t feature in the final cut. That’s fine, but I can’t be like that.
When music really, really matters, the problem is not finding 6 or 8 or however many tracks, it’s finding a rationale for selecting for this particular purpose, on this particular date and time. That’s how I come to terms with it – on another day, in another context, I could and likely would have an entirely different set of tracks. So, what was my approach this time?
First off, I wanted to be able to say something about each track. Not just, this is brilliant, I love this, listen to this bit (although in a normal music-listening context there is a lot of that). But something about why it matters to me, how I encountered it, what it does to me. Secondly, the context. It’s the 24 Hour Inspire, so the music I pick has to be something that moves me, challenges me, disrupts me, inspires me.
Even outside this particular context, I can’t be doing with music that is merely pleasant. It has to move me – that can mean intellectual stimulation (a Bach fugue, for instance, or much of European postwar ‘classical’ music), emotional impact (much sacred music, even though I’m a humanist, and a host of songs that for some reason – lyrics, context, something in the tune, something in the vocals – make me well up or want to punch the air), physical effect (heavy grungy sounds, infectious dancey sounds, music that makes me move my feet, my hips). These are not mutually exclusive categories, of course, as my choices will demonstrate.
TRACK 1: SONGHOY BLUES – SOUBOUR
There had to be music from Mali. Because that’s where so much of the music I love was born – think Muddy Waters, think Hendrix – before it was transported across the oceans on the slave ships, asserted its power as it blended with the folk music and hymn tunes it encountered in the Americas and then made its way back home again.
Songhoy Blues grew up listening to the rich Malian tradition, and griots such as Ali Farka Toure – and to Muddy Waters and Hendrix. You can hear all of this in their music. I’ve written previously about some of the reasons why I feel such a strong emotional connection with West African music, and about the other powerful dynamic in contemporary Malian music – the resistance to the murderous jihadist bigots who invaded the north of the country, and banned football and music, inflicting brutal punishments on those who failed to comply. Songhoy Blues’ sound is joyous, a powerful riposte to the bigots, a reminder that the ‘grey zone’ as they call it is full of colour, full of melody, harmony, rhythm, full of beauty and warmth.
And this year of all years, there had to be Bowie.
TRACK 2: DAVID BOWIE – SUFFRAGETTE CITY
This one goes back to my first encounter with the Star Man, which I wrote about on the day his death was announced. It’s not necessarily my favourite ever track but it’s deeply significant as the start of a relationship that has continued throughout my teenage and adult life, and will continue, despite his death, because all of that music is still there to enjoy and explore.
Crimson were part of my teenage years too.
TRACK 3: KING CRIMSON – RED
I’ve always said that Red was my favourite album from the 70s manifestation of the band, and often said that ‘Starless’ was my favourite track on that album. But for desert island purposes, Starless would be so wrong. It could actually feature in a ‘songs that must never be played during a lonesome, marooned and possibly hopeless sojourn on a desert island’ list. Instead I picked the title track, a grungy heavy instrumental that I always loved, that I remember listening to, drinking cheap cider, sitting on the floor at my boyfriend’s house, and rocking out.
Kirsty MacColl would have to be with me on the island.
TRACK 4: KIRSTY MACCOLL – FREE WORLD
I imagine she’d have been great company in person – certainly the musicians she collaborated with talk about her with enormous affection and warmth, but also respect. She certainly deferred to no one – Johnny Marr tells a lovely story of her taking Keith Richards to task for getting something wrong on the guitar, and Keith accepting it meekly… Kirsty’s songs can be funny, poignant, sharp (sometimes all three), her voice is gorgeous, and she’s one of a number of women in rock/pop music who have managed to make their own rules, to do things their way, against the odds. This song makes me want to punch the air and change the world.
Another voice of rare beauty – actually one of the loveliest voices ever, anywhere:
TRACK 5: SAM COOKE – A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
This song is heavy with the hope and the hopelessness of the early sixties civil rights movement – people holding on to the possibility of change whilst being confronted daily with implacable hostility to change. I think of that – but I also think of the fact that an African-American currently sits in the White House, and for all the injustice and inequality that remains, for all the entrenched prejudice, things can and do change. I would never have believed, twenty years ago, for example, that gay marriage would be legal in so many parts of the world. And for all that there are still so many places where to be gay is to be outside the law and in danger of violence, it happened without that much fuss here, and in other countries, in the end. Even outside the social justice activist world, most people seemed to say, tacitly or otherwise, good on them. I have to remember and have faith that every time things seem hopeless, that a change IS gonna come.
And finally to the least well-known track of my six.
TRACK 6: FLOBOTS – WE ARE WINNING
The Flobots are hard to pin down – the highly political lyrics, spoken and sung, are backed not just with guitars and drums but with viola, cello and trumpet and the effect is intense and powerful. This track is marvellously idealistic, optimistic, hopeful. We are Winning. It doesn’t always (often) feel like it, but it’s something to hold on to, something to keep you keeping on. It speaks to my belief that what we do matters, precisely because this world is all there is. As Joss Whedon put it, in Angel: “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters then all that matters is what we do. Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.” And there’s a particular pertinence in these lines in the context of an event that celebrates learning, teaching and research: There is a war going on for your mind. If you are thinking, you are winning.
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
Resistance is victory.
Defeat is impossible.
Your weapons are already in hand.
