Wednesday, October 30, 2013

velvet six feet underground

I suppose I'm bound to have heard Walk On The Wild Side on the radio a few times as a child, but my first conscious exposure to Lou Reed (who died earlier this week) was at my aunt and uncle's house in Pangbourne in what I suppose would have been the mid-1980s. Not that my (at the time) fiftysomething aunt was heavily into the New York art-rock scene, you understand, but my cousin Martin had a copy of a Velvet Underground album (I think it was the out-takes and unreleased stuff compilation VU) which he was playing almost constantly.

It was a painful childhood rite of passage for me to realise that my (sadly now deceased) slightly younger cousin was cooler than me in almost every respect, but there it was nonetheless. I recall Martin being heavily into The Smiths as well at around the same time and driving everyone to distraction playing What Difference Does It Make? incessantly. I think I was probably still mostly listening to Queen and Dire Straits and ZZ Top at the time - much of which I stand by, but it's squarely in the box marked "mainstream" rather than "alternative", inasmuch as those descriptions have any meaning.

Anyway, it wasn't really until I got to university and discovered the record library in the student's union building that I decided to sample some Velvet Underground stuff for myself. One of the things crazy young people do is test out the boundaries of their own and others' musical tastes by having the most "out there" music in their collection, whether by virtue of having really long songs, being impenetrably noisy, or just being plain bonkers. The Velvet Underground's second album White Light/White Heat (the first record of theirs I ever owned) ticks most of these boxes - I Heard Her Call My Name features some ear-bleeding feedback, Sister Ray is 17 minutes long (and pretty noisy), and The Gift is a bizarre spoken-word piece (read by John Cale).

The Velvets only released four official studio albums, and you probably want all of them. Personally I can take or leave the stuff featuring Nico on the first album, but the rest of it (I'm Waiting For The Man, Heroin, Run Run Run, Venus In Furs) is terrific. The self-titled third album is easier on the ear, but not smearing everything in feedback obliges the band to get some stronger songs together, and What Goes On might just be my favourite Velvets song of all. To paraphrase myself from a few years back, if you don't get a head-nodding atavistic thrill from Reed and Sterling Morrison's lengthy jangly guitar outro, you basically probably just don't like rock music very much. Fourth album Loaded is fine too, not least because it's the one with Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll on it.

Other things you ought to have are the aforementioned VU compilation and also the two-CD live album from 1969 (the one with the green cover with the woman's arse on it). Worthwhile live rock albums are like hen's teeth, but I reckon this is one of them. I can't speak for the 1993 live album, but I can say that I saw them play live on the same tour from which the live album was taken, as they played at Glastonbury at the end of June 1993 (the live album was recorded in Paris, so don't bother trying to hear me in the crowd).

Reed's solo career was considerably more patchy, and I'm not the biggest fan of 1972's Transformer, but you probably ought to have it for Rock Significance alone. The other solo album you really should have is 1989's New York, which I think is the best non-Velvets thing he ever did. Some would argue for 1973's Berlin and 1982's The Blue Mask as well. I've never listened to the notorious Metal Machine Music, so you're on your own there. I do have a copy of the wide-ranging compilation NYC Man from 2003, which cherry-picks the (supposedly) best bits from the rest of his output, though as with any compilation there are those who quibble with the song selections.

It was rumoured around the time of New York that anyone wanting to interview the legendarily curmudgeonly Reed would have to endure an hour-long discussion about the minutiae of guitar amplifier set-up and miking technique before being allowed to proceed to actually being able to ask any proper questions. Reed was probably at least partially taking the piss, but the results of his devotion to getting the guitar sound just so can be witnessed in the terrific clean chunky sound of Romeo Had Juliette (the opening track of New York), and the (by contrast) blissfully buzzy and distorted sound in the otherwise very silly Egg Cream from 1996's Set The Twilight Reeling.

[alternative blog post title: "white light white sheet"; take your pick.]

