Monday, April 20, 2015

Happy Birthday to Me, Squashed Tomatoes and Pee

My weekend has been chilled and uneventful - just how I like it.

So, I'd like to tell you what I did for a while today, that was very positive and was possibly the best thing to happen on my 53rd birthday (even better than the curry, the sex, the drugs and the dancing girls), but first a preamble:

I've been suffering from severe depression for best part of a year now, but the last six months haven't been at all good and as any depressed person will tell you we hide it extremely well. Well, things got really really dark around February and I needed to do something positive or I might have become yet another tragic statistic in oh-so-civilised 2015.

I've had lots of things I'd like to talk about or even to tell you lot, but it never seemed to be the right time, or it seemed like I was being too negative, or it's not time or I chicken out or ... you get the picture. I have several unfinished pieces about how fucking depressed I've been; how suicidal I felt and all the time I stare at the finished words and think, 'fuck me, they're going to have me sectioned for my own safety'. My crappy lungs, dodgy back, wonky shoulder, wanky publishing company; woefully inadequate printers, distributors, unhelpful helpers thrust upon me - the list of woes is so long and so ... almost far fetched... I just didn't want to remind myself while making everyone else think I was fishing for sympathy or trying to be the centre of attention - being depressed does that.

I could tell you stories about paranoia - there are two kinds I've experienced: drug induced paranoia and the kind caused by depression. The best way of describing them is the former is a mild cheddar, the latter is a 3 year matured with more flavours than a sushi bar.

Anyhow, lets get on with this now it's gone midnight. 

I was out walking the dogs one day towards the end of February and I had the seed of an idea. That seed germinated into a narrative, which grew into a few hundred words and then into a few thousand; all the time I was aware that my personal creation process tends to be fragile at best and usually only needs the slightest of distractions for me to discard an idea or leave it for a rainy day that never comes.

So I was molly-coddling this one; it was cosseted and caressed and kept safe from the alliteration monster and because it was a mild March I got the chance to do what I love doing - writing in the garden. The few thousand words turned into 10,000 and still I defied Phil Hall logic and didn't tell a soul - not even the wife. The 10,000 clicked over to 15,000 and then eventually to 18,456. I saved the doc, went to the pub quiz and told everyone I'd been writing a story and that now, on the verge of 20,000 words I decided to tell them because once I pass this specific landmark figure there's a 90% chance I'd finish it.

A week later I had written ...
... 18,456 words. 

I'd put the kiss of death on the project. I just knew that was it, another shelved idea that never came to fruition (for me finishing something is as good as having something published, I've been published loads, I've only finished 7 big projects). The day I gave up on it was the day I thought my way out of the hole I dug myself - something my brother-in-law would be proud of me for doing - it was hard work, but once the idea reseeded itself everything started to slot together nicely.

That was nearly three weeks ago and since then I've spent a lot of time each week working on it. Today I reached an important landmark - 40,000 words. It is now in novel territory, it's no longer just a short story or novella. I am also aware this is a first draft and that it'll only be about 47,000 words when said draft is finished. I'm already identifying areas that need fleshing out, rewriting or clarifying. 

It has a title and a beginning, middle and I'm on the end right now. It might be a load of shit. I don't care. I'm going to finish it because I think it's a unique idea. It started as a story for kids; with some tough editing it might become that again, but the point is while I don't feel much happier in myself, this project is helping me rediscover some of my self-esteem and its been a fucking blast.

What's it about?

I'm not going to tell you.

I will say it's set in Leicestershire; it involves an enormous amount of Victorian history and railways. It involves 147 missing children and my love of mushrooms became my own personal Jesus. Oh and appearances can be deceiving. I can't pin a genre on it at the moment either, just to confuse the issue.

That's all you need to know. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Culture Dump #2 - Charterhouse Blues

I've been reading a biography of Peter Gabriel. Before I touch on that, I want to say that a few years ago I read the official biography of Canadian rock band Rush. It was possibly one of the most boring biographies I have ever read. Rush's members are all really dull. They didn't take drugs; they dabbled in libertarian politics, came from good middle-class families and probably all pay their taxes. Hotel rooms are probably tidier when they leave than when they arrived. It was that exciting.

