Each man kills the thing he loves

(First piece: Jazz alert)

I weep with joy.

Well, actually I don’t. I’m weeping because my optician tells me I have ‘dry eye’ and should drink more water. Yes, wine and coffee contain water, but both are diuretics and I am robbing my eyes of much-needed lubrication while pissing frequently in the garden.

The rest of the time I can’t see where I’m going.

I was proposing to go along with this diagnosis until, while I was signing up to another £300 pair of specs I probably won’t ever wear, I overheard him say exactly the same thing to the next customer as she was leaving. There’s a lot of it about.

No, why I am particularly emotional ce soir is because I have fortuitously stumbled across a video recording of one of the great jazz concerts, Chet Baker Live in Tokyo, 1987.

A year later, he would be dead.

I hadn’t found it before. You might pay $300 for an audio CD, outrageous as you can also pay £45, which I did, throwing caution to the winds and buying a version without sexy graphics, only to discover it on YouTube, not just as an audio download but as a living, breathing video recording.

Internet, or what? And where the hell do these people get this stuff? Thank God they do.

A trip to the Amazon produces that it is only available as an NTSC DVD  (Never Twice the Same Color). We poor boobies in Europe with our higher technical PAL standard can only be allowed to watch in lousy American technical quality. Never mind, YouTube is our friend!

Joy, especially as within minutes of acquiring it two years ago, the outrageously expensive Live in Tokyo audio CD I bought was already buggered, the great track – Elvis Costello and Marianne McPartland’s ‘Almost Blue’ – had become unplayable and wouldn’t even upload to my laptop media player.

Arborway. Surely one of the great West Coast anthems of the jazz era. That’s if any musclebound, blond-rinsed skateboarder on the West Coast appreciated jazz, fuckin’ Beach Boys, Jan ‘n’ Dean fanatics. It’s just a bit of water, get real.

Probably because he was white, and recorded a lot of slushy commercial stuff, on which he often sang in a high-pitched  girlie voice attractive to the ladies, former choirboy (!) Baker remains arguably one of the most under-regarded jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s; although he has many fans. To my ear, he was a better technical trumpet player than Miles Davis; although far less influential.

He dropped in and out of the scene over the years,  sometimes in gaol, and then after losing his all-important front teeth in what he said was an intimidatory attack by a drug pusher and friends, to whom he owed money. (One of his many wives is on record that he only fell downstairs while leaving a club.) And here, live in Tokyo, is the visual as well as the aural evidence of how months of retraining enabled him to play through uncertain dentures; although his singing voice is wavery and his recollection of lyrics suspect.

What made Chet such a great jazz musician?

  • Two spells of duty in an army band gave him impeccable rhythm (he could read music but didn’t know chord theory)
  • Time spent jamming with Charlie Parker, and Gerry Mulligan’s quartet
  • Huge chick-pulling ability
  • Industrial quantities of heroin
  • Immense ‘cool’
  • A mysterious death.

Baker died, falling from a second-storey window at 3 a.m. in a hotel in Amsterdam. Impressed by the quantity of heroin and cocaine in his blood, also found in the room, despite dark rumours the coroner wisely recorded a verdict of accidental death.

 

Each man kills the thing he loves

The famous refrain from Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol echoes in my failing mind. I am a murderer.

I don’t think I’ve been this desolate, almost suicidal, for a long while. Poor Cadi, my beautiful little avocado tree, is dead.

I killed her with neglect.

I am so self-obsessed and thoughtless and crapulous, it hurts.

There was a need, you see, to remove her from the living-room windowsill to a place of safety while I was redecorating. So I carefully chose a quiet upstairs window, in my bedroom. Behind a curtain I seldom, if ever, bother to draw, as I use the room to sleep in mostly.

Every two or three days I would give her a glass of water. Eighteen months it had taken to germinate the avocado stone, before it split open and a little root began growing down into the slimy green, nutritious depths of the crab-paste jar. A few more weeks went by, and then a questing shoot emerged from the top into the light, putting out tiny leaves.

My little tree was born!

For a year she grew, putting out leaf after beautiful, big leaf, until she was over a foot tall, taller, filtering the sunlight exquisitely through her pale-green lanceolate foliage. I loved very much to watch her. And then at Easter I had to go away for a few days. I made sure to give her an extra watering beforehand.

And after I got back, as I busied myself with creating small pockets of beauty around my little house, wrestling with all the complex organisational problems of flooring and tiling, electrics and carpentry, the financial and quantity calculations, the frequent trips to B&Q for more of this and that, the idiotic emails I drunkenly sent to suppliers when I stupidly couldn’t work out how to switch the damn thing on – I completely forgot she was there.

Death by drought must be deeply painful, leaves crinkling up, your cells gasping for water, the intensifying Spring sunlight now your enemy, struggling to transpire, your systems closing down to try to conserve what moisture remains, until there is none left. Help never comes. Hope gradually dies.

Three weeks went by, until one morning I remembered I had forgotten lately to water another plant, my late friend Lou’s Money tree that I never had the chance to return to her. Semi-succulent, Money trees (Crassula ovata) can survive for months without water. But avocados can’t. Watering Lou’s little tree, that I almost killed two years ago leaving it out on the terrace to be bitten by an unexpected early frost, I suddenly remembered – Cadi!

I raced upstairs, frantically filling and refilling my toothbrush-glass and pouring draught after draught of water into her dried-out compost, too late. For several days I hoped for a revival, as her little crown still showed signs of vitality though her lower leaves drooped and rustled like paper and slowly turned brown. And then even the crown shrivelled up, and she was gone.

