Monday, December 15, 2008

The Actual Top 30 Albums Of 2008

The music industry is, as ever, known to be in a state of tension and barely concealed panic in the run-up to the annual Stay At Home Indie-Pop nominations for the year's best music. This year, due to the linguistic recession that has resulted in the chronic global shortage of adjectives, and bearing in mind that there are now approximately 700 blogs to every internet reader, reviews have been curtailed to a succinct and time-saving single sentence.

30. Her Space Holiday - XOXO, Panda And The New Kid Revival
After several wonderful albums of bedroom electro-pop for depressives, HSH makes a quirky guitar album full of hooks and funny, strange lyrics.

29. Sonya Kitchell - This Storm
19, gifted and beautiful, still feeling her way down different avenues -- her record company probably wants her to be Alanis Morissette, while she'd rather be Sonny Girl Williamson.

28. Lucinda Williams - Little Honey
Rocking, growling Lucinda got lucky in love at last, but she hasn't let that tame her style.

27. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Weird but brilliant modern medieval music.

26. Tift Merritt - Another Country
C&W prodigy moves to Paris with a piano and gets all grown up on us.

25. Dawn Landes - Fireproof
This year's statutory emerging, sensitive New York songbird.

24. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
We all know - written in an isolated shed for instant indie cred, but while it has its moments, it's too ponderous and maudlin to be as good as the critics wanted it to be.

23. Robert Forster - The Evangelist
Back solo from the Go-Betweens after Grant McLennan's death, a sombre, poetic effort built on Forster's unmistakable melodies.

22. She & Him - Volume One
Paste magazine made this its album of the year, an overly high accolade for what is a middling-to-good 60s pop revival record.

21. Toumani Diabate - The Mande Variations
Classical African music for meditative moments.

20. Yoav - Charmed And Strange
Accessible and at times exceptional electronica.

19. Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
Like a style-by-style career retrospective, but with entirely new and mostly fresh-sounding songs.

18. Portishead - Third
Closely related to First and Second, mixing brash with mellow deep inside the musical twilight zone.

17. Spiritualized - Songs In A & E
A record that only occasionally suffers from the scope of its ambition, with surprise largely accompanied by scarred sonic delight.

16. Tindersticks - The Hungry Saw
Oblivious to musical fads, still crafting the same quivering compositions of fragile beauty.

15. Giant Sand - proVISIONS
Low key, bass-driven soundtrack to the imminent greater depression - same formula, possibly better than ever.

14. Horse Feathers - House With No Home
Folk music scratched from the cold, raw earth with love and a battered fiddle.

13. Lie Down In The Light - Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Upbeat enough compared with previous works that it should be subtitled: Will Oldham Finally Got Laid

12. M83 - Saturdays = Youth
Brimming with warm, vibrant synths - a record you can dig into like a bag of colorful, comforting sweets.

11. Old 97's - Blame It On Gravity
Plenty old, borrowed and blue, but you can't help but love a record full of lively, extremely singable songs.

10. Musee Mecanique - Hold This Ghost
Occasionally cloying, but mostly like coming in from the cold to hot chocolate and cake, all fuzzy synths wrapped in a soothing voice that envelops you in a blissful zone you may not want to leave.

9. Buika - Nina Del Fuego
You can almost smell the smoking danger in Buika's passionate, irresistible delivery.

8. Orchestra Baobab - Made In Dakar
Phenomenal musicians of unrelenting tempo and talent revelling in the usual maelstrom of joyous, soul-shaking styles.

7. Basia Bulat - Oh, My Darling
Delicate but lovely vocals underpin an album that slowly grows into a work of variety and finesse.

6. Kathleen Edwards - Asking For Flowers
Strong songs, tough themes and impeccable delivery from hugely gifted Canadian.

5. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
Much easier to like and listen to than any previous releases, this is an impressive series of rhythmic rides into the realm of the unexpected -- the result is a set of uniquely lifting songs.

4. Ane Brun - Changing Of The Seasons
Outstanding Norwegian singer-songwriter delivers fractured, emotional compositions never less than utterly beautiful.

3. The Weepies - Hideaway
The name and deceptively twee arrangements can't hide the fact that this is a collection of consistently excellent songs.

