Wednesday 27 February 2019

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Living in another world

Very sad indeed to hear, late last night, of Mark Hollis's passing. Talk Talk were a massive part of my musical world and of the development of my appreciation of music during the 1980s.

I was going to post a series of songs from Mark's career to show how rapidly his songcraft developed, with an exemplar from each album. But Ed over at 17 Seconds has already done that. And I was going to close with Mark's great two notes/one note quote, but Swiss Adam over at Bagging Area has already done that too.

I'll just post my favourite Talk Talk song instead. Most people today will probably go with Life's What You Make It but, for me, this just edges it. R.I.P. Mark.

BBC obit

Saturday 23 February 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Graduate

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

6/19: The Graduate by Charles Webb

The blurb: As far as Benjamin Braddock's parents are concerned, his future is sewn up. Now he has graduated from college, he will go to Yale or Harvard, get a good job and enjoy a life of money, cocktails and pool parties in the suburbs, just like them. For Benjamin, however, this isn't quite enough. When his parents' friend Mrs Robinson, a formidable older woman, strips naked in front of him and they begin an affair, it seems he might have found a way out. That is, until her daughter Elaine comes into the picture, and things get far more complicated.

The review: you all know the story already, of course, such is the film adaptation's deserved fame, longevity and cultural impact. So what can I tell you about the source material, Charles Webb's debut novel, published in 1963? First off the bat, I can tell you how closely the film version sticks to the novel, especially the first half, and why shouldn't it when the novel in question is written so well? It seems incredible to me, as an aspiring writer, that this was Webb's first novel - it is so assured, so confident, so fully-formed. To quote fan Nick Hornby, Webb "writes with this lovely, spare style" and that's exactly right - he uses exactly as many words as are necessary and no more. As you may have gathered from earlier reviews in this series, that bare, concise style very much appeals to me. So sparse is Webb's style that the opening scene, which begins with our (anti-)hero Benjamin the reluctant star of a family party and ends with him being propositioned by Mrs Robinson, almost reads like a screenplay.

What else? The improbable yet oh-so-plausible dialogue the film's scriptwriters took a lot of credit for, well, a good proportion of that seems to have been lifted wholesale from the book. Yes, there are lines that aren't here and if, like me, you've seen the film more times than is healthy you'll look out for these variations and omissions (there's no "Plastics", there's no "You'll pardon me if I don't shake your hand"). But the book, and especially its dialogue, is a rich experience, and would be even for someone who hadn't seen the film.

Even for the aforementioned unhealthy cinephiles, there are elements of the book's story over and above what was shown on the big screen. For a start, whilst still painfully funny, the book has less humour than the film. More specifically, the character of Ben is a bit harder to like; as I mentioned earlier, he's more of an anti-hero in the book, a conventional hero in the film. In the book, he seems more petulant at times, and is a little harder to empathise with as a result. That you do still empathise is testament to Webb's storytelling, I think. There are other changes too - Ben is in Berkeley for much longer in the book, wearing Elaine down, and sells his sports car to finance that (so whilst he still gets to dash to the church in the final act, he doesn't do it in a Simon and Garfunkel powered red Alfa). And the final, final scene, which you all know so well from the film - well, I won't spoil it for you but the book's last page, last line pay-off is even better.

Webb's career as a novelist never really took off in the way this book suggested it might, though he did write other novels, including New Cardiff, which was adapted for film as Hope Springs. In 2007, Home School, the long-awaited sequel to The Graduate, was finally published, after much copyright wrangling. There is some suggestion that Webb only wrote this because he was in financial difficulties, which casts doubt on how good it may or may not be. Maybe I'll track down a copy and let you know. But for now, though, let's revel in the perfect, concise fiction of his debut.

The bottom line: I was prepared to be disappointed by this, such is my love of the film, but it is superbly written, lean, precise and insightful, with enviable dialogue and a page-turning narrative. Very highly recommended.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★★

Any excuse for a clip from Mike Nichols' film version, this scene is one of a number that remains very close to the book.

Friday 22 February 2019

Nineteen in '19: I Am Spock

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

5/19: I Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy

The blurb: Leonard Nimoy's portrayal of the ever-logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock, is one of the most recognisable, loved, and pervasive characterisations in popular culture. He had been closer to the phenomenon of Star Trek than anyone, having played the pivotal role of Spock in the original series, in six motion pictures, and in a special two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I Am Spock gives us Nimoy's unique perspective on the beginnings of the Star Trek phenomenon, on his relationship with his costars and particularly on the reaction of the pointed-eared alien that Nimoy knew best.

The review: I bought this last year for a pound in a charity shop, in mint-condition hardback form, and it's been sat in my eternally-expanding "to-read" pile ever since. Well, I finally made time and, what do you know, it's okay. I should point out that I love a good autobiography (especially when not ghostwritten) and I love Star Trek, so I was predisposed to love this book. That I only liked it (and I genuinely did enjoy reading it) tells you something, or things. For starters, it tells you that this was not Nimoy's first autobiog: the first, written in the early 70s and entitled I Am Not Spock, did not go down too well with Trek fans at the time, who saw it as a snub to a beloved character. Without going into that too much (or how Nimoy's coming to terms with his most famous characterisation is the vehicle that drives this second biog), it's perhaps understandable that the author's early life and career, including the three years of classic Trek in the 60s, are covered relatively briefly - he's covered them before, after all. Still, there are titbits, anecdotes, Leonard's relationships with Bill Shatner (good) and Gene Roddenberry (not as good) from those times. But far more of the book is devoted to Nimoy's big screen outings as Spock, particularly STII (in which Spock dies, of course), STIII (in which Nimoy directs Spock's resurrection) and STIV (in which Nimoy directs again and brings fun back to the franchise).

You also learn that whilst Nimoy's prose is perfectly serviceable, it seldom reached the "let's have a chat, you and I" tone that he seemed to be aiming for. And the "conversations with Spock" device he used, at first interesting and occasionally amusing, becomes increasingly intrusive as the book goes on.

But aside from all this, you have to read I Am Spock, like every autobiography, with your cynical head on - how reliable is our narrator? Has truth been omitted? How self-serving are the anecdotes? And the answer, from this reviewer at least, is that this seems a balanced account of the episodes described: it isn't all one-way traffic, and Nimoy holds his hands up to things at times. The only minor variation on this score is the slight overplaying of his stage and screen accomplishments outside of Trek...but that's quite logical, isn't it?

The bottom line: a decent but not great autobiography, but you'll enjoy it if you are a fan of Star Trek and Nimoy's famous alter-ego, Spock.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★☆☆☆ as a book, ★★★★☆☆ as a book for ST fans

This scene from STVI, Shatner and Nimoy's big-screen swansong as co-stars, has extra poignancy after reading I Am Spock.

Blue Friday - Avalanche

Few musicians are as Marmite as Leonard Cohen. This is the tone-setting opening track from Songs of Love and Hate.

Friday 15 February 2019

Blue Friday - Tank Park Salute (live)

More from the peerless Uncle Bill, a song for parents everywhere. Prepare to get something in your eye...

Thursday 14 February 2019

The obvious post

I've checked back through the February posts for the last fourteen years (yes, that really is how long this tired little blog has been stumbling on) and it seems that, somehow, I've never posted this obvious song for today.

So now, at 11.59... Valentine's Day Is Over. A great early-Bragg-era song, with wonderful between-the-lines storytelling, laid even more bare than usual in this Peel Session version.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

The Dirty Mac

I love that this happened. I love that it was recorded and that a recording was kept. And most of all, I love the minute of banter between John and Mick at the intro, particularly the moment 50 seconds in when Mick turns directly to the camera and says, "Dirty".

Here's Winston Legthigh on vocals and rhythm guitar, Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience on drums ("Are you really, experienced?" "Oh very, very. You've read my file."), Eric Clapton "from the late, great Cream" on lead guitar and "your own soul brother" Keith Richards on bass. In other words, The Dirty Mac performing Beatles vocal-shredder Yer Blues, from The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus TV special.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

On looking like

Apparently it is possible for the same person to look like all of these people...

About twelve years ago, when I had a bit more hair, kept my stubble trimmed and was running three times a week (i.e. was a lot slimmer), I quite often got told I looked like Simon Pegg. At one friend's 40th birthday party, I was told this by three different people, separately. One of them even said, "I'm sure you hear this all the time but you look just like..." Now for the record, I didn't really look like Simon Pegg, though I can see where they were coming from, I guess.

Prior to the age of Pegg comparison, I was told on more than one occasion that I looked like a young Tony Blair in certain photographs. Since the Pegg years, I've most often been told I look like Dave Gorman. More accurately, Dave looks like me (I am older). But again, neither of those is really accurate, both simplistic comparisons based on a single feature (hair for Blair, beard for Dave G).

Today I had the most unexpected "you look like" yet. I have new glasses. Not only that, I'm having to wear my glasses more of the time, so I guess they are more noticeable, especially to people I don't see that often. And today, from a colleague at work, this: "I've been talking with XXXX and we've decided your new glasses make you look like Jeff Goldblum."

Now, by no stretch of even the most fertile imagination do I look anything remotely like Jeff Goldblum.

What XXXX and YYYY mean is that my new glasses look a little bit like Jeff Goldblum's glasses.

Whatever, I'll take that as a win, because Jeff rules.

More tees, vicar?

I should probably grow up. No-one buys these (yet, at least), but I had fun designing them.

All this and more, available to buy, here.

Friday 8 February 2019

Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not

Sad to hear of Albert Finney's passing - Mark at the reliably excellent So It Goes has a nice obit here.

Top pub quiz trivia for you: the title of the debut Arctic Monkeys album comes from this internal monologue, delivered by Finney in his breakthrough film role, the adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Here, see for yourselves.

R.I.P. Albert.

Blue Friday - Lua

Courtesy of Bright Eyes, aka singer-songwriter Conor Oberst.

Thursday 7 February 2019

The Underappreciated: Adventureland

A very occasional series, the purpose of which is to highlight films that are really underappreciated, and that you might get a kick out of viewing. Today, a 2009 vehicle for then rising star Jesse Eisenberg: Adventureland.

"One of the year's coolest comedies!" opines the review quote, because that's what the kids want, isn't it? A cool comedy? But you might guess, by dint of the fact that I'm featuring it here, that there's a bit more to it than that... although you wouldn't know it from IDMB's plot summary for Adventureland, which reads:

In the summer of 1987, a college graduate takes a 'nowhere' job at his local amusement park, only to find it's the perfect course to get him prepared for the real world.

Let's flesh that out a little, shall we? More specifically, college graduate James (Eisenberg) is expecting to set off on a European road-trip, bankrolled by his father, but when his dad suffers a massive pay cut our poor hero is faced with a dose of reality. Over-educated, smart-talking James then takes a job at the eponymous, somewhat down-on-its-luck amusement park, in the hope of raising some capital. And wouldn't you just know it, in the process, he learns more about life than he ever did in college. Here's the predictable trailer:

So what, right?

But there are lots of things that elevate this above the standard teen comedy / coming-of-age fare. First of all, there's the dialogue, which is whip-smart throughout, and a credit to writer and director Greg Mottola (who cut his teeth on Arrested Development and would later direct Pegg/Frost vehicle Paul). Here's a great scene illustrating precisely that. In it, Eisenberg plays the same sort of character that Hugh Grant portrays in virtually every Richard Curtis romcom, if that character were half the age and American, but don't hold that against him. Also, note his precise delivery of at-times complex, at-times rapid dialogue, a feat he would showcase to even greater effect in The Social Network. Enough - here's the clip:

Yes, that's Kristen Stewart as the girl James gets on with. There's also a girl he fancies, so sure, there's a love triangle to predict the outcome of too. Or two triangles, if you factor in James's colleague and sort-of friend, the older, wiser Mike (Ryan Reynolds). But I don't want to give any spoilers, so... so, what else elevates the film? Well, it's timeless. No, really. Made in 2009 but set in 1987, it just doesn't age, in the same way that Back To The Future doesn't. It is as much about 1987 as it is about coming-of-age or romance or comedy. So you get to wallow in nostalgia for a simpler, happier time: a time before mainstream access to the Internet, a time before widespread use of mobile phones, a time before celebrity culture ran amok... in short, you get to remember how life used to be. How the things that were important in your life were different, and simpler. How work was once just about a pay check and trying to get through it the best you could, with the people that circumstance had thrown you together with (plus ça change... right?). And you get all this with a great soundtrack to boot, and a lot of laughs.

I have yet to meet anyone who has actually watched this and not loved it. So what are you waiting for? Go and watch it!

Monday 4 February 2019

Nineteen in '19: Cathedral

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

4/19: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

The blurb: Raymond Carver said it was possible 'to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language and endow these things - a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring - with immense, even startling power'. Nowhere is this alchemy more striking than in the title story of Cathedral in which a blind man guides the hand of a sighted man as together they draw the cathedral the blind man can never see. Many view this story, and indeed this collection, as a watershed in the maturing of Carver's work to a more confidently poetic style.

The review: well, this collection is certainly a watershed. Carver's earlier work, the stories that had made him famous like What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, had been sparse and unsentimental. The tales in Cathedral are less concise and more overtly emotional. At the time, reviewers credited this change to a more confident, mature writer but in hindsight it's easier to see this as a result of editor Gordon Lish no longer having such a tight rein. The impact of Lish's editorial style is well documented in the Carver Chronicles and, more concisely, in this article from the Standard. So do Carver's much-lauded short stories stand up without Lish cutting and rewriting swathes? Well, for the most part, yes. Cathedral comprises bleak tales of alcoholics, the unemployed, cheaters and adulterers, and who doesn't like to read about characters like that? And even if these tales are not subject to Lish's editorial magic, they still work, with tales like Vitamins, Where I'm Calling From and Fever particularly standing out, for me. And then, most interestingly, there's A Small, Good Thing, the tale of a boy who is knocked down in a hit and run on his eighth birthday and subsequently falls into a coma. In the Lish-edited version, the reader doesn't know whether the boy ultimately lives or dies, but in the unexpurgated Carver version, included here, it is spelled out. Is it a better story for that? Maybe, maybe not. It's certainly longer, and more obvious in its story telling. You'll have a preference, no doubt. Critics at the time praised Carver's more expansive style, but was Carver ever as good as Carver/Lish? I'm not so sure.

The bottom line: bleak but real, these short stories are well crafted, however edited, and especially recommended as an object lesson for aspiring writers.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Friday 1 February 2019

Blue Friday - Love Song No.7

Yes, that really is Chas Smash of Madness fame. More about this excellent track, and the album whence it came, in this old post.