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

oh all right, sorry about hitler

Inspired by this disturbing and effective series of consciousness-raising adverts, and also by my earlier research activities in a similar vein, I offer you this series of Google auto-complete samples using the word “atheist”, just to illustrate the level of esteem atheists are clearly held in around the world. Note that this does not mean that I am seeking to equate the oppression experienced by atheists around the world (real though it is) with that experienced by women, just to use a similar illustrative technique to make a similar point.

As a control experiment I tried substituting a few other religious groups for “atheists” – in general the results for “Christians” are relatively anodyne, with the other religions varying depending how threatening and scary and generally brown and bearded and foreign they are perceived as being by the presumably predominantly American (and therefore predominantly Christian) internet-using public who influence Google’s algorithms. Except for the Scientologists, of course, everyone hates them.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

holy relics wholly bollocks

Just to expand a bit on the cryptozoology/religion parallels drawn in the previous post, one of the dangers of making any sort of (even in theory) verifiable claim about the way the world works is that you have to come up with a defensive strategy in the event of science getting its mucky little hands on your claim and proving it to be false, assuming of course that abandoning your belief system isn't a palatable option. This is doubly dangerous for any bullshit claim that rests on the provenance of actual physical objects, since these are particularly well-suited to scientific analysis, whether you call them "holy relics" or "some bits of old hair and skin" or whatever.

The classic recent example of a religious relic is of course the Turin Shroud; those who rest some of their faith on the claim that it is the real burial shroud of Jesus Christ have had to do some hasty rationalising in the light of the revelation that it is most likely of 13th or 14th century origin. Same goes for Bigfoot; if you're saying he's a real ape-man and, moreover, this is his actual fur right here, you have to have a fallback strategy when science comes back, as it will, and says nah, this is just some dog hair off the carpet.

Faith-based belief systems are exceptionally resistant to having most or even all of the legs sawn out from under them by reality, though, whether it's the debunking of holy relics or just the mundane business of the sun coming up, moving across the sky and then setting again in the normal manner on a day when the world was supposed to be ending in one of any number of lurid and spectacular ways. Coincidentally today is the 169th anniversary of one of the canonical examples of such an occurrence, the Great Disappointment of 1844. 

you can't handle the truth

What did I tell you? Here's Noel Gallagher, bless him, esteemed composer of at least two good and worthwhile songs during his lifetime, neither, either, or both of which may have been a searing re-enactment of real-life events, having a pop at novels in a GQ interview for not restricting themselves to a sober listing of empirically verifiable facts. He does make a halfway coherent point about halfway through about novels with ludicrous titles, but the rest of it makes no sense at all, as evidenced by the fact that even a halfwit like Danny Wallace is able to pick it apart fairly effectively.

Monday, October 21, 2013

you ain't seen nothing yeti

I was a bit torn while watching Bigfoot Files last night between thinking, well, this is actually quite sciencey and objective compared with most programs of this sort, and getting all shouty at how credulous and accepting it was of clearly absurd claims.

But overall, it was pretty good, focused as it was on actual testing of actual (supposed) yeti remains (generally hair) rather than the various blithering anecdotes of spooked altitude-crazed mountaineers. And there were some laughs on the way as well, particularly around the stuffed yeti supposedly recovered by Nazi scientist Ernst Schäfer in the late 1930s, which is not only laughably botched together out of some old animal skins and teeth and papier-mâché, but also seems to be giving a Nazi salute.

Anyway, to no-one's great surprise the hair samples retrieved and offered for analysis turned out not to be some hominid species previously unknown to science, but some sort of bear. There's some interest here in whether there might be a brown bear/polar bear hybrid species knocking around that scientists were previously unfamiliar with, but of course that's a completely different thing from the claims made for the yeti/bigfoot/whatever, which is that it is some sort of hominid ape-man thing.