2. Damien Jurado - Caught In The Trees
Our greatest living songwriter works the magic of his misery once more using an acoustic guitar and the soul in his throat, backed by a band who, playing live, gives you a reassuring smile that sadly eludes the burdened genius at the front.

1. Sun Kil Moon - April
Hazy, sprawling songs of unfathomable gorgeousness.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Grill Of The Unknown

At school I learnt the historically dubious claim that during the reign of King Alfred, an Englishman could leave gold jewelry hanging from a tree branch and come back to find it untouched one year later. In Barack Obama’s America, I have discovered, you can do the same with a George Foreman grill leant against the front bumper of a Volkswagen Jetta. Maybe not for a year, but at least for one night.

Last night just after midnight I was emptying kitchen waste into my prized compost bin when I noticed a large cardboard package propped up against the front of our car, parked on the street. It was a windy night, so I assumed the package had been blown out of someone’s recycling bin. The next morning it was still there when I went out to get the papers, but I was too idle to deal with it as I was still dealing with the effects of several glasses of Rioja.

Just after 11am, a visiting friend brought the box inside. It wasn’t empty at all. It contained a spanking new George Foreman grill. “The lean mean fat reducing grilling machine,” it says on the box, without pausing for any commas at all. The neighbours claim to know nothing about it. Two sets of friends who visited on Saturday night said they hadn’t seen it when they left, and are clueless about how it came to be in the street in front of our house. Though one did say, “It happened to us once with an armchair. We kept it for 30 years.”

We are mulling all possible explanations. In Obama’s America, everyone gets free gifts. The CIA has planted a bug in the grill and wants to eavesdrop on me chopping onions, swearing at the radio and singing along to Her Space Holiday. God is in fact a divine hamburger and is rewarding his chosen meat-eating disciples with a heaven-sent culinary aid. The George Foreman grill is so crap that you can only give it away. It’s some kind of threat, but our enemies couldn’t find a horse’s head so they left the next thing they could get their hands on, the message being that if we don’t tread carefully, we could end up with our heads sandwiched inside a George Foreman grill. Or something.

I did a google news search to see if there were any other reports of mysterious George Foreman grill appearances or apparitions, but all I could find was actress Blake Lively telling W Magazine last week that, “I just made chicken breasts from Whole Foods on a George Foreman Grill, with asparagus and broccoli.” W Magazine is the publication for lame-duck presidents, by lame-duck presidents, I believe. If anyone can see a sinister connection in all this, please let me know.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How Middle-Aged People Celebrate History

After whooping it up for a few minutes and dancing around the living room at Obama's victory last Tuesday night, we went out on to the deck to hear how the rest of the neighbourhood was celebrating. Silence. We whooped some more, but there was no response. It was raining.

"I have to go back in," I said as the historic moment slipped away. "My hearing-aids are starting to get wet." But by next morning Obama had made the rain stop.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fiction Within The Simplest Game

A bloke in Australia is writing a PhD about football, and so naturally he wanted to talk to one of the world's best selling writers of football fiction. He couldn't find one, so he came to me instead. Read my pontificating on the subject at his blog, The Simplest Game.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Safeway Stories

"How are you doing today?”
“I’m good, thanks. How about you?”
“I’m good too, thank you.”

It’s a simple enough exchange, if somewhat moribund, and I’ve had it with thousands, possibly millions, of Americans in the service industry since moving to this country. But the other day at a Safeway in the aesthetically deprived exurbs of Maryland I stumbled across a new variation. The young girl scanning my bar of chocolate, a bunch of bananas and an energy drink (pre-match meal for over-35 year olds), looked like she was getting ready for Halloween a couple of weeks early. She had purple streaks in her long brown hair and a strange expression on her face. I thought it might be a scarily seasonal in-store promotion the cashiers had been reluctantly dragged into by the misguided goons of marketing and management.

She: How are you today?
Me: I’m good, thanks. How about you?
She (sighing): You know, not so good. I had a terrible night.
Me: Really?
She: Yes. I made the mistake of spending it in an abandoned house.
Me: (not making a sound, just standing with my mouth slightly open, waiting for a further explanation)
She: I didn’t fancy going home. So a friend and I ended up in this abandoned house. Big mistake. It was kind of scary.

