Wednesday 30 March 2011

Quid Pro Quo

Further to His Excellency Simon's post below, here's the aural equivalent of drinking a litre of Sunny Delight, and doing somersaults on a bouncy castle:

"Ma Kelly's Greasy Spoon" (1970) is the most intriguing Quo album, as it indicates some of the directions they could have taken as they felt their way out of their strung-out psychedelic phase. This song is surprisingly minimal/brutal, and not at all good-timey:

"Dog Of Two Head" (1971) was the first album where they began to find their way. There then began the band/fan alchemical process of mutual appreciation, refining their riffing until they extracted the molten gold of "Down Down".

The Quo hung around too long of course, and even worse, still made hits as they did so, an unforgiveable crime in those far off days when pop temporality and the idea of musical "progress" actually meant something. In the '90's they were put on an unofficial Radio 1 blacklist (along with Sir Cliff), because new controller Matthew Bannister wanted to make room for bold, innovative new groups like The Bluetones and Shed Seven.

Still, for dirty-kneed 70's schoolboys, there was only one band that rocked our world:

heads down no nonsense mindless boogie

I am waiting with my mounting impatience for Phil's Free-style reclamation of these fine fellows...

if not the true sound of the British Seventies then certainly a true sound of the British Seventies

so massive they were even parodied

the latter, Martin Hannett-connected, rock lampoon outfit were briefly considered part of punk for their Snuff Rock concept

Albertos were something like the U.K.'s equivalent to The Tubes, but with less props

and while we're on the interface between rock, theatre, and satire, i think this, from Rock Follies, is meant to be a parody of punk

although it might have been inspired by these guys

Rock Follies deserves its own post

Tuesday 29 March 2011

The Men That Do Evel

“I thought I was bulletproof or Superman there for a while. I thought I'd never run out of nerve. Never.”
- Evel Knievel

There have always been items, markets and professions that rapidly bubbled in prominence, only to crash suddenly. This process has accelerated in the neoliberal age. Obviously, domesticated technologies have played a big part. Where once film-making took years of industrial apprenticeship to master, it's now available for anyone accessing relatively cheap software and rudimentary training (itself subject to obsolescence). The 80s promised cutting-edge success to those mastering computers, when for most of us it's largely a soul-destroying, minimum-wage wing of the service economy. The glut of 'food porn' and the financial crash will doubtlessly devalue the status of 00s chefs. Over-saturation, or the realization that it ain't so hard (hello DJs!), can rapidly shrink inflated egos (and incomes) of supposed professionals. Platforms such as this blog demonstrate how audiences don't necessarily result in market value. The death of the music press is proof enough of this. Our economy demands that today's Hot Item is tomorrow's scrapheap. If lucky, obsolescence retires into nostalgia, hoping its fickle middle-aged grandchildren will visit soon to play.

Until the early 80s, one highly romanticized profession was the stuntman. Although a far more lethal job in silent days, TV shows such as The Fall Guy or films like Hooper (1978) and The Stunt Man (1980) gave the stuntman an aura of mystique and value. From crime-fighting hijinks to existential questions about fate, the stuntman was sold as a figure on the edge of danger and mortality. Former stuntman Burt Reynolds was an apt superstar for the decade in which 'macho' became a mainstream word. This was also reflected in the 70s fetish for car chases, from most of Reynolds' films and extending to musicals and comedies like Grease (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980)Any number of innocent fruit and veg stalls or chicken coops were destroyed in the name of transient sensation. In the face of widespread uncertainty about who was in charge, these films reassured audiences they could at least steer their wheels in any direction. In the Carter years, this fetish became so chronic that whole films could be built around 'characters' simply known as The Driver (1978) and The Car (1977). Stuntmen gained such prominence in the 70s Spectacle that they could dispense with narrative altogether, staging summer blockbusters of the stunt itself.

It wasn't just the car with which heroes battled physics, nature and boredom. Evel Knievel (born Robert Cray Knievel) was very much a son of the soil with his mining, hunting and fishing skills. He was also something of a juvenile delinquent. His early love of motorcycles led to several scrapes with the law and prison spells. Despite proficiency in several sports - and continued involvement in illegal activity -  he ended up working as an insurance salesman to support his family. Indignant at inadequate rewards for his considerable salesmanship, he went into business selling Honda bikes. Facing assumptions of Japanese technical inferiority and lingering WW2 prejudices, he soon went under. In need of income, his last resort was that most durable of American industries: showbusiness. His sales acumen and sporting prowess led to a series of publicity stunts, and with that growing media attention. Despite slippery maneuvres in gaining that attention (like posing as CEO of a fake corporation to gain access to Vegas bigwigs), he prided himself on being "a man of my word", proceeding with ill-advised stunts to satisfy his own hype. With emerging superstardom and 'role model' status, he even delivered on obligatory anti-drug moralising. He famously rumbled - and won - against Hell's Angels he'd publicly criticised (with his fans joining the fray). This became the basis for one of several movies, this time featuring himself as the action hero.

By mid-decade, stunt publicity stunts were all the rage - from skyscraper high-wire acts to the mysterious Human Fly ("the real-life superhero!"). Although not new to the 70s, stuntmen such as Knievel held a curious mass appeal at the time. His international fame was perhaps due to a lack of 'acceptable' male role models, rather than skill or showmanship. With war less fashionable, sport a site of political antagonism, the increasingly dark motifs of rock'n'roll, and the various excesses or anxieties of New Hollywood, Knievel found a lucratively inflated niche; not least as 'family entertainment' in the growing theme park market. Despite his many injuries, he was at some remove from the bland Nixonian personas of astronauts, the grand guignol of rock stars like Alice Cooper, the controversy of recent wars, or the political potency of a Muhammed Ali. The wide range of toys and tat licensed in his image were testament to a more wholesome idea of masculine risk-taking. Unlike today's wrestlers or 'extreme' sports stars, he was very much in charge of his own business affairs, and actually put his life on the line to entertain. If the 70s saw a crisis in traditional power relations, stuntmen offered a relatively authentic model of 'traditional' masculinity. However, as the gimmicks and vehicles grew more elaborate, Knievel wasn't immune to (literally) jumping the shark. His role in the Spectacle would have a limited shelf-life, and bankruptcy beckoned.

The 70s wasn't short of idolised supermen in decline (or the grave) for the next decade. From John Wayne's mythologised cancer in The Shootist (1976), to Bruce Lee's sudden death, to Muhammed Ali's tragic final bout, to the bloated corpse of Elvis Presley, this twilight of masculine idols was an almost ritualistic process. Not so much reacting to feminism, as vainly preserving an outmoded ideal, male figures recently sold as intimidatingly potent exited from the Spectacle in quick succession. Hubristic icons all, they sunk into a canyon as deep and ancient as the site of Knievel's most spectacular stunt. His malfunctioning rockets were as indicative of changing mores as widespread fatigue with the Space Program. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg offered safer light and magic, convincing us a man could fly - leading the way for video games, CGI and virtual stuntmen. As with manufacturing, stunt cinema would become a growth industry for the far east. In the west, 'hands-on' tasks became increasingly passe. Industry was for losers and sentimentalists. The new tough guy would swing it about on Wall Street; machismo caricatured on the cock-veined biceps of Stallone, Schwarznegger and their Aryan clones, lacking any of Burt Reynolds' humour. Unlike earlier figures, the spectacular male body was to be shielded from broken bones, obesity or sudden death. In denial of the boom in steroids, the New Man was expected to die hard.

