Clockers, Richard Price

Clockers CoverIf you happen to be looking for a drug to take up, crack cocaine has a lot to offer. It’s attractions aren’t just the intense thirty minute high but also the paraphernalia that goes with it. This type of pipe smoking lends the pastime a hobby aspect. It also creates career opportunities among vulnerable groups. However, despite these benefits, I think I’ll give the drug a miss because after reading Clockers by Richard Price, I discovered crack cocaine has a fatal downside: it’s a bit morish.

Crime fiction doesn’t feature high in my reading. There is no particular reason for this and I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot. The trouble with genre fiction is that it exists on its own. There are few references from other books which lead me to this remote but happy valley. So it takes an exceptional crime novel to gain my attention.

According to the blurb, Clockers is the inspiration behind The Wire. In fact Richard Price was one of the writers of this TV series. I’ve never got round to watching it because I’ve never warmed to the American big-tough-guy-in-a-big-tough-city thing. But Clockers is different. Here, nobody is tough, or sexy, or witty, or handsome, or charismatic. It’s a little like real life in that way. And real life is what happens in the projects of a New York suburb called Dempsey, most of whose denizens have succumbed to the pleasures of the pipe.

The book is set, and was first published, in 1992. The dealers communicate by call boxes and pagers. The action is primarily in the dialogue which explains why Clockers transferred to television as The Wire so successfully. 

The story centres on Strike, a nineteen year old crack cocaine dealer called Ronald Dunham but is known through most of the story by his street name, Strike. On the streets of Dempsey, there are no surnames. Throughout the story there is little reference to the outside. It’s as if nothing else matters.

Banks offer us consolidation loans. These put all your card debts into one so there is only one debt to worry about. Addiction to crack cocaine does something similar. Instead of worrying about work, money, health and relationships the addict worries about just one thing: the next fix. In this complex world, the addict has a much simplified life.

Strike occupies a lowly, customer-facing position known as a ‘clocker’. His boss Rodney, is pleased with Strike’s work especially his innovative marketing ideas such as Happy Hour and Starter Kits. Strike also keeps the three golden rules of drug dealing. If dear reader, you happen to be contemplating such a career you may wish to make a note of them: 1) trust no-one 2) maintain good quality and 3) don’t do the product.

The strange thing about Strike is that he never expresses emotion. So we neither like nor dislike him. If he does feel anything it is fear but this is suppressed. There doesn’t even seem to me much lust or yearning for friendship or greed. Dealers cannot bank their earnings and they cannot draw attention to their wealth so it’s all in the form of cash ‘rolls’. These are either in their pockets or stashed in an elaborate system of hiding places.

And yet the dealers never have the courage or imagination to escape. America is a big country. Couldn’t they get a bus somewhere and start afresh? This thought does occur to Strike but he feels an irresistible force pushing him to return to his life as a clocker.

There is one other character crucial to the story and that is Rocco, a Homicide cop or as he’s referred to throughout, a Homicide. Rocco is investigating a murder which is at the centre of the story. Drug dealing is outside his domain so he pays no attention to it unless it directly relates to a murder.

A good story has to have the main character go through a change. And this happens in Clockers, but not until the last few of the 360 pages. 

In London we also have crack cocaine and gang crime. But it somehow seems different here. The projects occupy whole swathes of cities whereas in London, council estates are interspersed with private housing so council tenants don’t feel such a sense of isolation. But the US has the advantage of offering a huge hinterland in which to escape and start again. It is the land of reinvention. Strike realises this at the end. But what took him so long?

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Sibelius – 7th Symphony

Chico Chica have a tour coming up later in the year as well as an album launch. As a result, marketing will form a major part of my management duties. I know the basic principles. The most important is to describe a product’s benefits rather than its features.

