Back in the Autumn of his days, they say that WB Yeats had an implant of monkey glands. There may be little medical evidence to support the treatment, but he started chasing a young actress and roared off into the mystic of his art. With this in mind, I wonder if Bruce Springsteen has been taking any mad cures. Maybe not, but he does seem intent on leaving this decade with a vital streak of art. He seems alert, refreshed and newly engaged with the music and the times.
'Working On A Dream' is an odd, shimmering record, with little narratives about a wrestler, an outlaw, a bounty hunter and a guy who admires a check-out girl. The E Street Band feature, but there is little chance to wallop and thump. The production is vaguely modern, the lyrics are sweet and while I don't adore it instantly, it often pays to give a Bruce album repeated plays. You'll hear a good deal of it on the show tonight.
I've played plenty of John Martyn on my Friday radio show and will be playing a lot more this week. We all suspected that his illness was severe but he also seemed to have a baseline ferocity that would have carried him over the worst. He passed away this morning. I believe that Nigel Martin will be talking about him tonight on Arts Extra and many fond words will be applied in the coming days. If you have a particular track you'd like to hear on the show, please let me know and we'll try.
I had the honour of presenting him with a lifetime achievement trophy at the Ards Guitar Festival a few years back. His band was in pre-warned so we interrupted his gig at a strategic time to make our homage. John didn't know what was going on and he gave me a look of pure malice. It was terrifying. But when he realised what we were trying to do, his demeanour changed abruptly and he started to weep.
We'll remember the astonishing voice, the heavy songs and the wonderful way he approached the guitar. Long before The Edge and the stadium rockers were messing with digital delay, John Martyn was the man, supremely tuned in. We will remember him thus.
I'm at the Black Box in Belfast on the third week of 2009, but I feel like adjusting my watch back to 1969. The mood is mellow and sweet and folksy. There are many young men with facial hair, and the dress is somewhere between Amish settler, Montana farmboy and Brokeback wrangler. I know that I've seen this look before and heard similar sounds in the past. And then it comes to me. I'm thinking of Robbie Robertson and The Band, getting it together in Woodstock, 40 years ago.
The Band and their pal Bob Dylan had gone to ground to escape the drugs and the intensity of their wild years. The music started sounding more downhome and mysterious while the famous Basement Tapes were an insidious answer to the hippies and acid-eaters of the West Coast.
Such reverberations are resumed in Belfast in the music of Jackson Cage, who add more recent influences like The Jayhawks and Ryan Adams to their deal. From Lurgan, Captain Kennedy are well immersed in the "old weird America" that writer Greil Marcus covered in his book Invisible Republic. They take their name from a Neil Young song but they're also fit to sing old Dixie down. Excellent vocals. I likes 'em. Check out this live recording of 'Take Care Of Me' on YouTube...
The Lowly Knights are fixing to get increasingly popular this year. They're also aware of how an act can get trapped in a look, a scene and a style. "They're selling waistcoats half price in the Rusty Zip," says Cazi, with just a little alarm. Form an orderly queue, young men.
Back in 1984 there was a band from Bangor called Carpenter Joe. Their big song was called 'No Ordinary Joe' and while I don't recall the lyrics exactly, there was a line about how 'Everlasting Love by The Love Affair was the greatest record ever made.
I was thinking about this as I played the band's other big hit 'Bringing On Back The Good Times' on Friday. Released in 1969, it still sounds wonderful, even if the tune was used as a booze commercial and its freshness compromised. Now that's been forgotten and the voice of teenage Steve Ellis is again apparent. He's been hailed by Paul Weller and was pals with The Who. He may never have been quite as cool as Steve Marriott, but he has a place in the mod pantheon.
