The Accordion Has Been Drinking: ‘Bad as Me’ by Tom Waits

So it’s the great man’s seventeenth studio album, and the curmudgeonly ringmaster of warped urban folklore and lowlife gutter lullabies, now in his sixty-second year, shows no signs of mellowing or staying static. He’s got some old friends in to bring their noise and some new faces too. Keith Richards contributes to several numbers, as do the great Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo, who provides the gorgeous Tex-Mex strumming and picking on traditional instruments as well as violin and accordion. Mavens of bass guitar wildness Flea and Les Claypool bring some angular funk low end to the proceedings, and harmonica legend Charley Musselwhite blows some fine harp too.

Bad as Me harks back to the era of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, but sounds just as fresh and intriguing as any new Tom Waits record is sure to be. His lyrics are the customary stories of the lost and lonely and rejected, but there seems to be a more pointedly political tendency in these stories. There is anger here as well as sadness, fury and lament, sardonic hymns to the wrongness of the times.

Things start with an edgily plangent Chicago blues groove, all thunderous percussion and Hubert Sumlin (RIP) stinging guitar licks – Howlin’ Wolf backed by the Royal Drummers of Burundi.  Then we get a frequently wild, sometimes sweet, sometimes funny but always deep orchestration of sounds and instruments. It’s bluesy, jazzy,  folky music  typical of Waits’s unique sonic world. There are cheesy Vox and Farfisa organs for that sixties lo-fi vibe, that trademark Wolf/Beefheart growl and other startling vocal personifications, angry atonal stabs of industrial keyboard, wobbly reverb-soaked guitar chords –  and is there a woozy Mellotron somewhere in the mix?

The road, the rain, a woman, prison – Face to the Highway is a soundtrack for an as-yet unmade David Lynch movie, the vibraphone redolent of Angelo Badalamenti. Next there’s a sentimental mood: a broken-hearted lament awash with soulful squeezebox and drunken fiddle. We’re into Freddie Cannon territory now, norteña  balladeering  sliding into Roy Orbison chord changes and melodrama. His voice rides the razor-edge of reason on the title track, then punctuates the angst with louche and chucklesome interjections that swerve the mood suddenly into comic badboy mode. Then it goes a little bit metamusical with the vinyl surface noises underlying the hipster jazz piano tinkling, all echoey like in an empty midnight roadhouse bar, and the buzzing upright bass.

Waits gets joyfully Beefheartian on the Rolling  Stones tribute number Satisfied; it’s hard to tell him from the real thing, and that could just about be the Magic Band behind him in raw and rude blues mood. Keef sneaks in a quote of the immortal Satisfaction riff too. Gnarly stuff.

Soon we’re back to grainy-throated lullaby mode – as always he undercuts the sentimental tenor with his gruffly tender singing and creates something peculiarly and ineluctably affecting. Beautiful indeed. Then the mood swings back again with the amusingly weirded-out word-pictures and oil-drum thumpalong of Hell Broke Luce. I’ve no idea what, if anything , this song is about, but I think it may be inspired by the lurid fantasies of Hieronymous Bosch and Milton’s Pandaemonium. It’s a lot of fun, anyway, though dark for all that. Then it wraps up with New Year’s Eve, which is like In the Neighbourhood performed by Ry Cooder, which can only be a good thing. And in the Tom Traubert’s Blues tradition, he slips some singalong  folkore into the song – Auld Lang Syne this time.

There are three bonus tracks available on a more expensive edition of the record available for download. I’m puzzled by this packaging decision, since the tracks continue in the same clattering, rattling vein as the rest of the album.  And what better way to end than on a note of existential darkness with the eerie After You Die? Whether it was an artistic decision on Waits’s part to put out two versions or some kind of record company marketing ploy, I can’t tell. But I would strongly recommend paying the extra couple of quid for the additional tunes.

So, to sum up: it’s sort of what you’d expect from a Tom Waits album, true; but it’s every bit as great as anything he’s ever done and an essential acquisition whether you’re a fan or not.

