Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron: The Questioner

Gil Scott-Heron greets me genially. He's slightly spidery in his dangled movements, surprisingly slight and aged. At 45 the man oft referred to as The Godfather of Rap is an undeniably emaciated figure.

Sitting on opposing beds in his modest hotel room, he asks if I mind if he smokes. Tender, even tentative, his gentlemanly persona and attenuated physicality are at odds with a ferocious political reputation as a songwriter, though not his dry dismissal of the O. J. Simpson case buzzing on the television. "I've just been watching the questioner question the questions of the other questioner," he laughs.

Exposing internecine political realities, attacking the absurd and the downright stupid, has always been Scott-Heron's forte. On his new album, Spirits, his first release in 12 years, he lambasts the Gulf War ethos and America's techno-Disney chauvinism:

"Yeah, there was some smart bombs. There was some dumb ones, too." He laughs. "Oh, I love that line!" Struggling to overcome a fit of chuckling, he says between gasps: "See, we don't want to get too heavy with our politics. We want to let people know we're here, not just tell them things all the time."

It's impossible to underestimate the significance of Scott-Heron in the history of contemporary black music. As one American newspaper observed: "If rap, as Chuck D. (of Public Enemy) said, is the CNN of the black community, then Gil Scott-Heron was its first anchor."

His music, however, is far broader than affinities to rap music via Beatnik poetry might suggest. Scott-Heron's soulful, smokey baritone, a little drier now but still like syrup at the bottom of a glass, his piano-based compositions and his potent grasp of bluesy jazz and soul can take seductive flight.

"I don't know about all this Godfather of Rap business," he says dismissively, hands trembling, legs trembling. "I just think people say that because they haven't listened to the people I was listening to; they just don't know about them."

On a song like 'Message To The Messengers', on Spirits, Scott-Heron takes rap, or more particularly gangsta rap, to task for its negativity. "And the media loves to use these 20-second grabs that perpetuate these violent images of our community, these sound bites. But they don't look at a guy going off to work, watch him coming home, trying to put food in the mouths of his children. They don't tell that story, which is the real story of 95 per cent of our community."

Scott-Heron lives on 125th and Lennox in New York, "right in the middle of Harlem. It's no heavier than a lot of places. Most people are just trying to go about their business, get on with living. We've got more than our fair share of depression, of unemployment, of poverty, but that ain't so different either from a lot of places I've seen in the world."

Understanding the heritage of hate that can take root in any oppressed culture, he tries to explain that "it's hard to act like you're equal when you've been oppressed for centuries. See, we're a colony of people who were transplanted through slavery into America - we don't have a claim on the land to bind us like the American Indians. But what we are as a culture was born there. Rap, jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, these are the things people think of when they think of America, but not many black people have profited greatly from them. When people see a lot of money being made out of their culture, but not by them, they don't feel very equal either."

Nonetheless, his debate with gangsta rap stems from a need to say they represent "1 per cent of what our community is".

Despite his proud emphasis on constant live gigging, the gap of 12 years between studio recordings before Spirits and highly mixed reports of his live abilities have been associated with rumours of drug and alcohol problems and snide references to "Gil Scott-Heroin".

That his physically imposing stature - in the '70s he was as lean and tough as the proverbial "black panther" - has given way to such a frail, middle-aged man only adds weight to those stories of dissipation and squandered talent. Scott-Heron boldly shows me his arms. "I ain't no junkie. You don't see trackmarks on my arms. I'm afraid of needles! I'm a diabetic and I still won't use needles.

"It's like Robert de Niro in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. He's an actor. But while he's doing those parts, we believe him. That's because he does it so well. So when I sing a song like 'Home Is Where The Hatred Is' ("A junkie walking through the streets at night, I'm on my way home") it's a story. But I can't really blame people for saying all those things about me because it just means I told the story so well they believed it."

You don't have to be an addict to suffer foibles. And pay for them. Scott-Heron certainly looks well worn in. Glasses perched on a gaunt face with a greying, straggly beard, a beautiful smile, teeth tobacco crooked, everything about him hurting with kindness. Something most definitely catches in the image of the man before you, in the many years away from the studio, in the live shows that veer from sublime to average: Drugs? Maybe not now. Ill health? You can't escape the thought, but whether it be diabetes or some unspecified illness ravaging him, who can say.

Born in 1949 in Chicago, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother. He was one of the first black children to be used in the experiment of integration, one of three children brought into Jackson elementary school. It's been said that after the cursing and abuse from white children became unbearable, his mother moved him to New York City, to the Bronx, then the Hispanic-dominated Chelsea neighbourhood.

It was Scott-Heron's grandmother who bought him an upright piano from the funeral parlour next-door after it closed. "People see me as a writer who discovered the piano, but I'm really a piano player who discovered writing." Given his deep musicality, his writing skills cannot be overlooked: a published novel at age 19 called The Vulture; a book of poetry, Small Talk At 125th and Lennox, by 21.

The poetry led to recordings and music as a way to reach the masses at that point in American history in the early '70s when the civil rights movement was losing momentum and Black Power was showing its hand.

Not surprisingly, Spirits is about the spirits behind these movements. The tune of John Coltrane's 'Equinox' forms a trace-line beneath the Spirits title-track, a tribute "to balances. Coltrane was born on the September equinox, when night and day are equal." He likens this coincidence to a spiritual politic. "And the spirits have always helped me." Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela - they're all there among his muses. But you'd be a fool to mistake soul for cosmic naivety in Scott-Heron.

