Friday, 30 November 2012

The Revival Hour and Serafina Steer in Exeter


The prospect of an evening with a double-bill of Serafina Steer and The Revival Hour, brought together under the Twisted Folk banner, was a very exciting one for me. Unfortunately, few others seemed to share my enthusiasm, and the turnout was frankly pitiful. Come on people of Exeter (and beyond)! This kind of music doesn’t come within our city walls very often, and with this kind of response it will probably turn up even less frequently. A bit more energetic publicity on the part of the Phoenix Arts Centre might not have gone amiss. With connections to Sufjan Stevens (on whose Asthmatic Kitty label the Revival Hour singer-songwriter David M Stith records) and Jarvis Cocker (who has expressed his admiration for Serafina Steer and produced and guests on her forthcoming LP) it shouldn’t have been difficult to sell. That said, however, the performers made the best of things, determinedly dispelling what could have been a dispiriting atmosphere. When David Stith announced that this was his first visit to Exeter, he resisted the temptation to add ‘and the last’, and remained courteous and welcoming throughout, making a virtue of the intimate gathering. Serafina Steer pointed out that the venue had wanted to cancel the gig, but that they had all decided to go ahead and travel down to this far corner of the country, and that she was glad that they had. We were too.


She battled against the further distraction of having her harp pick-up attract the signals emanating from the rooftop radio mast, the speakers broadcasting the low-level burble of music and chat originating in the Phonic FM studios in the basement. Her songs were more than captivating enough to erase this extraneous sound from peripheral perception, though. Merely on account of her playing the harp, an instrument unusual enough to attract immediate interest, she has frequently been compared to Joanna Newsom (and yes, here we go again). Irritating though this must undoubtedly be, such associational connections with the American queen of new folk at least provides some great publicity. In fact, harp aside, there are few points of comparison. Serafina is folk only in the most twisted sense. She treats her harp like an electroacoustic instrument, and had a musical partner on the night, sitting at a table on which he had laid out his boxes of electrickery. The harp chords and arpeggios were transformed into soft showers of deliquescent delay and fading echo, impressionistic effects which Debussy would have died for. He also provided subtle accompaniments on bass and hand drum, and created electronic effects which shadowed the harmonies, or produced miniature abrasive, metallic noises like actinic sparks bouncing off the plucked harp notes. One of Steer’s few cover versions, which opens her first LP Cheap Demo Bad Science, is of Brian Eno’s By This River, from his 1977 LP Before and After Science. This and allusions to a ‘Cluster, Felt and David Bowie’ mood she was trying for whilst recording her new Moth Club Boiler Woes EP, gives a better idea of the music which has inspired her. Eno’s surreal, evocatively associational lyrics also find an echo in Steer’s writing. You get a sense with her songs that the words come first, the melodies and arrangements winding their irregular path around and between the syllables and sentences. Whilst traditional narrative is absent, there is storytelling aspect to many of the songs – tales assembled from imagistic fragments. Indeed, the song Drinking While Driving on her second LP Change Is Good Change Is Good is credited to Raymond Carver (‘but not the word “cool”’), the master of the modern American short story. The songs are sometimes delivered in a half-singing, half-narrating style which recalls the Sprechstimme of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (but thankfully without the bel canto affectations), adding to the storytelling air.


Speaking of Pierrot Lunacy Serafina introduced Tiger, a song from her Cheap Demo LP, as being a full moon song, celebrating the full lunar orb shining in the clear, cold night outside. It has an Angela Carter-ish, dark fairytale feel, like a setting of a story from The Bloody Chamber. The title of the forthcoming LP, The Moths Are Real, suggests that such conflations of emotion and feeling with gothic emanations and transformations will continue to be present, as what sounded like the title song (moths were mentioned, at least) testified. She played her new single, Night Before Mutiny, whose opening chord arpeggios recalled Breton harper Alan Stivell’s evocation of watery myth in Ys, from his Renaissance of the Celtic Harp LP. With its minor melodies, dreamily allusive lyrics and nautical theme, there’s something rather Sandy Denny-ish about the song, too, particularly the line ‘they left me here with a ship to sink, Queen of a wide open sea’. All of which bodes well for the new album, The Moths Are Real, due out in the new year, with a launch party to be held on 24th January at St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch, where it was partly recorded. Serafina finished off her set with what probably most closely approximates to a hit in her oeuvre – How to Haunt a House Party, an account of party dis-ease which I can quite empathise with. The lines ‘I tell the hosts they have failed and how. I tell the hosts they have failed us now’ took on an added meaning on this night, although Serafina seemed far too polite to be so directly critical. It was one of the more conventionally melodic of her songs, with regular verses and choruses and left us with its refrain happily circling our brains during the interval.


The Revival Hour took to the stage with little fanfare. Indeed, there wasn’t actually a stage to take to, merely a circle of instruments and some wiring which hinted that this was an area into which the audience shouldn’t wander. The Revival Hour is essentially a collaboration between the singer and songwriter (and artist) David M Stith, who released his debut solo LP, Heavy Ghost, on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label in 2010, and soundscaper John-Mark Lapham, who worked his mixing magic, as well as co-writing the lyrics, on the two albums by The Earlies: These Were The Earlies and The Enemy Chorus (a particular favourite of mine). Lapham may indeed have been here before, since The Earlies (alas, now seemingly the late Earlies) played a fantastic gig at the Phoenix a few years ago. The Revival Hour displays elements of both men’s musical characters, with Stith’s emotive vocals, with their effortless range, augmented by Lapham’s dramatic and densely inventive arrangements (which on record include skronking free jazz saxophone, fluttering strings, electronic atmospherics and multitracked choral testifying). In performance, they are joined by a drummer, bassist and keyboard player to create a full and muscular band sound, Stith playing his red, hollow-bodied guitar and Lapham studiously attending to his laptop, samplers and other mysterious devices behind his alchemist’s desk at the back.


The name suggests a spiritual basis to the music, emphasising the gospel roots of soul music. There was certainly plenty of soul on display during the evening. Hold Back has the feeling of classic 60s soul, with female responsory backing vocals provided by Serafina Steer on the night, called forth from the audience. Its lyrics touch on loneliness and the sense of being apart (using the imagery of climbers and divers to express the sense of living in a different world from others), in Otis soulsick Mr Pitiful style. Altercall has shooboping backing vocals, again drawing on an evident love of soul and girl-group pop from the 60s. Pyre has ooohing vocalisations, driving bass and following drums, swirling organ and chopping guitar, which gives it a bit of a glam feel. There’s also something of Grizzly Bear in the sound, and in Stith’s vocal style, the music being somehow sparse and detailed, spacious and full at the same time. A little of Deerhunter’s blend of blessed out rock and dreamy, half-awake vocals can be heard on occasion, too.


These songs were taken from their Clusterchord EP and their up and coming debut LP, Scorpio Little Devil, due out in January. The title perhaps alludes to Kenneth Anger’s 1963 underground film Scorpio Rising, which blends sacred, demonic and homoerotic imagery (the sacred aspects incorporating modern icons such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, the demonic represented by Hitler and biker nazi paraphernalia) in thirteen short scenes focussing on a biker gang which amount to a latterday ritualistic cycle. It also used contemporary rock and roll songs as a soundtrack, including Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and the Shangri-Las – the kind of music which Stith and Lapham have drawn on for elements of the Revival Hour sound. As you can read in articles in The Guardian and The Quietus (the latter particularly revealing), Stith and Lapham both come from highly conservative American backgrounds; Stith growing up in a strictly doctrinal religious family and community, and Lapham in Abilene, a small city in the heart of Texas which distils the essence of unswerving conservative America (Wikipedia drily notes its ‘numerous evangelical churches’). As young men discovering their gay sexuality, they both to some extent defined themselves against these environments, which would certainly not have made the process of self-definition easy. The resultant sense of difference and apartness from their surroundings was a spur to self-exploration (and presumably to getting out into the wider world), and for individuals with a natural artistic talent, made for a fruitfully creative tension. The music rises from a struggle to define the self and its natural place in the world, and even its relation to God and the divine (making this, along with the music of Sufjan Stevens and his cohorts, a valuable modern sacred music which counters the narrowly negative and unbendingly static conservatism into which so much religion barricaded itself). It strikes a fine balance between the spiritual, expressed through the swoonsomely angelic aspects of Stith’s voice, and the material, or bodily – the lower range of his vocals and the more earthy swagger of some of the music (Pyre in particular). Hopefully, the conclusion will be the Blakeian one that there is no need for conflict between the two states, no essential contrary division. The ecstatic heights of the vocals and the music are spiritual and physical at the same time.


