Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol

gogol dead souls coverI’ve been aware of Dead Souls for many years. It is deemed a classic of Russian literature and Nikolai Gogol is a writer who is talked about with such esteem I had to find out why this is so. Up until the end of December 2018, I hadn’t read a line of his, and it appears Gogol hadn’t written much – Dead Souls is the only famous work he produced. Likewise, Chico Chica are not a prolific band, but I maintain this is because we exercise strict quality control. Robert Graves said a poet’s best friend is the wastepaper basket. For Chico Chica, it’s the delete button. In our current recording sessions, that button is wearing thin with over-use.

The title Dead Souls suggests something grim. But the book is in fact I kind of comedy. The novel is episodic. The hero, Chichikov goes around the Russian countryside visiting various landowners asking if they had any dead souls to sell. Land value was connected with how many serfs worked on it. In this context, serfs were known as souls. Taxes were paid on the number of souls as counted in the last census. In the interim many may have died so their names could be bought and sold as an elaborate tax dodge. I didn’t fully understand Chichikov’s business model and neither did the characters but that’s beside the point as it was a vehicle by which Gogol could satirise Russian bourgeois life.

The nearest equivalent I can think of is Pickwick Papers which was published six years earlier (1836). That was a light-hearted romp through English bourgeois life and I suppose if it wasn’t light-hearted it wouldn’t be a romp. I wonder if Gogol was influenced by Pickwick Papers. It seems so.

Publishers of the novel are confused about whether to include a sequel which Gogol abandoned and wanted destroyed. The sequel contained some of the best passages but Gogol’s wishes should have been respected. Like many musicians, I harbour a conceit that I will be the subject of study by some future musicologist (I know, I know). I hate to think my outtakes, mistakes, doodlings and experiments will be published.

I found the whole experience of reading this stalwart of the Russian canon less than satisfactory which is why I will stop writing about it. However, I have titled this post after the book because I see books, recordings and concerts as milestones in my life.

My mind is much more focussed on Chico Chica’s new album in particular my getting to grips with the intricacies of Logic Pro, an insanely complex pice of recording software.

It’s a paradox of modern times that the more labour-saving devices we possess the less free time we have. In the seventies people seemed to have the more free time. I wrote about this many years ago. It is in fact my very own Second Law of Leisure:

‘The free time of an individual is inversely proportional to the amount of labour-saving machinery he uses.’

So nowadays, musicians are forever struggling to find the time to write and rehearse. Barbara Snow and I have assigned Mondays as our time to bring the next Chico Chica album to fruition.

There’s a documentary of Captain Beefheart (the presentation is annoyingly dated but it’s still worth a watch). The Captain took his band to a remote Californian location and kept them there on a diet of beans for seven months. They then went on to record his greatest album, Trout Mask Replica (warning: it’s an acquired taste). Oh how I wish I had could do the same. But I’d probably be arrested for cruelty or forceful imprisonment, such are the intolerant, anti-art times we live in.

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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

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!

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?

Gig On The Coast

Last summer, Chico Chica played a function gig in Folkestone, Kent. Barbara and I, as we walked along the Sandgate Esplanade to where her car was parked, noticed that the Sandgate Hotel hosted live music on Sundays. So we popped in and left a card. The result of that small action was a gig yesterday.

It was Remembrance Sunday and Barbara had a Last Post to play in the morning. Walking to Shepherd’s Bush station with my guitar and cavaquinho, I stopped to watch the remembrance parade. There was a brass band to my right and a bagpiper to my left and I wished one of them would stop. To avoid offence I won’t say which one.

 

The Sandgate overlooks the English Channel. When we arrived, the westering sun was to our right and we looked out at the sea. That’s what people do when they travel to the coast. For some reason I thought of the Russian aircraft carrier which had passed a couple of weeks ago on its way to Syria and wondered if the great plume of black smoke emitting from its funnel  had been visible form Sandgate. Probably not.