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Mithering Mancunian Misanthrope’s Break Out – ‘Ersatz GB’ by The Fall

It's a new Fall, it’s a new day of minatory and miserable rage against the knitting machines that spin out Smithy's jumpers.The Narky Northener has risen again. It's a…


the missus sings (brix redux) English folk music Cecil Sharpens his critical wits
incest insects (tell me if you've heard this one before)
synthesizer wind blows goes beep! frrrt! gzzzz!
Black Sabbath riffery arises like Neu! getting pissed off about all the closed-down post offices
Dick Dale keeps throwing his right hand in there but it sounds like winter in Withenshaw not a California dream of billowing surf death among the waves.
Thump-a-dum-dum 3 men in a dub in a bar-chord bonanza no Phil Manzanera here.

MES IS A DALEK, still mithering…
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‘Lulu’ by Lou Reed and Metallica

It opens with Lou’s patent gentle guitar strumming and cracked, vulnerable balladeer vocals (his sensitive side) then bursts into a roaring mess of loud and heavily overdriven guitars. This is pretty much the template for the whole album – screeching feedback, high volume, simple and repetitive song structures thrashed into wayward shapes. There are slow passages, atonal and freeform interludes here and there – not as out there as European Son or Sister Ray, for sure, but hellacious enough to bother anybody who doesn’t appreciate the finer points of going musically gonzoid for eleven minutes or so. And there’s even a dab of ratty acoustic picking  to give your ears a well-earned break as well as moments where sustained guitar tones surprisingly evoke echoes of John Cale’s viola workouts.

Lou’s still recycling the same old half-a-dozen chords that have kept him in business since the Banana LP, still making a racket, still exploring the delights of decadence and the ennui of living nothing but, still trying to be raw and confrontational. OK, it’s just a shtick these days, I suppose, but it still entertains me. I’m just addicted to what Frank Zappa called ‘the foul stink of a distorted electric guitar’, so Lou’s old showbiz routine still keeps me awake.

Oh, this *is* a concept album, as you probably know, based on Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box, but you don’t need to worry about that – I didn’t. Just watch the great film version by PW Pabst, starring the darkly radiant Louise Brooks, if you care about the story. It’s only ‘inspired by’, as far as I can tell, but feel free to cue it up with the movie if you like. Remember all that stoned fun you had trying to match Dark Side of the Moon thematically to The Wizard of Oz (the musical counterpart to The Great Banana Skin Hoax)? But concept aside, it’s just dear old Uncle Lou getting down and dirty lyrics-wise, as ever. Anyway, it’s far better than The Raven.

The grateful listener is spared Kirk Hammett’s widdly metal soloing and assaulted with a more visceral approach to the layering and mashing up of amplified rock guitar. It’s not really an obviously Metallica-inflected album – none of the abrupt time-sig switches and over-emphasised greyish midrange timbres; indeed this mercifully doesn’t sound like them at all, more like a barroom heavy-metal Sonic Youth or something  – and there’s not too much of James Hetfield’s macho vocal posturing, his role being restricted to that of angry back-up shouter. While this is certainly more experimental and more interesting than Metallica’s other work (it dances on the edge of Metal Machine Music territory with the final track) and a respectable stab at doing something unexpected, it’s definitely Lou’s album: he offers up a raucous collection of songs, all rage and violence and kinky fun and games, along with some enjoyably grinchy, growly, howly, unholy voice work. He’s a kind of Rock ‘n’ Roll Vincent Price here, a lovable master of camp voice-acting performing to a backdrop of some wildly noisy jams. Maybe Theatre of Blood would be a more apt cinematic reference point.

It’s hardly groundbreaking and it’s not one of Lou’s classic recordings by a long way (he’s stuck with the problem that Dylan has: when you’ve been a genuine innovator in a hugely important cultural movement but your influence has been resisted, adopted, adapted and then absorbed into the mainstream, where can you go? You’ve only got repetition, variations on your long-established practices and tropes, and the best you can hope for is that those artistic products comprising your post-peak output are at least better than the average if not on a par with your greatest work) but it’s still a lot of fun. He’ll probably never again do anything as great as his last truly classic record, New York (though Songs for Drella is a fine album of course, and the VU reformation was a valid move), but this is not a piece of work he should be ashamed of. On the contrary it riffs, it roars, it rocks pretty damned mightily.

