At the end of 2020, I wrote an essay about how much I miss the cinema. Here's the article.
I wrote A Good Bullet in 2013. It disappeared without a trace but I was quite proud of it. Now I feel about it the way I imagine I'd feel about a really, really sincere tattoo: it suits me less the older I get. It's also full of profound admiration for people like Louis CK, which hasn't aged well.
You can read the whole thing by clicking on the PDF below.
I also occasionally write articles for music magazines and newspapers. Here's a few of them.
Cockroaches is a romantic comedy set 10 years after the end of the world. But you have to remember that a lot can happen in 10 years. In 2005, for instance, magic mushrooms were legal, Vanilla Coke was a thing and the Queen was painted by national treasure Rolf Harris.
But we forget. We survive. Paintings are discreetly destroyed. So, yes, in the direct aftermath of nuclear war, you would do a lot of initial “shiiit, oh the humanity”-ing. And, obviously, post-apocalyptic life is not ideal – no one wants to live in a Cormac McCarthy novel, surrounded by people who go on and on about their dreams in unpunctuated sentences. But time is the great healer.
For Tom and Suze – our heroes in Cockroaches – eating ash and drinking acid rain have become mundane. Nuclear war did not turn them into deeper beings: children of the soil, growing kale in the wreckage of man’s hubris. Tom and Suze remain petty, horny and selfish, only now they wear plastic bags and live in an old sewer. But every mushroom cloud has a silver lining. So here are five reasons why post-apocalyptic Britain isn’t such a bad place.
Hangover rules apply
Like a horrific hangover, this brave new world is perversely liberating. Yes, it hurts, but anything goes. Here, you can gobble cold beans straight from the tin, like a bald dog with opposable thumbs. You can’t wash because there’s no clean water. But you can spend a whole morning bottling farts in your sleeping bag. Why? Because you have absolutely nothing left to lose. Bad habits are like cockroaches: they survive anything. Social niceties, on the other hand, are the first to curl up and die. You can’t be civilised here, not now everyone poos in the open, behind windswept, skeletal trees.
‘Cool’ is incredibly relative
I am not cool. I dress like I’ve been blindfolded, drugged, stripped, basted in glue, then catapulted into a Sports Direct. When people turn and stare at me in the street, I know that my flies are undone. I’d flourish in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Here, normcore is the ultimate cool. Fleeces are IN. Dirty anoraks are IN. Literally anything is IN, so long as it stops you freezing to death. Possibly only Crocs will remain taboo. Body image is also a thing of the past. Are you pinguid enough to survive a long, nuclear winter? Good! No longer will you and your ilk be exiled to the odd patronising campaign by Dove or M&S. The chubby will inherit the earth.
There’s a new social order
In modern Britain we dream of selling a sob story on primetime TV, to judges who – when they talk about talent – sound like a blind man describing the sunrise. Unhappy the land that needs talent shows. In a post-apocalyptic world, being able to do a mediocre impression of Mary J Blige won’t get you anywhere. This is cannibal country. The real winners are people who can keep very, very quiet when being hunted down by a roving gang of flesh-eating, leather-clad sadomasochists.
But it’s not all grim. Back in your camp, a third nipple can turn you into a celebrity. Being able to remember about 70% of So Solid Crew’s 21 Seconds makes you a kind of bard-cum-eternal flame, admired by all. Or maybe you’d rather join a burping circle with three crones and a grief-maddened vicar? Here, a man can earn himself a hot dinner, a warm bed and somebody’s wife to share it with by re-enacting Steven Segal’s Under Siege to a fire-lit group of tramps. And whoever ate asparagus most recently is king, because nothing spices up the daily routine of drinking urine like that persistent, pungent vegetable. In the wasteland, no one’s judging.
Bono is dead
Because, statistically, he will be. Tell me that’s not a silver lining.
Every day could be your last
I’m not much of an optimist. When people say “carpe diem” they sound like a tattoo on the rib cage of a twat. But life is short in Cockroaches; whether they’re drinking, swinging or being chimped by the unhinged, our heroes make every minute count. It’s a lesson we’d do well to learn. So stop reading this on the loo or in an overpriced deli – pull your trousers up (particularly if you’ve taken them off in the deli), go to Berlin, find the bar with the DJ who’s shaved a tonsure into his pudding bowl and who only plays the Monks, buy him a peach schnapps and let him show you how to live.
Around the time he started taking heroin (because Charlie Parker took heroin), John Coltrane wrote a piece of music – his first – called ‘Nothing Beats A Trial But A Failure’. At the end of its first practice, he threw it into the gutter.
Then, “during the year 1957,” as Coltrane says in the liner notes to ‘A Love Supreme’, “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening.” That year, Thelonius Monk hired him, and he quit heroin and alcohol. He also met McCoy Tyner, who later played piano in Coltrane’s great quartet – the quartet – along with Jimmy Garrison and the extraordinary, riotous drummer, Elvin Jones.