There's a parallel here with the claims made by religion, and the sort of slippery refusal to define your terms that characterises those who seek to, for instance, insist that the Jesus of the New Testament was a genuine historical figure. I mean, yeah, we know the miracles described contravene the known laws of physics, so maybe those didn't happen, but maybe he was just some kind of great prophetic teacher or something. Or perhaps the figure described in the New Testament is a sort of mashup of several historical figures, with a bit of supernatural icing smeared on top. To which the sensible answer is: yeah, but you've backed off so far from the key claims that what you're left with is essentially meaningless (more on this theme here). Same with Bigfoot - either it's a crypto-hominid, or it doesn't exist.

I look forward to next week's episode about the North American variants of the legend - Bigfoot, Sasquatch and the like - as these are particularly subject to ludicrous fakery. I also relish the prospect of more unintentionally amusing huffy articles from the cryptozoology community pooh-poohing the latest findings.

One last thing: close your eyes while geneticist Bryan Sykes is speaking and see who he reminds you of.....that's right, Norris McWhirter, co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records, co-presenter of Record Breakers, and regrettable right-wing nutter.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

twogging while bleeting about twogging

While I thoroughly enjoy the freedom to ramble inconsequentially at unnecessary length that the blogging platform affords me, I've always been slightly conflicted, dubious even, about Twitter. I mean, what is it for? I suppose I see the point of it if you're a celebrity, have a gazillion followers, and want an easy way of telling them what you're up to, when the new album's out, what you had for breakfast, that sort of thing, but for the everyday man in the street I don't really see the purpose of it. If you want to communicate some opinions which you think are worthy of a wider audience, get a blog. If you want to keep in touch with friends, share some amusing photos, arrange a trip down the driving range, get a Facebook account.

All that really leaves, it could be argued, is joining in some kind of imaginary Big Conversation that's going on and you feel that you can contribute to, perhaps by offering some real-time witticisms about X-Factor or The Great British Bake-Off, or maybe just by taking the easier option of retweeting what Caitlin Moran is saying about them. All of which smacks a bit too much of "getting involved" to me, not to mention resembling the constant calls by politicians for a "national debate" about various topics of burning interest. I honestly can't imagine anything less likely to result in a sensible answer than a national debate, given that most of the British public are consistently wrong about just about everything.

So it seems slightly perverse to announce that I am now on Twitter, and indeed in hindsight I can't really recall why I did it. I think I must just have been bored. But anyway, there it is. I intend to keep it light and humorous (as well as probably fairly sparse), since Twitter is an absolutely terrible medium for serious communication featuring any form of nuance, as (among others) Richard Dawkins has discovered to his cost with a few ham-fisted tweets that quite rightly generated some outraged internet shoutiness (or silent exasperated facepalming, depending on your personality type).

The other thing that non-celebs do on Twitter is try to either get followed or retweeted by a proper celebrity, and then come over all unnecessary about it. In this spirit I offer you Dara O'Briain's generous response to my fairly laboured pun on the word "Winterval" during a brief exchange about the entirely made-up festival of Arthur's Day:

I promise that's the first and last time I'll do that. What I have also done is to set up an auto-tweet facility for these blog posts, via the excellent and easy-to-use (and free), so if you go onto Twitter you'll see a tweet directing you to this blog post about using Twitter, all accompanied by the crunching and slurping sound of the entire internet folding up on itself and disappearing up its own arse.

Incidentally I coined the word “twogging” to describe the combined multi-social-media activity I’m now indulging in, as you can see, but of course I instantly found that someone else had got there before me. Interestingly the usual usage of the word seems to be different, not describing tweeting while blogging, but instead twerking with dogs (here is an alternative definition derived in much the same way). The (to my ear at least) less harmonious-sounding “bleeting” has actually been used a few times in the sort of context I’m after, though you do have to sift through a lot of mis-spelt renderings of the noise a sheep makes to find them.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

incidental music spot of the day

Thirty seconds or so of the late John Martyn's sublime Small Hours over a bit of the Indian section of the second part of Stephen Fry's interesting two-part documentary Out There on BBC2 tonight (it's at about 43 minutes in the iPlayer version, if you catch it before it expires). Better still, as good as the documentary is in its own right, have a look at these two clips, both from 1978 according to YouTube - firstly this acoustic version from Reading University and secondly this slightly more ragged (and apparently slightly pissed, not unusually) version from German TV show Rockpalast in the same year. Some more Martyn clips can be found collected here.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

and a luger and lime for the lady

My good buds at Bud's Gun Shop have been e-mailing me again; I think their latest may just be the best one yet. As usual here it is in screen-capped and text form:

Dear Dave,

One of the most common reasons for customer order cancellations ?....."because she found out !" 