When a friend suggested his 1975 song, 'Johannesburg', came too early for the Nelson Mandela fever that much later gripped the world, he said: "Well, by the time my song was out Mandela had already been in jail for 12 years. I don't think he would have thought it was early."

Having broken out of a decade of obscurity, Scott-Heron is now working on an autobiography due later this year. It was inspired when he toured the United States with Stevie Wonder, who was working to get Martin Luther King's birthday established as a national day of celebration. Wonder succeeded. "Stevie always sees the positive in things." Spending time with Gil Scott-Heron can do the same.

- Mark Mordue

* This story appeared under the title 'A frail Godfather' in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 01.03.1995. Gil Scott-Heron played two shows at the Metro Theatre in the city: an extraordinary first night at the height of his powers, and a free-jamming and seemingly endless second night where people left wondering what the fuck was going on.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

... so anyway the bones are small

    for Jim Carroll

…so anyway the bones are small, fan-like, tender in their motion
It’s surprising to consider that dinosaurs evaporated this way
Up into the blue yonder, the branches, the breeze
After so long thundering the earth

What fine legs
A chest you could crush with your thumb
Only the beak betrays an old viciousness
A map left over from a hunger for fleshier times

I’m always sent heart-beating into this mysterious evolution
Beatified and depressed by it depending on the hour of the day

Like now, in the afternoon, with a late winter wind rustling the sunny leaves,
A mower whining over suburban fences, my children still at school,
When belated news of a New York poet dead brings these same impressions to me
And I have no reason clear why such associations fly into the mind

But fly they do

A basketball through a rusted aluminium hoop
Loneliness into a glass of wine
My children’s smiles up into the sunshiny day of dreams
The homeward teeming of the city into something reassuring
A passing train upon its tracks a rattled music from my past
Leaves, wings, death, grace, loss, sky, heart – bones 

- Mark Mordue
* Image sourced from Wikipedia: shows Jim Carroll in New York in 2005.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Giving Up The Ghost

IN one of his greatest poems, People, Yevgeny Yevtushenko says, "In any man who dies there dies with him/ his first snow and kiss and fight".

Part of an intense recognition of our mortality, the poem also deals with the power of memory and the role of art as Yevtushenko admits: "The secret worlds are not regenerated./ And every time again and again/ I make my lament against destruction."

Having encountered the loss of three people in the past year -- all by suicide -- it's no wonder the Russian's poem should speak to me. At the same time I was struck by a recent viewing of Clint Eastwood's film Hereafter, and its focus on George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a spirit medium trying to escape the burden of his relationship with the dead. "A life that's all about death," he says, "is no life at all."

Yet the need to negotiate death's place in our lives has re-emerged in all manner of projects lately: from a mainstream supernatural entertainment such as Hereafter (one of the top 10 grossing films in the country) through to art-house drama Rabbit Hole, with Nicole Kidman as a mother who has lost her child, and Biutiful, featuring Javier Bardem as a small-time criminal and struggling father trying to put his affairs in order before he dies.

The sensational opening of the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, showcasing a mercurial collection assembled by founder David Walsh that has a strong emphasis on the themes of sex and death, may be connected to this larger inclination towards morbidity. MONA also points to another obvious fact: this subject matter has been around in art for as long as we have reflected on our own natures. Even so, it's hardly original to add that while we celebrate sex with an advertorial heat in almost every facet of our culture, we more usually prefer to keep death out of the picture.

You would expect literature to meet this theme in braver and more complex ways. But in the case of authors such as W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano and Cormac McCarthy -- whose books The Rings of Saturn, 2666 and The Road have towered over the past decade -- the connections between creating a novel, the feeling of being in a dream and an atmosphere of death are overwhelming. These men write like titans at the end, rather than beginning, of something, focusing on subject matter that suggests the respective cultural histories of Europe, South America and the US are traumatised, decayed and passing away.

Stunning debuts such as David Vann's Legend of a Suicide and late Philip Roth works Exit Ghost and Nemesis only add to the outpouring of terminal narratives today. As does Patti Smith's US National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, a eulogy to her former lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe: "I was asleep when he died."
As our rock stars age, modern masters Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Lou Reed are all delivering their own existential blues, too. Dylan gave the end some resigned bar-band fatalism on one of his most recent songs, Beyond Here Lies Nothin': "Beyond here lies nothing, but the mountains of the past." Young, meanwhile, sounded as if he were haunting himself on his latest album, Le Noise, a recording that played like an electrified ghost raging against the dying of the light. As for Cohen and Reed, they continue to offer their own somnambulant observations in song as if they are ferrying us to the other side personally.
It's a stretch, but one could even argue the Twilight phenomenon and the darkening shades of the Harry Potter saga are part of this movement. Recent Australian television programs such as Laid (a comic twist on the black widow story) and Spirited (Claudia Karvan's update on The Ghost and Mrs Muir) indicate death is so commonplace to the zeitgeist there's enough material for two new series, if Alan Ball's Six Feet Under were not black-humoured evidence enough.

