Some Stuff I've Been Enjoying Recently (June, 2016) - Tom Cox

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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Some Stuff I've Been Enjoying Recently (June, 2016)

Telling the story of identical, psychically entwined twin brothers living on a hillside on the Wales-Herefordshire border - and, simultaneously, the story of farming life in the 20th Century - On The Black Hill feels like a book specifically written for me: it has so-real-you-can-almost-smell-them descriptions of threadbare agricultural lives in hilly landscapes, an abundance of knowledge of the natural world, an occasionally spooky near Pagan ambience, and even, for a very short while, its own 1970s commune. I bought it a couple of years ago and can only think I failed for so long to give it a read because of its film tie-in cover - now replaced via eBay with far more aptly jacketed original hardback, shown in the photo above - and some subconscious, prejudiced idea I had that celebrated travel writers such as Chatwin are incapable of writing scintillating fiction. 

Chatwin has such a feel for the dialogue and hardship of a village community this underrated part of the British countryside in the early part of the 1900s, it's as if he's a ghost, lightly hovering a few feet over the real place and its inhabitants. He's inventive where lesser novelists would have been drab, matter-of-fact where they'd have showboated. Here's his description of Meg, one of several old-before-their-time recluses on the Black Hill: "Meg was nineteen at the time, a nice little compact person with dimpled little cheeks and eyes that seemed to outglare the sun." He goes on to say, even more exquisitely, that her "hat, a grey felt cloche, had with age and greasy fingers come to resemble a cowpat." Because Chatwin permits you to see all the characters here so clearly, it makes their many misfortunes harder to deal with: the ugly military bullying endured by the weaker twin, Benjamin, and the agonising romantic let-downs of the stronger brother, Lewis. The death rate here is almost Game Of Thronesish, and is possibly even more poignantly and painfully rendered when it concerns animals (if I forget the scene here featuring the frozen ponies, I suspect it will probably signify that I have finally lost all brainpower). Many characters talk about a good, proud death as if it's their primary aim in life. But On The Black Hill isn't quite an elegiac book; it also has an unforced comic edge that's perhaps an inevitable part of any rustically inclined narrative this well-observed (the local newspaper gives only small space to the end of World War II, concentrating instead on a local brigadier's struggle with a giant salmon). Its rich descriptions of wildflowers and birdlife that make it pulsate with life and never seem anything like as morbid as many of its principal characters. It makes you wonder if the reason that much British fiction about small town life doesn't contain language as rich as its equivalent on the other side of the Atlantic is not, as is often claimed, because our landscape lacks the romance and scale and dreaming associated with America. Perhaps we just need to work harder at it.

There’s something overinflated about most rock records produced in the mid-1990s: they sound big, but in an airy way, like a tyre pumped up needlessly to bursting point. No such problem, however, exists in the case of ‘Bee Thousand’, the finest album by Dayton Ohio’s lo-fi pioneers Guided By Voices, and, along with Urge Overkill's 'Exit The Dragon' and The Lemonheads' 'Shame About Ray', one of the American indie rock records of the era for which time has reserved its kindest gifts. I was a little apprehensive about returning to this record after over a decade away, as Guided By Voices and I have a bit of a history. I followed them around on tour a fair bit between 1994 - the year of this album's release - and 1998, getting drunk on crap American lager with their ex-schoolteacher singer Bob Pollard. By the time of its sixth and final issue in early 1996 the American indie rock-themed fanzine I edited had become all but a work of GBV fan fiction. They were also the inspiration for my first  and still perhaps only ever stab at writing a half-decent headline (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lovely Arts Club Band” - for my fanzine’s review of Bee Thousand’s fine follow-up, ‘Alien Lanes’). But then I slowly betrayed them as a listener, finding their subsequent records decreasingly enamouring and filling my ears instead with all the stuff Pollard had been devouring in ‘Bee Thousand’’s gestation period: the Beatles, Cheap Trick, turn of the 70s the Who, Badfinger, the Hollies, the first couple of Big Star records, the Amboy Dukes, even - somewhat nervously - ‘Selling England By The Pound’ By Genesis. I wondered if I should freeze the tiny, inventive songs on ‘Bee Thousand’ in that capsule of my youth and save them from the potentially picky re-evaluation of my current, more psychedelically weathered ears