Knievel would be regarded as something of a joke in the following decade, a fragile relic of 70s kitsch. The new consensus required illusions of non-stop victory, even if it was with tongue in cheek. Mike Tyson could rebrand his failures into the tribulations of an ex-con badass. Rocky and Indy would fight their paunch into the next century. The King of Rock'n'Roll was replaced by a King of Pop endlessly reconstructing his own head. Even the new president survived a bullet with a smirk, after stiffing Mr. Peanut at the polls. The un-greying Reagan represented 'old values', but unlike his predecessors he was no war veteran. Despite the gung-ho rhetoric, his success owed more to the petty banality of taxes, interest rates and quarterly profit margins. For all its horrors, it was conservative aggression with a small 'c'. Apart maybe from media management (the most elaborate stunt of the 80s), the old men of the New Right largely avoided innovation or danger. Its enemies were the weak, poor and dispossessed; its imagination venturing no further than the 19th century. The values of that period could be revived as easily as its industries could be disposed of. Exploration was reserved for abstract finance - the new frontier without a map. The neoliberal Spectacle doesn't encourage progress or risk so much as perpetual downsizing, reshuffling, merging and rebranding; forever jiggling its jewels towards shallower pockets. Stunts have been outsourced to game show amateurs, and the only astronaut most of us recognise is Buzz Lightyear. The cultural logic of post-modernism consoled its audience with a final resting place for deflated, spent conviction: parody.

Saturday 26 March 2011

Addicted To Addiction

"A monotone value is one that either only increases or only decreases. Its curve has no kinks; that is its curve never changes from increase to decrease or vice-versa. Desired substances, things, patterns, or sequences of experience that are in some sense "good" for the organism - items of diet, conditions of life, temperature, entertainment, sex, and so forth - are never such that more of the something is always better than less of the something. Rather, for all objects and experiences there is a quantity that has optimum value. Above that quantity the variable becomes toxic. To fall below that value is to be deprived.

It is even possible that when we consider money, not by itself, but as acting on human beings who own it, we may find that money too becomes toxic beyond a certain point. In any case, the philosophy of money, the set of presuppositions by which money is supposedly better and better the more you have of it, is totally anti-biological. It seems, nevertheless, that this philosophy can be taught to living things."

Gregory Bateson - "Mind And Nature"

The anthropologist, biologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson characterised all biological systems, including human civilisations, as conforming to either one of two modes. The first mode he called steady state. In this mode organisms operate in their environment in a self-correcting, homeostatic manner, in which any variable of behaviour is not allowed to get too out of hand without being corrected by another behaviour. Bateson’s own analogy was the steam engine with a governor that allows it to slow to prevent overheating, and his archetype of a society that had achieved a steady state system was Bali, whose culture forbade competition and rivalry in favour of a near-artistic sense of social balance.

The other mode in which a system can operate he termed runaway. In this mode, like an engine without a governor, a behaviour will become ever-increasingly extreme and distorted until it reaches some kind of catastrophic climax.

Steady state and runaway are connected to two other Batesonian concepts - the evolutionary ideas of adaptation and addiction. For Bateson, evolution was what he called a stochastic process, which meant that it was partially random, and yet at the same time had certain favoured outcomes. A creature was adapted to its environment if it was readily able to cope with any change in variables (e.g. temperature, food supply) that it might encounter. An organism was addicted if it was overly specialised in one ecological niche, and subject to extinction if this niche were to become no longer viable. The stochastic process of evolution is liable to produce many variations in organisms (and systems) that appear to be advantageous in the short term, but are fatal over a longer period.

There is, of course, no more magnificent an example of a runaway system of addiction than Western capitalist society. It is a mistake to believe that Anglo-American capitalism promotes addictions. Anglo-American capitalism IS addiction. There is almost no aspect of our society that is immune to metastasis or rarefaction, whether it be banker’s bonuses, binge-drinking, death metal or Las Vegas casinos. These are not different phenomena, but rather different manifestations of the same phenomenon - the sheer inability of Western social, cultural or economic trends to self-correct before they reach exhaustion or catastrophe. We are born addicts into an addictive society whether we like it or not.

Perhaps the two realms where the metastatic results of this addiction are most prominent are in the symbiotically linked realms of architecture and finance, and their two most cherished creations of the modern age, the skyscraper and the fiat currency. The 1970’s witnessed perhaps the most significant inflection points in their dual evolution with the withdrawal of the US Dollar from the Bretton Woods system, and the completion of the World Trade Center.

The "Nixon Shock" of 1971 saw the US end the direct convertibility of the Dollar to gold, ostensibly to end the demands of European creditors to have their dollar holdings converted to gold. This is in turn was due to the persistent US Governmental and trade deficits that had been aggravated by the Vietnam war, and had been partly ameliorated by a surge of dollar printing. Whatever the short-term relief it gave to the American economy, the de-linking of the currency to a finite commodity had the longer-term effect of facilitating the ephemeral money-economy of neoliberalism, in which the immaterial realm of money creation via financial transactions was able to far exceed the real wealth generated by physical production.

If the current global economy can be rightly described as a virtual system, the World Trade Center could almost be described as a virtual building. Mies van der Rohe’s International style has always been superbly appropriate for the financial industry, with its blank poker face pointing streetwards while all sorts of arcane machinations (usually involving variations of mortgage fraud) go on inside. The Twin Towers, which were the complex’s focal point, perhaps marked the moment when the concept of the skyscraper went from being an ingenious structural solution to the problems of land utilisation, and became more a kind of boastful expression of size for size’s sake. Minoru Yamasaki’s design was interpreted by many as being finance Capitalism waving two rigid digits at the rest of the world.

The tube-frame structure of the Twin Towers was to prove notoriously insubstantial during the fateful attacks that sealed their doom, and as such they can viewed as a metaphor for the equally insubstantial and equally doomed global economy that they helped to facilitate. We may feel ourselves to be omnipotent in our virtual realms, but it is the greater force of nature that will put an end to our illusions. As the Club Of Rome’s Donnella H. Meadows put it:

"There will always be limits to growth. They can be self-imposed. If they aren't, they will be system-imposed. No physical entity can grow forever. If company managers, city governments, the human population do not choose and enforce their own limits to keep growth within the capacity of the supporting environment, then the environment will choose and enforce limits."

Tuesday 22 March 2011


Martin Bax, paediatrician.