You cannot conceive, dear Spammers, Followers, Likers and others, the depth of my self-repugnance when things like this are let happen. I have hated myself since childhood, useless, baboon-shaped, organisationally-challenged incompetent that I am. Friendships, relationships, family, jobs, houses, cars, money – the endless jetsam of stuff and people I have lost or broken or carelessly thrown away extends bobbing like empty bottles to the horizon as I continue even into my late 60s to crash through this one-and-only life like a blind rhinoceros on a bender.

And each man kills the thing he loves… Especially himself.

I am so, so sorry.

 

Sofa, so good

So, I’ve finally ordered a sofa. A red one.

I’m not sure it’s such a good idea, a red sofa. Bright red; poppy red. And two red cushions with ’60s deco-ish, big white buttons.

I’ve been redecorating: neutral greys and beiges, a natural timber floor – punctuated by sudden violent outbursts of red. One more, a red sofa, could be a statement too far, I don’t know.

Red isn’t even a colour I particularly like. It’s just the vibrant immediacy of it, reflecting my bursts of anger at all sorts of things that annoy me these days; plus the fact that I’m not very good with colourways. I’ve noticed, too, that opportunistic panels of red seem to be in vogue with the BBC News set designers.

So that’s what I’ve done. It’s always best to do something, whatever it is.

Anyway, it was about three years ago that the couple came to look at my little house, that is still on the market and nobody comes to look anymore. And clustered in the sitting-room, the woman asked me suspiciously, where is my sofa?

Having a sofa is apparently de rigueur nowadays. I blame the sofa shops, with their intensive promotional TV advertising campaigns over Xmas and Bank Holidays, everything priced at ‘ninety-nine, ninety-nine’ and pay nothing for four years (until you throw it away still owing them £999.99 and recklessly order another one. It’s how they get you, people!)

I’ve paid for mine.

The implied criticism of my sad, sociopathic lifestyle has lived with me ever since.

Not wanting to admit that I didn’t have a sofa only because you couldn’t force it through my extra-narrow front door and turn it in the extra-narrow hallway to prise it into the sitting-room – it took me half an hour just to get my armchair in, and ripped the wallpaper (I had to run round the back of the house, climb over a wall and through the garden to get to the other end of the chair after it got stuck) – I made up some humoresque rejoinder about having only one bottom to sit on.

And if you think about it, what is the gain from having two seats side-by-side – cheek by jowl, as it were – next to each other like that? Unless you have a lot of visitors all at once or you are very good friends, only one person is ever going to sit on it at any one time. So an armchair plus my swivelling old leather Eames chair just in case is a perfectly adequate solution as far as I’m concerned. Anything more is a waste.

Anyway, the woman’s wounding remark finally got to me and on Friday night while mildly drunk, I ordered a cheap red sofa from Argos, that with its removable Ercol-style legs removed, just might fit through the door with a couple of experienced delivery blokes to hand – a “push-me-pull-you” crew.

And now I’m looking around the tiny room, its gorgeous new red-tiled fireplace that I created last week, its crimson rug (“Handmade in India, 100% Acrylic”), imagining it with a poppy-red sofa along one wall (not due for delivery until the 26th), and into my mind unbidden pops another judgmental (and extra-expensive) thought (‘sofa woman’ is now firmly embedded in my nexus of self-inflicted guilt-trips):

Where’s the coffee table, then?

 

Sterile instruments

The in-or-out EU debate that will profoundly affect British history and fortunes for the next seventy years has become stultifyingly boring, bogged down in specious economic arguments and tit-for-tat mudslinging.

It’s as if Prime Minister’s Questions has spilled over into the streets in a tide of beige puke.

I can’t listen to it.

This morning the Chancellor Mr Osborne released a report compiled at vast length and in painstaking detail by Treasury researchers, suggesting we’ll all be 6% worse off – £4.5k a year – after we leave.

The report was immediately ‘balanced’ by Mr Gove, the Justice Secretary (notice, no Economics portfolio) countering that it was all rubbish – just typical scare tactics from the Remain campaign.

Good to see he’s taken the time, done his own research and knows what he’s talking about.

Little wanker.

 

 

 

 

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Oh, it’s a Jolly Solitary Holiday with Itinerary

“Take a solitary holiday to a place that has always fascinated you. Being able to plan your own itinerary will be lots of fun. You’ll be able to shop, eat and tour where you like.” – Yahoo! Horoscope

That’s just what I’m afraid of… missing my onward connection in Paris thanks to foreseen delays on the Eurostar service. (Outside the rain is lashing down and, having drunk this evening’s wine yesterday, I have nothing to do but sit and worry about this.)

I may very well end up solitary, lost and wandering; shopping, eating and touring, hither and yon, where I have no idea where I’m going or what I’m doing and the authorities will pick me up and commit me to some French hospital for the terminally bewildered and confusingly Anglophone (I’ve forgotten all my hard-learned French. I’m hoping it will come back when I arrive on French soil, but the signs aren’t promising: I spent a long part of my walk with Hunzi this morning trying to remember the English word ‘ragwort’…).

Happily I’ve taken out travel insurance, for the first time in my life. It’s because the last time I made the same journey, I mislaid my return ticket and was obliged by the SNCF railway lady to purchase a new one, at full price for a single outward journey (the return part is always cheaper) with the last dribble of cash I had in my account. Then Eurostar refused to refund my money, all the more galling as when I unpacked, I found my original ticket was where I had put it for safekeeping, in the front pocket of my travel bag.

I think you’re beginning to get the picture. No, I don’t travel well nowadays, it’s why I haven’t dared go anywhere for three years.