I owed Guided By Voices more than that, though: they introduced me to friends and great records, and rescued me from indie rock, and 'Bee Thousand' is actually too much an integral part of me not to revisit. I’ve been pleased to discover in the last fortnight that, at their peak, Guided By Voices hold up beside their influences. ‘Demons Are Real’ sounds like it’s taken a dramatic fall off the end of ‘Who’s Next’ into a black, pleasantly oozing pit. ‘Hot Freaks’, the most transporting moment of their career, is still what I wish Frank Zappa sounded like. At times in their early life, GBV’s scratchy tin bin production style smacked of laziness, but on ‘Bee Thousand’ it has a true, sustained coherence: as if someone’s set out specifically to write an attention-deficit surrealist prog opera that sounds like it was recorded three rooms away, and succeeded. It’s to the post-Beatles, Tolkien-reading rock canon what Cloverfield is to horror films: something huge and spectacular, filtered perversely and imaginatively back through a small and shaky format. There is a slight feeling at first that you can’t quite find the record with your ears, like its true heart is hiding somewhere nearby in a cupboard or public toilet or perhaps even a deep manhole between four and six feet to your left, but that’s part of its charm: listening in harder past the fuzz and hiss and gradually picking out the joyful wordplay in Pollard’s ineffably melodic McCartney-with-smoker’s-cough vocals, intertwined often beautifully with those of his occasional co-singer Tobin Sprout, who does a great line in “kindly amphibian”. And also realising that, underneath all the aural dander and sonic moss, this band are no shambling indie underachievers: they can really play. They just nobly choose not to show off about it. 

Three hours seven minutes of The Eagles? On most occasions that would be at least three hours too much Eagles for me. They're a band I love, if at all, in small doses, like an oversugared cake. The Dude from The Big Lebowski was right about so many things, but he was wrong to hate The Eagles. He was, however, not wrong to be thoroughly annoyed by them. I've watched the marathon 2013 documentary The History Of The Eagles twice now and I've still not been persuaded that they have more than half a dozen great songs - though those half a dozen are really great - nor that they aren't the ultimate story of country rock injustice: the injustice being that about two hundred other country rock bands operating between 1971 and 1976 made far better music, on less cocaine, and earned only a fraction of the money.

A classic example of this is Longbranch/Pennywhistle, the pre-Eagles duo featuring Eagles co-leader Glenn Frey and frequent Eagles songwriter JD Souther. They made one - now extremely rare - album, which Frey, despite having been apparently half responsible for it, clearly didn't understand, since he claims here that it features substandard songwriting. Perhaps it's without an anthem of the lofty standards of Take It Easy, but it's the kind of record I wish the Eagles had made: loose and raw, without the grit and smoke stains shined out of it. Then you have Timothy B Schmit, who wrote brilliant, unappreciated country rock songs for Poco throughout the 70s, then joined The Eagles in 1977 and finally earned some decent money by writing significantly worse ones for them. You can't blame Schmit for this - almost all formerly great country rock musicians wrote dreadful songs between 1977 and 1980 - and he's one of only two of the seven members of the band you feel properly sorry for: a seemingly sweet and gentle character who'd unknowingly walked into an alpha male ego piss-storm. The other is Bernie Leadon, the most authentically country of the lot, and, as such, inevitably an early casualty of their move towards slickness.

Yet the Eagles come across here as a band that it would have been really good fun to be in, if only for, say, a week. Few rock musicians looked cooler with a moustache than Frey did circa 1974. Calling the Eagles the bloated Satanic killers of cosmic American music would be too simple, too. 'One Of These Nights' is the hit that heralded their move into stadium slickness, but it's also a near-perfect song: the kind of track that, if they'd never heard it before and discovered it on an album by an overlooked mid-70s yacht rock band, a lot of record collectors would lose their shit over. Despite the fact that early Jackson Browne is clearly much, much better than early Eagles, the Eagles' version of Take It Easy has the edge on Browne's. Here we learn that it was Frey who added the "It's a girl my lord in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me" bit to the track, which figures - it doesn't seem like much of a Jackson line. The History Of The Eagles is also well worth watching just for Joe Walsh, the former "drinking man's musician" and a straight-talking quote whirlwind on a near-Noel Gallaghian scale. "The record company didn't care if we farted or burped," he says. "They'd put it out. 'When can we have it?!'." 