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Strictly Copastatic: ‘Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down’, by Ry Cooder

For the last forty years or so Ry Cooder has devotedly created music that tells the American people’s story through the folk history of the 1920s, the Depression and the Roosevelt era. He has always sung about the political and economic situation, re-imagining the music of Woody Guthrie, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Blake and many others; mining deeply the musical traditions of the Mexican border lands, Hawaii, the Mississippi Delta, Piedmont ragtime guitar, Gospel, Nashville, Western Swing, Southern Soul, Old Time styles and even the pop music of Okinawa (a nation tied to the US culturally as well as to Japan). Name any genre that could be listed beneath the rubric Americana, and the chances are that Cooder has gone there.

Cooder has always been firmly and righteously on the political Left. His songs speak for the common working man and woman, the immigrant whose labour is exploited in the lettuce fields, the soldier made to do the killing and dying for the politician’s aggrandisement, the victim of the cop’s flailing baton, the union man beaten by the boss man’s hired thugs, for the black, Latino, Hispanic and white folk who are downtrodden by taxes and bills and racism and homelessness and the whole rotten system.

Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down is a continuation of the political-concept-album genre which he began to explore in the social history extravaganza Chavez Ravine and the delightfully whacky My Name Is Buddy. Cooder presents a kaleidoscopic collection of acerbic and poignant songs that tell the truth about the social and economic fallout of the international banking crisis, the pain behind all the partisan whooping-up of globalised capitalism.

Every track is a masterpiece, for which reason it is impossible to single out highlights. The range of musical effects is, as always on a Ry Cooder record, impressively varied and inclusive, but it’s unmistakably his own sound simmering in the folkloric melting pot, telling the listener as much about American roots culture and history as the lyrics: well-crafted short stories about housemaids, folk-heroes, soldiers and simple working men. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll Steinbeck, a Tex Mex Sherwood Anderson, a Delta Blues Faulkner.

It’s all laid bare here. In No Banker Left Behind the reivers and carpetbaggers of financial speculation are heading out of town pronto, on the lam and leaving a wrecked economy behind. I can see myself enjoying a knees-up listening to this track while watching Sir Fred Goodwin being hanged upside-down on a lamp-post. You will too. Revolutionary party music for a soundtrack to the Occupy movement. Roots rocker Quick Sand is a tale of the tribulations of the poor who try to cross the border in search of a better life. Quick sand is a metonym and a metaphor, simultaneously standing in for the hardships of migration and the great con of globalisation and concentrated wealth. The up-tempo exuberance of Christmas Time This Year satirically mocks the enforced jollity of the season as the lyrics tell of returning military vets, maimed physically and emotionally or in body bags. It ends with an unambiguous message to George W. Bush. Lord Tell Me Why is told from the perspective of a man who asks why ‘a white man ain’t worth nothin’ in this world no more’. This is perhaps the most conceptually layered track. Cooder gives this character his voice too, letting him vent his despair at his situation as he bemoans his being made homeless by rioters. Yet the multiculturally flavoured music behind the words stands in ironic mode, almost like a chorus commenting on the man’s words. It implies that this man, who is a victim too, is looking at the wrong target; that social unrest, with its interracial tensions, is a symptom of the political and economic system; that it isn’t the immigrant or the black man who is his true enemy.

Lyrics reference Skip James,The Temptations, Big Bill Broonzy and The Bible and give a nod to Jimmy Reed and Johnny Taylor; the music spans a wide swath of the American tradition, built up from a sonic palette of many shades and rhythms. The beat of the human heart pulsates loud and strong throughout, sometimes sardonic, other times melancholic, despairing or just downright angry at the lousiness of being powerless in a world where power drives everything. Even God looks down at the world and is saddened to see how it has turned out. But there is humour too – check out John Lee Hooker for President (I’d vote for the great man running on that manifesto) wherein Cooder delivers a convincing interpretation of The Hook’s singing style and thumping guitar-and-foot-tapping groove, or his vocal tribute to Captain Beefheart on the sinister slide-guitar rocker I Want My Crown, as a robber-baron capitalist gloats over his wealth and power. And America’s version of Robin Hood, the folk legend Jesse James, is invoked as a man who stood for the people and only stole from the rich, powerful bankers – a romanticised figure, perhaps, but he stands as a stirring symbol in these times. In El Corrido de Jesse James we see him in heaven, telling his buddies how he’d like to go back down to earth with his .44 and shoot up Wall Street. His statement ‘Boys, I was branded as a bandit and bank robber, but I never turned a family out of their home’ prompts us to ask who the real criminals are.

