Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Inner Calm

Van Morrison (Spiritual/Jazz/Celtic Soul)
LP: Common One (Warner Bros / Wea, 1980)

At one point in the mid-80s I was stuck in the East End of London trying to work my way back to the USA. Jobs were hard to come by but I eventually found employ as a road sweeper.

I've had a lot of crummy jobs in my time, but this one takes the biscuit. My beat was
Commercial Road - possibly the filthiest street in London. As huge lorries pounded by I’d choke on their belching fumes and curse them under my breath.

Street-cleaning isn’t the most glamorous of professions and I’d pull the odd scam to make life more bearable. One was hiding my brush and barrow in a side street early in the morning and scarpering off home for the rest of the day. I’d return later in the afternoon and innocently return my barrow to the yard to clock out. “All finished, then?” the foreman would say. “Good lad.”

The merchants of East London were very kind to us barrow boys. A greasy cafe on Leman Street gave me free bacon sandwiches in return for a preferential sweep. The Indian food vendors along Brick Lane would ply me with samosas and papri chaat, dispensing advice. "Do not despair, any job is a good job," a chirpy fellow from Bombay assured me.

As I miserably swept my way through London, my companion and salvation was Van Morrison’s Common One LP. Listening on my battered Sony Walkman, this transcendent Celtic Soul music provided me with an ecstatic escape from the grime.

Though Common One is for me a watermark Morrison record, it was unappreciated on its release. Recorded in a French monastery, it steered away from the tightly structured songs Van had been composing, marking a radical return toward the spacious, spiritual searching of the Astral Weeks period. Even today it’s one of my favorite Morrison albums, and features several Van classics.

The hypnotic, spiritual, In Haunts of Ancient Peace set the tone for Van’s musical quest in the decade to follow and transported me away from Commercial Road to a higher plane. Similarly, Summertime in England, Van’s tribute to the romantic tradition of Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, lifted me to loftier, poetic heights, with its incantations of “suffering so fine” and the sublime moment when Van testifies, “I wanna go to church right now.”

I was deeply affected by this ambitious, holy music. Almost in a trance, I went about my work with a beatific smile. Passers-by would shoot strange glances at me, thinking, “What the hell does he have to smile about?”

They were perhaps not aware that, no matter how desperate the circumstances, music - especially transcendent music like this - has a way of lifting you out of your despondency. They couldn’t know it but, amid all the dust and grime, I had found inner calm in a Celtic Soul paradise.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Deliciously Dark

Movie: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Directed by: Tim Burton

Part One: Staying Power

I have to admit I’m not a great fan of musicals. Generally speaking they don’t - as an artistic experience - provide me with me the emotional satisfaction of more ‘serious’ musical forms. Though I can easily suspend disbelief and marvel at actors suddenly breaking into song without warning, the characters in musicals rarely rise above the level of caricature, and the story line of the classic musical displays an overarching romanticism which nowadays seems hokey.

Having said that, there’s no denying the genre’s great entertainment value and staying power. It's been going strong since the late 1920s, when Busby Berkeley used ideas from the drills he had practiced as a soldier during the First World War to transform traditional dance numbers.

Following that, astonishing talents such as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly dominated entertainment during the musical's 'golden era'. Movies such as The Wizard of Oz, (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and On the Town (1949) provided much needed escapist entertainment during the depression, war and post-war periods. The dazzling ballet sequences in An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) expanded the vocabulary of modern dance.

But then came rock ‘n’ roll, and following the 1950s, the musical film declined in popularity. The freedom and youth associated with rock ‘n’ roll made the values expressed in the musical seem stuffy and antiquated.

But this is to deny the social consciousness of writers like Oscar Hammerstein. His Carousel (1956) mocks the hypocrisy of social class, while South Pacific (1958) attacks racial prejudice. Indeed, the dominant theme of the musical in the last four decades has been one of tolerance and social awareness, as in West Side Story (1961).

New life was breathed into the genre by modernizers like Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Stephen Sondheim. Kirkwood & Dante's A Chorus Line had its roots in group therapy, and issues such as religious and class struggles, national identity, political biography, bohemianism and gay rights were directly addressed in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Rent. The revival of the musical has continued into the present century with movies like Moulin Rouge, Chicago and now Sweeney Todd.

Part Two: Nightmare on Fleet Street

Last night I witnessed Hollywood’s latest musical offering, Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Like me, star Johnny Depp isn't keen on musicals, but as he has remarked, how many chances do you get to see a movie about a serial killer who supplies his neighbor with the ghoulish ingredients of her meat pies?

