christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: October, 2013

Goodnight Lou Reed (1942-2013)

Lou Reed entered our blood stream around the time of the New York album (1989). My brother and I invested in the translucent blue cassette with its ‘multiple Lou’ cover and things were never quite the same again. This was from a time when you could tell where your favourite songs came on a tape just by looking at it.

Although we were already fans of fellow New Yorker, Paul Simon, Lou’s world was an altogether seedier, grimier place. To two teenagers in a mundane Midlands, English town this was entry into a glamorous underworld populated with drug dealers, transvestites and Vietnam war vets. Our world was not much wider than school, Scouts and Barry’s sweet shop.

Lou Reed Performs at The Olympa in Paris

The opening line of the first song, Romeo had Juliet was also a statement of poetic intent: ‘Caught between the twisted stars, the plotted lines, the faulty map that brought Columbus to New York.’ There could be few more literate first lines in all of rock and roll and we memorized it, and others like it, quoting it endlessly to each other. We also loved Dirty Boulevard, with its drop dead cool guitars, droll delivery and redemptive chorus – an otherwise desperate boy ‘finds a book on magic in a garbage can’ and wishes he could ‘fly away.’

It would all be terribly depressing if there wasn’t something very funny about it too. Lou in interviews would constantly talk about how his latest project was ‘a lot of fun’, without the faintest hint of a smile. Certainly the humour had something to do with his ridiculously flat delivery, accompanied by the often exuberant rock and roll backing – an ironic counterpoint to the tone of the material. It was the old comedian’s trick of telling an outrageously funny joke with a completely straight face.

If anything, we loved Songs for Drella (1990) even more. This song cycle about Andy Warhol is a flawless piece of work. Lou’s uncompromising electric guitar and vocals are offset by fellow-Velvet, and musical collaborator, John Cale. John’s melodic vocals, viola and piano give colour to pieces which are otherwise presented in stark monochrome. From the snarling Images, with its Cobain-like guitars to the moving, low key farewell to Andy, Hello It’s Me, (I haven’t seen you in a while, I wish I’d talk to you more when you were alive.’) it’s a incredibly evocative tribute to their one time sponsor and mentor. Often taking on Andy’s voice in a series of astonishing acts of ventriloquism, it’s the sublime culmination of  Lou and John’s work together and perhaps the most dignified, artful reunion of all the 60s rock legends. Most people know that Andy did the ‘banana cover’ on the Velvet Underground’s 1966 debut. This went some way to pay him back.

Lou’s solo album, Magic and Loss (1993) completed the trilogy for us, from the groove-based What’s Good, to the guitar-fest, Warrior King. Once again, brilliantly recorded electric instruments and closely miked vocals give an amazing intimacy to the suite and sonically, there was plenty of fun to be had. Lyrically however, the album was about coping with cancer, death and loss. Strange things for 15 year olds to be listening to.

From these, we went into the grimy depths of his canon – exploring his 70s work, first through a single tape compilation, then through the epic, pocket money crunching box set ’Between Thought and Expression’. From the unbelievably funky ’I Can’t Stand It’ (‘I live with 13 dead cats, and a dog that wears spats’) to uplifting human rights anthem ’Voices of Freedom’ it’s a stupendously inspiring collection. And I’ve just checked- you can get it for under £14 on iTunes, a fraction of what we paid for it in the mid nineties. I remember being on a coach trip to France listening to the ridiculously menacing, but ace sounding Kill Your Sons and White Light/White Heat in the middle of the night on my tinny headphones thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.

Then of course we picked up the Velvet Underground back catalogue too, which is where you go for evidence of a slightly more happy go lucky Lou (see ‘Rock and Roll‘ and ‘Beginning to See the Light’) as well as tender ballads like ‘Pale Blue Eyes.’ But the world of the street was always there and drugs, hookers and black humour cuts through everything. We particularly loved The Gift from ‘White Light/White Heat’ which was a remarkable short story about a man called Waldo Jeffreys who attempts to mail himself in a box to his girlfriend. It’s set to a trundling back beat with the vocals in one speaker, and the music in the other. You could adjust the balance on one or the other depending what sort of mood you were in. As an indication of how much we loved the man, we named our cat Waldo.

