I spend an hour and a half driving through the wettest Scottish flooding for ages, being forced to take the very long way round in places, to see Imelda May. It’s worth it.
For a few years now, May has been ploughing an unfashionable rockabilly aesthetic that has attracted a large but niche following. She’s been getting more attention recently, though, since her second album, the brilliant “Love Tattoo”, and a Meteor award in 2009. An audience that has taste has been getting ever more fed up with production line sultry brunettes and perky blondes whose main talent consists of wearing something skimpy in a generic dance video and are turning to something much more ballsy.
Of course, resplendently quiffed and poured tantalisingly into a tight retro dress, she’s quite happy to play the sex appeal card herself: she is, to be honest, absolutely stunning, miles more beautiful than the Cheryls and Pixies of the industry because she dares to be different, dares to look and sound the way she wants to; and both are very, very good.
The gig is a riot. The band – Al Gare brilliant and eccentric on bass, May’s husband Darrell Higham driving the band on guitar, Steve Rushton manic on drums and Dave Priseman providing the star horn solos of the set – are really tight and crack on apace. Tons and tons of headlong rock and blues and rockabilly, great songs like “Big Bad Handsome Man”, “Love Tattoo” and the oddly narrative “Smoker’s Song” which has always reminded me a bit of Rickie Lee Jones’ “Danny’s All Star Joint” for unaccountable reasons: it builds momentum to a fine three final numbers, the absolutely feral “Psycho” and “Mayhem” from her new album and, my favourite of her songs, “Johnny Got A Boom Boom”.
However, I’m a bit predictable, in that I notice the slower numbers. Two are absolute stand outs. A few songs in, she does a strutting, sassy, sexy and absolutely self-possessed cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful”. Later, there is a spine-tingling rendering of “Knock 123” during which it seems the only sounds that exist in the universe are May’s gorgeous voice and Priseman’s plaintive muted horn.
The encore is interesting too: all covers, she begins with “Baby I Love You”, accompanied only by Gare on ukulele, follows with a rip-roaring rocking of “Tainted Love” and, to the delight of many of the audience who have come along be-quiffed and winkle-pickered, finishes with an Elvis medley.
She’s a regular visitor to Glasgow – she gets a reception reserved for the very best Guiness-drinking friends – so catch her next time. My only issue is with the venue: I’ve always found the Academy’s sound bloated and echoey and I’d much rather see this band in a Dublin pub or a smokey working man’s club. I bet it’d be even more of a hoot.
I don’t get baseball. It’s too complex – why don’t they just get on with a good game of rounders – and can’t see why it generates such sentimentality: the reaction it gets seems like some sort of outpouring of a national spiritual psyche, like cricket to Englishmen. And I hate cricket. For me, football (real football, the game with the feet that Pele played) is the really beautiful game, especially when played by Barcelona today or Brazil circa 1970.
However, there’s no denying it inspires some really good movies – “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” are the most obvious – that seem to embody tales of honour and courage and true sportsmanship (or the negation of it, as in “Cobb”): on the other hand, football movies are invariably shite, “The Damned United” being possibly the only notable exception because it centered on the life of one of the most fascinating and irascible characters of the late 20th century (and I don’t mean Don Revie).
“Moneyball”, though, is a bit of a disappointment. It’s entertaining, charming, interesting: but it’s a tale about money, and money is the grubby element in sport. It centres on the 2002 season of the Oakland Athletics, a team hampered by a budget of “only” $32 million, about a quarter of the major teams like the Yankees. That $32 million is seen as chickenfeed for a sport that involves chucking a ball and swinging a bat is pretty obscene in itself; how many African kids could you save from starvation with that amount of dosh?