IT'S hard to pinpoint why this deathly current has intensified. While the symbolic reverberations of September 11, 2001, and the continuing tremors of the global economic crisis appear to signal everything from the end of US imperial hegemony to that of the Enlightenment era itself, there are more intimate cultural pressures, too. A bottomless obsession with youth culture and the corresponding industry in anti-ageing technology is part of that, as well as the irony of an ageing population in the West and ethical debates over euthanasia.
There is also the decline in formal religious practice, along with the pressures of constructing our identity publicly in an aggressively commercialised and digitalised world. Michael Jackson emerges as an off-kilter Jesus in this mediated ether, having introduced an entire generation of our children to the dark fairytale of death and continuing presence as everything about his miserable end and his re-canonisation at the top of the charts puts him at the centre of family entertainment again.
It's my suspicion all these elements may be sparking a retreat to an internal frontier, an intuited notion of the soul as "the person within person" where we can feel something sacred or mysterious at work that has little to do with how we appear out there. Certainly we are learning that fame is cheap, and often crass. Privacy, by contrast, is taking on a magic aura, a profound and elusive value. To upend Andy Warhol's tired dictum, we may yen soon for a world where everyone can be private, rather than famous, for 15 minutes.
There is, of course, a difference between privacy and being alone, between spiritual integrity and feeling atomised. In a secular culture, art provides a key to the door between those worlds, if not the kingdom once promised us in the Bible (let alone by Facebook). It also can pre-empt the dangers of premature withering, of being dead inside long before we are buried or burned.
In reminding us of our internal universe, of that person within the person, art marks us with mystic residues and consolations and a degree of consciousness that dilates our being with what might be described as a renewing vividness. As Bolano so wisely observes in his novella The Skating Rink: "We all have to die a bit every now and then and it's usually so gradual that we end up more alive than ever. Infinitely old and infinitely alive."

WHETHER or not you believe in an afterlife it's true to say most of us end up speaking to the dead. The depth of those conversations may differ and fade, though time itself is no barrier as those long forgotten return to us with unexpected aliveness. One can feel haunted without seeing ghosts. A place, a song, a sea breeze, almost anything can open up a dimension through which a presence is felt and corresponded with, if only internally, nostalgically. It's as if this communication is native to us as human beings.
It seemed important to speak to some artists who traversed this space between the living and the dead in their work, and to ask them what that communication might mean.
"I lost my father and my mother, and more recently my brother," 75-year-old poet and author Antigone Kefala says. "And each time this happens, there is no getting used to it. Every time, it is a new event, a terrible happening. I don't think you can ever become that familiar with it. And yet we are predisposed to speak with the dead."
Kefala's poem Absence concerns itself specifically with this: it is a dialogue with her mother, whom she found herself talking to again "while doing the dishes just the other day". At that she laughs and says brightly, "This is normal, it is nothing to apologise for. You feel that you are talking to friends," she explains. "Not that they have become something else in death. You feel that you have some connective thing with them, not that they have gone. Of course people do not want to hear negative things. But it is a double issue -- yes, the end of life is a negative thing, but then people who have been in our life, that attachment does not just disappear. So it would be a negative thing not to communicate with them still, if this is how we feel."
Unfortunately, Kefala believes "death is not a subject people like writing about in Australia. Everyone here is trying to escape the issue." She describes this disdainfully as "an English thing", and speculates that "we Greeks, and the more 'primitive' races of Europe in the south, in Italy and Spain, we have more rituals and are closer to the phenomenon than the northerners. The same is true of North and South America. Look at Mexico and its Day of the Dead."
For Kefala this relates to an absence in Australian literature. "There is a lack of intensity here. People are not fully engaged with what they are writing. A lot of it is journalistic, I feel. But serious writing must have passion, must have a tenseness to it.
And we must not be ashamed of passion," she says. "I write about death -- and many other things -- oh, they must see me coming and think: 'Eh, her again! Oh no! What about some jolly business this time, please Antigone!' "
Kefala roars laughing this time, but she laments the way we continue to deal with death "through a certain type of fantasy, running away from or around a more immediate involvement. So these 'ghosts' people like to read about, they are not immediately involved with your life, it's something less real and light and approachable. But if we are to write seriously, we have to also write about what is not easily approachable, and there is something about poetic language that deals more fundamentally with such issues than a journalistic, surface language."
She goes further and implies we shy away from these depths in our literature because of something in our history. "You feel it when you go out bush, these forces that unnerve you in certain landscapes. It is a very powerful landscape, a magnificent landscape, a country full of light and colour, as well as a place full of terrible things that no one wants to confess to. The two things go together. Whether we can come to grips with that and produce something magnificent."
Her thoughts trail off as if that task might be beyond her. But Kefala begins talking again in a way that seems tinged with her own migrant odyssey into this antipodean world she has long called home. "In a discussion of spirits I know I am always moved when Aboriginal people look into a landscape and ask permission to come in," she says. "Deeply moved."

