Dave Simpson – The Fallen (Canongate 2009)

So many positive reviews of this book served to make me want to take a different tack in writing about it.  Despite this, I warmed quickly to the way Simpson set about inviting the reader to join him on his quest to not only account for, but to archive the stories of every member of The Fall that ever there was.

Simpson’s reverence of the band’s music and the aura that surrounds the band oozes from the pages, occasionally getting carried away to the extent that tenuous links are forged to a psychic force wielded by singer Mark E Smith and odd coincidences offered as being somewhat more than that.  This doesn’t detract from the story, with Simpson’s own role in it never being overblown or taking over from his obsessive focus of eking out lost band members and hearing their tales of what it was like to be found by The Fall, to work with the band, and to leave it.  Simpson is a fan, and he weaves his story around what the band meant to him when growing up and throughout his life since then, through periods of not listening much to The Fall, but returning, always returning, over a period spanning more than 30 years.

The only constant in The Fall is Smith.  It might not seem odd that a singer should be the one around which the band is shaped, but what makes The Fall so very different is the way the band’s music shapes itself, and the way that a particular sound, “always different, always the same” (John Peel), identifies itself to the listener as being The Fall without the listener having to hear the vocals, no matter who is in the band at the time, no matter what era the song is from.  Smith doesn’t write the music or play any instruments, either.  He often doesn’t turn up at rehearsals.  Somehow, a band consisting of over 40 different individuals can make over 30 albums in as many years, all of them recognisably The Fall, but all ploughing their own furrow.

The geographical source of the music is explored, the tough landscapes surrounding Manchester, with the village/small town of Prestwich at its epicentre.  Smith recruited a fair few members of his band through more-or-less literally approaching them on the street to somehow pressgang them into service.

Violent on-stage dissolutions of line-ups are explored, also off-stage formations of strong allegiances which appear to go against Smith’s philosophies of the tensions which provide the fertile ground for musical creativity, and which, it appears, Smith did his utmost to break down.

The story of The Fall is one of probably the last truly working class Northern rock band.  Perhaps the last rock band of any significance.  Over 40 members ex-members of the group were tracked down and talked to.  Tales of extreme weirdness abound, but the sense of pride is palpable from all those people, and that nearly all of them would work again with The Fall, no matter the circumstances of their final departure from the band, is testament to the special nature of the music that the band has consistently produced since 1976.

by Pete Sottrel

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Peter Bagge – Everybody is Stupid Except for Me (Fantagraphics 2009)

everybody-is-stupidPeter Bagge is an interesting proposition, a political satirist for Reason magazine for many years, railing against wars and oppression and corruption and at the same time railing against the railers, the protestors, the anti-oppressors, the anti-war, the anti-corruption and these uneasy cartoons floating in the murky middle ground between righteously right wing and liberally left-wing are collected in the amusingly titled ‘Everybody is Stupid Except Me.’ His style is frenetic, usually using a representation of him, the sweaty nervous nervous, as the crux of all his points. The stories are like pictoral articles, investigating scenes and issues and presenting both sides of the argument, sometimes through vox pop or illustrations of a diagrammatic nature to bolster the reportage. It’s impressive stuff and he certainly knows his bones when talking about the homeless crisis in San Francisco or the hypocrisies behind the abstinence movement. His drawings are busy and curt, always cutting and always railing against most forms of authority. It’s in his work that we find ourselves questioning our liberal attitudes. Are we right? Are we patronisingly right? Are we peacenik commies? Unfortunately, Bagge himself comes across as ambivalent about some areas himself and leaves us guessing as to his political sentiments. Is this good journalism? Is it the direct confusion of a man unable to place himself on one side of the fence? Or is it just liberal-baiting hectoring from a man who ‘mostly’ disagreed with the Bush government. It’s probably a mixture of all three. These are good comics, fun to read and definitely funny, definitely searing and when he hits a target he gets it right. Also there’s something to be said for the journalist tone of the writing and the structure of the strips would translate well into a proper newspaper, were he so inclined. Is everyone stupid except for Peter Bagge? Well, we’ll never quite be sure. But then, neither will he.

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The sad truth is that “highbrow” is still a dirty word in Britain – lets all move to France

The basic problem with people who don’t “get” art is that they don’t want to “get” it. Take for instance today’s article in the Times – “Edinburgh arts boss Jonathan Miller claims UK cultural diet is pap”.