In the summer of 1964, Alice Coltrane saw her husband walk down their stairs “like Moses coming down from the mountain.” In his hand, a piece of music, on which he’d written a direction: “attempt to reach transcendent blissful stability.” And Coltrane did reach it on December 9th1964, when he recorded ‘A Love Supreme’ in one day.
‘A Love Supreme’ is the sound of a man reconciled to himself or, rather, to a journey: the self as a state of being, of motion – as Mickey Dolenz, drummer of that other great mystical outfit The Monkees, said: “God is a verb.”
This album is dizzying, compact, yearning, sated, screaming, ohmming, rigorous, robed, naked. It is both open-hearted and challenging, ascetic and passionately democratic. If God is a verb, ‘A Love Supreme’ is this ‘and’, this conjunction; an action uniting very different experiences in the same time and space.
Coltrane, he says, had been given the “privilege to make others happy through music.” His notion of happiness was not uncomplicated. He told an interviewer that “it would not be honest… to sacrifice my personal search for the satisfaction of my fans.” Coltrane’s music is always an attempt to speak with honesty. If it ends up in the gutter, so be it. Honesty must cost something. And Coltrane valued his audience too highly to deceive us.
Hence ‘A Love Supreme’, addressed to his “Dear Listener”. It begins with the ‘Acknowledgement’. Coltrane plays a pattern of D, E, F-sharp, G, A-flat and F, shadowing a poem of thanks he wrote in the liner notes. This pattern rises in offering: sinuous, rich as a spiral of votive smoke.
As it ascends, the pattern forces Coltrane to skip one line in the poem: “In you all things are possible.” Only God can do everything – even John Coltrane’s been humbled. So he puts down his saxophone, his strength, and sings: “A love supreme. A love supreme. A love supreme.”
If this sounds like a chore, blame me. ‘A Love Supreme’ is half an hour of cohesive, highly felt, almost telepathic playing. Coltrane and Jones pop. It’s never grandiose. It does not play God. Rather, it perfectly recreates the feeling being in the presence of the sublime.
Call it good. Call it bad. It is perfect. This is the sound of a formidable artist consigning himself to the awestruck limitations of his voice. Like everyone’s capable of making this declaration of love. You. Me. Coltrane believes we all have the freedom to raise voices of our own.
Shabazz Palaces – Ishmael Butler plus Tendai Maraire plus two pairs of “grim-tilted-bounce-killing” sunglasses – start with ‘Youology’. It’s the furious fifth track on last year’s ‘Black Up’, an album that had all the fractures, the danger and density of sheet glass in heat. An appropriate beginning. The initial menace of the beat dissipates and, in its place, a question: “How fast do you want it?” Fast? Shabazz aren’t in the business of crowd-appeasement. Their set is dedicated to “the intensity of leisure time.”
Butler and Maraire stand side by side: mixer and mbira, digital and analog, future, past, West, East. Differences dance by themselves, as sharp and distinct as the movements of their songs. Same as a comedian refusing the easy punch line, Shabazz Palaces aren’t interested in giving us a cheap release.
Butler is a funny, shadowy, virtuosic front man. He warms up; he spreads his wings, grinning. Maraire, on the other hand, is opaque – he could be working in a lab. They seem to work by touch. In ‘Gunbeat Falls’, the first track on their first EP, the piano sample and beat urge and bridle Butler. Then he drops them, leaving a space which Maraire’s quieter congas can live in, but not obliterate. At its simplest, Shabazz Palaces is two men who respect each other, which is pretty cool.
At XOYO, we miss Thee Satisfaction, who appeared with the band last autumn at the Jazz Cafe. Without them, Shabazz sound unforgivingly cool. Still, it’s thrilling to hear them occupy and change silence. The nearest comparison is John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’. It’s a piece that addresses the Klan’s murder of four schoolgirls in 1963. Coltrane’s first, mourning bars shadow Martin Luther King’s eulogy. Then a note is held and, in the silence before what you think’s the next note, Elvin Jones comes in with a groove that throws the tragedy bodily to one side.
Shabazz work in that moment. They live to change. XOYO isn’t as enthusiastic as the Jazz Cafe; with a cold crowd in a cold room, the gig never bops hard, but it still tantalizes. Old songs wear new flourishes: matador horns on free press and curl, an almost R’n’B lope to the old school caps and vanished ships of ‘Are You…Can You…Were You?’. Heavy, sinuous, wary, magnetic, light-bright – this is music that doesn’t need a crowd, and doesn’t suffer for such an independence.
In ‘Youology’, Butler (the ex-Digable Planets man) raises a toast to when “thugging went mainstream.” If jazz was an historical moment, then what and where is hip hop? That’s what Shabazz Palaces seem to ask. So they remix the ‘Last Poets’. They resist patterns. They ask “who do you think you are?” They proclaim: “I’m free.”
"ANOTHER SIDE OF
Folk fans like sincerity, the truthfulness of roots. They do not like progress. Mike Bloomfield (it’s his visceral guitar on Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’) remembers that “Lightnin’ Hopkins had been making electric records for 12 years,” but at Newport Folk Festival, he looked “like they had just taken him out of the fields”.
Bob Dylan started out by concealing his origins. By 1963, he may as well have sprung fully formed from ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. That song galvanised the civil rights movement. Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ in response to it. No wonder Dylan’s fans wanted to keep him toiling in the fields of this plain-speaking poetics.
Then he started yodelling.
On the first track of August 1964’s ‘Another Side…’, ‘All I Really Want To Do’, he sings: “All I really want to do-ooo-oooo-oo-o-oo is baby be friends with you.” What happened? Why is he cajoling some poor woman into bed with a long list of disclaimers (“I ain’t looking to compete with you / Beat or cheat or mistreat you”)? The sexual politics – the promises and sly equivocation, the insincere offer of friendship – are amusingly outrageous. So are the lines in ‘I Shall Be Free No. 10’: “Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it, hope I don’t blow it.” But 50 years ago, they were alienating and, worse, silly.
On ‘Another Side…’, Dylan’s sometimes a seriously dislikeable bastard. In ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, “Everything inside is made of stone / There’s nothing in here moving”. Dylan is a thing. Nothing’s moving – he can’t feel, he doesn’t have a pulse. He’s heartless and he proves it by admitting that “I’m not alone” without a trace of the old ‘Don’t Think Twice’ sandpapery melodrama in his voice.
Dylan’s guitar playing is broad-shouldered and full and clean, without the haste of his first, eponymous album of 1962, the intricacy of his second or the anger of his third. But in a disorientating juxtaposition, the world of ‘To Ramona’ is “a vacuum, a scheme” in which “deep in my heart I know I can’t help / Everything passes, everything changes”. These lines are bleaker than anything on his most recent LP ‘Tempest’, recorded half a century later.
What’s his problem? In ‘My Back Pages’, he remembers when he used to “speak the word [equality] as if a wedding vow,” in a world of sharply-defined “good and bad”. This is “the world that just don’t exist”, in which “I become my own enemy the instant that I preach”. Does that make ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ dishonest? No. But Dylan was older then. He’s younger than that now: he doesn’t want the responsibility.
Fifty years on, ‘Another Side…’ is the sound of marriage vows being broken; Dylan is cheating on the promises (we thought) he made to us. It wasn’t about where he came from – it’s about where he went. He confounded those who wanted to simplify, classify, define, confine, analyse, categorise, dissect or inspect him. It’s a big f*ck you to Newport and to people like me, basically. Bloomfield and company were yet to come, but this album is the sound of a bridge being set on fire.
"BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY"
Susanna, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s support act, began her set with a beautiful cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’. In her sincerity, she recalled Billy’s version of R. Kelly’s ‘The Greatest’. But there was nothing of that unpredictable spirit in her equally beautiful cover of Billy’s own ‘Joy and Jubilee’. Instead, Susanna sang with the reverence of the Hackney Empire audience when “the Prince” (her words) made his own entrance.
This reverence is deserved, and apt: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s songs have the grace – and the knotted self-awareness – of prayers. But Will Oldham is an actor as well as a singer, and his Billy now is a performance ironically more in tune with Susanna’s ‘Jailbreak’ than her ‘Joy’. Oldham celebrates puncturing seriousness. Tonight, ‘There Is No God’ proved itself false, proclaiming God is all manner of things, including a mouth giving all-welcoming fellatio. The song is so indiscriminate that, for all we know, even R. Kelly is God. R himself certainly thinks so. In his prolix, meanwhile, in his pleasure taken in contradiction, and in that peculiar beard, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy echoes Walt Whitman when Whitman writes “of these one and all I weave the song of myself.”
Such an echo is surely deliberate. Deliberate too was the way Billy stood: half awkward, half courtly, arms behind his back. Delivered like that, lines like “some things are so good that nothing after will compare” had the conviction of a child at a recital, uncomprehending yet compelled to sing. But there was also a playfulness that often only enhanced the steely self-awareness of his lyrics. His band infectiously supported the reshaping of his past around the spaces and peaks of his present. ‘I See A Darkness’, for instance, was played with a light country swagger that somehow made the darkness even more triumphant. And if there was a raggedness to their sound, its absence of care was a liberating thing.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is still capable of stunning a crowd to silence. When he sang of his hope that “you hold me till the fire that brought us here chars us and takes us home,” the mid-song applause delayed Emmett Kelly’s great guitar part. Capable, then, but careless, like a writer acting his own work, Oldham was also very funny. Between songs, he explained The Big Question: “when a gentleman gets older, can he inspire respect, joy and lust in his partner without becoming laughable?” A voice in the crowd shouted “yes!” “That was a young voice,” Oldham replied, before starting ‘Pushkin’, the chorus of which told him and us says “God is the answer.” And yet ‘Pushkin’ was written at least a decade ago. It’s his young voice. To judge from his gig tonight, the older Oldham might think the answer lies in laughing. He’s all the better for it.