IT is hard to imagine a more Australian-sounding record within the rock 'n' roll idiom than Gareth Liddiard's Strange Tourist. Best known for his work with the Drones, Liddiard imbues his debut solo album with a Spartan intensity -- voice and guitar only -- that suggests he is the missing link between Paul Kelly and Nick Cave.
As a picture of contemporary Australia its vernacular feel for character is startling, as good as any short story collection we have. But the album tends to leave a listener lost in space. There is that final feeling of sitting with a storyteller around an open fire as it ebbs into darkness. A line from the record's most beautiful song, High Plains Mailman, leaps out like a lonely spark: "He knows you don't have to die to reach the netherworld."
Liddiard thinks critics who have tried to come to grips with Strange Tourist by alluding to painters Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan are reaching towards "something about the outback that is primordial, real and unforgiving. And that's there in the music maybe." He admits: "The way you see a landscape depends on your state of mind. A rainforest can be a very lovely thing to experience. Unless you're Joseph Conrad, then it becomes hell. But there's a real truth in depression when you experience it," he adds. "You get what a dingo would go through. A world that is tough, brutal, where you can feel what it might be like to starve."
Combined with a garage-rock-meets-folk sound that has brutish colonial overtones intensified by the singer's broad Australian accent, Strange Tourist comes off as a supremely existential record rooted in this tormenting world. It becomes clear that Liddiard's ghosts are living among us, be it the amphetamine dealer of the title track or the David Hicks figure who inspired an eight-minute piece of biographical song voodoo entitled The Radicalisation of D: "D finds a one-room flat that overlooks an underpass . . ."
Reared by atheist parents, Liddiard thinks we have a tendency to hide from the fact "the universe does not give a shit". He believes civilisation allows us to mask the processes behind the way we live, from how we get the meat we eat and the petrol we use. "Everything you do is brutal and cold, but we are built to deny all that, to keep the universe at bay.
"The place I tend to go is where all that [civilised] resilience and denial is rubbed away. I'm not doing it to be downer," he emphasises. "And even though I'm not spiritual at all I am not saying I am impoverished. There's this ritual thing in rock 'n' roll, something in it from a long time ago. It's like a guy banging bones in a cave. That's not so different to seeing [Iggy Pop and] the Stooges play.
"All the real stuff has that ritual. There's some need for it in our head, so in that sense it's not spiritual but it is deep. You just need somebody to transport you. Jim Morrison was good at it. Warren Ellis [from the Dirty Three] is, too. Whatever you do, you have to take them away. Hendrix did it, Coltrane, Samuel Beckett. Beethoven was maybe the greatest. It's transcendental."
Liddiard smiles to himself. "It's why people travel. It's to do with an internal wanderlust. And that part of our brain seems connected to the part that needs to be spiritual. An artist just takes the vagueness out of it and makes it into an experience."

AT 43, Melbourne novelist Chris Womersley admits, "I haven't had that much actual experience of death." Then he checks himself and mentions "an ex-girlfriend of mine who died two years ago from a heroin overdose. We had not been in touch for 20 years but for some reason she has come into my mind again lately."
It makes him consider whether an element of remembering the dead is connected "to longing them back into existence. And a nostalgia that maybe casts them in a better light than they deserve, I don't know. It's more pertinent with someone who is young. That sense of waste. People who die in their 70s and 80s, it's a shame, but you think they had a good run."
Womersley sighs. "It's hard being human. It's hard getting by and doing the right thing and living. Art and literature are vehicles that can help us understand the metaphysical, that can show how we deal with death and loss and sex, how one ages gracefully, how you make a transition."
His first book, The Low Road, opens with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding: "And what the dead had no speech for, when living / They can tell you being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued by fire beyond the language of the living."
The author says he conceived of that novel "as an underworld journey", whereby it operated as a noir thriller and something more spiritual that occurs in "a mythical space. I've always been interested in myths and fairytales. It's a subconscious thing, and it's profoundly a part of our being for some reason," he says. "Look at Dante or the tale of Orpheus, there's something primal there. It just seems impossible to believe you die and that's that."
Yet despite a somewhat obsessive interest in death and the supernatural, Womersley firmly describes himself as an atheist. "I guess I'm just interested in the immersive experience of literature," he explains. "I like my reading to take me to a whole other realm. That's an aesthetic thing. I'm not interested in the domestic but something striving towards the ineffable."
Accordingly he set his second novel, Bereft, in the immediate the aftermath of World War I during a time of plague in Australia when entire towns were quarantined as Spanish influenza spread across the country. At a seance a young soldier is passed a note by a psychic that sparks his return home to deal with a family murder he was accused of committing as a boy. "It's a semi-ghost story," Womersley says, "but it's all about love really, about someone who is gone and is no longer with you."
Womersley explains the historical context for the ideas he developed in Bereft: "The Victorians were not so much obsessed with death as with mourning. They had mourning costumes and mourning jewellery, it was an elaborate process. With the discovery of radio waves and photography, things of a spiritual dimension got tangled with the scientific. So you have this onset of a secular century where belief in the great faiths are waning and it's being replaced by the quasi mystical. Then you have World War I and a million dead, and where did they go? Where did they go? That scale of mourning was unprecedented. I read one story of a mother who lost all four of her sons. You can't deal with that scale of grief rationally."
As if to reach for a parallel between that era and the present, Womersley tells me an anecdote. "There was this co-worker of mine who died tragically, both her and her baby," he says. "I suddenly saw her pop up as one of my friends on Facebook recently, and I was a bit surprised, and bothered by it. I would feel unethical somehow to delete her. So I feel I can't do anything about it. But it struck me there must be many cases like this now where people continue to exist in this weird digital life we now have."
IT seems to me the communications revolution we're experiencing may be prompting some neo-Victorian surge in our fascination with death and mourning again. And that there are indeed parallels between that previous era -- which was exhilarated and traumatised by the industrial revolution and a countervailing passion for gothic and romantic sensibilities -- and the great time of technological change we exist in today.
There's an intimacy and connectedness available to us across time and space that is somehow bodiless and eerie. It may be that our digital life is taking on the vaporous qualities of our ghostly superstitions; that the texture of the communications alone is awakening something in us. It's certainly an odd coincidence that, like Damon's character in Hereafter, Bardem's dying criminal in Biutiful is also a figure of psychic abilities. This ability intensifies a need to prepare for where he is headed, as a fellow medium indicates when she warns, "You and I know the dead suffer when they leave debts behind."
In dealing with death, the guides we most seek for wisdom or consolation are indeed the dead themselves -- along with the way art can bring us closer to them and ourselves if we're lucky: Womersley's acts of mythical transition; Liddiard's primitive transcendence; Kefala's intense conversations.
It takes me a while to realise these three people I have interviewed match the three friends of mine who killed themselves: a male journalist of great literary ability; a brilliant male guitarist; a fine female painter who adored poetry. So who was I really talking to here?
I find myself listening to Give up the Ghost on the new Radiohead album, The King of Limbs. The way Thom Yorke sings a final haunting refrain of "I've been told to give up the ghost into your arms". Yorke could be talking about the end of a relationship, or the problem of addiction, or personifying death itself, along with evoking a ritual in song that suggests Yorke himself is fading to end, and trying to come to terms with this mortal inevitability. In a voice double-tracked and smudged against his own it's hard to make out what he is saying in counterpoint to the main lyrics. Either "don't haunt me" or "don't hurt me" or "don't worry" or more likely all those things.
Listening to it is rather like being involved in a strange prayer where I feel as if I periodically appear to, and disappear into, myself in some kind of dream of life. Don't haunt me. Don't hurt me. Don't worry.
- Mark Mordue
* First published in The Weekend Australian Review on April 9th, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In the Garden