It is. Miller, rightly in my view, makes the point –

many Britons are missing out on “incredible experiences” because of an entrenched suspicion of anything serious, highbrow or experimental. Coherent ideas and intellectual rigour have lost their value for much of society, he argues, to be replaced with a consumer emphasis on simplification and entertainment for its own sake, whether it be through football, pop music, the media or comfortingly familiar classical works.

Sportsmen such as David Beckham are more widely respected than leading scientists and great artists, partly because we can no longer be bothered to understand what the scientists and artists do.

“We have gone so far in wanting everything to be babyfood and pre-digested that we have actually missed out,” he said.

The kinds of people who make comments about modern art being rubbish are the ones who can’t be bothered to learn about the ideas and artistic context that the artwork sits in. Comments like the predictably thick ones following the Times article – “and Tracey Emin’s tent detailing all of the people she has had sex with or the Angel of the North is high art???” or “tates modern art gallery and the flashing lightbulb or the soiled bed is hardly art is it?” show a lack of education – that art today is to be engaged with theoretically as well as visually. Now, it’s not necessarily the fault of the individual, more perhaps the lack of art education at school level, where (when I was at school) we learnt about realist painting as the goal of art – to make something look like what it looks like. Arguably impossible, anyway.

Our pop culture / the average Daily Mail reader still values the visually coherent and “beautiful” in art, apparently ignoring huge movements in art history that strove to represent internal rather than external reality, tried to show society that true representation in itself is impossible, or tried to highlight issues of the power relationship between artist and viewer, author and reader, god and subject, or the mode of experiencing art. The oft-forgotten Fluxus movement in the 60s reminded culture, if only briefly, that art could be a direct experience of involvement rather than a prescribed message or a picture on a wall to be looked at.

To compare, I wouldn’t expect to understand the DNA helix by looking at a diagram of it, so why should certain artworks be immediately understandable? Tracey Emin’s bed doesn’t particularly make sense as an art object if you don’t understand the postmodern cultural discussions of author presence and identity that surround it. To understand how DNA works you need to have a working knowledge of chemistry and/or genetics. People don’t hear an article about meteorology on the radio and immediately pronounce judgement on it. Why art? It does actually require the same degree of education and talent as any other discipline, perhaps more so.

However, the other important point to make is that all the usual suspects that are cited in arguments about why modern art/culture is rubbish – Tracey Emin, the shark in formaldehyde etc – are kind of “pop” modern art anyway. So when Jonathan Mills talks about “consumer emphasis on simplification and entertainment for its own sake, whether it be through football, pop music, the media or comfortingly familiar classical works.”, those comfortingly familiar works now include those bandwagon-jumping examples of art, (which actually were quite groundbreaking in art and for cultural philosophy – honestly). So in a bizarre way, what most people think is crazy and experimental still is so yesterday. And there are so many more examples of interesting work. Mat Collishaw! Marina Abramovic! Shared Experience! Sean Bonney! God, come ON world! Catch up!

But no! It’s all too highbrow. We can’t have our brains taxed. We just want to stare at something, coo “ooohh isn’t it lovely” and move on to the gift shop.

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Sathnam Sanghera – The Boy with the Topknot (Penguin 2009)

topknot

Sathnam Sanghera’s debut book, The Boy with the Topknot (published in hardback as If You Don’t Know Me By Now) is a worthy piece of work despite it revealing him to have a clawingly bad taste in pop music. It’s bittersweet and funny but over-archingly triumphant in the face of adversity. It seeks to debunk the misery memoir myth by being self-referential and unreliant on tugging our heartstrings unnecessarily, instead using memory and a nice narrative juxtaposition of past and present to reveal its inner depths. Despite all the references to George Michael obsessions and some chapter titles taken from some of my worst enemy pop songs, it’s a beautiful piece of work.

