Monday, December 17, 2007

Top 20 Albums, 2007

This year’s top 20, in words, with albums 21-40 in lazy list form. People who haven’t been paying attention always say it’s been a bad year. People who buy more CDs than they ought to always say it’s been a good year. I think it’s been a very, very good year.
20. Dan Wilson – Free Life. If this had been available on eight-track cassette in the early 1970s, would my Dad have been playing it in his car alongside Abba and the Carpenters? It’s really that straightforward – a singer-songwriter writing well-crafted songs to sing along to. In the back, the kids sing along too. Nothing not to like about that.
19. The Innocence Mission – We Walked In Song. The reason that The Innocence Mission exist is to provide an aural definition of the word ‘gorgeous’ in the musical lexicon. They haven’t changed their sound in almost two decades, and there’s no reason for them to. Only their sudden conversion to an industrial goth-noise outfit would prevent me unquestioningly buying their perfect and elegiac discs for another 20 years.
18. The Watson Twins – Southern Manners. Imagine two artistically talented twin sisters from the US south making guitar-based music, and I bet you know what this harmonic-Americana eight-song CD sounds like before you’ve even heard it. On its cover the twins pose in silhouettes as a simulated vulva, overtly suggesting a tempting surface of beauty that doesn’t disappoint once you’ve immersed yourself inside. I am enamoured.
17. Laura Veirs – Saltbreakers. Another unsung singer who effortlessly stamps her own identity on successive albums of bitter-sweetness all draped in intricately acoustic guitars. Looks like a librarian, sings like a nightingale. Or a "nattingale", as she so charmingly warbles.
16. Feist – The Reminder. Mrs Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop latched onto Feist after seeing her on Saturday Night Live, and she was all set to buy this until I pointed out we already had it at home. Tsk, she only needed to pay attention a little to the vast pile of CDs by the stereo with the invisible ‘2007’ marker. I sometimes wonder what working women do with their spare mental space. They should stay at home, bake cakes, raise the kids, and make wonderfully dreamy, singalong music like Feist.
15. Tracey Thorn – Out Of The Woods. The first Tracey Thorn solo album, A Distant Shore, came out in 1982, and I used to listen to its solo acoustic meanderings while staring out my bedroom window hoping that the girl from three doors up would walk past, think I was deep and sensitive, then snog me. With Everything But The Girl intervening (between the two Thorn albums, not me and the girl from three doors up), it’s taken a quarter of a century for her second, but amazingly (seeing as EBTG have been, to my ears, largely dull) it’s been worth the wait. Left alone, she’s still an outstanding songwriter, even if now the backdrop’s all R&B arrangements and enhanced production values. So, none of the scratchy guitar and whiny voice that leant her first disc its fresh-girl genius, but a worthy follow-up, even if it’s all grown up.
14. Maria Taylor – Lynn Teeter Flower. A second sweet slice of what I’d happily call cake-shop pop if it wasn’t stranded so high up on the banks of the mainstream by the vagaries of misled taste. If the world was a just place, this kind of music would be going gold. Go on, try it. Honestly, cake’s really good for the soul.
13. Jesse Sykes And The Sweet Hereafter – Like Love, Lust And The Open Halls Of The Soul. No one seems to have heard of Jesse Sykes, yet every time I play her records, people ask me for her name. Her lisping, whispering voice creeps into ears and rests there like a transient and benign underground pleasure you know might just wake up one day and kill you from within. Not that I can think of any better ways to die.
12. Kristin Hersh – Learn To Sing Like A Star. This one had the benefit of a release early in the year, otherwise I’d just have filed it along with all the other mostly stunning Hersh albums on the shelf -- some peoples’ genius you end up taking for granted. But with the benefit of iPod shuffle, it just kept coming back, and getting better and better, and all the paranoid frenzy alternating with soothing bedtime threnodies came through with its usual depth of emotion and sheer, shocking brilliance.
11. Au Revoir Simone – The Bird Of Music. Every year needs a lo-fi, home made electronic album composed by unlikely musicians who just sat down and started harmonizing for the hell of it. Player instructions: start the drum machine, press a synth button, then sing along. Listener’s instructions: sit back and enjoy. Just occasionally, as on this disc, it works almost perfectly.
10. Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade. One of those discs I bought because it was another Steve Earle album, and I usually buy the new Steve Earle album because I just feel that I ought to. That’s not the best reason to buy a CD, but this time it worked, with this being his best since the mighty collaboration with the Del McCoury Band a few years back. Could be that his sixth marriage, to country singer Alison Moorer, has given him an inspirational kick aside from misery and litigation. ‘City Of Immigrants’ is vibrant, political and celebratory singalong all in one.
9. Rilo Kiley – Under The Blacklight. Pristine pop. You start off hearing all kinds of semi-familiar tunes from songs you think you know but can’t quite pin down. You end up not caring, because the crystal clarity of Jenny Lewis’ vocal and all that backs her up make you play this disc on multi-repeat. How can a song sung by a woman about a man being seduced by a precocious 15-year-old sound so breezy and innocent?
8. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky. I can never quite grasp Wilco or why people, myself included, tend to deify them. I wouldn’t know where to start in their catalogue of achievement while trying to convert a reluctant listener. I couldn’t, off the top of my head, sing my favourite refrain off ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.’ Yet if I could only take the CDs of one band on an east-to-west coast road trip, they’d be Wilco’s. I could listen to them for four days and four nights and still find something new in every song. At least I reckon I could. I should try it sometime and see.
7. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog. A beefed up sound was definitely the way to go for the bearded wonder that is Iron & Wine. There’s the same quasi-mystical aura that surrounds his songs, but there’s more effort to build them up, take them places, and fade them out again. One review I read complained some of the songs went on too long, but for me these songs could meander on their hypnotic way for hours, provided I was in the mood for sitting back, shutting my eyes, and staring at the dark in a world of breathy vocals and weaving guitars.
6. The Shins – Wincing The Night Away. ‘Phantom Limb’ is song of the year, and the problem with producing a song so magnificent is usually that the rest of the disc can struggle to stay in touch. Mostly the distance is close enough to make this a successful, if more expansive and more ambitious, follow-up to previous triumphs. The words are either dead profound or they’re nonsense - either way, I haven’t a clue what these songs are about, but it really doesn’t matter. In pop, context is king.
5. Robert Wyatt – Comicopera. Wyatt shifts our ideas of perceived musical normality and allows us to receive sound across new waves. The crown prince of atonality resides in the town where I was born (Louth, in Lincolnshire) and I like the idea of all this weirdness being conceived in the air where I screamed my first complaints. At times playful, weirdly flat, and jazzy, but mostly just on its own perfectly tempered wold of nasal beauty altogether.
4. Brandi Carlile – The Story. Need a seat on the underground? Try hitting the high notes when you’re listening on your iPod. Passion and pop rolled into one, with more than enough edge to stop songs that could, in the hands of the wrong producer, have lapsed into AOR. Or maybe it is, and that’s what I’m into nowadays.
3. Magnolia Electric Co. – Sojourner Boxed Set. Most boxed sets are compilations, live sets or outtakes. There are very few that are effectively quadruple albums of entirely original material, plus documentary DVD, wrapping paper and forged medallion. On top of that, the quality of its slow-burning melancholy is maintained pretty much throughout, and Jason Molina’s fixation with earth’s orbital muse stands as the most productive man-to-moon relationship in musical history. Ache to Z.
2. The National – Boxer. Vocals that range from a murmur to a growl, backed by a band never short on ways to accentuate the mood within the melody. The National Sound is a national asset that deserves its own listening booth at the Smithsonian.
1. The New Pornographers – Challengers. With more hooks than a hardware shop, this deserves the year’s best album award for its consistently strong songs and its peppy pace. Makes you move, makes you want to sing, deludes you that you’re young. Empowerment pop of the highest order.
The rest:
21. Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala
22. Band of Horses – Cease To Begin
23. Dean & Britta – Back Numbers
24. Mary Gauthier – Between Daylight And Dark
25. Thurston Moore – Trees Outside The Academy
26. Anjani Thomas – Blue Alert
27. Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
28. PJ Harvey – White Chalk
29. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger
30. Evan McHugh – From The Second Chair
31. Jeremy Fisher – Goodbye Blue Monday
32. Caribou – Andorra
33. Over The Rhine – Trumpet Child
34. Zap Mama – Supermoon
35. Oliver Mtukudzi – Tsimba Itsoka
36. Sonia Leigh – Run Or Surrender
37. Richmond Fontaine – Thirteen Cities
38. Bright Eyes – Cassadaga
39. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
40. Lucinda Williams – West

Other Years: 2006, 2004

Monday, November 12, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 7 - Cocktail Hour

You have to say one thing in suburbia’s favour. It’s so fucking dull out here that every day at six o, clock, without fail, you’re dying for a good stiff drink.