 

But we were pushed for time so quickly set the PA up, ordered two glasses of water (one still, one fizzy) and, after ensuring all the cables were in the right sockets and the knobs at the right levels, started playing. The room overlooked the channel and we had our backs to France. There was a log fire and a warm appreciative audience. As the evening progressed the drinkers became drunker and louder and one man wanted to play Barbara’s bongo drums. We ploughed on through the Chico Chica set because that’s what we do. The journeyman musician is often tempted to change according to the room and in the past I would have done this. But Chico Chica is different – we do what we do and that’s it.

 

The show finished at 6pm by which time I was hungry and began to think about what I’d eaten that day – one bowl of porridge and a service station tuna sandwich plus coffees but they don’t count.  There was no rider at the gig so we went in search of fish and chips which I only ever eat when I’m at the seaside. We drove slowly and found a shop. We ordered a portion. Barbara had the fish and I had the chips which reminded me of Mr and Mrs Spratt. We ate in the car and it was a most satisfying repast.

 

Driving back to London after distant gigs gives us an excellent chance to talk and reflect. We chat about our families and then move on to Chico Chica – how to improve the performance, the best way to deal with drunks who want to play the bongos, business matters and the overall artistic direction. On this occasion we decided that getting signed to a record label is our highest priority and we resolved to approach certain individuals over this.

 

But the journey was long and at around the Maidstone turn-off, the conversation lulled. On these occasions I talk about the book I’m reading which happens to be The Story of O by Pauline Reage. I bought a copy the previous day. It was in the Romance section at Foyles, a shelf which I usually ignore.  The story is indeed about love , at least it is so far – I have read ninety pages.  I started describing the story and quickly realised it could prove embarrassing and awkward. It’s not the kind of book to bring up in conversation and I was thankful the M25 junction came into view and we had to concentrate on reading road signs instead. We fell silent again and I reflected on The Story of O and how suffering can be an expression of love and how Christianity and indeed Western civilisation are based on that very idea. And then we discussed next week’s mixing session at Porcupine Studio.

 

Chico Chica’s next show is at Bull’s Head, Barnes, 8.30pm, Thursday 17th November 2016.

My Last Duchess and Other Poems, Robert Browning

One increasingly important component of Chico Chica shows is the dramatic monologue. In the spoken word sections of the songs such as A Scientific Fact, Nice Guy with an Edge and Private Hands, I adopt a character speaking to an imaginary audience. The format gives my imagination greater scope and is meant as an antidote to the overly serious singer-songwriter ‘this is all about me’ output which has been with us since the early seventies. The greatest exponent of this technique is Robert Browning so it’s important for me to get an insight to the mind of a master. I have been dipping in and out of this book all year but have recently finished it so, in accordance with my blogging tradition, I give it a post.

Robert Browning is considered one of the great 19th Century writers – right up there with Dickens and Eliot – but is rarely read nowadays. This is partly because the poems are dense and difficult. Some took several reads for me to get an idea of what they were about. It usually came in a flash of inspiration. On some occasions the flash never came so I had to move on to the next, baffled.

Dickens towers above Browning in the modern imagination also because you cannot easily turn a poem into a play, film or musical. Browning’s influence lives on in Chico Chica’s shows but we need to do more to keep the spirit alive. Now here’s an idea: how about turning My Last Duchess or Fra Lippo Lippi into a computer game? Are there any game developers reading this?

This is the last post of 2014 and these are the books I read during the year:

Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell
The Trial, Franz Kafka
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The Comedians, Graham Greene
First Love and Other Stories, Ivan Turgenev
Silas Marner, George Eliot
To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
The Sound and the Fury, William Falconer
Fathers and Children, Ivan Turgenev
The Honorary Consul, Graham Greene
The Great Terror, Robert Conquest
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
Hard Times, Charles Dickens
Romola, George Eliot
Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin (abandoned halfway)
Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin
My Last Duchess and Other Poems, Robert Browning.

You will find posts on all of them. However, I have been reflecting on my blogging and made the decision to discontinue posts on the books I read. The readership is just too limited so the posts in 2015 will be more frequent and touch on more topics. Thank you for reading and, on behalf of Chico Chica, I’d like to wish you a most exciting and prosperous new year.