Tuesday, September 18, 2012




Books arrive at The Generalist HQ from all quarters and sometimes they arrive in groups. Hence a quarter of music books, all of which are worth investigating. 

    The Buddy Bolden Band. Buddy is second from left in the back row. Source: www.mikeballantyne.ca

‘Coming Through Slaughter’ by Michael Ondaatje, most famously known as the author of ‘The English Patient’ is a stand-out experimental fiction (a first novel, first published in 1979) which imaginatively extrapolates from the scraps of knowledge known about the life of Buddy Bolden – a legendary cornet-playing pioneer of jazz. Ondaatje’s prose tries to mimic Bolden’s playing and the patchwork of different texts gives the whole work a musical feel. No recordings of Bolden exist and few photographs. This book has an incredible raw intensity to it matching Bolden’s raw life; he suffered from schizophrenia, was put in a mental hospital after an episode of ‘acute alcohol psychosis and died one year later in 1931 and at the age of 54. It stands in my mind alongside Geoff Dyer’s ‘But Beautiful’ as one of the greatest imaginative books on jazz.

in the book we meet the real life photographer  E.J. Bellocq, a strange distorted figure who haunted the brothels of New Orleans, almost a parallel figure to Toulouse Lautrec. He may have photographed Bolden. Bellocq destroyed most of his work and the only surviving glass slides were uncovered and rescued by Lee Frielander in the 1960s. See: iconic photos


Source: www.serdanoite.blogspot.co.uk

Alexis Korner was without doubt one of they key figures in the evolution of British music in the ‘50s and ‘60s as I now understand after reading Harry Shapiro’s thorough and absorbing biography.

His background was a mix of cultures and languages, his youth troubled, his appearance never less than striking, his voice distinctive. Along with Chris Barber and the short-lived pugnacious Cyril Davis, he certainly introduced blues to Britain through his clubs in Ealing and Soho. He was also a pioneer of rhythm and blues and his band Blues incorporated was a training ground and showcase for some of the great musicians of his time – including Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Phil Seamen, Zoot Money, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Long John Baldry et al.

[Keef acknowledges his importance on p88 of ’Life’. Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Ian Stewart had all played with Alexis and he also became great friends with Brian Jones.]

Alexis played with a bewildering number of line-ups, often assembled on the same day as the gig, and extended his musical repertoire to include jazz, gospel and many other forms. He may not have been good at managing money but virtually no-one has a bad word to say about him. He had a natural talent for bringing people together and bringing out the best in them. His London flat where he lived with his wife and partner Bobbie and kids was Number One crash pad and social meeting place for a galaxy of great musicians from Charlie Mingus to Bob Dylan.

Alexis Korner

Source: www.bluesstammtisch.de/memorie.php

Alexis had a huge career also in broadcasting, hosting numerous radio and tv series on the music he loved. Later he toured restlessly all over Europe, triggering a blues boom on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Yet he never fully achieved either the celebrity or the financial rewards he deserved. This book celebrates a very special man, who died too young (at 55 on Jan 1st 1984). He deserves greater recognition. [There are lots of CDs available, videos on You Tube, online discographies and further info. Get surfing]

[I once had breakfast at the same hotel table with Alexis Korner, in Amsterdam at the first international Legalise Cannabis Conference, which I was covering for the NME and I also had the privilege of sharing a coach from London to Brighton and back with Captain Beefheart and he Magic Band in the early 70s.]