It’s not a transcendant state of awareness which is easily attained, though, and it’s the struggle to realise it, and to come to a sense of personal ease with oneself, which produces such searing, yearning and emotionally affecting music. The titles of the songs say it all: Pyre, Control, Fire Season, Hold Back, Altercall and Beehive. All point to turbulent inner states and the tension between controlling or containing them, or letting them have their expression. The music pushes to the boundaries of full-blown Patty Waters ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ breakdown, but never goes over the edge, always maintaining control and structure. Whilst highly emotive, and with a certain epic quality, it never spills over into bombast or fist-clenching melodrama, remaining sincerely expressive and certainly never descending into overheated, melismatic melodrama. Beehive has a desolate, desparate feel, with lyrics pointing to a transparency, a visibility of feelings despite attempts to veil them (‘I see right through you’ with ‘eyes all the way open’), with a Yeatsian warning that such repression can only be damaging to the soul: ‘you are lost in your centre, you won’t hold together’. Control also addresses this conflict, Stith singing about the ‘struggle from my own control’, concluding ‘I want out’, and imaging a blessed retreat from the world, ‘covered in sand’, head buried and avoiding the issue. Fire Season, on the Clusterchord EP, features some extraordinary strangulated vocals which expressionistically embody mental anguish, like a gurning Japanese Kabuki actor expressing the agony of a pivotal moment in the play. The splashing, polyrhythmic drumming and haunted electronic weather make this a particularly Earlies-sounding song, too.


The artists’ sexuality is (or should, in an ideal world, be) irrelevant, although it’s always good to have different and interesting figures for young gay men to identify with and find inspiration from. As Marc Almond notes in his autobiography, taking offence at being pigeonholed as a ‘gay artist’ rather than as a multifaceted individual, no-one ever says ‘and here’s straight Mick Hucknall’, or ‘let’s have a warm welcome for heterosexual Rod Stewart’. Whilst rooted in personal experience and feeling, this is a universal music expressing universal concerns and emotions. The concert ended with a soaring song, with Stith’s vocals swooping up to a ever greater heights, the music building to a swelling climax behind him, with final scrabbling crescendo of fast top-of-the-neck, effects pedal down strumming. It was a stirring finale. Stith came back on his own for an intimate encore, one man and his guitar directly facing the audience without a dividing stage. With softly strummed and picked accompaniment, he sang a slowed-down version of Thanksgiving Moon (another moon song) from his marvellous Heavy Ghost solo LP (released on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label, as I may have already mentioned). It was an entrancing beautifully sung lullabye to send us no our way – a parting gift and blessing. May they all return when they’re better known (as surely they will be), and play to the packed audience they deserve.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Jack Kerouac's On The Road Scroll at the British Library



The British Library is currently displaying the original roll on which Jack Kerouac hammered out his first, intuitively composed draft of On The Road in 1951. The roll had been a mythic artefact for many years, but was finally sold by the Kerouac estate in May 2001 for an incredible $2.43 million. Six years later, in 2007, it was published in full, in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the appearance of On The Road in its final published form. This was the novel which came to define the beat generation, and to impose upon Kerouac the curse of fame and the burden of being assumed to be a spokesperson for and exemplar of a movement which had swiftly devolved into a simplified media-warped caricature of his philosophy and literary style. The typescript, partially unrolled like an ancient and precious religious parchment, is reverently laid out in a long, flat-bedded case, whose 8 sections reveal some 50 of its purported 120 foot length. It’s become a little brittle at the far end, with fragments having crumbled away, the outer layer slightly yellowed from exposure to the air. It gives it the air of a biblical papyrus scroll, an ur-text which has to be carefully interpreted and compared to later translations. Or the end of a reel of film, grainy and scratched from frequent attachments to the projector, those imperfections imparting their own rich history. According to Gerald Nicosia’s biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe, the same may be the case with the other end, for different reasons. Nicosia notes that Kerouac finished off the roll at his friend Lucien Carr’s loft, and writes that he ‘became furious when Lucien’s dog chewed up the last few feet of the roll’. There are other marks which leave an impression from its moment of creation: brown stains which could be from spilt coffee or from fag burns, or merely the foxing of time. The central column of black, typed text, unbroken by paragraph or chapter breaks, stretches out like a straight strip of empty highway, inviting exploration. Kerouac constructed his continuous roll by taping together numerous lengths of thick tracing paper. You can see the joins, and the semi-transparency of its smoky surfaces at the slightly furled edges. Kerouac trimmed the paper so that it would fit into his typewriter, and was able thus to decant a continuous flow of prose (he was apparently a very fast typist) without the interruptions to the memory pictures he was summoning and sketching which would arise from the removal and replacement of separate sheets.

Sacred Text - the scroll
The paper which he used had been left in the loft apartment of his friend Bill Canastra, a wildly self-destructive and unstable character whom he’d met in 1948. By 1950, he had descended into alcoholic self-torment and –neglect, and in October died in a terrible accident which may have fulfilled an underlying suicidal impulse. He tried to leap out of the window of a subway train as it was leaving the station, hit his head on a pillar and was dragged onto the tracks and beneath the wheels. It was the last of many foolhardy and self-lacerating stunts which he had enacted, seemingly intent on giving his inner torment as public and theatrical an expression as possible, with his death as the final act. Of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’ in his poem Howl, Cannastra was the one ‘who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window…cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic 30s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning in the bloody toilet’. He had been living with a young woman called Joan Haverty, more for the companionship and in order to have someone to share his escapades than out of any romantic attachment (his sexuality was predominantly gay). Soon after Cannastra’s death, Kerouac began seeing Joan, and it almost immediately, they decided to get married (Jack for the second time around), an impulsive and hopelessly ill-advised move. Jack moved into Cannastra’s apartment with her, and it was here that his friends uneasily gathered for the wedding party. After an uncomfortable period living with Jack’s mother Gabrielle, which made it clear to Joan who would always be the dominant woman in his life, she found them an apartment on West 20th Street New York, and it was here that he wrote the first draft of On The Road on Cannastra’s paper in an intense, concentrated and sleep-deprived stretch of non-stop typing in April 1951, Joan ministering to the muse with a constant stream of strong coffee and pea soup.


Kerouac was partly galvanised into this now or never burst of creativity by having read the manuscript of his friend John Clellon Holmes’ novel Go (at the time given the title The Beat Generation, as if to proclaim its intention to define a new social subculture and artistic ethos). Go was written in a fairly conventional literary style, and drew on conversations which Holmes had had with Kerouac. In one such, Jack had come up with the term ‘beat’, a word bearing multivalent meanings, to encompass and give definition to the disparate circle of friends who, despite their wide differences in personality and background, seemed to share a certain sensibility. These were the same people who would take up their given roles in On The Road. Besides Kerouac himself (and Holmes and his wife), there were: Neal Cassady, the ‘sensitive’ outlaw, hustler and huckster, the embodiment of the adventuring American spirit; William Burroughs, the coolly sardonic and incisively intellectual avuncular figure of the group; and Allen Ginsberg, serious and playful, earnest and sociable, intent on bringing everyone together to realise his ideal of a new mode of visionary poetic expression. And others, such as Herbert Huncke, street hustler and master of tale-spinning and self-serving circumlocution. There were also women, Joan and Edie Kerouac, Luanne and Carolyn Cassady, but they were entirely secondary, kept firmly in the background. Gabrielle, Memère, Kerouac’s mother, was a presiding presence in his life, but rarely registered in his novels, unless through the assertion of maudlin Catholic sentiments of maternal sanctitude. The emphasis was on masculine relationships, which were both traditionally macho and open to a new tenderness and open-hearted articulation of feeling. This sometimes found expression in a fluid sexuality and physical generosity; Neal Cassady had a short but passionate sexual and intellectual affair with Allen Ginsberg, its intimacy residing in the ideal form of intense and honest conversation and the open sharing of personal beliefs as much as in physical contact. Cassady helped Ginsberg to become more comfortable with his own sexuality, and in Howl he is ‘N.C., secret hero of these poems, Cocksman and Adonis of Denver’. He is also the hero of On The Road, which is essentially a love story between Neal and Jack. The comparison with ‘a young Gene Autry’ is there in the original roll, Kerouac going on to describe him in the published version as ‘trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent – a side-burned hero of the snowy West’. The famous photograph of the two of them, used on innumerable book covers (it’s there on my copy of On The Road), leaning against a sun-bleached wall in dusty work clothes, weary but happy, was taken by Carolyn Cassady. She was the woman who came between them, and with whom they both had a relationship, in doing so getting closer to each other.

Neal and Jack off the road - Carolyn's photo
Kerouac offered encouragement and praise to Holmes having read the manuscript of Go, but was secretly resentful at his co-option, or pre-emptive use, of material which he had been working on for years without making the breakthrough he was seeking. The prospect of Go’s publication (it saw print a year later in 1952) led Kerouac to marshall the subject matter which had been percolating in his mind for so long, but which he had been unable to shape into a satisfactory form, and hammer it onto paper in one long, sustained outpouring. His efforts exemplified what he would come to call ‘spontaneous prose’, an idea characterised by the guiding phrase ‘first thought, best thought’. It was a technique of writing which drew on the in the moment inspiration and instinctive structuring of jazz improvisation, although as with jazz, the appearance of effortless ease was created through a great deal of study and practice. As Kerouac put it in a rough outline of his ideas in the 1953 essay Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, ‘time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as with jazz musician) on subject in eye’. It was this instantaneous composition from focussed memory pictures which the unbroken roll was designed to allow full, unimpeded progress. There are no paragraph breaks, no indentation of text, just one long stream of direct, songlike narration. In its tumbling, lyrical rush of rhythmic prose, Kerouac found the form he’d been searching for, the perfect means of expressing a direct experience of the passing world, of the wholehearted and unpremeditated inhabitation of each successive moment.