So it loses sympathy then and there. Sure, the fight of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to change the culture of guru scouts and mammothly overpaid stars has echoes in all major sports, including the lunacy that has become football in Europe, and it’s a fight we want them to win, but… it’s just not personal enough, and there’s no real investment in the characters. As they try to shape a team based not on overblown reputations and huge salaries but on the statistical analysis of overlooked or ageing or injured or wayward players who might actually get the job done for a lot less, the sense of danger for either of them is minimal. Beane may lose his job, but the threat is actually never made by anyone other than blowhard commentators; Brand, a Yale economics graduate, will find a career in any boardroom. So for neither character is this a do or die enterprise or a moral war of right against wrong or a seemingly insurmountable, mad tilt at windmills; and that sense of “so what?” is compounded by the fact that, as Beane himself says, the team at the start of the movie is way below crap, and the owner seems to think second best is a perfectly satisfactory state of affairs – so what the hell has anyone to lose anyway?
In addition, we don’t get to know anyone enough to care, especially the players who Beane and Brand stake it all on. I’m sure a US audience who know the true story and the people behind the movie will appreciate it much more, but one name becomes another for a British audience. Everyone except Beane is drawn one-dimensionally, especially Brand, whose idea the moneyball strategy is but whose motivations are never explored and who is ignored at the end of the movie during the customary “where are they now?” paragraphs.
Of course, that’s because this is a Brad Pitt movie. I like Pitt and think he’s a very capable actor, despite doing smug vanity projects like “Mr and Mrs Smith” or the Oceans series. I think he’s at his best towards the deranged end of the spectrum, as in “12 Monkeys” or “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (a true classic). In this, he plays Beane as stoically single-minded rather than maniacally obsessed, and therefore comes across as nice but a bit dull, cuddly but a bit scuzzy. No doubt millions of women will disagree, but he’s not as handsome as he once was, and he’s nowhere near as dangerous. That’s a pity, especially when an actor of the stature of Philip Seymour Hoffman is so underused as the team manager Art Howe and the only possibility for dramatic conflict – as there must have been, given that Howe refused to follow Beane’s lead for a large part of the season and left Oakland at the end of 2002 – is unaccountably missed. It would have been good to see the two actors going head to head, though one suspects Hoffman might have shown Pitt up just a bit. The drama suffers as a result.
Like “Super 8”, this is by no means a bad movie, and it’s obviously helped by a slick script co-written by megastar writer Aron Sorkin: however, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations nor to the hype it’s been getting in the press. Worth seeing, but only once.
A terrific evening, and Graham Fulton reminds me why he’s one of my favourite Scottish poets. He’s been writing like a demon since leaving his job at the beginning of the year, and his work has become funnier, cleverer and more mature than ever. Stunning stuff.
Most of the readings are new and will probably appear in future collections. What I’ve always admired about his work is his instamatic quality: like Edwin Morgan, he has a terrific eye for the minutiae of existence. That has now been tempered with a contemplative quality that makes his work much deeper than when I worked with him in Paisley Writers’ Group. Thus, a hilarious poem about an untied shoelace is actually a reverie about growing older; a punk lads’ night out at the Silver Thread Hotel in Paisley (God, I remember the Silver Thread!) is a paean to nostalgia, to friendship. Many of the readings have that look over the shoulder at encroaching time that makes guys of our age (Graham is a few months younger than me) shift uncomfortably in our seats.
Of course, I recognise so much of what he writes about, given that , as a Barrhead boy, I know Paisley almost as well as he does; the pangs of recognition are like welcome taps on the shoulder. I also, though, recognise the characters he writes about: the wee old woman who embarrasses lads out watching a Scotland match in the pub by talking about her pet dog she had put to sleep that morning; the neds who beat up Graham as he weaved his way homeward on his 40th birthday; the stony faced policeman who commandeers a bus and makes everyone feel guilty just by being there.
It’s not surprising that Graham’s aesthetic is visual: like one of my other favourite Scottish poets, Gerry Cambridge, Graham is a talented photographer, of the urban rather than the natural world. I’m delighted when I win second place in the raffle and carry off, amongst other goodies, a copy of “The Ruin of Poltalloch”, a booklet of poetry and glorious black and white photographs of Poltalloch House near Kilmartin. That quality extends into the way he captures images of people. One lovely poem about a guided ghost tour of Paisley, “Jim the Witch”, has absolutely recognisable gallus wee lassies putting their oar in and punters staggering alarmed out of pubs to see what all the ghostly commotion is about.
Another pamphlet on offer tonight is an epic, “The Zombie Poem”, a thesis on life and undeath prompted by being turned down as an extra for Brad Pitt’s recent “World War Z” Glasgow shoot. He reads a couple of related poems, but I read the poem itself quickly before the reading starts, and it’s brilliant, lines jumping out of the page that speak directly to me at my age and in the place and time I am:“It’s a way of being content with the art of being alive, regret, bad choices, directions you can’t undo, commas in the wrong place, i before e except after c, words you can’t go back to…”
Graham reads practically non-stop for more than an hour, and there isn’t a dull moment. Stabs of recognition, lots of laughs, driving rhythms, pin-sharp images and characters – Graham is at his absolute best, and his best is quite brilliant.
Words Per Minute hold a “Sex Special”, later than usual and closeted in a red-lit dungeon way, way at the back of The Arches. It’s the usual blend of able readings, but it doesn’t quite live up to the billing for me.
I can’t help remembering the Paisley Writers’ Group as a result of seeing Derek McLuckie last night. We had a full on attitude to sex as one of the drivers of human behaviour and, therefore, as fertile ground for the most challenging writing we could push. Suhayl Saadi’s lyrical aesthetic saw him write the wild, Baroque S&M fantasy “The Snake” under the pseudonym of Melanie Desmoulins. Graham Fulton – whose latest book launch I hope to attend next week – wrote about adolescents wanking off at the back of classrooms during biology lessons (“Sex Education”) or desperate casual sex and flushed johnnies on a Friday night (“Love Finds a Way at the Liberal Club”). Derek was… well, just Derek. As for me, I wrote stories like “Twitchy” and “The Bus Fare Down the Tubes” because sex and danger were inextricably linked. By my mid-twenties, in a catastrophically dysfunctional relationship, I had learned that dark things can happen between two people.
This evening’s readers are all perfectly fine writers. Lynsay May is charming and Alan Gillespie is as engaging and witty as ever. Derek Taylor and Kei Miller are fantastic voices, full of verve and wit and humour. Taylor’s “Ode to Penis”, with the knowingly delivered line “I’m a lot to take in” is a hoot, as is Miller’s beautifully read, enigmatic opening to his novel in progress about the life and death of an 80-something Jamaican immigrant. Caroline Bowditch introduces a film of Scottish Dance Theatre’s rather lovely “The Long and Short of It”, and Tragic O’Hara ends proceedings with some pretty nifty songs (his CD is unfeasibly good value). It’s all solid, mildly sexy stuff.
However, only Zoe Strachan fulfills the remit for me. Sharing a scene from her new novel “Ever Fallen in Love” in which a young gay man DPs a suspiciously compliant girl with the object of his desire, it is, I think, the only truly erotic reading. Full of the unsaid motivations that underpin what people do in bed, it’s absolutely emotionally – and sexually – honest. The smell and the sweat and the ambivalence and the pain tingle the senses: this is sex.
Of course, this is a pre-watershed show, and so the organisers have perhaps wisely gone for material that is charmingly rude but hardly challenging. It’s another good event – just, I feel, more akin to a Safe Sex Special.
Derek McLuckie was a contemporary of mine in the fabulous Paisley Writers’ Group of the 1990s. This was a weekly meeting of some of the most talented writers I’ve ever worked with, including Suhayl Saadi (a good friend whose “Psychoraag” is one of the most imaginative Scottish novels of the last 15 years), Graham Fulton (more of him later), Margaret Fulton Cook, Marion Arnott (A Silver Dagger winner) and Alasdair MacKinnon (one of the most elegant poets I’ve read).
