Archive for September, 2010

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Jimi Hendrix, 40 years on

(Originally delivered as a talk at the Gavin Martin-organised Talking Music Revolutions event at the Three Blind Mice bar, London, 2010)

I didn’t experience the 60s, I never had any idea who he was until the mid-70s but I finally got into Jimi Hendrix in 1978 when I came of age as a music lover. Polydor released a double album called The Essential Jimi Hendrix. Of course, one’s mid teen listening epiphanies tend to be lifelong – it was about this time I also first got into Can, Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Karlheinz Stockhausen among others and they’ve remained prominent on the mountainscape of my listening ever since. But maybe it was a good time to be introduced to Jimi Hendrix, a time when you could really begin to see him for the many things he truly was. In their own era, artists like Hendrix, much like The Sex Pistols later on, tend to be dismissed in a very cool blasé manner by even rock experts as gimmicky, flashes in the pan, seem it all before, rather than regarded with shock and awe. But by 1978, Hendrix was a legend. Clearly, he’d raised the volume and temperature of rock music forever, to the extent that no one could really take, say, the Caucasian twang of a George Harrison quite so seriously again. In Blakean terms, he represented rock’s transition from innocence to Experience. Punk had just happened but the likes of The Clash and The Damned sounded like so many firecrackers by comparison with the thermonuclear energy of a “Purple Haze” or a “House Burning Down”. In fact,  my Hendrix obsession delayed for two years my appreciation of the seismic events of my own teenage years, punk and post-punk.

Because punk had been seismic. It exploded old certainties, it brought the whole idea of progressive, mainly white rock as the only road ahead down from its plinth. In deprivileging white rock, it opened up a new cultural multiverse and incidentally, opened my eyes at least to the transcendent diversity of Jimi Hendrix – the way he touched, and was touched by, not just heavy rock, but soul, jazz, psychedelia, blues, electronics, funk even the nascent ambient genre. They all had a piece of him and he a piece of them.

Of course, Hendrix, like no other solo artist in rock, represented physical and sexual potency. He was way, way more than a cock rocker but he casually tossed off the index for cock rock. He was more than just a guitarist, but someone who worked in the medium of electricity, in his amps, in his sound board, and in the air, someone who had the capacity to bring down thunder and lightning from the sky. In some ways, his apotheosis was Electric Ladyland, for me still, the heaviest and greatest rock album ever recorded and ever likely to be recorded. The apotheosis of that apotheosis was “Voodoo Chile”, an 800 lb monster demonstration of wizardry, brimstone and infinite black capability, released in 1968 against a blazing background of conflagration and uprising, and also the Olympic year in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivered the black power salute and in which the long jumper Bob Beamon practically jumped out of the pit to record an unthinkable world record of 8 metres 90 centimetres. To think of Hendrix is to think of rock’s closest approximation to a superhuman, someone apparently capable of physically altering the atmosphere, the environment, the times.

And yet, the truth is, Hendrix as a human being was not a strong man. He was slight, physically unassuming, diffident in interviews. He wasn’t a wild man but passive, his destiny often in the hands of others, including his management. He cowed beneath the authority of his disciplinarian father, and acquired from his early childhood a lifelong habit of not saying “boo” to a goose. “A fish wouldn’t get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut,” he once said. He wasn’t a natural rebel – although seen as a key provider to the soundtrack of anti—Vietnam protest, as an ex-paratrooper he was actually pro-US involvement in the war until well into the 60s, and even provided music for an army recruitment campaign. What’s more, when the Black Panthers came knocking at his door, looking him to press him into service for their cause, he acquiesced but in a very qualified, reluctant and uncomfortable manner. He is regarded as a pioneer in his times, trailing clouds of glory and imitators but in fact felt profoundly lonely, and out of kilter with the 60s, the decade he in some ways is supposed to symbolise, but of course, in reality wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. His sense of temporal displacement is best expressed on “I Don’t Live Today”, as a moan comes rearing out of the mix, “There ain’t no life nowhere.” And yet, all of this “weakness” somehow came to be Hendrix’s true strength.