But when it comes to listening to complex music, it’s best to start with features. This is more than merely the naming of parts such as Development and Re-capitulation. It is noticing what the melody does, how for example, the flute may take it in another direction, the french horns may play a variation, there could be a tempo change here, a modulation there. After a while, as I become familiar with the lay of the musical landscape my admiration for the craft gradually evolves into a love for the art. Now to describe this emotional response would mean reaching for the thesaurus and using adjectives – but they’ve all been used and over-used so much I can’t bring myself round to doing this. It’s why I’ll never make it as a music critic.

There is an LSO programme at the Barbican called the Half-Six Fix. The concert lasts an hour and tickets starts at a meagre £12 – that’s for a world class orchestra under the baton of none other than Sir Simon Rattle.

The programme is aimed at some who don’t want to get home too late and others who like to go on to do other things while the night is still young. It also suits those who, after a hard day’s work, may find it hard to concentrate for much longer than an hour.

And with classical music, concentration is the key. How can my brain process the relentless succession of musical ideas as it cascades into my consciousness? Music is meant to trigger thoughts but a wandering mind inhibits a deep, sensual appreciation. Listening to music is not as straightforward as we like to think but with practice and time, we become experienced listeners. It is an exercise in mindfulness and for me – a kind of substitute for meditation.

thMy appreciation is enhanced if I make sure I already know the piece well before I see the concert. Luckily I live a mere 15 minute No 94 bus ride to Music and Video Exchange in Notting Hill. It’s been there since the late 70s. As a streaming-averse listener, I’m so pleased the shop is still thriving because I rely on it so much. Downstairs is an extensive and well categorised collection of classical second hand CDs. The pricing is in the form of a Dutch auction so CDs are reduced by a pound every month. For £5 I bought Sibelius Symphony No 7 and Brahms Symphonies 2 and 3 – all are to be featured in up-coming Half-Six Fix programmes. My Sibelius album (pictured) was by the same orchestra but with Sir Colin Davis conducting.

 

On emerging from the classical basement I heard Captain Beefheart playing. I was amazed, firstly because I hadn’t heard that music since the seventies and also because I remembered it. There’s something about the sixty somethings who inhabit the Notting Hill Gate and Portobello Road that is still imbued with the memory of the seventies and with good reason, in those days W11 was the centre of things – at least it felt like that. I could almost smell the patchouli oil.

At home I listened to Sibelius 7 through my 1970s Philips speakers (these details are important) at every opportunity. That is, whenever I was at home and not writing, sleeping, playing guitar and working. But mostly it was me on the sofa giving the music all the attention I could muster. The music inhabited the rooms of my mind’s internal architecture so when I arrived at the Barbican last Wednesday, I was ready.

With the new bite-sized format, Sir Simon gives a short talk before each piece. He’s a natural at this task. He has an easy charm and humour as well as knowledge and emotional commitment. The first piece was a Berlin Philharmonic commission, Let Me Tell You by Hans Abrahamsen – a shimmering and restrained song cycle and then came Sibelius’s 7th Symphony. Jean Sibelius has set up camp in my musical memory and it will stay there forever. Thank you Jean.

A Rage to Live, John O’Hara

New Year’s Eve was spent performing with singer Noemi Nuti at the excellent and new Kahani, a restaurant in Chelsea. Noemi has had a long association with Chico Chica but this was the first time I’d worked with her as a duo. I was a bit anxious at first because it was a long gig and I wondered if we had enough material. But it turned out much better than expected. The night was sold out and Noemi was the consummate pro, a delight to work with and she made a big impact on the audience. There may be more gigs at Kahani this year. Watch this space. Noemi and I also spoke of our plans for 2019 in particular our recording projects – yes we both have album on the go and these should bear fruition in the next few months. Exciting times.

Before setting off to the gig I posted a list of the books I read in 2018. I do this every year but I have to say, I’m in two minds about whether I should. There’s something a bit narcissistic about it but we live in narcissistic times and I am genuinely interested in what others read, watch and listen to so perhaps it will start a trend.

The last book on the list was A Rage to Live by John O’Hara. O’Hara was a friend of Ernest Hemingway’s. (I seem to mention EH in all my blog posts). Hemingway championed O’Hara’s novels and the edition I read came courtesy of the trusted curators at Penguin Classics.