Never fear, we have a solution.  We have partnered up with Bling It On to create a unique opportunity to buy yourself another gun AND make her very happy at the same time !  How is this possible ?....just check out the video below........

 ......and this is not your basic costume jewelry.  She will find these unique ammunition based designs from Bling It On have been featured on the most elite runways in New York and fashion magazines across the globe.  Team Buds members automatically get 20% off when using your discount code.  Also, as Tony mentions in the video above, we will soon be offering a FREE set of 9mm earrings ($30 retail value) with the purchase of select firearms.

So go ahead.....treat yourself to that new gun you have had your eye on.  Just make sure she also gets a little something from Bling It On!
So, to recap, if your spouse is in the habit of thwarting your stockpiling of massive quantities of firearms and ammunition with that typical bitchy whiny female shit like Surely We Don't Need Another Gun and The Children Must Eat and Please No I'm So Scared then here's your chance to keep the little lady quiet with some shiny trinkets, which as we all know the ladies are genetically programmed to be unable to resist, bless 'em, like magpies. And the best bit is that all the jewellery is not only made from authentic spent ammunition, but is also hand-crafted by a gargantuan-breasted orange Christian lady.

Nice to see the meathead Bud's representative in the video is actually packing heat during his filmed spot with the buxom jewellery lady, presumably just in case she tries to asphyxiate him with her enormous tits. You really can't be too careful. It does just reinforce the between-the-lines message of the e-mail which says something like: yeah, you can butter the bitch up with some bracelets, but you know you're just going to get the same old shit next time you want to fondle a Glock, or get home late at night with the smell of gunpowder on your fingers. Perhaps if you were a real man you'd just VENTILATE HER SORRY ASS RIGHT NOW. DO IT. DO IT!!!!

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

many bridges to cross

Fellow bridge enthusiasts will recognise the genius of this Guardian article immediately - inviting photos and reminiscences of well-loved and notable bridges from the general public. There's an inevitable urge to do a bit of Whoa I've Been There bridge-bagging, so I may as well indulge myself:
  • the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is basically what made us too late to do the Bushmills distillery tour on our Northern Ireland trip in May 2008;
  • the Clifton Suspension Bridge brings back happy memories of my many years in Bristol, during which I crossed it countless times by various means - on foot, on a bike, in a car and at least once as a pillion passenger on a motorbike carrying a full set of golf clubs, probably in flagrant breach of some law or other;
  • the mighty Forth Rail Bridge - this view is from North Queensferry;
  • I went across the Chirk Aqueduct in a canal boat (which we'd hired from Chirk Marina) on a canal-boating holiday in April 2000 - here's a picture featuring my friends Clare, Andy and Jon to prove it;
  • we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge (and back across the arguably more spectacular Manhattan Bridge) during our trip to New York for my 40th birthday in February 2010;
  • I go across the second Severn Bridge pretty much every day, except when I choose to go across the old bridge instead, just for a laugh;
  • the Newport Transporter Bridge as mentioned many times on this blog - the Middlesborough one also gets a mention;
  • the Gates of Haast span a scary-looking gorge full of rapids in the South Island of New Zealand; needless to say when we stopped there in 2001 we decided to trek down to the rapids and take a look - here's Mario making himself useful and providing some scale.
All of these are terrific, obviously. I offer as an addition this photo of me on a rope bridge in the spectacular Abel Tasman National Park during the same trip to New Zealand in 2001, and a general view of the excitingly bouncy rope bridge over the Wye at the Biblins near Monmouth, which we trekked across and back on our camping trip last August.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

the last book I read

Leading The Cheers by Justin Cartwright.