When I moved into a 1974 building a few months back, the seventies objects I’ve been carrying around with me since my sister and I sold our family home a couple of years ago started to seem newly apt. It’s mostly my dad’s stuff that fills the boxes upon boxes we’ve gone to great lengths to hang on to, and the seventies was unquestionably my dad’s decade. Maybe he was a sixties child in some respects – hedonistic, a Hendrix fan – but most of his musical and literary heirlooms are from the subsequent ten years or so (from circa 1969 to 1981). So there are records by Neu!, Uriah Heep, Floyd, Fairport, Amon Düül II, Tangerine Dream, Suicide, old copies of Melody Maker and NME, and a wonderful signed letter from J.G. Ballard, in which the great man politely declines to take part in a conference on psychology and science fiction convened by my dad at Newcastle Poly in 1979.

Surrounding myself with these objects in a Brutalist university building feels apt but also weird. Is this a bizarre atavistic father-son thing? Am I gravitating toward places and things that recall my dad’s PhD years as I enter the exact same phase out of some suppressed instinct of quasi-religious remembrance? Is this what hauntology really is – mourning rituals coming back to bite us in the ass, memory and meaning fighting to get out of inert matter in an age of amnesiac secularism? My generation doesn’t so much suffer from a generation gap as from an uncanny over-familiarity with our parents.*

Anyway, sorting through psychology textbooks, dust-covered copies of New Worlds, and novels by Ursula Le Guin and Christopher Priest just before Christmas, I lighted on this excellent book, published in 1976:

Perhaps people who were actually alive in the seventies can tell me whether or not this is a well-known text. It’s certainly not one I’d heard of, and not one that seems to pop up in received histories of the decade. Some very cursory internet research reveals that Martin Bax was a consultant paediatrician in London (apparently until very recently), but he’s better known for founding Ambit, a still flourishing literary/arts journal, which Bax now co-edits with middlebrow-poet-turned-monarchy-apologist Carol Ann Duffy, amongst others. Since the Hospital Ship he’s written only one more book, 2005’s Love on the Borders, which is a shame, because his debut really is a belter.

An early-seventies edition of Ambit. Ballard, Bax, and friends ogle some poor lass.
The plot is a simple one. After an apocalyptic disaster a renegade “hospital ship” sails around the planet spreading a gospel of free love that is part hippyish ethos, part experimental psychiatry. There are some evocative Children of Men-style scenes involving human crucifixion, which is taking place on dry land at the behest of an unspecified genocidal tendency. Survivors are rescued and revived by way of the ship’s sex therapies. Some atrocities are experienced first hand. Relationships burgeon and evolve. That’s pretty much it.

Ballard was a friend of Bax’s – there’s an endorsement of his on the blurb – and his influence is clearly discernible throughout. The other notable presence is William S. Burroughs; the structure of the novel utilizes Burroughsian cut-up, largely as a means of incorporating copious borrowings from medical journals and psychoanalytic texts. (In fact, take away the scientific material and you would have a novella of less than 100 pages.)

I’m not quite sure what I find so winning about this formula. I think it has something to do with the effortlessness of the outré aesthetic, the sense that writing an experimental, socially provocative novel was just something one had to do during this period, not because of ego or careerism (Bax could presumably have ditched the day job for a glamorous literary career), but out of sheer natural curiosity, a basic scientific-imaginative desire to synthesize and to create new creative compounds, new stylistic worlds, new social solutions. There’s a very moving valorization of capital L Love as a societal panacea that is utterly unimaginable in the twenty-first century, and the sometimes embarassing sex episodes are forgivable in this context. The book has a standard sci-fi premise but it’s charmingly scrappy, oblique, rough-edged, unprofessional and optimistic.

It’s all about the context isn’t it? In other words, Bax is clearly the product of an avant-garde with a clear-ish sense of what the whole point of writing experimental fiction is. The Hospital Ship reads like the product of a very seventies milieu, a counterculture entering its final phase, one that had Ballard, music, experimentation, sex and science at its centre, one that managed to enlist all these things in the service of an unequivocally progressive and even sometimes sentimental (from today’s vantage point) vision. This sort of world is vaguely familiar to me, the eighties kid, because it’s invariably what I think of when I think about my dad the psychologist/omnivorous reader/purchaser of willfully obscure records.

As a postscript, if you want an illustration of how important milieu (or a lack of it) can be on an artist, take the example of Martin Amis. Now, I’m a diehard Amis-hater, but I picked up a copy of Success (1977) on holiday last year (the book was short, I was bored), and I have to say, I thought it was pretty good. This makes sense though when you consider that Amis was, throughout the seventies, a part of (or at least on the peripheral fringes of) the same countercultural milieu populated by figures like Ballard and Bax. This was where early Amis derived almost all of his fictional energy from, and you can clearly see the negative effect on his writing of his gradual estrangement from this context as he enters the eighties and begins his journey from the Webbite soft-left through the neoliberal centre to the Bushite neo-con right.

But in Success he still seems to have a tendentious grasp of the notion that, to write blackly satirical neo-Dostoyevskyian fiction, you probably have to have some sort of fundamental sympathy with the artistic margins, some sense of basic antipathy to the liberal establishment and the metropolitan literary set (even as you drink/shag/play tennis with its doyens in your off-hours). When you lose sight of this context, you really are fucked creatively. I read The Rachel Papers (1973) years ago, and I remember it having an ebullient, Chattertonian anarchy about it, not really experimental or avant-garde by a long stretch, but informed by a sort of dark, youthful malevolence (like much of the best rock music of the period, I suppose). This angry-young-man-meets-Pynchon mode seems to reach a delicious urban-gothic peak with Success, but by the time of Money (1984), which rehashes Success’s themes, the focus on excess and deviousness has already begun to tip into over self-indulgence and narcissism (but without the knowing bathos that had hitherto made these qualities seem acceptable), the literary equivalent of a bloated mid-eighties guitar solo.

Again, maybe there’s a personal context here. Perhaps I’m viewing Amis’s pre-eighties oeuvre in a slightly forgiving light because, there on the epigraph page of my dad’s 1977 psychology PhD thesis is a quotation from Amis’s Dead Babies (1975): I don’t know much about science, but I know what I like. Somehow, it all seems part of the same seventies context in my head.

*Maybe this is ultimately what resonates in late-eighties films like BTTF and Blue Velvet – see W. Kasper’s fine post over at Faces.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Warning! Polarity Reversing

How precarious life in Britain was in the 1970’s. Without really knowing it, we were under attack from all angles, a relentless barrage of aggression that made the Blitz look like a disagreement over bric a brac at a jumble sale. As most of us went about our business (buying paraffin, listening to Slade records, going on strike, wearing massive trousers, smoking) our sceptered isle was a secret war zone, our lives and way of life threatened from under the sea, under the ground, from the future, from the distant past and from the farthest, coldest, darkest recesses of intergalactic space.