Just think. The day’s behind you, and you’ve accomplished nothing besides getting half way through the laundry, buying some groceries, successfully managing the school run, drinking scads of coffee (and peeing it out again), and thinking vaguely about some much more fruitful, creative and rewarding projects that you’d rather be doing instead, but are currently putting off until the next decade.

Ahead of you lies the evening, when you’ve got dinner to make, and home to stay at. This could further involve activities as pulse-pumping as finishing off the laundry, watching a broadcast program on the highly popular electronic medium known as television, or trying to read a book or a magazine before falling asleep in the process.

In between, though, is cocktail hour. There’s no getting around the fact that this is the best moment of the day out here on Quiet Street. That keen rush of want, round about 1800 hours, is almost as delectable a hit as the first swig of the drink itself. It comes with the acknowledgment of the need - which is an integral part of knowing, recognising and ultimately enjoying your own weaknesses - followed by the decision on whether to succumb or defer the pleasure for a further 24 hours.

Either way is fine. Give in, and you get the drink. Resist, and you can allow yourself the brief and deceptive comfort that you are not, really not, in any way alcohol-dependent. This makes the following day’s cocktail hour all the sweeter. If you’re in that rare suburban club that can hold out until Thursday (otherwise known as The Big Fat Liars’ Society), then good luck to you and all, but you should know you’re severely missing out on suburbia’s greatest reward.

The ironic thing is that in US suburbia there’s rarely a bar (or anything else useful) within walking distance. One of my great schemes that I’m putting off until next decade is a chain of impromptu roadside suburban cocktail stands, open between 5.30 and 7 only, to be called something like The Shot Of Life. They should do roaring trade, and by the time every street’s spoilsport puritan has called the cops, we’ll have packed up and left.

This would require people to leave their houses, talk to their neighbors, loosen up, and publicly take part in something considered to be detrimental to one’s moral, mental and spiritual health. In the rest of the world it’s known as ‘drinking.’ Here it would be a revolution. Until then, we remain the silent majority, serene and satisfied for an hour each evening as we gratefully knock back our fool’s medicine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 6 - Grocery Shopping

Yes, I know, it’s not just people in the suburbs who have to go grocery shopping. But the difference for suburbanites is that going grocery shopping is one of the few times that we get out the house. Ironically, we spend a lot of time pining to leave the house for a change of scenery, but the only time it happens is to do something we hate. Or, as I regularly express it when I’m on the way out the door: "I’m just off to the fucking shop."

That’s a sort of cry from the heart hoping that someone else might take the chore off my hands. But as my daughters are nine and 11, they’re no more likely to volunteer for the task than in future years when they’re 17 and 19 and in possession of drivers’ licences. As for Mrs. Stay-At-Home-Indie-Pop, she’s not home mostly (that’s why, alert readers will have noted, I’ve got the SAHIP gig), and at weekends she sensibly follows her daughters’ lead of ignoring my desperate appeal. If I’m lucky, a response may echo from some distant corner of the house, such as, "Bye, see you later" or "Don’t forget my hibiscus and broccoli tea-bags."

SAHIP. I’m a SAHIP. I’m saaaaaaa hip.

On weekdays, supermarkets are full of horny housewives who ‘accidentally’ bump into you, spill their shopping, and then after you’ve helped them pick it up, thank you by inviting you back to their place for no-holds-barred, no-emotional-strings-attached sex. I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened to me. Probably on average at least never in my eleven years as a SAHIP. Not that I’ve been looking for it, you understand.

It’s different at weekends, when you can see Clueless Saturday Dad wandering around the supermarket aisles with a crumpled list in his hand, accompanied by an irascible kid (usually a boy) trying to kick him in the nuts from his prime vantage seat in the front of the trolley every time Dad turns down his demand for something unhealthy to eat. Saturday Dad’s too pre-occupied working out why he’s now going down the same aisle for the eighth time and still hasn’t found shortening ("What the fuck is shortening?" he’s now finally asking myself) to listen to the increasingly shrill demands for the tropical fruits bubblegum maxi-pack. Eventually he caves in and thrusts the Superbowl-Sized Cheetos Jumbo Bucket into junior’s hand before breaking down in tears when he sees the length of the queue at the deli and realizes he’s going to miss the Tampa Bay Fratheads’ midday kick-off against the Chunkneck College Beefboys.

Anyway, as if going to the shops wasn’t already an unadventurous enough experience, there’s Morton.

I’ve changed Morton’s name in case he’s one of the three people that read this Blog. He’s a cashier at one of my regular local supermarkets. He’s a very big, morose lad in his late 20s, and he never smiles. When I say never, I mean never, as in ‘sex-with-horny-housewives-I’ve-met-in-the-supermarket’ never. It’s his life policy. I’ve been passing through Morton’s till for years, and not once has he hinted at any kind of internal or external happiness.

It’s now got to the point where I’d rather go to a cashier with a longer line than watch Morton dolefully scan my groceries. You may think I’m exaggerating, but the moment I see Morton, I feel profoundly depressed. It’s not empathy. It’s resentment at his failure to escape a job and a life he clearly despises (why can’t he find work as a SAHIP?), and the imposition of his misery every time I go shopping. When you catch a glimpse of Morton it’s like being physically struck around the head by an embodiment of all that’s hopeless in the human condition. Like the dementors in Harry Potter, Morton will suck your soul out, make your shoulders slump, and force you to feel, "Jesus Christ, what is the point of going on for another single fucking minute?"

If there’s no avoiding Morton’s queue – say, for example, there are 16 people in line at the checkout next to him, and he’s completely free – then I’ll always be polite and friendly to him, though I won’t bother trying to waste an attempted joke, which would be like pissing on a Californian forest fire. Not because I want to be nice to the sad fuck, but because the day he comes to work with a plastic carrier bag full of heavy weapons and goes on the rampage, aisle by aisle, he might just notice the bloke who politely answered his drawled and automated query of "howyadoin" with a chirpy, "I’m fine thanks, how are you?" and finish me off cleanly with at least ten bullets to the head rather than letting me bleed slowly to death through a single, careless shot.

It’s the kind of exciting outcome grocery shoppers secretly yearn for.
Great Suburban Traditions: Number 1 – The Piano Recital
Great Suburban Traditions: Number 2 – Neighbourhood Watch
Great Suburban Traditions: Number 3 – Dog Crap
Great Suburban Traditions No. 4 – Asexuality
Great Suburban Traditions No. 5 – Limited Guilt

Friday, September 28, 2007

Everything Connects To Lincolnshire

Last night I was watching the wonderful Watson Twins sing at the Black Cat in DC, with a couple of black German beers taken at the nearby Saloon pub (the friendliest, beeriest watering hole in the city) swishing through my grateful veins, and generally feeling that if I was born to be enlightened in any way, it was during moments like this.

The twins were acting as more than adequate support to the rock-n-soul-country-blues fusion (a new coverall category for every CD I own) of the equally magnificent Magnolia Electric Company, the only band I like whose genius lead singer-songwriter looks like the kind of bloke who used to stop me outside English rural pubs in the early 1980s and say, “Be you wantin’ a foight?” Jason Molina in his various guises brings out more records than I’ve got time to listen to, the latest being a five-disc genuine wooden box with a free medallion and MEC wallpaper. I haven’t actually played it yet, just fondled it.

