Friday 29 October 2010

Poem: "Slits In Aerosol Green"


There’s a skill to
making a clean incision
symmetrically around the scalp,
then inserting thumbnails
beneath the layers of skin
and folding it carefully back
from the exposed porous flesh.
Shaping the scalp from
a convex to a concave,
until the contours of the
dome of head correspond exactly
with the contours of the
inverted scalp poised above it.
The effect thus produced
is aesthetically pleasing,
the intersection of
mathematically precise curves
and segments of damply gleaming
the hollow formed
by the inverse scalp is
also convenient for the
storage of half-written poems,
cigarette ends, biscuits,
and pieces of string…

Published in:
‘SEPIA no.1’ (UK – July 1977)
‘EMPIRE no.15’ (USA – May 1979)
also in collection:
(Purple Heather Publications) (UK – January 1988)
on cassette:
(UK – C60 – September 1981)

The recent discorporation of Ari Up of wonderful Punky-Reggae iconoclasts The Slits (Ariane Daniele Forster 17 January 1962 – 20 October 2010), suggests maybe I should divulge the secret history of this poem’s title, which was attacked by a certain Feminist critic as gratuitously violent. The story goes thus. Driving the trans-Pennine M62, at the highest point of Britain’s highest motorway there’s the breathtaking arc of a bridge like a knife-cut across the sky, and there, on the visible underside of this soaring structure, someone had managed to graffiti the name of Ari Up’s band, there it was ‘Slits’ in green aerosol. I felt such heroic fan-dedication deserved some small tribute. Later, when this poem formed the title of a DIY-Indie C30 cassette collection, it was reviewed in ‘New Musical Express (NME)’ as ‘poems from a twisted mind’. Recommendation seldom came better…!

Charlie Parker: 'Blues For Bird'


Book Review of:
(Santa Monica Press - $16.95 -
ISBN 1-891661-20-5)

We argue jazz. I map a connection direct from intuition to expression without the filtering of intellect or literal articulacy. Steve Sneyd says no, musicians – like everyone else, rely on an accumulation of technique and phrases they randomly permutate on whim or inspiration. We’re both right. On a sliding scale from one extreme to the other. Sometimes within the same musician. Sometimes within the space of a single phrase of breath.

During the mid-to-late 1940’s, using only an alto sax – ‘a metal pipe / with keys to him’, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker created a spontaneous warp-speed fluidity that derailed all jazz since, yet his mission-statement claims he was merely looking for the ‘pretty notes’. While – incidentally, a mission that wordlessly achieves what poetry aspires to, but never comes close, so that ‘what he thought and played / was instantaneous’. An (in)articulate speech of the heart. Via the gut. Harmonies in the head. Sonics that bend space-time. On the Dial record-label. In ‘Anthropology’. ‘Ornithology’. On The West Coast. On 52nd Street. With Dizzy Gillespie. In Paris. In the Yardbird Suite. On Verve. With Strings. He introduces an ‘architecture of strange voices new to jazz’ by playing anthems for fleeting moments. Celebrations of the dispossessed.

His saxophone is ‘moist, / warm like the human voice, / yet also it is cool / supremely logical’, breaking out beyond the diatonic-scale using complex harmonic changes, grace notes and an obliquely accented relationship to the beat, into a chromaticism that seems angular and unsettling to ears of the day, yet has a nightmarish beauty of infinite elasticity. Where squares hear only cacophony, hipsters peak with epiphany. ‘Music is a game / private, intimate / individual, yet / a conversation with / each person in the crowd’. Beat-writers try to catch those Bop cadences with a kind of free-scat jazzetry, tracing Bird improvisations by distorting vocabulary into a deliberately disconnected dance of cracked syllables.