I felt at this point as though I should say, “Yes, I know what you mean. Every time I’ve spent the night in an abandoned house, I’ve ended up thinking it was a big mistake too.” But as far as I can remember, I’ve never spent the night in an abandoned house, unless you count sleeping on the concrete floor of a bothy while on a Scottish mountain-hiking ‘holiday’. But given that the alternative was putting up a porous tent in a rainstorm in the dark and being trampled by several thousand sheep, the abandoned house option won the night.

I didn’t have the time to tell the girl in Safeway all this. I had my things in their bag, and kick-off was just an hour away. I needed energy and protein. Even though the next customer had her items on the conveyor belt, the girl was looking at me as though she wanted to tell me more. Much more. As though I was the only customer all day who had listened. But all purveyors of oral fiction know that when you’re staffing the ‘15 items or less’ checkout, the only tales to be told are short ones.

“You have a good day now,” I said as I walked away. What a disappointing ending

Monday, September 29, 2008

Less Hair Is More

As your hair recedes and you start to go thin on top, a paradox grows above your brain. The more hair you try to cultivate to conceal the fact that you’re losing it, the less hair you appear to have. The growth only serves to accentuate the parts that are blank. The only solution is to get your hair cut very short. The less hair you have, the less you appear to have less hair.

You’d think it would be easy to get your hair cut short. Just go into a barber’s shop and say, “I’d like my hair cut very, very short, please.” But American barbers either don’t understand this instruction, or they refuse to understand it. It’s as though there is a single American male haircut mandated by the government, and they are forbidden to deviate from its preppy, comb-over norm. Or they are all solid members of the Barbers’ Union contriving to keep hair long, so that people have to come back more often. Or the Marines have forbidden pink-livered pacifist cowards like me to have short haircuts so that come the day when they have to exterminate us all to ensure America’s safety, they’ll know which hirsute-headed commie bastards to take out first.

The first time this happened to me, the barber snipped away for a few minutes, held up a mirror, then asked me if I was happy with the haircut. “No,” I replied. “Like I said before, I’d like it really, really short, please.” He snipped away for another 20 seconds and stood back again, smiling. We’d already had one long and confusing conversation when he’d asked me, “You like Turkey?” and I said I’d never been, until eventually I worked out he was just making pre-Thanksgiving small-talk. So I paid and left and didn’t give him a tip, and never went back.

The second time, I explained to the barber that I wanted “what we used to call in England a Number Two Cut all over, please.” I always say please, because you should, even if it doesn’t help make your average barber understand that you want your hair cut really, really fucking short. He nodded and said, “Of course, sir.” And then he cut my hair for a few minutes and held up the mirror. I asked him three more times to continue cutting my hair until it was really, really short, “like I asked for,” which visibly annoyed him. That made two of us. In the end I gave up there too. No tip, never went back.

Finally, I found Hannah’s Barber Shop, which deserves to be patronised for its name alone. Hannah really is the owner, though it was a young bloke who did my hair. He got it all wrong, but when I kept asking him to keep cutting it really, really short just like I asked for, he kept laughing, like I was the most comical customer he’d ever served. “Are you sure?” he wanted to know. “Oh yes, I am very sure,” I replied. We stopped to check another four or five times, with the barber bemused and incredulous at my apparently outrageous request asking him, a barber, to cut my hair off.

There finally came a moment of clarity as he thought for a moment and said, “So what you want is a Number Three Cut all over?” As though no one had asked for such a thing since the 1930s.

“Is that what I need to ask for? I thought no one understood the numbers system here.”

“Yes, that’s all you need to ask for. Next time you come.”

“I’ll be back,” I promised. He got a six-dollar tip on a 14-buck haircut. Better still, he didn’t once ask me where I’m going on my holidays. Or about my taste in roasted poultry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Super-Sized Safety

The problem with neurosis is that it knows no limits. Find one good reason to worry why you might die tomorrow, and you can quickly find several thousand more. It’s why I never read the ‘Health’ section of the Washington Post. I can’t be bothered to fret that the rare and previously undiagnosed condition striking one in every 500,000 Americans might be out to get me just because I’m sure that I might once have experienced one of its 27 known symptoms.

Paradoxically, the safer we are, the more we seem to worry. This must be why my local supermarket has installed a PureCart system. It’s a car wash for supermarket trolleys, and has achieved country-wide press coverage for being, in the words of The Seattle Times, “the area’s first full-scale shopping-cart wash, a push-through device that sprays a misty peroxide solution over each cart between every use. It dries in a few seconds, leaving behind a faint whiff of beauty parlor and a cart promised to be 99.9 per cent germ-free for the next customer.”