Anyway, after the Watson Twins had played I ambled over to buy a t-shirt, and started talking to the twin with the flashing smile, Chandra. She asked me where I was from, and when I said Lincoln, UK, she said, “Oh, that’s near Grantham.” Alarmed that she should even have to know of Grantham’s existence, I asked her how she’d heard of the place. Turns out the Watson Twins once spent a term there on a study exchange. “I think they sent us there so that we wouldn’t have a chance to go crazy or anything.”

She said some kind things about the Lincolnshire countryside, and that she was aware Grantham was the town that had spawned and raised the most destructive, and most hated, British prime minister of the 20th century. Fortunately, I resisted the impulse to ask her if she’d been to watch Grantham Town FC during their Lincolnshire sojourn, thus avoiding the Instant Idiot label I’ve historically found plastered to my brow when talking to attractive women.

This post needs a conclusion. It’s this: I feel certain The Watson Twins were the best thing that ever happened to Grantham. Lack of comments below will serve as confirmation.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"You Haven't Heard of APB? Really?"

I was driving down Democracy Boulevard in Bethesda yesterday, listening to a retro-compilation CD of early 80s Scottish indie-funk boys APB. It was a warm day, so the windows were down. At a red light, a pick-up truck stopped to my right. ‘What Kind Of Girl?’ was blasting out. The bloke in the driver’s seat was staring at me, not in a hostile way, but like he wanted to ask me something.

“What year’s that?” he shouted, pointing vaguely.

“1984, I think,” I shouted back.

He looked baffled, began to mouth something, and pointed again, this time at the car. Then I realised. “Oh, you mean the car?” I said. “Passat, 2003.” He looked relieved, began to talk something auto-technical, I switched off immediately, then the light changed and I sped off (I was running late).

That’s the ridiculous mental world that I live in. I genuinely believe that when someone in a pick-up truck stops next to me, he may have enough knowledge of an obscure early 80s band from Aberdeen to not only recognise one of the songs, but to be genuinely curious about what year their biggest hit came out.

This is the same mentality that has seen me waste much precious life-time making compilation tapes and CDs of music I think other people ought to know better. And that they will come to love that music and thank me for culturally enriching their lives. Occasionally it works, a little, but never as much as I think it’s going to.

If it had been a film, the pick-up truck driver might have been into APB. In scripts, characters are supposed to say things that surprise us and confound our prejudices. In real life, though, it doesn’t happen quite so often. Not that this is something I’ll ever learn.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Standing Still At The National

Concert audiences of my generation stand mostly still. In my teens I would bounce and spit at the front. In my 20s I’d get drunk beforehand, then bounce and ruck somewhere in the middle of a sweaty, heaving mass of leather jacketed indie-boys. In my 30s, I started watching from further back. Now I could just as easily be at the front again, if I politely eased my way forward, because nobody up there at the lip of the stage is moving either. The most mobile people at an indie-concert these days are the bar staff.

Last night at the 9.30 Club in DC, the captivating and richly voiced indie-sextet The National played plenty of mellow songs to sway to gently while contemplating The Great Existential Posers (now there’s a band name, although I tend to contemplate more obscure stuff - last night it was a game of football I played badly in 17 years ago). But there were also more than enough fast and loud numbers to which, at one time in musical history, you might have expected people to shake their heads and wildly move their bodies. And you could tell that some of us still wanted to, as though the mind was willing, but the body wasn’t. Because we’re all in psychological straitjackets.

I can’t speak for all the other inconspicuously leg-jerking but chiefly static pundits, but my own feeling is that it’s unseemly for an Indie-Pop of my age to be throwing himself around at a night club. First, I’d only had one beer because I was driving. Second, if you touch anyone at a concert nowadays, even just brush past them, you feel obliged to apologise. So knocking them over in the thrall of a speedy, thrash-led song is just no longer part of indie-etiquette. People drink, but you never see them drunk. No one caterwauls the lyrics. Instead they sing quietly to themselves.

Although the cheers and applause at the end of every song were loud and spontaneous enough, the crowd behaviour during the songs themselves reminded me of a classical music concert, where the unstinting bourgeois norm has always been to sit rigid and noiseless, internalising any emotion that you might be experiencing at the beauty of the music. A discreet tear at evening’s end may be allowed to modestly display one’s sensibilities.

The live concert used to be an experience you took part in by moving and screaming. Now I feel I might as well buy the requisite technology - massive screen and surround sound technology - and watch the concert DVD at home. With no one there to watch me, I might even dance.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Weak Apology For Giving Apple All My Money

My iPod is ancient. It’s almost two years old. It still works perfectly fine, but I can’t help feeling that soon I’m going to buy a new one.

It has a 20 Gigabyte capacity, and a black and white display. They stopped selling them soon after I bought it, and then you could only buy a 30GB device with a color screen. Clearly my model was considered way too limited – you can’t see the album artwork, and you can’t watch videos. All you can do is listen to music, which is all I wanted it for. But still, color’s better than black and white.

My ancient iPod has 4,579 songs on it at the moment, almost full to capacity. That’s more songs than I have time to listen to, but maybe only about one third of my CD collection. I get 30 new downloads a month off eMusic too, and a lot of the time I delete old songs to make way for the new ones. Which I don’t have time to listen to. But still, if I could get 20,000 songs on there instead of nearly 5,000, I would.

It’s a little grubby, and a little scratched, but I’m still in awe of all that it holds. I still love to cradle it in my right hand and marvel at the fact that there are almost 5,000 songs in this tiny little device. Though it’s not as tiny as the ones other people wear down the gym. Those slim iPod Nanos, like the ones I bought my daughters for getting good end of year school report cards. And which I didn’t mind buying because I love going to the Apple shop and looking around and writing them a fat check. In this respect, I’m a brand name sucker.

Obviously, I don’t need a new iPod. But I’m thinking, I could leave this one in the kitchen, in the iPod boombox, and then have a brand new, color, 80GB iPod for carrying around. You see, that would save me the huge hassle of ejecting the old one from the boombox, and putting it into the carrying case I have for strapping it to my left arm at the gym. Yes, it seems I really would pay $349 to cut out the bother of such a quick and simple task. Maybe I’ll get a third iPod for the car. And another one for the holiday cottage, even though we don’t have a holiday cottage.

There are no other brands or devices that seduce me this way, except possibly adidas t-shirts and training tops, which I think has something vaguely to do with the 1970s and my first ever football shirt. My iPod infatuation also goes back to my youth, when I dreamed of being rich enough to have a house with its own music room, and a giant jukebox that would play random tracks from my entire record collection, taking me by surprise at every new song.

I didn’t need to become rich. Apple invented something much better. All I’m doing is showing them my gratitude.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Big Vans And Mad Pilots

I was traveling around the US last week, from DC to Denver to LA and back again. When you’re moving from place to place, your mental state alters as frequently as your location.

On the plane flying in to Denver, we started descending quite steeply through the clouds, which gives you a sudden scary sense of how fast you’re going, unlike on those nice smooth gradual descents. This served quickly to convince me that I was about to die, and all I wanted in the world was to be safely on the ground again.

Safely on the ground again, we parked on the tarmac for half an hour, because our gate was occupied. So I was all impatient. I was hungry because I forgot that airlines don’t serve food any more, and I refuse to pay for it, so all I'd had was a small bag of pretzels. And it was getting late and I needed to pick up my hire car and find my hotel before they closed the restaurant. Twenty minutes earlier, I’d been yearning for this very same secure, solid stretch of Colorado ground. Now, driven by my stomach (a powerful lobbyist), my inner bitching mechanism was in full whine.

So we landed at eight, and I was at the front of the car hire queue by 9.30. “We don’t have the compact car you booked, but you can have a van,” said Bob of Thrifty. Whatever, Bob, I’m hungry. Just give me the keys. I’ll be soccer mom for a couple of days. We did the paperwork (another ten minutes) and I went out back. So, turns out it’s not really a van, more of a truck. The sort of thing eight people would take to the mountains for a long skiing and mountaineering holiday.

It’s hard to drive around Denver faking an expression that implies you’re on your way to pick up a youth soccer team. In the end I gave up and came to begrudgingly like the monster. We went through some tough times, but we did it together. Like parking in a narrow space in downtown Denver and reversing back out with a 43-point turn. And driving the wrong way down a one way street as three lanes of gesturing drivers headed towards us. How we shrugged, and laughed.

Things couldn’t have been more different in LA, where this time Thrifty had my compact Kia. In fact they gave me a choice of four, which was fantastic, even though they all looked the same, so I couldn’t actually decide. It was like being offered four identical cupcakes. Does that one have slightly more icing?

Anyway, I drove around for two days with the windows down, listening to music, like a dude. There were streets everywhere. It was all very cool until I drove into a Sheriff’s Checkpoint one night. Want to know what that is? It’s a checkpoint set up by a sheriff to randomly check drivers’ licenses. Freedom ain’t free, buddy. But don’t worry, kids, I’m white, and they waved me through.

On the flight back I had a window seat, and so I periodically stared down at America. This country’s clouds are under-rated. The pilot was as mad as a jar of crickets. He delivered a rapid-tongue monologue on how we should live our lives and love with a passion. But he got us home, so he got some applause.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

An Easy Way To Bring About World Peace

Ever since the anti-war rally to the Pentagon car park on a nut-freezing Saturday back in March, I’ve been haunted by two things. First, the looks of unbridled contempt and hatred from the pro-war counter-protesters. Second, by one of their signs, which read, “Fight them over there, not over here.”

I’ve got a better idea. If the legions of thick-necked, peacenik-hating, patriotic, steely-eyed hardmen are gung-ho enough about this war to show up and heckle as traitors those of us who are against it, why not let them just fight it? Over here, in America. What are they scared of?

Here’s how we could bring it on.

The hinterland rednecks have more in common with al Qaeda than they think. They’re both deeply conservative, and they both love killing people they disagree with, usually in the name of a non-existent God they believe will reward them for their combative endeavors. So jet all those jihad-loving enthusiasts professing to want to kill Americans over here (presuming they can resist the impulse to hijack the plane), and let them slug it out with those pro-war Americans so quick to back the “war on terror”, but not so keen they’re actually over in the Middle East to prosecute it.

There’s a huge open space at Gettysburg ready for the showdown. Simply arm both sides to the teeth, place them at opposite ends of the battlefield, blow a whistle and let the hand-to-hand killing commence. The alluring sight of fat, leather-clad bikers roaring towards their robe-wearing counterparts-in-hate could be broadcast with commentary from retired generals on the ESPN Xtreme Sports Channel (“Gettysburg 2 – yet again, the war to end them all!”). Sign up sponsors too. “This portion of the slaughter is brought to you by the National Rifle Association,” would make so much sense, not to mention cash.

The battle continues until one side has killed every one of its opponents. There’s no surrender, because that’s peacenik talk. The winners are handed a placard that reads, “Congratulations, you have won the Holy War!” They will be allowed to retire to the Aleutian Islands on a no-exit visa.

Final result: Peace. There will be no more pro-war rednecks, and no more pro-jihad terrorists. No more calls from South Dakota to back a war that’s thousands of miles away, and no more self-destructing scum left to blow themselves up in a crowded market. As all the self-declared warriors of God think they’re off to their respective heavens anyway, they’ll be happy to die as well. Everyone’s a winner.

This prototype combat scenario can be used in all arenas where two parties believe the best way forward is through violence. With reactionary pro-war philosophies nullified, the path for progressive thought is cleared at last, and the human race gets to continue evolving after all.

This Solution for World Peace is brought to you by an unread blog. You’re most welcome.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Accidentally Liking Travis

A terrible thing happened to me recently. I accidentally liked a Travis song.

It happened like this. I was listening to the sample CD from my favourite monthly music magazine,
Paste. I like to listen to the CD blind a few times before I read the magazine itself, which often features many of the artistes on the disc. You know, so I’m not prejudiced against a band with a stupid name, like Umphrey’s McGee. And that way, if I like any particular song, I can take the time to read about the band. If not, I can skip the interview or featurette and save a few minutes of my precious life.

Track 4 seemed a little familiar. I might have heard it on the radio a few weeks back while driving around England. It was highly derivative, very 80s, post-indie, melodramatically sung, and catchy. I found myself flicking back to track 4 on the car CD player to hear it again. I started to warble along like an abandoned teenager.

Finally, I looked on the disc to see who the mystery artiste was. Travis. Fucking Travis.

This might not seem a serious matter to you. But back in around 2002 I was in London and saw Travis on some kids’ tv programme performing a few songs, and they seemed to represent everything that was wrong with…oh, I don’t know. The modern world? Youth today? Kids’ tv programmes? What was I doing watching kids’ tv programmes anyway? Still, they were feckless and twee, and the only ideas they had were nicked from all the bands I’d liked 15-20 years earlier, and then battered into chart-ready submission. Or so I ranted to a few people at the time, none of whom looked remotely interested or impresssed by my incisive cultural analyses.

I can describe what it’s like discovering that you like a song by Travis. It’s like eating a succulent, perfectly spiced pot roast and then being told it’s your pet dog. It’s like waking up from an erotic dream involving Isabelle Adjani to find that you’ve been sleepwalking and are naked in the street with your tumescent manhood entrenched in the arse of the rotting raccoon that was knocked over by a truck three days earlier. Possibly worse.

At first I went into denial. I didn’t really like the track at all. Then maybe, I reasoned, they’d made a good song by accident – with all that time and money spent in the studio, a congress of Chacma baboons would have eventually done the same. Then I tried listening to the song so often that I thought I would start to hate it. Tragically, that hasn’t worked.

Bugger me. I’m not hip after all.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

When You Can't Let Go Of Kristin Hersh

Kristin Hersh brought out her seventh solo album earlier this year, ‘Learn To Sing Like A Star’. I bought it, because I always buy the new Kristin Hersh solo album, just as I always used to buy records by her band The Throwing Muses. But it would it be a lie to say I was excited at the purchase.

The record is pretty much what you’d expect. It’s a good record, but it’s not outstanding. It’s a good Kristin Hersh record, but not an outstanding Kristin Hersh record. I wasn’t surprised by it, but then I didn’t expect to be surprised by it. So why did I buy it? Because I just can’t imagine a new Kristin Hersh record coming out and me not buying it.

Why can’t I move on? When I want to listen to Kristin Hersh, why can’t I listen to one of her six other solo albums instead and save myself twelve bucks? Maybe it’s brand loyalty. I think that when Kristin brings out a new disc, she expects a certain level of sales among her fans. She has four children to feed. It would just feel wrong to leave it on the shelf.

Kristin is the only one of my indie-pop heroines ever to have spoken to me. At a show at the Iota Café in Arlington a couple of years ago, I was watching her from my seat at the bar. As she came off the small stage at the end of her performance I moved my legs so she could get by. “Thank you,” she said courteously.

How could I not buy her new record after that?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 5 - Limited Guilt

Much of our time in suburbia is spent dealing with solicitations for money, either by post, telephone, or a personal knock on the door. It’s part of the tradition that the last two only call when you’re either dropping off for an afternoon nap (the interesting thing to do post-lunch in the 'burbs), or about to sit down to dinner, which may be irritating, but at least gives you an excuse to hang up or slam the door in their tired, hope-drained faces. I’ve never done it, but I bet that going door to door to raise cash or sell something is the quickest way to lose faith in the human race, aside from watching wrestling fans watch wrestling.

It’s logical that, in a country that mostly shuns the idea of the welfare state, the suburbs are targeted as a perceived area of surplus cash. And the great thing is, there are enough good causes to go around and make everyone feel that little bit less guilty about living in a privileged, if lifeless, neighbourhood.

The snag is, however, that once you’ve written a cheque to three worthy environmental causes, your name gets put on the Worthy Environmental Cause Suckers’ List. So rather than making you feel that you’ve done your bit, you just get more and more letters from organizations that desperately need your money NOW to stop a melting polar ice cap from flooding your front yard (at least it would wash away the dog crap – see Great Suburban Traditions No. 3). You give to a good cause, but end up feeling even guiltier because of all the other good causes you haven’t given to.

Even worse, once you’ve joined the Sierra Club, to quote a very worthy but particularly annoying cause, they sniff your cheque, sense there has to be more where that’s come from, and then bombard you with more money requests. Wait a minute, you planet-saving scum, I just sent you my annual membership, and now you want more already? Get off my case until next year and leave me alone. Don’t send me e-mails, and don’t send me the magazine - you’re wasting trees and I never read it anyway. It just makes me feel guilty about stuff like not turning off my computer at the wall every night and failing to cycle 3000 miles to my holiday destination.

Ultimately, though, your suburban sense of innate self-entitlement gets the better of you. There’s only so much room for guilt out here when there are lawns to be mowed and flat screen TVs to be installed. You decide that the best way of getting green is to grow your own vegetables, theoretically saving you a future trip to the supermarket. You also decide, “Screw them, I’m not going to give them anything if they keep asking me for more cash every second week anyway.” The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s fifth successive urgent appeal goes straight into the recycling bin, and I don’t even bother to open the envelope and take the free address labels out any more, though that’s mainly because I already have 600 Chesapeake Bay Foundation address labels, and I only ever post about three letters a year.

Paradoxically, the less you give, the fewer solicitations you receive. And as you hear no more appeals for help, you convince yourself that all must be right with the world, provided you don’t read the paper, turn on the news, pick up the phone, or answer the door. Not that anyone comes to the door since I dug that bear-pit in the front garden to catch the Girl Scout cookie sellers.

Friday, April 06, 2007


I’ve been back in England this week, trying to remember what it is that I always seem to miss about it when I’m not here. It’s been two years since my last visit, and every time I return people seem to be paler, drunker, and fatter and, especially in London, speaking a lazy, guttural dialect called ‘yob-gob’. You think that there are more paving stones jutting out to trip you up than ever before, but really it’s just because I’m clumsier. And all that litter was there before as well. And people saying ‘fuck’ every second word too? The word’s just not as effective as it was in my day.

Speaking of litter, I was standing at a bus stop in Wandsworth at about five o’clock last Sunday when two men in yellow jackets staggered over with trolley and brushes to clean up the rubbish that was swirling around the pavement in the afternoon breeze. One of them gave up immediately, sat down against a wall, and fell asleep. His colleague was more industrious, though not much more productive, and spent the next 15 minutes chasing the dancing crisp packets in a circle. They were, to our cruel amusement, much faster than him.

As we sat on the top deck of the bus looking down at them (in more way than one), his colleague stirred. My wife, who understands little about British drinking culture, thought they were both on drugs. My guess was that they’d been in the pub since midday. “Now that he’s awake, he’ll be wanting a fag,” I said of the first sweeper as he yawned and reached into his jacket pocket. One long fumble later, he managed to extract a cigarette while watching his team mate continue his Sisyphean ordeal. They might still be there.

“It would be so pretentious living in London with you,” she observed the next day on the Tube from Tooting Bec to King’s Cross. I’d been complaining because I forgot to buy a paper, and I go spare with boredom on public transport if I’ve nothing to read. Then I pointed out that I couldn’t understand how so many other people sit there staring into space with nothing to do for half an hour. And then I probably complained about a few thousand other things too.

Books seem set to become historical artefacts in Britain. There’s the odd, fat Danielle Steel or John Grisham being read, some fraud-enriching self-help books, and the odd rare work that might require more than two minutes of hard concentration, but the majority of other readers are flicking through those crap free papers people thrust at you near the Tube entrances. I can’t honestly remember if it was any different when I last lived here 13 years ago. My head was too immersed in a pretentious book to notice. Or I was slumped unconscious from too much drink.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cluburban Man Leaves Early

It’s been a dozen years since I went to a night club for any reason other than to see a live band. Going to the Play Lounge in DC was sort of work-related, in that DC United defender Bobby Boswell -- a handsome up-and-coming US international with a decent amount of personality -- was launching his own personal website there on Tuesday evening.

There were a few of us soccer hacks there, looking awkward and out-of-place, shuffling from foot to foot as young and beautiful women brushed past us, possibly in a parallel world. The men were generally older, possibly because you’d have to be working a few years to afford drinks in a place like this. Everybody’s looking at everybody else while pretending that they’re not.

That’s really all there is to do, conversation being impossible. You wonder how people ever get chatted up in these places. Maybe they don’t. Maybe you just pass a note saying, “If I buy you six drinks, will you fuck me?”

There’s a special supplier of music to clubs like this. Someone goes into a studio, turns on all the instruments, invites a mad and inebriated tramp in off the streets to improvise into the mic, then disappears for a couple of hours to the nearest bar. The music is then packaged, unedited, out to nightspots across the country.

The good thing about night clubs, though, is that you can walk out at any time. They are that rare kind of place that makes you actually feel happy to live in suburbia.

Cabbie Stats
Years in DC area: 4
Soccer interest: Nigeria and any Nigerian players playing abroad. Had heard of Freddy Adu but no other US players.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Traitors Taking A Walk To The Pentagon Car Park

The stay-at-home-dad Popular Anti-War Front took to the streets of DC today to join the march against the ongoing insanity of US and British involvement in Iraq. Not that I was very popular with the kids for dragging them out of a warm house on a sub-zero day with added wind chill just to walk from the Vietnam War Memorial to a Pentagon car park, but the ride on the Metro cheered them up enough to forget where they were going. And one day, just possibly, they might be proud to say that they were there.

There’s something reassuring about the continued existence of various bedraggled bands of leftists and pseudo-anarchists that always show up at these things with their megaphones, inky propaganda sheets and repetitious demands for revolution, NOW! There were some imaginative banners among the predictably po-faced cries for instant justice, everywhere, including, “Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity.” And there were enough vaguely sane people of all ages not trying to flog you unreadable newspapers to give you the sense that you hadn’t accidentally turned up at an anti-fashion show for third-hand clothes worn by people with a chronic allergy to shampoo.

But most entertaining of all today was the counter-demo. Usually this is a sorry collection of maybe a few dozen short-haired rightwing nutjobs with manic expressions, and toes twitching to perform a goosestep across the police line to kick a hippy in the nuts. This time, though, a whole new breed of unsettling protest-hater had been shipped in from the parts of America populated by thick-set blokes in their 50s and 60s with grizzly beards and leather jackets. Or maybe there just happened to be a reunion of ex-Dead roadies in DC today.

“You’re all Al Qaeda supporters!” yelled one man through a megaphone. “They’re looking at this and smiling.” A banner manned by a few more henchmen in front of Arlington cemetery read “GO TO HELL TRAITORS”. A lot of these men had fought in Vietnam, which has apparently pissed them off that four decades later some people are opposed to a similarly senseless campaign in a part of the world where Allied bombs and bullets have brought untold grief and chaos.

“You won’t be around when I have to deal with this mess!” yelled my oldest daughter at them, unprompted. “Give us a smile, for Christ’s sake!” I called across (I’m not as politically conscious as my ten-year-old). For the counter-demonstration, impressive as it was in size compared with previous efforts, was characterised by its absolute lack of humour. Many of these miserable men looked as though they would love nothing more than to walk over and kill us. Some shook their heads disdainfully, because they just know we’re all naïve idiots playing into the hands of the terrorists. “Stand behind our President” exhorted their posters. Though that’s just a recruitment call, not an actual argument.

In fact it’s hard to discern what the anti-anti-war argument is. I remember when we marched over four years ago before the start of the war, they said that now wasn’t the right time to protest. So if before the war wasn’t the right time, surely four years into a clearly disastrous campaign, with around 60,000 Iraqis and over 3,000 US soldiers dead, is the right time. But no, we’re still terrorist-hugging traitors. If we didn't bomb countries thousands of miles away, we wouldn't have the freedom to protest at all blah blah.

Once we'd passed the last counter-demonstrators, things got boring. The kids were cold, and the march kept stopping and starting. In the Pentagon car park, the shouty rhetoric made for poor entertainment, so we headed for the Pentagon mall, sneaking past a line of baton-wielding riot police in some sort of a standoff with a sit-down protest on the road to the Pentagon. The girls were now beyond freezing, and very hungry too. When we finally made it into Macy’s, my eight-year-old sighed, “Ah, heaven!”

Not quite. In the line for coffee down at the food court, a friendly mall policeman asked two elderly demonstrators to peel off their anti-war stickers. The mall is private property, he said. Political expression is not allowed. God forbid that while they’re shopping for clothes on a Saturday afternoon, Americans might momentarily have to be reminded of the war that 68% of them were in favour of four years ago.

My daughters were happy, however. They were now eating strips of potato cooked in fat. Hail, the land of the fry!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Maria Taylor At The Rock And Roll Hotel

The Rock and Roll Hotel is a relatively new venue stuck out on H Street in the north-east of the city, fifteen blocks walk from the nearest metro stop at Union Station. The club’s website advises you to get a cab from there, either because it thinks you’ll get mugged or that its patrons are archetypal anti-walking Americans, but in fact it’s only about a ten- to fifteen-minute stroll on a balmy spring evening.

The RnR Hotel is ramshackle enough to come across like a 1980s retro British student venue, blighted by a lack of draft beer, but quirky enough to let you forgive its workers for being young and cool and playing The Smiths in the upstairs bar. Just to take me properly back twenty years (it’s a place where my head spends an unhealthy amount of time), I’m with my mate Drew, who I indeed went to college with in England back in the 1980s, and we talk about long forgotten mutual objects of scorn. That was Birmingham, England. (Here comes the segue, tada.) Maria Taylor is from Birmingham, Alabama.

“Last time we were here we played in Arlington to ten people,” she says gratefully to the maybe 100 to 150 people at the RnR Hotel last night. It’s been a difficult tour thanks to blizzards, the flu, and someone raiding her and keyboardist sister Kate’s dressing room. Yet here they are, a band of six (her brother’s in it too), making all this effort to come all this way and play us her astonishing songs. As they crank up the noise I get that four-beer fuzz that makes me think, “I love them all and want to be their friends forever.”

We wonder how they make a living out of this. It only cost ten dollars for the ticket, CDs are the same price, and even their t-shirts go way below the accepted statutory minimum of $20, selling for just twelve. I buy one, because you have to spread the word. Drew buys the two CDs (the new release ‘Lynn Teeter Flower’ is every bit as strong as 2005’s wonderful ‘11:11’) even though he could have been a thief and burned my copies. But as he told me this morning, he wanted to go to sleep with them under his pillow.

Cabby Stats
From: Somalia
In DC: 21 years
Soccer Interest (most DC cab drivers like to talk soccer): Brazil, the English Premier League, and the 2006 German World Cup team. Displayed a Ghana flag after they beat US 2-1 in 2006 WC, and had a native customer refuse to get in.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 4 - Asexuality

How do you act in the 'burbs: depressed
 and suppressed, or singing and swinging?
Not that anyone ever claimed the suburbs were sexy. That’s not what they’re here for. But sometimes you wonder if the whole concept of suburbia was dreamed up by Puritans to create sexual no-go areas where carnal thoughts are entirely confined behind closed curtains.

When I cross the city border into DC, I can feel something change. There are people walking about. There are people walking about who set you to thinking all the blazing, immoral, indecent, sweat, bump, thrust and grind thoughts that we’re helpless to prevent ,so we might as well mentally enjoy until we’re too old to feel the blood happily flooding out of our skulls (the original brain drain) and into the temporarily festive sluice of arousal. All those thoughts that are blanked out in suburbia until, with the doors double-locked, you can enjoy the furtive unspilling of your hardcore imagination.But flaunting yourself in suburbia only invites ostracism. Those rare human beings wanting to display their feathers will sprint in the dark from front door to car and speed off to the fleshpots of Bethesda and Friendship Heights, lest they be seen as homebreakers on the prowl. An attractive soccer mom is only a theoretical concept, because even if you could see through the dark glass of the SUV as it raced down your road, the cellphone-covered, accusatory sour face would have you reeling with guilt, like a Catholic choirboy caught fondling the rosary while inadvertently picturing the Mother Superior’s lips unpursed.

Not that I’m deluding myself the theoretical soccer mom would be in any respect excited at the sight of me unloading the groceries from the back of my car and shuffling up the garden path while scouring the front yard for Chelsea’s Last Crap (see GST, No. 3). The screeching of brakes, an unwound window, a leering wolf-whistle and a yell of, “Excuuuuse me, but you are one fucking hot house-hubbie!” would no doubt be as unnerving to your average ‘burb-imprisoned stay-at-home dad as a 3pm drive-by shooting. Though it would probably take something a little more special than my skinny ass in a thirty-buck pair of jeans to wrench a soccer mom from her cellphone.

At weekends, however, there are drunken swing and swap parties on every street. True, I’ve yet to be invited, but there must be something (or someone) going down when the lights do likewise at 10. New kids are born, and divorce suits get filed. Adultery must be conducted in secret, ultra-padded underground chambers – the same places where people drink alcohol. That’s all fine, though. Just don’t show up on the surface singing at midnight. In suburbia the golden rule is that all your simmering desires and leashed-in human frailties should be kept in a safe place where they won’t disturb the peace.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Land Of Family Fun

I must have done something very bad in a previous life, because I’ve ended up in hell. It’s called the Caesars Brookdale Resort. It is “the land of family fun”.

On the drive up here yesterday we passed a church somewhere in Pennsylvania with the sign “Act today like you’ll be meeting God tomorrow.” They should add: “Otherwise we’ll make you sit through the Maisie Hills Band at dinner-time.”

Maisie (not her real name) is in her 50s, and while we digested the sub-ordinary stodge that the resort is passing off as nutrition (it’s an ‘all-inclusive deal’, otherwise known as No Escape), we were subjected to her mid-life interpretations of songs old and new, plus banter in between numbers. Come on dad, get up and dance! Oh look, there’s a bloke in the audience looks like Justin Timberlake! As my ten-year-old daughter, who recently discovered The Joys of Sarcasm, would say: Ha. Ha. Ha.

We must be the only family in America insane enough to leave Washington DC on a mild and sunny day, after a month of freezing, ball-biting weather, and consciously drive northwards for four hours, back to the cold and the snow, and all for the pleasure of freezing cross winds, Formica décor, getting elbowed away from the salad buffet by alternatively sized natives, and tortuous small talk with the family from Long Island placed at our table to foster exciting new friendships.

Our apartment was designed with the swinging playboy demographic in mind rather than the suburban family of four. In the master bedroom there’s a jacuzzi, and a ceiling mirror over the bed. The wife and I could stick the kids in front of the tv, close the door, run a bath, crack open the bubbly, put on some James Last, and party like it’s 1972. In theory. In practice we all four lie on the bed and stare up at our reflections, making faces. Would I really like to watch myself fucking? I’ll keep you posted (maybe).

There is an actual reason we’re here, rather than staying at home and burning a pile of hundred dollar notes: the rest of the family is skiing, a sport I reluctantly took up and gave up ten years ago after falling down a Swiss mountainside and ramming my knee into my head during a beginner’s course I’d been coerced into taking.

The wife booked that, as she booked this. When I heard the price we were paying, I imagined a ‘resort’ in the sense of something luxury, where you’re pampered a little, and the quietly devoted waiters bring you complementary cocktails by the side of a vast and peaceful indoor pool. Perhaps a pianist plays Bach in the marbled foyer, and all kids except my own are banned.

If I act today in such a way that I get to meet God tomorrow, I’ll ask him if that’s the kind of set-up you get for good behaviour.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 3 - Dog Crap

Just say No! to Chelsea
There are two kinds of dog owners in suburbia. The first kind are the sane and the civilised who have a fenced-in yard, take their dogs for walks on the end of a leash, and who carry around small plastic bags to clean up their pet’s crap. My direct neighbours have a dog like this, a healthy and slim black labrador named Maggie I’ve just had the pleasure of looking after for the weekend while they were away. Just to get it straight that I love dogs, see.

The second kind are the sociopaths who have no fenced-in yard, and who let their dogs roam free to crap wherever they feel like it. After all, it’s a free country for dogs too, right? That would be the dog from two doors down, a spaniel of some sort who’s taken a liking to the smell of our front yard and constantly craps there. Now that the yard smells of nothing but its rear-end waste, she likes it even more.

That this dog is called Chelsea is a further blow. The crap-happy hound started shitting on our grass right around the time Russian billionaire Roman Abramovic took over my least favourite football team in the world, Chelsea FC, and they started winning trophies by virtue of the multi-millions they spent on Europe’s best players. That a dog with such a name would take to dumping on my space just as its namesake football team was buying its way to glory seemed doubly unjust.

I sent a very polite e-mail to its owner saying that I didn’t much enjoy clearing up her dog’s mess, and could she do something about it, please. Much too polite, as it turned out, because she ignored it. She’s employed ‘doing something on Capitol Hill’ (presumably not working on legislation to prosecute violators of environmental laws) and is a very busy woman, it seems. Professional dog walkers come during the day and walk the dog properly. At all other times, the voiding cur has free rein to squat on my turf and let it all out.

What sort of neighbour ignores a polite e-mail? If someone had sent me an e-mail like that, I’d have gone round with flowers, an apology, and an assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. Because, like most people, I’d be kind of embarrassed that my dog was shitting on someone else’s property. I’d see it as my responsibility.

Chelsea still kept calling around to drop off her fecal deposits. Sometimes I’d see her and try to chase her back down the road, but the animal was too dumb to realise I was angry, and would just unapologetically come over to be petted (I’m sure if she could speak she’d have asked me to wipe her arse too). And so I started putting her piles of crap in a plastic bag and leaving them on the neighbour’s doorstep. My other neighbours said I needed to post them through the front door to get the message home, and maybe they were right. One day I got so mad I typed out a firm letter. I threatened, reluctantly, “further action” (though I’d no idea what that would entail). Before I could change my mind I dropped it through the letter box. But the woman who works on Capitol Hill doesn’t work on Capitol Hill for nothing. She ignored it.

The next step was to actually call round. “Could you please clean up the crap your dog’s just left on our verge?” She squinted at me like I was a rogue pedlar. “Verge?” was all she said. Ah damn it, my big moment and I go and choose a British word. “You know, the grass part next to the road.” She cleaned it up, but with bad grace and, again, no apology. It’s amazing how some people have the knack of making you feel like you’re in the wrong for them having a dog that craps in your yard.

Finally, I stooped to her level. Last month I scooped up four piles of Chelsea’s crap in the snow shovel and dumped them right on her front doorstep. It took me over two years to get this far. Our garden’s been clean ever since. I suppose you have to speak the only language these people understand. Crap.

In another positive development, Chelsea FC are not doing so well right now. They’re six points off the lead in the English Premier League, and Abramovic is falling out with the coach Jose Mourinho for having wasted too much of his cash on expensive players who haven’t produced the goods. I like to think I’ve messed with Chelsea’s karma. In fact I think I’ve dumped all over it.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 2 - Neighbourhood Watch

There’s a crime wave sweeping across suburbia. You may not have seen it, or even heard about it. But fear not, Neighbourhood Watch will soon be stamping it out. Yes, North Chevy Chase has declared the War On Crime!

I received an e-mail the other week from a woman I’ve never met, but she lives a few streets away. She’d set up a Neighbourhood Watch on her street and wanted to tell me about some police seminars being offered at the Audubon Society in case I wanted to do the same.

Why in the name of sweet weeping Jesus would I want to do that? Because “my husband and I [oh my God, the Queen of England has moved to my ‘hood] have become concerned about some car thefts, burglaries and robberies in our area,” she wrote. “Some”? How many is “some”? You just know that there’s maybe been one car theft and one burglary in six months, and a robbery two towns away she read about in The Montgomery Gazette.

Crime in suburbia’s not easy. Every car has an alarm, so you’d have to be careless to have one stolen. Likewise every house. We once locked ourselves out and it took a professional locksmith an hour to get us back in. Not that we’ve got much worth nicking. Our TV’s a modern, fat-backed antique at seven years old, and my CD collection is unsaleable - I’m such an elitist that the police would track them down and trace the burglar in hours. (The official police report: “The criminal was apprehended trying to sell a Jackie Leven boxed set to customers at a Burger King in Wheaton. They became suspicious that the cult Scottish soloist’s collected works were some kind of an explosive device and alerted security.”)

True, there was a home invasion (an ‘invasion’ being as few as one or two persons) a couple of months back in the posher part of the neighbourhood, down towards DC. That’s where some of the houses are so big that the invader’s defense will be that he thought he was strolling into the Mormon Temple for some quiet time. If you had enough savvy, you could invade and live in one of the spare rooms there for months, and the only person you’d ever meet would be the cleaning lady.

And an unwelcome ‘invader’ would certainly be cause for a Watch campaign. In suburbia we don’t even like invited guests to be in our house, in case their feet inadvertently brush the carpet pile the wrong way, or their kids leave snot trails on the upholstery. But we put up with them anyway, for a couple of hours a month, if absolutely necessary, provided they send in advance a doctor’s certificate giving them full medical clearance.

But what about all this crime? Until I moved my office to an upstairs room at the back of the house at the end of last year, I spent seven and a half years watching the neighbourhood through a downstairs window from my desk. Believe me, nothing ever happens. There’s no one around to make it happen. If someone walks past the house you jump up. “Christ, what’s that?!” Oh, just a human being. The postgirl, in fact. Don’t worry, she’ll soon be gone.

The only crimes on our street are committed by the dog two doors up that regularly craps on our front lawn (to be the subject of a future ‘Great Suburban Tradition’), and the quarter-witted commuters who speed down our street at 40mph every morning because they can use our neighbourhood to shave 15 seconds off the journey to their doubtless essential jobs.

Other than that, the "concerned" and beady-eyed watchers on patrol are going to be hard pressed to spot much criminal activity around here, unless they stop me late at night walking back from the Ri-Ra bar and demand to see my ID. The chances are that there would be an immediate crime involving aggravated verbal assault.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 1 - The Piano Recital

All suburban kids take piano lessons at some point in their lives. If they don’t, their parents worry they might turn to drugs, alcohol and under-age sex, and all before the age of ten. Mine are no exception. They’ve been taking lessons for two and a half years now, which is fine by me because which one of us wouldn’t like to be able to play the piano? But no one warned me about the recitals, a ritual whereby parents gather in a suburban living-room and politely pretend to be impressed by the below-average musical skills of kids they don’t know.

At their last piano teacher’s (whom we left because she accused one of our daughters of stealing “knick-knacks” from her – quite what a ten-year-old girl would want with the possessions of a pious, austere woman in her 50s is anybody’s guess, but when, at the end of one lesson, she was ordered to empty her pockets, only to show that there was nothing in her pockets to empty, we decided it was time for a less Victorian-era approach to piano tuition), recitals were stiff occasions, with printed programmes, formal dress and the inevitable pot luck obligation, an important part of modern American culture which decrees that people showing up at someone else’s house without a plastic Tupperware container or a foil-covered casserole dish will be mace-sprayed, gagged, bound and dumped in the basement until the occasion is over. Purely for the sake of sparing them the embarrassment of not having contributed, of course.

Things looked more promising with the new piano teacher, and not just because she’s a very kind and friendly woman. Recitals would be informal, she said, with people milling around and chatting while kids played piano in the background, if they felt like it. Did we need to bring anything? Nothing at all. This looked good. Plus, the new teacher is in our neighbourhood, so perhaps we’d bump into one or two people we knew. Though my wife made the kids promise to play as early as possible to make sure we were home in time for ‘Desperate Housewives’.