When successful journalist and materialist Sathnam Sanghera, living the high life of Prada and loft flats, dinner parties and celebrity interviews, was 24 he discovered for the first time his father and sister were both suffering from a severe mental illness he hadn’t been aware of. As he researched their conditions and how they had come to be hidden (through a lack of understanding of schizophrenia and through family guilty secrets) he moved to Wolverhampton and started to piece together his family history and the history of his parents. Each member of his family is a character, from his silent father obsessed with BBC Parliament despite his illiteracy and lack of English; his mother, neurotic and obsessed with tradition, with finding him a wife of equal caste and culture holding the family together; his brother with his growing obsessions with fashion icons of the times and his two sisters, funny and nasty in equal measure. Sathnam was the baby and through the flit between past and present reveals how he learnt English on the fly at his school, became obsessed with being a good boy (a symptom of a schizophrenia family member) and went from his mum’s favourite to her biggest disappointment as he sought to escape Wolverhampton and her over-bearing clutches, all for the sake of dalliances with girls. The book closes with a letter he writes to his mother, emotionally explaining the choices he has made in his life and the secret life of dating white girls he leads and the amount of panic and depression it causes him, bordering on inflicting a mental illness of its own on his neuroses. The book isn’t all misery and family repression though. It’s warm about his family at times and funny at others, especially on a chapter dedicated to cutting his hair for the first time, a big Sikh no-no. The book, torn between his present feelings of ineptitude, helplessness and confusion as well as the process of trying to write the book while being scared of scratching too far under the surface and warm/bitter feelings about Wolverhampton, moves along quickly, never boring, always interesting, always painting an interesting picture of a family dealing with mental illness and a family dealing with the cultural differences of old and new, East and West. While this is a worn out subject, Sanghera’s literal, funny and unearnest take on his Asian identity makes for hilarious scenes when he goes out to meet potential brides at meetings set up with his sister, when he describes his family set up in Wolverhampton. However, it does go into horrific detail about domestic violence in the Sikh community and the pain and suffering his mum went through before his dad was finally diagnosed with a mental illness.

As a misery memoir, it fails, because it never plays with your emotions. Sathnam breaks the fourth wall, describing the process of writing the book, always in his head but dealing with enough factoids and studies and quotes to keep his feelings on the side of reality and recognised research. It’s warm and funny but bitter and painful and the final denouement with his mother and the letter is a poignant finale to a life-affirming book.

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Simon Armitage – Gig: The Lives and Times of a Rock Fantasist (Penguin 2009)

gig

Gig is the second memoir from indie enthusiast, writer, rock journalist and would-be poet laureate Simon Armitage. Told in a charmingly self-effacing way and full of bright and sparky anecdotes about the life of a jobbing poet who makes more than adequate time in his busy schedule to attend as many gigs as possible, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, breezy and poignant. Running through Armitage’s experiences in interviewing Feltham young offenders and sex workers for films ‘Feltham Sings’ and ‘Pornography: the musical’ respectively (don’t mix those two up), he reveals the behind the scenes process of writing all the lyrics for these films as well as anecdotes on the research process and subsequent careers and lives of the subjects. He writes about his time up North, getting into the New Romantics while his dad, a stoic manly man, took every opportunity to mock his girly hair and foppish demeanour. There’s a hilarious story about his time studying home economics and having to live a flat on school premises for a week and cook his teachers’ lunches. Only in the North, only in the seventies. There’s also the music. Armitage uses every other chapter to visit a gig in the last 3 years and have it spiral off into memories of getting into the artists in his teens (Morrissey, the Fall, Stiff Little Fingers), how they have related to parts of his life, stories about the bands and artists themselves and an overriding sense that he wishes it was him up on stage, rocking socks off. Alas, he’s confined to the role of bard, travelling the world reading his work and enthusing about British rock history. Every chapter is peppered with memory, charm and hilarity and the book ends with Armitage setting up his band The Scaremongers, and their fraught attempt to lay down some tracks in the studio, despite both being in their mid forties. A charming book that makes you want to go and seek out his poetry. Also, be sure to read Armitage’s £33.33 column in the Observer Music Magazine, where he spends said amount in charity shops each month and recounts his experiences of the albums he finds.

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Avatars stalk the landscape with varying degrees of resolution

I believe the hype.

Avatar is soon to be with us and James Cameron, the sci-fi Jesus Christ, is going to usher in a new state of creative being for us all – immersive 3D. I can’t wait. (Another blog topic: people with the initials JC as related to Christ – continue with John Candy, the saviour of comedy – also died tragically at a young age).

Returning to 3D though – this reminds me of a conversation I had with my fiancé recently about gaming and immersive games. He, as a dedicated gamer, made the very interesting point that he believes 3D game systems, as predicted recently by Steven Spielberg  to eventually replace console systems, will never succeed. Granted, he is a natural “realist”, but his reason – that humans dislike complete immersion, and would prefer to retain distance between the self and the game, i.e. mediate it through a screen – agrees somewhat with my own previous work on cybertheory.