Hendrix didn’t rise like a natural force through the ranks. He was 24 when he first made his impact proper, considered a great rock’n’roll age in the 1960s. Only a couple of years earlier, Melody Maker had run an editorial pondering the question, “Ringo Starr – too old to rock at 24?” Although impelled by his own curiosity to depart the Chitlin’ circuit, and providing backline accompaniment for touring soul bands like The Isley Brothers, there was no doubt that in America, that that was deemed his place. He was salvaged from this fate by the entrepreneurialism of Chas Chandler, and the dubious expedient of launching Hendrix in London, his genuine talents showcased under the pretext of frazzle-haired, Wild Man Of Borneo-type pop oddity. A stronger man might have resisted being paraded for the zoological fascination of a novelty-hungry, swinging London, still in the grip of appalling, racist assumptions about African-American men and their uncivilised proclivities. But Hendrix acquiesced, Hendrix went on tour with the Monkees, went along with the fabricated story of his being dropped at the behest of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Hendrix is one of the most identifiable figures in the rock firmament. Yet his own sense of identity in 1967, in 1968 was elusive and fluid, and he himself suffered a profound and inherited sense of displacement, coming as he did from a mixed ethnic background whose make up was Cherokee on his Mother’s side. What was he, this crossover figure at this time? African American? Native American? British American? American? A lack of certainly in his roots saw him casting and hankering about in all directions, in both past and future, flailing in an existential quandary. He was everywhere because he was nowhere.

By 1968, a sense of the general had overtaken the personal, and Hendrix was subsumed into a wider context. One of my favourite stories about Hendrix, which even it’s apocryphal is too true to be really untrue, concerns the day Martin Luther King died. He found himself in a bar. A group of white rednecks were laughing at the screen, loudly toasting Dr King’s assassination, perhaps looking to provoke a reaction out of Jimi. And a stronger man might have invited these guys outside. But Hendrix said nothing. Instead, later that evening, in concert, he offered a dedication to “a friend of mine” and unleashed a magnificently lachrymose improvised blues jam, an acid rainstorm of angry lamentation which no one who heard it could ever forget and which, sadly, no one had the presence of mind to bootleg.

This story, for me, speaks a great deal about Hendrix. Passive by nature, he absorbed, he internalised, in this instance as a black man individually but as black people had been forced to collectively. Rather than hit back or make some assertive show of manhood, he sublimated his feelings and, allowing them to sink into the prismatic, unfathomable depths and processes of his talent, returned to the surface with something far more powerful and stirring and harrowing than any reflexive show of angry agitation could ever have hoped to produce.

There are many Hendrixes – the bluesman on “Hear My Train A’ Comin’” summoning forth a coded message of civil rights in tandem with Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, the jazz pioneer, who helped set electric Miles on his way, on a similar journey of curiosity and profound loneliness. Hendrix the funkster, retaining some of the Isleys’s spirit and inspiring that group’s 70s funk/rock renaissance. But this soundtrack here, now, is perhaps my own, favourite Hendrix, imagining escape from a broken world to which ultimately he doesn’t belong or to which he is made to feel he does not belong, descending into deeper shades of turquoise into an aqua-Utopia of his own imagining, straining every piece of technology available in 1968 to its utmost, flying around the soundboard in tandem with his sound engineer Eddie Kramer. He’s part of a tradition of what’s been termed Afro-Futurists, who include names as divergent as Sun Ra, A Guy Called Gerald and Asian Dub Foundation, who chafe at the benign contentment in the here and now, who are deeply impatient at the dominance of conservatism and especially nostalgia in rock, having no reason themselves as black people to feel very much affection for past times at all. It’s escapism, but of the most meaningful sort. Sublimation, truly sublime.