We didn’t meet anyone we knew, although this could be related to the fact we don’t actually know many people in the neighbourhood. And though it was all very civilised, the problem with the new recital format soon became clear. The White American Suburban Pop (WASP) has yet to learn the basics of making conversation in any situation where there is no flaming barbeque loaded with burning dead animal parts, a six-pack of beer, or a large screen TV about to show some form of ad-blighted sporting spectacle whose result will be forgotten by tomorrow morning (or, even worse, remembered). There was no opportunity for buddy-popping – an all-male version of body-popping that involves a mutual backslap, the clinking of two bottles and a joke about “the wives” talking a lot, but which is not at all gay - and soon I found myself babbling on to reserved, silent types about piano lessons, and pianos and, erm, the time I played baritone euphonium in the school band over thirty years ago. Receiving little response, I then felt as awkward as they looked and shut up too.

So while kids ran around, ate biscuits and played piano, the buzz of conversation among adults, who looked like they were spending their first evening out for a decade, remained absent. Not that the women were much better, but at least they smiled instead of looking like they’d just landed in purgatory and would rather be off hunting wild boar. My daughters played and we indulged them with praise, though thankfully they were as imperfect as all the other kids. No one wants to look like the smug prodigy’s Dad, eh? Although the night could have been a little more memorable if I’d started grunting primevally at the mute WASPs, pointing at my scrotum and shouting, “Look what this produced – a perfect note rendition of ‘The Merry Farmer’! Ha!”

We left in time to be home for ‘Desperate Housewives’. I was astounded to find out we’d only been there for 45 minutes. And we made no new friends. But it's the taking part that counts.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

One Of My Narrators On The Academic's Couch

FWTBR - now academically analysed
It's not untrue to state that there are very few people on this planet who have read my book (see links, right). All the more astonishing, then, to find one of its stories, The Man In The Mascot, analysed as part of a German's academic thesis on the subject ‘The Depiction and Function of Football In Contemporary British Literature’.
    I came across the entire thesis while fiddling about with my Googles on the internet. I contacted the author, Sonja Wild, and asked her if it would be okay to translate the chapter on my story and post it on my website, and she was more than happy to consent. As when the book was translated into Czech, it won't make me much money, but it feels at least as though it has been acknowledged by the Brainy Community, just as the Czech edition gave me the comforting, if entirely deceptive, feeling that the book had somehow edged a tiny step closer to the world of Kundera, Klima and Skvorecky.
    And strange as it is to see your work encompassed in a sentence like: "The figure of Jacob [the narrator] stands not just for failure in itself, but also for the relationship between self-loathing and professional fulfilment," you realise that not only has the author of the thesis summed it up rather nicely, but she has made some spot-on interpretations you perhaps never intended, or consciously thought of, when you wrote the story in the first place.
    I liked this bit, for example: "In Plenderleith’s tragi-comic story a world is evoked in which there are not just winners and losers in the game of football, but in which the weekly humiliation of the mascot stands in stark contrast to the idolisation of the players." Though maybe there are happy and fulfilled mascots out there without a drinking problem, and with a steady girlfriend, who would beg to disagree.
    The whole thesis, covering authors such as Nick Hornby, John King and Attila the Stockbroker, can be read, only in German, here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Hawk Kills Dove

Not a remarkable event, but it happened in my back yard, and it was witnessed by my eight-year-old daughter just as I'm getting her into bird watching.

She's doing a project at school on the goldfinch, so we bought a new hanging feeder containing nyger seed - which attracts the breed especially - to go with the suet holder that brings us woodpeckers, and the green, metal, house-shaped feeder that lures nuthatches, chickadees and titmice, but is usually covered with house-sparrows and flying death-wish squirrels (they can't climb on to it, so they hurl themselves at it from above to dislodge seed on to the ground). This weekend we were watching some low-level garden activity, and when I left her to go to the kitchen, there were just a dark-eyed junco and three mourning doves on the lawn, pecking away in that docile way that makes them possibly the least interesting bird in the world to watch.

A minute later she came running through, distraught and in tears. "A hawk came and ate one of the birds!" My first reaction was "Cool!" and I ran through to the window to see if it was still around. A couple of years ago a sharp-shinned hawk came down and frightened an American Robin into flying against the living room window. When I looked out past the circle of feathers left on the pane, there was the hawk sitting below, its talons in the dead bird, looking around furtively before it flew off.

This time there were just a few feathers where the dove had been, and a grey squirrel peeking out of the log pile where it had scarpered for cover. After a hug and some consoling words, I managed to get my daughter to describe what she had seen. It sounded like a red-tailed hawk. I persuaded her that, for a novice birdwatcher, she'd witnessed something pretty special, and that such deaths were just a part of nature. By the next day she was breezily telling everyone about it. I only wish I'd hung around for another minute and seen it myself.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Actually, The LA Times Called My Writing "immaculate"...

An interesting footnote to Thursday's Beckham piece. In one of seven (yes, s-e-v-e-n) pieces that the LA Times printed yesterday about the Beckham transfer to the Galaxy, Chuck Culpepper wrote in his column 'With Beckham, what you see is what you get', the following:

The Guardian's Ian Plenderleith wrote immaculately, "Due to his limitations as a player, Beckham may actually fit in very well in U.S. soccer."

Which is an accurate quote, but taken completely out of context in order to support the writer's angle that British commentators were largely cynical about Beckham's move (they were, but I wasn't one of them). Still, why let context get in the way of a shoddy article when you've a deadline to meet.

The full quote was: "Due to his limitations as a player, Beckham may actually fit in very well in US soccer. While his name reaps sponsorship money, merchandise sales and enhanced media attention, we all know that on the field he's brilliant at what he does - but that that includes little beyond crosses, free-kicks and probing long passes. This will be ideal: he won't dominate games, but he'll produce the kind of highlight moments that can be easily packaged to a sporting audience that loves short, sharp thrills."

Mind, if he'd printed all that, I might have demanded a cut of his fee. And at least I can play the counter-distortion game, should I ever have a book published again, by having on the jacket: "Plenderleith writes immaculately" (LA Times). Sure, it would involve tinkering with the word 'wrote', but clearly the LA Times doesn't mind about technicalities on matters of mere accuracy.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

'LA Story Is Just Right For Beckham'

That's the headline on my Guardian blog piece today, although I would have modified it to 'could be just right for Beckham'. As I write, the 'comments' section is filling with undoubted experts telling me how wrong I am.

Major League Soccer is damned whatever it does. For years it was told to relax its rules so that it could sign marquee players, and that by failing to sign big names like Beckham, it had no ambition or marketing nous. When it changed the salary cap rules, as it did last November, to sign him, people immediately protest that MLS is wasting its money, while people who've never seen a US league game in their lives condemn Beckham as a mediocre player (he's not, in many respects) for a mediocre league (which may be true right now, but only in the sense that every league in the world has its great share of mediocre games thanks to negative tactical mores).

My view is that it's a potentially healthy signing for a still developing league. To damn the league, and Beckham, in a fit of internet tub-thumping is easy enough, but as short-sighted as saying that Americans will never 'get' soccer. Millions already do, and many more will in the years to come. Some, even, thanks to Beckham.

Monday, January 08, 2007

An E-Mail From Nowhere

I have to admit that I don't often get e-mails from people who've read my book. In fact it's not even an annual event. But the other day, as we head for the sixth anniversary of the publication of the first edition of 'For Whom The Ball Rolls', I received the kind of missive that brightens up your day because it lets you know that out there, somewhere, at least one or two people were paying your work the attention you always secretly thought it deserved. So many thanks to Liverpool fan Don Chesney for writing the following:

"For Whom The Ball Rolls - my favourite ever football book. Reading it for the third time and still love it. Recommend it to all 'real' footie fans. Played for and ran local football teams for 20 odd years, was in heaven reading this book. Wrote a 'book' about the Sunday team I played for and eventually helped run, called 'Flu Pitch'. Just gave it to mates to read. I tell everyone to read yours - superb!"