Be that as it may, I can assure the renowned prognosticator, Mr Russell Grant, that planning an itinerary is absolutely not fun. Where does he get these ideas? Have you ever tried it?

I spent the best part of three weeks last April online every evening to Mr Google and many others,  trying to figure out the best, the cheapest, the simplest way to get to a certain place at a certain time, involving some jazz, obviously, arriving where and precisely when I am expected next weekend.

I looked at possibly driving there, taking Hunzi for company – he has his own passport. But after I added the cost of fuel both ways, an overnight stop somewhere near Le Havre, to the ridiculous cost of taking the car on a Brittany ferry at this time of year, complete with compulsory extra seat-booking fee, given that I have a 600-mile round-trip from here to the south coast ferry port and back to throw into the equation; and there are two huge hell-hounds at the destination, lazing around in the sun, who would eat li’l Hunzi for breakfast, it was out of the question.

Besides, I am a rotten self-navigator, I tend to miss the turnings and waste hours driving miles in the wrong direction, trying to find a place to turn round.  SatNav? Surely, you jest.

I looked at flying, but discovered that the only flights to the tiny regional airport go from cities a hundred miles away at ungodly hours of the morning. It wasn’t thus the last time I flew to this place, pleasantly arriving mid-morning: someone has changed the horaire.

The air fares were affordable, although I find it somewhat bizarre that if you fly with a bucket-airline you whizz straight to your destination, or at least within 50 miles of it, in under an hour and a quarter, for about £250 return; whereas if you fly Lufthansa it’s a 24-hour marathon with three stops en route, three more opportunities to burst a tyre on landing, that costs over twelve hundred pounds. Those Germans, eh?.

Then, several reasons not to fly occurred to me.

One, I hate flying, much as I also avoid bungee jumping and road-bike racing on the Isle of Man.

Two, my most recent GF (who is no longer my GF but is a lecturer on global warming) was most exercised about my carbon footprint.

Three, I wanted to take a guitar with me and those lovely people at Ryanair want £50 extra each way to have it smashed-up in the hold; or a second £250 return fare to book a spare seat for the instrument, which seemed a) expensive, and b) rather antisocial at this time of year, as I expect they have little trouble packing the planes twice over with ordinary humans and their sprogs, who need to get to the same holiday destination.

Four, the nearest airport where I could find a flight with an unbooked seat and where the check-in time was not five a.m. is four hours away; plus, of course, the cost of parking my car there for a week, and the possibility of losing the carpark check and not being able to find the car again, loomed large.

So I blew out the flying idea, and that’s been my undoing, because I don’t now have a guitar I can take with me anyway!

I’ve had to decide not to take one, because having bought quite an expensive one from a shop in Germany I’ve had to send it back with an electrical fault. So I could have flown, but instead ended up with the third option, that of travelling – with minimal consequences for the future of the planet – by several trains: a journey lasting, provided I can make my dash across Paris and connection with the onward service on time, two days.

You see, you have to make all those decisions three months in advance, because otherwise the bookings for this time of year, Peak Broil, rapidly fill-up and you can’t go anyway; which is another attractive option I have been considering, for two reasons.

One, I can’t find a reliable-sounding person to stay in my house and look after li’l Hunzi while I’m gone. It’s a 24/7 position with no wages, although you get to sleep for a lot of that time and the contents of the fridge are at your disposal. I’ve been offered an agency sitter, but she’s an extra £350 on top of all the rest of the enormous costs involved in spending a week away, learning to do something I am never seriously going to do.

Otherwise, I’ve gathered an assorted rabble of lovely friends who can do a bit here and there, and I’ve offered to pay expenses. But it’s not ideal; I know I shall worry, my mind will not be concentrating on the music.

Two, there’s been a bit of bother at the French end of the Channel tunnel.

Industrial inaction, of the kind only the bolshy French labour unions know how to unleash on the public in the most disruptive ways imaginable. Something about Eurotunnel deciding they don’t want, or being told by the EU competition commission not, to operate ferry services as well as their unreliable tunnel, selling the ships and sacking all the crew members. I’d probably come out on strike myself, to be honest, it’s a mite hypocritical to say so, but they are bastards, fucking with hardworking people’s fun itineraries.

Then, there are five thousand desperate migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and points south, milling around Calais, occasionally rushing the tunnel entrance, causing delays to the trains – hoping to walk, swim or hitch a ride to the land of milk and coco-pops: Britain, where they’ve been hearing all their lives that there are jobs galore and free apartments and gold bullion lining the gutters, and opportunities to go in the Big Brother house, being dished out in ecstatic welcome to all who come.

(And where they obviously haven’t heard already exists a blue-bottomed tribe of rancorous, immigrant-hating denizens of Sofaville,  led by the Home Secretary, a lady who more closely resembles the Wicked Witch of the North than Mother Theresa; and by the uncompromisingly awful editor of the Daily Mail, Mr Darth ‘Dark-side’ Dacre. Ils ne passeront pas, as someone French once said.)

These two factors are conspiring to make planning my itinerary a lot less fun. The TGV trains leaving Paris will be packed with holidaymakers, it’s August, dammit, when they all flock to the coast. So the chances of getting another seat on a later train if I miss the booked connection are pretty well zero.

I shall end up walking to Calais, milling around with the Eritreans and the Somalis, trying to find a way back to sanity across the Channel. A solitary holiday seems a long way off. Why, oh why, did I make those bookings, at great expense, that I can’t now cancel?