Even Charlie Watts – Rolling Stones’ drummer, and no mean jazz-slouch, writes his own ‘Ode To A High-Flying Bird’ in percussive stanzas. While Ross Russell’s biog ‘Bird Lives’ remains essential. And – coming later, Martin Gray acknowledges its ‘infectious enthusiasm’, but while developing his own verse-biography form (through earlier shots at Modigliani and Pollock), he ducks any attempt at catching Bird’s sound, with no attempted mood-enhancing through experimental typography or Wow-mad incendiary ruptured texts to give his words flight, preferring technically well-researched fact-oids line-cut into narrative chapters interspersed with etched-sketches, middle-eights and a useful glossary-of-terms cadenza (‘appoggiatura’, dig, fix, cat, horse, lick, tea/grass, gruppetto). In fact, he deliberately chooses ‘the neglected’ iambic trimeter and syncopated hexameter, a regular – and predictable sliced-text form. Yet one uniquely suited to the re-telling of anecdotes, myths, one-liners, and reported-conversation speech-patterns, and he uses this dramatic directness to its full potential. His is a narrative that prefers an anatomical scalpel-exactness – ‘Bird’s little finger was long as the others were’, located more to Steve’s cool technique than my hyper-physical extemporisation. Charlie Mingus called Parker ‘King Spook’.

And Bird – Yardbird, was a Goof Demigod, a human contradiction, as capable of selfless generosity – with no concept of value, as he was of pawning a borrowed sax to raise drug-dollars. Whatever, he accelerated, revolutionised and evolved tonal possibilities through immaculately stoned flesh, vomit, sadistic games with heroin, syringes, sex, food and piss. Until, with references outside of jazz – to Debussy, Toscanini, Varese, Heinrich Heine and elsewhere, Martin Gray finally talks of Bird talking of working with Hindemith, or Yehudi Menuhin, while he was too juiced to even play the horn that was his last true friend. Feeling ‘what men at war must feel, / a love tinged with despair... his stellar music gifts / disrupted by his need / to tamper with his flesh... till drink and drugs combined / to quiet his instrument’. The dissonance of speeding highways. Kinetic galaxies spattering. He made it cerebral by smashing it. Poets envy it. Dream of doing the same. But must always fail. Now’s The Time...

For further details contact:
PO Box 1076, Santa Monica, CA 90406, USA
or MARTIN GRAY, 918 Collinson Street #305, Victoria BC, Canada V8V 4V5
(Tel: 0171-420-5555 Fax: 0171-240-7261)

Published in:
‘THE PENNILESS PRESS no.18’ (Nov 2003 – UK)

Miles Davis: The Autobiography


Book Review of:
(Simon & Schuster 1989, Picador 1990
- £6.99 - ISBN 0-330-31382-7)

Today, John Coltrane is seen as the most spiritual performer in jazz history, with his visionary ‘A Love Supreme’ viewed as a transcendental vindication of the purest epiphany music can aspire to. Yet back then, Miles was forced to fire him from the group for nodding out between solos, picking his nose on stage and sometimes eating it. At the end of one Café Bohemia club set Miles allowed young gun Kenny Dorham up on stage to jam and was mortified when the guest’s playing proceeded to blow the group to shreds. ‘Man, was I pissed’. Fuming and nursing his hurt pride Miles schemed revenge. The following night he purposefully invited Dorham to join them earlier in the set, immediately following his solo by ramming into top gear, pulling every slick trick and maximising every technique from his not-inconsiderable resources of virtuosity, to wreak visceral havoc on the ‘hippest audience in the city’, and establish once and for all his supremacy in the pecking order.

Miles mistrusted and resented the white man, with good reason. ‘Racist to the bone’, segregation was still enforced, with lynchings used as a means of control and intimidation in the southern states, while even in more liberal NY whitey controlled every aspect of the music industry, radio, records, touring, deciding on arbitrary whim who would and would not achieve stardom. He respected and admired Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but despised what he saw as their wide-grin capitulation to minstrelsy white show-biz preconceptions. ‘I wasn’t about to kiss anybody’s ass and do that grinning shit for nobody’. Yet, in a way unique to jazz, beyond wealth, popular status – or colour, cutting contests such as the one at the Café Bohemia, established respect. The one thing that set you apart was your improvisational skills. You could do it, or you were nowhere. When the more militant brothers protested to Miles why did he employ white musicians in his group when there were black players who needed the work?, his retaliation was instant, ‘I’m hiring a motherfucker to play, not for what colour he is… if they’re cool, they’re cool, no matter what colour they are’.

