Tuesday, 13 December 2016


 


 
 
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: BORN TO RUN

 

To Bruce Springsteen fans, the man, the ‘Boss’, is an inspirational force: his live performances are parties, where he leads his gang of loyal friends (the E Street Band) in a thrilling melee of sheer enjoyment.  He’s loving it, they’re loving it, it’s infectious and so they, the audience love it too.

Can there be a better man, a happier man, a more fulfilled man alive?  It’s inspirational, not just because of sheer entertainment being shared, in a symbiotic embrace, but because of the integrity of the message his songs convey of values, loyalty, redemption, respect and responsibility (both personal and collectively).

Those reading his memoir will be looking for answers, either to learn how to be this kind of wonderfully unflawed and fulfilled person, or to see the veil pulled away to find it is, after all, too good to be true, that it’s all a dazzling mirage invented by a ruthless, single-minded and ambitious artist.

The chronology of Springsteen’s life is already an open enough book, his musical canon charting an upward course from streetwise cocky young punks, through small town characters eking out lives filled with promise and disappointment trying to break free, to more rounded, mature subjects who work hard, fail, are failed by others, but always seeking to be fulfilled by whatever small victories life may offer.

His own life has been charted through biographies, interviews, media interest and, to an extent, a mythology that has used both the music and the reality as a skeleton on which to flesh itself out.

So much is known.  The question then, was would the real Bruce Springsteen be revealed by Bruce Springsteen? The answer is a cautious yes. Using the dual sequences of his personal life and his musical life he reveals very little that is not known in simple factual terms. What he does instead is carefully, gently, remove the myth-flesh from the skeleton and rebuild the body with tissue that comes from the only person who knows what it’s like to be Bruce Springsteen.

Naturally – it is, after all, an autobiography – he remains firmly at the centre of events.  However, there is little self-aggrandisement; events are related from the perspective of where he fits and sits in regard to them, but the role he has in them is not necessarily one that is itself important.  It is important only in how it played a part in developing who he was or would become.

Recognition of his confidence in his talent and ability is not humbled or modestly downplayed, but the influence, help and importance of those who have been key to his successes is graciously told.

Not least, the part his father played throughout. Long recognised publicly as a spectre looming menacingly, awkwardly, and aggressively over him, there is a yearning, tender and ultimately redemptive gradual revealing of their undoubtedly strained relationship, whilst covertly recognising the significance of its importance in shaping who he is.

And that’s where those questions begin to be answered: he is not the unflawed, fulfilled person we thought (or hoped) he is. Yet neither is he an unpleasant, arrogant and ruthless individual that others may have hoped for.  His lifestyle and life have perhaps created a more needy, self-centred and selfish person than the myth would have us believe, but he does not shy away from telling us this. Nor does he baulk at revealing the connection he fears exists between his father’s mental health issues, and his own, and the picture of a clinically depressed, bullying Bruce Springsteen may not sit comfortably with fans that need him to fulfil their own fantasy of a perfectly formed god. Credit then, to him, for trying to portray himself as realistically as he felt able.

This is an absorbing and enjoyable read. His prose style is captivating; both relaxed, as if he is just simply chatting to you over a beer, and at times wonderfully poetic. He is not afraid to tell you how driven, flawed, selfish and mono-minded he is, exposing a less attractive side than the ‘theatre’ (his word) of his live persona.

And yet, he is inclusive, because, as he more than once explains, none of this happens without you, and he means, YOU! Whichever one of ‘you’ is reading the book right now.  You end feeling that you know more of him than you ever did, but that still, you don’t know him at all, and that, had you been his friend for the past 40 years, you wouldn’t know him any better than the reader does.

It’s a bit like the best of his music: bad things are out there, they will meet you, challenge you. Things don’t always work out, the things you believe will make you happy don’t necessarily do so and you have to look for hope, redemption, contentment, wherever it may be.  In your friends, family, your work.  You must examine who you are and where you fit into it all in order for it to feel real.