BBC Radio Ulster, 92-95 FM
Fridays, ten - midnight
Love Affair - Bringing On Back The Good Times (Columbia)
Sambassadeur - That Town (Creeping Bent)
Aretha Franklin - Ain't Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around (Atlantic)
Jessica Lea Mayfield - Kiss Me Again (Munich)
Franz Ferdinand - Send Him Away (Domino)
The Lowly Knights - Hold On Rebel (We Collect Records)
Billy Holiday - Now Or Never (Union Square)
Velvetier - Everyday (Bella Union)
The Rockingbirds - Gradually Learning (Heavenly)
Tift Merritt - Morning Is My Destination (Fantasy)
Bell XI - The Great Defector (white)
Amadou and Miriam - Unissons Nous (Because)
Woodpigeon - I Live At Lot Of Places (End Of The Road)
Bo Diddley - Bring It To Jerome (Chess)
The Hold Steady - Constructive Summer (Rough Trade)
Jessica Lea Mayfield - The One That I Love Best (Munich)
Morrissey - I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris (Decca)
Eddie Hinton - Hard Luck Guy (Zane)
Kings Of Leon - Revelry (Columbia)
Television - Venus (Elektra)
Franz Ferdinand - No You Girls (Domino)
Jolie Holland - Sacha (Anti)
Antony and The Johnsons - Aeon (Rough Trade)
Peter Broderick - Games Again (Bella Union)
Titus Andronicus - Upon Viewing Breughel's Landscape (XL)
The Jim Jones -Revue - Good Golly Miss Molly (Cargo)
School Of Seven Bells - Iamundernodisguise (Full Time Hobby)
In David Bowie's 'Diamond Dogs' album, the post-apocalyptic city is roamed by fearsome scavengers. One of these, the Halloween Jack, lives on top of the Manhattan Chase Bank. Since the building's old masters have gone, the guy gets down to the street by means of a rope.
Was Bowie's being prophetic in 1974, when he declaimed that there would be "no more big wheels"? Quite possibly. Because a growing number of commentators are blaming Dame David for starting the credit crunch. It has its roots in "securitisation" and the selling of the Bowie Bonds against future royalties in 1997. Apparently, the banks also saw this method as a way to generate easy cash, with alarming consequences. Cue the collapse of western society, accompanied by 'The Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family'. Or something.
When I was at school, left-handers were treated like minor freaks. We held our pens funny, we smudged our ink and sometimes the letters headed off on the wrong slant. There was some discussion over whether I should be trained to write with the right. Happily, sense held out and the boy was allowed to follow his natural inclinations. Oddly though, I would fence left-handed, but play guitar and throw javelin with the right.
When I meet other southpaws, there's a sense of being members of a cool little club. And after reading this article, I now realise that the gang also features Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Regan, George H W Bush and Gerald Ford. That's a lot of presidents. We can also call in Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso. Apparently, we have "a wider scope of thinking". Which is nice.
I don't know where Aretha Franklin got her hat for Obama's inauguration, but hopefully she kept the receipt. Otherwise she was a perfect complement to the day. Aretha was an iconic link between the Luther King generation and the new style. She had given the word "respect" so many levels of meaning in an era when these things were critical. And while her rendition of 'My Country Tis Of Thee' was technically not the best, it carried the authority of a legend.
So many singers try to sing gospel but Aretha is gospel. You're not quite sure where she will take the song, but you know it will be guided directly by her soul. She doesn't waste time on the mannerisms and the absurdly contrived vibrato. We can leave that to Maria and the fame school warblers. Aretha gave Washington another flavour of belief. She sang like deliverance was coming. Awesome.
I'm typing this entry with one hand because the other is banjaxed. Something to do with the rotator cuff in my shoulder, which is agrieved, inflamed and exceptionally sore. If I could relieve the pain by gnawing it off, I probably would.
I think what caused the problem was a bout of post-Xmas swimming during the previous weekend. I had felt some discomfort in the pool, but manfully kept swimming. Which in retrospect was silly. The pain rose gradually during the week. By Friday night I had a feed of pills for pain relief and a numbing bandage. I hope my discomfort wasn't manifest on air. The numbness gave me a deal of false security though, and I kept using the arm. The next morning, it was immobile, and remains so.