“A man who doesn’t have a rice field should
strive to cultive the land within himself”
– Ida Pedanda Made Sideman, ‘Salampah Laku’

We lived like kings and queens
in a spoiled garden
our homes built of stone
while the locals lived on grass
their feet pasted with mud and rice
serving our smiles

away to the west a cloud rose
a sort of incense finishing the day
we drank beer
watched frangipani fall into a pool
ducks and dogs and flags
moving in the padi fields

the rest of the world
was made out of t-shirt slogans
motorbikes, kites and wi-fi connections
children played football in the dust
the sun was the sun but it was green

voices talking, a séance of the globe,
jewelry on a wrist
beside the road men sat caressing roosters
children stared through a window screen
men like tiger-things – teeth + smile –
Sprite, fries, sorrow: the entrepreneurs,
while the musicians turned echoes into bells

outside at night the dogs barked
at the already dead, hepatitis moons
shone in the eyes of the mosquitoes,
a boy holding a used plastic bag
walked down the road seemingly happy,
horns tooted and a thin trail of smoke
ghosted the darkness as a motorcyclist
took another drag of Djarum Blck
and rode on

everywhere else the strewn offerings
for the dead
were kicked and trodden on, or avoided,
a climate of flowers and pizza
breathed in the shadows and dirt,
masks and dancing, cobras, transgenic rice, cobwebs
they dug up the dead chanting a new litany and burned them
while the roosters killed each other with knives
and the crumpled notes unfolded in dry bloom.

- Mark Mordue

* Written on the eve of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. 
First published at Meanjin online October 7th, 2011. 'Djarum Black' is a 
local cigarette that uses a triangle instead of an 'A' for its branding.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Consuming Passions: Jarvis Cocker, Pulp and This Is Hardcore

Jarvis Cocker wanders through London's Tower Books and Records like a spy in a foreign country. Close by, music fans are harvesting the racks of pop releases, among them the extraordinary 18-year legacy of his band Pulp.

"You must feel like you're running the gauntlet," I whisper. "It's OK," he says crisply, "as long as you keep moving."

The lead singer has acquired a taste for the disappearing act. Aged 35, he's staging a contradictory battle with stardom, from the very core of his being through to the icy soundtracks and acoustic regrets that characterise Pulp's latest CD, This Is Hardcore.

Hit him with a direct question about fame, however, and he'll state that he is "barely at the mezzanine level". Pulp are a British phenomenon.

Originally we'd arranged to meet at Bungees, a London cellar cafe, but it turns out to be closed. Cocker is disappointed - the area it is in reminds him of his past as an art school student in the late '80s. We move to a wine bar, where he keeps fidgeting with his watch until he confesses that the American writer, Ken Kesey (famed for One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and his antics leading the Merry Pranksters), is doing a book signing down at Tower. "Do you want to come?" he asks.

Interviewing Cocker you encounter his diffident intelligence, a humility mixed with self-loathing, and a certain indefinable will. He has cycled to our meeting (cycling is admittedly de rigueur with London groovers right now), and once we check out Kesey he ends up giving me three hours of his time. When Cocker does encounter the odd fan on our walk through the city and in the store itself, he quietly extends the conversations. He's at pains to be like them.

Cocker himself is something of the ultimate fan. He slaughtered all comers on Pop Quiz and aside from a fascination for Kesey and '60s obscurities he maintains an avid interest in the culture around him, from fronting a new Channel 4 series on "outsider artists" to fossicking around the city for books and CDs. He's declared a moratorium on reading magazines - "it got so bad I'd have opinions on films without ever seeing them" - and is making efforts "to read more novels. I'm about 50 pages into Irvine Welsh's Filth but it's too early to say what I think. I've also got a copy of [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] This Side of Paradise by my bed. A friend says it's perfect for me," he says, raising his eyebrows.