I know exactly what you’re thinking, and it involves a combination of the words Jesus, Christ and some kind of expletive in-between. Much as I like the friendly folk that run the conveniently local shop, and in particular their selection of beer and wine, I have the exact same thought every time I pass the PureCart contraption on my way in to the store. Never mind that most of what people are putting in their carts is industrially processed food, or that the scales on the deli counter are always covered in the layered detritus of that day’s nutritional transactions. There are obviously enough people around who worry about catching germs from a shopping trolley that the shop has gone to the trouble of installing an entire system to counter this alarming and invisible peril. But hang on, it only says “99.9 per cent” of the germs. Watch out, mom, what if little Logan sticks his infant tongue on the 0.1 per cent of the trolley that PureCart failed to purge of someone else’s filthy bacteria? HE COULD DIE!

A couple of years ago we flew to Cancun and hired a car, heading for an island off the Yucatan peninsula famed for its billion different varieties of mosquito (in seven days we got to experience them all). As we drove out of the city, we passed a family on a moped -- Dad, Mum, and a kid, all balanced precariously on the vehicle, with the shopping too, and none of them wearing a helmet. Coming from America, it was somehow a refreshing sight, merely because it embodied a different attitude to mortality that served to highlight our own obsessive fixation with health and safety.

Of course, if it had been one of my own kids riding a moped without a helmet, I might have been less sanguine, but that’s how conditioned I’ve become. In a few weeks I probably won’t even notice the PureCart. In fact I’ll probably raise a complaint with the managers if I pull out a trolley and I fail to pick up “a faint whiff of beauty parlor.” I will not be murdered by vicious, evil bacteria without a fight.

Monday, August 04, 2008


We just tried living in the manner of country squires for a couple of weeks by hiring a house in the middle of an isolated estate in the Scottish Highlands. I tried some of the rural pastimes on offer, like fishing, and was happily rewarded with no success on a loch reportedly brimming with brown trout. Although I’m keen to eat the creatures, I’m too squeamish to smack one on the head, watch it gasp for the last time, and then gut its innards in time to see the final, faint pulse of a hot red heart.

Out walking the hills and doing my best to tell the difference between a skylark and a meadow pipit, I also spotted several beautiful red deer, who’d watch me warily before running scared. According to the promotional brochure, hind-stalking was an optional extra, but I didn’t dare to ask the estate’s owners what that might involve. Chasing after it with my arms in the air, shouting as the female deer dashed away and round the mountain to face a barrage of lead from Hamish the gamekeeper? (Yes, the gamekeeper really was called Hamish). Or was it something more sexual? After all, there’s not a lot of female company in the mountains, and the burly Highland cattle may be prone to resisting a lonely farm hand’s embrace.

Not wanting to enjoy too much health and fresh air, we occasionally descended the mountain to breath in the staple aromas of the Scottish towns – cigarette smoke and fried food. Deep-fried haggis, chips, cigarettes and ice cream still staunchly constitute the immutable diet of the Scots, who refuse to entertain passing fashions such as vitamins and avoiding death by heart failure. The thinking is that if these items are washed quickly enough through the system with vast quantities of beer, whisky or Irn Bru, then they won’t have time to damage the vital organs.

On a bench in Blairgowrie one Sunday evening I sat next to an old lady who alternated each drag on her cigarette with a munch on an ice lollipop and a coughing fit loud enough to summon a fleet of emergency vehicles. Unperturbed, a nearby gaggle of very young lads chuffed away with the enthusiasm of apprentices eager to adopt the Great Scottish Lifestyle Choice before it’s banned by some well-meaning Westminster vegetarian health-nut.

