Friday, 6 March 2009

Library Nuggets

In an occasional series whose principal purpose is to say ‘libraries; They’re great’, here’s some choice finds from my local.

In these times when city centres are rapidly becoming privatised spaces filled with an identikit selection of chainstores, different only in the order in which they are arranged, the local library remains a defiant oasis of community, and astonishingly in an age defined by consuming appetites, it’s free to join and take out books (films and books will set you back a few quid). The Universities of the Streets as they used to be known stand for the ideal that knowledge (and yes, Catherine Cookson books) should be openly available to all. People in Exeter are particularly fortunate to have such a fine example, with great film and music sections. In a proud counterpoint to the city’s shameful topping of a list of clone towns, it has recently been voted as being in the top ten libraries in the country (see the article from the Express and Echo available to view on the thisisexeter site). So do get down and use it before you lose it.

Today I picked up a handsome music box-set entitled Love Is The Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965 – 1970, released by Rhino records.

This is the latest in a series of Nuggets compilations which originated in the early seventies collections of 60s psych and garage singles compiled by Patti Smith Band guitarist Lenny Kaye. The four cds are housed in a 120 page hard-back book which is packed with great photos of the musicians and bands of the era in all their beaded and paisley-shirted glory. Actually, the pictures demonstrate just what a variety of thrift store looks the bands adopted, from the Charlatans’ Edwardian gunfighter and rarely aired naval attire, to the double-breasted, carnation-buttonholed gangster chic of the Syndicate of Sound, and the capes worn with apparent embarrassment by the Count Five, who are throwing some rather half-hearted Lugosi hand-shapes. There’s a great black and white photo of Grace Slick, staring directly at the camera, pupils wide open.

The music takes in all the central San Franciscan bands of the era: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, all represented by a mixture of greater and lesser known tracks (I guess the picture wouldn't be complete without another airing for that quintessential song of the times, White Rabbit). The Dead’s rare single version of Dark Star gets an airing, clocking in at a compact three minutes as opposed to the half hour or more of improvisatory exploration it would stretch out to in performance. The version of Country Joe and the Fish’s I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, a rare example of politics manifesting itself on the scene, is the one from the EP rather than the more widely available take from the eponymously titled LP. There’s a wealth of lesser known names which bear testament to the richness of the musical landscape at the time. There’s the proto-metallic assault of Blue Cheer, a sign of the coming retreat from psychedelic experimentation into more primal pleasures. Mothers guest voice and sometime Zappa housemate Suzy Creamcheese gets a song written about her by the brattish Teddy and His Patches (yep, Teddy wears one) although they apparently knew nothing about her appearance on Freak Out, merely liking the sound of her name. Frank would probably have enjoyed the gleefully dumb energy of their garage psych, though. I’m particularly glad to notice the inclusion of all female band The Ace of Cups, who were a highlight of the Ralph Gleason programme on the San Francisco sound, Go Ride the Music (also available from Exeter Library). This variety of music was not always well documented, partly because of the emphasis bands put on the primary importance live performance. So this collection is particularly welcome for fans of the bigger names who want to hear what else was going on down at the Avalon Ballroom or the Fillmore.

I also picked up the catalogue of the recent Tate Modern Mark Rothko exhibition. This is handsomely illustrated with pictures of all the paintings featured, and whilst no reproduction will compare with actually standing in front of the paintings, they serve as a good reminder. Part of the impact of the paintings is their sheer scale, and being surrounded by the Seagram murals, the Tate portion of which I’d become quite familiar with over the years, all in one long, low-lit room was a fairly awe-inspiring experience. The articles in the book explain how he primed his thickly-fibred canvasses with a personal alchemical brew of coloured glue. They also reveal how he applied many layers of overlapping paint, creating the appearance of shimmering depth which makes it so difficult to focus on any one part of the painting and which draws the gaze inwards and seemingly beyond the surface.

Two articles draw comparisons between the works on display and cinema. Morgan Thomas in ‘Rothko and the Cinematic Imagination’ talks about the later black paintings (no Fast Show jokes please) and makes comparison with Hitchcock’s Psycho and Stan Brakhage’s Crack Glass Eulogy. David Anfam’s ‘The World in a Frame’ refers to two films which came out as Rothko was painting the black paintings for the non-denominational chapel in Houston designed specifically as a contemplative space in which his work would be the focus. It was this building for which Morton Feldman wrote his beautiful piece of hushed otherworldly music Rothko Chapel.

The first film which Anfam refers to is John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, which features a businessman who attempts to create a new life for himself through the agency of a shadowy organisation, which sells him the body of Rock Hudson, into which he is reborn, becoming an artist living the bohemian good life. In fact, all he succeeds in doing is discovering new forms of anxiety and despair with which to fill his life. This reflects something of Rothko’s own conflicted and tormented soul. The second film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose mysterious Monolith Anfam compares with Rothko’s black canvasses, both facing us with blank voids which invite interpretation but which in the end may be nothing but self-contained monade-like abstractions. We are drawn into the depths of Rothko’s black paintings, which once again are many-layered and darkly glowing. More than ever, their effect is unreproduceable on the page and the pictures in this book probably just give ammunition to those who chant the old refrain, ‘a six year old could do this’. To which I would echo Groucho Marx’s aside from Duck Soup: ‘go out and find me a six year old’. Similarly, at the end of 2001, we are drawn along with Dave Bowman, whose wide-eyed gaze of terror and awe we share, through the black surfaces of the monolith from Jupiter to BEYOND THE INFINITE.

On a rather less sublime note (although sublimity is all in the eye of the beholder, of course) is Martin Parr’s large book of Postcards. These range from Edwardian posed studio portraits, through news cards (a striking picture of a ship run aground, Demeter-like, in Whitby), American Advertising (those glistening Mellogold ‘German Brand’ franks look set to send you spinning into an additive-fuelled frenzy), curious depictions of everyday work (radish picking in Evesham, anyone?) and first world war scenes from the home front, including the aftermath of a riot in Luton, the wrath of the mob seemingly having been directed principally at the Town Hall.

Then there are the later postcards. Views of Butlins interiors with carpet patterns which result in permanent retinal burn. Saucy greetings from Aberystwyth. A rather washed-out view of the Bull Ring Centre, which would have benefited from some of the colour-enhancements granted other cards of the era. Speaking of which, the pulsating colours of some of these cards lend even the prospect of a weekend in East Runton caravan park the promise of a hallucinatory trip to the far-side of your mind. The Wine Cave in The Seagrove Hotel, Jersey looks like a particularly out-there joint. The depictions of motorway service stations, New-town shopping centres and airport terminals are actually quite poignant in their belief in a bright new future, born out of the white heat of technology and cast in concrete. The centrepiece of the book for me is the card of ‘Croydon Aerodrome at Night.’ This scene, with its foreground of straggling weeds, is bathed in an intensely scarlet light which makes it appear that this is in fact not Croydon but a colonial outpost on Mars which we are looking at. The focus on the ordinary actually makes this book a fascinating social document. What did people consider new and exciting, what was worthy of note, what were the holiday destinations and exotic food choices of the day? It’s all thoroughly absorbing, as well as unfeasibly entertaining. Just remember to put your sunglasses on to look at those Butlins cards.

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