Wednesday 29 April 2009

Le Carre Calls It

On a bit of a John Le Carre jag at the moment. I'd forgotten what a searingly funny, unsparingly honest and seriously fine writer he can be. And astute. This prescient little gem jumped out of The Tailor of Panama - apply it to whatever you wish, be it Swine Flu, Jade Goody or the latest Premiership football rumour:

"Nothing is more predictable than the media's parroting of its own fictions and the terror of each competitor that it will be scooped by the others, whether or not the story is true because quite frankly dears, in the news game these days, we don't have the staff, time, interest, energy, literacy or minimal sense of responsibility to check our facts by any means except calling up whatever has been written by other hacks on the same subject and repeating it as gospel."

This was written in the mid-90s, before the internet ruled the world. I bet he's really mad now.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Dylan: The Write Stuff

I’m going to see Bob Dylan in Edinburgh next Sunday. I’ve never seen him before and I not sure I want to this time, but I feel I should. I’m kind of looking upon it as I would a trip to the dentist or filling in a tax return, something that simply has to be done – and who knows, maybe you’ll feel better afterwards.

I don’t think I’ll be rushing to hear his new album, Together Through Life (awful title). Only the promise of accordion tempts me – I love the accordion, but is it enough? I didn’t like Modern Times much, thought it was ludicrously over-rated by many critics for what it was. Musically it just felt … atrophied. I’m not a blues fan, which doesn’t really help when it comes to post-millennial Dylan. He hasn’t written a really decent tune for over a decade, not since "Trying to Get to Heaven" and "Standing in the Doorway". Or perhaps "Mississippi".

His music means a lot to me – but I think his mind means more. In fact, I think he should stop making music and just write. Chronicles was great, and I’d love to see him write a book purely about music. I don’t think anybody describes music better. The much-circulated interview with Bill Flanagan – the only one Dylan has done to promote the new album – is simply electrifying when it gets to the part where he starts talking about his favourite writers. Listen to this:

Warren Zevon? “Down hard stuff. "Join me in L.A." sort of straddles the line between heartfelt and primeval.”

That’s good, but it gets better.

John Prine? “Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. All that stuff about "Sam Stone" the soldier junky daddy and "Donald and Lydia," where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”

That’s brilliant. And what about Bob Dylan? How did he turn out this way?

“The side show performers - bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn't make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn't change.”

Yes, that’s him. And yes, he should stop singing and recycling tired old blues shapes and start talking more. Write it down and let us read it. I’ll tell him next Sunday.

Friday 24 April 2009

Get Rhythm

There is a clear and culturally fascinating umbilical cord linking old blues & outlaw country to gangsta rap: it's something I talk about in the book quite a bit. But it doesn't just mean you can hire a DJ to come in and put some beats behind Folsom Prison Blues and expect the results to be instantly wonderful. It takes a little more sensitivity and knowledge than that.

I'm blogging about the perils of the casual genre clash here.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

John Martyn: Looking Back, Over the Hill

Incongruously, I always associate John Martyn – huge, bear-like, intimidating - with my youngest daughter, Martha: small, doll-like - though equally intimidating when the mood takes her.

She was only a week or two old when I went over to interview John at his home in Thomastown in Ireland in September 2005. I remember feeling a little guilty about shirking my pressing domestic responsibilities and heading off to meet the big man, but I’m glad I did now. I’ve been listening to John a lot (more) since his death in January, and I find his work increasingly staggering. Much too deep to fathom in anything less than a lifetime, I fear.

I was recently reminded of my trip to Thomastown because someone kindly sent me an email letting me know that one of the two pieces I wrote about John following that visit (one for the Herald; the other for The Word) was loitering quietly in some unsuspected corner of the internet. It currently lives here, for those who are interested.

I enjoyed reading it again, though it’s obviously now a little poignant. Martha is now nearly four. John is dead. C’est la vie, old boy, as I’m sure the old devil might have said.

An April Shower

Terribly, terribly busy. Like you care.

More book work, writing a silly thing about art-rock 'happenings' here, interviewing Steve Earle and the fab Frightened Rabbit here, and reviewing a few albums and contributing a guest column - and lugubrious by-line pic - for the ever-wonderful Word magazine, where I come over all self-righteous about the never-ending stream of bands that sing in abandoned grain silos, record in remote Arctic islands, and sport outlandish sprouts of facial hair, the unspoken subtext being that all this makes them somehow more 'authentic' and therefore worthy of our valuable time than, say, AC/DC or Girls Aloud. Tsk. Spare us the contrived back story and let us get our teeth into the music.

Also been chatting to the fantastic - really, they are fantastic - Phantom Band for a forthcoming piece for the New Statesman, and enjoying new albums by My Latest Novel, Balmorhea, The Low Anthem and Alasdair Roberts (a lovely man who once sent me a beautiful old postcard of the Govan Ferry c. 1910 which now adorns a little rectangle of my office wall.)

And half-enjoying (not as much as I'd hoped, I confess) the new Jarvis Cocker and Elvis Costello records. Sun is shining. Children are back at school. Peace, for a moment, reigns.

Friday 3 April 2009

Brought to Book

Ryan Adams is publishing a book. This may or may not be exciting news, but I’ve written a piece about his literary ambitions – and three other prominent musicians-turned-authors – in today’s Guardian. You can read my thoughts, and those of Adams, Nick Cave, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg – here.

This blog has been rather quiet lately, a combination of a Sisyphean work load (I live beneath the constant shadow of a tower of unwritten words) and the fact that, 9 months after US publication and over 6 months after UK publication, the momentum around I Shot a Man in Reno is inevitably winding down. That’s fine, and to be expected, and I’ve got two other major writing projects to keep me busy. I'm very proud of the book and how it has been received in both Britain and the States.

I am going to continue with this blog, although I think from now on its brief will be a little wider, covering all sorts of topics and also flagging up most of my day-to-day writing. Of course, the contents of Reno will always be of particular interest to me, and I will continue to post any relevant, interesting news on that topic. Just more other stuff, too.

I hope you all stick around.