Had I not done so, I would have the funds in my account that would make it a mere click to order the fabulous Gibson LP Premier Semi-hollow in Heritage Cherry Sunburst Perimeter which Messrs Guitar and Guitar have been pitching at me online ever since yesterday, at a one-off saving of £1,300…

As it is, I could, just about, do it – but leaving little margin for errors and sudden demands. It would require cancelling my home improvements schedule, selling everything – and, as Followers, Likers and Spammers of this, muh bogl, kno, that doesn’t always work either. (Yes, I’m still in the house. It had its third sale viewing in 22 months last week. They have become small triumphs in themselves. I spent a day on hands and knees scrubbing, but the viewer with the PhD in Geography – I had to ask why she calls herself ‘Doctor’, wouldn’t you have? – wasn’t impressed, at least she wasn’t showing it.)

Nothing I decide to do nowadays ever seems to work the way it’s supposed to, however carefully researched for fun my life’s itinerary. I seem to remember a time when I was fairly competent at the basics. Now…

By the way, it’s rəsearch, with the Schwa, not re-search. The stress falls on the second syllable.

I may have mentioned it before.

 

Postscriptum

Monday a.m., Russell writes to Librans to say:

“The sooner you accept you have a limited amount of control over your life, the happier you will be. “

The Devil, they say, is in the detail. How does one define ‘a limited amount’? Limited, how, in scope – or duration?

I think we should be told!

Phew, not a scorcher

The “hottest day ever recorded” in Britain (36.5 degrees Celsius at Heathrow) dawns mild and clammy in West Wales. A cooling breeze drifts across the little town, off the Irish sea, along the valley. Clouds lower, a few spots of rain perturb the dusty pavements. Later still, wind-driven pulses of rain will shake the boughs of my neighbour’s trees and freight them low, knocking like ravens on my studio roof, where they hang unusually laden this year with fruit across our fence. I resolve to chop them back one night, when the old man is not out pottering in his unkempt garden, his knocked-up shed. I shan’t bother with the apples, let them rot where they fall. Let them rot. These teeth won’t stand up to apples.

I have opened all the windows I can, drawn the blinds or curtains across to shield the interior of the little house from the fierce desert sun (being over 65, I am of course heeding all the warnings and prognostications of the weatherman and the doctors guesting on Today, gleefully threatening my entire generation with imminent death from heart failure and respiratory complications, advising sagely that we should pour lots of tepid water over ourselves – the prospect of pneumonia clearly thrills them). I have put on my skimpiest T-shirt, shorts and sandals, clothing to enter the fiery furnace outside, to make obeisance to the sungod Ra. Who is nowhere to be seen above the cooling clouds, above the rain.

July already.

I have thirty days to organise my departure.

Five years ago I determined to become a professional jazz singer. You have to be something. I had run out of anything else I could think of becoming, in my lifetime. Jazz, of the more romantic, acceptable kind, was the music of my childhood, being as I was brought up in the theatre. Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Carmen McRae provided a soothing holiday counterpoint to muscular termtime Christianity and the antiphonal mumbo-jumbo of the fustian school chapel psaltery. Fifty and more years on, I could still remember the words to Summertime, Come Fly With Me, Stormy Weather. Though some remain to haunt me, I have suppressed most of the religious musical memories, as I have suppressed the Latin grammar I learned from the age of seven; the Greek verbs. Did the Greeks have verbs? I don’t remember.

Becoming a jazz singer in West Wales takes a determined effort. There is no habit of sinful jazz in this most po-faced of Presbyterian cultures. Except that, long ago, there was a bardic tradition of improvisational poetry. I cling to that thought, wandering through the wasteland of winsome folk ditties, the “Celtic fusion” tendency and the tiresome repetitive chanting of what I have unkindly called Zulu campfire songs, stolen from more colourful (and much poorer) foreign village cultures by self-promoting hippie musicologists for easy translation via the Sibelius program into simple harmonised teaching-fodder for quavery sopranos and uncertain basses in community choirs. Whenever I hear the words “natural voice practitioner”, I reach for my Billie Holiday CDs.

In order to launch myself on this Quixotic undertaking, I turned naturally to m’gudfriend Mr Google, where I found there were various summer schools of jazz singing being advertised in France. These were in the nature of boot camps, agreeably chateau-based, with international classes conducted through the medium of my own language and nightly recitals backed by professional musicians. I chose one, completed a questionnaire (“How many songs do you more or less know? Tick 1-5, 6-10, 11-20, more”) and sent off the deposit. It turned out to be the absolute best week of my life, after which all else pales before or since. Had Death arrived on a skinny nag as I battled my way homewards through the French transportation system and across London for three days and two nights (see Posts passim), I should have welcomed him with a bag of oats and a song. It was that good.

So I went again the following year; and the next, when I decided to try something different and travelled to the Dordogne instead, to a partly ruined castle belonging to a couple out of La Cage au Folles, that disappointingly had no pool. The following year, I sent off another deposit, but had to forfeit it and my place on the course when I ran short of money for the main event. Last year, too, I was virtually bankrupt, until rescued by the State and its generous pension system. French dock workers willing, this year will thus be my fourth attempt to absorb in one week, the mysteries of the jazz-singer’s art.

And I am panicking.

For I have let my rehearsal schedule slide. Faced with a rotting mountain of sheet music, ‘fake books’, downloads of lyrics without music, chord charts without words, I do not know where to begin preparing. So many songs, so little talent. I had to take up the guitar again, after forty years, as there was nobody I could find locally who could or would be my piano accompanist – certainly not without payment. But it’s not been going well. Despite having bought (and sold again) around a dozen guitars, some costing thousands of pounds, frustratingly none of them would play themselves.