Depp in fact adopts a wonderfully punky approach as the mad barber Sweeney and is a passable singer. That's just as well since there’s precious little dialogue in Sweeney Todd - it’s actually an operetta rather than a musical.

I must say that the movie rather dragged for me in its early stages. I found few of the songs memorable and my interest was maintained mainly by the director’s customarily stunning visual style. However Sweeney Todd suddenly bursts into life during a splendidly gruesome third act in which each character receives their bloody comeuppance.

For me the best thing about this deliciously dark film was Helena Bonham Carter, who steals every scene as Sweeney’s sidekick Mrs. Lovett. In fact Bonham-Carter seems to have a knack for doing this in just about every movie she appears in. I only realized last night she’s one of my favorite movie stars and I 'd love to see her pick up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Watching the movie here in Kyoto, it was interesting to observe the stoic reactions of a mainly Japanese audience. There’s lashings of black humor throughout Sweeney Todd, but it doesn't seem to play well in Japan.

During the hilarious scene where Sweeney impassively dispatches a succession of customers with his cutthroat razor, my companion and I were the only audience members erupting into gales of laughter.

As the closing credits were rolling, we had already left the theater. Tears of mirth in our eyes, we ran as fast we could to our favorite British bar for a pint of ale and a deliciously filling meat pie.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Freak Out

Before air guitar there was...the freak out.

When I was a fourteen year-old high school kid I really wanted to be cool. Being a bespectacled, sensitive teenager sucked.

I kidded myself that I didn’t care. But secretly I yearned to be an insider, like the freaks with long hair who self-importantly carried 'prog-rock' albums in the school hallway.

The heavy improvisatory form of music known as 'rock' had emerged in the late sixties, and the freaks were at just the right age to appreciate it. 'Rock' marked an emphasis away from pop's instantaneous emotional appeal toward self importance and overstatement.

But if the grandiose complacency of 'prog-rock' was sapping the energy from pop culture, most young teens were oblivious. Prog and blues-rock seemed to offer a stairway to heaven, all one could ever aspire to or desire.

During the school 'disco' you’d be invited - if you were cool enough - to participate in a male bonding ritual known as the freak out. Standing in a circle of your freaky peers, it involved rocking backwards and forward in the same spot while convulsively shaking your hands - a la Joe Cocker - playing air guitar and flailing your limbs in a display of serious rock abandon.

Each moment of the freak-out was loaded with symbolic meaning. As the hallowed hour approached, a bedenimed figure would sidle up to you and whisper,
"Psst. Youth. Wanna freak out?"

he whole evening had been a prelude to this collective celebration of greasy hair, flares and acne. The freaks assembled front of stage for their moment of glory.

Freaks wouldn’t be seen dead 'dancing' to soul or glam. Invariably it was a guitar wig-out 'rock classic' like Status Quo's Caroline, Bad Company's Can't Get Enough (the extended version, of course) or Black Sabbath's Paranoid (the freak out anthem) which would drive them into ecstasies of dementia.

My buddy Tony Heseltine had a brother called John who was particularly adept at the freak out. He had long dark hair, wore a perfectly faded denim jacket and jeans, and his technique was impeccable. During one freak out I remember watching with a mixture of admiration and bemusement as he delicately fingered the slide guitar introduction to Lynyryd Skynyrd's Freebird, his eyes closed in an ecstasy of axe worship.

As the song grew in intensity, John's performance matched it lick for lick. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen because it was pure and unforced, emerging out of a deep love for the music and the culture which surrounded it. Meanwhile his comrades were likewise attaining their own freaky nirvana.

But the days of the freak out were numbered. Punk was just around the corner and before you knew it the new wave had blown the axe gods out of the water. Just when I’d managed to grow my hair to the required length. Goddamn.

A few freaks determinedly clung onto their hippie-dom, ending up as civil servants or acid casualties. Others left it all behind and went off to college, where no one could guess their secret past. Many became punks or new-wavers, preferring to forget their freaky feelings and pretend they’d always sported short spiky hair and straight leg pants.

But once a freak, always a freak, and in their hearts there's a tiny corner which is forever devoted to prog-rock and air guitar. When they're alone, ex-freaks will secretly tune into Classic Rock FM and furtively headbang to Quo, Zep and Sabbath. And when the opening riff to Paranoid comes screaming over the airwaves they'll grin and quietly remember, “Yeah, man, I really used to freak out.”

VIDEO: Black Sabbath Paranoid, 1970. Watch Ozzy freak out: