ARTYFACTS: April 2013

Monday, April 29, 2013

Loudon Wainwright - songs from the heart (a flawed heart)

“I get the feeling that you're my sort of demographic” said Loudon as he came on stage. There were indeed a large number of men who looked like the cast from Curb Your Enthusiasm, including me. I use that reference carefully as you can be damn sure that everyone on the room loves both.
He’s 66 coming on 19, with 22 albums under his still trim belt and I’ve been listening to him for nearly 40 years – boy that sounds weird, and still listen to tracks he released on those early albums, especially Attempted Moustache. In any case last night was one of those evenings where artist and audience felt easy with the idea that they’ve spent most of their lives in each others company. The witty banter flowed easily and the audience belted out requests, some of which he played, liked Motel Blues and Primrose Hill. This is the first time I’ve seen him insert narratives into the show, pieces that his dad wrote for LIFE magazine. They were overlong but we forgive him, as we all get a bit ‘overlong’ in our storytelling as the years progress. 
Wainwright has always been an intensely autobiographical song writer, with lots of songs about the way he treated (and mistreated) his now famous offspring. ‘Rufus was a Tit Man’ was the least prophetic, as he turned out to be gay and Loudon hilariously recalled the Long Island wedding, irreverently recalling his role as ‘the father of the…partner’. He then played the song he wrote for the wedding. This is why people love him and his song writing. He’s not balladeer. These songs are straight from the heart, a flawed heart. They’re all about his egoism, mistakes and misjudgements, not an imagined life but a life lived. Sometimes they’re just plain beautiful observations, like the Swimming Song, but mostly they’re wry and a bit twisted.
On this night, most of the songs were about ageing. How brave is that? Not twee, but edgy songs, about aches, sex, walking the dog, being aware of being stalked by death. Sounds odd, but they were life affirming and I felt as though I’d been out for a long, lingering, drunken meal with an old friend.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Good Vibrations: Teenage Kicks right through the night…alright

Paul Morley puts Manchester’s musical success down to the ‘scene’, a habitat of musicians, journalists, record shop owners, print shops and then the secret sauce – entrepreneurial types like Tony Wilson. Belfast’s had its own piratical fixer, the one-eyed, Terri Hooley.
Hooley, in the midst of the chaos of the Troubles, opened a record shop, then started a record label, organised gigs and put out records, He pulled bands into his orbit and most famously discovered The Undertones and the legendary Teenage Kicks. When the song is played half way through the film, you almost cry with joy, it’s that good. I’m welling up just thinking about it! Never mind that the lyrics could have been written by the Bay City Rollers, this is the song that put Belfast on the musical map (even though The Undertones came from Derry). Who would have thought that Northern Ireland, of all places, would have produced punk’s most optimistic masterpiece, the flipside of all that angst, anger and aggro.
It’s a cosy, little film that focuses on the haphazard route that punk took in those days, fuelled more by enthusiasm than business sense and all the better for it. The record companies in London all rejected Teenage Kicks until John Peel famously played it twice in a row. That was it. What Hooley did was create a little bit of Northern Ireland that was beyond the religious divide. He didn’t give a monkey’s about religion, just the music that kids of all types wanted to play, hear and dance to.
Forget the flute bands, listen to Van Morrison and Teenage Kicks and you’ll see the real side of Northern Ireland. I’ve been to Derry more than a few times and you couldn’t meet a more open and friendlier bunch of people. They like a laugh and are relentlessly optimistic. Teenage Kicks is their anthem and every time it’s played the world’s a little bit happier than it was before.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Gatekeepers: Israel and the wisdom of old men

