Keep on Running

Do you recall Worzel Gummidge? He was a scarecrow, a walking, talking, living, breathing scarecrow, portrayed with admirable joie-de-vivre on Sunday afternoon children’s TV during the late 70s and early 80s in a metaphysical and sartorial about-turn by the former Dr. Who, the late Jon Pertwee. Worzel had the unique facility of being able to switch his heads around to suit his requirements, so, for example, he could change his usual ‘mischievous’ head for his ‘thinking’ head as and when the occasion demanded. As he grows older and wiser in the ways of this world, little O also seems to be developing that facility, albeit with slightly more variance than dear old Worzel managed.

Saturday last he had his ‘Roger Bannister’ head firmly in place. The International School of Phnom Penh were holding their annual sponsored Landmines Fun Run (sounds ever so slightly wrong, doesn’t it?), to raise awareness of the continuing blight caused to this country by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and landmines, and to raise funds to support the Cambodian volleyball team whose members include many survivors of these deadly legacies of conflict. We had put little O’s name down for the elementary fun run, assuming that he could be escorted by yours truly at a sedate pace around the dusty pebble-strewn track for the duration of one quarter kilometer lap. The big day dawned, and with it a gnawing sense of unease churning in the stomachs of all participants. Not caused by the worry of impending physical exercise, or indeed a dodgy roadside snack from the night before, but the real foreboding generated by the revelation, for the first time in public in Cambodia outwith a swimming pool, of your humble correspondents stick-like, white and hairy lower appendages… yes, I too had dressed for the occasion, baggy t-shirt, shorts and trendy black converse hi-tops in place…well, brothers, sisters, we don’t need this fasttrack groove thang…, oh no. Once the murmurs of distaste and ripples of barely suppressed laughter had subsided, all were called to order and lined up at the start line. A barely noticed countdown and we were off, in clouds of billowing dust, jogging along to the strains of Alice Cooper ‘School’s Out’ (Mostly ‘good’ music all morning, I have to say. Congrats to the compiler!). Little O, who was the youngest participant, waved to all around him and seemed really into this idea of trotting around trying to keep up with the big kids. The cheering and encouraging announcements must have spurred him on, for as eventually the end of lap one loomed with mummy cheerfully and excitedly waving him into the pits, the O decided that he wasn’t going to stop. ‘One more’ he said, and carried on trotting…
This was repeated FIVE times, until we put a stop to it after six laps and dragged him protesting into the sidelines, along with yours truly who was by now completely hot, dust-covered, sweaty and exhausted from keeping up with the little chap…

The mischievous head was firmly in place at a colleagues wedding this week. We had endured almost an hour stuck in a tuk-tuk in horrendous traffic to get to the venue, arriving there to marvel once more at the feats of cosmetic engineering conducted upon hapless Khmer brides by the beauticians of this fair country. I have sat beside my colleague for nearly two years now, but I completely failed to recognise her when we entered the reception, wondering to myself who was this glittering vision, who looked like a tiny alabaster version of one of the Roman Goddesses, hair piled in Medusan coils and eyes framed by the darkest thickest lashes, mascara’ed beyond even the wildest imaginings of Dusty Springfield. She seems to know me… who is it? Then realization dawned, this was indeed her, trapped like a frightened bird under the layers of the beauticians craft. It does look wonderful in the photoshopped marvels that pass for wedding albums round these parts, though…

My other female colleagues from work had also gone into unrecognizably glamorous overload, and from the make-up, hair and clothes you would have thought that we were actually attending an Oscar ceremony from the 1960s where all females present had entered into an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contest. Comfortingly, the men mostly resembled extras from a black and white 1960s British kitchen sink drama, Cambodian Tom Courtenay’s all, looking as if they had just come in from the allotment, wiped their faces on their sleeves, splashed themselves very briefly with ‘The Great Smell of Brut ©’, then got stuck straight into the minced pig entrails and greasy scrawny chicken on offer with considerable gusto accompanied by copious amounts of liquid lubrication (‘Cold Guinness… Number One!’ as our waiter rather enthusiastically informed me). I felt very much the barang exception in my white Ambre suit and black shirt, but I imagined that most of the Khmer guests thought I was a very important foreign gangster, so nobody really commented for fear of going for a concrete-booted paddle in the Mekong.

O was the very modicum of stoic calmness during the first hour that we waited for our table to fill up and food to be served, he even ventured with me on a couple of occasions to view the band, who boasted a completely electronic drum kit, a jazz-thrash noodling lead guitarist, a PA system adequate for a small stadium and a baffling number of lead vocalists, including one man who was absolutely from the oh-so-smooth Andy Williams white loafer school which fitted in wonderfully with the whole Elizabeth Taylor imagined scenario going on in my brain…

Although the arrival of other guests (including some foreign women who were clearly and scarily misinformed that this was a Tammy Wynette look-alike event – thank the lord for A and her beautiful, simple little polka dot dress!) en masse to our table meant that the food had also arrived, O was by now well bored, and despite the tasty distractions of whole deep fried fish, mischievous head kicked in. He smashed some cutlery and stole the chopsticks off the woman sitting next to him, so we decanted him hastily from the premises, pausing briefly so he could have his picture snapped on the red carpet with my colleagues three year old cousin (who had obviously done this sort of thing before – she posed furiously for all she was worth as O remained clutched in her grasp with an expression of abject terror etched on his face) and then back into the tuk-tuk for a considerably faster trundle home. Once home, little O put his (and our) favourite head on, that of the wonderful, funny, sweet little chap that he is, and went off to bed with the story of The Gruffalo’s Child lulling him into the land of Nod from his stereo…

… and along with The Gruffalo’s Child, Robert Fripp now enters the picture. Not such a leap of the imagination as it may at first seem (what’s he talking about now? Robert Fripp? Isn’t he that Dorset guy who plays guitar, made a weird record with Eno and married Toyah? Yes, that’s the one.). I’ve recently been recording bedtime stories for the little chap using Garageband software on our Macbook, which has been enormous fun for yours truly and, it seems to date, enormously enjoyed by our little O. Whilst searching for suitable snippets of soundtrack music, I have rediscovered King Crimson. This has been a real joy to me, as regular readers will know that in addition to my love of rock, jazz, indie, punk, soul, latin, pyschedelia, country, folk, ambient, electronica, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, blah, blah, blah, I have an abiding and unwholesome fondness for Progressive Rock, or ‘Prog’ as it now seems to be known to the subterranean denizens of the vast and bewildering world of music. I think I’ve mentioned in these blogs before of balmy and not-so-balmy evenings spent appreciating each others record collections in the homes of Eric Law, Colin Morrison, Steven Beaton, Michael Houston, John Farquhar, Donald McIntosh and many others from that particular hall of infamy. Thurso High School record club and the redoubtable Leon ‘do you think I look like Ian Anderson? Great!’ Volwerk must also figure hugely in these formative years of my musical appreciation. Mr. Volwerk, Eric and Colin were big on Prog, as indeed I was, and one of my all-time favourites from that era when dinosaurs still roamed the earth with impunity was (and still is) ‘Lizard’ by King Crimson. It’s funny that listening to it now with the benefit of hindsight (or should that be hindhearing?) it’s actually pretty much jazz-rock fusion with a soupcon of classical influences thrown in. There’s even a guest vocal from helium lunged Accrington born astral elf Jon Anderson of Yes and the atonal piano dribbling of Keith Tippett burbling all over the place. It is however, in the grand tradition of all things Prog, majestic, moving, bafflingly dexterous in both scope and execution and, of course, supremely, wonderfully silly. It’s also full of Mellotron, that amazing Heath Robinson-esque instrument that added the mystery to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and the menace to ‘We Love You’… ah, the Beatles and the Stones, they sucked the marrow out of bones…(’House of Love’… remember them?). Mellotron gives a gloriously wonky orchestral feel to many of the tracks, and adds to the slightly creepy sensibility which pervades the album. The Beatles link continues with the track ‘Happy Families’ where Pete Sinfield’s occasionally obscure lyrics on the album clarify into a surreal discursion on the breakup of the Fab Four (‘Nasty Jonah grew a wife, Judas drew his pruning knife…’).