Source: louderthanwar

The Captain Beefheart bio is a stonker. Mike Barnes is not only intensely meticulous but his prose has a real zing in its step which brings Beefheart’s ‘out there’ music to life. A frenzied mixture of deep blues, rock, old Weird Americana  and free jazz, exemplified and crystallised in the acknowledged masterpiece of Beefheart’s ouevre ‘Trout Mask Replica’, Barnes relishes in its fury, complexity and intricate word play. He writes;

‘On the opening song, 'Frownland', the new universe of Trout Mask Replica is glimpsed in a one-and-a-half-minute microcosm. For the listener, at least, the tortuous rehearsals, hardship and deprivation had all been worth it. The standard role of the two guitars, bass and drums rock line-up is subverted to the point where nothing ever settles or is repeated to any extent. Stuttering drums vie for space with an angular bass and atonal guitar motif in a different metre, and soon a keening lead guitar line rips its way out of the tangled undergrowth. Less than fifteen seconds in, it dissolves into a torrent, the instruments thrashing around each other in complex contrapuntal patterns. But the music carries an inexorable forward motion - it rocks, in other words. The last piece in the puzzle is Van Vliet's vocal roar. He bellows out a yearning, soulful blues which further warps the already warped structure, pleading, 'I want my own land', realizing that his wish is becoming fulfilled as he sings the words.’

Barnes’ book provides a valuable key to understanding Beefheart the man and his often seemingly impenetrable music. As you will imagine, Don van Vliet’s life was a strange one. As a precocious child, he locked himself in his bedroom for three weeks whilst he modelled all the known mammals of the Northern hemisphere. Once hooked into music via his connection with Frank Zappa (they both lived in the same desert town), he proceeded to follow his unique musical path. He drilled his Magic Band obsessively, giving them alternative identities (Zoot Horn Rollo, The Mascara Snake etc) and browbeating them into learning complex musical pieces which he whistled but never wrote down. Kept in a permanent state of penury and hunger, the musicians stuck with his radical methods and produced music that has had a huge influence on a wide range of subsequent musical genres, analagous  to the effect William Burrough’s work has had on modern culture.

Source: http://home.gwi.net/~drrknrl/fzappa.html

Barry Miles bio on Zappa makes an idea companion piece. Zappa and Beefheart had the proverbial love/hate relationship for all of their lives yet each stimulated the other to produce landmark recordings.

By Miles’ account, the key event in Zappa’s life was when he was set –up by a cop who, in the guise of a used-car salesman, offered Zappa and his girlfriend to make an ‘exciting’ tape for a party, including ‘oral copulation’. Zappa spoofed the whole thing but when it came time to make the deal, he was busted on suspicion of conspiracy to manufacture pornographic materials and sex perversion – both felonies. Most of his six-month sentence was suspended but he did spend a hellish 10 days cramped together with 44 men in Tank C of the San Bernadino County Jail. Miles writes:

‘By the time he got out, he no longer believed anything the authorities had ever told him. Everything he had been taught at school about the American Way of Life was a lie. He would not be fooled again. He made sure that his pornographic tape was heard by everyone – he remade it time and time again…rubbing it in the face of respectable society, making America see itself as it really was: phoney mendacious, shallow and ugly.’

Zappa was blessed with a musical genius which he used to blend the ideas of the avant-garde composers Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky with 50s doo-wop to produce a vast catalogue of music that remains a unique body of work. His seeming lyrical obsession with sex and the underbelly of US society provided an odd counterpoint to the complex musical backgrounds, further pushing the boundaries at a time when busts for obscenity were common.

He doesn’t come across as a likeable characters. He treated his musicians with cold disdain and spend a large part of his life sequestered away in his own recording and film editing studios, living on a diet of hot dogs, coffee and cigarettes. His jail time put him off drug use completely but his sexual obsessions were given free reign. A control freak, he built intricate business empires and held court in ever-expanding homes where anything went.

Miles doggedly follows in detail the complexity of Zappa’s multivarious enterprises and brings to life most vividly the 60s musical scene in Los Angeles, both on Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon, where a stellar cast of seminal musicians snorted, puffed, partied and played their way to stardom.

‘Coming Through Slaughter’ by Michael Ondaatje [Picador.1984] ; ‘Alexis Korner: The Biography’ by Harry Shapiro [ Bloomsbury 1996]; ‘Captain Beefheart’ by Mike Barnes [Quarto 2000]; ‘Frank Zappa’ by Barry Miles [Atlantic Books. 2004]







Dersu Uzala cover art Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the world’s great film directors, best known for his samurai epics – Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. He made 53 films including these three, my current favourites.