Of course, the appearance of spontaneity which the roll presented belied a great deal of labour and thought, both before and after the three week storm of typing. He had been working on On The Road in one form or another since 1948, and would go on substantially to revise the 1951 roll. The myth of the instantaneously regurgitated novel would go on to plague him, giving an impression of untutored primitivism which was very far from the truth, and which left him open to much mockery and cheap denigration. Having received positive responses fro John Clellon Holmes and Allen Ginsberg (always at hand to offer help), he took his great work to Robert Giroux, the editor at Harcourt Brace who had published his first novel The Town and the City. He was disheartened by Giroux’s unenthusiastic reception of his ceremonially unrolled manuscript. But what was he supposed to with it? Kneel down to read the whole unfurled thing on the floor, shuffling forward on his knees? Or hang it on the wall like a Japanese scroll? Cleary, he suggested, it would need to be retyped and presented in a more conventional and readily readable form. Kerouac obliged, producing a 450 page manuscript, although he ended up taking it elsewhere, and made several extensive revisions over the years partly a the behest of his literary editor Rae Everitt. During this interval, the book temporarily became known as The Beat Generation, an echo of Holmes’ proposed title for his novel (and a reclamation by Kerouac of his own phrase), and in recognition of its potential for becoming the definitive account of a particular time and place. Some of these revisions went on to form an entirely separate, less narratively driven novel centred around Neal, Visions of Cody, which was published posthumously in 1972, thanks once more to the tireless promotional efforts of Ginsberg. You can see numerous pencil crossings out and additions along the visible length of the roll, which show that changes were made right from the start. That, and the xxxing over of typed words and phrases, indicate that the ‘first thought, best thought’ dictum was a guiding principle for initial rough composition rather than a hard and fast rule.

Wild kicks - British Pan paperback cover
Rae Everitt tried to sell the manuscript of On The Road to any number of publishing houses, but none showed any interest until finally it was picked up by Viking Press and published in 1957. The first edition which they published is on display in a neighbouring nook. It’s jacket, designed by Bill English, is a discreet and tastefully ‘literary’ black, the title set with slightly offbeat irregularity, as if to suggest that the contents move to the rhythm of a slightly different drummer (or to an off-kilter Monk tune). A Paul Klee-like semi-abstract print is inset like a small photographic slide, its red and blue shapes summoning up cityscapes, highways, horizons and the lancing beams of car headlights driving through the night. A British Pan paperback of On The Road from 1961 presents the more sensationalised marketing of crazy beat kicks (‘wild and unrestrained’ – the Evening Standard), as does the Signet ‘Dollar Double’ paperback which twins Richard E Geis’ The Beatniks (a follow up to Like Crazy, Man, which promises to be ‘erotic and exotic – the lost world of the beatniks’) with Andrew Laird’s Every Bed Is Narrow. Also on display is the 1955 edition of New World Writing, open to the page in which the first extracts from On The Road were published under the title Jazz of the Beat Generation, mainly the sections which dealt with the feelings evoked by listening to the music in clubs. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is there in its first 1956 City Lights edition, published a year after the 1955 reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and a year before its prosecution for obscenity, and marking another epochal moment in the definition of the beat generation. William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, its title suggested by Kerouac, is present in its unassuming 1959 first edition from the Parisian Olympia Press, no.72 in its Traveller’s Companion series (what kind of journey would that be appropriate for – one across the interzone, I suppose), and there’s more Burroughs from Paris in Minutes to Go from 1960, the first ‘cut-up’ publication, including pieces by Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brian Gysin and Sinclair Beiles. The catalogue from the 1995 Whitney Museum exhibition is open to Ed Sanders’ poem The Legacy of the Beats, and marks the firm enshrinement of the movement and its once marginalized writers into the American artistic canon.

Generation gap - Jack gives Ed the thumbs down
Sanders appeared with Kerouac on an autumn 1968 edition of The Firing Line, the combative talk show hosted by conservative commentator William F Buckley. It was clearly an attempt to bring together representatives from succeeding countercultural generations, the beats and the hippies, but it was no more successful than Kerouac’s encounter with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters (Neal Cassady included) had been in 1964. Sanders found himself in the unenviable position of having to fend off dismissal and hostility from both Kerouac and Buckley. He came off better than either, countering the latter’s odiously self-satisfied put-downs of Kerouac, his evident enjoyment of mocking and drawing attention to his drunkenness rather than drawing him out and directing his wayward but still articulate and entertaining conversation. Sanders takes Kerouac’s declaration that he has no use for his protests, which he claims are all about being negative (this at a time when police were running riot and cracking heads outside the Chicago Democratic convention) with calm equanimity, and in return offers a generous homage and a sincere expression of gratitude for his literary legacy, which is also evident in the Whitney catalogue poem.

Viking first edition, 1957
The most immediately obvious difference between the original roll and the published version is the use in the former of the actual names of the people whose lives form the basis of his story, and who form its cast. Near the beginning, he writes ‘with the coming of Neal there really began for me that part of my life that you could call my life on the road’. Kerouac later fashioned pseudonymous masks for his ‘real’ characters, easy enough to see through for those who knew them. He became Sal Paradise, the seeker, the name deriving from a misreading of the words in the handwritten poem Allen Ginsberg sent him in 1947, Denver Doldrums – ‘sad paradise it is I imitate, and fallen angels whose lost wings are sighs’. Neal was Dean Moriarty, a name hinting at a masterful roguishness. Ginsberg was Carlo Marx (suggesting a blend of Marxes comical and intellectually radical); Burroughs Old Bull Lee (Lee his persona in Naked Lunch and other ‘novels’ and routines, the Old Bull here underlining his seniority and command of respect – either as Indian chief, ancient, dessicated elephant or head cop); and Herbert Huncke Elmer Hassel, suggesting a man who will leech on to you and stay attached until he has extracted what he wants, unspooling a stream of mesmerising verbiage all the while. The exaggerated names he gives these characters seem to connote a symbolic role which goes beyond mere biographical sketching, their adventures more than just realistic reportage. They are the mythological embodiments of a new ideal, a re-imagining of the American dream through a direct and honest awareness of and presence in the moment. They were American archetypes both newly born and timelessly old, which Kerouac projected outwards from the characters of his friends. It’s a legend which readers who get drawn into the whole beat mythology, with its by now well established pantheon, reinforce and expand upon, producing their own apocryphal embellishments and interpretations.


Reading biographies of the beats, it soon becomes clear that they generally fail to live up to their legendary status, appearing all too fallibly human, with all the attendant weaknesses and sometimes ugly imperfections. Barry Miles' Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats is particularly damning, as unforgiving as his life of Allen Ginsberg was generous. Carolyn Cassady's Off The Road (an obvious but perfect title) is a valuable, balanced and well-written telling of the woman's story. Gerald Nicosia's Memory Bane offers more detailed analysis of the books and poetry, which he obviously holds in high regard, unlike Miles, but his depiction of his subject is still honest and dispiriting, particularly in the latter stages. Kerouac, for all his embracing of Zen Buddhism and exhortations to show more compassion and kindness in the world, could be astonishingly mean-spirited, especially in his relationships with women. A couple of months after he’s finished the first draft of On The Road, Joan found out that she was pregnant. Having failed to persuade her to get rid of it, Jack immediately shied away from responsibility. The marriage had already effectively fallen apart, and he fled, as he so often did, to his mother, in North Carolina at the time, before moving into the attic of Neal and Carolyn Cassady’s house in San Francisco. In the meantime, he made assiduous efforts to evade making any payments to Joan before and after the birth of his daughter, Janet (later known as Jan). Jan appears in the excellent 1986 documentary film Whatever Happened to Kerouac?, relating a mumbled rapprochement late in his life, when he was nearing the end. But before that, he didn’t want to know. Jack’s wandering was seriously curtailed by ill-health at this time, too. His heavy use of Benzedrine combined with constant drinking and smoking had led to problems with blood pressure and caused phlebitis to weigh down his legs. He was far from the athletic young man who’d come to New York on a football scholarship to Columbia in 1939. Given his state of mind and body, the writing and steady revision of On The Road (and the other novels he wrote before its publication – Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraeneans, Tristessa and Visions of Gerard) was like a recollection of a brief, magical time which he was tacitly acknowledging was at an end, and was irrecoverable. Even so, something in his character refused to allow him to stop drinking and clowning drunkenly around, to get serious and put aside the wild and exploratory abandonment of his younger days. His interest in Buddhism, whilst it had its sincere aspects, was partly, in its emphasis on the material world as a vale of tears and human life as inherently tragic, a veil for his own self pity and neglect. At the age of 28, when he finished the On The Road roll, the joyous, carefree but self-reflectively experienced youth he celebrated in his Whitmanesque song was over. But through Sal and Dean, Carlo and Old Bull and the others, he turned that golden period, and the friendships which sustained it, into an immortal story. They are figures of a new American mythology, and attempts to compare these avatars with their mortal equivalents, whilst compulsively fascinating, are bound to lead to disillusionment if myth is mistaken for fact. So accept the book for the legend it is, and hit the road with Neal and Jack, or rather with Sal and Dean, their dream counterparts.


