Saturday, 28 November 2009

69. 10 Songs to the Left

Look Left - Salako
Left of Center - Suzanne Vega
Southpaw - Morrissey
Pass The Dutchie - Musical Youth
A Nervous Tic motion of the Head to the Left - Andrew Bird
If You're Feeling Sinister - Belle and Sebastian
Ziggy Stardust - David Bowie
Upfield - Billy Bragg
Sleep on the Left Side - Cornershop
Pancho & Lefty - Townes Van Zandt

And then there's "Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, running down the wing." I mean Left like that. But also like that.
I'm Left. In every way, unavoidably and inexorably of and from the left. If I were ever, God forbid, to have to answer the command "Tell us about yourself in five words" with a degree of seriousness, Left would be the first thing I'd say, more defining than race, upbringing, job, anything. Less than 10% of people are left-handed, but that includes me and my three siblings. My father is left-handed too, but growing up in Ireland in the 40s/50s, he was made to use his right hand. The Latin for left is sinister, the French is gauche. Left has not only got associations with awkwardness and uncoordination, it also had connotations of ungodliness.
Funnily enough, the one thing about me not quite lefty is that I'm right-footed, but as a 7/8 year-old I didn't like that fact, so i used to say I had "two left feet" thinking that was a good thing which made me left-footed in a sense. I ended up mainly playing as a left-winger, being basically two-footed and, when i think about it, scoring most of my good goals with my left. An educated left foot in the sense I educated myself to use it.
A phrase like educated left foot emphasises the shift in perception on leftism in the last century. Left is now cool, thank goodness - arty, bohemian, seen as stylish and elegant in sport. Giggs, Maldini, Maradona, McEnroe, Lara, Gower etc but there's a bit of an illusion to this, I think, which has linked the oddness of looking at someone doing something the wrong way round with the so-called artistic temperament. I don't necessary think lefties are inclined to be more stylish in sport. Furthermore, someone like David Gower was actually right-handed, using his stronger right hand as guiding top hand, and Rafa Nadal is actually right-handed as well but switched to gain an advantage on double-handed backhands.
Which is one of the other things about leftism in sport - sometimes, as with batting in cricket, it's an advantage (bowlers not being able to bowl their natural line to you, harder to get out LBW) so there are a disproportionate number, while sometimes, as with golf, (lack of good equipment growing up, courses built for right-handers) it's a disadvantage, so there's a very small number of successes. In golf, to be fair, it's growing all the time.
Obviously, despite the best efforts of Ned Flanders, many things are set up for right-handers, which puts us lefties (incidentally, i kind of have a love/hate relationship with the word Lefty. If I'd grown up in America in the middle of the 20th century, i suspect I'd be known as Lefty McGee - how splendid that would have been) at an inherent disadvantage - household implements, writing paper, hockey sticks, musical instruments. The great Gruff Rhys, i think, just changed round all the strings on a right-handed guitar so he could play it left-handed. Genius, Anyway, i suppose you wouldn't say Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher etc were at too much of a disadvantage.
I'd be very interested in a study on the relationship between left-handedness and leftness of politics. I can't help but imagine there'd be a huge correlation, for various reasons. Having said that, I've just looked up that the number of recent US presidents who are left-handed is heavy, including Ford, George Bush Sr, (Reagan ambidextrous) who don't illustrate my point - Clinton and Obama though, pleasingly.
My own leftness took a bit of a detour recently - i suppose it's just a natural burst of cynicism you get at my age, but I'm through the worst of it. And the fact is, it is hard these days to hold a consistent line. What you align yourself with or find contemptible may be on either side of the spectrum on any given day, and I think the main mistake people these days is making their enemies' enemy their friend. Who can be entirely immune to this? I've certainly found myself, disillusioned with kneejerk liberal positions, taking some fairly odd right-wing stances at points, a bit too immersed in the role of devil's advocate.
So i read this book 'What's Left' by Nick Cohen, a real disillusioned lefty text, which got the author some real hatred in liberal circles. There are some really excellent, powerful sections in it, but it's not full of much joy and love, that's for sure.
I'm naturally inclined to people of the left -of whatever sort - and there was a time where I had a pretty weird understanding, a sense of leftism, which informed my own movements and choices, and meant i could often pretty quickly discern other left-handers - and not just from watching them writing .... That's faded entirely, and it's pretty hard to explain it now.
i haven't talked about the songs at all, a nice little voyage through the various meanings of left. Ziggy Stardust "played it left hand, but made it too far, became the special man, then we were Ziggy's band" in case you were wondering.