Dan Silas is at a bit of a loose end; newly single after splitting up with his girlfriend Stephanie, he's also out of a job after the acrimonious dissolution of his lucrative advertising company. So he's grateful for the opportunity for distraction and escape offered by an invitation to his high school reunion in Michigan, as well as being in a position to make a bit of an extended holiday of it.

While many of Dan's old school buddies haven't changed much, at least beyond the inevitable greying and balding and weight gain, some of them have a few surprises in store. Gary Beaner has had some sort of mental breakdown and now, when he isn't having a catatonic interlude, imagines himself to be the reincarnation of a Native American chief called Pale Eagle. Not only that, but Dan's high-school sweetheart Gloria has a few unpalatable revelations for him - not only was their brief relationship (fondly remembered by Dan) less exclusive than he'd imagined (as she was seeing someone else as well at the time), and their quickie on Thomas Jefferson's bed during a school trip to Monticello less fondly remembered by her than by him, but it also led to her becoming pregnant with his child. Not only that, but the resulting daughter grew up to become a young woman and graduate from high school herself, before being gruesomely raped and murdered by serial killer Scott Hollinger. Not only that, but Gloria also reckons that Dan would be ideally placed to go and visit Hollinger in prison to ask him about the murder in the hope of obtaining some sort of "closure".

So some food for thought, there, for sure. And more is provided by Gary, who reckons that Dan can help him retrieve some tribal artefacts from the British Museum when he returns to the UK, "retrieve" in this instance pretty much meaning "steal", of course, however much one might insist that they were stolen from their original custodians in the first place.

So Dan has some reflecting to do on his return to the UK. Could Gloria have been telling the truth about her daughter's parentage? Does he really want to act on his residual attraction for Gloria and try to rekindle their romance? And would she be interested anyway, given that she seems a lot cooler about their former relationship than he is? Is Gary entirely deranged, or could he possibly genuinely be the conduit for some sort of Native American Great Spirit that is guiding Dan towards some mysterious goal?

The answer to that last question is obviously "no", but the questions about the reliability of Gloria's account of events after Dan's original departure for the UK are never really answered. The one about the possible rekindling of their romance is, though, as Gloria reveals that (again) she's got another bloke on the go, and intends to marry this one. Dan gives her his blessing, and instead pursues restoring friendly relations with his ex-girlfriend Stephanie and throws himself into Gary's project. This involves a bit of subterfuge in the British Museum archives, during which Dan finds some evidence for the final resting-place of the great Tecumseh, and briefly returns to the USA to attend the ceremonial re-burial of his remains.

I read Cartwright's The Promise Of Happiness a while back (September 2008 to be precise) and thought it was pretty good. I don't think this is as good, mainly because it seems weirdly unfocused - lots of interesting plot strands, or at least potential plot strands, get set up and never really go anywhere, Dan doesn't seem to have much of a character arc in that he's not noticeably changed by his experiences, and some of the plot devices (the bit about Tecumseh at the end in particular) seem tacked on rather incongruously. It all zips past very readably but without it ever being clear what the purpose of any of it is. Presumably we're meant to reflect on growing up, the unreliability of some of the memories that we feel underpin our entire adult personalities, faith versus rationality, the power of ritual and tradition, that sort of thing.

Clearly plenty of people would disagree with me, though, since Leading The Cheers won the Whitbread Prize in 1998 (it's now the Costa Prize). The link to the list of winners that I provided here seems now to be defunct, so here's what appears to be a reasonably definitive one. My updated list goes 1976, 1977, 1980, 1987, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006.

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

A sporting one for you, featuring one of today's European heroes in the Seve Trophy and current Wales Open champion Grégory Bourdy, and multi-Olympic champion and recent America's Cup miracle worker Sir Ben Ainslie.