When Hendrix did depart from this world in 1970, there was, of course, a shared sense of tragedy. Melody Maker’s headline that week spoke for many when it said, “Coliseum To Reform”. Actually, I think he died at an inconvenient point in the week, music press deadlines-wise, so perhaps . . . I suppose, then and now you feel the lose more keenly because unlike a great many rock’n’roll deaths, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, you didn’t feel that here was a man in bloated decline or bent on a death wish. His death was a terrible accident, one of those terrible things. It’s also led to speculation as to what he might have done next. People have talked of him collaborating with various people, including Miles Davis or Stevie Wonder, or going on a jazz odyssey, or even forming his own big band to help realise his Aquarian visions. Others say he was a burnt out case. I personally feel he’d gone so far and covered so much ground that while his talent was undiminished, he’d left himself very little to do, few places left to go. I regard his as a potential fulfilled, and his early death as convenient in an awful way, preserving him in his youth and preserving us from his iconic decline.

But what of his legacy? Occasionally, this has been spoken of in rather simple terms, Initially, he was seen as merely the Godfather of white guitar virtuosity, with the likes of Robin Trower regarded as his inheritors – or even as the inaugurator of heavy metal. Later, he was credited with a revival of black rock, and even, God preserve us, for having paved the way for Lenny Kravitz. But truth be told, Living Colour and a handful of others apart, there hasn’t been a whole lot of black rock and I don’t particularly think it should register as any particular failure that that floodgate hasn’t exactly opened. Rather than draw such straight lines between blackness and rockness, I prefer to find shards of Hendrix and his roomful of mirrors scattered across the spectrum, across rock time and space, in Public Image Ltd, in James “Blood” Ulmer, in My Bloody Valentine, in Brian Eno and The Orb, in minimal Techno, or in those countless many who use electronics as a sound palette – a myriad range of reference points, reflecting the myriad multiverse that, despite his popular image, is Hendrix’s true bequest.

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

England v Switzerland (Euro 2012 qualifier, 2010)


Last night, I had the most queer and disconcerting nightmare. The scene was South Africa and the recent World Cup. In the fevered fancy of my nocturnal state, the England team, far from crushing the opposition as is their real life wont, played like a pack of overprivileged, arrogant, yet fundamentally invertebrate cowards, either too stupid or too full of themselves to take tactical instructions. In the mists of my phantasm, they played collectively coated in a cold sweat of anxiety, anxiety that without the foreign players in their Premier League teams there to cover and compensate for their pitiful technical inadequacies, they were in constant danger of being found out by even the meanest minnows of footballing nations who’d at least grasped the basics of retaining possession and passing the ball along the ground.

As my head doubtless thrashed about on my pillow, visions danced before me of Wayne Rooney playing with the indignant confusion of a man who was suddenly required to wash his own socks and cook his own breakfast for the first time in his adult life, of Steven Gerrard floundering in some mysterious other-world in which he had to cope without the not ridiculously unwarranted forcefield of hype and reverence that customarily surrounds him, of John Terry – John Terry! – being exposed as an egotistical, troublemaking tossrag who’d fatally and pathetically overestimated both his worth on the field and his influence off it, being outflanked and humiliated by Signor Capello – the team mascot, for Heaven’s sake! – a scenario as preposterous as that of Mr Basil Fawlty, of the light entertainment series Fawlty Towers being forced to grovel apologetically and tie the shoelaces of the waiter Manuel.

In this hellish and hideously absurd manifestation of the disturbed unconscious, England were forced to return home early, their imperial delusions that they could dominate the world with their olde world, gunboat footballing tactics in tatters, yet still in glazed denial about their shortcomings, howlingly exposed in plain sight as they were by the Germans, whose youth had taught our clumsy old men a footballing lesson, exposing them for the fumbling, slow-moving, testosterone-warped, overrated, undertaxed, irreflective, clubfooted, pigbrained, boorish, cosseted, arse-faced bunch of News Of The World exposes waiting to happen and all-round tit-faced twats that they were.