As a child, I would lay awake and wonder what would become of us if it wasn’t for Dr. Who. Exiled to Earth, he was the one thing that stopped us time and again from invasion, subjugation, annihilation - and he didn’t even really want to be here. Imagine the UK without the Doctor, and in short time we’d have been over-run by animated inanimate objects, held to ransom by aliens, taken over by an ancient race of reptiles, then ravaged by a savage war of conquest between those self-same reptiles and their ruthless aquatic cousins, mankind reduced to hapless observers, slaves, forgotten, impotent witnesses to the end of civilisation as we knew it.

Not surprisingly, I hero-worshipped the 900 year old alien responsible for keeping me alive and sought to pay him tribute by watching his struggles of a Saturday tea time, buying his chocolate and keeping the wrappers, eating his cereal, wearing his badges and, most of all, obsessively reading his annual reports which were published each year in time for Christmas.

There is no-one that has ever had as big an influence on me as the Third Doctor, including family members, which is not so much a reflection on them as an indicator of the sort of person I would grow up to be: fickle, and more interested in the imaginary and ephemeral than the here and now, the there and then, the mundane nuts, boring bolts and less than riveting rivets of real life. It’s desperately sad, of course, I know that but the pitiful nature of that revelation doesn’t negate its truth.

Dr. Who taught me that life is tentative, random, fragile: one minute you’re riding your bike to work, the next you’re being blown away by a dapper shop dummy. It also taught me that, as a species, we’re nowhere, not ancient, not adaptable, technologically backward, fatally vulnerable, helpless.

In a time when plastic flowers and sofas could, and did, kill, we needed a much older, far wiser head to watch our backs. I miss that. Precarious life might have been back then, but I felt safe, reassured. Now, I’m permanently on edge, and life is revealed as a game of cards on an oil rig, soon to be interrupted by a heat ray wielding terrapin with a wet vest and murder in mind.


Saturday 19 March 2011

My Goal's Beyond

It might seem apt to describe the Mahavishnu Orchestra's sound as "Indo-Futurist", but for the embarrassing detail that no-one in the group was of even remotely sub-continental extraction. Lead guitarist John McLaughlin was a Yorkshireman who became a disciple of the dubious guru Sri Chinmoy, and the early Mahavishnu albums express an ardent ambition on his part to become perfectly reconciled with his own inner divinity.

Like the Mothers of Invention (with whom they shared a member, the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty), the Mahavishnu Orchestra had a strict straight-edge policy, with band members kept focussed by mandatory pre-gig meditation. The weirdness of the music evidently isn't druggy weirdness: its psychedelic effusion is too intricately-worked to be mistaken for infantile stoner look-at-the-colours-man indulgence (this is essentially the difference between Mahavishnu and, say, the Ozric Tentacles). But it is weird stuff, both sonically and affectively: dislocated and driven, with the sort of frantic joyfulness you'd generally associate with, well, some kind of cult. Imagine the Polyphonic Spree playing about three times as fast, in one of those double-figure-prime-numbered time signatures, with Jan Hammer wazzing about in the super-Locrian over the top of it all.

It's certainly a more elaborate way of getting in touch with your inner divinity than squatting on a rug in some ashram intoning "ommmm...". The Mahavishnu Orchestra are a striking demonstration of the proposition that narcissism doesn't have to be boring: if the self you've fallen in love with is really so much more abundantly interesting than you are, the resulting striving to live up to this image - together with its attendant delusions and anxieties - can occasionally be productive. Grandiosity, in other words, can be the mother of invention.

What's needed, and what McLaughlin was evidently able to produce, is the talent to pull it off: his playing on the early recordings always seems just on the edge of what he can technically manage, and includes some feats of disarming sprezzatura.

Birds of Fire

More to say on this in due course, but:

...this is pretty raw for fusion, wouldn't you say?

Friday 18 March 2011

Henry's Progress

David Lynch’s 1976 Eraserhead is in many ways the most striking of all visions of American decline and of the fall from the grace of the 1950’s. The world Henry inhabits in Eraserhead is an urban, industrial hell, dominated by huge machines and flooded with their noise, the streets are filled with rubbish, populated by marauding gangs and packs of wild dogs, all shot in stark and shadowy black and white. The film re-uses visual tropes of the 1930’s from expressionism and surrealism to render the contemporary city a nightmarish zone of unchecked violence and incomprehensible, inhuman forces. In a sense Eraserhead is true to the horrors of urban poverty in a way that realist film can’t quite capture, the way the world looks for a sensitive, semi-literate, deeply awkward kid with no money and a baby to look after when he’s barely discovered sex. Cruel, dark, overwhelming.

Black and white.

There is a later, comic-book re-appropriation of these tropes (Dark City etc) but Eraserhead is characterized by raw, comfortless dread. The film’s central character, Henry, is an autistic man-child, an innocent abroad in a shattered world. Naïve about sex and the reproductive function, permanently confused and confounded, at a loss as to how to respond, repulsed and deeply estranged, the world of Eraserhead makes no sense to Henry. There is a repeated focus on his confused, anxious face as he is presented with another bizarre and disruptive aspect of his world. In this sense Henry is there as the viewers' proxy: his surroundings are horrific and unsettling and Henry recognizes them as such, this world is not normal: this is not, for example, some fantasy Kingdom populated by magical creatures where different natural laws or customs apply, it is fundamentally wrong, and as viewers we identify with Henry. We are also puzzled and disturbed by the grotesquery of Henry’s world.

It should be said here that Lynch is just as dependent on the cheap reaction shot to set up an audience response as Spielberg. Indeed it’s key to both their techniques and Laura Dern has the distinction of being the only actress who has got to do both, The Spielberg Wonder Face, eyes wide and lips trembling as the character respond in childlike awe to some as yet unrevealed off- camera amazement (spotting the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park), the Face of Fearful Childlike Incomprehension at the Lynchian Freaky Shit (almost all of Inland Empire).

One of the ways in which Eraserhead achieves its effect of a purgatorial, fallen world is by pushing the signifiers of the Nineteen Fifties into an expressionistic frame. The soundtrack captures something of the film’s sense of a history gone wrong, of a brighter past smothered under layers of grime and distortion, snatches of Fats Waller and Chubby Checker rendered spectral by an overlay of abrasive, industrial noise and the remorseless crying of the “baby”.

The conservatism of Henry’s dress, his sweaty, Fifties’ buttoned-upness, his too small suit, the Capraesque characters, Mary X, her parents, the workshop where they make pencil rubbers out of Henry’s head along with the interiors of Mary’s house, the workshop, Henry’s flat, the Lady in the radiator’s clothes and hairstyle: all are Fifties in their stylization. One of the film’s fundamental tensions, one of the ways in which it achieves it’s nightmarishness, a sense that the world is out of joint, is by sinking these scraps of the Fifties into the distorted framing and shadowy lighting of expressionist film. In that sense Eraserhead is postmodern, just as Lynch’s later work is: a part of the effect depends on the juxtaposition of/containment and entrapment of one set of signifiers by another (and our recognition of them, conscious of otherwise). This struggle between the Thirties and the Fifties gives us the Lynchian vision of the Seventies.