Miles could be considered arrogant. Part of that was defensive. The press branded him difficult, aloof. He refused to announce the titles of the numbers he played on-stage. If the people were hip to what he was doing, they knew the titles already, if they weren’t hip to it, they didn’t matter. He extended his silence to deleting liner notes from his albums. Miles Dewey Davis III never condescended to anyone, and ‘didn’t take no shit off nobody’. He was not born poor-black. The son of a middle-class East St Louis dentist, he’d never come up through the impoverished blues tradition. He had absolute conviction in his ability, and that was enough. He knew his own value, and would accept nothing less. Supposedly at Julliard, he was taken in and adopted by the bop pantheon of 1940’s New York, through whom he accelerated his chops, and picked up a heroin-habit. But neither drugs nor sex were as vital stimulants as music.

The eighteen-year-old Miles was ‘sucking in everything. Man, it was something’, with ‘music all up in my body’. Chief among those ‘scientists of sound’, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was a genius musician, but a failed human being. ‘I loved Charlie Parker as a musician – maybe not as a person’. Sharing a downtown cab on 52nd Street, Miles protested that Bird’s gargantuan fried-chicken eating habit – not to mention the white girl down there fellating him, were unsettling. Bird suggested Miles stick his head out the window if he was offended. He did, but could still hear every damned chomp and slurp. ‘Bird did more weird shit than anybody I ever met’. Later, dressed sharper than ‘a broke-dick dog’, Miles was hitting the first of his own multiple musical peaks with his ‘classic sextet’ (’Trane, Cannonball Adderley, drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Paul Chambers, with pianist Bill Evans replacing Red Garland). Each member playing ‘above what he knows’. Miles was stripping the complexities of bop down into a new modal melodic simplicity named ‘Birth Of The Cool’ (1957), while collaborating on the new LP ‘long-playing format’ with Canadian arranger Gil Evans.

Yet by then, jazz was well into being relegated as the world’s music of choice by the crude upstart Rock ‘n’ Roll. Miles never accepted such demotion. He evolved his clean unadorned style into the greatest jazz of the second half of the century through a series of audaciously inventive albums that did much to retain the profile and relevance of jazz itself. Later, hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and snorting coke with Sly Stone, he was intrigued as much by their musical innovations as by their access to the kind of mass sales-figures he felt he deserved. The results, the spacily electric million-selling psychedelia of ‘Bitches Brew’ (1970) and the ghetto-funkified ‘On The Corner’ (1972) spun the genre almost single-handedly into what became known as ‘fusion’. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, and Weather Reporters Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul all perfected their art as part of the Miles Davis group, through his inspired tutelage. Miles died 28th September 1991, aged 65, soon after taping this autobiography. In (largely) his own words he’s every bit as confrontationally extreme as his music, and as his spikily bristling reputation would suggest (while recalling exact detailed personnel lists from obscure sessions he’d played even in the depths of addiction). Much of what is now considered edgily cutting, he was doing back then, clear down to the hip-hop vocabulary. Everything is ‘motherfucking’. Whether that means good or bad depends on context. As does good or bad. He lays out the evidence. The story as he lived it. Then leaves you to draw your own conclusions. He’d expect no less.

Originally Featured on the website:
(UK - July 2007)

Eric Burdon & The New Animals 'Live'

HULL, 1966

I hadn’t even intended seeing them.
I’d already seen the Animals,
and this 15th December 1966 night
the Yardbirds were advertised.
stepped in as last-minute replacements.
I was less than best pleased….

There’s a cat-fight directly in front of the stage. Two teenage trollops punching, slapping hair-pulling and eye-gouging each other, tippling to the floor in a fury of bouffant hair and up-ended micro mini-skirts. An errant boyfriend? Or maybe they’re competing for the post-gig attentions of the band? If so, Burdon barely smiles as he glances sidewise down at it all. Me, I watch, even though I hadn’t intended being here. I’ve already seen the original Animals, at Bridlington Spa Theatre, what seemed like not so long since. They were great, but yes, I’ve seen them already. This December 1966 night the Yardbirds were advertised. Eric Burdon & The New Animals stepping in as last-minute replacements. I was less than best pleased. Admittedly they look different, they sound different too. In fact, they are different. Things had changed pretty radically.