I needed to learn, somehow. And at the heart of my problem was, I can never remember anything I have ever been taught about music theory. In one ear…

An eighteen-month affair with my music teacher ended consensually when she took up residence with a gay woman. We hadn’t had time for music lessons, I was too preoccupied with my stupid job, on-call round the clock; she with her other pupils. Classically trained, jazz theory meant nothing to her anyway. A wasted opportunity. I found a guitar teacher in town, albeit of the wrong (gypsy manouche) kind, tragically he developed leukemia and had to quit work; which was fortuitous as I had run out of money. I went on a weekend jazz guitar workshop in a dismal northern town and picked up a couple of tips, but the tutor found my playing style too ‘Spanish’ and not sufficiently jazzical; faced with my obvious inadequacies, I bought another expensive guitar, that I eventually had to sell for half what I had paid for it, and signed up for an online course that’s steadily accumulating in my inbox.

So, in answer to your question, what have I been doing about becoming a professional jazz singer between alcohol-fuelled boot camps in France, apart from practising the alcohol-fuelling procedure, the answer is practically nothing.

I don’t have the confidence in my playing ability to accompany myself onstage at either of our occasional “open-mic” local pub venues. I’m starting to forget lyrics, chird sequences; to develop annoying vocal tics, and run short of breath mid-phrase. I ought to be spurred on by the promotional emails I get from one of my fellow students on the first course I went to, Jenny Green, inviting me to her concerts at various venues, including London’s famed Pizza on the Park, or to buy her CD, as her career has taken off. (Curiously, I always thought I might be the better singer.) I can’t go and see her, obviously, living 250 miles away, so I wish her luck – it’s not my style, anyway.

And I have collected, I believe, everything ever recorded by my tutor on that course, the phenomenal Liane Carroll – among the Top 10 best jazz singers of all time, the most phenomenal thing about her being that she isn’t better known, while the tortured, self-indulgent and tragically late Amy Winehouse is hailed as some kind of jazz genius. Not only have I collected Liane’s life’s work, inasmuch as Amazon stocks it, I have captured her music: I know precisely where and for how long to place every sung note, much good will it do me. Now all I need do is master the piano parts…. (I once said to her, if it takes 20 years to get as good as you, I’ll still be only 80…)

Meantime I go on attending the community choirs in my desultory way, mopping up compliments on my vocal abilities with bad grace; knowing I could have been a contender. And in 30 days’ time, if I can just stop writing this stuff and making endless cups of coffee and knuckle down to practising – if Loco2 have indeed managed to reserve my complicated run of tickets so that station machines in the middle of rural France will actually deliver them on demand and I can organise a builder to come and refurbish the kitchen while I’m away and arrange for the new kitchen appliances to be delivered and the old taken away on time and buy some summer clothes to pack in the stupidly expensive, poncy Italian leather travel bag I bought, and find a dogsitter and order my Euros from the bank and decide which guitar I might decide in the end not to take with me after all, and the bloke looking after the B&B I’ve booked remembers who I was when I booked two months ago and hasn’t double-booked my room, and the French dock workers aren’t on strike again, despairing migrants blocking the Channel tunnel – I may get to be a jazz singer for just one more week in my life.

It’s like I’m under some weird enchantment, to be honest.

I blame the weather.

Postscriptum

Whenever you buy outdoor clothing from a camping gear shop it’s always got at least six tags welded to it, hasn’t it, excitedly narrating the fascinating story of the incredible scientific advances that have gone into their new, breathable-technology rainwear.

I return from walking Hunzi on this cloudy, humid and lightly showery day, having tried out my new £59.99-reduced-to-£39.99 scrunchable high-tech breathable lightweight nylon showerproof cagoule for the first time, that I bought to go to jazz camp, positively dripping with sweat.

What is the point of it keeping the rain out, if you are going to be broiled in your own juices?

One day we may know.

And then you do

Old Age Pensioner…

In a little over a month’s time I shall, if spared, become an Old Age Pensioner. I roll the phrase around inside my grizzled old head for a moment, then spit it out contemptuously.

My grandfather was an Old Age Pensioner. I can’t possibly be compared with someone his age. I used to go occasionally to the hospital with my grandmother, where she was having a course of injections of metallic gold, supposed to cure her ‘rheumatism’, and see the Old Age Pensioners queuing up for the podiatrician to cut the ingrowing yellow old toenails they could no longer reach, on the free National Health Service, and think ‘there but for the grace of God I hope I never go’.

They must have been, what, 60?

And but for the accident when she slipped on the ice and broke her arm and the hospital left her in agony on a gurney in the corridor for five hours and she took to her armchair and eventually ten years later died from lack of exercise at the age of only 90, my granny would probably have lived to be 100.

The thought is both horrifying and comforting, in equal measure. I don’t think politically correctly speaking we still call the Over 65s ‘Old Age Pensioners’, as most of us are still on drugs and trying hard to accommodate Arctic Monkeys into our musical schema, and wondering if it isn’t time we made that pilgrimage back to Glastonbury with our teenage children by our third marriage and maybe think of changing our career trajectory….

As our society ages, we can all get excited by the return to the Hammersmith Odeon… sorry, Apollo, of the delicious Kate Bush, 56, making her first concert appearance since the Music Halls closed, and dream of happier times. The great Lord Page of Zeppelin is also much in the news, his playing on the 1968 single, ‘Whole Lotta Love’, having just been voted Best Guitar Riff of All Time by listeners to BBC Radio 2, the station for Old Age Pensioners.

