Monday, August 31, 2015

There's A Light That Never Goes Out

The Gaslight Anthem, 02 Shepherds Bush, 29th August 2015.

The title of this post is the second Smith’s reference I’ve made of late, which should probably tell you something, but as Brian Fallon and the boys pull the plug for the foreseeable future on the best live band of the past decade I feel a certain amount of melancholy is justified.

A capacity crowd jammed into what is arguably London’s’ best and worst concert venue (depending on which level you end up on) to see the final headline gig of New Jersey’s finest export since some guy called Bruce Springsteen turned up at the Hammersmith Odeon in ’75. I arrived fashionably late and on my own, rocking up halfway through the set of the night’s only support act, Against Me. Neither my lateness nor my lack of company had me in the best frame of mind to enjoy the evening, but 20 minutes or so chain sawing riffs and reverb turned out to be just what I needed. To be honest Against Me are not really my thing. Their brand of punk is too hard and heavy for me to enjoy in the comfort of my own home, but playing live they are a glorious crowd surfing mess of feedback-ridden angst and while they didn’t quite manage to convert me there is no denying the fact that they rock.
Next came a protracted interval while the crew set up the stage for the main event. For me this time was spent nursing an overpriced beer and joining the majority of the other patrons in a period of phone staring. Having recently returned from America, and Tennessee in particular I was struck once again by how insular and aloof we Brits tend to be when shoved into a room with strangers. Had this gig been in Nashville I don’t doubt that I would have known the entire life story of the guy next to me and he mine by the time the house lights dimmed again. But eventually they did dim and Gaslight Anthem took to the stage, kicking off with ‘Handwritten’, which was quickly followed by two more crowd pleasers ‘Rollin & Tumblin’ and the superb ‘Old White Lincoln’.

The band were undeniably tight, the sound superb and Brian’s vocals right on point as they mined their back catalogue, uncovering gems like ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Diamonds of The Church Street Choir’. Even so I couldn’t help thinking something was missing, (not least my usual companion as that last track is her favorite) and even a surprise appearance by Frank Turner on the slowed down version of ‘Great Expectations’ that is preferred live these days couldn’t shake the feeling that I was indeed witnessing the end of something. If the rest of the crowd sensed it too they did their best not to show it as the set built inexorably towards its climax with back-to-back classics in the shape of ‘American Slang’ and ‘45’ before the house was well and truly brought down by ’The '59 sound’.

There was nothing you could describe as an encore, Gaslight Anthem don’t really go in for that and before the raucous cheering had even begun to die down they launched headlong into their final song of the night. The usual closer ‘Backseats’ was replaced by ‘Diner,’ a standard at live shows for nearly 10 years now and a fitting way to end things. The audience joining in and their chants perhaps sending a message, both to each other and the band themselves as they head off on their uncertain hiatus.

It’s alright man, I’m only bleeding man, stay hungry, stay free and do the best you can.”

I very nearly didn’t go to this gig, but if this is to be the end of the road for The Gaslight Anthem then I’m glad I was there to see them go out on a high. If nothing else at least I can now answer the question posed by the lyrics of ’59 sound’ and say that, yes I did get to hear my favorite song one last time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The ramblings of an unquiet mind

"I smoke because I'm hoping for an early death, and I need to cling to something. "
That was Morrissey's take on it anyway, and once I might have been inclined to agree with him, but now I'm not so sure.

As I sit here in my budget hotel room ruminating on the universe and my small part in it, I realize that I am now officially closer to fifty than I am to forty.

I guess this means I may now be forced to accept the idea that if it’s not here already then middle age will very soon be upon me. This shit is not something I ever expected to happen to me, in truth I’m still kind of surprised I survived my twenties. However, having made it this far I find the prospect of getting older isn’t actually all that bad, and it’s certainly better than the alternative. For example I’ll soon be able to shake my fist and yell, “Get off my lawn” at small children (note to self: you need a lawn, find out how to get one. I think it may involve doing something with seeds, but you'd better.) I will also be freed from the burden of dress sense and finally able pull my pants up really high and who knows maybe even wear socks with sandals in public without being ridiculed. Okay, so maybe not that last one. But I do have a mid-life crisis to look forward to, which should net me a convertible or at the very least a new hipster hairstyle and a pair of skinny jeans.
So while being away from home and other regrets mean that I won’t be doing much in the way of celebrating this time, in fact I suspect the half-hour I spent getting a tooth filled the other day will turn out to be the highlight of my week, I am still grateful the devil has seen fit not to call in my marker just yet. I have a sneaky suspicion this is only because he’s having way too much fun watching me fuck up in this life, but you know what, screw him. It ain't like I was ever going to get out of this alive in any case.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Snake Farming