 

 

Born to Run is published by Simon & Schuster (£20)

 

 

 

Friday, 24 April 2015

A Little Trip to Europe

Those of you that observe my life on that Facebook will no doubt have evinced that I have been away recently; we had a week in bits of Europe, namely Budapest, Bratislava, Melk and Vienna.  This was because Karen's mum, who died last September, had asked that some of her ashes be scattered in Melk, a city in Austria.  We decided to make a trip of it, and visit Budapest, a place I've yearned to see, and which Karen has yearned to see again, having visited with her mum at the end of the 80s when it was still in the grip of communism and Russian control.

Her recollection of it was that it was attractive and yet gloomy and foreboding. An egg set before the curate it seems.  The fact that it rained the whole time, and that it was so repressive and repressed due to the regime, no doubt fostered that impression.  For our trip, we were fortunate to have sunshine and warmth, and a distinct absence of commissars about the place.  And - it is attractive, beautiful and stunning indeed. I would highly recommend it.  Our experience was enhanced by staying at the Hotel Corinthia, which was formerly known as The Grand Hotel Royal.  It has been faithfully restored to its original splendour, with the rebuilding of the main features of its interior modelled from photographs and any remaining artefacts, such as some of the glass from the ball room chandeliers being used to work from and create the whole.  I had a 'behind the scenes' tour with one of the concierges, who spoke of the history.  He had worked there as a young man, before working around the world in the hotel business, and, finally, in his anecdotage, returning to his alma mater, if you will.

He told me of watching films in the Red Star cinema, which is how the ball room (which now is returned to its opulent glory) had come to be used, and how the building had been destroyed by tanks and fire when the revolutionaries took cover there in 1956.  Then, taking me to a display of blown up photographs ranged in the area near the entrance, showed me his young self, in tails, looking very elegant, carrying a tray of drinks.  Marvellous stuff.

After our three nights there, we were to move on to Melk, but, we had  first to drive to Vienna airport to pick up Karen's daughter Laura, and her boyfriend Fouad, who were joining us for the remainder of our time.  We had looked at the map and found, to our pleasure and amusement, that Bratislava was but an hour's drive from us, and Vienna airport a mere 40 minutes from there.  We simply had to go, partly because, well, come on, it's Bratislava, it's another country, it's another European capital city I can tick off in my (probably never to be achieved) quest to visit all the European capital cities.  The task is frustrating since they will insist on adding countries, and hence capitals, or breaking other countries down into smaller parts, thus multiplying still further the capital cities. So the finishing post grows ever further away.

Anyway, before I enter rant mode and lose your attention (they even include Moscow as a European capital in lists. Moscow! The one in Russia. That Moscow. For Heaven's sake!) another reason, and the one which allowed me to suggest it was to our amusement, for visiting was that when I first knew Karen, and met her daughters, Nic, the youngest, used to dismissively, in her 6 year old way, refer to me as 'Welsh Boy', much as to say 'that's how insignificant you are'.  It was highly endearing really, and my response, which became a sort of mantra, was to say 'Bratislavan Girl', which confused her somewhat. So the city had a certain resonance for us.

Having found our way there, we had the usual anxieties about trying to park, and identify where the centre and points of interest were.  When we did park, it turned out to be a good 15 minute walk from the 'historical centre'.  Walking along past brown, concrete edifices, and grey buildings of old age but shabby and uninteresting demeanour, wasn't the ideal introduction, especially after the beauty of Budapest.  But then we found the centre, hidden away behind all the dully uniform Eastern European modernity, what a pleasure it was to see.  It was chocolate box, jigsaw cover quaint and lovely.  All 16th century town houses and cobbled streets, and absolutely spellbinding for it.  I do confess though, that there were moments when I was reminded of the child catcher scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and looked about me with some concern.  We had a lovely goulash and a drink in the square then had to make our way back to the car.  We passed, on leaving the square, a building sporting the sign 'The Narnia Bar'.  Curious, I went in but it was nothing more than a wardrobe.

And so to Vienna, collect the young lovers, and then a further hour's drive on to Melk.  We knew little of it, except that it had an Abbey.  Probably baroque.  We had learned, from riding around Budapest in one of those open topped tourist buses equipped with a spoken guide, and on a carriage in Bratislava similarly equipped, that most of the architecture in that part of the world is baroque.  Since the pre-recorded information is done by Americans however, the style is referred to, not as is the correct way, 'bar-rock', but as 'bar-roke', which lends itself to the paradoxical impression that all these ostentatious buildings were the result of the instigators running out of funds, or that they are in a state of disrepair.  'The church of St Peter is built in bar-roke style', or, 'the Parliament buildings are bar-roke' for example.

Arriving in Melk, it would have been difficult to have overlooked the Abbey, as it is built on a rocky (perhaps bar-rocky) outcrop between the River Danube and the city and rather impressively looms over one wherever one is.  Melk itself turned out to be even more quaint than Bratislava, especially so as it is not hidden in the midst of a modern city, but is a little district all by itself.  It consisted of a square, a main street, a church and of course, the enormous lowering Abbey, and not much else.  And it was fabulous.  Due to its small size it was easy to get around, and picturesque in the extreme.  We settled in splendidly and enjoyed three days of wandering, eating and drinking.

Except of course, we had also to attend to the real purpose of the trip. At first, we had thought that the Abbey would be the ideal place, however, two reasons deterred us from that.  The first was that the large grounds and gardens, where we had thought we could unobtrusively go about the task, were closed and didn't open until May.  The second was that impressive though the Abbey was, it didn't have the right feel for what we wished to achieve. Later we strolled down to the Danube in glorious sunshine, all the while, quietly 'scouting' for an appropriate spot there, accompanied by Laura and Fouad who were riding bikes supplied by the hotel. Laura offered me the opportunity to have a ride on hers, but she warned me that pedalling backwards was like applying the brake.  I wasn't sure what this meant, got on, attempted to push the pedal back to get it in the right place for setting off and... It just stopped.  So I pedalled forward a quarter turn but then tried to push back on the pedals, as I always do, to get them in the optimum place and the bike stopped abruptly, pitching me forward.  I decided there, and indeed, then, that it wasn't for me.

Later on the walk,  Laura and Fouad who, naturally, as they were cycling, were getting ahead of us, reported back that they had 'found the spot'.  They had discovered a tributary, with a natural weir, in the shadow of the Abbey.  The weir was like a small waterfall and so there was a constant gurgling and bubbling of water, something that Jan was always attracted to.  We agreed that this was ideal and we would come back the next day, which, being April 17th, would have been her birthday.

The following day we did just that, and Karen left behind a small part of her mum, in a place that she had loved, and it felt right. Oddly, and I draw no inference from this, having had bright sunshine and temperatures of the mid-20s all week, shortly after we had torrential, soak-you-to-the-skin-as-soon-as-look-at-you rain which lasted into the late evening.

The next day we had to leave Melk and drive back to Vienna.  Laura and Fouad were staying there for another 2 nights, but we were flying home that evening.  We had been to Vienna 9 years previously, a weekend break which had been a wedding present from Karen's mum, so to be able to return, if only for  few hours, seemed fitting.  We set out, with Karen understandably a little emotional at metaphorically leaving her mum there, knowing we may never return.

We had a very pleasant few hours in Vienna, including a ride on horse-drawn carriage, with commentary not, this time, pre-recorded, but from the actual, real-life and living driver.  Who not once mentioned architectural styles, bar-roke or otherwise.  A meal and hot chocolate at the cafĂ© in the square that had been our haunt 9 years before, and then home, having thoroughly enjoyed the week away.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy


Rachel Weisz is married to Daniel Craig. Craig is Bond. Weisz is the scientist forced to go on the run with Bourne’s replacement hero, Cross in this addition to the Bourne series..  Bond was rebooted, re-invented as a direct result of the Bourne franchise.  Paul Greengrass, with his crisp, clear directing and ability to put the viewer directly in the action, showed the tired Bond franchise how it could, how it should, be done.