Did I just bogl that yesterday? Can’t remember. Probably. Anyway…

I’ve said it before, but comparisons are indeed odious, whatever that tired aphorism actually means. There is, of course, no ‘Best’ of anything, ever. Can we say that Liane Carroll is the ‘Best’ jazz singer ever? How does she compare, say, with Billie Holiday, or Ella Fitzgerald? What we can say is that the eclectic modern music scene and her insistence on retaining her commercial and creative independence have allowed Liane to range with absolute assurance across a far broader musical spectrum than either of those undoubted Greats, whose output was channeled through the much narrower music industry and culture of their day.

And she must be, what, 60?

Old Age Pensioner. It’s not something you think much about when you’re 25. By 35 you’re so riddled with angst you can’t think about anything much, except your upcoming divorce and whether you made the right career decision and where’s your next car coming from? By 45 you’re balding, overweight, impotent and about ready to give up, yet there’s another twenty years to get through somehow, probably riddled with cancer and on the verge of bankruptcy. And the thought of hitting 65 knowing the teenage actuaries in the insurance racket are glumly predicting that you will cling on to your pension annuity for twenty years more, thanks to the wonders of modern NHS medicine, is just outrageous.

And then you do.

Personally, I would have voted for the Best Guitar Solo of all time, Andrew Latimer’s playing on the track ‘Lunar Sea’, from the album Moon Madness, by Camel. Or maybe something by Dave Gilmour. Even Page’s solo on ‘Stairway to Heaven’, to my mind still the best rock track ever, ever. You young whippersnappers wouldn’t have the faintest idea. By an amusing coincidence,  ‘Lunar Sea’ was recorded, in 1976, at the very same Hammersmith Odeon (sorry, Apollo) where the mighty Bush made her triumphant re-emergence on the stage last night.

I once saw Dizzy Gillespie play there.

Hey ho.

 

An impolite dinner guest

(Guitar alert, again)

Hello. It’s been a week since I thought of anything to share with you, after I ate all the apple crumble.

I’ve been quite excited by the launch of a new piece of technology, that will revolutionise the art of sitting in your bedroom, morosely twanging an electric guitar in the hope that one day you will sound like Jimmy Page. He played lead guitar with Led Zeppelin. They were a rock band. In the 1970s… A decade in the 1900s… Oh well. Another guitar player, then.

Anyway, for a while now my friends at Guitar Guitar have been bombarding me with emails about this new amplifier. Imaginatively, it’s called Amplifi. I discovered last night from watching the video from manufacturers Line 6 that it’s pronounced, not ‘amplifee’, but ‘amplify’. Why they couldn’t just spell it phoneticalli, ee don’t know.

Anyway, it’s a genuinely evolutionary breakthrough, the first guitar amplifier that talks to your mobile phone, and vice versa. You get an ‘app’ for your mobile phone, and it offers you a screen with 200 different tone icons, and you send one to Amplifi and it changes the sound of your guitar to an organ, or maybe a violin. Any instrument you don’t play.

And you can phone it up and tell it to sound like some other amplifier, you have a choice of 50, so if you can tell the difference between the sound of a guitar played through a Vox AC30 and a Carlsboro Cobra 110, a Marshall or a Fender Mustang whatever, you can make your guitar sound like you are playing it through the most expensive amp money can buy. Why settle for less?

What’s more, you can go online to a thing called The Cloud, which at the moment is helpfully downloading gallons of water on my little garden, and find all the tones and amplifier combinations and little tunes you made up, that have been recorded for you, and play them back through Amplifi so you can strum along to them. And you can find all your friends’ little tunes and tones, if you have any friends by now, and play along with them too, and it sounds like you do have some other friends in your room and they are all professional musicians and you are playing happily along together, at MU rates. And then you can share your fuzzy tunes with your virtual friends at Facetweet, what’s not to like?

A kind of musical ‘selfie’!

And, miraculously, you can play the tunes-u-love off your mobile phone or wee-fi or whatever, your laptop (stop playing with your laptop, little Jimmy!) or iPadphone thing, that you have recorded to listen to while jogging or on the train – any piece of music – into Amplifi’s plughole, and Amplifi will listen carefully to the song or the symphony or whatever and you can select which instrument you want to be and it will make your guitar sound exactly like that instrument, including its tone settings. So you can twangalong to yourself, to Wrong Direction’s latest chart topper, to a late Beethoven quartet (it stores four voices, helpfully!), Paco Peña or whatever, Pat Metheny, and it sounds like they are all in the room playing along with you.

How cool is that?

Amplifi comes thoughtfully in two versions, the big one and the little one. It doesn’t even look much like an amplifier, so (according to the video presenter) your wife won’t complain that you bought yet another amplifier, because she’s too stupid to notice and besides it’s also a docking station for her wee-fi and you can plug your stereo in using wire-free Bluetooth for parties so guests don’t trip over the cable and it looks good in your living room. Being two-tone, it goes with any two items of furniture that happen to be red or black. And because it has lots of speakers, it will play lots of instruments out of different holes and you just play through the big one in the middle and all the instruments get blended together but sounding separate and it’s just fantastic what it can do.

But the best thing is, it’s dirt cheap! The little Amplifi is only £275 and the big one only £375. I had to call the ambulance service out to have myself forcibly restrained from pressing the Buy Now! button on the Guitar Guitar email, offering me the opportunity to Win an Amplifi! along with the 800 other entrants who had already correctly guessed the answer to the multiple-choice question and pressed the Enter Now! And Be Forever Humored by the Gods Above button. I knew that if by some chance I did not win one, I would have to buy one.

And that would be where I might start kicking myself.