Elsewhere in the British Library, in the permanent Treasures gallery, a first draft manuscript of another favourite novel was on display. The first page of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus was handwritten in neatly looping joined up script. Like the On The Road roll, it differed significantly from the finished version, and there were already extensive revisions on the page of this rough version. There’s something particularly intimate about a handwritten manuscript, the direct contact between paper and pen, given heft and direction by the hand which grasps it, allowing for a more direct and personal expression, the train of thought traced out in marginal additions and doodles, emphatic flourishes by a heavier impress of the nib. Words and phrases were crossed out by Carter on the page, and others tried out, squeezed in between the lines. In the opening line, ‘“Lor’ love you sir”, said the young woman’, the descriptive phrase is replaced by a more colourfully demonstrative ‘magnificent female’. In the final printed version, this is further finessed to read “Lor’ love you, sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids’. The open champagne bottle which sits by her side is described on the manuscript as ‘still-crepitating’, a phrase which makes it into the book, although it is no longer ‘in its cold-misted bucket’, but described, with a greater richness and specificity, as being ‘lodged negligently in the toilet jug, packed in ice that must have come from a fishmonger’s for a shiny scale or two stayed trapped within the chunks’. There’s a sense that Carter starts from a basic outline and builds up colour and detail from there, decorating her initial image with gilt and gilding. There are numerous marginal additions slanting towards the main body of the text, and enumerated crosses (x or xx) above certain points indicating where passages occurring as an afterthought and written at the foot of the page are to be added. These include Fevvers’ description of herself as ‘the Cockney Venus’, and her allusion to her unusual birth, within the sound of Bow Bells ‘that rattled out a veritable carillon and I thrust my way out of the egg’. In the novel, this becomes a rather more direct proclamation: ‘hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is’. The published version also adds more formal authorial introductions to its star protagonist, absent here, which are presented in the manner of a colourful circus billing: ‘Fevvers, the most famous aerialiste of the day; her slogan, “Is she fact or is she fiction?”’ There are, no doubt, many more significant variations from the published text throughout. But, unlike the On The Road roll, we’re unlikely ever to see this original draft in print, so its contents (first page aside) must remain forever a mystery.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers


Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers is a follow up to his 1989 novel The Stress of Her Regard, a point worth making since it is not mentioned anywhere on the dust jacket. The novel could stand on its own, but references or allusions to previous events would be lost, and the reader might suffer from a vague feeling that there’s a narrative abyss from whose ragged edge the story they’re being told begins. This is not the first time that Powers has gone back to stories which originally stood as single, self-contained novels. Earthquake Weather, from 1997, drew together the fantasies Last Call (1992) and Expiration Date (1995) into a grand, synthesising mythologisation of the history and landscapes of California and Las Vegas, combining their modern re-interpretations of Fisher King allegories and ghost stories into a complex whole. This revisiting of earlier material is indicative of Powers’ compulsive creation of grand mythological systems which incorporate historical events, rich and realistic depictions of place, rationalised manifestations of the supernatural and real-life characters lent appropriately legendary characteristics (Last Call features the ghost of Thomas Edison and Expiration Date the gangster Bugsy Siegel as the inheritor of the Fisher King’s crown).


The Stress of Her Regard (its title taken from lines in a Clark Ashton Smith poem, Sphinx and Medusa) weaves its intricate and complex mythological schema around the lives, travels and artistic vision of the English Romantic poets. At the granitic core of his invented, or recast mythology is the notion of a stony race of supernatural beings which predate organic life. They are the nephilim of Biblical legend, the ‘giants in the earth’ who were the pre-Adamic descendants of Lilith. Formed from the rocks of the earth, they can take the shape of inhuman mineral behemoths, ambulatory boulder masses, or even sentient mountains; when sluggish or sleeping, they can appear as statues (with shades of Steven Moffat’s weeping angels in Doctor Who); or they can splinter off and ‘marry’ a selected human being, becoming their doppelganger twin. They also take the form of semi-serpentine lamiae, and exert a mesmeric, transfixing influence over their spouses akin to the opiated addiction to a vivid dream world. This bewitching link is sustained by blood, and a lineage furthered by the rebirth of infected hosts as nephilitic ‘revenants’, variants on the classic vampire. Powers moulds his mythology to reflect, adumbrate and comment upon the various aspects of the Romantic worldview (and its Gothic offshoots), and to incorporate various of its artistic creations. The nephilim are partly comprised of Keats’ lamiae, partly of Polidori and Byron’s vampires, and numerous fragments of Romantic poetry and journal entries are quoted at the head of chapters, recast to make reference to the stony tribe. The notion of the Romantic sublime, found in its ultimate aspect in the inhuman scale of the Alpine peaks and crevasses, is given a new slant of awe and terror with the notion that those mineral masses might in some sense be sentient and exerting an influence on the overwhelmed observer.


Powers also provides a rationale for the air of tragic mortality which seemed to surround the Romantic poets. The nephilitic lamiae act as muses, bringing with them the incidental gift of transcendant artistic vision, an insight into an extra-human realm. But there is a terrible cost to pay. Whilst there is a genuine love between muse and often willing ‘victim’, the nephilim are jealous lovers, and wreak terrible, murderous violence upon any others who come too close to the affections of their chosen ones. He also incorporates rationalised variants of a whole panoply of Gothic devices. Indeed, the formative evening for modern Gothic horror, that storm-wracked night of 1816 at the Villa Diodati near Geneva during which Mary Godwin (later Shelley), Lord Byron, John Polidori and Percy Shelley decided to tell each other tales of terror congruent with the turbulent darkness beyond the walls, is included as a scene-setting preface to the book. Splintered wooden stakes fired from rifles are effective against the stone creatures, as are iron spikes and silver bullets. Those who fall under the spell of the nephilim, and who open their veins for them, return as revenants themselves after death, no longer human but hybrid beings. They light on victims of their own, but must be invited in first, as with classic vampire lore. Polidori becomes one such, thus becoming the Vampyre of his own nephilim-fuelled imagination. Powers also manages to incorporate fragments of Norse and Greek mythology, hinting at some grand underlying synthesis. Allusion is made to the Greek tale of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the sole survivors of a great flood who repopulate the earth by casting stones behind them which sprout into human beings. The use of wooden stakes to slow the stone beast which emerges from the Swiss mountainside leads to a comparison with Balder the Beautiful in Norse mythology, killed with a dart made from mistletoe, with Byron likened to Loki, his assassin. This leads Byron to fumingly wonder ‘do all our most affecting legends, as well as our literature, derive from these devils?’ The Graiae, or Fates, also play a central role, taking on the form of the statures atop the pillars in St Michael’s Square in Venice (with the third lying below in the waters of the canal). The notion of their omniscient vision, which encompasses all time, conjures up modern notions of chance and quantum mechanical uncertainty. The attempts of Byron, Shelley and our protagonist (the unfortunately named, for the English reader, Michael Crawford) to prevent the re-awakening of the Graiae becomes a battle over the ontological status of reality, and of the theological state of free will, as well as a metaphor for the Romantic Poets’ opposition to dynastic tyranny (the occupation of Venice by the Hapsburg Empire in this case).


The narrative offers a grand tour of Romantic locales via Crawford’s fate-driven travels across Europe. Spanning the years 1816 t o1822, with a short epilogue in 1851, it moves from London to the Swiss Alps, Venice to Rome, Livorno to Portovenere on the North West coast of Italy. Along the way he meets Keats and Shelley (both of whose deaths he witnesses), Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont, Dr Polidori, Byron, and his friend and companion in adventure Edward Trelawny. Powers clearly has extensive knowledge and understanding of the Romantic poets, and enjoys assimilating the events and legends of their lives into his story. He and his friend and fellow Californian writer have indeed co-created their own Romantic poet, William Ashbless, who first featured in Powers’ Victorian London-set novel The Anubis Gates. They have since written numerous Ashbless poems which lovingly pastiche the Romantic and Victorian styles. Ashbless even gets a mention in Hide Me Among the Graves, his name casually thrown in amongst a list of the great poets of the age with a modest acknowledgement of its lesser status. Algernon Swinburne is told that if he loses his connection with his bloody muse, he will no longer write with the visionary intensity he has lately been enjoying, at least ‘not like Byron and Shelley and Keats, who shared the affliction you’re now free to shed. But – like Tennyson or Ashbless, probably’.