Dersu Uzala (1975) is the only film he produced and financed outside Japan. After his early success, Kurosawa was involved in a failed Hollywood project and his subsequent Japanese productions failed to ignite the box office. In a fit of depression, he tried to commit suicide in Dec 1971 and it was unsure whether he would work again. But in 1973 he was approached by the Russian Mosfilm studios and he proposed to them an idea he had been thinking about for thirty years – to make a film of the memoirs of the Russian explorer Vladimir Arseniev, who surveyed huge areas of uncharted wilderness in Ussuriland in the Far East of Russia in the 19th century. During this expedition he met a nomadic tribesman Dersu Uzala who became the group’s guide and Arseniev’s personal friend. Shot in colour over the course of a year in  challenging conditions, it is a moving and beautiful film which has become a personal favourite.

Stray Dog cover art My other two favourites are amongst the earliest and best detective and police procedural films in Japanese cinema.

‘Stray Dog’ (1949) stars a young Toshiro Mifune – who was to appear in 16 Kurosawa films – as a rookie detective whose pistol is stolen. Trying to track it down leads him into the illegal weapons market and the hunt for a young gangster. Kurosawa brings alive the streets of a sweltering Tokyo and both acting and cinematography are brilliant.

High And Low cover art

Also great is ‘High and Low’ (1963), in which the son of wealthy industrialist (again played by Mifune), is kidnapped for ransom. The film’s interesting twist in the story should stay as a surprise. What I find fascinating is the way he documents the police investigation (reminds me of Fritz Lang’s ‘M’), again beautifully filmed with great characters. Based on an Ed McBain novel, it bears comparison with the great Hollywood film noir.



After Life cover art A Japanese director you may not have heard of, from a younger generation than Kurosawa, is  Hirokazu Koreeda. ‘After Life’ (1988) was his first feature film after making a string of documentaries and its a great one.

Set in and and around a dilapidated institution, this it seems is where the dead go before passing on to the other side. Here in less than a week, a trained team helps then isolate their one defining memory of their lives. This is then re-enacted and filmed; once screened the person disappears carrying that single memory only into an eternal future. From this unusual premise Koreeda builds a fascinating and truly original film, drawing on his documentary background and including real-life people alongside professional actors. Its genuinely moving and thought-provoking.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


ART HISTORY250  Let me begin by saying I am not the average reader of this book. I have been reasonably obsessed by the history of art since I was at school (a long time ago when, on school trips I first saw Ucello Brueghel, Pollock and Dali – all of which blew my mind).

In recent years I have spent an inordinate amount of time on three projects – one to find a diagrammatic way of representing individual artistic groups, second to find a way of mapping the history of art and three, collecting together pictures and paintings of artistic groups for a proposed book project. Thus when this new book appeared I devoured it in a couple of days.

John William Godward, RBA  (British 1861-1922) Violets, sweet violets tondo, 92 cm. (36 1/4 in.)

John William Godward, RBA (British 1861-1922) Violets, sweet violets tondo, 92 cm. (36 1/4 in.). Source: Bonhams

Gompertz was a former director of Tate Modern, responsible for their website and the Tate Magazine and is now head of BBC Arts. A thin voluble character with large specs and  flyaway hair, judging by a promo video on YouTube, he did a stand-up whiz through on modern art at the Edinburgh Festival which led to the commission for this book.

The book is, as you would expect, a chronological journey through the main artistic -isms of the last 150 years prefaced by one of his main treatises – that much modern art stems mainly from one man – Marcel Duchamp and his infamous urinal (signed R. Mutt and titled ‘Fountain’), a ready-made everyday object that by being exhibited in an art gallery became art. Thus art was no longer about painting on canvas or making sculptures but could be anything you could think of in any medium.