The story takes place from around 1910 to 1923. The Great War played a background role and I was surprised to learn that the numerous Irish and German denizens of Pennsylvania at the time wanted the US to join the German side.

We can’t help but notice how there is a strong negativity bias in the media and conversations with our friends. People complain about this and that without realising how lucky we are. The biggest positive change we enjoy over those living a hundred years ago is that we don’t worry about micro-organisms. We are free from the ever-present threat of polio and tuberculosis which so terrified our forebears. Last year I read Amanda Vail’s Everybody Was so Young, an account of Gerald and Sara Murphy, a golden couple of 1920s French Riviera, who’d have the likes Hemingway (there I go again), Scot Fitzgerald, Picasso, Diaghalev and Stravinsky at their parties. It’s a brilliant depiction of the milieu, the place and the times. Gerald Murphy became the model for Dick Diver in Scot Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night. But the Murphy’s were as fearful of a cough as anyone else in the pre-antibiotic days and rightly so. They lost two sons and their lives were never the same again. Similarly, in A Rage to Live, polio and tuberculosis stalked the lives of the characters and became actors in the story.

Somerset Maugham was once described as Britain’s greatest second rate writer. That’s an amusing remark but not true. Maugham did write some forgettable adventure novels such as The Explorer. This story did however have was one notable aspect. The hero studied mathematics at university not because it was his best subject but because it was his worst. Now that’s a brilliant attitude to education which should inspire us today.

Maugham wrote four novels which put him in the very first rank of novelists: The Razor’s Edge, The Painted Veil, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage. All are rammed with memorable scenes and characters as well as insights. Of Human Bondage is worthy of particular praise. It is a bidungsroman – a chronicle of youth, and is a model of the genre. Earlier this year I read another: Sinister Street by Compton MacKenzie. Both books were over 750 pages long and occurred in the same city (London) and the same period (both heroes came of age at around 1900). These books captured the atmosphere and mood of the times perfectly and there was one salient fact which the novels revealed – in those days people took life more seriously and thought more deeply. It’s something I’m trying to do.

But I’m here to write about A Rage to Live by John O’Hara. As I read my way through the canon I come across no end of delights, curiosities, mysteries and I have to say, disappointments. O’Hara is not a first rate author though he is deemed to be because he has been awarded Penguin Classic status. A Rage to Live could also be categorised as a bildungsroman but there are a few crucial differences to those I mentioned earlier. The protagonist is Grace Caldwell, a society beauty so there was unlikely to be any autobiographical element to the story. The milieu was the smart set in a dull Pennsylvania town called Fort Penn. The reader was shown its rather shallow characters, the corrupt politicians as well as the commercial life of a town about to expand in the burgeoning mayhem of the 1920s economy.

It is of similar length to Of Human Bondage and Sinister Street but felt much longer. In fact it was way too long. At first I thought it must be a slow burner. But it never came alight partly because there was no spiritual growth in the heroine. Grace Cauldwell has two affairs. The first ruined her own marriage, the second ruined someone else’s. Unlike Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, I never got a definite image of her face in my mind’s eye or a clear delineation of her motives and thoughts..

Penguin Classics famously published Morrissey’s autobiography. This made one suspect the publisher’s marketing department decide on what to include. This is most eloquently explained in AA Gill’s brilliant review which must rank as one of the funniest put downs of our times.

In 2019, I will continue to write my weekly blog posts and will try to avoid being dull and foolish – a difficult task indeed. Bear with me and happy new year.