When I heard that my ZP brother, Gareth Spark was having a launch party for his new short story collection, SNAKE FARM I immediately typed the words ‘up north’ into my car’s satnav and hit the road. Some five hours later I arrived in Gareth’s hometown of Whitby on the north east coast of the UK. What followed was an evening of Brit Grit fiction, poetry and Scrumpy Jack Cider, with a little blues guitar thrown in for good measure.

Chris Firth, head honcho of Electraglade Press kicked things off. He was followed by and local up and coming poet Sam Brewster who read superbly in spite of this being her first time in the spotlight. Then it was time for the main event. Gareth started off with some crime tales, including two of my favourite Spark shorts, ‘American Tan’ and ‘Regal Kingsize’ before mixing it up a little with a western first published on the now sadly defunct Big Adios site and rounding out with a gritty horror. It’s fair to say he nailed all of them.
Hearing Gareth read reminded me why I love short fiction. Distilling a whole story into a couple of thousand words is a real skill. If it’s done well it can to blow you away. Gareth Spark does it very well indeed. Go buy a copy of SNAKE FARM and check that out for yourself.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Roadkill Review: The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

This is a curious novel. Short, but not at all to the point. As you would expect from Daniel Woodrell the writing is largely superb. His prose is more lyrical here than in previous outings, and while generally suited to the tone of the book there were places where it was in danger of overshadowing the story. That in itself is a minor grumble, a bigger issue for me is the wandering narrative, which often dead-ends in vignettes of bit-part players and robs the book of any real momentum.

The Maid’s Version is not a bad book. It’s just not my kind of book. I am not really one for musings and metaphors. This is as close as Woodrell has come to writing an out-and-out literary novel. I have a horrible suspicion that may prove to be his ultimate objective. If that is the case then I wish him well, but I don't think we can remain friends.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Pulling Hard on the Sorrow and Smoke

The UK has always been reluctant to embrace American culture. It’s not that we dislike all things USA, they're just not really, you know...our cup of tea. Here a minor celebrity TV dance-off will guarantee prime time ratings while outstanding shows like Breaking Bad run unnoticed in late night slots, often disappearing from the screen all together after just one or two series.

The same is largely true of American music. The UK charts have their fair share of US pop acts, but real American music barely gets any airplay. Country artists who sell millions of records across the pond (if you are under the age of 30 a record is a hard copy of a download) are routinely ignored here. In fact country music is often the subject of ridicule. For many it conjures up visions of sad old men dressed like John Wayne, yee-hawing at Kenny Rogers tribute acts in the working men's clubs of small provincial towns. In an attempt to avoid this widely held stereotype country is sometimes re-branded as folk music in the UK, which doesn't really help as that suggests bearded men in cable knit sweaters singing about sheep dogs. Sometimes you just can’t win.
I might be getting old (at least I am according to Katie who insists I am fast approaching the age of socks and sandals), but I don’t dress in western attire or cable knit sweaters for that matter, and I have rarely, if ever been known to yee-haw. However I do have a deep abiding love of that much maligned brand of American music.