Led by Agnes Owens, Gerrie Fellows, Kathryn Heyman and, finally, Ajay Close, it was an absolute hot-house of intense productivity. Work was torn apart, fought over, picked to pieces – and always came out the other end of that process at least twice as good. I’d never have written what I have written if it wasn’t for their influence, and I’ve never found a group like it since. Truly exciting times.
Derek appeared in the mid-90’s. He brought a different twist to the group perspective, which was pretty much embedded in a brutalist realism. Derek’s was a world of violence and sweat and sex that was unflinching and vivid. It was so out there, so in your face, and Derek’s dramatic core simply emphasised that. Gay orgies, casual sex followed by casual beatings, grubby rites of passage, industrial quantities of illegal substances: nothing was beyond him. I always thought I was an honest, frank writer: Derek took the biscuit, shoved it into his gob, chewed it up and spat it back out at you. He was a fantastically promising talent.
I haven’t seen him for over ten years, so it was with huge interest I accidentally discovered this performance at the Tron. It covers many of the issues he dealt with in his writing back then, developed into a powerhouse monologue that was his trademark style when I was on the same bill as him. Nowadays, every writer who can read from a sheet of paper advertises themselves as a “performer”: I’ve always considered myself a pretty good reader, and Derek, as a trained actor, just wiped the floor with me because he knows what performance is all about.
This is a terrific hallucinogenic roller-coaster ride, full of wild buzzing involving Greek myths, religious iconography and a fair dash of Barbie. The adolescent pull of glue is really well done, not so much an escape as a heightening. There are lots of real laughs that point to real truths, as well as blood in bucketfuls. Of course, though, it’s all about sex, the gay teen tortured by desire for his pals; it’s not the glue that woos the narrator away from the Evangelical religion of his family, it’s the boys.
That is the source of the greatest poignancy in the performance. A teenage pyjamaed fumbling with the one pal he truly loves is genuinely touching, while the other – more dangerous and full of testosterone – attempts to rape him using Germoline as a lubricant. The final minutes of the performance, as the narrator sits torn and bleeding in a bus shelter and invokes the spirit of Judy Garland as his saviour, are quite something.
Good to see Derek in fine form, as ever.
Oh my goodness, that was a surprise.
I expected to be mildly entertained by another idiosyncratic Norwegian singer, ticking off a bit more Scandinavian wonky-pop. What I got instead was one of the highlight concerts of the year and a live introduction to a singer I’m going to be listening to pretty much constantly for the forseeable future.
Ane Brun and her band are just wonderful. There’s little mainstream about her, though, like Susanne Sundfør, she’s capable of some damned fine tunes. Forget that – utterly mesmerising tunes. She relies on that Scandinavian thing of setting up a rhythm section (three drum kits on a stage the size of a postage stamp) that is quite capable of rearranging an audience’s internal organs, and lays wash after wash of transcendent ambience over it, and then piles on top of that a voice that is pure, pitch perfect and astonishingly engaging. The result is the biggest, widest, deepest, broadest soundstage I think I’ve ever heard in a venue this intimate and in many that are much bigger.
And it’s gorgeous. I don’t know enough of the songs to rhyme them off – I will soon – but one after another has me muttering “Jesus” at the end of yet another wringing out of the senses and emotions. The new album – “It All Starts With One” – features heavily. The single “Do You Remember” is a thundering drum-driven pagan thrashing: if you don’t dance your bollocks off to it, you are clearly in need of urgent hospitalisation. And she ends with “Undertow” which just soars and soars and soars and when you think it can’t soar any higher – up it fucking well goes.