The oily brown hair, the sallow skin, the burgundy polyester of his matching shirt and slacks, the slightly hunched posture of a man used to diminishing his own height ... he's cool in the way that all suburban dreamers are when they've managed to transform themselves into something exotic and uncertain. At heart, there's the polite Sheffield lad with permanently damaged eyesight from a meningitis attack when he was five, the young man who didn't lose his virginity until he was nearly 20. It is hard to recall this is the same strutting creature who dazzled an open-air crowd of 20,000 in North London recently, parading like a cross between a refined Iggy Pop and a strange, venal bird.

"Being on stage is about the only exercise I get," he says dryly.

Poor sales and uncertain critical responses for This Is Hardcore and a pair of stunning, if uneasily beautiful, singles ('Help The Aged' and the chilling title track) have been cited as benchmarks for the death of the Britpop phenomenon. Cocker was "gutted" by the popular rejection of 'This Is Hardcore' as a single, probably the most ambitious gesture of his recording career.

This Is Hardcore is a dark, epic world away from the almost vaudevillean, kitchen-sink wit of 1994's His 'N' Hers and 1996's Different Class. Its alienated sex fantasies, fears about aging and droll confessions don't fit the pop mould at all. And yet it is this material that the band - Nick Banks (drums), Candida Doyle (keyboards), Steve Mackey (bass), Mark Webber (guitar, keyboards) and Richard Hawley (a guest guitarist from The Longpigs) - attack with a devouring intensity in the live arena. And although one can immediately sense a quantum leap between most of the pre-Hardcore material and the orchestral, marooned density of songs such as 'Seductive Barry', it is clear that, for Pulp, this is the way to go.

"Pop music traditionally deals with young flash things but pop music itself is middle-aged," Cocker says. "I just want to find a way of being an adult without it being boring. I don't want to continue acting like a teenager for the rest of my life because I can't hack it, you know."

This Is Hardcore may sound bleak, but it combines all the glamour, sophistication and decadence of Pulp's major influences: Roxy Music, The Walker Brothers, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, glam rock and John Barry's James Bond movie-theme urbanity and drama. 

Or, as Cocker sings: "This is our music from a bachelor den, the sound of loneliness turned up to ten."

It's been a long trip to the lizard lounge. Pulp actually made their first album, It, in Sheffield in 1980 and did a live-to-air performance for DJ John Peel when Cocker was only 17. It would be quite a while (and several albums) before 'success' came their way again.

Frustrated with his band's progress, Cocker left Sheffield for art school in London. But the urge for making music never went away. "I heard the other day that crocodiles can slow their heartbeat down to three times a minute if they're conserving energy. That was kind of like what we [Pulp] were doing - we weren't actually dead, we just looked like we were."

With his National Health Service specs and geeky cool, Cocker made his name as "the Mike Leigh of Britpop", securing hit after hit from the mid-'90s with songs about hiding in a cupboard to watch his girlfriend's sister having sex ('Babies'); losing your virginity ('Do You Remember The First Time?'); taking drugs at a rave ('Sorted For E's and Wizz'); and the tale of a northern lad being seduced by a female art student interested in some lower-class experiences ('Common People'). The last song virtually became the anthem of 1996.

"'Common People' transformed things for us in this country. It seemed to enter the public imagination," Cocker says.

This Is Hardcore is an about-face, a blow against that "imagination" and any possibility that Jarvis Cocker could continue in the role of Britpop's quirky jester, the man who waved his arse to Michael Jackson on stage at the 1996 Brit Awards.

Of fame, he would later tell Time Out magazine: "It would be great to walk into a club like John Travolta does in Saturday Night Fever and have everyone give you a high five and yelp 'hello', but the reality is some pissed-up bloke going, 'How's your mate Michael Jackson, eh?'"

It brought other dubious rewards, too. A 1996 Sunday tabloid kiss-and-tell expose of a fling he had with a make-up girl. Of this he says, "You really have to keep it locked away. You don't want to do a Clinton, do you?"

Even more painfully, a tabloid newspaper in Australia tracked down his estranged father in Darwin. Cocker hadn't seen or heard from his father since he was seven. They offered to pay Cocker's air fare to visit him. Cocker quietly declined.

It's an awkward subject. "I only met my father face-to-face this year for the first time. It's a personal thing. Something that can only be worked out by the two of us. The papers only cloud the issue," he says, before holding each word like a blow, "it's ... not ... right."

To add to the events of the two years leading up to This Is Hardcore, Cocker also broke up with his long-term girlfriend. He is now single. Again, there's that sense of Cocker being hit by his own words as he speaks.

"It's not the best thing to happen to you if you want to keep the relationship together ... to be successful."

'Help The Aged' and 'A Little Soul' were inspired by his encounter with his father. In the latter, Cocker sings: You see your mother and me, we never got along that well/I'd love to help you but everybody's telling me you look like me/I've had one, two, three, four shots of happiness/ I look like a big man, but I've only got a little soul.

"I know it's boring," he says, hating the moaning rock star image as much as recent depictions of him as "a porn-fixated heroin addict". "But you do get a distorted view of what life's about, chasing this thing called success. When you get it you have to ask, 'Is this it?' There's a loss of innocence."

"Pornography seemed like an appropriate comparison. Because it takes all the romance out of romance. It's like there's always a forward urge in people's lives to go deeper. That when you get there it's going to be better."

He talks about the process of reflection, the way "you accumulate a lot of stuff, then sit in a room and instead of taking more stuff in, you dredge it out. It's like you get too cluttered.