So, when I started to read Gabriel's story, I expected the first half of the book - about his time with Genesis - to be jam-packed with tales of picnic hampers, public school hijinks and jolly japes and wheezes with a smattering of the distasteful Jonathan King thrown in for good measure. I expected the book to rival the Rush book for edge of the seat excitement. Strangely, I wasn't disappointed; the fact that the three public school members of Genesis thought of extremely middle class Phil Collins (from Chiswick - bastion of middle class London) and Steve Hackett (from Pimlico) as 'common' (my word not the biographer's) pretty much epitomised what to expect. Gabriel's wedding took place at St James Palace if you need another example.

Yet, they were surrounded by all the glitz and glamour of the 1970s. They rubbed shoulders with most of the greats and were arguably influential to some, better known, performers. They still had hampers and didn't take drugs (Mike Rutherford allegedly inhaled occasionally) and were thought of as 'serious' or 'rich kids' depending on where you stood. But the book is good and it does so much more than just paint a picture of rich toffs breaking into the British rock scene. It also reinforces the now growing belief that Genesis keyboard maestro Tony Banks is a cock.

I discovered Genesis through my brothers. They were hooked on them almost from the moment Trespass came out. In the days before the Internet, word of mouth was your best advertising campaign and living in Daventry, we were pretty much removed from the world. Yet my brothers were treated to a succession of top bands at odd venues, like pubs in Staverton and Watford Gap or Wollaston or Rock Street school in Wellingborough (apt that). They saw Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Stray, Atomic Rooster, Steppenwolf and a host of 1970s rock monsters at the unlikeliest of places, but this became the music for them in the 1970s and as a pre-teen I was subjected to most of it.

Harold the Barrel was probably the first Genesis song I became aware of. It was something my parents sang along to at the end - it was a jaunty, eccentric typically Genesis ditty about a suicidal young man on the ledge of a building getting ready to jump. It was the line about there being a man here from the BBC that always got them going. I, it seemed, had rather hip parents.

Unlike, say 'Touch Me' by the Doors, the first single I ever bought because I got hooked on the organ line, Genesis permeated into my life rather than exploded. Being subjected to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd et al during my formative years made me a fan by default rather than choice (which is why I embraced electronic music in the late 70s, because I felt it was my first musical choice).

I didn't start getting into Genesis until Peter Gabriel left. I didn't know he'd left because I was 13 and I was just discovering The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Where this album polarised many fans, it was the gateway for me to really start to listen to their back catalogue; not as background music, but as my own entertainment.

My untrained, musically deaf, ear didn't see much difference after Gabriel left. The music was still there and Phil Collins seemed to handle the singing duties as well as his predecessor. For me 1976 was a great year - fantastic summer, not a care in the world and bookended by A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. I had notched up a few live performances as well. Genesis were my favourite band in the world.

But even by the time And Then There Were Three came along, I'd discovered bands like The Stranglers, been to see David Bowie on his Stage tour and started to discover there was more to music than 9/8 time.

A series of less and less inspiring albums followed, yet during the 1980s, despite listening to more of anything else than Genesis, I doggedly claimed they were my favourite band. I continued to see them live and even these became less enjoyable, because they were doing less of the music that got me into them and more of the commercial shite that had made them megastars in the USA. By the end they had a fifteen minute medley of old stuff to appease the die-hards.

The last proper album, back in 1991 - We Can't Dance - had some fleeting moments, but you could gauge how much it meant to me by the number of times I played it. Genesis had stopped being even one of my favourite bands by then.

That's not to dismiss all the good stuff they did. Or how much more important, musically, the Gabriel era was and how, now many years later, it seems that getting rid of Steve Hackett was the final nail in their prog rock coffin. Despite reading about the tensions in the band because of their need to write music as equals, it appears when it was Gabriel, Banks, Rutherford, Collins and Hackett they wrote and played brilliant songs - the sum of all of their parts; once you took the two fantastical elements from the band they became anodyne. That's not to call Steve Hackett dynamic - he's anything but; he did continue the eccentricity in the mix when the fantasist - Gabriel - left and when Hackett left they lost the ability to bridge sections effortlessly. The three remaining members might have liked their new 'punky' direction, but they lost the 'class' they had and the tensions between Hackett and two of the other core members over the years - specifically Tony Banks is now pretty clear.

Banks took on the role of the musician in the band. His grandiose pieces all seemed to fall flat without a coherent classical guitarist and Rutherford, the weakest songwriter of the combo was reduced to rock riffs and fiddly bits he couldn't replicate live. Recently, in a retrospective documentary about the band it was clear that Banks is tolerated by Gabriel and Hackett and even now, despite being arguably one of the richest members of this uber-rich bunch of musicians, he's still bitter that he was never anything more than the keyboard player.

This is weird, I initially set out to explain why I liked Genesis and what was great about their music, because there are probably two full CDs of their music that you could keep to play a lot. A CD and a half of the stuff up to the band becoming a trio and half a CD of the things they did that were good after. The thing is you cannot compare Selling England by the Pound with Abacab or The Lamb with Duke - some of the musicians are the same, but the band is playing a different tune.

For me the test of time is the best gauge. Over the last few weeks while I've been working on other projects, I've played the back catalogue and in many ways listening to From Genesis to Revelation - the first Jonathan King produced pop album is more enjoyable than listening to the eponymous Genesis. Trespass is a work of raw genius compared to Invisible Touch. Foxtrot is a behemoth in comparison to We Can't Dance. Nursery Cryme is better than Wind and Wuthering, despite my love of the latter. Only A Trick of the Tail sits alongside the Gabriel era - arguably because most of the music was written while they were touring The Lamb and because it needed to be a Genesis album and not another band with the same personnel.

The old stuff, while under-produced because of the technology available, is visceral and raw, despite the fanciful musicianship - there is an element of punk in it long before punk got going. The Knife is a rock song with an edge and an anger that would never show itself again as raw and obliquely Gabriel was writing a lot about the underlying malcontent in the country. Yes, people think about Genesis songs as being stories of funny men, disappearing animals and lawnmowers, but they were incredibly subversive at times, with songs that showed Britain how Britain looked to an outsider. My favourite album - Selling England by the Pound - was released at a time when the country was up shit creek with a chocolate paddle, it pretty much is a satirical dig at the country from inflation to criminal gangs; but there's a song about a lawnmower and his funny walk and one about going to the cinema so people don't think about subtexts in their songs.

I believe Collins kept some of Gabriel's rhetoric, the problem was that Gabriel despite being of privileged background is something of a socialist where as Collins is a Tory; therefore Collins' songs tended to be whimsical rather than charged with an underbelly of truths.

In conclusion; they don't deserve to be maligned, at least not until they started pandering to Rock FM in the USA. The albums directly after Hackett's departures are better than the ones that concluded their career; the decline wasn't so much a decline as a change of direction that alienated the people who put them where they were. I didn't like it and many others also thought it was a bad move, but ultimately if you buy a ticket to a football match it doesn't give you the right to manage the team. Bands do what they want, by and large, not what their fans want and how could you ameliorate such a thing?

I like most of everything Pink Floyd has released, but people will tell you they didn't do a good album after Wish You Were Here or maybe The Wall. People hate the last Zep album and pretty much ignore the existence of Coda. Yes haven't done a decent album in 10 years and have produced probably a double album's worth of good material in the last 30. Just because I grew up with a band doesn't mean they will grow with me in the way I desire. My brother loves later Genesis and will argue that much of it is better than Gabriel era; I could deride that quite easily, but it's a matter of taste and that's what makes critics no better placed than Fred Bloggs in the street: you listen to what you like, if you don't like it you don't listen to it, there's no point in telling people they're wrong because they think something is better than something else - this is music, there is no right or wrong.

That said, I could probably go the rest of my life without listening to any Genesis from 1978 on and not miss it. I couldn't say the same for the music between 1969 and 1977.

Culture Dump #1: Shameless Praise

On my own personal Tmblr account I'm subscribed to a number of blogs that are related to actors in a US TV show. I also follow a few of them on Twitter. This is pretty blatant admiration from someone who professes to abhor getting involved in all the fake platitudes that the Internet has morphed into (apart from when it lies or is pernicious, of course). It's not that I want to know the intimate details of these peoples lives; I just do it to keep up to date with stuff that's happening in and around the show they're in.

It started with Jeremy Allen White, a young American actor charged with filling some big shoes. The shoes were those of the character Philip 'Lip' Gallagher. Now, anyone who watched TV in the first decade of the 21st Century will have noticed a show called Shameless - even if they didn't watch it or thought it was a documentary.

Shameless introduced us to James McAvoy, Ann-Marie Duff, Maxine Peake, Dean Lennox Kelly, Jodie Lee Latham and a bunch of others. It started as a gritty dramedy, which because of its success saw just about every interesting character leave to explore new and better horizons. McAvoy is Professor X, Duff one of our best stage actors, Peake is probably a Dame in the making, oh and there's David Threlfall, the titular Frank Gallagher - one of our best character actors playing a drunk, drugged out waste of time and space and holding the show together when it became a parody of itself.

The problem with Shameless was - as I said - its popularity and the fact that once an actor gets attention he wants to move onto bigger and possibly better things. With hindsight (and that's a TV series I might get around to talking about one day), Shameless was lucky to have kept Threlfall, because the A list actors involved were unlikely to stick around playing gutter trash for very long.

However, in the USA most actors get signed up for seven series at the outset. If it goes past five seasons then there's a renegotiation of the salaries; to pull out of a series, especially a popular one to go and do something else, tends to cost a lot of money, so it's rarely done. So when Paul Abbot - the man who created Shameless - sold it to the USA, he knew there was a better chance of him being able to tell the story he wanted to tell in the UK but was unable to because of actors' departures.

The first season of Shameless (US) was a carbon-copy of the first two series from the UK, even down to the shagging scene in the kitchen, between the two stars the show was really about - Steve and Fiona (McAvoy and Duff in Manchester and Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum in Chicago). We watched with some mild amusement, it was interesting to see how it transposed from a council estate in Manchester to a project in east side Chicago. The belief in this household was it could never quite achieve the anarchy of the British series; this was, after all, a US TV show and even if it was on cable it was never going to be as ... 'shameless'.

That was where we went wrong and that was how, by the end of the first season, we had become hooked on an almost word for word remake... Except, while the scripts were the same-ish, the situations were developing in an altogether different way.

There were differences; Frank's love interest, Sheila, was introduced immediately. There has been less focus on Monica Gallagher (although she's not been ignored) and Kev and Vee were less... abrasive and dodgy, but no less sexual and, well, they were still dodgy. The interest was generated mainly by seeing how far they'd push the source material - how shameless they would be.

Now we just finished the fifth season. The cast in the first series is essentially the same. There are some new additions and some minor departures, but the Gallagher clan is still intact and that is one of the main reasons why Shameless (US) has grown to be my favourite TV show.

We gave up on the UK version around series 5 or 6. It had changed focus to the Maguire family presumably because most of the actors playing Gallaghers had left and as I said, it became a parody, preferring to focus on out-and-out comedy rather than the social humour and outrageous scams. The Maguire family is the Milkovitch family in the US version - they are important, but they are, with the exception of Mickey, supporting cast, adding to the rich tapestry that time has allowed them to create.

We started with Frank, Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl, and Liam and they were still there at the end of the latest series, although Lip is now on the verge of fulfilling the potential anyone who watched the UK version knew he was capable of. Fiona is married, but that is a statement that says a lot but doesn't really convey the complexity of her character. She has become a bit of a slapper, but for all the wrong reasons. Series five delved into the subtext of 'father issues' and it's clear that while Fiona despises hers she needs one.