I would tend to agree, not so much that perhaps we as humans have a natural aversion to total immersion in a game/artform/virtual experience, but that it is illogical to suppose that total immersion can be achieved in the first place, given that the body naturally mediates our involvement in the cyber realm. “Cyber-“ itself, as a prefix, indicates a relationship between wetware and hardware, body and program. For instance, we might arguably immerse ourselves beyond the screen in a virtual environment, but we use our hands and eyes to navigate our avatars, and our body holds itself upright or supine, whichever you have chosen, and continues to breathe and do all the other millions of things it does, to enable you to have your virtual experience.

Therefore, whilst I am fascinated by Stelarc’s live art investigations into the body as “meat”, I don’t agree that one day we’ll be able to leave the body behind and enjoy total immersion of mind and machine, a la the brilliant The Lawnmower Man.

To continue on this vastly tangential and colander-like argument, it bothers me hugely that anyone could ever consider that somehow it might be possible for the mind to literally enter cyberspace – be transformed into a stream of zeros and ones. Despite no-one understanding exactly what the mind is, where everything is stored? Despite psychology still being so basic and subjective that the DSM mental health classifications change from era to era – so apparently, what’s healthy in one time isn’t in another (Discuss)? Despite the sad lack of science to understand the human energy field? Despite the idea that the nebulous “mind” isn’t necessarily purely located in the brain – that memories could be said to be stored in the body as much as the brain (old news to dramatic Voice practitioners). Jung believed that mind wasn’t necessarily individual at all levels. So how does that work in cyberspace?

All this to say….. I’ll be interested to watch the development of 3D entertainment over the coming years, both in film, gaming and no doubt other practical applications. Will it challenge our sense of the primacy of the body? Or, are we so over that now, and will we in fact have a much more merged sense of self with others and other media? Or will nothing happen, and in fact, this kind of postulating will blow over in the same way that the arguments that said travelling at speeds over 10mph would kill us did when the first cars were invented?

The last is the most likely but least interesting answer.

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Miss Lasko-Gross – A Mess of Everything (Fantagraphics 2009)

A Mess of Everything Miss Lasko-GrossFantagraphics seem to specialise in funnybooks and graphic novels that play on that age-old tradition of awkward teenagers growing into awkward adults, with heavily themed works brimming with uber-slick design, dialogue and distorted drawings. Miss Lasko-Gross’ semi-autobiographical set of vignettes, ‘A Mess of Everything’ bucks the trend by being less indie twee cool and going for the jugular of teenage life, ‘My So-Called Life.’ Drawn in muted greens, greys, blacks and whites with hints of other colours pencilled in, we meet the protagonist, Melissa, or Miss as she chooses to be come to be known as, as she gets through disapproving parents with their own secrets, social groups that exist around ideas of cool and predatorial food chains, high schools full of gawky awkward teenagers going through changes, fighting power structures, fighting teachers, fighting each other, fighting for their rights to party, fighting for boys. It’s a brutally honest depiction of teenage life, though not one we don’t feel we haven’t seen before. It’s the same territory as the aforementioned ‘My So-Called Life’ and dare I say it, ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘One Tree Hill’ and do we need another entry into the canon? Well, the problem is that teenage lives are so vivid in our memories as formative parts of our growing up, shaping future life decisions and lifestyle choices. But then, there’s a grand tradition of the high school drama/comedy/drama-dy that you have to wonder how much Lasko-Gross really adds to the genre.

‘A Mess of Everything’ follows the loose thread of junior year high school. We learn about Miss’ dalliances, well failed dalliances with boys, usually the ugly friend of her slutty anorexic friend Penny, left to keep the ugly friend of whichever boy she’s shagging company. The vignettes, three pages max most times are furious and peppered with humour, allowing the wild drawings and uncelebratory visual depictions of teenagers most of the world now assume are beautiful specimens of the human race are both freaky and funny. The book manages to keep a consistent thread throughout and by the end we see that Miss has grown up a little bit more, all the short stories and thoughts adding to the making of a woman. As the second part in an ongoing series of autobiographical work, you hope that she’ll start building a longer narrative and then start to tell these famed teenage America hijinks high school stories with a little more variation and originality. As part of that entire canon, it won’t stick out, but those who come across will find enough humanness and emotion and humour to keep it enjoyable throughout.

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