You grabbed the paper from my hand,
a toddler tired of his own toys,
you're asking - what's that?
just another lament for
the death of the left
as if there aren't
bigger things to deal with
as christmas passed christmasless-
a kiss lost in listlessness
I'm asking - what's left?
as shadow replaces doubt
your faith fluttered in then out
What's left? my world, my mind,
and five fingernails chewed to the bone.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

68. 10 Songs about Time

Time - Tom Waits
Time Has Told Me - Nick Drake
Time Passes - Paul Weller
Out of Time - Blur
I'm Outta Time - Oasis
Who Knows Where The Time Goes - Fairport Convention
Turn Turn Turn - The Byrds
Time - David Bowie
Time is on My Side - The Rolling Stones
Time Passes Slowly - Bob Dylan

Well, I've brought out the big guns on this. Universal subject, everyone's had a go at it (could have gone for loads of different artists, loads and loads, but i chose the big ones - even my cousin wrote and sung a very pretty song about time, called Time). Time, time, time ... time, eh? Oooh, love a bit of time ... can't get enough of it.
I mean, really, what's to say? It seems a bit moronic to have this as a topic - Here are David's thoughts on time. Really, they're very interesting.
According to Bob Dylan, Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast. The great wordsmith of popular music, ladies and gentlemen.
So, everyone has time on their mind all the time, I assume, just like I do. I used to be unable to go through a day without thinking "Gosh, it's so weird that such-and-such happened a year ago" or "Gosh, it's so weird that I was younger five seconds ago than I am now" or "Gosh, it's so weird that a minute ago, the past was the present" but, you know I'm a tiny little bit less ridiculous than I used to be.
I think the challenge most of these songs overcome successfully is exactly that - to turn what will inevitably be truism into something profound.
Who knows where the time goes? Just a cliche, but one of the most beautiful lines ever sung.
Time passes ... so quickly - just a cliche, but the most heart-wrenching line Paul Weller's ever sung
Time falls wanking to the floor - ok, well done, Mr Bowie, that's not a cliche.

Anyway, time it's like really big and like deep and stuff.
I say

You draw a line
on a sheet of A4
to tell me all
about my God

a trick of the eye
at the Science Museum
baffled me
into submission

A blank expanse
that hurts the brain
beyond my and
your comprehension

but, after all,
time's only numbers
and it's numbers
that are everything

Friday, 20 November 2009

67. 10 Songs about Dogs

Black Dog -Led Zeppelin
Black Dog on My Shoulder - Manic Street Preachers
Black Eyed Dog - Nick Drake
Hellhound on my Trail - Robert Johnson
Hounds of Love - Kate Bush
Visit from the Dead Dog - Ed Harcourt
I Wanna be your Dog - Iggy and the Stooges
Hound Dog - Elvis Presley
Dog on Wheels - Belle and Sebastian
Maybe Tomorrow (theme from The Littlest Hobo) - Terry Bush