This is one of the ways in which the viewer is coaxed into naturalizing the 50’s, it is the buried, idealized substrata of social life from which Henry, as the “normal” consciousness, the conservative consciousness of the 1950’s has been exiled. The Fifties return in American film in the 70s with American Graffiti and Happy Days and its numerous spin-offs on T.V., reaching a peak of popularity with the musical Grease (a film to which Lynch’s later work owes a great deal). The title Happy Days says it all (as does that of the later "The Wonder Years”): a pre-lapsarian world of domestic comforts, family values and the rule of law. With Eraserhead we might imagine that somehow a gawky innocent like Potsy or Ritchie has been somehow transplanted into one of the tougher neighbourhoods in 70s' Detroit. Happy Days will also shadow Lynch’s later works, all the way up to the dismally forced cod-surrealism of the sitcom sequences in Inland Empire.


I’d argue that across three films there’s an emergence of 1950’s: Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart in some ways form a trilogy: Henry’s journey’s out of the purgatory of the 70’s and into a full and final reconciliation with himself at the end of the last of those three films in 1990. They may represent a dramatic descent for certain viewers but for Henry it’s a case of Paradise Regained.

Eraserhead is immersive, a post-apocalypse movie, and there’s a certain separating out across the three films in terms of the characters’ relationship to and within the film’s worlds. To put it another way, Henry scurries through his world, Jeffery strolls and Sailor struts. In Eraserhead Henry is completely lost, adrift and the only release or escape is into some third space, the realm of fantasy, a cosmic, heavenly non-place with the Lady in the Radiator. As Wayne has brilliantly articulated it here, Blue Velvet emphasises an urban/suburban split (the suburbs return with a vengeance the 80’s too) and Jeffery moves between the two. In Blue Velvet Potsy has his world restored to him, a world of intelligible division and relations. Jeffery is a little too hip for one world, the suburbs to which, chastened, having got it out-of his system with a bit of S and M sexual tourism, he eventually returns, seemingly non-traumatized for having witnessed and committed murder. Indeed as Wayne points out the really disquieting moment in Blue Velvet is Dorothy breaching the barrier between worlds. The traffic from Suburban to Urban is supposed to be one way.

If Jeffery is Henry fortified by the restoration of a world in which he has some purchase, and which allows him to augment himself further with a partial engagement in the worlds of sex and violence, then Sailor is one step further along and the culmination of this trajectory. Sailor has something Jeffery can only aspire to, Cool. If Jeffery is Potsy/Ritchie then Sailor is the Fonz: which is also to say that he is Elvis. It’s also legitimate to speculate that Sailor equals the hybridization of Frank and Jeffery just as Lula equals the hybridization of Sandy and Dorothy (though we’ll come to this in a moment)

Lives Backwards

Of all the deaths of the Seventies, symbolic or otherwise the greatest and least acceptable is the death of Elvis: Elvis who symbolized the rise of America, its newness, it’s vigour. Elvis and rock and roll, the diner, the Cadillac, the endless highway. Elvis at the end, bloated and drug addicted in 1977 is a reiteration of the awful waning of American power. Elvis must be recaptured, reinvented. Young Elvis is that perfect synthesis of wholesomeness and carnality, a domesticator of dark and disruptive forces, the symbol of that point before the rot set in, before it all went too far into free love, rebellion, feminism, generational conflict. Elvis is the figure of stability, balance and containment that the Eighties’ yearns for. This is what Sailor offers and what Po-mo offers, containment and diffusion of the disruptive negativity of the 60’s and 70s, allowing America to dream untroubled dreams again. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you know somewhere deep down, irrespective of your structural role, that no matter how Wild At Heart you are, you are basically Pure of Heart. A rock and roll balladeer.

It should be quickly pointed out here that of course that neither Jeffery nor Sailor, in a supreme echo of the Fifties, lose their innocence, the 1950’s is perhaps the point of maximal geo-political adventurism and domination by the States, (which has been partly rolled back by the bad old Seventies and is then pursued more aggressively again through the neo-liberal period up to the present date) and is also the homegrown Golden Age. “The moment where America lost its innocence” is a trope repeatedly deployed across the country’s history, neo-liberalism and po-mo offer a way to return the country to innocence, but returning to innocence simply means the need/capacity for denial and repression is uppermost. This is partly because po-mo says yes, enjoy your racism, sexism, class hatred, violence and privilege because by enjoying them ironically they can not corrode your essential purity of soul, your essential goodness. As such what’s “liberating” about “playful” “ironic” post-modernism is exactly the degree to which it provides a barrier to screen out real antagonisms and conflicts, this is what allows times to appear to be magical, heaven sent, ordained by god, “Wonder years”, political ignorance, willed or otherwise. Both Jeffery and Sailor's essential innocence is manifested in goofiness and schmaltz. The more extreme the violence the more extreme the kitsch needed to counterbalance it.

Lady in the radiator-Sandy-Lula

In both Eraserhead and Blue Velvet there is a tempting whore (dark, foreign) and a saving angel (blonde) In Eraserhead she is pure and sexless, crushing the sperm that fall from the ceiling of her cave with a childlike simper and offering Henry an ecstatic, non physical form of orgasmic transport in the film's fairytale ending. They touch and the screen is suffused with bright white light, this is echoed of course later by Sandy’s dream of the robins in Blue Velvet in which they bring a blinding white light of love. In Eraserhead the whore lives just across the corridor and drowns Henry in pool of terrifying feminine liquidity, whereas Blue Velvet’s whore is located at a safe distance and though a bit scary at first eventually proves to be a reliably needy and masochistic sop to the male ego. The Lady in the Radiator is located in another dimension, a world within the world, that represents the imagination, whereas Sandy, in Blue Velvet is just a round the corner.

Lula may well then be that perfect carnal-innocent combination of Dorothy and Sandy. Interestingly of course the names of the two characters seem most immediately sourced from The Wizard of Oz and Grease both of which feed directly into Wild at Heart. In some ways Wild At Heart plays out as a long coda to Blue Velvet, and a reappraisal of the final sequence of Grease in which good Sandra Dee (“lousy with virginity”) transforms into Bad Sandy, complete with make up and leather trousers. Equally we might compare the final ascent in the magical car at the end of Grease with the sequence of Sailor singing Love me Tender to Lula on top of the car against a vast, bright blue sky as Wild At Heart ends.

In Eraserhead’s final sequence Henry is rescued by the magic of the Lady in the radiator, in Blue Velvet there is a kind of knowing balance struck, both Sandy and Jeffery understand the message of the robin eating the bug, in Wild at Heart Lula simpers and writhes in delight at Sailor’s Karaoke Elvis. He now is the purveyor of magic, the bringer of salvation, the one who believes in true love. Eraserhead’s escape is abstract, inward, Wild at Heart’s is the triumph of the Fifties restored.

Monday 14 March 2011

Odds And Sods

The great guitar solo stand-off seems to have petered to the end, and I've mainly been watching transfixed from the sidelines. But here's a few guitar-based tracks that while not always featuring notable solos, nevertheless demonstrate great virtuosity in the playing.