The music reflects Cooder’s ethnographical fascination with the people’s music of the American mid-century, and he evokes those times so vividly through those styles that it’s impossible not to draw historical parallels between then and now. Cooder says it’s time for a new New Deal.

Considering the supremely high quality of Ry Cooder’s recorded output, it is quite a claim to say that this is probably his greatest album. But the stylistic range, the brilliance of the song writing, the soulfulness and depth of characterisation in his vocal delivery (this is definitely his finest work singing-wise), the stellar accordion and vocal contributions by the great Flaco Jimenez and the sheer political and social timeliness of Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down must point to it being a classic of American roots music, or maybe even one of the greatest albums of all time.

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The Zoom Zoom, by Penny Goring

This book is a perversion. It is an outrage. It is a brazen, brassy madam. It is a wild zone of words out beyond where poetry is proper.

Maybe you’d rather that poetry be Motion respectable, Duffy correct, in the Tradition and delicate of feeling. Then turn your timid orbs from this bitch of a book, this blasphemous tirade of tumbling filthy images, for these language games are played for fun and not for profit, not to be lauded by the serious swan-quills of The Poetry Society and the prized and medalled Poets of Place and History. It’s a rollicking, bollocking here-comes-everybody festival of linguistic jouissance. It spurts, it writhes, it gasps, it comes, a quivering wordgasm. ‘Splish. Splosh. Gush.’ Indeed.

Are these the author’s loves, her lives, her lusts? Or life-greedy phantoms of horror and fuck-lust teeming in her dreaming brain that escaped onto the page? Maybe this is her
life all hidden in fantasy disguises, maybe none of it really happened, but it feels so fucking real, all experience and no innocence, the pages stinking of menses and shit and spunk, the meat of the world and the muck of the human real. Those pages dazzle too, suffused with the light of soaring spirits and writ with the puzzlements of strange adventures. This book is drenched with the effluvia of human bodies, streaming with liquid word-rivers that roil with internal rhythms like eddies and rivulets, rushing into tributaries of fluid assonances, waterfalls of alliterations. It’s a cheeky book, a kinky book, a fuck-with-your-head-and-tickle-your-loins book, an alchemy of beautiful blood and guts transformed into gold.

A priapic Eric Gill of a daddy, a horny magical octopus, waif girls and bad girls, girls who wanna have unspeakable kinds of fun, anarchic girls whose names begin with ‘A’, hidden narrators who may be telling lies about themselves or Trojan-horsing around with fictions that conceal the truth: these are the strange shades who populate Goring’s appalling, thrilling world. André Breton and Anais Nin fucked each other and spawned this bawling, cooing wordbaby, this book of dreams, this book of life. It’s a catechism of self-examination, an anti-Proustian journey into time that has not been lost but hangs unescaped from. These narrators talk to themselves, to you, to me, to men who are angelic monsters; Goring invites the reader to re-experience her experiences. I am tantalised by this possibility.

This book of poems or stories or whatever they are – but what do the niceties of form and genre matter here? – sings and swears and screams, raises welts and cicatrices of violent torments, shits tears of fury and frustration, hums with the heartbeat of witchy womanhood and big big universe-love. It laughs a lot, throatily, tossing its head back like a barroom babe encircled by admirers all agog. Like I said, it’s fucking real.

(The Zoom Zoom is published by Eight Cuts Gallery Press)

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An Anarchist Miracle – Some (belated) Thoughts on Pynchon in Public Day 2011

May 8 was the inaugural date of the international culture-jamming event Pynchon in Public Day. The vision of Martin Eve, a UK-based scholar writing a PhD on Thomas Pynchon, and John Dee, who may or may not be the celebrated/notorious astrologer to the court of Elizabeth I, it was conceived as a project to make the work of the cult author and reclusive polymath known to a wider public. I played a peripheral part in the venture too, mainly in the capacity of one-man focus group for Dr. Dee’s thoughts and opinions, a receiver of arcane postal communications in spidery handwriting.

The bare notion at the beginning was simply to encourage people to post photographs of themselves reading a Thomas Pynchon book in a public place. A website, Flickr site or Facebook page would be the locus for these curious, semi-clandestine images. This was to be done, it was hoped, all around the world on the author’s 74th birthday, the idea of numerous Pynchonoids and newcomers to the Pynchon universe the world round all reading from his works on the same day being a beautiful one, a metaphor for a strand of playfulness-irrupting-into-the-quotidian that permeates his writing: a quasi-occulted Surrealist gaming of the daily capitalist-consumerist grind.

Pynchon fandom, expressed in the desire to promulgate the wonder of his writing rather than hug it to our collective nerd-elite bosom like jealous anchorites of an exclusive religious cult, was the initial spur. But there was more to it, it seems to me, than simply generating free publicity for a favourite author or some read-this-it’s-cool, literature-is-good-for-you impulse to get people to read clever books instead of Marian Keyes or whoever. Pynchon in Public Day 2011 would be a global free festival for bookish brains and not-yet bookish brains toiling out there in the fictive structure we call the ‘real’ world, a celebration of difficulty, of intellectual ambition, of creativity, of independent thinking. Pynchon’s work, if it is about any one thing, is about the ways we lock ourselves into the Great Machinery and either believe in it and serve its will-to-power or how we try to find ways out of its obscure and deadening systems through the sheer energy of openness to Possibility.

For a short 24 hours the Imagination, the Spirit of Creative Subversion, Fun, was king, as people in London, Worthing, Brighton, Southampton, Barcelona, Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berlin, spontaneously joined the party. It happened in meatspace and in cyberspace, it happened on park benches, it happened in cafés, it happened on the street, it happened at home. It was beautiful but it was just the beginning. The trajectory is rising, heading for May 8 2012, the great man’s 75th birthday, and it will continue, defying the ballistic inevitability of gravity’s rainbow, laughing at entropy, going onwards and upwards and outwards to who knows what, where or whom?!/Dystopia2009/pynchon-in-public-2012


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Queer, by William S. Burroughs (2010 edition by Oliver Harris)

November 2010 saw the publication of Queer as a Penguin Modern Classic in a newly revised edition put together by the eminent Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris.

Clipped, spare prose, occasional bursts of heartfelt lyricism – Greene/Genet/Conrad/Death in Venice.

Travelogue in a style informed by Céline, cynicism, bigotry, the confessional urge, the exotic quest. But it’s downbeat, not a noble undertaking to discover the Holy Grail but a desperate bid to shake off the pain of a hopeless love. When the narrative switches to 1st person in the section entitled 2 Years Later the voice doesn’t change. Lee is Burroughs: while there is no deeper sense of the narrator’s interiority, there is a marked alteration of tone. Up to this point the story was told by an omniscient, presumably reliable narrator who showed Allerton’s viewpoint as well as Lee’s (ie. his own, the narrator and Lee actually being one and the same), lending a certain objectivity, though a compromised objectivity, to the situation. The final section leaves no doubt as to the personal nature of the book and its only lightly fictionalised status. After all, Queer was meant to be published under the pen name Bill Lee.

The account of the different versions of the book, the various drafts edited by Burroughs, Ginsberg and others, is a complicated one. Harris’s notes detail the changes minutely, providing a full epexegesis for the scholar and the obsessive alike.

There can be no definitive original, no ur-text to be restored precisely according to the author’s intentions, no narrative essence to be divined by the lucubrations of the editor seeking the true Word. This edition of Queer, while unquestionably purely Burroughsian in style and content, is also unquestionably Harris’s aesthetic and technical reading. The differences between this edition and the 1986 ‘original’ change the book in a subtle but significant way. If you read the contemporary version, you are reading a different book.

(NB. The foregoing is a set of hastily compiled notes towards a full review, but it got put aside some weeks ago. Hence I decided to post this sketchy overview, with a few small additions and changes, simply for the sake of putting up a new blog.) 

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