So, Man's Best Friend, eh? Elvis (Leiber/Stoller) and Robert Johnson rather set the template for how dogs might be used in the lexicon of rock'n'roll. Then, the Black Dog of Nick Drake and the Manics is depression (inspired byWinston Churchill). That's one of the prettiest Manics songs, one of their last really good songs.
Sadly, hardly any of these songs are about actual dogs. I ought to have included I Love My Dog by Cat Stevens.
Talking of which (doubly) we had cats and a dog when i was a child. My mother's name is Stevens, and yet, somehow or other, in the 17 years that both or one of them were with us, it never crossed my mind to call either Cat Stevens. How did that happen? I called them everything else under the sun. Life is full of lost opportunities.
And our dog was called Tramp. She was female, a mongrel, a bit mental, could run very fast, a year older than me, managed a good 14 years. One time, she was very ill, and I was home alone one night and i stayed up all night sitting with her under the stairs reading her Oliver Twist. I kept on checking her nose and it was dry, very dry, and she was shivering and whimpering. But in the morning her nose had a bit of dampness to it and she went on to live almost a year more after that. Well done, Charles Dickens.
I guess that was my first Dark Night of the Soul, albeit a 12 year old's version.

Here's a man about a dog ....

The muzzled dog went running
through the conquered streets of Ealing

she growled and showed her anger
to all who'd dare to listen

She cursed and struck her life blows
and she never would be beaten -

I know what you are thinking
but you can't know how i'm feeling.

The muzzled dog is pawing
at the unforgiving pavement

and all she's got's this nothing
this ever-raging nothing,

there's no rock for her to cling to
no truth she has recourse to

and she keeps on running madly
chasing crazier slights and triumphs.

Only comfort's been this nothing
and that's no refuge at all.

The old black cat's still sleeping
but she can't hear him purring,

there's no rhythm to her footsteps,
no target to her anger.

she's so far from where she started
no sense to all this knowledge,

no tenets to the trivia,
and the jealousy's unceasing

and the present is a nothing
but the muzzled dog keeps running.

Friday, 13 November 2009

66. 10 Songs about Dead Males

What a Wonderful Man -My Morning Jacket
Oliver James - Fleet Foxes
A Friend of Ours - Elbow
Boulder to Birmingham - Emmylou Harris
Danny Callahan - Bright Eyes
The Leader of the Pack - The Shangri-Las
It Just Is - Rilo Kiley
Henry Lee - PJ Harvey & Nick Cave
Local Boy in the Photograph - Stereophonics
Tonight's the Night - Neil Young

Again, there are more than enough of these to choose from. I guess the rock'n'roll people know a lot of friends and peers who've died before their time, and it may be a badge of honour to compose a fitting tribute.
I think these are all fine songs. Danny Callahan just floors me, a song with a real sucker punch. At his best, Conor Oberst really is quite something as a lyricist. One could use this as an opportunity to slag the Stereophonics and say this is their one decent song, but in recent times I've been thinking they got rather a rough deal from us post-Britpop indie kids. I think they've probably got a reasonable amount of decent songs, they just got a bit too big, and were liked by "the wrong sort of people".
Henry Lee is pretty much an inversion of Where the Wild Roses Grow, Boulder to Birmingham is about Gram Parsons and What a Wonderful Man, well that is just a great tune.
I'd also like to note a possible mistake in my previous post. I had The Trapeze Swinger as about a dead girl, but I now think it's the dude himself that's the dead one, so I guess that could be in this category. Bloomin' great song, though.
So, here's one about a dead dude. Perhaps it's relatively obvious which one. Doesn't really matter.

Another elegy ticked off, my inane grin
well practised casts the darkest shadow.
Another drink with a drunk in a lunchtime pub
stumbles off to noteless nowhere - I've learnt at least
not to cry for my own grim lifeblood as it fails.

Another cult, a stately fraud I barely halt
at joining, then thrust my tossy pronouncements
forward to general embarrassment, or worse.
Another cult, a single scene, a study in loss
which restores life to all briefly, too briefly.

Another life, I'd have the grace not to laugh
at one man's tatty tragedy enacted on
the least glamorous streets of inner London.
O brother, you ain't looked at me in years
and I can't bring myself to bring myself down for it.