BBC Radio Ulster, 92-95 FM
Fridays, ten - midnight
T Bone Walker - I'll Always Be In Love With You (Imperial)
M Ward - Never Had Nobody Like You (4ad)
Robert Plant - Funny In My Mind (Mercury)
Animal Collective - My Girls (Domino)
Rashaan Roland Kirk, Al Hibbler - Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me (WSM)
Asobi Seksu - Familiar Light (One Little Indian)
Animals In The Dark - Mutiny (Anti)
Justin Townes Earle - Black Eyes Suzy (Bloodshot)
This Mortal Coil - Mr Somewhere (4ad)
Antony And The Johnsons - Kiss My Name (Rough Trade)
Jackson Cage - A Hard Time In The Kitchen (white)
Elvis Costello - Many Rivers To Cross (MCA)
Panda Kopanda - Secret Places (Furious Tradesman)
Cara Dillon - The Parting Glass (Charcoal)
Patti Smith - Because The Night (Arista)
Emmy The Great - First Love (Close Harbour)
Dengue Fever - Integratron (Proper)
Alela Diane - Dry Grass And Shadows (Names)
Henry McCullough - Fix Me Up Jesus (There Wolf)
Blind Boys Of Alabama - In The Presence Of The Lord (Real World)
Animal Collective - Summertime Clothes (Domino)
Justin Townes Earle - Midnight At The Movies (Bloodshot)
The Blasters - Border Radio (Polygram)
Eugene McGuinness - Fonz (Domino)
Patti Smith - People Have The Power (Arista)
Passion Pit - Sleepyhead (Columbia)
NASA - Money (Anti)
The U2 campaign is officially on. The interview exclusive went to Q magazine while the New York Times introduced Bono as a columnist. I actually enjoyed the fella's article on Frank Sinatra, 'My Way' and despondency in Dublin. He wrote something a bit similar for a book called Idle Worship, but he gives it a relevant spin and if all good writing is autobiography by stealth, then Bono is again aiming to define his life and his times.
Tomorrow, U2 will be in Washington for the Obama Inauguration party. On Monday Morning, Dave Fanning gets the first play of 'Put On Your Boots'. The Brit Awards have been booked, the album is prepped in a series of formats and you can bet that an 18 month world tour is being scheduled with world-pummeling intent.
The record label would have liked a November release. Manager Paul McGuinness once stated that a good album gets two Xmas runs on the shelves. But the band famously rushed the arrival of 'Pop', and regretted it afterwards. This time, the firm has signed off with producers Eno, Lanois and Lillywhite and the December competition is effectively offside.
The record industry will now be doing what it has traditionally excelled at: getting CDs into shops, putting up posters everywhere, working the playlists and getting their pluggers into the heart of media corporations. I'll guess that at least three singles have been selected and that tour designer Willie Williams has another intrepid concept ready to fly.
Some critics feel that this style is clumsy and old fashioned. In this post, Jim Carroll from the Irish Times rails against this ferocious front-loading. My caveat would be that U2 misjudged 'Rattle And Hum' and 'Pop', and that they sometimes overstate their own power. However, that's also exhilaration when U2 have something to say and a barrelling momentum behind them. I also hope that there are little slivers of quiet illumination of the new record, which often redeems a lot.
It's hardly an exaggeration to say that the music business is banking on this one. If U2 can't make the system work, then nobody can.
It is August 1996 and I'm stalking Patti Smith. She's playing two nights at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London, and I'm keen to get an interview for the NME. But Patti isn't keen on PR schedules or regular promotions. She'll talk if she wants to but not when her neck is hurting her - a legacy of the injury that she suffered when she fell off a stage in Tampa Florida, 1977. According to mythology, Patti had been taunting God back then, cussing him out, and that life-threatening fall was his response.
Instead, I get into a conversation with her guitarist. He's not any old musician though. This is Lenny Kaye, who was an insightful rock journalist before he took up with Patti, playing on all those infernal gigs at CBGBs and featuring on 'Horses' and the other fierce records. He also compiled the 'Nuggets' collection, which made a perceptible change in music history. Lenny is a top fella and the next night, he makes the introduction. So I'm interviewing Patti and suddenly this film camera appears. They're making a documentary. Would it be OK if they covered the interview? Oh, go on then.
"Hey Belfast!" she shouts, remembering me from the previous day. Patti has just released the 'Gone Again' album, which is wreathed in death. She's mourning her husband Fred 'Sonic' Smith and her old artist-lover Robert Mapplethorpe. She's also been touched by the passing of Kurt Cobain and so she speaks eloquently about all these things. And in the middle of all this she wants to know about the Irish situation. I try my best to explain the changing times and she nods keenly. Finally she signs my book of her poetry, 'The Coral Sea', a tribute to Mapplethorpe. "Blessings on your family and your country," she writes. That's good enough for me.
That night, she plays 'People Have The Power', twice. I've rarely heard anything so inspirational. Which is one reason why I'll be at the QFT in Belfast pretty soon, checking out the Patti documentary film, 'Dream Of Life'. Thankfully, my rather feeble interview never made the edit. I was utterly out of my class.
Last Friday's show was inspired by an e-mail from Chris Best. He wanted to prove his wife wrong. She said that the radio never played his kind of music. Chris asked for a bit of J Tillman, drummer with Fleet Foxes and proper solo artist. So I put in three tracks for the new album. Maybe I would have done so anyway...
Mark, a regular listener, enjoyed last week's play from 'Moondance'. He pointed out that Judy Clay sang backing vocals on the Van Morrison album, and suggested that I cue up something by herself. So it was a reasonable excuse to playlist 'Private Number', which is never going to be much of an ordeal. Next week, lashings of the new Animal Collective record.
BBC Radio Ulster, 92-95 FM
Fridays, ten - midnight
The Supremes - Run Run Run (Motown)
Morrissey - I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris (Decca)
J Tillman - Steel On Steel (Bella Union)
The Valentine Brothers - Too Tight To Mention (Energy)
The National - So Far Around The Bend (4AD)
Killers - Spaceman (Vertigo)
Marianne Dissard - Les Draps Sourds (Orchestra Pit)
Blue Ridge Rangers - Please Help Me I'm Falling (Fantasy)
Neal Casal - The Cold and the Darkness (Fargo)
Steve Earle - The Graveyard Shift (e Squared)
The Beat Poets - Staring Stars Down (white)
Santogold - I'm A Lady (Lizard King)
Bob Dylan - Idiot Wind (CBS)
Charlie Rich - Rebound (Sun)
Ida Maria - Oh My God (Waterfall)
The Fireman - Dance Til We're High (mpl)
J Tillman - Someone With Child (Bella Union)
Gotan Project - Diferente (live) (discograph)
Judy Clay, William Bell - Private Number (Stax)
Howling Bells - Cities Burning Down (Independiente)
Randy Erwin - El Rancho Grande (Heartland)
Dirty Projectors - Knotty Pine (4AD)
Jr Walker - Tune Up (Motown)
J Tillman - No Occasion (Bella Union)
Ringo Starr - When You wish Upon a Star (A&M)
I'm ever so pleased that series two of Flight Of The Conchords is imminent. In fact, you can see the first programme by following this link.
The humour has not matured, even if Murray the manager is weirdly successful and getting operatic with it. Brett and Jermaine are writing a toothpaste jingle and Greg Proops walks in out of nowhere as an industry mogul. If you're a bit obsessive about these things, then there's a DVD from Rhys Darby called Live - Imagine That, which is full of non- sequiturs, sound effects, robot skits and rip-snorting celebrations of New Zealand.
A very big thank you to belfastsanta, the blogger who identified the mystery film of my youth. As I explained on this posting, there was an amazing old movie about an orphan family from the wilds of America who had to give themselves away to the neighbours on Christmas day. It was called All Mine To Give and the DVD was ordered and duly watched on New Year's Eve.
The first surprise was that the film was in vivid Technicolor. I had watched it on a rickety black and white set, 40 years ago. Secondly, the Scottish accents of the emigrant parents were truly shocking. Dick Van Dyke was an elocution genius by comparison. Still, the last ten minutes have retained their melodrama. My missus was looking sad but the kids were distracted by the toys and the gizmos around the lounge. I think I was disappointed that they didn't cry.
The holiday reading was considerable, if not profound. I had a chortle at the reliably bad gags in Harry Hill's Whopping great Joke Book. I also read Harry's barmpot fiction, Tim The Tiny Horse. And like many media sorts, I sifted through Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story Of Success. He's like an intellectual fan dancer. You get occasional flashes of something, but a lot of posturing and suggestion.
And I'm still not sure about the conceit that playing for punishing hours in Hamburg clubs made The Beatles into stars. Why didn't it work for Rory Storm And The Hurricanes? And why didn't an endless workload turn all those drab Irish showbands into world-beaters? Methinks that creativity is somewhere else.
But my most illuminating read was How To Talk To Your Cat by Jean Craighead George. You see, myself and Noodles haven't been getting on so well. We've got a mutual disrespect thing going on. But at least now I appreciate his innate selfishness, and I can follow the subtle movements of whiskers, tail and ears. The book was a family hit, and it's encouraged the household to analyse the behaviour of dad. These actions include:
Scratching his chest when he is happy.
Rubbing his head when he is thoughtful.
Rubbing his eyes, vigorously, at inopportune moments.
Raising his shoulders when he's being assailed by sales persons and dodgy tradesmen.
Sighing loudly in cars for no apparent reason, which makes the driver think that there's something badly amiss.
If you're feeling some January angst and wondering how life has dealt you a perplexing steer, then have a look at this career history from the New York photographer and esteemed blogger, Dave Beckerman. I'm a big fan of the guy's work, who most deals in black and white in the classic reportage style. He definitely has the vision, the humanity and the sense of poetry. He's delivered dozens of impressive frames, but my current favourite is this snowflake image that's magnificently timed and composed. It's like the universe has revealed itself in a micro-second, and Beckerman has the savvy and the self-possession to catch it. His career path is ungainly and rather mad, but I'm so glad that he's currently where he ought to be.
If you like the idea of pundits wittering on about their musical tips for the year ahead, then this feature in the Irish Times may have some value for you. I'm not intimate with all the names, but I do like Passion Pit, and the upcoming EP is florid and delightful. The upcoming Andrew Bird album is also going to make his parish happy again.
BBC Radio Ulster, 92-95 FM
Fridays, ten - midnight
Lewis Lymon And The Teenchords - I'm So Happy (Castle)
The Hold Steady - Magazines (Rough Trade)
Thin Lizzy - Running Back (Vertigo) Passion Pit - Live to Tell The Tale (Columbia)
Ryan Adams - Go Easy (Lost Highway)
Candi Staton - In The Ghetto (Capitol)
Amy Lavere - Pointless Drinking (Archer)
Andrew Bird - Fitz And The Dizzy Spells (Bella Union)
Tom Rush - No Regrets (Rhino)
Miss Lana Rebel - Road Song (Wantage)
Amadou & Miriam - Sabali (Because)
The Loves - The Ex Girlfriend (Fortuna)
Dick Gaughan - Lough Erne (Topic)
Woodpigeon - 7th Fret Over Andres (Endoftheroad)
U2 - Stuck On A Moment (Island)
Eileen Rose - Jeannie Steps Out (Evangeline)
The Lowly Knights - You Can Tell A Man By How He Lifts His Hands (We Collect Records)
Antony And The Johnsons - Epilepsy Is Dancing (Rough Trade)
Rachel Austin - Love Won't Fall From Heaven (white)
Nick Lowe - Let's Stay In And Make Love (Proper)
Andrew Bird - Oh No (Bella Union)
Van Morrison - Brand New Day (Warner)
Calexico - Writer's Minor Holiday (City Slang)
Passion Pit - Better Things (Columbia)
The Gaslight Anthem - Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (Side One Dummy)
The Handsome Family - So Much Wine (Loose)
Onwards into 2009. I reckon it will be an important one. I don't normally bother with written intentions, but let's try some of these out.
1. Lip up, fatty. The gloom is going to be unshakable for maybe six months. Some of it real but much of it vaporous. This will be my 24th year in the music industry and I've seen many varieties of pessimism and defeat. But there's always a way through it and the resourceful people will get their rewards when the mood rebounds. Some great talent will define itself this year. Also, the creative and social uplift in the NI music scene should continue to grow, at least for a while. Another reason to keep the chin steady and the intentions decent.
2. Music is your radar. When you serve music well, it always seems to repay the energy. When you follow the dollar signs, the vanity or the politics, it tends to diminish. It's a simple law, but mess with it and you will cop the results. Therefore the challenge is to love the great music, be wary of false goods and to keep the mojo nourished.
3. Manage the perspective. As long as the family is close and the bills are paid, it will never be wholly disastrous. There was an excess of drama in 2008. Less this time, hopefully.
4. Look after the health, refresh the head and don't think that an over-adrenalized system is normal. All oversights in recent months.
5. Don't over-analyse. As Mr Morrison once declaimed: "It ain't why, it just is".
6. Fun and frivolity. Some of the best ideas are birthed in a spirit of play. So while the work ethic is needed in 2009, so too are the major laughs and the absurd suggestions. Comrades, I'll see you at the barricades with my tickling stick.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.