At last, I woke up, roused by Seppings, who, for want of any other manservant to hand, I punched hard in the face, then came to. Ah, but it had all been a dream, indeed, doubtless brought on by the Gruyere I consumed late last night before repairing to my bedchambers. A Swiss cheese. Well, revenge for my torment would be exacted upon this nation whose idea of percussive instruments is each other’s leatherbound arses, whose idea of a receptacle for alcoholic beverage is not a pewter tankard but a small barrel attached to a large dog. Pewter tankards versus small barrels attached to large dogs – that was what was at stake tonight.

The National Anthems marked the gross differences in quality between these two footballing nations. Our own, which would have only been improved, I’d suggest, by our players standing with loaded rifles presented, to be fired at random into the crowd upon the conclusion of the final verse. As for the Swiss’s wan effort, it is clear why this nation invented watches – in order to have something to look at, repeatedly, throughout its tedious duration in the hope of its imminent conclusion.

There might be those among you, excessively inclined to view foreign nations through the prism of outdated stereotypes, to imagine that the Swiss would be capering about the field in Alpine hats. Not so. Whereas we English are of pure blood and pedigree, the modern Swiss type is a mongrel, gone somewhat to seed – typical of a national so liberally inclined that they granted women the vote in 1959 (though I do not believe there are any plans to grant servants the vote, thank goodness). Nowadays, the Swiss are an eclectic rabble, comprising Frenchmen in search of the clean, fresh water and hygiene lacking in their old country, of Germans who lack the mettle to mingle with their own, proud race, of Italians who have wandered into the country by mistake, too busy jabbering to see where they are going and have been unable to find their way out, and of sundry Turks and dishevelled types from the lower Slavic hordes.

And, despite the Swiss inclination towards neutrality manifesting itself if their efforts to try to do the referee’s job before him on every decision, this was a predictable one-sided affair. Wayne Rooney, sporting a new haircut which gave him the stylish air of a fat urchin having been shaved for nits, slotted home early on and for the remainder of the first half, and thereafter the entire team could have retired to the pavilion and taken tea for 20 minutes, so little a threat did the Swiss present. On the one or two occasions when they did sally forth into our penalty area our defence held firm, not for one moment resembling befuddled members of a home guard platoon reduced to panic and almost skewering each other with their fixed bayonets, having mistaken what turned out to be an acorn dropped from a tree for a lobbed grenade.

Come the second half and we were even able to give our teaboy, Adam Johnson, a runout, as well as one or two other members of the travelling catering staff, including a Mr Darren Bent, whom mascot, Signor Capello, introduced to the field of play in error, doubtless in a prank played by his English handlers. Mr Bent looked as surprised as anyone – and he faced stiff competition in that department – when, finding himself in yards of space, alone in the penalty area, he managed to kick the ball into the net, of all places. But such was our superiority by this stage – (I mean to say, the early 21st century, when the English as a race have pulled even further ahead in the evolution stakes) that we could afford to chortle at our inferiors.

There were many good points to emerge from this fixture – Joe Hart certainly doesn’t like look he’s one pimple’s length away from a goalkeeping disaster, Theo Walcott managed to last some ten minutes before sustaining an injury, giving the lie to the idea that Arsenal as a team are a bunch of brittle-boned, milk-averse, calcium-deficient crocks. And finally, Wayne Rooney managed to go almost the whole 90 minutes without once visiting a prostitute. This is English stoicism and restraint at its stoutest.