 

And now, this latest addition to the Bourne, ahem, legacy, seems to be a throwback to the pre-Craig Bond, with comic book action that seems as unlikely as Matt Damon ever returning.

 

For a long time, nothing much happens. There are long, sedate scenes that cry out for Greengrass's assured touch to move things along.  When, finally, the pace picks up, we are presented with a hero about whom we care very little; Renner's Cross is all too aware of his abilities - reliant though they may be on 'chems' (please!) - and lacks Jason Bourne's vulnerability, sensitivity and, often surprise at what he finds he can do.  This arrogant, robotic hero is not a hero to warm to. 

 

The action sequences, in particular the chase scenes, sacrifice the visceral, swirling, roller-coaster dread and wonder, for Bond-like ridiculousness.   Gilroy's directing is flawed and anxious; he is too worried that we will see that none of this is possible, and so cuts away too soon.  Greengrass, by contrast, made us feel it was all possible, all credible.

 

And that's the real problem here; the complete lack of credibility. Shame on Gilroy. Shame for us.  Bourne showed Bond the way, and has now sunk back, like a dog that barked at it’s master, leaving Bond out in front.  Weisz must have gone home and told Craig, 'don't worry darling, we messed up, Skyfall will rip this one to shreds'.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Armistice Day Poems

These two poems were written when I was about 12

NOVEMBER 12TH 1918

Peter's march is slowed now;
The metal, the wood
All gone, that 'shine'.
"Ended", they said,
Though it was long, long overdue
The lull, the pause.
Where lies the conclusion?

Broken men he passed
On his tramp to the start
Of his life after death.
Smoke and screams seemed so far behind
While the flowers seemed too far ahead.


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



FUNERAL OF A COMRADE

I saw a painted ribbon,
The name I didn't catch,
A death pall, holding shadows -
Dark, and long, and drawn.
The wagon held the cannon,
The coffin held the tale,
The leaders held the reason,
The widows placed the blame.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Gathering Sound

An Evening With James.. With The Orchestra of the Swan & The Manchester Consort Choir



What do you do if you’re a band that’s been around for 30 years, lived all the highs and all the lows the fickle music business brings, had several hits including one big, fat anthem, and now find you have a large, dedicated following but know that you probably won’t truly excite the record companies again?



Well, obviously you play as often as you and your following can stand it, charge the earth for tickets, and juke-box all your best loved songs.  Simple.



However, James have never taken the simple option.  Not for them a live show where they are lazily going through the motions.  They have followed their own advice from ‘Sound’, their 1991 top ten hit, striving to ‘do something out of character’. Something they’ve never done before. Often playing lesser known songs, frequently altering arrangements to give fresh zip to crowd pleasers, and sometimes playing their best known song ‘Sit Down’ right at the start of the show, or even eschewing it all together, James are a band who want to enjoy the show as much as their audience do.  And they do that by not allowing tiredness and staleness to set in.



So in some ways it should come as no surprise that they have gone on a bank-breaking tour with an orchestra and choir, playing venues not always associated with the rough and tumble of the rock circuit.  Anyone expecting dinner jackets and posh frocks though, would be pleasantly relieved to find that this was an orchestra, and this was a choir, that were going to get down and dirty with the band.  Other artists seeking to breathe new life in to their show may have fallen in to the Spinal Tap folly, the self-aggrandising prog-rock delusion that pop music is somehow high art. That wasn’t going to happen here.



Taking the back catalogue and choosing songs (at least one from each album) that lend themselves to invigorating interpretation through orchestral accompaniment, rather than simply applying a false artistic credibility to the usual set list, has produced an entirely new experience for the die-hard fans, and a show that can be equally enthralling to anyone who doesn’t really know James.  There are songs no one has heard live before, and songs that even the most dedicated fan has forgotten.  Instead of a sugary, operatic run through of the usual suspects, the audience are treated to a fascinating, thrilling and enthralling experience that doesn’t rely on a history of familiarity.