Firstly, here's Bobby Womack, a soulman who really rocked, with the opening track from his best album, "Understanding". It's a terrific record, full of absolutely white-hot guitar work. Womack doesn't seem to indulge in long solos, but just lets out these wild trills, like nervous tics. He never made an album as good as this again, but I think it's really a classic.

Roger McGuinn doesn't seem to be everyone's favourite Byrd, but I'll take him over astral traveller Gene Clark and that disgraceful cad David Crosby. His debut solo album from 1973 is another stone classic, every bit as good as one of the late Byrds albums (say "Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde"). Here's his excellent (nay, definitive) version of David Wiffen's "Lost My Driving Wheel".

If Terry Reid is famous for anything, it must be for being the most talented British musician to nevertheless conspire to have a largely failed career. Prevented from recording by his management contract at the height of his career, we can only glimpse at his greatness from the small clutch of records he released from the mid-70's onwards.

I'm obviously non-orthodox when it comes to Television, as I prefer "Adventure" to "Marquee Moon", but then that's because it includes my favourite of their songs, "Foxhole". Uncharacteristically for this band, it almost verges on being exciting.

Which reminds me of "Heavy Load" by Free. I've compared them to post-punk before on this site, only to be met with blank looks and scratched heads, but the slow, patient build-up to orgasmic release on this song reminds me of nothing so much as "Marquee Moon".

Finally, everyone loves J.J. Cale don't they? The most exquisite guitar-lines ever recorded, and that's for sure.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Empty Nights and Excess Knives*

Don't know how much I have to add to the geetar-solo compendium, and fuck me if Wayne hadn't already knocked out two of my top contenders via his outboard aside. Me? I'd add a couple more for the early punk years to that same stack.

As far as Bob Quine goes, it's tricky (and perhaps a bit unfair) to single out one single moment from the Voidoids' discog. Still, "Liars Beware" has always stayed with me in terms of its sheer batshittery and unflagging deftness. While it may rate as Hell's most frantic studio performance, Quine responds in kind with a mad scramble of a solo that yanks everything this way and that, strips its gears, and even manages to throw a few seconds' worth of hyperspeed hotsauce blues-boogie blisteroo into the works...

Likewise I have a difficult time with Radio Birdman's Radios Appear, in terms of how singled out one peak or another seems somewhat arbitrary. But I'll still call it for "Aloha, Steve and Danno"...

...for the way it takes the "Hawaii Five-O" theme that's been lurking in the wings and finally runs with it, then compresses the tune's energy by way of through some Dick Dale-styled picking. It'd be about another decade or so before surf-rock would see any sort of a revival, so in the middle of the now-/fashion-obsessed '70s, this meant reaching back to an oft-forgotten dustbin, making it that much more of an alien and arcane move.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* And right, I know this latter part amounts to a misheard lyric from the Hell tune, but I've always preferred it that way.

Monday 7 March 2011

Going Solo, Selling Out

An artist for whom 'Faustian' surely applies ('sell-out' back in the days when it actually meant something), George Benson was considered the world's greatest jazz guitarist during the 70s. Getting a considerable leg-up from his appearance on Miles Davis' Miles In The Sky he was in huge demand as a session player and solo performer; and managed to sell millions when jazz was either retreating into  avant-obscurantism, curating museum pieces, or shooting itself in the pedal with the increasingly absurd indulgences of 'fusion'. Around 1976 his highly complicated, deceptively accessible, playing became complemented by his rather nice voice (arguably imitating Stevie Wonder's imitation of Donny Hathaway). Radio programmers and pop audiences loved it. Scoring huge mainstream hits and radio play after Breezin' and tunes like the below, his career changed course to focus on his talents as a polished purveyor of pop-soul.

After this decisive career turn, the hits got blander and less convincing; and the guitar faded further back into the mix. Disco for the middle-aged isn't noted for its longevity. Like so many other pop-soul stars, he was barely resistant to the onslaught of Thriller and MTV. After the golden touch of Quincy Jones, platinum pop hits and Grammies (and shameful performances at apartheid Sun City) his reputation as one of the 70s greatest jazz musicians didn't quite recover. To mention his name now conjures dreadful memories of bland MOR disco-lite pap and dinner party naffness: Music for Mike Leigh characters. Returning to his real talent (and skin colour - 'lightening' being a worrying trend among 80s black pop stars) he still packs houses, but these days 'cool' or 'cutting edge' are rarely applied to Benson. Pop is a fickle beast, but I have to remind readers that as a jazz musician Benson was - and is - peerless. For that alone, he deserves his due. That broad showbiz smile only ever seemed convincing when he was letting rip on his guitar.

Back To The Future 2

"The essence of Tao is reversal"
- the Tao Te Ching

As Western civilisation begins its long, slow powering-down (or at least let’s hope it’s long and slow rather than short and fast), then we will more and more experience the uncanny feeling of time moving backwards, of technologies and habits that we had thought long consigned to the past mysteriously reappearing through a gradual process of osmosis. It might even be the case that those under the age of 30 experience some of these re-appearances as examples of genuinely new phenomena, and like the Romans, whose 400-year decline could barely be detected in normal daily life, mistake them as evidence of yet more progress.

The recent upsurge in oil prices, caused by the political turmoil in the Middle East, has provoked amongst the British public and its government that occasional and somewhat incoherent recognition of the reality that our technologically advanced, dynamic, globalised economy is pathetically reliant on a single resource, fed by a fragile infrastructure from a volatile region of the world that is made volatile by the very exploitation of that resource. If oil prices maintain or exceed their current high level, these are some of the technologies and habits of the 1970’s I expect to see gradually returning:


Contrary to popular myth, most of two-wheeled motorised transport of the 1970’s didn’t consist of chic Italian Vespas or muscular Triumph superbikes, but this kind of deeply unsexy machine - the Honda CL90. Usually used as transports to and from the workplace, and rarely ever cleaned or serviced, their users eschewed leather suits and ballistic crash-helmets for flasher macs, sou’westers, and curious brimmed crash-hats with goggles mounted atop.

Nowadays these kind of machines are usually associated with third-world countries, and their mass re-appearance on British roads should be taken as confirmation that, yes, Britain is indeed becoming a third-world country.


"Hairdryers" was the derisive term given to the kind of low-powered motorbike (100-125cc) chosen by many working-class adolescents as their first mode of personal transport. Looking and sounding like feeble impersonations of standard motorbikes, their users would often attempt to infuse the bike with an intimidatory presence by removing the exhaust silencer, resulting in a piercing, rasping sound that would induce belly-laughs from onlookers as they cruised around provincial market squares.

Three-wheeled cars

The Reliant Robin (always called the Robin Reliant in the popular discourse of the time) was of course given iconic status in the sitcom "Only Fools And Horses", and the fact that it was the Trotter’s mode of transport was deeply symbolic. As an icon of a kind of hopeless British crapness, its adoption by the Trotters as their mode of transport was an indication that for all their striving, these guys were going nowhere.