Carl is in prison - juvie - after bodging a massive drug deal for his new 'employer' and he's not yet 15. Debbie is pregnant and she is just 15. Ian is bi-polar and as mad as a box of frogs; he would also make an unbelievable Joker in a Batman film. And there's Liam, the eternal 3 year-old mixed race child, who doesn't appear to have aged a day in five years (that would be my one criticism of the realism in this series, unless it's a joke; which I wouldn't put it past the makers to try).

Oh and there's Frank Gallagher. William H Macy doing a character that is a million miles away from any character you've ever seen him as before. Remember Fargo? Well Macy in Shameless is the complete antithesis of that anally-retentive criminal 'mastermind'. He's a drug addled, alcoholic with a new liver, a new daughter (who he was only vaguely aware existed) and he makes Threlfell's Frank look like the comedy foil he became. Macy is not the stand out actor in this series, there are at least two people who act him off the screen every week, yet he commands this show like an emperor. He is an evil, despicable, heartless piece of shit who would literally send his own kids up the river for a joint, yet like Threlfell's Frank, you just love him.

At the end of Series 5, Frank had returned to Chicago after a brief hiatus away with a terminally ill doctor he was introducing to the delights of crack, crystal meth, pot and alcohol. She wanted to go out in a blaze of disrespectful glory and who better to show he the ropes. Except, after five series of watching this heartless degenerate fuck up the lives of everyone around him; he fell lock stock and barrel for something that was only going to be temporary. Frank has a heart, you just have to work in mysterious ways to find it.

It is almost impossible to convey just how brilliant this series is; the outrageous set pieces devised are superb, only to be out-outlandishly bettered the next time around. Yet, the real theme of the series is about survival. This is, in many respects, I would imagine parts of the poorest areas of US big cities to be like - dangerous places, but also places full of love and hope and fun and taking the opportunity when it comes along because that is the American Dream in this part of Chicago. It also paints a slightly horrific picture of what the most deprived areas of the USA could be like; Shameless doesn't cross into territories such as gangs (very much) and organised crime (although it exists). The Gallaghers exist in a world where they fit into it and have a place to play, but they are also the house down the street from The Wire. Or the people who live in the dodgy area behind the Soprano's strip joint. They are the people in the background in Dexter. The stars of Shameless are the people who tell the story that happens while everything else is happening.

One of the selling points for me is how 'every action will have a consequence'. The series is cleverly written; it isn't just a 12 part spotlight on scum every twelve months; there is a deep plot running through it; it has things that happen that seem to be of no importance that will come back and haunt a member of the clan for some reason or another. nothing happens in this series without it coming back to bite you on the ass.

That brings us back to Lip - for me this series has become about him, not Fiona or Frank. It is the story of an extremely clever young man who is something of a freak within his own neighbourhood because of his potential. There is no resentment, just mocking and good humour from his peers. it's like they hate him for being clever but, by God, they want him to get away from the hell hole they live in and that's where this series really works - there is a genuine humanity about it. Lip is at university; he's struggling and doing Gallagher things to get ahead, yet he's spotted as a bright and potential brilliant talent and that is a theme that has pushed on slowly through the five seasons to the point where he is beginning to realise that his future is away from his family and neighbourhood - but maybe only for a while.

There is the final element for me that makes Shameless excellent drama and not faux-fact. There is a fantasy element in it - not Game of Thrones or Snow White fantasy, just a knowledge that one episode in each run of 12 will have something that defies belief; has something happen in it that you have to stop and think about. And when I say 'fantasy' I don't mean fantastic I just mean unrealistic, yet in the context of all the shit that these people face, it is deserved. What do I mean then? Well; Frank's liver transplant was by accident - almost - without it he would be dead. Lip's relationship with a lecturer is feasible but also slightly 'wow'. Something happens in each series that has you thinking its a scripted drama rather than an improvisation.

It's been shown on ITV2 now for four seasons and it is the kind of program that deserves a prime time slot on a bigger network; it is so good if people watched it they would be hooked and as a result you will find yourself thinking, "I really can't believe they just did that!" a lot.