Well, the Oscars are almost upon us. You know what? Current controversy aside, I have never watched a single Academy Awards presentation. Not a full show, live, anyhow. I may have caught the highlights the odd year.
Do any of you guys watch it? Maybe it’s because I like old movies, but, to me, the Hollywood of the past seemed much more glamorous.
The stars appeared brighter. More luminous.
Ritz is, for me, fast becoming a by-word for nostalgia. An old nightclub in Manchester, it now serves as a concert venue. Last year, I went there to see Sheryl Crow, nineteen years after I first saw her perform. (At the risk of name dropping, again, there is a link to our conversation at the end of this post.)
On the 16th of February, I returned to that very same club again to see Kula Shaker, seventeen years after I first attended one of their gigs. Perhaps it is the lot of artists of a certain vintage to end up in this old spit and sawdust place, but anyhow, I was there to welcome this four piece back to my city.
I first heard Kula Shaker back in the days when I worked, briefly, in a twilight-lit, splinter inflicting warehouse in the mid-nineties. Recklessly driving an order-picking truck down the narrow aisles, a couple of times I heard a particular song being played when I passed by the small radio plugged into a socket outside the office. A little psychedelic, a little out of era, it sounded different. Liking it, I made it my business to discover what it was. Soon I found out that the song was called Tattva, and was by a new band called Kula Shaker. The song was different, Kula Shaker were different.
Different is good. Sometimes.
Eschewing the lad culture of the time, they were a hybrid of sixties/seventies western rock sprinkled with a dose of Indian musical instruments and mysticism-inspired lyrics. They split for a while after a couple of albums and then got back together again.
And now, twenty years after hearing that first record, I was in Manchester with reunion on my mind.
The first port of call was an old, traditional pub situated near The Ritz called The Salisbury. While in there with a friend, I noticed someone stood near the bar holding a Kula Shaker ticket while trying to catch the barman’s eye, and I pointed out that the guy was going to the same concert as we were. A little later, I spotted another man sporting a ticket, and deduced that we were holed up in the ticket touts’ main business establishment.
After a couple of drinks I nipped to the gents, and, whilst doing what a man has to do, read a poster that was positioned directly in front of the urinal. It was proclaiming a pre-gig offer: show your concert ticket and you get a discount on every drink you buy.
We went to the club, and my friend and I met up with a couple of other mates. All four of us had attended that pre-millennium gig, and were all imbued with a similar sense of nostalgia. The Ritz began to fill up. The tallest person you ever laid eyes outside of Middle-Earth decided to stand directly in front of me. Slender, pushing seven foot tall, he had long arms that hung down around his shins. When the music of the support band started up his arms were like a windmill in a hurricane. He could have had an eye out.
Incense burning at the end of the stage, Kula Shaker next emerged to rapturous applause. One of our gang commented on how well the lead vocalist (Crispian Mills) had aged, but the singer did warn us that he wouldn’t be able to jump around as much as he’d like to as he was carrying a fractured rib. But on the more rockier numbers, like Hey Dude and Hush, you wouldn’t have guessed it. He even climbed up on a speaker at one point to jump back down again, all lit by a suitable psychedelic backdrop.
In introducing Peter Pan RIP, Mills said that the song was written in two different places: it was begun in Regents Park, London, and finished in Belgium, and so was a little schizophrenic. In the act of creating, I can relate to that.
He described 303 as a love song to a road. Okay, that would be a first.
As the concert went on, I couldn’t help but think how things have changed, as I looked out over a sea of mobile phones capturing the performance. There were none of these in evidence seventeen years ago.
As the concert came to a close, though, I reflected on how some things were still the same.
For those of you unfamiliar with the group, here is their 1996 song Govinda, the first (and I think only) single to appear in the UK charts sung totally in Sanskrit. The group finished, this night and all those years ago, with this song.
As we poured out onto the cold, Manchester streets, people could be heard humming and singing the lyrics to Govinda. Perhaps hearing people singing these Sanskrit words on the streets of Manchester was not that unusual, though. I once went to a Clapton concert, and he closed with Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Afterwards I can honestly say that it was the first time I’d been in the men’s toilet where men were lined up humming that very tune.
My Sheryl Crow post:
I haven’t featured any new poetry for a while. This is an early draft of a work in progress, in effect just its beginning. I expect the poem to be considerably longer when completed.
She is painted blue and proud,
in night fires;
Sitting by the river,
down a verdigris valley,
in glacial drifts
over wooden hives.
I have written about Harper Lee in the past, about my favourite book, about the ‘new’ book. I won’t tread old ground. Here are just a few further thoughts on the day this great author died:
I first encountered To Kill A Mockingbird in high school. It is one of the few things I took with me from my English Literature days.
When our teacher read from the book, he would pronounce the name of the character ‘Scout’ as ‘Scoot’. One of the more vocal members of the class eventually expressed her irritation at this. The teacher appeared surprised. From that moment, Scout was always Scout.
I understood the reaction towards Go Set A Watchman. But for me, it wasn’t an issue. I treated it as a stand alone novel. As an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, it was no way a sequel.
Written before, but set after.
Scout was older. I was older.