For a start, I am an elderly wannabe jazz player and a purist. I only want my guitar ever to make one tone, and that is the purest, flattest, jazziest tone you can make this side of 52nd Street. Not a loud buzzing noise, like a bees’ nest you are poking with a stick. Not a noise like a herd of desperate crocodiles sliding down a blackboard. Not the loud wailing sound of the Ebmi7 arpeggio played repeatedly in the 3rd position, with anguished bendy blue notes, sounding uncannily like the inner mind-workings of a petulant teenager banished to his room. Neither an organ, nor a violin, that I don’t play, but Joe Pass’s Holy Epiphone.

Secondly, even assuming I could arrange to sound like that, I don’t possess an iPadphone thing; nor do I understand how to use Bluetooth, or what an app actually is, or where and in which dimension and why The Cloud exists, or what is in it for me, that is not going to result in a huge phone bill or an epiletic convulsion. As far as I’m concerned, it may as well be The Cloud of Unknowing*. I have no friends whose little fuzzy tunes I want to suck from The Cloud; nor are the tunes-I-love stored anywhere other than on CDs – alright, I may have managed to transfer about a third of them to the Media Player thingy on this, muh li’l laptop, so I imagine there is a possibility that my son could instinctively work-out how to persuade Amplifi to make my guitar sound like Joe Pass’s Epiphone, if he could stop sneering at me long enough.

And I do have an Epiphone! But the only thing that will realistically make me sound like Joe Pass is to be granted another twenty years of life, a good teacher, and the money to pay for them. While all Amplifi will do for me is to sit accusingly in the corner, clashing hideously with the decor, head in a cloud, phoning its friends on my bill.

An impolite dinner guest, the future always arrives too early.

*Late medieval mystical text. I haven’t read it either. Look it up.

Oh, stuff that Gibson

“If Eric Clapton had personally played all the guitars with his name on them, he would never have had the time to become famous.”

(Boring guitar chat alert)

Anyone who has an interest in life is going to want to share it with friends. It’s one of the penalties of friendship, that your friend could waste good drinking time droning on about fishing flies or his divorce or the golf or the latest version of Windows or Harley Davidsons or the price of property or Manchester United’s waning fortunes – and you would put up with it, for the sake of your friendship.

So, I happen to have an interest in guitars. So now you do too. And what I wanted to drone on about does in fact have wider relevance. It’s this:

Why are people so daft?

Now, I’m no expert. I bought my first guitar, or rather I persuaded my granny to buy it for me, when I was eleven years old. That was over half a century ago. I started a little pop group at my preparatory school, just three guitars, and we played Cliff Richard and Elvis covers, assuming they didn’t run to a fourth chord.

I gave up playing the guitar five years later, after a disastrous gig one night at my public school, when I just couldn’t play a note right. I hate to be embarrassed like that. And four years later, my friend Terry Milewski hocked my Hofner V3 to finance his escape to Canada, just ahead of the Doncaster police. There followed 32 years of serial marriages, during which there were to be no little personal luxuries.

Finally, four years ago everything came to a head. Freshly divorced, I was able to cash-in a long-ago paid-up pension plan; my father died, and left me some of his mother’s jewellery, which fetched a bit of money at auction…. at last, I was free and able to afford a guitar – which I had decided to take up again, only because I wanted to be a jazz singer but nobody else would play with me.

Now, as I said, I’m no expert – either as a player, or as a connoisseur of fine guitarware. I am learning all the time. And what I have learned is depressing, obviously (or it wouldn’t qualify for a mention on this, muh bogl).

What I have discovered is that if an old guitar has the word Gibson written on the headstock, the twiddly bit at the top end of the stick, then it will probably fetch between £2.4 and £24 THOUSAND, although it may well be made of plywood, as hollow-body Gibsons tend to be.*

But if it doesn’t bear the magic Gibson name, you can’t give the bloody thing away.

I discovered this, when I tried to sell my 1962 Epiphone E452T ‘Sorrento’ (see Posts passim). In 1956, Chicago Music, which owned the Gibson brand, acquired the Epiphone company. For ten years, Gibson remained the budget version of Epiphone, whose guitars were considered to have more cachet in the market. A number of models were created in parallel, using the same materials, dies and blanks, in the same factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and were sold under both brand names. They were identical, other than in some of the detailing and the quality of the fittings.

The E452T is, in fact, the slightly superior version of the Gibson ES125TC, which has been described as the ‘student’ model. But, thanks to clever rebranding, the 1960s Gibson nowadays sells as a collectors’ item for anything between £1,800 and £2,500, while I cannot even get an offer around £800 for my superior but otherwise identical Epiphone, which is in remarkable condition for 52 years of age and made by exactly the same people, in the same place, to the same design, from the same bits of plywood and metal, because it has the name Epiphone written on the twiddly end of the stick, and not bloody Gibson.

Guitars sell for even more, don’t they, when the name on the headstock is allied with that of some celebrity endorser. A good rockstar signature is often worth an extra few tens or hundreds of pounds, and makes for a story to attach to the product publicity. This usually tells of how the Gilded Demiurge has worked tirelessly for years in collaboration with craft elves of unrivalled artistry to design the perfect instrument for all of that stellar dexterity to rub-off on 15-year-old you, alone in your lonely room and dreaming of fame. If Eric Clapton had personally played all the guitars with his name on them, he would never have had the time to become famous.

Worse, is the dealer markup. I had to pay the dealer £1,400 to acquire my Epiphone. I fell for it two years ago, out of sheer boredom while attending a weekend jazz workshop. Amid another thirty or so foolish old men flourishing their cherished plywood Gibsons out of their plush coffins, many costing upwards of £10,000 (see, it gets worse!), to spend the hours before lunch dutifully strumming the changes from Sweet Sue under the jaundiced eye of a weary virtuoso, I could not stop my other self buying it. It had a wonderfully slick playing action and a great jazz tone, it played me for about an hour and I just had to have it…. I checked with Mister Internet, and found only three others for sale in the UK, not necessarily in such good or original condition, yet all costing more. It seemed like a fair price for a unique item: a ‘collectible’….