Brun herself is lovely. She’s very beautiful – those eyes! – but much more attractive is her enigmatic charisma, warmth and obvious delight at the roaring reception she gets. I dunno – I reckon she would be perfect in the part of a Norwegian Resistance agent in a World War 2 movie. I haven’t a clue where that came from, but it’s stuck there now.
I don’t know where this will come in my end of year top five gig list, but it will be in there somewhere. Easily. Ane Brun is a singer I must have more of. Must, must, must, must. Definitely. Must.
Do you think I liked this a wee bit?
Footnote: Support is supplied by a member of her band, Linnea Olsson, who is excellent. A solo cellist and vocalist, she loops, samples, overdubs to produce a quite lovely sound. Definitely worth checking out on You Tube, bearing in mind that the compression ruins the hugeness of her sound.
Oooh, thank you BBC for a second brilliant documentary in a week. The making of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album from Alan Yentob’s “Imagine” series was an absolute treat. Of course, I’m a fan: despite being too young to have fully embraced the Sixties, my eldest brother was into Simon and Garfunkel, and I caught on to them through him. Paul Simon is, surely, the greatest songwriter of the modern era, reinventing himself over and over again, and, unlike Madonna, in a good way. Not only that, he has embraced politics in the most subtle of manners: never bombastic, never sensational, he has also never sold out, never become the corporate tax dodging entrepreneur so many of the more strident names of that decade have become. And yet, with one album called “Graceland”, he can quite legitimately be counted as one of the architects of the downfall of apartheid – not that he would ever, ever make such a claim on his own behalf.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” must be one of the greatest ever “last albums”: can you think of a better? And what this documentary does is to trace some of the reasons why it had to be the last album: the way in which Paul and Artie were growing apart in their interests, their influences, was reflected in the simple act of finally separating their voices, taking “turns” at the songs, which was unthinkable on previous albums on which their genius producer, Roy Halee, insisted on miking their voices through a single source.
The technical details are fascinating: how the closeness of their harmony was augmented with synchronous overdubbing of their voices; the use of echo, and of corridors in the Columbia building to find just the right spot for that thumping drum on “The Boxer”; moving recording studios to cathedrals for the right sound; the laying down of the backing track of “Cecilia” at a presumably rather boozy boys’ night in; the development of the defining piano score on “Bridge…” by the wonderful Larry Knechtel, and the now famous story of that almost missed last verse, with Garfunkel and Halee insisting Simon write it because they knew, just knew, it was meant to be. Most of all, though, there’s a sense of two young men inspiring other young men around them to the very top of their game to produce… perfection.
It’s a long time since I’ve listened to “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. I remember it so fondly. “Baby Driver” seemed to an 11-year old me to be the horniest song I’d ever heard, partly because of the lyrics (the glee expressed in “There’s no-one home, we’re all alone, aw come into my room and play, yes we can play” and the lasciviousness of “I wonder how your engine feels”) but mainly because of that horny horn section blasting out one of the most riotous sax solos ever. I remember I played it on a wee GEC cassette tape. At first, out wailed the alto sax: then as the tape head deteriorated, what I presume was the tenor part came to the fore, and all of a sudden I was listening to a brand new song.
I always loved “Only Living Boy in New York” – explained in the programme as Paul’s goodbye to Artie (“Tom”) as he flew to Mexico to film “Catch-22”, which was the beginning of the end of their collaboration. Like Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”, it tells the story of musicians whose personal relationship is going pear-shaped. That transcendent choral refrain at the end of the track, washing away to a single plaintive guitar, gives me goosebumps every time. And “Song for the Asking” is the most gentle, poignant coda to a record you could ever imagine. And then there’s “Bridge…” itself, one of the most exceptional – and daringly different – songs ever written.
Looking at them now – two 70-year olds, one of them still remarkably inventive musically – there is a temptation to think about what might have been. I suspect the time was just right, and whatever might have been, it was never going to match that glorious achievement.