I understood the high feelings about Atticus. Maybe it would help to see this Atticus as the melting pot from which the more familiar and beloved Atticus would emerge. Or to draw distinctions of perspective: in To Kill A Mockingbird, he is seen through the innocent, adoring but naive eyes of a young girl. In Watchman, he is judged through the eyes of a grown woman, returning to a small, southern town fresh from her experiences in the Big Smoke.
But, to me, these distinctions weren’t necessary. I was just thankful for something, anything, new, from Harper Lee.
I have never met anybody who called their son Atticus. But I do have a friend who called his daughter Scout. He is still happy with his choice.
Harper Lee, in a letter to Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, discussing her love of books:
“[In] an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.
And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up—some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”
In the post before last, I spoke of an against-the-odds moment of synchronicity when my ordered world was intruded upon by a casual coincidence. This morning, I said to my wife, almost in a throwaway comment: “I think the passing of Harper Lee is imminent. If it happens, I’m going to reread To Kill A Mockingbird, followed by Go Set A Watchman.”
I’d had no revelation. And, of course, she was of an age.
A few hours later, I finished reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. On Goodreads, I gave it five stars: Brilliant and disturbing. Capote’s masterpiece. Capote never really gave Lee proper credit for the work she did on behalf of that book.
Capote and Lee appear to have been polar opposites. He craved the limelight, she chose to shun it. I have read that Lee’s sister Alice said that his jealousy about his friend winning the Pulitzer Prize was one of the reasons they drifted apart.
After finishing his great novel, my intention was to watch the film Capote, about the two writer’s research on the Clutter murders. Then I heard the news.
My wife and I watched the movie tonight. Philip Seymour Hoffman was great as Capote, but on this poignant night Catherine Keener drew my attention as Lee. Another casual coincidence: on the day that Harper Lee died, I finished the last of Capote’s work I had yet to read. It was also the last work which had input from Lee.
I have always respected Harper Lee’s decision to walk away after that first book. It also frustrated the hell out of me. There were tantalising glimpses of works that could have been: a novel about someone hunting a deer. An In Cold Blood type account of real life murders, called The Reverend. Go ahead, google them, there are a few crumbs to gather up in speculation.
But Harper eventually said no. Or, as she replied to requests for interviews:
To Nelle Harper Lee: for what you did give us, I will always be grateful. R.I.P
R.I.P Harper Lee. Thank you.
Five days into the school holiday, I took the children to the local Kidz Klub, the aim being to let them burn off all of their excess energy by diving into ball pools, hurtling down slides, and anything else that works up a sweat.
I knew the place well: the building used to be a social club that was extremely popular when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Of course the decor had changed, but the layout was more or less the same. In my mind’s eye I could still see the jostling forms where the bar had been, all eyes and bluff and posturing.
The kids kicked off their shoes and raced for the nearest rope ladder. I got myself a coffee and claimed a table, taking my battered paperback out of the carrier bag. I emersed myself in the story, occasionally coming up for air to locate the children and again see the building as it used to be.
But, in the gents toilet, there was little need for a concerted re-imagining. The place was a time capsule, exactly as it used to be save for a lick of paint.
Instead of individual urinals, there was one of those long, marble trough sorts that ran the full length of both walls. Night club; kids club: it was still there.
I saw the ghosts of young lads, each showing various stages of unraveling as the night wore on, standing with their heads leaning against the walls as they relieved themselves, eyes closed, awareness elsewhere. Motown thudding against the door.
Coming back out into the regular time zone, I reassured myself that my children were okay and returned to the table, once again picking up my book.
“Excuse me,” a woman on the adjacent table said to me, holding up an image on her iPhone. “I just thought I’d ask, you being a man and all, I need to get a shower head, one of those ring ones, for someone to fit at the weekend. Do you know if this is the right one- it needs to fix onto tiles instead of a wall?”
“I’m sorry, I’m really not a DIY guy. I couldn’t tell you. In fact, if my wife was here, she would be pissing herself just at the fact that you are asking me this question.”
She understood my inadequacy, and said she would take a chance and order it. It was only a fiver after all.
I went back to my book: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I picked up where I had left off. Though I had never read read it before, I was familiar with the case, and so knew that Smith and Hickock were nearing apprehension by the authorities.
As I was reading, I became aware, above the exuberant screams of excited children, that Christmas carols were quietly being played over the speakers.
Christmas carols? In February?
Oh, come let us adore Him, Oh, come let us adore Him, Oh come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
Attempting to tune out the out-of-season music, I yet again returned to my book, and immediately read:
Christmas carols were in the air; they issued from the radio of the four women and mixed strangely with Miami’s sunshine and the cries of the querulous, never thoroughly silent seagulls. ‘Oh, come let us adore Him, Oh, come let us adore Him’: a cathedral choir, an exalted music that moved Perry to tears . . .
What were the odds on that? Reading, of all of the lines, in all of the pages, the very line of a Christmas Carol that was at that very moment being played over the speakers? In February?
It was not the first time that I had been left astounded at such a moment of synchronicity. When, somehow, something implausible and unpredictable breaks through into this ordered universe of ours. When two seemingly random and separate things come together despite incalculable odds. At least incalculable for this mathematics layman.
I don’t know how it happens. But it does.
After taking time to appreciate this bizarre coincidence, I went back to Capote. If there was mention of a shower head, or a pathetic, incapable handyman, I was seriously going to freak.