Joe Duddell’s arrangements for the 22 strong orchestra are spiky, choppy, warm and mellifluous; soaring here, punctuating there.  Bass guitar parts are liberated, vitalised, chords boom out from the string section, horns give new meaning to traditional structure, lending a warm canvass to Andy Diagram, letting his trumpet soar, without ever getting in the way.



And that’s the key to all this; this gourmet food knows that, whatever innovative ingredients you put in the recipe, a meat dish is a meat dish.  Fears that James, the band, would be lost among the orchestral score and chamber sized choir are soon forgotten.  This is still guitar based rock and roll.  This is a band doing what they know best in a way that they didn’t know they could do, and loving every moment of it.



Their joy is infectious, and while some of the normal conventions of the ‘rock gig’ are missing, they are not replaced entirely by the conventions of the orchestral concert.  Yes, there is an interval, yes; we know there will be an encore because, while the band has left the stage, the orchestra and choir remain. There is some comical interplay, the sort you might expect at a Prom concert, but not a ‘gig’: singer Tim Booth steals a violinist’s score sheet and the violinist has to follow him around the stage as Booth teasingly holds it in front of him, before finally tearing it up and throwing it at him. Post-interval, Booth joins the waiting orchestra and finds that by picking up the conductor’s baton, the orchestra play a note. He moves it, they play another. A mime ensues, Booth waving the baton, the orchestra playing, the singer increasingly, ludicrously attempting to catch them out until finally leading them into a rousing blast of the William Tell Overture.  ‘I’ve always wanted to do that he says’ his smile wide.



Greg Batsleer’s choir too know how to bring out the essence of each song; sometimes staying in the background and providing – admittedly quite robust - backing vocals, or despatching various members to stage front to broaden and deepen the song.  In ‘Mediaeval’, from their second album ‘Strip-Mine’, all 16 singers come to the front, and with extra drumming from the some of the band, and everyone playing their hearts out the experience is absolutely thunderous. ‘We are sound’ goes the refrain. Yes, you bloody are!



Expectations, naturally, are different; everyone is seated, there’s a choir and an orchestra.  For a band used to everyone jumping up and down from the off, this is a major challenge.  Booth is a past master at this though, and it’s not long before he’s in amongst the audience, getting literally face-to-face with people, making his way along the rows of seating, singing to and with people, picking others out to dance with.  The psychological barrier between stage and audience is ripped away. We are all in this together. Later, as people find they can leave their seats, get up and enjoy, he leads some of the audience through the auditorium, reminiscent of the scene in Oliver Stone’s ‘The Doors’, as Jim Morrison wove his way around, like some demented guru, more and more people following, chanting ‘Break On Through’.



It’s an emotional evening, joyful, exuberant, moving. Before the interval the band and choir leave the stage still singing, there’s a sense that they’re enjoying this so much they can’t stop.  Later, during ‘Sometimes’, the audience threaten to drown out the show, singing the refrain ‘Sometimes, when I look in your eyes I can see your soul’.  Booth masterfully takes control, getting the audience to alternate with the choir, setting up a mini-contest.  The show is interactive, it’s as important for the audience to be part of this show as it is for the players.



When the end finally comes, a poignant ‘Top of the World’, there is jubilation at how wonderful all this sounds, sadness that it’s the end of the show, the end of the tour.  And there is awe and wonder on the faces of those on stage… This is THE ALBERT HALL for goodness sake! There is a cacophony of noise, the audience is on its feet, singing, clapping, dancing, cheering.  Looking around there is an absolute sea of movement from the floor to the top of the tiers.  Booth watches, marvelling at the spectacle, wanting this moment never to stop, drinking it in to remember this feeling forever.  He turns to his cohort and says ‘wow!’





Wow indeed.


Friday, 22 July 2011

Hacked off

If you're reading this, it strikes me that you have just burdened yourself with yet another peice of the technological jig-saw that is, sooner or later, going to swamp us into a complete standstill. I've seen an advert for a tv gizmo that allows you record up to a terabyte of tv programmes. A terabyte! Once we had clunky old VCRs that could, fantastically, record prorammes on long play, thus doubling the space on the tape. So we went out, socialised, made babies, got drunk, worked and all sorts of things.  Then found we didn't have time to watch all those things we'd recorded.

Now we can record EVERYTHING! And.. if you delete it, apparently, you can get it back. Great. So you didn't have time to watch it in the first place, and you can get it back so as not to watch it all over again.

And this is just the base of the iceberg; we have social networking sites. OK, that's Facebook for everyone except the odd few. Twitter. E-mail. Skype. Text messaging, Instant news websites. There is more micro-information available to us about everyone we know than we ever, ever dreamed possible. or indeed, thought necessary. Hell, we even have blog sites we can pour our thoughts into, so if you're reading this...

So, with all this access to the thoughts of everyone we know, more than we can manage, what THE HELL possesses people to hack in to the phones of complete strangers and read their text messages?  Surely they must be thinking 'enough already!'?

Rupert Murdoch now claims to be a little bit deaf and forgetful, and not really able to say he knew what was going on... Well, I'm not losing my hearing, and not particularly forgetful yet.  But I am, at least in this one specific thing, just for this once, with him. Neither do I. It's all too much.

I think it's a good job I was neither important enough nor, thankfully, had I sufffered a tragedy of public interest, to have my phone hacked. (Though, who's to know? Certainly not the boss of News Demonical). If they did hack me though, what would they find? I like rugby and pass on and receive bits of news from the rugby world with my brother.  Sometimes I'm late home from work and need to tell someone. Usually my wife. And I have some friends who have, let's be brutally frank, a very dodgy sense of humour.  Not that interesting really.

So I'm torn between outrage at the diabolical liberties taken with our right to privacy, and a - probably misplaced - sense of sympathy with the hacking hacks who had to wade through the tedium and trivia of other people's lives. Like we don't have enough of it thrust at us anyway.

Oh, this was the News of the World. Stock in trade of course, the prurient prying.

Except those no trade for them anymore. Ha!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Graduating from Cambridge. Medieval Modernity.

In Medieval Britain, there was a time when to wear the wrong sort of clothing would mean arrest and punishment. This was due in part, to the plague of 1348, when the death of almost half the population led to the distribution of wealth being greater. This meant that those who survived found themselves better off than they had ever been, and the poorer classes began to imitate their social betters in what they wore, ate and how they lived. The Sumptuary Law passed by Edward III was an attempt to restore the social order; by governing exactly how individuals from each class could outwardly display their status.

This form of social control continued until well in to the 17th century. Now, with our relaxed social conformity and (until recently anyway) our greater standard of living, it is only really possible to tell the super-rich and the extremely poor from the rest of us. Who you are, and how you fare in life is much harder to read from outward signs. Unless, for example, you are graduating from the University of Cambridge. Here, tradition pervades thickly, like damp fog on a high hilltop. Navigating your way takes caution, and strict adherence to the official pathway.

The social order is maintained, and displayed: the gown you wear is an outward emblem of what you have become. A 'Mathmo', or perhaps a 'Natsci', each subject having it's own colour, and each level of degree having some other tell-tale sign to those in the know, perhaps the length of the gown, or the length of slit you are permitted. The graduation ceremony itself has elements that are 800 years old, with a parade through the town culminating in a reverential service at the Senate Hall. There is much pomp, with the studious carrying of maces donated by the Duke of Buckingham when Chancellor (1626-28), and earnest entry of the important figures, taking up their allotted places at the front of the hall, while the graduands are assembled in orderly fashion toward the back.

The whole has a feeling of high church or catholic mass. Indeed, the official name for the ceremony is Congregation. There is no doubting who is where in this macrocosmic world. The red gowns are the those at the top, and between them and white fake fur of the BAs are subtle degrees (yes, I know) of social order. As I watched my son, Gareth (Mathmo, Masters, blue flash in the gown) kneel before the Vice-Chancellor, I though, how very medieval. How very moving. Long may it continue.