Powers characters tend to be sorely tried, and to suffer injury and symbolic disfigurement or lameness in the course of their adventures. They also go through mental agonies, frequently suffering from anguish and guilt at some past failure or moral dereliction, whether real or perceived. In The Stress of Her Regard, Crawford loses his middle finger, and ages prematurely, and he is tortured by the sense that the death by drowning of his brother and of his wife in a fire were somehow brought about by his neglect or inaction. Josephine, initially his antagonist but later his companion, his lover and finally his wife, loses an eye (torn out in an echo of Biblical imprecations and Greek tales – the Fates again) and suffers throughout from tormented mental states and schizoid shifts in personality. There are elements of the precepts of Christian sacrifice here, and of the Fisher King mythos of the would which will not heal, and which is symbolically associated with the ruination of the land. The quest of the hero is thus not only a search for personal salvation, for the erasure of guilt or curse, but for the restoration of the broken world, of a lost wholeness.


Powers is, perhaps not incidentally, Christian himself (Catholic, to be specific, putting him in the noble lineage of writers of the fantastic such as GK Chesterton, Walter M Miller and Gene Wolfe). He and Blaylock were friends with Philip K Dick in his later years, with regular discussion circles held at his house. He turns up as a character named David in Dick’s late, pseudo-autobiographical tale of madness and the re-building of a fragile sanity, Valis. Valis, and the lengthy Exegesis which underlay it, was Dick’s own attempt at the construction of a universal mythological system (analogous in his case to a Gnostic religious variant) to give meaning to his chaotic and damaged life and the violence and tyranny in the world around him. At this point it’s not clear to what extent he believed in the actuality of what he was writing, an ambiguity which he addresses by splitting his autobiographical persona into two characters, Phil Dick and Horselover Fat, who turn out to be the schizoid halves of the same person. Powers, in the guise of David, offers the fractured Dick protagonists a kindly perspective on the universe, which he sees as essentially benevolent despite its apparent cruelties, guided by a compassionate underlying presence which manifests itself through the generosity of human spirit. The protagonists of Powers’ novels, for all their anguish and suffering (and perhaps partially through them), generally find this to be true, and the author shows the same generosity towards them as he did towards the ailing and sometimes unbalanced Dick. There’s an essentially kindness at the heart of his work which transcends the travails he puts his characters through. The punishments they endure are often exacerbated by their strong sense of moral purpose, their refusal to give up their quest or mission despite all the temptations laid in their path, or to abandon their companions, or even apparent enemies, to their fate. Indeed, it is a characteristic of Powers’ novels that enemies can become allies, or even friends, joining forces to stand against inhuman or demonic powers.


Hide Me Among the Graves (the title deriving from one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal’s little known poems, At Last) takes place some forty years after the events of The Stress of Her Regard, and features John Crawford, the son of Michael and Josephine, whom they named after John Keats. We briefly met him as a thirty year old man in that novel’s coda, as his aging parents told him their remarkable tale in the place where it all began. He has followed in his father’s medical footsteps, although choosing rather to minister to animals as a veterinarian. Where The Stress of Her Regard moved between a succession of colourful continental locales, the later novel remains firmly rooted in a vividly imagined Victorian London, whose geography is expertly laid out. The three main sections take place in the years 1862, 1869 and 1877, with a prologue taking us back to 1845, and an epilogue forward to 1882. The Romantic poets have now been replaced by Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetics, with a cast centred around the Rossetti family: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister, the poet Christina Rossetti, and their siblings Maria and William; and Dante’s friend and sometime housemate, the wild-haired and hearted poet and rakehell Algernon Swinburne. The nephilim are reawakened through Christine’s christening of the diminished stone statuette which Polidori has become, and which her father has brought back from Europe, with blood. Trelawny returns, grizzled with his adventures in Italy and Greece with the late Lord Byron, and reported piratical escapades. He has had his own brushes with the nephilim, and now has one of their dormant ‘eggs’ lodged as a growth in his neck (Powers had used the idea of gallstones as nephilim eggs in The Stress of Her Regard). He also carries part of Shelley’s jawbone as a talisman, having been present at his shoreline cremation following his drowning in the seas of Livorno (drowning being one way of escaping from the attentions of the stone lamiae and avoiding a terrible rebirth).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - self-portrait 1870
A difficult and oft-thwarted romance between damaged and initially ill-suited protagonists is once more at the heart of the story. John Crawford overcomes his initial Victorian gentleman’s shock at the forthrightness of Adelaide McKee (to whom he refers with a businesslike ‘McKee’ for most of the novel), the ‘fallen woman’ who enters his life on Blackfriars Bridge, and with whom he takes a plunge into the Thames after a plummeting ‘meteor’ (a jealous nephilim in pure mineral form) roars down on them from the London skies. Powers introduces further mythological lore and local legend to his Romantic portrayal of a Dickensian, gaslit city. There is the paying of coins to the road sweeper at the Seven Dials junction, who hands them back and replaces his broom to allow for a ‘blind’ passage, free of the supernatural vision of nearby watchers. The Thames is re-imagined as a fogbound medium for ghosts caught in an afterlife limbo, flopping about as devolved, fishlike blobs. There is a thriving ‘hail Mary’ trade, in which Adelaide is involved, involving the use of ‘aves’, or birds to catch the souls of the recently departed and allow for a limited form of communication. And the nursery rhyme vocalisation of the sounds of London’s church bells (oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements etc.) are revealed as mnemonics for the ancient Latin passwords (oranges and lemons representing Origo lemurum) required to pass safely down neighbouring wells and into London’s labyrinthine underworld. This underworld, a city beneath the city, is depicted with chill imaginative detail, and we gain the sense that the subterraenean territories which John and Adelaide stumble into are just the edge of a vast, lightless subworld. Powers’ London is a layered city, whose historical strata are still open to the excavations of the adventurous or foolhardy archaeological adventurer. The gateways to the labyrinths of hidden London can be found in the most unprepossessing of places, such as the basement of the ramshackle spit and sawdust Spotted Dog pub. Powers brings the mythological matter of Britain into play, casting Gog and Magog as giants of the stone race, Albion personified, with Boadicea as their nephilitic offspring, intent on making England shake and razing London to the ground once more, as she did in revenge for the defilement of herself and her daughters by the Roman invader.


There’s also a scene in which John and Adelaide gain entrance into what appears to be the interior of a giant stone skull (the inside of Gog or Magog’s skull?) by inching their way along a narrow crawl space beneath a tomb in Highgate Cemetery, with no possible of turning around. It’s a passage which rivals Colin and Susan’s crawl through the constricting cave tunnel beneath Alderley Edge in Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Bringamen for clammy, airless claustrophobia. Highgate Cemetery, the locus of Victorian gothic in London, is a natural locale for the novel to spend time in. Powers cleverly incorporates Rossetti’s disinterment of his wife Elizabeth Siddal’s body from the cemetery into his narrative, giving him a better purpose for such desecration. According to legend, Rossetti had buried his notebook with all his poems in it with Lizzie’s body. He later came to regret this, and managed, some seven years later, to again permission to dig up the coffin and retrieve them. Lizzie was reported to be perfectly preserved, a strand of her red hair coming away with the book. Here, that preservation is explained by the immortality granted by marriage to the nephilim (she is not dead, but merely sleepeth), and the disinterment is an attempt to prevent the birth of an unnatural offspring, conceived before her death. Rossetti’s determination to recover his notebook is also rationalised, his foreswearing of his own destructive ‘muse’ resulting in a dying down of the fever of artistic inspiration in his blood, and the subsequent need to find the words he’d written while it still raged. Powers plays games with autobiographical detail, reflecting on Rossetti’s concentration on poetry rather than art for a period in his life. He similarly offers a metaphorical depiction of the waning of Christina Rossetti’s creative powers, or of her will to write further in later years, a melancholy acknowledgement of the diminishing of the sense of burning, youthful purpose.