Reach within you and find the means by which to gain your freedom.
Fight with tools.
Your fate, and that of everyone you know
Depends on it.
Selecting my six tracks might have been tricky, painful even. I feel I owe a personal apology to so many artists I love but have left out, and if I were to do this again (I ‘m more than willing, guys) I could easily come up with another six, and another, and another…
But these felt good. The 24 Hour Inspire is all about inspiration (obviously), and I feel inspired when I hear these songs. I feel energised, and optimistic, and I want to dance, and to punch the air and change the world. I hope at least some of the songs will affect at least some of you in similar ways. I’ll add the recording of the interview when it’s available. Meantime, enjoy!
Amongst the many Bowie tributes which have appeared on my Facebook wall and Twitter feed (indeed, there has been little else today), there was this poem, by a friend and former colleague. I know Katherine Inskip as an astronomer and University teacher – I had no idea she was a poet. And this, written as an immediate response to the loss that we’ve all been feeling, is just so right. Thanks Katherine.
He died at the dark of the moon
and I cannot help but wonder
if he knew, or if the change,
this once, was not his own.
For he lived as the moon does,
strange and bright, inconstant
as time itself, casting fluid
shadows into space.
And if we felt some echo
in his forms, his songs, his life,
the moon would not do less.
He died at the dark of the moon
at the moment when all things change.
And he died as the moon does,
with its face turned out, away.
Gone from our sight forever.
Gone, for a while.
Gone, but no less bright.
Fascinating Bowie tribute focusing on Bowie in Berlin, from That’s How the Light Gets In.
Just gonna have to be a different man…
In Berlin: Imagine a City, Rory MacLean writes of how, in 1976, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’s blazing star fell to earth in Berlin. Bowie arrived in the city a haunted, haggard wreck: barely six stones, sleepless and wired on cocaine, possessing little sense of his own self-worth. ‘I really did have doubts about my sanity’, Bowie wrote later. But, according to MacLean, Bowie found himself in Berlin (and he might know since, fresh out of film school, he was a young assistant to the director on the film shot in the city at the time, Just a Gigolo).
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Three moments from the early 1970s.
1972, the Cellar Bar at the Hutt, Ravenshead, Notts. The Hutt was a Berni Inn, purveyor of prawn cocktail, steak & chips, and Black Forest gateaux – but the Cellar Bar was a dark and crowded space where a 14 year old could get served with Babycham or Bacardi & lime, and where the juke box was turned up LOUD. I didn’t even know this was Bowie, I just knew it was exhilarating, intoxicating. And dangerous.
Seeing that clip now from Top of the Pops, it’s hard – impossible even – to make sense of how shocking, how ridiculously daring and provocative it seemed at the time when he draped his arm so casually around Mick Ronson’s shoulders and they sang together, close. There was no other topic of conversation the next morning at school in Mansfield. But for some of those boys and girls who knew they could never conform to the gender roles assigned to them, who knew they were different, and were scared and thought they might be the only ones who felt that way, it was a moment that changed their worlds, it gave them hope and courage.
Listening to Aladdin Sane on the record player in our living room, staying within arms reach of the volume control so that we could ramp it down speedily if the parents came within earshot at the point when the lyrics got seriously inappropriate.
Bowie was the unifying factor in the otherwise rigid musical demarcations of the time. I loved Motown, Simon & Garfunkel, and Bowie. My friends loved Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, and Bowie. My brother loved Gong, Hatfield & the North, and Bowie. And as for the boy who is now my husband of 38 years, who introduced me to Hendrix and Crimson, amongst others (and who I introduced to Motown and reggae) – Bowie was our musical meeting place. The fact that he could play some of the songs – well, reader, I married him…
It is those memories that are the most powerful, from those teenage years when everything was so intense, when we were trying to work out who we were and who we wanted to be. Bowie was part of that – he made us question, made us imagine possibilities, showed us we could reinvent ourselves if we wished.
That continued through the decades since – we backtracked from Ziggy to Hunky Dory and Man Who Sold the World, and even to the early singles when he was Davie Jones, with the King Bees, The Lower Third, and various other short-lived bands. No amount of nostalgia or grief will make me remember The Laughing Gnome with fondness, or some of the other early tracks. But even then, there was the sense of someone who would try anything, experiment fearlessly, take risks. And the variety was dizzying, from the heavy rock of Width of a Circle, to the delicate An Occasional Dream or the whimsy of Kooks.
We awaited each new album with a mixture of excitement and trepidation – would he let us down? would this one disappoint? No, and no. And how extraordinary that on Saturday night, just a day and a half ago, we prepared ourselves to listen to the new Bowie album, by playing the Ziggy Stardust farewell gig and Philip Glass’s Low Symphony. And he didn’t let us down. This one did not disappoint. I tweeted that night:
#musicnight No other artist that I’ve been listening to for > 40 yrs is still doing new stuff today, still sounding so fresh.
And then this morning I woke to the news that he is gone.
So tonight, we will play songs from across all of the years in which Bowie has been part of our lives. We will raise a glass to the Starman, and probably get a little drunk and sing along, and cry a bit. He may be gone but we have so much music, enough to sustain us, enough to inspire us.
Don’t let me hear you say life’s
taking you nowhere,
Come get up my baby
Look at that sky, life’s begun
Nights are warm and the days are young