Talking heads are much disparaged in media circles but sometimes they go straight to the point. These are the testimonies of Shin Bet men who have killed, tortured and affected the lives of millions of people through their intelligence and security roles in Israel. Yet, their words are full of insights, remorse and wisdom.
You’re taken through a whistle-stop history of Israel from the Six Day War onwards but from the depths of the Shin Bet intelligence world, not the surface phenomena of political spin. Oslo, the first and subsequent Intifadas, settlements, right wing Jewish terrorism, Rabin's assassination, to the era of anonymous assassinations from the sky.
Scathing of Israeli Prime Ministers, who took no real interest in the Palestinians, they had to learn fluent Arabic and speak to the perceived enemy. They saw, with their own eyes, the plight of the refugees. They saw what was in their hearts and in their retirement had become remorseful and arguably more objective and clear-headed.
Tactics, no strategy
The great problem was ‘tactics, no strategy’. Successive Israeli governments have tackled terrorism through tactics, without looking for a strategic solution. Rabin was assassinated, by internal, far-right terrorists, the settlement problem grew unopposed, Hebron became a nightmare and the whole occupation now threatens the very existence of the Israeli state.
The most interesting part of the film comes when Shin Bet had to turn away from the old external enemy to fight the enemy within – the far right group based in Hebron but with links to the Knesset. This group of religious extremists set out to bomb and murder 250 Palestinians in a bus attack in Jerusalem, thinking it would bring on Armageddon, the final conflict, but were tracked and arrested, only to be released a short time later. Israel, it implied, is in the hands of these people, as the settlements continue unopposed. But the true turning point was the assassination of Rabin by Yigal Amir, an act that changed Israel and one which we still live with today -  a swing to the religious right.
Words of wisdom
The final words are damning. “We’ve won every battle but have lost the war….we are a colonial and occupying force… just like the Germans…. we’ve become cruel….” These hard-nosed Bin Shet chiefs are no angels but they’ve gathered a certain amount of wisdom through what they’ve done, and sometimes regretted. That wisdom is captured in this film. Great work.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Works – advice banned but taken on Pointless, pointy thing, Bulgarian mystery and Sexy sixty

A rather ‘schoolmistressy’ introduction by the compere, who demanded that we switch OFF our mobiles and that we should NOT offer advice, only comments! In fact what these events need are more mobiles on (on silent), as Twitter, through event hashtags, amplifies and spreads the word like no other medium. Witness the fact that less than five rows were full and this was a free event. Also, it became clear that advice was precisely what was needed and gratefully received.
Pointless, pointy thing
First up, a man in a rather ill-cut suit, holding a pointy, metal stick with a bulb and a wire at one end who subjected us to a sterile and dull ‘soundscape’ (always a perilous word). His opening PowerPoint (yes Powerpoint has entered the art world) was too wordy and too fast to read, and it wasn’t clear what he was doing with his pointy stick, or the relationship between his ‘conducting’ and what we were hearing. I hope he heeds the ADVICE of audience, who pointed these things out in no short order. I wasn’t neither moved nor convinced. As a comment on the financial crash (as intended) I thought it was pointless.
Bulgarian mystery
Second up were a man and woman who laid the stage out with flowers and gave a feisty performance of Bulgarian being translated (and cleverly mistranslated) punctuated by some Dionysian dancing, to a song that seemed to be the equivalent of John Lee Hookers’ BOOM BOOM BOOM. This was all rather wonderful, intriguing and well-crafted. I would pay to see this.
Sexy sixty
Third up was a solo performer, Liz, a 60 year old woman who challenged the audience with her pronouncements, songs, film and subversive dances. The women in the audience loved her and rightly. This was different, courageous political and meaningful. As an older man, it made me think of how differently the sexuality of older, male performers is portrayed. The Rolling Stones are to headline Glastonbury with Jagger and Richards hitting 70 and Watts a stately 71! Iggy Pop has been on this tack for years. What makes it difficult for women is a set of expectations, not least from women themselves – look at the images in women-only magazines. The audience gave some great insights as to how they felt about the work – all positive. Weaknesses? I think the Hamlet skull was a bit too literal – but that’s a quibble.
This is a good format –to try snippets from full works out on an audience – get feedback and move on. That’s why the compere’s rather aloof advice about not giving advice (sic) was a problem. Advice is good. There were some really knowledgeable people in the audience, not least experienced performers, promoters and directors, who gave oodles of brilliant advice. Let’s just call it feedback.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Spring Breakers - Thelma and Louise without the hubris… it will incur the wrath of almost everyone over the age of 20

Everyone seems to hate this movie, as it has none of the expected audience strokes. No deep characterisation, no surprise plot turns, no redemption and not a single smart-assed line in the script. It’s all souped up and dumbed down. Everyone’s as shallow as a shell, a generation and culture hooked on hedonism. It stays firmly and deliberately on the surface, confused certainly, like all of these escapades, and for that reason alone it will incur the wrath of almost everyone over the age of 20. This is why I like the movie.
The flashy, fleshy drink-fest that is Spring Break shows American youth break free in a Floridian miasma of drink, drugs, sex, guns and violence. Brash, at times crass, young, white, college kids collide with black hip-hop and street culture. But there’s no glamorisation of the gangsta/rapper – he’s an idiot, who just loves his ‘shit’, namely money, guns and cars. (Hold on ain’t that also what white folk love?). The girls are just playing the shoot ‘em up video game. No white trash clichés here, just college kids on the rampage, no better no worse than the black, street kids. The only differenece is that they drive off into the sunset while all the black kids get mown down. It’s Thelma and Louise (without the liberal hubris).