Another pompous word too soon, causes natural,
restlessness traps you too early, quietly
on the most glamorous streets of downtown New York
your rictus grin as ill-fitting as mine, poor soul.
You deserve better, both best left alone.

Monday, 9 November 2009

65. 10 Songs about Dead Females

Fire and Rain - James Taylor
For a Dancer - Jackson Browne
Candle in the Wind - Elton John
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll - Bob Dylan
Julia - The Beatles
Goodbye Suzie - John Howard
Jenny Was a Friend of Mine - The Killers
Casimir Pulaski Day - Sufjan Stevens
The Trapeze Swinger - Iron and Wine
Where the Wild Roses Grow - Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue

Cheerful, eh? But this has been a very fertile theme for great songs. I really love pretty much all these songs and there are way more I could have chosen. And, in case you were wondering, this will soon be followed by 'Songs About Dead Males'.

Being a sentimental fellow, I'm a big fan of the elegiac sentimental ballads among these, especially For a Dancer and Casimir Pulaski Day, very sad songs which ring true.
Then there are the ones where the death itself is more the issue, whether Nick Cave, master of Murder Ballads, or the news song Hattie Carroll, which many consider one of the Dylan's greatest, for all that it's not entirely factual.

I liked the poems of Carol Ann Duffy when i studied them - she quite often got inside the head of unreliable psychotic male narrators, and the tale of hinted at violence would gradually unfold. So I could have tried to write some kind of murder ballad rather more comfortably than Elton John's Ode to Jade Goody, or whatever - but in the end the idea of getting inside the head of a psychopath and putting that in words didn't appeal to me.
It was Keith Richards who said Elton John could only write songs about dead blondes, which is relatively funny, and does set one thinking if a whole album of such material could have been produced. Dando, Smith, the list goes on ... Anyhoo

I fell between two stools. I had a nice idea, but this is just one of those times where I very much wish I was better at writing, as I liked what i thought of, but the words really don't do justice to the idea.

You wanted to hire bikes but I don't like to cycle
so we drove from St Davids up to Crackington Haven
That's where you'd spent your best days of childhood
and you weren't the only one - it took an hour to find a space.
Couples out walking on the cliffs over the bay -
but one of us forgot to bring along the sun cream.

The beer was called Doom Bar, you can get it in London -
the pub was packed and we had to drink out of plastic.
You wanted to play tennis but there wasn't enough space
and besides. I'd have got a headache, running after drinking.
I said I could see why you liked the place so much and
you looked away and said it was not like you remembered.

It took half an hour to get the car back to the main road,
you told me to be careful of the glare and weekend drivers.
"Weekend drivers like me?" I asked with just the wrong tone
I always seem to acquire on a couple of afternoon pints.
You sighed; I'd heard that sigh so much in the last two months
and neither of us could have got back to London soon enough.

I asked if I could put on the end of the football,
you said "please do" in that tone you'd use to counter.
It was 0-0 between two teams destined for mid-table
and i sped up as we came close to some place called Okehampton
and only saw the golf ball bouncing down the road
soon enough to swerve and spin into the dry-stone wall

We were nowhere near a golf course, just a kid in his garden
practising his chipping and wildly overhitting.We'd have
split up, I reckon, within a couple of weeks and
you'd have been free to start again with someone a bit better who
you'd cycle with to Crackington Haven and walk along the cliff
and tell them "it's just as beautiful as i ever remembered."