It may be a baffling concept to us now, but at the time it made a certain kind of sense. Having only three wheels, it was classed as a motorbike for road tax rates, but could be driven by the holder of a car licence. Its lightweight construction and small engine were also of great advantage in terms of fuel consumption, a precious advantage in the fuel-starved 70’s. During the great oil glut of the last twenty years, gleeful "petrol-heads" like Jeremy Clarkson have taken great joy in destroying old Robins in weirdly atavistic acts of sacrifice - as though the car represented a kind of ancestral stain that had to be ritually repudiated so that the gods of Neoliberalism would ensure the endless bountiful flow of BMW’s and the magical mana-juice to power them.

Jeremy, expect some kind of three-wheeler to return as fuel prices steepen and road taxes escalate. Only EU crash-test standards can possibly stop them.

Dray Horses

You might think these disappeared sometime in the late 19th Century, but they were still an occasional sight in the 1970’s. Horses are of course deeply magical animals with a strange and mysterious affinity to humans, and the reappearance of working horses on our streets is something that I expect will have a profoundly uncanny affect. It will effectively signal that our Faustian delusions of boundless growth into infinity are over, and the re-enchantment of the world has begun.

Rag And Bone Men

Very common in the 1970’s, and already starting to make a re-appearance as far as I can tell. When they switch from white vans to flat-bed carts pulled by an old horse that has been reprieved from the knacker’s yard, then you will know that the new 70’s have begun.

Bus Conductors

See Carl’s post below. Up until the late 70’s, the vast majority of people would travel to work either by bicycle or bus, and factories and offices would often have bus bays where they now (if they still exist) have vast floodlit car parks. As public transport once more becomes the prime mode of mobility in the economy, the Government will be forced to reluctantly admit that it is too important to be left to the inefficiencies of the private sector, and it will gradually come back under either national or regional government control. One important increase in efficiency will result from the realisation that it’s much quicker to sell people tickets once they’re on the bus than making them queue to buy them off the driver.

Sunday Closing

As British people find that increased fuel and food costs erode their disposable income, they will have fewer opportunities to visit out-of-town superstores and buy cheap Chinese-made tat. The result will be an epic contraction in the retail sector, followed by a realisation amongst the surviving outlets that it simply isn’t cost-effective to be open morning-to-evening, seven days a week. Sunday closing will therefore quietly and surreptitiously return with perhaps the only people noticing being pious Christians, who will attribute the phenomenon to God’s wisdom.

Sunday 6 March 2011

An Offence On The Buses

There’s a term, “permissive populism”, used to describe that feeling of wanting “in” on the sexual revolution of the Sixties, especially as it’s seen to expand and proletarianize through the Seventies. One of the programmes (and a highly popular set of subsequent spin-off movies) that best captured this was On The Buses.

Deeply crass and unlovely, populated by every kind of gurning and winking caricature imaginable it still exerts a strangely magnetic hold over the viewer today, reminding us that truly the past is “another country”. The T.V. series and the films detail the pranksterish exploits of a couple of rotten-looking middle-aged men on the prowl for easy sex with the Clippies, female bus conductors, though (being feckless working class sybarites) they are also equally intent on getting away with as much as they can in terms of shirking, bunking-off, rule-bending and tormenting their Supervisor Blakey. Reg Varney’s Stan never quite gets his end away (he’s a kind of brylcreemed homunculus, half cheeky, bullying little boy, half middle-aged lecher, a left-over from the Fifties who flounders, unable to adapt to the "modern" Seventies) who also has contend with the miseries of a cramped working-class home life, his mother, repulsive sister and stoical husband, the horror of whose sexless union serves to reinforce the misery of marriage. Leering sexism, molestation and aggressive innuendo seem to be the boys seduction techniques, all of which are naturally regarded as merely cheeky or saucy by the sexy, young, permissive Clippes and only frowned upon by castrating middle-aged gargoyles (in the first of the movies a phallic phalanx of female drivers!)

Partly On The Buses buys into both generational resentment and generalised optimism: the young are getting their end away, sex having been, as Larkin had it, “invented in 1963”, the older generation may have missed the love-boat (at least the eternally frustrated everyman Stan has) but the hideous Jack, with his cadaverous Dark Ages fizzog and asymmetrical gingivitis raddled leer, through knowing “what birds want”, gets plenty of crumpet, suggesting that it’s out there for all, no matter how gruesome, if you just know how to play the game. On the Buses is there to persuade the bored working class man that sex is everywhere, they are all gagging for it, you just have to give them a nod and a wink an you’ll be having a knee-trembler round the back of the canteen in a flash.

This kind of “permissive populism” fed into one of the least laudable of late Eighties/ early Nineties publishing phenomenon, the Daily Sport. Set up by porn magnate David Sullivan it thrived on the same notion that somehow social life was filled with birds who were gagging for it and that Britain was awash in promiscuous couplings. Working class women were especially up for it, what with them being basically game-for-a-laugh and treating the whole thing as a bit a of a giggle. The fantasy that it’s all out there, pulsing and pullulating away, the offices and factories and shops a mere plasterboard façade of British respectability behind which the real erotic life of the country squelches ,squirts and ruts happily along. Given that they are all up for it and all getting it left, right and centre, the hapless punter who’s not getting any at all is left to wonder, what’s wrong with me, why aren’t I participating in this, why am I so miserably and abjectly excluded from dimension casual sex?

There is large extent to which all this is simply the extension of a long British tradition of saucy seaside postcard humour and the endless male pub-bullshit circles where everyone pretends they’ve got three birds on the go at the same time and that last night, yeah, they shagged this model they met in a club in town. And never prematurely ejaculated. Or couldn’t get it up for nerves. It continues today leavened by irony and a certain post-modern knowingness with the Lad’s mags. But to some extent the Seventies starts to open this fantasy space up to a sense of real possibility. The Pill has helped to (I’m into Larkin again) “push convention to one side”

The film which best captures the rage, the torments of the fantasy that everybody else is getting it while you’re not, of the fantasy of the “plaything”, the women who will respond with nothing but pleasure and amusement to whatever the man does to her, who melts away the anxiety of failure and instinctively responds to and chimes in with the man’s articulation of his desire, precluding the possibility of the cold, imperious reverse gaze of the sexually disappointed women, is Lumet’s The Offence.

There’s a lot to be said about The Offence, a portrayal of a policeman sliding rapidly into madness and murder. Possibly Lumet’s best film, almost certainly Connery’s it would be reductive to say it’s merely or primarily a film informed by “permissive populism” but it’s certainly a strong strand, and in a way The Offence stands not just as a corrective to the Playboy fantasies of James Bond but also the warts-and-all chirpy bonk-a-thons of the Confessions series. In his questioning of the suspected child rapist Baxter the structures of Johnson’s fantasy are laid bare (there’s plenty of class resentment in there too), though the exact nature of Johnson’s sexuality is never revealed, he may be a paedophile, he may be gay or into S and M and unable to face these aspects of himself it’s clear that he perceives Baxter as sexually successful and that this is a component of his hostility.

Like Stan, Johnson is adrift in the new world of the Seventies, the present is also a different country here, one in which old accomodations, old forms of resignation, marriage, carreer, consoling yourself with booze, fantasy and porn seem to have been rendered foolish. A new Edenic world of easily available sex, suggested by Johnson's finding the first victim in an an "embowered" space, redolent of classical motifs of romance and erotic remove from daily life, has opened up, mocking the past and laying a life constructed around its constraints to waste.

The horrors that pile up on Johnson are domestic, his charmless wife, the emptiness of routine, the ghastly mundanity of police work. Unable to have a meaningful dialogue with his wife Johnson finds someone to talk to in Baxter, on to whom he projects all his resentment, unwittingly revealing too much of himself in the process. Sexually powerless and unable to acknowledge or act on his desire he still has violence on his side and in his murder of Baxter he attains a fulfilment that has been absent from his private life. His interrogation and murder of Baxter is sexualised and deeply uncomfortable to watch: this is one terminus of the fantasy of the sexual availability of women, male on male violence. In his reduction of the soft, effeminate Baxter to his “plaything” , in the (to his mind) justifiable assault on a man who is presumed to be a child rapist Johnson acts out his own frustrated desire to be looked upon with awe, to be a focus of desire, to be in control, to reach out and touch without fear of consequence.

The Offence, (which I’ll return to later) in this way does overlap with On the Buses, rather as they both overlap with Hitchcock’s difficult Frenzy in their assumptions about how sex and social relations operate in the wake of the Sixties and in the ways this impacts on the male senses of impotence and entitlement.

Saturday 5 March 2011

There's One In Every Crowd

Raw, bluesy, and yet at the same time refined, fluent and spiritually elevating. The greatest sound the 60's generation ever produced. Yes, I'm talking about Mick Taylor.

Shame about the rest of the band, but you can't have everything, can you?

Friday 4 March 2011

In Venice

While the scientists fight to save it, Venice’s best friend is the photographer, whose art alone can do something to capture its incomparable bewitchments for all time.

(Anne G. Ward,
Venice in Cameracolour, 1972)

Time travel in Venice can be a little dull. Suppose you were transported back to 1972. How could you tell? Your cellphone of course wouldn’t work. Good luck sending an email or spending those Euros. And the fashions have changed, although not as dramatically as one might think. Let's say that you were teleported to Riva degli Schiavoni. Would the garb of these folks immediately capture your eye?

The lady in red at the back of the top picture, perhaps. How about this couple standing in front of San Giacomo di Rialto?

This young woman resting beside the Tetrarchs?

I suppose that yes, you could tell, you would, by looking at the people, unless you happened to be transported during the Carnival, when Venice becomes even more of a period piece. But the buildings themselves haven’t changed appreciably for a very long time. Digital television dishes have flourished on the rooftops in the last ten years or so, but they too can be easily deleted in post-production, along with the power cables and the old aerials. Then, so long as you keep the motorboats out of the shot, you are left with Venice as it looked any time between the late eighteenth century and last Wednesday.

Timeless and at the same time unique, Venice cannot play any city other than itself, but in that eclectic mix of styles and architectural influences lies also its ability to sublimate its own bloody history into an immensely appealing aesthetical form. Venice pioneered the most marauding forms of wealth acquisition, opening countless trade routes at the tip of a sword, or the blast of a cannon, or the threat of bankruptcy. The magnificent quartet of bronze horses that adorn the façade of its basilica are a spoil of the appallingly savage sack of Constantinople, but so too is Saint Mark himself, whose remains were abducted from a temple in Alexandria at a time when being in possession of such a relic could give a fledgling city its mana. Venice itself is a spoil.

It may be the people that place Venice in time, but the place was never meant to be inhabited. The Veneti who repaired on the mud islets of the lagoon to flee Attila’s hordes did so out of desperation, and they resigned themselves to build permanent homes there only once it became clear they would not be able to recapture their old cities. Nowadays they are leaving again, driven out by a cost of living progressively inflated by the tourist dollar. At the end of last year the city had 270,081 residents, versus 363,540 in 1972 (source), a trend that suggests that Venice could die socioeconomically before it has had time to die hydrogeologically. By contrast, according to Euromonitor the city takes in about 3 million tourists a year. And since all of them at one point or other walk along the same two routes and narrow bridges, what one spends a lot of time doing in Venice is fending off people, standing in line with people, trying to get away from people. So why is it that when I look at an old photo of Venice, I’m interested in nothing else but the people in it?

Maybe it’s because people are the opposite of timeless. This little boy dribbling a football in Piazza della Maddalena must be in his early forties by now. I assume by the fact that he had a ball that he was a local - for who would take a football to Venice? - but looking at the population charts there is a significant chance that he has since moved elsewhere. Whereas the Piazza is still there and I doubt that it has changed at all: timeless and constant, except for its slow sinking, along with the rest of the city, at the rate of several millimetres per year.

I clipped the images in this post from a book called Venice in Cameracolour, first published by the London imprint Ian Allan in 1972. The photographs by F.A.H. Bloemendal that I've been scanning in search of human figures are standard postcard shots, unexceptional save for the quality of the colour plates transfer, that sets the book apart from others of the same era. Venice in Cameracolour almost looks in fact as if it could have been produced in 2011, which assists with the time-travelling business. I also like to think that whilst working on the book Bloemendal might have bumped into Nicolas Roeg and his crew, who spent much of 1972 in Venice to film Don’t Look Now.

Venice used to be the place where the great literary minds of Europe went searching for inspiration, to create the new - Byron called it ‘the greenest island of my imagination’. It is also the place where people go to get married, or on their honeymoon, crafting their memorable past-to-be. But existing as it does outside of conventional time, and being so unlikely and so unlike anywhere else, it’s also the place where people go to forget. For the characters played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Roeg's adaptation of DuMaurier’s short story, it is the latter: for while Sutherland's John Baxter, an architect, works to preserve the city’s material past by restoring one of its churches, the pair seek to put distance between themselves and their English villa, where their young daughter drowned. But her presence, that minute figure clad in a red coat, haunts them still - for how could it be otherwise. There isn’t a non-place on earth where you could find refuge from that.

Venice doesn’t care about you, for it has no social texture - especially in the imaginary of foreigners. Roeg’s Venice, more so than Thomas Mann’s, more so than Ian McEwan’s, is the place where you lose yourself and start seeing people for what they are not. Sutherland's fatal chase of the red-clad figure at the end of the film - itself the ritual subject of multiple homages and remakes - is the fulfilment of a death wish, but it’s also an allegory of the death of the social. And what better place for society to die, than in Venice?

F.A.H. Bloemendla and Anne G. Ward. Venice in Cameracolour. London: Ian Allan, 1972.

Originally published here. I cleared the cross-posting with management as it's the only form in which I'm able to contribute, I hope it doesn't put people off. Many thanks to Wayne for inviting me to take part.