We lost track of Lou as the nineties wore on, although we always kept an ear out for his latest projects. Things like the throw away, but sonically glorious Egg Cream from Set the Twilight Reeling reminded us that things weren’t always doom and gloom in Lou’s world, and that deep down, he was still the ‘the schoolyard buddy’ Cale described him as on news of his death.

So what was the appeal? The effortless cool, the guitar playing, the lyrics, the sensitive poet and romantic masquerading as the tough guy. Whatever it was, it was enough to make my brother and I wear leather jackets, learn all the words to Sweet Jane and make our cat the only Waldo in our street and quite possibly the world. Goodbye Lou and thanks for the education. It was fun.

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The toppermost of the poppermost: ‘New’ by Paul McCartney

It’s not cool, I know, but I couldn’t wait to finish work yesterday to get home and download ‘New.’ I stuck it on the iPod then went for a jog in the moonlight – a great way to get to know Paul’s new album. From irresistible crunchy power pop (Save Us, Queenie Eye, New, Turned Out, I Can Bet) to affecting acoustic ballads in the manner of Johnny Cash’s later albums (Early Days) and more experimental avant-garde groove-based pieces (Road, Looking at Her, Appreciate) it’s pure Macca magic.

Being Paul it’s stuffed full of hooks, often three or four in the same song, and there’s a real honesty and generosity of spirit throughout. The chorus of Looking at Her is wonderfully heartfelt – full of pride and admiration for his new wife, and has a sweet melody to match.

Early Days is a meditation on John and Paul’s early days together: ‘dressed in back from head to toe, two guitars across our backs.’ It’s full of images of the two of them posing on the streets of Liverpool and Hamburg, ‘hair slicked back with Vaseline.’ There’s amazing moment when Paul’s voice is double tracked, singing about memories of friends from the past when we hear the blessing/mantra: ‘Your inspiration, long may it last, may it come to you time and time again.’ It’s hard to resist the idea that’s this is John, egging his old mate on from beyond the grave. Paul responds to the challenge by following up with New – his best single since Coming Up and up there with his greatest Beatles and Wings work.

There are some misfires; I’m not as keen as some on the platitudinous Everybody Out There, but it’s undeniably tuneful and spirited and I’ve yet to fall for Hosanna’s charms. But there’s plenty of time to get to know these songs. Paul’s voice is not the rasping wonder it was during the 70’s when he had that powerful, pure upper chest range (Download Wings Over America if you want some of that) but it has other qualities now – a wonderful deep tone offset by a still bird like falsetto (a la Here There and Everywhere.) Elsewhere, Get Me Out of Here is a bluesy, throw away response, in part to the show of the same name and maybe a remote kissing cousin of Why Don’t We Do it in the Road. But perhaps it should have been left off.

These quibbles aside, New is full of inspiration, originality and invention. It’s more buoyant than Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which although full of good things, was overshadowed by an un-Paul like introspection. This contains the same thoughtful maturity, but with an optimism that album was missing. In that respect, it has more in common with Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (Light From Your Lighthouse from the Fireman side project is my current all time favourite Paul song!)

Here Paul’s new songs are aided and abetted by a great fuzzy electric guitar sound – either in full blow riff-mode (Save Us) or as clever tone and texture (see Alligator). You’ll remember that Taxman solo was by Paul after all. The songs also feature unexpected and delightfully varied arrangements.

On the ELO tribute (and very likable) Turned Out, he proves he would have been a more than capable Roy replacement for Travelling Wilbury (don’t forget to seek out Paul’s fab and Wilbury-like cover of Buddy Holly’s Maybe Baby on YouTube as an added treat).

But to hear him on Queenie Eye is to celebrate the return of a true pop master. From the teasing, Lucy in the Sky-like organ intro, nursery rhyme playfulness (a lyrical nod to John’s Cry Baby Cry perhaps) pop-bounce and soaring double chorus, here we have a reminder why Paul was in the best band there ever was. It is to experience the joy and delirium of pure pop as it was meant to be heard, on sunny mornings in 1966, by the man who invented it.

Fourteen

I have responded to fourteen of the most powerful works of art from the First World War with a sonnet (consisting of fourteen lines.) Collectively, they are a testament to those who fought and died.

Gassed

1919, John Singer Sargent, Imperial War Museum

GASSED

A blinded procession, a party game of sorts,
bandaged eyes, still clutching helmets, rifles,
an ordered chaos, they hold shoulders after
the barrage, the bullets, the gas; most stooped
but one still defiant: upright, hands in pockets,
fair hair, dapper, jacket hung on one shoulder,
as if having lost a football match. Another
turns away, vomits, as the mustard sun yellows
their shirt sleeves. At each side is a sea of men,
nursing their heads, making sense, others are
drugged with sleep; one swigs from a canteen.
As if in a dance, a soldier lifts up his foot a little
too high to step onto a duckboard and sanctuary.
In the distance, another party, oblivious to the first,
makes its own stumbling way out of Hades.

General_Officers_of_World_War_I_by_John_Singer_Sargent

1922, John Singer Sargent, National Portrait Gallery

GENERAL OFFICERS OF WORLD WAR I

Like men at the club caught between drinks;
a rubber of whist delayed while this duty performed,
they are immaculate.

Shirts pressed, ribbons bursting like flowers
at their breast; their riding boots never see mud.
They are without blemish.

Their coats need only fend off the wind
that blows down Whitehall and along Pall Mall;
their swords have never drawn blood.

Buttons polished, brass cleaned, they are
the great men of the England, reputations pristine
from the fields of Afghanistan, India.

They stand between columns that hold up the Empire.
Only one cannot look us in the eye.

Column

1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Birmingham Museums Collection

COLUMN ON THE MARCH

A barbed serpent, the column moves as one,
a beast of war, obliterating everything.
Its length is obscene, it has no beginning
and no end. It has wrapped itself
around the world: a snake’s embrace.
In its jaw is the forked tongue of victory
and defeat. It slides like an iron chain.
For miles there is the metronome of boots

moving east to west beneath
this Godless sky. Identically kitted,
there is no one man, only a repeated print
of trench coats, kit bags and rifles
like matchsticks scratching the air,
as the snake slithers further from Eden.

La mitrailleuse

 1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate

LA MITRAILLEUSE

An unholy trinity, three gunners plot
their kill; the triangulation of death.
Hard hats, cold hearts, they feed the gun
its magazine; it sucks and spits, hisses
and fouls like a genius in a fury, a dervish
drunk on its own laughter, berserk
with the perfection of itself.

They are welded together, a synchronicity,
like the parts of the gun, working in unison.
They cower beneath the scaffold of the trench,
eyeless, no longer men. In the chaos of fire,
only their aim is true. From here they cannot see
the smoke streaked sky or that their way
to heaven is barred with wire.

Canadian

 1917, Alfred Bastien, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art

CANADIAN GUNNERS IN THE MUD

The mud is not brown, but green and yellow,
the muck of creation: a swamp of purgatory.
A field gun is lying on its side, gigantic, metallic:
a god of thunder crippled in the mire. We have
reversed creation, invented a new death,
a new way to pound earth into a hell.
The sky is sea of fire; men are shadows.
They struggle with their machine, prising it
with planks and boards trying to make it live.
An officer directs; the men obey; this is
the way things are. They work because
they must, and will fight until they die.
On the horizon is a strange blue, a trick
of the light, or the sea, the sea, the blameless sea.

New World

1918, Paul Nash Imperial War Museum

WE ARE MAKING A NEW WORLD

This is no longer Earth; these are not trees.
This is not the brilliant glare of a new sun.
These black stalks are creatures of a new race
grown from the blood of men; they hang their heads
for the shame of it. This world is not yet made.
The mud bubbles up, as if by the heads of infants
struggling for air, they meet the thin atmosphere.
The sky is a wall of dirt; the red dust of a thousand
fires still burning as the planet forms. Today
is the first day after the darkness, and now there
is no memory of hope, of love, of solace, only
this pockmarked world, grown on the skin of the old.
And what of the light? It comes from a poison star
that gives life to these beasts of the new Eden.

Mule Track

1918, Paul Nash, Imperial War Museum

THE MULE TRACK

The hour of the shelling comes;
the shells fall.
We lead the mules along the track;
the guns call.
The world implodes; collapses in,
the field is cracked
in a devil’s grin
and the sky is fired with a plosive din,
it compounds the sorrow
of our original sin.
The mules rear up, shake out
their bloodied manes
as the path buckles
and shells fall.

nevinson_a_star_shell_big

1916, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate

A STAR SHELL

In a moment, the world is shattered
sub divided into fractions of itself.
We freeze in its mathematics.
The trench floods with mirrors of light;
mud quickens into life and barricades
become the linked arms of children.
All of the universe turns on this point:
the second before the sun implodes.
It is not the moment after I remember
but the fabrics on our tunics, the accent
of light on our helmets, the spots of rust
on our iron belt and the olive green of the
subaltern’s eyes; the star drifts peaceably
to the earth and in an instant – gunfire. 

Hell image

1917, George Leroux, Imperial war Museum

HELL

Through an arch of smoke,
you enter the burning cathedral.
The altar is a water-filled pit
where a dead man presides
in an open jacket, his face to the sky.
The nave is sea of mud
and open graves; broken trees
hold up the blackened roof.
In the water is a reflection of the fire
like a golden cloth laid
across a tabernacle. But there
is no God, no feathered angel,
no blue Madonna, as these pilgrims
leave relics of themselves.

Lawrence

Eric Kennington, 1926, Tate

COLONEL T.E. LAWRENCE

This is his Turin shroud, this sketch,
this impression; see how his neck
and shoulders fall away like dunes
how his eyes are lit with the grief of ages.
One side of his face in unmarked,
brushed by the light like the white sand
of the Negev Desert; the other is dark,
shadowed by the blood of Aqaba
and Tafileh. He knows nothing
of the future, but can feel history
all around him, the furrows of destiny:
of races at war, trains burning,
and the scowl of a dying star
throwing light on his thin, pale face. 

Over the Top nash

1918, John Nash, Imperial War Museum

OVER THE TOP

They are drawn towards the horizon
bayonets fixed, eyes locked in a dead man’s stare.
A shot officer rests on his knees as if in prayer.
His sword is discarded in the snow; they fight on
as someone cries: ‘forward!’ Right or wrong,
they close ranks, to seal the wound left in the line
and advance to the abyss, the unseen divine.
They walk on as if hypnotised by song
and those that live become breathing ghosts
forever drifting in these fields of snow
clutching their rifles then watching as hosts
of countrymen die on this cold plateaux
The handful of witnesses think on this most:
They killed us like cattle, row after row.

Kensingtons

1916, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum

THE KENSINGTONS AT LAVENTIE

Four days without sleep and then, Laventie,
a village of ruins, streets bedded with snow,
a place the shells for now, could not reach.
But still Wilson would not lie down, as tall
as he was the first day, his head domed
in a balaclava, watching the treacherous skies.
He carried the burden for us all, his rifle ready.
Sweeney lay in the ice as if on a summer
meadow, his cheek on a pillow of charred wood.
A purgatory of diamonds, a fiefdom of snow,
we were for a time the lords of all saw; kings
of the magpies that flitted through the rafters.
They eyed our treasures, our buckles, a crimson scarf
and the gold tipped helmet we stole from the Bosch.

Tanks

1917, Sir William Orpen

TANKS

Our sentries heard them first,
the clatter and groan, like threshing machines.
Then we saw them through the smoke:
a pair of Goliaths, monstrous, faceless
their tracks churning like mandibles.
They reared up like beasts, then flopped
into shell holes: cockroaches that had
survived the end of time, swelled to
nightmare size, unstoppable, unthinking.
We trained our howitzers, our pistoles,
then fled, as the rumble became a roar
and behind them, in shadows, we saw
the British come to claim our rotten soil,
Inside they burned in the grease and oil.

Interior
1917, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum

INTERIOR OF AN ADRIAN HUT

The beds are empty now, the soldiers gone
leaving only their impressions, the echoes
of their spirits and dreams; their mutterings.
The canvas smells of bleach and damp.
Somewhere a bird sings; voices are heard
outside, then drift away. In fields close by
men slump in their trenches, stuttering,
smoking, waiting for the whistle to blow.
But here, in this interior, we do not know
how many lived, how many died, only that
the beds are empty now and that morning
has come again and that a square of blue
French sky lights up the ward where men lie
in this church of whisperings, soft goodbyes.