I’ve looked out “Bridge…” to listen in the car over the next few days: it’ll be up loud. However, I’ve also set aside Garfunkel’s first album, “Angel Clare” (produced by Halee, I think it’s absolutely beautiful) and Simon’s second (“There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”, with the stupendous, bitter anthem “American Tune”) just to hear again the very different paths they took so soon after that one last hurrah. Wonderful stuff.
Footnote: it tells you something about the cultural impact the duo had when “Garfunkel” is in the spellchecker dictionary…
I’ve written about Edwin Morgan before, one of Scotland’s greatest writers, and one of humanity’s most humane men. This new play about his last days in a Glasgow nursing home is written by his friend and successor as Makar, Liz Lochead, herself a great poet and quite brilliant dramatist.
It centres on Morgan’s final days in a Glasgow care home and his relationship with his biographer / friend James McGonigal. As the physical and mental frailty take hold, Morgan is tortured by fears that he is losing the ability to write and by constant nightmares. In a life-affirming act of artistic defiance, McGonigal and Morgan shape and beat those terrible symptoms into a final triumphant collection of poetry, “Dreams and Other Nightmares.”
It’s a bit of a curate’s egg of a play (although it is described in the programme as a “new piece for theatre”, which suggests it isn’t meant to be looked at in any traditional sense). As Morgan’s past unravels before us, there are undeniably poignant moments: Morgan’s brief encounter on a bus with a half-drunk tough which promises so much but has to end after fifteen minutes because his ticket won’t take him past the next stop; watching “The Golden Shot” with his long-time lover, John Scott; the utterly bereft grief he suffers when he learns of Scott’s death a year after they had separated (again). Many of these moments are built around Morgan’s poetry (“Strawberries” features heavily in a scene with Scott), as are those moments when we glimpse the risk-taking Morgan, the man who trawled gay meeting places like Green’s Playhouse or Glasgow Green; “I couldn’t not take risks,” he says, even after the nightmare of the rape scene which sent shock waves through Scottish society when it was published forty years ago. You can see Morgan reading it to secondary students here: Glasgow Green.
However, it suffers a little from the same issues I noted in “Hit Me!” last year. The character of James speaks directly to the audience, revealing biographical details, dates of publication, etc. that are all interesting but, for me, rather mediate the dramatic experience for the audience: as such, we see Morgan through those eyes and not through our own. I wanted more of Morgan’s dreams and nightmares, wanted to hear more of his voice, wanted to become better acquainted with his “life force” that tops and tails the script, and I wanted him to speak directly to me.
But it’s a solid, interesting memorial by a fine dramatist. The production is thoughtful too – Morgan’s care home room looks more like a Soviet era prison cell – and the actors are well up to the job. Davie McKay as Morgan brings out an innocence and occasionally irritating vulnerability that no doubt characterised the poet at the end of his life, and there are glimpses of the tetchiness and ego that members of the public like me rarely saw. It’s also nice to see two actors I’ve worked with. Lewis Howden, who plays James, has a lovely, authoritative presence on both stage and film: he played Tulloch in the BBC Education drama I wrote on “The Cone Gatherers”, and I thought he captured the character’s humanity and solidity very well. You can see him in the programme here.
Great too to see Steven Duffy, who played a central role in “The Practicality of Magnolia”. Steven was terrific, and the on screen relationship he struck up with Sheila Hancock was utterly convincing. You can see him in a clip from it here. Steven and Sheila and the wonderful work of Clara Glynn and the crew created a film that was a hundred times better than I could ever have imagined: I owe them eternal thanks. Steven is also a terrific stage actor: I last saw him playing Biff in “Death of a Salesman”, a hugely difficult part he tackled with ease. In this play, he multi-tasks various characters – John Scott, Morgan’s final “muse” Mark Smith, various shady men, care home employees – and as such provides the texture necessary to hold the drama together, which means he has a tremendous influence. It’s no exaggeration to say that the audience watches him whenever he appears, which is evidence of his powerful stage presence.