While still somewhat resembling a human candle, Walsh, like all of his bandmates, looks far better at the time of the filming of the documentary than he did just under two decades earlier, around the time of the group's first reunion tour. Seeing the eclectic ways in which the group and those in their immediate orbit have aged is one of the documentary's most interesting facets. JD Souther looks like a hardbitten hired killer brought out of retirement in 1877, Leadon has evolved from a daintyish dandelion-haired twenty something into a formidable boxing coach whose daughter you might avoid dating for reasons of self-preservation, Randy Meisner looks like a backwoods granddad who might offer to bake you some pie just because he's lonely, and I'm sure I saw Don Felder driving around North Nottinghamshire in a Capri, reliving past glories, last time I was up there. Henley and (perhaps misleadingly) the now deceased Frey look the best-preserved of the bunch, and still have the icy, darting eyes of businessmen. They called the most crucial creative shots, had the pin-up looks and the best voices, but there's something quite telling here in a quote from Frey about the "buttons" the band's entourage handed out after shows as a form of backstage pass. Frey said that he and the others made sure that everyone knew the rule: "No Weirdos." If the Eagles had been a band who made a higher standard of music, what you sense they might have said was: "Always make sure there are at least a few weirdos."

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Some Stuff I've Been Enjoying Recently (June, 2016) Reviewed by Tom Cox on 13:17:00 Rating: 5


Annie J said...

As a fan of goth/industrial/alternative music, I rate The Eagles gig I took my parents to as one of my best musical experiences ever ��

Annie J said...

As a goth/industrial/alternative fan, The Eagles gig I took my parents to was one of my favourite musical experiences ever 😉

dkc said...

Perfect incisive observation, as always. I will now try to get hold of the Bruce Chatwin...sounds wonderful. And yes, there must always be weirdos! 🙂 Thank you. X

Anonymous said...

'On The Black Hill' has been on my 'to read' shelf for a good while now. I did not know that there is an idea that travel writers lack something when it comes to quality. Another book with a similar setting that I really liked was Susan Hill's 'The Beacon'. It tells of a woman who never leaves the upland family farm and the story behind that decision. Thank you for including some book talk on your blog.

Anonymous said...

The film/TV tie in thing is something that I mostly dislike on book covers too. I think it is because those images are so assertive in trying to replace any personal ones we might have when thinking of characters and settings. The one I have got which I have kept on purpose is a paperback of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and it shows Joanna David on the cover. She IS my Mrs De Winter, so I don't mind at all!

Claudia Templeton said...

Yes Bruce Chatwiscis an undervalued writer and nobody ever mentions him. Very happy to see this post. It is a good book.

Julie said...

Where was the Devon Tower photo you have just tweeted taken, please? It looks wonderful.

Rhona Sweeting said...

Bruce Chatwin is one of my favourite authors. I first read 'On the Black Hill' about twelve years ago during a solo camping trip through the Elqui Valley in Chile, an area renowned for its clear skies, observatories and alien abductions.

As is the way with places associated with 'weird sh*t', it tends to attract a slightly alternative population - a bit like Glastonbury would be if everybody spoke Spanish, I suppose.

I have fond memories of lying on my back with my head sticking out of my tent, looking at the stars and reading this book, while listening to the Wiccans camped down the hill performing some elaborate rite that involved bongoes, stamping and a kazoo.

socgrrrl (aka, Lisa) said...

Okay, now I want to find the American Indie rock fanzine that you edited. What was it called?
I like Bee Thousand, but, I think I like Alien Lanes more. I can't pinpoint why, exactly, but, I really like "Game of Pricks" and "Motor Away".
Now I kinda miss gbv. Ah, well, we have their records at least....