Quiet heroism - William Rossetti
As in The Stress of her Regard, the stone muses are shown to be harsh mistresses or masters, the creation of visionary poetry or art through their aegis an exacting and spirit-sapping calling, inviting an attendant train of tragic event which can in its turn be transformed into artistic expression. William Rossetti, the more stable and staid male member of the clan, who tirelessly promoted the work of his brother and his fellow artists, and who ended up chronicling their lives (in the mid-century PRB Journal and in his 1906 volume Some Reminiscences), is offered a vision of the library of great poetic works he could create if he opened himself up to a nephilitic lover (thus allowing the Polidori creature to re-establish itself). But he knows the price he and others would have to pay, a resists this heady temptation, sadly resigning himself to an acceptance of his lesser literary talents. This refusal is an oddly heroic moment, a sacrifice of a secretly held dream, and an unseen act of will which saves others by retreating to the shadows of insignificant obscurity. Once more, Powers allows his characters such moments of quiet heroism, choices made which result in sacrificial suffering for the sake of others whom they may not even know that well. Such gestures are eventually repaid, though. There is a sentimental but touching and quite beautiful scene in which John, having been infected by a nephilim bite, and knowing that his will shall shortly be affected, throws himself into the Thames once more to cast off the malign influence with his dying breath. But having reached that final moment, he finds himself being gently nudged to the surface by many furry forms – they are the blind and lame cats which he has cared for in his house over the years, which have joined the river of ghosts. Later, lost in the underworld and pursued by hungry ghosts, he is again aided by animal spirits, this time of the horses he has treated in his surgery. These scenes extend the generosity of Powers’ world view beyond the human, and typify his benevolent take on the universe. It’s a hard path which his characters are forced to take, but in the end, love sees them through.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Doctor Shapter Versus the Cholera Epidemic


The Eccentric Exeter theatre company conducted a promenade performance over the weekend, Doctor Shapter Versus the Cholera Epidemic, which I followed on a clear and crisp autumn evening. It traced the spread of the disease throughout the crowded slums of the city’s west quarter in the summer of 1832, the epidemic having been transported to Gateshead and Sunderland from the continent, and from there carried south to Plymouth and thence, despite efforts at quarantining the quay, to Exeter. Our tour of this terrible time started in the courtyard of the City Gate pub before proceeding onto and under the Iron Bridge, built shortly after in 1835 as a part of the post-cholera city improvements, in this case to allow the easy passage of horse drawn carts and carriages into and out of the city. From there we carried on to the cemetery with its sloping paths leading up to the looming stone gateways to the catacombs at the top, their dank, cavernous spaces now a suitably gothic home to a colony of pipistrelle bats. These Victorian corners of the city provided ideal and dramatic theatrical backdrops in the evening gloom, and Eccentric Exeter made imaginative use of them all.


We were guided by a stylishly attired narrator, who made the history present through anecdote and a storyteller’s evocation of time, place and incident. He strode commandingly through the gathered throng in floor length, high-collared coat and top hat. Actors were secreted at tactical sites throughout the route, drawing our attention away from the central narration. At the start, a dark suited gentleman appeared in an upper balcony of the pub yard, voicing official complacency and denial of the first signs of the disease manifesting themselves. This was a divided city, with rich and poor districts kept distinct and separate, with little contact between them. We also encountered staggering local rowdies on the Iron Bridge who voiced similarly dismissive views from the other side of the divide, pushing the good Doctor around and insisting on the efficacy of sweating it out with the aid of a bottle of brandy. We found more scrambling down the slope at the side of the bridge, acting on the hearsay of medical mumbo-jumbo and ‘fumigating’ their baby, a swaddled package which emitted a comically excessive billow of fuggy smoke. In a dead end alleyway behind the old row of Victorian terraces at the side of the graveyard, a mother tried to keep an undertaker from taking her baby for immediate burial, but we were swiftly moved on from the tragic scene with the discrete suggestion that it wasn’t for our eyes. Our urbane host raised his lantern high to lead us through the dark graveyard, taking delight in informing us of the ‘bulging boneyard’s’ (wonderful phrase) overcrowded beds (offering its inhabitants similar cramped conditions to those from which they’d just moved on). St Bartholomew’s, as it was (and is) called, soon became filled to capacity, and further burial grounds had to be found on the outskirts of the city. The appropriately named Bury Meadow was one (the name long predating its new purpose), and our guide very specifically located it beneath the swings in the children’s playground, a ghoulish cryptkeeper’s chuckle implied. In one genuinely startling and uncanny departure from the generally realistic evocation of early Victorian time and place, we looked up from the cemetery slopes to see the horned and jackal-headed visage of the Egyptian god Anubis, illuminated by fires flaming on either side, outlined against the angled stone slabs of the Egyptianate catacombs and their shadowed entryways, modelled on tombs recently uncovered in the Valley of Kings. Anubis was the Egyptian guardian of the underworld, we were told, who weighed the hearts of souls approaching the afterlife, judging them in the balance and determining their fate – paradise or the pit. It was a poetic and haunting tableau of the sort you might have found in a Derek Jarman or Kenneth Anger film, and may well end up invading my dreams.

Fumigating Butcher's Row - from Doctor Shapter's History of the Cholera in Exeter
The spread of cholera in 1832 was swift and terrible, hastened by general ignorance and official complacency, and by the crowded and unsanitary conditions of the west quarter slums. Many people kept livestock in their houses, with pigs and poultry prevalent, and there was no sewage system. Butcher’s Row was named after the butcher’s shops at the top of the hill, from which blood and offal was thrown into the street to run down the central gutter into the rivers and brooks below. The name given to one of the latter, Shitbrook, is self-explanatory. There was a certain grim humour to various of the scenarios we encountered. A female corpse dresser did a vaguely necrophiliac danse macabre with a semi-stripped corpse, washing his torso and limbs, which flopped suggestively over her body, with leers and cackles. She sprinkled him with lime as if giving him a dusting of talcum perfume prior to a night out, finally clothing him in his fresh winding sheet. Our guide gave us a commentary on the proceedings, and on the symptoms of cholera and the prospects for its victims all the while. The performance was rounded off with a needle through the nose, to make sure that the ‘corpse’ was really dead (a resultant ‘ow’ suggested that he wasn’t yet, although the washerwoman seemed unconcerned and continued anyway). With laudanum also popular at the time, the chances of the Poe-like nightmare of live burial were not so remote, with people falling into opiated, deathlike swoons, and the imperative for swift internment great. Quarantines and curfews were imposed, and our guide described the eerie sense of quiet in the deserted city streets. This was broken by the doleful ringing of a bell, which rang out from St Olave’s to mark the death toll, until it too was silenced, its knell deemed too unnerving and dispiriting.

The Iron Bridge
Clever use was made of shadow projection underneath the arches of the Iron Bridge, allowing us to see the ranting head of the Bishop of Exeter spewing forth poisonous invective against the undeserving poor, who after all had brought the disease on themselves through their filthy ways and disgusting habits. The good Bishop Philpotts had swiftly absented himself from the city at the first hint of the epidemic within its gates, and didn’t return until he was assured that it had burnt itself out. With the subsequent building of the catacombs and extension of St Bartholomew’s cemetery, he refused to bless the ‘dissenting’ sectors of the graveyard. As his rant accelerated in pitch and bile, he himself began to cough and splutter, as if he too had been infected by cholera. He wasn’t – the disease was spiritual, located in his soul. His profile was set against the brick screen of the bridge’s underside, slimy with algae, seeping with rainwater run off and glittering with the fungal glow of calcine deposits.

Doctor Shapter - local hero
A more humane and pitifully poignant response came from the minister whom we encountered in the graveyard. His mind had clearly been broken by the death with which he was daily surrounded in his parish (in the end, 440 people from Exeter and St Thomas died). He leapt onto the tabletop surfaces of various tombs, citing fragments from birth, marriage and death rites, asking members of the audience whether they wished to be married, or whether they wanted their invisible child to be baptised. He talked in a vague, distracted and wandering manner, his voice bewildered and confused. Our host looked on with silent pity and compassion. If the Bishop was the villain and the minister the figure of pathos, then Doctor Shapter was presented as the local hero, even though initially mistrusted as an ‘outsider’. He was seen at various junctures and locales striding purposefully along, Gladstone bag grasped firmly in his hand. His mapping of the vectors of the disease through the West Quarter of Exeter helped to pinpoint its causes and to provide the solution to its future curbing – in principle, the reduction of overcrowding, and in practice the covering over of open brooks, the building of adequate sewerage and new markets in which food could be sold, and the widening of roads. Dr Shapter wrote his own History of the Cholera in Exeter in 1832, which was published in 1849, and from which many of the details with which we were regaled were no doubt taken. He lived to a ripe old age, finally passing away in 1902, outliving old Queen Vic herself. In honouring him, the troupe honoured the finest of Victorian values, rational enquiry, social concern and compassion for the plight of one’s fellow man, and a determined pursuit of what one considered one’s moral duty, even in the face of official and popular dismissal and ridicule. Well done, sir, and good show Eccentric Exeter. I look forward to your next excursion through this city’s crowded layers of history.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Songs of Sandy Denny at the Barbican

Under the sign of Sandy - the Bailey backdrop

BBC4 screened highlights on Friday from the Barbican concert The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny which took place on 23rd May this year. During the introductory summation of Sandy’s musical life, I was immediately startled to see footage from a TV performance of White Dress from Sandy’s belated stint with Fairport Convention circa their 1975 Rising for the Moon LP. I had assumed that the three songs from her first solo LP The North Star Grassman and the Ravens which she sang on the 1971 TV show One In Ten, included on the Sandy Denny at the BBC box set, was the only extant evidence of Sandy caught professionally on film. This tantalising glimpse proved that this was not the case, and it would have been great to see more of this recording (although only a fragment has appeared on line, suggesting that it no longer exists in complete form), and to find out if any more has been unearthed. A still photo was shown to remind us of Fairport Convention’s 1969 appearance on Top of the Pops singing Si Tu Dois Partir, a whim of the moment translation (both musical and linguistic) into French Cajun of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes ditty If You Gotta Go, Go. This piece of folk dada, which saw the band adopting pantomime French costume and odd instrumentation, has fallen victim to the BBC’s cost-conscious recycling of video tape, as have so many classic performances from the era. The paucity of recorded footage of Sandy makes such a loss all the more regrettable, even if this shows the more lighter, throwaway side of her musical persona (the side which saw her including rock ‘n roll and Ink Spots numbers on her solo albums, which tended to break the overall mood). The riveting intensity of her three Northstar Grassman and the Ravens songs on One in Ten (Northstar itself, Crazy Lady and Late November) shows us just what we missed.