Last Sunday evening I drove the 70 odd miles back to my own provincial home town and met up with my two oldest friends, who had reluctantly agreed to come with me to see one of the best singer / songwriters they (and probably you) have never heard of, Slaid Cleaves.
Over a drink or two in the bar of the Sun Hotel we got caught up and generally congratulated each other on still being alive and kicking after all these years, before heading upstairs for the musical entertainment.
Our reminiscing in the bar had lead to us rocking up a little after the advertised start time, which was apparently a felony offence judging by the withering look we got from the guy on the door. I have been to a lot of gigs in my time, most were in cramped dark clubs with sticky floors. The pastel pink walls of The Sun Hotel's function room and the hundred or so dinning chairs, arranged around the postage stamp stage made me think we had mistakenly walked in on a wedding reception. I could see by the dubious looks my two friend's exchanged that this wasn't what they had been expecting either.  
We hurriedly made our way to the only reaming seats, which were way over in back. I had never actually been to a concert where the audience was required to sit before. Sure, sometimes I had, but only on the floor and only when I was too wasted to stand. At least there were no cowboy hats on the heads in front of us to block our view.
Any doubts about the venue were quickly forgotten as Slaid launched into the stone cold classic, Horseshoe Lounge. His soft, effortless vocal soaring above the crisp melodies of Scrappy Newcomb's guitar. My friends nodded their approval.
The next song was another old favourite, My Drinking Days Are Over, which was followed by the brand new, Take Home Pay both of which received generous applause from a knowledgeable audience (please note the absence of any yee-hawing.) I could see by the foot tapping action going on alongside me that my friends were digging it and by the time Slaid had worked through a few songs from his latest album, Still Fighting The War including the damn near perfect blue-collar heartbreak of Welding Burns they were hooked.
Slaid & Me (My buddy is no photographer)
It goes without saying that Slaid Cleaves is a an accomplished musician, but more than that he is a damn fine storyteller too. His lyrics speak of hard times, working men and smoky bars. Call it County or Folk or whatever the hell you like, I really don't give a shit, for me good music is the same as good literature, it’s all about the story.
Time flies when you're having a blast and all too soon we had reached the wistful longing of Slaid's traditional closer, One Good Year. When the applause had died down I shook hands with my friends, and they both left for home clutching newly purchased copies of Still fighting the War. For my part, I left feeling very grateful that Slaid Cleaves still bothered to tour a country that had the nerve to relegate his exceptional talent to the upstairs room of a small town hotel. 


Monday, April 13, 2015

Roadkill Review: Joyland by Stephen King

Part mystery, part horror and part bittersweet coming of age drama. Joyland tries to be a lot of things at once and while overall it largely succeeds as a novel, it fails to do most of those individual elements any real justice.
Mystery aficionados may feel this Carny whodunit has a faint whiff of the Scooby Doo about it (I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you medalling kids!) While traditional King fans will no doubt be disappointed with the under-developed Shinning-esque sub plot. It’s the nostalgic, last summer of innocence feel to the narrative that works best out of the three, and in spite of a lot of foreshadowing it had me invested and even left me feeling a little wistful toward the end.  It might not be Stand by Me, but it ain’t too shabby either.
“When it comes to the past everybody writes fiction.”
While lines like that may give you reason to pause and consider your own rose colored glasses you can argue that others such as, “It was the best and the worst autumn of my life,” do nothing for you and I’d have to agree. If anyone other than King had written that one I would have probably ditched the book on principal right there and then. But over the past 30 years Steve and me have reached an understanding. I overlook these odd literary indulgences and he usually repays me with a pretty good story, and although flawed Joyland really is just that.  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Roadkill Review: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

I must be one of the few people over the age of forty who had never read this book. At this distance it would be easy to dismiss Fear & Loathing as nothing more than a drug addled romp through the desert--a coked-out fuck up of a book throwing up on its own shoes in some dingy back alley--and maybe it is. But it's also a lot of fun and it says much about the time in which it was written.

In 1971 American was at war, not only in Vietnam but also with itself. The sixties were over. Peace and love had been replaced by something else. The American dream was still out there, somewhere, but the idea of exactly what it should be was now up for debate. As Thompson puts it, “Consciousness expansion went out with LBJ, and it’s worth noting historically that downers came in with Nixon.”
The times were indeed a-changing. Dylan might have gone electric in 65, but it took a little longer for the world at large to realize the age of innocence was over and plug in. From then on it was every man for himself and to hell with the rest; to hell with consequences too. 

Thompson's tale of manic excess encapsulates that brave new dawn and then proceeds to burn it up with mescaline and a wry smile. But hidden in the dope haze, behind the bloodshot eyes of a four day bender lurks an unrequited longing for a simpler time when Scott McKenzie advocated no trip to San Francisco would be complete without flowers in your hair and John Lennon claimed that love was all you needed.

If Kerouac was the voice of the post war beat generation, then Hunter S. Thompson speaks for all those who came down from the summer of love and spent the rest of their lives wondering just where the hell it all went wrong.

Does any of that make Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas great literature? Probably not. But it does make it worth your time.