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

England v Bulgaria (Euro 2012 qualifier, 2010)


Last week, upon dining in the Great Hall, I happened to notice a small stain on my fishfork. I did not overreact, like some Turkish despot but responded in a measured but firm manner. I summoned Seppings, pointed out the blemish on the offending cutlery, then, setting aside my napkin, proceeded to tie him by the ankles from the chandelier that hangs above the dining table, and set about his head and body with my stoutest Zulu knobkerrie. I then dragged him half-naked out into the gardens, attached him to the rear of the lawnmower and pootled up and down the gravel pathway at high speed until he was rendered nicely raw. Whereupon I prepared him a vinegar bath. Finally, for good measure, I trundled out the giant catapult, hoist him into the spoon and took aim, with a view to projecting him into the cesspit. Would that I had had Frank Lampard perform the task for my aim was poor; the fellow splatted face first into the side wall of the coal bunker.

It was precisely this sort of treatment that England meted out to the Bulgarians on Friday night – emphatic corporal punishment delivered in an altruistic manner, in order to teach them a lesson about precisely where they languish in the footballing scheme of things. For this is a country for whom being battered is as natural as it is a dead fish. In 1913, in the Second Balkan War, for example, all of Bulgaria’s neighbours rose up and trounced her, by way of a warm-up for the First World War, in which the Bulgarians performed with an ignominious lack of distinction once again. But then, what can be expected of a nation whose national dish is pulped newspaper dumplings stewed in cow’s blood, whose combined plumbing and sewerage system is, to all intents and purposes the Danube, whose principal source of winter fuel is their own currency, and whose principal trade, undertaken in the main square in Sofia, is in attempting, unsuccessfully, to sell each other bric-a-brac commemorating in gruesomely sycophantic terms, the 25th wedding anniversary of Mr and Mrs Leonid Brezhnev?

The National Anthems were the measure of the disparity. Our own, of course, delivered like a Steven Gerrard pass, with such gusto that was not confined to the stadium but sailed up and out beyond it; the opposition, a hymn of praise to their landscape as bizarre, though not unheard of, a a Bulgarian farmer willingly betrothed to a bail of hay.

The game began at a cracking clip, the Bulgarians, hampered by the residual newspaper ink lingering in their lower intestines, rather slower on the uptake. The referee was doubtless under instructions from the English FA to be on the lookout for Bulgarian dirty tricks – the niggly dig of the elbow at set pieces, the exaggerated dive, the umbrella jabbed in the back of the thigh. Bulgaria does have one professional footballer, a Mr Dimitar Berbatov, granted asylum by Manchester United some years ago, but he has retired from international football to concentrate on his smoking.

Within minutes, as adept at making passes on the field as he is unaccustomed to making them off the field to prostitutes who are quite clearly gonna be on the blower to the fucking News Of The World before they’ve even hosed themselves down and to peel apart the viscous batch of £50 notes he’s pulled out of his jeans pocket, I mean, really, you stupid, hairy egg-like cunt, is there really nothing going up there other than fucking hair loss? – Wayne Rooney had put through Jermain Defoe to open his account.

Defoe’s performance on the night made a mockery of his skin colour – not in the sense I myself used to do in Smokers during my Varsity days, corked up to the hilt, in the days before the tyranny established by Mr Benjamin Elton suppressed all freedom of expression in the United Kingdom. Rather, his performance was of an altogether higher pigmentation. But he was not the only player to shine. Adam Johnson showed that he has all the credentials to slot right into the England team – head down, blaze wide when you’ve got two unmarked players to your left. Glenn Johnson demonstrated throughout the game a full range of concentration levels, Steven Gerrard was imperious in midfield, spraying phlegm all around the pitch, while Frank Lampard has discovered a role in which he is of maximum use to the England team.

Time and again, England charged through the Bulgarian defence, like cavalrymen through a women and children’s refugee camp, upturning cooking pots, scattering rags attached to washing lines to the winds, trampling small dogs beneath their hooves. At the match’s end, the Bulgarian players were frisked for chamois leathers, lest the blighters be thinking of melting discreetly into our workforce,  before their deportation was arranged. There is no need for their valet services here – the back seats of English cars, in particular that of Mr Rooney, remain resolutely unstained. We are family men.