But every time you buy a ‘heritage’ guitar from a dealer, beware. He will be charging you twice what the instrument is worth, were you to presume to sell it again. And if you offer it back to a dealer, he will give you half of what you gave for it  and sell it on again for four times as much. No-one else will be very interested in buying it at any price: there are tens of thousands of secondhand guitars languishing on sales websites the world over. (To the hallowed halls of guitar fame, many are called, but, as I discovered on stage that night in 1965 in front of an audience of 200 uncomfortably shuffling schoolboys, few are chosen.)

You can never win, with a dealer. (They do, after all, have overheads. You don’t. Living is optional.)

And you can never win, if you fail to understand one thing about the magical quality invested in a brand: that graphic expression of people’s blind faith in meaningless symbols of power and prestige:

It doesn’t half improve your playing.

Postscriptum

The Friday-evening email Bulletin of Earthly Delights arrives from Guitar Guitar, a sales website not unknown to me, to provide a perfect example of what I am saying, innit.

There is a particular design of guitar called a ‘Les Paul’, doesn’t matter what that is. There was an original, once. Just to say that a pre-owned Les Paul-style guitar made by a company called Westfield is listed at £125, while the virtually indistinguishable-looking pre-owned Gibson ‘1959 edition’ Les Paul above it, signed by the rock god Paul Kossoff, is ‘Only £7,995’)….

Made, of course, from pure Martian crystal, inlaid with hens’ teeth; strings handspun by especially blinded fairies from Madonna’s personal hair….

*Hang on, I’ve just found a 1937 Gibson jumbo acoustic guitar online, advertised at a tad under SIXTY thousand… Blimey.

Urgent messages from the past

(Jazz alert)

I don’t understand how CDs become unplayable.

About five years ago, I got a friend with the necessary equipment to make me a safety backup copy on CD of a vinyl album in my possession, Kind Of Blue – the classic 1959 CBS session by the Miles Davis quintet (with Bill Evans), that is still the best-selling jazz album of all time, unless you believe that Brubeck and Desmond’s Time Out is. I was worried in case the vinyl got scratched or worn out, as I play it almost every night before bed.

Last night I put the CD copy on, to which my friend has annoyingly added ‘bonus’ tracks of takes that Miles obviously wasn’t happy with, that made me think he’d downloaded it off the remix CD and not taken it directly from the vinyl album, and it started skipping about everywhichway,  stammering and yammering and doing wheelies and whatever it is that technically CDs do when they are completely buggered, and I thought, this is crazy, I’ve played this thing about twice in its life, and I’ve played the vinyl version about two thousand times and it’s got only two little pops on it but they don’t jump, and I can’t remember if I’ve ever even cleaned it.

What is especially annoying about this discovery is that the hard drive died on my laptop a while back and after the shop put in another one half my music had reverted to some Platonic realm where Microsoft won’t let me play it without a licence, so I have had to re-load a lot of albums from my CDs, and this was going to be one of them. Now, I don’t have a copy of Kind of Blue on my laptop, to take around with me to play in strange rooms before bed. I shall have to buy one. Bonus tracks and all.

Do you remember when CDs first came on the market about 30 years ago, everyone said they would last forever and were far less likely to become damaged and ruin the listening experience  than groovy, melty, scratchy-poppy old vinyl, that you assaulted with a worn stylus and not a techy laser beam delivering scientific perfection every time? It was bullshit! You only have to breathe on CDs and they won’t play. The frequencies are compressed and have to be continuously sampled and re-expanded digitally and it sounds crap. Bleah.

All of which goes to remind me that next year sees the 50th anniversary of the day I bought my vinyl copy of Kind of Blue.

I was stuck at a tragically expensive boarding school outside a dull provincial town somewhere in the English midlands, the selection of jazz music in the local record store was pathetic, a rack of Pye Golden Guinea compilations, but miraculously one day there it was. I’d never heard of Miles, I don’t think, but I was kind of blue too (mainly through cold) and he changed my life. Fifty years of listening pleasure.

Although I have lost probably dozens of other recordings down the backs of sofas during that time, it is astonishing to think that I have been lugging around this one precious disc of vinyl for half a century, from school to home to house to farm to town, through two marriages and two kids and six dogs and fifteen cats and two dozen jobs lost that I will never do again, a hundred dangerous DIY projects, and here it still is delivering the same deep sense of satisfaction every time that it did when I was 14 years old. It’s extraordinary, like it’s divinely protected.

Blue in Green is still the Moonlight Sonata of the modern jazz era, an almost perfect, eternal creation; Flamenco Sketches still haunts my dreams, and the first tune I tried to play on the bass was Paul Chambers’ riff from So What? Coltrane still has the power to move mountains, and Evans’ eloquent minimalism creates profound silences that say more about the human spirit than a thousand whining digital dirges from Rihanna or One Dimension.

Last month, my 89-year-old mother, who goes to Zumba classes and smokes 20 a day, called to say she’d been reading on an album cover about Juliette Greco whom she last saw live in Paris in the 1940s but hadn’t known about the long affair with Miles and would I send her some of his music because she didn’t think she’d ever heard any?

So I got Amazing.uk to send her the KoB CD, but it’s not the same as the vinyl original: a diminished, homogenised version of a venerable object bearing urgent messages from the past.