This is certainly the most accessible and unintimidating popular history of art available and is a great starting point as an introductory text to this fascinating subject. Its very readable, packed with interesting stuff and I learnt a lot by reading it.

I suspect his audience may be divided between those who would consider this work a dumbing down of art history and others, probably a younger readership, who would find his approach excellent and invigorating – and funny. They will, I think appreciate his contemporary references and jokey analogies and his determined attempt to blow the dust of art history and try and bring it to life for a contemporary audience. He writes: ‘There are times when those of us involved in the arts talk and write pretentious nonsense. Its a fact of life: rock stars trash hotels, sportsmen and women get injured, arts folk talk bollocks.’ His attempt to demistify the impenetrable and communicate his undoubted enthusiasm for his subject are to be applauded.

Now here come some caveats as the book is not without its problems which are worth examining, the most important being the relative shortage of illustration – limited to two 8pp colour sections, 39 black and white illustrations peppering the text and some very weak cartoons. This means that Gompertz has to describe in words a great many of the artworks he talks about which can get tedious and are difficult to visualise particularly if you haven’t seen the original before. There is also not a single picture of any of the artists themselves. Presumably the publisher would argue this is to keep the price down to make it affordable. The hardback edition as it stands is £20.

The book contains a fold-out which uses the London tube network graphic as the basis for mapping the art history the book contains  This time-honoured informational graphic has been used so many times to chart other subjects as well that it has become a bit of a cliché. But it works well with book to underline its strengths and weaknesses.

To follow the analogy, this is a main-line view of art history. The bid to create a strong narrative arc inevitably leads to simplification in the service of creating a tidier story – dominated by great men (Gompertz devotes one chapter to women artists), key moments, art groups and the –isms.

In actuality, a better model for the history of art would be a biological one – perhaps an unruly unpruned irradiated bush with thousands of interconnections growing from numerous root stocks which as it grows, mutates into unexpected formations and cross-pollinates with other plants to produce strange new fruit. (the intertwined nature of art and photography is still waiting to be properly evaluated and communicated).

The book ends with BritArt,  discussed in a fairly non-critical fashion, and the rise of street art (and, inevitably Banksy). Gompertz believes now that modern art is very market orientated and is dominated by a new –ism: Entrepeneurialism (a term he has personally coined) with its new emperors being  artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons and  the ‘Big Daddy’ of contemporary art dealing Larry Gagosian, who now has galleries in New York, Beverley Hills, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Rome and Geneva.

In a significant paragraph Gompertz writes:

‘For the most part, contemporary art has been devoid of a hard political edge, save for the odd intervention that has generally had the look of a bandwagon hastily being jumped upon. On the whole, even when the avant garde artists of our age have been at their most aggressive and challenging, they have tended to present their work with a cheeky grin rather than an angry scowl. The inclination has been to entertain not campaign. The big shifts in society that have taken place over the last twenty five years have been largely overlooked by high-profile artists.’



Source: ‘Art in the Middle East’  Prospero

This may be true at high-end of art but it certainly is not true in general terms. What the book lacks is a real understanding of the impact of digital technologies on art making practices, forms and styles. It also ignores the flood of work now emerging from Brazil, India and Egypt to name but three. Increasingly multimedia in form, totally global, permanently connected and fully engaged with the problems of our time – both aesthetic, cultural and political – the new art defies easy classification as its struggles to find ways of describing our post 9/11 world. Rauschenberg famously said something about that apocalyptic moment, that it was the greatest work of art created by the Devil. Time to bring on the angels.


Having given Gompertz his due, you’ll be thirsty for the deeper insights, wise judgment and sonorous language of what I and many others consider the greatest art writer and critic of our time – the recently departed Robert Hughes who died in August this year.

Fortunately all the episodes of his classic tv series ‘The Shock of The New’ are now available on YouTube. As is the remarkable ‘The New Shock of The New’ made in 2004. Everything that is good about Hughes is in this programme which starts with 9/11. Enjoy.