Colin Morrison used to particularly despair of my attitude towards much of the music he enjoyed, but as I recall ‘Lizard’ seemed to be a common ground between us. Colin and I used to get into some fairly heated arguments, particularly about jazz-rock, and sometimes his taste seemed to me to be bafflingly obtuse – sorry to bring this up again Colin, but Jukka Tolonen…? – but I really miss the overall over-intellectualised and frequently smarmy silliness that used to pass between us during our ‘appreciation’ evenings… these might, for example, include lengthy discussions about the stunning left-handed bass technique of another Colin, Mr. Hodgkinson of Back Door. I’ve mentioned them before in a blog, but just to recap they were an early 70s Yorkshire bred jazz-rock trio of sax, bass and drums with a punk attitude and by ‘eck bloomin’ good they were, too. I bet you really wish now that you had been part of those music appreciation evenings, don’t you, eh? I hope that you’re still out there in the land of the musical avant-garde, Colin (Morrison that is – Mr. H is still a very active musician and has recently put together a new combo based on the Back Door sound), baffling your neighbours with Jukka and the rest. If you should happen to stumble upon this, please do get in touch… the same goes for you, Robert Fripp… I’m sure your well developed sense of the absurd will be tickled by the thought that snippets of your meisterwork ‘Lizard’ are now adorning my renditions of ‘The Selfish Crocodile’ and ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’.

I wonder too if my dear little tousle-haired O will grow up to mumble incoherently from behind a curtain of shoulder length hair, wear an ex-Navy greatcoat, 26-inch loon pants and desert boots and waste many evenings of his teenage years earnestly debating with his long-suffering friends something earth-shattering such as the nuances of style that differentiate Steve Howe’s picking technique from that of Robert Fripp …

… or perhaps maybe, just maybe, unlike his father, he will actually get a life!

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19th Nervous Breakdown

My goodness, The Rolling Stones are getting on a bit, aren’t they? Mr. Jagger is fast approaching his 65th birthday and lithe and lissome in performance he may well still be but he now looks, well, frankly… old. Very old. I was looking at some of the publicity pics for the new Martin Scorsese movie, ‘Shine A Light’, which documents in a ‘Last Waltz-ish’ manner an intimate (by their standards) Stones gig in 2006 at the Beacon Theatre in New York and lumme! Charlie looks younger than Mick and Keith! Ronnie is, well, very much the new boy (after nearly 30 years!) and still resembles an animatronic guitar playin’ crow. However, by all accounts, from critics young and old, the film is a revelation, stripping the old rockers of their stadium pretensions and letting them explore and inhabit their incredible songs, that mythic English take on the blues, nurtured in the Dartford delta and filtered through the expanding consciousness of 1960’s youth culture. I shall very much look forward to seeing it, and kudos to them for refusing the anti-ageing benefits of the surgeon’s knife…

Yet more Stones. I recently rediscovered (Thank you I-Pod! Thank you Ani!) ‘Exile on Main Street’, pretty much the bee’s knee’s of their recorded oeuvre, which led me to then revisit one of their great lost albums, the much maligned ‘Goats Head Soup’. I find it pretty hard to have a favourite Stones album as that honour changes according to the mood I’m in, but I would have to say that if push came to shove etc, etc, I would probably grab ‘Goats’ (and ‘Exile’… oh, and pass me ‘Let it Bleed’, thanks!) as I leapt for the lifeboats as my boat went down. Critics dismissed it as a rag-bag of half baked ideas that pales against its immediate illustrious predecessor, but as I recall they didn’t much like that at the time either. I was sick (German Measles, as I recall) the day ‘Goats Head Soup’ was released, a late August Monday in 1973, so dispatched my long-suffering dad to the record shop to buy it and Alice Cooper’s ‘Muscle of Love’. He was secretly very amused by Alice Cooper, and had shown (for him) an inordinate amount of interest in the ‘Killer’ album (‘She’s a bit rough looking, isn’t she? I’d hang myself too if I heard a racket like that all the time..’ etc etc) I would love to be able to chew the fat with him now on our diverse musical tastes… we had so much more in common than either of us would admit to. Big Tom and the Mainliners, anyone? I remember that no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get track one side two (‘Silver Train’) to play without skipping (even with a couple of pennies sellotaped to the tone arm) so when I finally got the album on CD about ten years ago it took me weeks to get used to the version without the jumps… aaah, the joy of vinyl. The sleeve insert was also a pretty gruesome picture of a cauldron of the aforesaid soup, and included some sepia tinted photographs of the Stones and entourage… come to think of it, it wasn’t the best outer sleeve of a Stone’s album either (‘oh, gawd, do we ‘ave to ‘ave our pictures taken? Soft focus? Awlright lets wrap our ‘eads in some yellow chiffon. Yeah, that’s what I said – chiffon…c’mon Charlie, smile fawgawdsakes!’) but the music, the music was simply excellent. Adventurous, well played, and covering so many of the sonic bases they had touched as they hurtled through the 60’s, yet the album is still remembered by most as the spawning ground of ‘Angie’, which critics largely ridiculed as the Stones going ‘soft’…

I have to say that ‘Angie’ is not my favourite track by any stretch – it’s very pretty, and hearkens back to the ‘As Tears Go By’ baroque pop that they did so well in the 60’s, and it has a chord sequence that is a joy to play on the acoustic guitar (muso alert!), but it is rather… how can I say this without being too dismissive… fluffy. Yes, fluffy. There. Now, that’s that out of the way, lets carry on. The rest is pretty much a joy all the way. Mostly recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, the influence of reggae is all over the album. I’m sorry, that’s a lie. Reggae doesn’t really bubble to the musical surface until the next album, ‘it’s only Rock ‘n’ Roll’, but the feel, the laid back ambiance that they were recording in permeates the grooves. It’s a sticky, lazy feel, right from the drawn out spindly voodoo guitars and clavinet of ‘Dancing with Mr. D’ that opens to the Chuck Berry-behind-the-beat-isms of ‘Star Star’ that close side two. There’s the hazy shimmer of ‘Can You Feel The Music’ drawing us back into the summer of Satanic Majesty, the living in the city funkiness of ‘Heartbreaker’ and the ‘tour de force des arbres’ that is ‘100 Years Ago’, a song about a walk in the woods. Yes, you did read that correctly. The drugged up misogynists and cocaine jet setters wrote and performed a truly wonderful song about going for a walk in the woods. It also contains the immortal advice by which I seem to live my life… ‘don’cha think, it’s sometimes wise not to grow up…’ prophetic words from the Peter Pan of rock ‘n’ roll. The other ballads are also particularly stunning, ‘Winter’ is full of startlingly beautiful imagery where ‘the lights on all the Christmas trees go out’, ‘Coming Down Again’ sees Keith in tender mode and singing like the choirboy he was. Words don’t really do this album justice. If you don’t know it and have even a passing interest in the Rolling Stones, please seek out and listen. If you don’t like them, then nothing I think or say or write is going to change your mind.

Enough music for the moment, let us now turn our gaze onto… mental illness. Wah-hay! Now there’s an exciting subject… Ani tried to persuade me the other night that I should spend one valuable hour and twenty minutes of my life watching a movie called ‘Numb’. Starring Matthew Perry. Excuse me? Isn’t that…Chandler? From ‘Friends’? I leapt the banister and sprinted for the front door, but too late, the highly trained Dobermans positioned either side of the gate in the razor wire fencing surrounding our Phnom Penh estate snapped at my knee tendons and I sank to the ground sobbing. I was then dragged back into the house by our smiling but sadistic guard (you would be surprised at how much of this is true) strapped into a leather chair, wrists and ankles bound with straps, and my eyelids forced open with eyelash curlers (much as Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, my Droogies…) before the aforesaid moving picture was played for me.

It’s actually really good and quite funny, if mental health issues can really be described as funny. It’s about facing the problem of ‘depersonalisation’, which apparently is now gaining acceptance as an actual mental condition. In essence, it’s the feeling that you are not really ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ may be, that you are somehow removed from your surroundings and are not ‘in’ your body, or as I like to call it (and I will not charge you $200 an hour for this diagnosis) ‘living in cloud cuckoo land’. A good example (here comes music again) would be the great David Byrne – ‘Once in a Lifetime’ exhibits all the traits that constitute the depersonalized (‘I ask myself – How did I get here?’). Sufferers tend to have particular obsessions and are not very good at interpersonal relationships. As I watched and laughed (inwardly – didn’t want to give A the impression I was actually enjoying this) it gradually dawned on me that there were many behavioural similarities between the character and me (oh no! I’m like Chandler from ‘Friends’ – I always thought I was more like a cross between Phoebe and Joey! Not that I ever watched it…). Next day I did a little more research on the internet and… yes, I’m ticking quite a few of those boxes… It is at once alarming to realize that I may well be suffering from this syndrome, as I often feel very removed from reality (or deliberately try and remove myself from reality) but strangely comforting that it seems I am clearly not alone. There are many, many of the depersonalised out there, living in strange lands and inside bodies that they do not really know or understand… The journey back should be very interesting…

Last words come (again) from someone who was comfortably numb long before it was fashionable.

‘It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here
and I’m most obliged to you for m-making it clear
that I’m not here…

…and what exactly is a dream
…and what exactly is a joke?’

Syd Barrett ‘Jugband Blues’