The Books I Read in 2018

Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier

Eyeless In Gaza, Aldous Huxley

Path to Rome, Hilaire Belloc

Pincher Martin, William Golding

Papa Hemingway, A.E. Hotchner

The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Stephen Potter

A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor

Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

Maxwell Knight, MI6’s Greatest Spymaster, Henry Hemming

Hadji Murad, Leo Tolstoy

A History of the Crusades Vols 1-3, Stephen Runciman

Islands In The Stream, Ernest Hemingway

Latin Reader, J H Terry

Sinister Street, Compton MacKenzie

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra

Stoner, John Williams

Nothing, Henry Green

The Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf

Everybody Was so Young, Amanda Vaill

Clockers, Richard Price

Gates of Fear, Barnaby Conrad

A Rage to Live, John O’Hara

Choirs

If I were to live abroad for some of the year, the months I’d chose would be February and March. It’s the time when I’m bored of the long winter so would rather be somewhere milder. But I’d never go away in December. I love the party season and the atmosphere especially in central London – the lights, the busy pubs and restaurants full of people in good spirits. Any change of season is a celebration – from the contents of your fruit bowl to the concerts you go out to see.

Choral music is an art form I ignore for most of the year but in December it takes on a festive meaning. So I make sure I get out and see some concerts. This year I saw three.

Oh the joys of an amateur choir. When I’m gigging I’m often surprised by who turns up. It could be someone I vaguely knew ten years ago, an old school friend, a family member or a former colleague. It’s what makes being in a band such fun. You never know who you’re going to meet. It’s a bit like that old television program This Is Your Life except it’s spread over the years. As I keep telling people, music brings people together.

There was no better way to evince this maxim than seeing the Chiswick Choir at St Michael’s Church. The church opened in 1880 and is part of the Bedford Park development. Like the houses around, there is a lot of wood it it’s structure. The place was rammed with friends and family of the choir.

It was the 1stDecember – a little too early for a Christmas programme. So they started with Haydn’s Nelson Mass complete with professional orchestra featuring period trumpets which are basically over-sized bugles. But they sounded great.

Now dear reader, can you think of the very first melody you ever heard and liked? If you are of a certain age, you may, in the deep recesses of your mind, remember this tune. It really is worth listening to the end. It has that warm, comfortable, pre-school atmosphere which makes the listener yearn to return.

Yes, Gabriel Faure was working his magic in our lives from the very beginning. The second half of the Chiswick Choir concert comprised the choral society stalwart, Faure’s Requiem. This is a piece which has one of my favourite melodies and chord progressions, Libera Me:

The next concert I saw was A Ceremony of Carols by the Choristers of Westminster Cathedral. This took place at The Holy Trinity Church, Brook Green and was part of an outreach programme to publicise the choir, its music and the cathedral’s services as well as to recruit new members. Though augmented by some Bach, Mendelssohn and others, Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols formed the centrepiece of the evening.

The Conductor Martin Baker spoke about the music and this was helpful. I learnt about the choir’s history, its association with Benjamin Britten and how the composer wrote A Ceremony of Carols on a liner coming back from New York. It includes this song which I’ve heard before but I can’t remember where:

 

 

The third and last concert was Tenebrae at King’s Place, King’s Cross. It’s an impressive building and was buzzing with that pre-Christmas vibe I mentioned earlier. For me this was fuelled by cans of Punk IPA. It was the first time I’d seen a concert in this new venue. There was evidently a good deal of thought put into the acoustics of the auditorium. It was that good. King’s Place is in York Way, a street which was once the preserve of junkies and prostitutes but now greatly improved (or not, depending on your priorities).

It’s an impressive choir too. I saved the best till the end. Tenebrae are fifteen seriously accomplished singers formed, assembled and conducted by Nigel Short. The programme was called A Very English Christmas. Many of the songs started off sounding monastic and Gregorian but then the modern harmony comes in on the second verse which lifts it up. It was music for our time and all time. Thank you Tenebrae and thank you to all choirs at this time of year. You really are doing something precious and important.

The Next Album – Making a Start

On the off-chance you might interested in this sort of thing, I’m going to describe where my musical attentions are currently being directed. Chico Chica are long overdue an album. Birds came out at the beginning of last year. We were meant to follow up directly afterwards but money constraints prevented us from doing so. The income from streaming services such as Spotify is insufficient to justify large outlays for studio time and session fees. Hence the delay.

But I’m determined to push things forward because in order to get gigs it’s important to have an ever-evolving story – a new album, a new show and a new sound. It also keeps me motivated and stops me getting bored.

Six of the songs we have in our set are in French and this collection will form the new album which I hope will be released by early summer 2019, ready for Chico Chica’s gigging season. The working title is Cafe d’Amour.

Some may say six isn’t enough but there are no rules – an album can be as long or short as the artist wishes. Albums are getting longer at a time when attention spans are shortening. A small collection is easier to produce because I can keep a sharp focus on the material. In my hands, a large amount of recording can become unwieldy and unmanageable.

Chico Chica is a professional band comprising musicians who play for money. This is proving harder to do for a band performing original material. It’s easy to keep a full diary if you’re not worried about fees – the challenge is to get paid. For this reason it’s imperative I keep control of costs. That may be ok for genres which have an electronic backing but Chico Chica inhabit the world of jazz and acoustic music. We’d rather be playing our instruments than sat at a computer screen.

On previous albums, we had the feeling we could have planned our expensive studio time more carefully. We made up ideas and arrangements as we went along and that’s a luxury we can no longer afford. The answer is to record a version of the album at home – we can then try out different keys, instrumentation, tempos and structures until we come up with something we’re happy with.

This procedure means I have to get to grips with complex recording software (Logic Pro). It’s a long learning process but now I’m managing to use it well enough.

With this new skill other ideas are coming to me. I could, one by one, replace the artificial-sounding midi tracks with real instruments. I can do this by going to the musicians’ houses thereby reducing session fees.

It may seem a bit long-winded and lacking the spontaneity of a group playing together in the same room but needs must. The album will probably be more tightly arranged and less jazzy but that is by no means a bad thing. A budget defines style not quality. Rest assured, we will not be crowdfunding this venture.

The aim is to get the whole project wrapped up by Easter 2019. This will give us a good run-up to a planned Chico Chica tour starting in August 2018. I will keep you informed how things develop over the coming months.

Gates of Fear, Barnaby Conrad

th-1Every now and then, I choose to read an out of print book about an esoteric subject. Of course it has to be recommended – life’s too short for random choices. I’ve just read Gates of Fear by Barnaby Conrad. The author worked for the American consulate in Spain during the 1950’s. During his posting there, he became an aficionado and his afición was bullfighting. He even took it up himself.

My life is sedentary and easy. I play a sitting down instrument. That’s why I admire physical courage. There is a kind of courage in performing in public but it’s not physical. In a world where police officers refused to rescue a drowning boy, I find myself inspired by men and women who put their bodies and lives in danger.

During the middle part of the twentieth century you could say there was a bullfighting craze. This was largely thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Death in the Afternoon (1936). Such was Hemingway’s stature, bullfighting became a topic of literary interest.

This book’s book’s 550 pages include photographs and drawings as well as extensive passages from other writers making it a type of anthology. The cost of permissions must have dented the author’s earnings.

We learn about tauromachy’s ancient roots and the feeling of the Roman amphitheatre is never far away – the sand, the animal versus man contests, the cruelty, blood, death and the braying crowd.

Bullfighting spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world. It crossed the Pyrennes into the amphitheatres at Nimes, Arles and Frejus. And the Portuguese developed a version with mounted matadors.

Conrad conjured up the excitement and terror that was unleashed when the gates of fear were unbolted to allow a huge, angry bull into the arena. Bullfighting comes with a history of famous names and stories. Many were killed and even more suffered life-changing injuries. My favourite was Josellitto who became so successful, the crowds became bored and started to boo him. Soon after he lost concentration and was killed. His bull had poor eyesight so didn’t fall for the matador’s visual trickery.

There were a few female matadors notably the American, Bette Ford. And she fought bulls, not cows. Alas, the glass ceiling is still an integral part of bovine life.

But after a while I tired of matadors and their silly tight trousers and glad the book came to an end. The passage I enjoyed the most was written by Lysander Kemp. It was a contrarian piece about how he didn’t care for the spectacle and probably best reflected my own views.

Nowadays I hear very little of bullfighting. It never troubles the British sporting press and doesn’t seem to try to spread its appeal outside the Spanish-speaking world. Corporate sponsors have stayed away though this has allowed the sport to maintain its integrity as a spectacle.

But I’m writing this after reading a report on the Wilder-Fury fight and watching the press conference after. Now that’s the kind of physical courage I prefer. The match might be in London.Bring it on!

Rolo Tomassi and Blood Command at The Scala, King’s Cross

It’s good for musicians to listen outside their genre. With this maxim in mind, I went to see Rolo Tomassi at The Scala, King’s Cross, London.

The Scala is a building I’ve passed so many times but until recently had never entered. It used to be a cinema and at one point was a primatarium. Cinema goers used to complain about the smell which was sure to detract from their experience unless the film happened to be Planet of the Apes.

The theatre works well as a rock venue. My friends and I parked ourselves in the balcony away from the mosh pit. We were tempted to enter the fray but I suppose it’s an age thing. Up on the balcony we were mistaken for parents of the band members.

Rock music was what originally made me take up guitar so it has always had a special power over me. I know people who work in festivals and they tell me the heavier the rock, the friendlier the people.

Nowadays, I feel short changed if a band is all blokes with their arrays of guitar pedals. It worked well in the past but now it just seems wrong. And boring. But tonight was going to be adorned by two exceptional women.

There were three acts on the bill. I missed the first (sorry Cassus) but arrived in time for Blood Command. Four guitars (including bass) and drums (of course) created a raucous wall of sound. I liked the way the musicians moved around on stage. They put thought into choreography and movement. That’s good. Every now and again they’d lift their left legs up in the air in unison. Not high like a ballerina – that’s hard to do while playing guitar but enough to make an effect. It’s an idea Chico Chica could steal. I might raise it at the next band meeting (the topic that is, not the leg).

Blood Command are fronted by Karina Ljon (pictured). Ljon is a fabulous presence and she naturally stole the show. Afterwards she was meekly sitting behind the merch counter selling CDs and t-shirts and chatting to fans.

The main act always has the advantage of being last. Miles Davis used to prefer to go first when the audience’s ears were still fresh but also so he could finish while the night was still young. But rock is different. The sense of anticipation gives the headline act an unfair advantage. Even so, Rolo Tomassi are brilliant. They can be thrashy and screamy which the crowd loved, but they can suddenly switch to melodious sections with jazzy chords and rhythms.

However, Rolo Tomassi are nothing without the singer Eva Spence. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She also happened to be the main reason I bought a ticket. Screaming works well in rock but less so in other genres. I’m unsure if Ms Spence screams words or just sounds. Not that it really matters.

Occasionally the keyboard player would move centre stage, join in the screaming and try to steal her limelight. Why? How dare he. It came across as macho posturing and a forlorn attempt to bask in the glory of Ms Spence’s luminous aura. Sorry matey. Get back behind that keyboard where you belong.

Rock musicians are able to feel the music from the inside because they commit it all to memory. If they were reading from music stands people would ask for their money back. This is what musicians from other genres should learn. Memorisation of the music is in itself a wow factor and it enables a different type of body language. The more technology we use the less we remember so it is even more important for musicians to buck this trend.

The gig finished at 9:45pm. Now that’s a modern development. It is no doubt to do with legal restrictions. Purists complain that rock should be a late night thing and music is more exciting when it’s played at that time. I don’t see the logic in this view which seems to be a hangover from childhood. Late finishes discourage mature people who, like me, enjoy their mornings. From a promoter’s point of view, excluding a more affluent demographic doesn’t make sense. There is also a greater choice of places to eat as so many close at 11:00pm. I’d better move on to the next paragraph as I’m starting to sound like a grandad.

By the end of the evening I had come to the conclusion that Ms Spence is quite possibly the most wonderful human being alive today. Eva Peron cried for Argentina, Eva Spence screams for England.