Thursday, 5 November 2009

64. 10 Songs from my 10 Favourite Albums of the Last 10 Years

So, it is that time again, irrestistible to an inveterate lister like myself, when the lists and polls come out, whether in a fun small personal way or a big annoying publication way.
Uncut has already done their Top 150 albums of the 21st century, and as is obvious from my taste, I've been an avid Uncut reader for many years and it's informed my music taste more than most.
Their list, however, was sufficiently irritating to make me, for the first time, write a letter of complaint, or warning to the editor.
It's hard to put my finger on what was wrong exactly (i did attempt to, at length, in the letter, but i won't bore you with too many details) and I wasn't so out of step with the list, as I owned 100 of the 150, but I felt that rather qualified me to comment on how awry some of the choices at the top of the list were compared to some much lower down or ignored entirely. Indeed, i noted that most of the albums that really were my favourites of the last ten years weren't there at all.
This prompted me - well, ok, it didn't prompt me, i'd have done it anyway - to list my favourite 10 albums of the last 10 years, and then, for the purpose of the blog, to choose one song from each. The order isn't in terms of favourites, but in terms of what'll make the best compilation tape order.
I will attempt to explain and offer excuses for exclusions afterwards

To be Young, is to be Sad, is to be High - Ryan Adams (Heartbreaker)
The Shining - Badly Drawn Boy (Hour of the Bewilderbeast)
Shining Light - Ash (Free All Angels)
Bryte Side - The Pernice Brothers (The World Won't End)
Hummingbird - Wilco (A Ghost is Born)
Van Occupanther - Midlake (The Trials of Van Occupanther)
More Adventurous - Rilo Kiley (More Adventurous)
Jesus Etc - Wilco (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
Sad Eyes - Josh Rouse (Nashville)
Dinner at Eight -Rufus Wainwright (Want One)

OK, so two Wilco. Boo, you might say, but, both these albums really are just better and better every listen and inseparable. Indeed, Wilco (The Album) was a fair contender too. And no Furries? But i love the Furries! Yes, but I will admit they haven't released a defining album this century, nor really have B and S.
Unlucky to miss out are Funeral, victim of me not really liking Arcade Fire's second album and so going off them, Come on Feel the Illinoise, an extraordinary work, but just a bit too busy, Is This It and Fleet Foxes, both just a bit too ... popular, Strangers by Ed Harcourt, which I love, Hate by the Delgados and Moving Up Country by James Yorkston, and Josh Rouse, Ryan Adams and Rilo Kiley both also could have had two albums on the list, in 1972, Gold and Execution of all Things.
And you can say Badly Drawn Boy? Really? But remember how good it was when it came out, and how well it all fitted together. Ash I make no apology for, that's just an album full of golden tunes. Rufus Wainwright might elicit the same response as Badly Drawn Boy - i think Want One is his one great album, its follow-up unspeakably poor.
For once, I haven't tried to be fair and show i was eclectic - there really are no hip-hop, soul, pop, dance albums anywhere near it (and I have bought a few), it's pretty much all alt-country for me. I am slightly disappointed that these albums don't stand out more, they're hardly definitive or breathtaking, they're just my favourites. I'm drawn, in an way, to quite middling music ...
Anyway, this blog was started with the idea of me trying to establish some orthodoxy of critical judgement, a basically impossible task. Lists are always going to be vexing bullshit to a greater or lesser extent.

Amusingly, what I wrote below is actually from exactly 10 years ago, in response to some bullshit Channel 4 Music of the Millennium Poll, where, as I recall, Robbie Williams was judged the 6th most significant artist of the Millenium. Behind the Vengaboys. Not really.
I'd hope that I'd matured since then and i was more capable of restraining my apoplexy, but although it's modified, and I wouldn't expect better of Channel 4, with Uncut it really was a case of "I expected better of you".
This is funny: it's like some crazy rhyme heavy performance stuff, like Scroobius Pip or something. Talking of lists, his list song Thou Shalt Not Kill, that's fun.

I'd like to dismiss as
ridiculous these tricksters
who pick pocket polls -
but they're taking their toll.
What kind of shit is this?
Whose Christmas wishlist?
What sickness infects us
that taste is so restless?
Maybe I'm twisted,
listless and pissed off,
a stickler for mistakes
in critic list pisstakes
so wearyingly risque,
focus-group risk takes -
but if these lists didn't exist
I'd miss what they miss.