After the implosion of the original group Burdon hadn’t even intended to continue using the name. It was label pressure to stick with the ‘known brand’ that led to the ‘new Animals’ billing. No smart suits. They’re gone. Only drummer Barry Jenkins had survived as a hang-over from the final line-up of the old Animals. His world is a drum-kit (Gretsch) says Eric. Danny McCulloch had been drafted in on bass, and Vic Briggs from the Brian Auger band on guitar. The old hits are buried too, in Eric’s radical new ‘Wind Of Change’. Instead, there’s “Crying Time”, a slow country-ish Ray Charles hit done harmony-style, with an effective yearning edge. They never recorded it, but Ray Charles was a long-time fixture, credited on the album dedication as ‘from whom I learnt so much’. Then he jokes the intro to an Ike & Tina Turner cover as “A Face Like Yours Don’t Come Door-Knocking Every Day”, which lurches and oozes smoothly soulful. The Stones “Paint It Black” too, radically rewired. It opens with John Weider’s haunting violin redrawn in high wide scrawls unravelling from deep Judaic roots through acid-improvisation. Before developing at an angle, with Eric in robust vocal-form inserting a talking break about tripping and falling. He knew something about tripping at the time. It was providing the catalyst for a lot of the transitions, to Eric more than most.

The ‘Winds Of Change’ LP which would arrive the following year (November 1967) came as a confusing reconfiguration to those expecting the regular Chuck Berry John Lee Hooker covers. His new ambitions resulting in, among other diversions, a bleak tone-poem extracted from Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’. Walls move, minds do too. “When I Was Young” reflects those cerebral somersaults, opening with a plunging burr of guitar distortion. From his newly enlightened vantage point he’s looking back to ‘pain more painful, laughter much louder’, before lifting the Dylan metaphor – maybe via witnessing the Byrds version at ‘Monterey’? about being ‘so much older then, when I was young’. The instant-surrealism of its ‘B’-side – “A Girl Named Sandoz” forms a direct LSD reference in itself, ‘very strange things, my mind has wings’. The first of three singles through 1967 it reached no.45 in May, the confessional “Good Times” following all the way up to no.20 in September, then there was “San Franciscan Nights”, led-in with the cod-‘Dragnet’ voice-over, climbing to no.7 in October 1967.

But this night is almost a year earlier, a try-out for the new line-up, a trial-run for the new ideas, and Beverley Road Baths is a long way from Haight-Ashbury. Teenage trollops punching, slapping hair-pulling and eye-gouging each other are a long way from Love Generation consciousness. I’d come expecting the Yardbirds. But it was a time of change, growth, evolution, metamorphosis, new butterflies emerging from old chrysalises. Burdon was already a continuity link, a familiar short stocky fixture in a shifting constellation. As Eric the Head, the Voice of Frisco, he was uniquely positioned to act the interpreter of swirling counter-culture wonders rumoured to be happening on the West Coast. A hippie Marco Polo come back to tell strange and luring tales of far-off psychedelic Cathay. Of course, we knew he’d sweated and drunk with the heavy gang of the North Eastern Electricity Board at Fossway, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. You could kind-of relate to that. He’d been on ‘Top Of The Pops’ too as an integral leading-edge of the first British R&B-wave, and you’d bought the hits. Now he was upgrading into new worlds. A known reference point to help navigate the new cartography by. If this beery Geordie bruiser could turn his life around, just maybe anyone could. I was in there somewhere, keeping up. Making sense, and sometimes contra-sense of it all. It could be argued that Eric was temporarily cut loose from his grounding in R&B, which had provided his gritty authenticity. If so, on the album Eric argues back that Blues is ‘from the whole wide world, deep within the souls of men’, listing his old heroes alongside his new music gurus – Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, Jimmy Reed, Miles Davis, with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and ‘when Muhammad Ali gets mad’ – ‘with love, till eternity’. This was an update on “The Story Of Bo Diddley”, which he’d done with the original Animals. I bought the ‘Winds Of Change’ album. Played it quite a lot. Oddly, playing it again now, there are more strikingly impressive moments than I recall. And I remember the cat-fight directly in front of the stage. The two teenage trollops punching, slapping hair-pulling and eye-gouging each other, tippling to the floor in a fury of bouffant hair and up-ended micro mini-skirts. Funny to think those two feuding slappers will be in their sixties now. Wonder if they remember this night as I remember?