"Your 20s are a period of exploration, finding out who you are. But you do have to cut back on experience. And find some kind of order instead of leaving stuff strewn about everywhere. When you are young you don't understand that. Secretly at the back of your mind, you're quite pleased to go through trauma. It gives you something to write about. You might even see something noble in it. But as you get older it just f - - - s you up. It does you in.

"I hate the consumer-based society," he says. "Everything is based on consumption, using something and throwing it away. It's no surprise divorce rates are rising. People do the same with relationships."

The restlessness that burns away in him found some respite in his work for Channel 4. "I first read about outsider artists in a book by Roger Cardinal when I was a student. It's stuff made by people who've never had any training: people who are in institutions or people who are isolated, usually.

"They're pleased that people look at their stuff. But that's not the reason they made it. It's more that they feel compelled. They say they had a dream, or that God made them do it. In the me, me, me world of popstardom, who has that attitude? "

- Mark Mordue

* This story first appeared under the title 'Pulp Friction' in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro, 18.09.98

Friday, August 5, 2011

When Cool Goes Cold

The very thought of writing this story made me feel like vomiting over my laptop and down my flannelette shirt. Yet another lifestyle piece on Cool with a capital ``C", another voice-deadening set of icons whose style and attitude should be genuinely rebellious and outside easy mainstream embrace.
I imagined how it would go: the file photos that would link Lord Byron, James Dean, Jeff Buckley and New York's latest rock'n'roll bad boys of dissident pretty, the Strokes.

Trying to capture Cool is a loser's game worse still, it's uncool. Plenty of you have no doubt groaned and rolled your eyes already at the very idea of this story, turned the page sneering, said no.
In keeping with this mood of negation and refusal, Cool can be regarded as the street's desire to turn stardom inside-out: to strengthen what's moving beneath the radar, what's not apparent, and so-far undiscovered. It's a kind of secret identity that corporations and the media will eventually wish to mine, but they can't have it or define it no matter how hard they try, or at least they can't have it for long. 

In his 1998 essay The Birth of the Cool, an analysis of Miles Davis's groundbreaking 1949 album of the same name, Greil Marcus observed that, ``Cool is a mystery, because while everyone knows what cool is nobody can define it. It's like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous pronouncement on pornography: `I know it when I see it."'
I'd dare to say it's a synonym for integrity. And that's what it has always been, even at its most anarchic or dissolute or just plain unlucky.
Perhaps that's why Cool is often fatal, like those last steps Jeff Buckley took fully clothed into a tributary of the Mississippi for a gentle swim in 1997, his music left to us in a state of permanent promise. As his mother said in the memorial documentary Fall in Light, ``I have a picture in my mind that was actually a metaphysical image. That the body of my son was not the speck of dust they pulled out of the Wolf River but the body of his work." 
Cool is this kind of moment or person or subculture up ahead of the present or lost somewhere far behind it but still intact in some sacred, radioactive way, still living a half-life of intensity, self-possessed and eternally unpossessed, like Marlon Brando's feminine shyness in The Wild One or Sonny Rollins walking away from jazz at the height of his career to practise his saxophone devotions to no-one but the wind as it blew off the Williamsburg Bridge. It's danger in vulnerability. And you can't buy that.
Cool can become fashionable, of course, but becoming fashionable is often what ends it. More usually it is the opposite of fashionable, a force of reaction like punk rock in its heyday and grunge when it first broke, movements whose anti-beauty aesthetics attacked the high style directives of consumer culture before becoming self-annihilating in themselves. The dialectics of fashion Cool are certainly constant and unforgiving, if strangely cyclical: I often yearn for the wardrobe I had when I was a 12-year-old boy in Newcastle, recast in adult sizes of course, because it was so right, so ``now", when all it felt to me back then was wrong and out of place. 
This suburban discomfort and the rages of its energy, from AC/DC and Cold Chisel through surf culture and silverchair are enjoying a comeback in Australian Cool, something the ``aging hipster" and author of Golden Miles, Clinton Walker, attributes to ``the fact it's all localised Australian stuff. It's real. Cool to me is about that localised quality. Look at the old muscle cars like the Charger and the Holden Monaro, now they're cool unlike all those silly cars and 4WDs you see people driving in Sydney's east". 