The opportunity to hear her songs in concert was a welcome one, even though, as Jerry Donahue, the guitarist who worked with her in Fotheringay, Fairport Convention and on her solo LPs, pointed out, it was not about recreating trying to recreate the sound of her music. Such an attempt would be a self-evidently futile undertaking, an imitation of the inimitable. Rather, this tribute was an attempt to give the songs renewed life through the individual voices of their interpreters. The strength of good songs, their ability to endure, comes through in the manner in which they can be adapted by wildly diverse singers, whilst still retaining their essential character. Nothing can match Sandy’s singing of her own songs, which she evidently invests with a great deal of personal feeling through the unique power of her voice (with its deep English folk soul). But her songwriting also has both a universal quality and an individual sense of melody and harmony, which makes it ripe material for adventurous singers to explore, its mysterious lyrical depths also offering rich seams to be mined.

There was a certain dynastic cast to this show. Jerry Donahue and Dave Swarbrick, who played with Sandy in her Fairport, Fotheringay and solo phases, were present, as was her contemporary in the 60s and 70s folk rock world, Maddy Prior, who knew her but never sang with her (her chosen partner for musical duets being June Tabor). Providing solid support in the band was Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar and bouzouki, a member of contemporary folk ‘supergroup’ Bellowhead as well as a solo artist in his own right. He’s also the son of John Kirkpatrick, who squeezed his boxes on many a folk album in the 70s, Albion Bands and Steeleye Span included. Blair Dunlop was one of the singers, the spitting image of his father Ashley Hutchings in the early Fairport days, when he first discovered his native folk traditions alongside Sandy. Blair is now the head of the ever-evolving Albion Band which Hutchings initiated after leaving Fairport and, good-looking young chap that he is, also has a parallel career as an actor (playing the youthful flashback version of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The broad appeal of the 60s and 70s British folk revival, and its ability to transcend artificial generational divides, is reflected in these continuities. The fruitful co-existence and collaboration between youth and maturity is one of the appealing aspects of the folk world, one of the aspects which distinguishes it from the rock world, with its increasingly embarrassing obsession with being ‘forever young’ (no matter how much hair dye it takes). There was a wide range in the ages sharing the stage, which was also a testament to the continuing influence of Sandy’s music. The charming participation of Thea Gilmore’s five year old son during one of her songs, clutching his half-size fiddle with solemn intent, pointed to a furtherance of the line into new folk futures.

Lavinia Blackwell - The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood
The concert started with Lavinia Blackwell, singer with Trembling Bells, one of the best of the new generation of bands drawing on the 60s and 70s folk rock legacy, singing Late November from the North Star Grassman and the Ravens LP (quite possibly my favourite record depending, as with all best ofs, on which week you happen to ask me). She talked about the pleasure and challenge of singing songs which move through such offbeat, non-standardised harmonies. Late November is one of Sandy’s dark, penumbral songs, suffused with a sense of oppressively portentous mystery and shot through with intimations of mortality. There’s a pleasurable atmosphere of autumnal melancholia about much of Sandy’s music – it’s definitely her favourite season. Lines showing an awareness of mortality and the brevity of life (‘our lives they are not long’ from Nothing More, ‘death comes too soon for all’ from John the Gun and ‘you will be taken, everyone, you ladies and you gentlemen’ from The Sea) become all the more poignantly prominent in the light of her own tragically early death at the age of 31. Lavinia’s version of Late November was fine, but her pure, classically soaring voice was ideally suited to a largely a cappella rendition of the Richard and Mimi Farina song The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, with Thea Gilmore and Maddy Prior providing supporting harmonies, replicating Sandy’s own double-tracked self-harmonisation on record. This is a song which has bewitched me ever since I first heard it as a teenager on my battered copy of Sandy, her second solo LP, released in 1972. Not even the scratch which rudely edited Dave Swarbrick’s echoing solo violin coda could break the spell. Indeed, I became so used to it that when I finally heard it on CD with pristine digital sheen, the very lack of a jump cut was initially jolting. Lavinia did the song, and Sandy’s singing of it, full justice, unerringly hitting those keening high notes, and this moment captured the spirit of Sandy above all others for me. As a purely incidental detail, she also sported some incredible earrings. Dave Swarbrick was on hand once more to provide an instrumental coda, as well as a subtle underlying drone which hummed beneath the final verse. Diminished in mobility by serious bouts of ill-health, which means he now plays seated, but not in impish energy and humour, his solo was full of restless, flickering motion, a joyful singing of a sad song. He transformed the exquisite lament of his solo on the LP into a dancing celebration of life, a perfect invocation of the mood of the evening. Swarb also lent his elfin fiddly accompaniment to Sam Curtis’ singing of It Suits Me Well, Sandy’s paean to the traditional traveller’s life. Carter’s percussive, Martin Carthyesque guitar blended with Swarb’s darting fiddle in a way which brought to mind the long-lasting Swarbrick and Carthy partnership. His original duets with Carthy predate his induction into the world of Fairport and his collaborations with Sandy, as do the accompaniments he provided for A.L.Lloyd, one of the key figures in the folk revival, on his 60s Topic Records LPs. His presence here tonight thus provided a connection with the very fount of the music.

Watching the maestro - Maddy Prior, Lavinia Blackwell and Dave Swarbrick's fretting hand
Maddy Prior offered another direct link with the past, lending a regal air of noble folk lineage. She sang Sandy’s anti-war song John the Gun with a rock-edged rawness, a ragged roughness burring her usual folk clarity. For Fotheringay, the early Fairport song about the last days of Mary Queen of Scots which presaged Sandy’s naming of her short-lived post-Fairport band, she was accompanied by some lovely acoustic guitar picking from Blair Dunlop and Benji Kirkpatrick, and wafted through a few courtly dance steps and bows. Her warm voice was well suited to a sympathetic reading of Solo, Sandy’s declaration of female independence and self-sufficiency (more imaginary ideal than self-portraiture), sorrowful and affirmative at the same time. She blended beautifully with Lavinia Blackwell’s high harmonies on the chorus, conveying the song’s complex, clouded emotions.

Green Gartside - the working singer
Sandy tends to be categorised as a folk singer, but her music drew on influences from beyond the world of traditional folk, and there were artists on the bill who reflected its broad range and appeal. Green Gartside, lead singer and songwriter of Scritti Politti (if such hierarchical distinctions are appropriate for a group with anarchist communal origins). A tenuous connection can be drawn through the caustic citation of Scritti Politti in A Bone Through Her Nose, one of ex-Fairport singer-songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson’s bitter ‘rant songs’, recorded after the breakdown of his musical and personal relationship with his wife Linda. But Gartside related his own surprising early folkie tendencies. He rather touchingly reminisced about the first LP he bought with his carefully accumulated pot of pocket money – the Island Records compilation Nice Enough To Eat, the first track on which was Fairport’s Cajun Woman, which afforded him his introduction to Sandy’s singing (albeit in a supportive context on this number). He later heard Liege and Lief, on which Sandy and Swarb’s knowledge of English traditional music came to the fore, and says it changed his life, setting him on an early musical path singing in folk clubs. It was only some years later that he came across punk and became an integral part of its musically adventurous afterlife. In a sign that the leftward leaning political affiliations of the early Scritti days may have found their derivation in his folk apprenticeship, he dressed in Dylan as Woody denim, the uniform of the musician as working artisan. His vocals still have an airy, slightly feminine delicacy, which lent a lightness to his version of North Star Grassman and the Ravens, and later Nothing More (which turned up on the second Island Records sampler, El Pea, which he may or may not also have purchased). Both show Sandy at her most darkly sibylline and poetically allusive, and perhaps needed a more forcefully demonstrative delivery than Gartside’s mellifluously soulful voice brought to them.