The distance of Australian suburbia from international design and fashion, and its being subsumed into kitsch, also explains the surreal bent at work in everything from the humor of Roy and H.G. to the films of Baz Luhrmann: a genuinely Cool Australian style.
Equally vital now is the nascent formation of what Social Change Media's Tony Moore identifies as ``deadly culture" (``deadly" being an Aboriginal slang for ``cool"), and what Bangarra Dance Theatre's Stephen Page sees as the surge in Aboriginal influences on a contemporary Australian identity. ``Look at Cathy Freeman," Page says. ``There's a spirit that's Cool. A cool spirit is what I want to know about something joyous and sacred. I wonder if the word `cool' comes from spirit?" 
Maybe there's a virginity of cultural experience to this as well, to that true spirit of Cool and how one encounters it, like reading J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when you are in high school, or hearing Nick Drake's Pink Moon at university and thinking you are the first one of your time to know it again, take it deep inside. As Kerouac so famously and so lovingly put it in On The Road: ``The only ones for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, delirious of everything at the same time..."
Speaking about that vitalising energy in his 1999 manifesto Against Cool, the writer Rick Moody (The Ice Storm, Demonology) recalled his love for ``beat writing as a young reader. The velocity and the spirit, the opposition to the stuffiness of academic writing (to the monolithic sobriety of New Criticism), the sheer, dizzy glee. What the great beat writers did for American letters was appropriate America's one truly indigenous music form, jazz, and fuse the lessons of that music with the transcendentalism that had been irrigating American literature for a century. The beats yoked Miles and Bird to Whitman and Emerson. And by the late '50s and '60s, the cool beat idiom had become as frankly spiritual as its transcendental models".
Whatever happened, though, to that passionate, spiritual form of Cool? How did Cool, so romantic, so possible, so immersed, get so cold and superficial today? How did we move from Jackson Pollock and Brett Whiteley to wallpaper; from the spiritual might of Sonny Rollins to the ironies of cocktail muzak and a self-congratulatory, thuggishly macho rap hyped as ``sonic reportage"; from the anarchic situationist theories of Guy Debord and Paris 1968 to modern advertising with a sly conspiratorial wink?
Of course, it's easy to identify another strand to Cool, the very opposite of the transcendental mode I've been pushing: the reptilian slither and icy nihilism extending from Burroughs through Warhol into Bret Easton Ellis, the electronic ennui of Radiohead. But this does not explain the shallowing of the feeling.
Nor would it be fair to say that Cool no longer exists, or that it has lost its spiritual or activist edge, whether one speaks of Patti Smith's ongoing musical career and techno-music-inspired environmentalists or magazines like Adbusters and concepts like ``culture jamming" (media pranks like the recent ``Dole Army" fiasco that saw A Current Affair and Today Tonight led down stormwater drains looking for a subterranean world of bludgers).
Cool is still happening out there, fighting for life, but the word itself has been given a mainstream makeover and a mobile phone to keep it busy. Cool now: it's what you buy to look good, isn't it? Isn't it?

In their book Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, writers Dick Pountain and David Robins (the former an author of computer textbooks, the latter a student of criminal sociology, a combo somehow appropriate to the subject at hand) study the political and cultural history of Cool. They trace its origins back to the slave trade and acts of ``silent rebellion" against authority, a ``pose of resistance" unable to make itself explicit.
They then move through the classic and archetypal history of what Cool became as a style, noting ``a strikingly similar attitude to be found in European culture, the sprezzatura of Italian courtiers during the Renaissance, the famous reserve of English aristocrats and the Romantic irony of 19th century poets. Cool is by no means an American phenomenon, although its modern manifestation was incubated among young black American jazz musicians during the first decades of the 20th century, before being discovered by hard-boiled crime writers and Hollywood scriptwriters of the '30s and '40s, and finally injected into youth culture during the '50s by Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll."
Obviously the beats, the hippies and the punks get a look-in, along with the influences of French existentialism and the nouvelle vague cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Berlin cabaret and Brechtian theatrical techniques, the paintings and aphorisms of Warhol, the debaucheries of '70s rock as epitomised by the Rolling Stones, and era-defining films like Easy Rider, Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction.
From the beginning of Cool Rules, Pountain and Robins announce a desire to ``show how this attitude, which originally expressed resistance to subjugation and humiliation, has been expropriated by the mass media and the advertising industry in the '80s and '90s, and used as the way into the hearts and wallets of young consumers". 
A little more bluntly, it's stated: ``Cool consumer capitalism has discovered, as Thomas Frank puts it, how to construct cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent."
For those in the know, Thomas Frank is the giant killer of Cool today, a philosopher of anti-Cool. In his book The Conquest of Cool, and more regularly at his Web-magazine The Baffler, Frank argues that big business hasn't just appropriated the language of youth culture, it's always been the driving force behind it.
This business revolution is ongoing today as ``a host of self-designated corporate revolutionaries outlining the accelerated new capitalist order in magazines like Wired and Fast Company gravitate naturally to the imagery of rebel youth culture to dramatise their own insurgent vision".
It's this depressing landscape of Cool that made Rick Moody cry out for a Cool that was ``gone, long gone. Cool is spent. Cool is empty. Cool is ex post facto. When advertisers and pundits hoard a word, you know it's time to retire from it. To move on. Cool is a trick to get you to buy garments made by sweatshop labourers in Third World countries. Cool is Triumph of the Will. Cool enables you to step over bodies. Cool enables you to look the other way. Cool makes you functional, eager for routine distraction, passive, doped, stupid."

Since September 11 there is a desire to rerun the 1950s in America and with it a creepy rage for consensus at any price. Conservatives everywhere have taken possession of the event as a vindication for their righteousness; there is no room for dissent, for unsettling voices, off-kilter words. The national agenda is one of unity, ``healing": a new conformity. The McCarthyist tone, the lauding of material satisfaction and security at any cost is very familiar. 
Speaking of Kerouac and the beat phenomenon in a famous 1957 essay ``The White Negro", the title an acknowledgement of the influence of black jazz musicians on a new style of American revolt and literature, Norman Mailer wrote: ``The only life-giving answer to the deathly drag of American civilisation is to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self." 
He was being extreme; the end result of that thinking for many was perversion, suicide. But in this squarest of times, ``the rebellious imperatives of the self" remain a necessary adjunct to any lifestyle and the purchase it has on you, an interrogating and humanising request from within to stay Cool but keep warm.  
- Mark Mordue
* First published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Essay section,Saturday, February 23, 2002.