Lost in music - Sandy at the piano
Joan Wasser, aka Joan as Policwoman, the Maine-born singer-songwriter, violinist and arranger, sat down at the piano to sing the ballad The Lady from Sandy, the second solo LP. The recorded version was one of the songs slathered in strings, arrangements which have proved divisive, many seeing (or hearing) them as a dilution of Sandy’s writing. It’s as if the producer’s didn’t feel that the songs were strong enough to stand on their own merits, and requiring further decorative enhancement. Personally, I quite like some of them, particularly the orchestration for All Our Days, which turns it into a miniature tone poem. Later songs such as Like An Old Fashioned Waltz and I’m A Dreamer seem, in their unabashed romanticism, to be positively written to be illuminated by shimmering strings. Fortunately, we now have numerous demo and live recordings so that songs like The Lady, No End and The Music Weaver can be heard in more unadorned settings, their baroque fixtures stripped out. Wasser sang The Lady with minimal accompaniment, and followed it with a completely solo version of No More Sad Refrains, just one woman alone at the piano. This was much more in the spirit of Sandy’s live performances, as seen on the One In Ten show. In these, she seems wholly absorbed, transported by the song she is living, eyes closed and brow furrowed in rapt concentration. Perhaps it was this very intensity, the naked isolation of the singer alone with her song, which led to her preference for surrounding herself with a band of fellow musicians, and for including song by them, or cover versions of lighter songs on her LPs and in her concerts.

Lost in music - Joan at the piano
Joan Wasser brought something of an old-fashioned New York nightclub mood to her interpretation of The Lady and No More Refrains. She too was utterly lost in the songs, her face wracked with emotion, feeling every word as she enunciated it. She made them her own, getting right inside them to translate them into her own vernacular, and her performances were a real standout. She highlighted the torch song element of Sandy’s music, which was also brought out by Marc Almond in his renditions of The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and All Our Days in a previous Sandy tribute concert which took place in 2008 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Almond evidently has a more than passing interest in British folk from the 60s and 70s, having also covered Richard and Linda Thompson’s The Great Valerio and Bill Fay’s Cosmic Boxer in concert, a taste perhaps picked from time spent in the company of David Tibet and his musical cohorts. He’s also covered Dusty Springfield’s I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten (in duet with Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell), and a connection can certainly be made between Dusty and Sandy (dry particulate Christian names apart). Sandy’s later records veered increasingly towards lushly orchestrated balladry, with a Dustyish sense of emotional drama. Indeed, she covered Silver Threads and Golden Needles, a 1962 hit for Dusty in The Springfields, on her 1977 LP Rendezvous. Dusty herself started off with the pop-folk of The Springfields, alongside brother Tom, and reconnected with her Irish roots on a lovely rendition of My Lagan Love on her TV show (a song also recorded by Kate Bush and released as a b-side to the Cloudbusting 12”). Summer Is Over, written by brother Tom Springfield and Clive Westlake and released as b-side to Losing You in 1964, is very Sandy in its celebration of autumnal atmospheres, its shifting and modulating harmonic and melodic complexity and its sweeping orchestration. I always play it in conjunction with Sandy’s Carnival (from the Like An Old Fashioned Waltz LP) when the first smoky hints of autumn tint the air – it makes for a perfect seasonal segue.

PP Arnold is an American born singer who lived and worked extensively in the UK in the 60s and 70s, having initially travelled over in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. She turned up on a diverse range of records by the likes of The Small Faces, Nick Drake (she provides ‘ooohing’ backing vocals on Poor Boy) and, later on, Steel Pulse, as well as recording under her own name. She emphasised the soulful gospel yearning at the heart of the late songs I’m A Dreamer and Take Me Away, the latter providing a suitable opportunity for communal testifying on the lengthy fade out chorus, which brought the concert to a rousing and uplifting close.


Thea Gilmore released an excellent album, Don’t Stop Singing, earlier this year, on which she took some of Sandy’s lyrics which had never been developed into fully fledged songs and set them to her own music. Her songs on the album are imbued with Sandy’s spirit, whilst recognisably remaining the product of her own musical imagination, effortlessly encompassing her pastoral moods, introspective self-analyses and moments of rock-extroversion. It’s a perfect collaborative meeting of minds, with Thea’s phrasing and melodic sense conjuring the spectre of Sandy’s voice without resorting to mere imitation. This is particularly so on the wordless vocalising which introduces Sailor (another expression of Sandy’s recurrent lyrical obsession with the sea and the maritime life). It uncannily echoes the wordless crooning in the chorus of Sandy’s song Listen Listen from the second solo LP. Thea sang beneath the backdrop of a glamorous shot of Sandy from the David Bailey photo session for the cover of that LP (as did everyone else), which emphasised their physical similarities. In this context, Thea really did seem to be Sandy reborn. She sang London and Don’t Stop Singing, both vivacious songs which served to celebrate Sandy’s love of life. As Swarb reminded us, she was no delicate, waif-like folk fairy, but an earthy woman with a bawdy sense of humour, quite capable of drinking the Fairport boys under the table and enjoying a night out on the town with Pete Townshend or Robert Plant. She always made him laugh, he chuckled, but he couldn’t repeat most of what she said. The fact that she left such a stash of unrecorded lyrics (bringing to mind Woody Guthrie’s lyrical archive, later brought to musical life by Billy Bragg and Wilco) suggests that music and songwriting was a compulsive process for her, a natural means of self-expression. Thea’s Don’t Stop Singing (till you drop), with its irresistible singalong chorus, stood as an anthem for the whole evening, a joyous affirmation of brimming creativity.


The male singers didn’t have the same impact as the women, for me. Perhaps Sandy’s music just wasn’t an idiom which suited them, but Sam Carter’s flatly demonstrative singing of the more traditionally folkie It Suits Me Well and Bushes and Briars failed to capture their wistful romanticism, rendering them as narrative reportage rather than poetry. Blair Dunlop’s version of The Sea, from the Fotheringay LP, similarly didn’t quite manage to evoke the song’s hypnotic oceanic swell. Jerry Donahue’s delicately filigreed Fender Telecaster decorations were lovely however, recreating the sound which was such an important component of Sandy’s records, as he did throughout the evening. Who Knows Where the Time Goes is perhaps the song for which Sandy is best known – her signature song. It was included on and formed the title of a 1968 Judy Collins LP, at a time when Collins was a major folk luminary, interpreter at the court of Sir Bob and early champion of Leonard Cohen. Sandy’s song holds its head up in the company of Bob Dylan’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant and Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire and Story of Isaac. The inclusion of Robin Williamson’s Incredible String Band song First Girl (or here Boy) I Loved showed that Collins had her eye on what was going on over the Atlantic, possible through the auspices of Joe Boyd, who provided a link between Elektra (for whom Collins recorded) and Island Records (home of Fairport, Sandy and ISB, all of whom he produced). Swarbrick points out that Who Knows Where the Time Goes was written very early on for such a defining song. It’s outlook, with its perspective on the passing of time, is very mature for someone barely out of their teens (shades of Kate Bush and The Man With the Child in his Eyes). It was first recorded before she joined Fairport on the record she made with the Strawbs in 1967, although it first saw light in a more definitive form on Unhalfbricking, her second LP with Fairport. Here, it was given a valedictory group rendition, everyone crowding together on stage, taking a couple of lines each and all joining in for a rousing chorus. Whilst it will always be Sandy’s song, it has attained the status of a standard, with the attendant sense of communal ownership. It offers new opportunities for collective folk singing, the gathering around a song which everyone knows, and which has a personal meaning and listening history for every participant.

Communal singing - Who Knows Where the Time Goes
It’s bound to be the case with an evening like this that a few choice songs are left out. The selection was fine and wide-ranging, touching on most aspects of Sandy’s manifold musical character, and included all one could hope for. There were a few more obscure favourites which were absent: The Optimist, Crazy Lady Blues and Wretched Wilbur from the brighter side of North Star Grassman and the Ravens; the sunny pop of Listen, Listen; the swirling nostalgic romance of Like an Old Fashioned Waltz; the end of Summer song Carnival; and the gorgeous seasons of life litany All Our Days. The guitar and electric piano driven Dark the Night would have been perfect for Thea Gilmore had she not been singing her own collaborative songs. It’s intriguing to think who else might lend their voices to Sandy’s songs, too. Norma Winstone, whose own writing shows a great sensitivity to seasonal mood, tending like Sandy towards the wintry and autumnal, would bring her own unique blend of jazz and folk voicings. Diamanda Galas would amplify the doomy gothic drama of some of the darker songs. Marianne Faithfull should surely sing Who Knows Where the Time Goes at some point in her musical career. And Polly Harvey could certainly transfer some of the spirit of Let England Shake to Sandy’s songs, John the Gun or Wretched Wilbur seeming particularly good choices. Low could lend their hushed and heavenly harmonies to the Quiet Joys of Brotherhood or Like An Old Fashioned Waltz. There’s certainly scope for Sandy’s songwriting to find further stylistic expression, testing the material by casting it into new forms. Meanwhile, the artists performing at this tribute evening ensured that the songs remain vital, alive and in good voice.