What they need is a month up in the mountains with nothing but a fishing rod, a hind to stalk and two sticks of wood to rub together to make a fire and cook their catch. Give them a kilt, a dirk and a broadsword while you’re at it and turn the pallid, skulking weans into proper proud Scotsmen. My own weapon of choice would be one I saw on display at Blair Castle – the bollock dagger. There can be nothing more terrifying than to hear a manic Celt whispering the imprecation: “Dinnae stare at ma hind, laddie, or I’ll tak ye oot wi’ ma bollock dagger.” Failing that, the cholesterol will get you in the end.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Dying To Live In Suburban Germany

Some aubergines, earlier today
This blog is so devoted to the cause of dissecting suburban life that it now takes its holidays in suburbia too. We're presently in an outpost of Dresden in eastern Germany, and there are some interesting contrasts with its typical equivalent in the US. For example, here there are shops, bars, and public transport in all directions – that kind of thing. And there's an unusual breed of hair dye too.
You won't find it stated anywhere in this particular suburb's tourist literature, but this area boasts some of the world's least attractive women. It's not because they are born ugly due to something alien in the local water. No, they actively take anti-beautification measures in order deliberately to deflect any desires harboured by the opposite sex. They do this by dying their hair the colour of aubergines (for the benefit of my two US readers, that's eggplant).

It seems odd that, of all the colours available, this underwhelming hue of a blob-shaped garden vegetable would enjoy such widespread popularity. It's certainly unique, at least until you've passed your fortieth purple-headed monster of the morning. By that time, the idea of sexual arousal has become so abstract that it seems nothing more than a theory somebody might once have had about animal reproduction. Around here, babies are surely delivered by stork only.

At four o'clock in the afternoon, meanwhile, you can see teenage youths hanging around outside the shopping centre openly drinking bottles of beer and smoking cigarettes. Alienation, leisure and courtship are all combined into a single package, but judging by the age of the area's pram-pushers, it's nothing but a brief stage on the path to developing your aubergenes. Then it's time to settle down to a life of ignoring friendly overtures of greeting from outsiders (though staring at them is allowed), learning how to cook six dozen bratwurst on an open-air grill in time for the next family wedding, and refusing to accede to so-called fashionable influences from the world beyond. Magentally ill, and we're not going to change a shade.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Inspirational Fiction On The Fly

My name has somehow landed on the mailing list of the Harper Collins’ imprint Avon Inspire. This means I regularly receive books that publish a line of “inspirational women’s fiction that features that which matters most: family, community, faith, and love.”

Aside from the alternative school of thought claiming “that which matters most” also covers, in no particular order, football, sex, music, the economy, the environment, proper beer, good manners and the public execution of the owners of any dogs that crap on my front lawn, it’s an odd notion that a branch of fiction must define itself as inspirational. The old eastern Bloc tried something similar with socialist-realist literature, and aside from a few texts that sneaked through due to the clot-headed censors’ failure to understand imagery, it was mostly dull. Which is what happens when you try to write a book glorifying life in a cement factory.

Most recently I have become the privileged owner of Shelley Shepard Gray’s ‘Hidden’, a novel about Anna, a “modern girl on the run” from a fiancé “with good looks and prestigious position at a top law firm,” but who’s also violent (boo!). She takes refuge with an Amish family (hurrah!) and “finds fulfilment in the Amish way of life”, which will be handy with the coming energy crisis. Yet she still has to win the trust of one family member, Henry, who has “got the raging hots for her, but is tortured by sexual anguish suppressed by a stringent and quite frankly unsustainable moral code.” Okay, I made that last bit up. The book’s big question, according to the press release, is: “Can he accept that Anna may truly be his soulmate?”

Given that this is inspirational fiction, my guess is that he will, though not without a 200-page struggle. Ah what the heck, I can’t wait. Let’s turn to page 201 (of 202): “Very slowly, very deliberately, Henry curved an arm around her and pulled her close.” Whoooargh Henry, you sly old dog! Is this how the author wants to “showcase her Christian ideals”, as the publicity blurb states? With this filthy, depraved groping? The book ends with them both contemplating a rabbit in a field (“Look, she whispered to Henry, to the man…who would one day be her husband. Another rabbit.”). And it’s not the rabbit of recession I referred to in my last blog entry, but an inspirational, hopping, fertile, action-ready rabbit full of the jumping joys of spring. At least I bet that’s Henry’s view (why didn’t she just call him Horny and be done with it?).

Aside from the commercial angle -- ‘Hidden’ sells at a meta-spiritual $12.95 -- you might ask what is the purpose of literature that so clearly wears its heart on its jacket, with closure as comforting for its readers as a talking bearded Jesus doll. I unwittingly found the answer the other day when a noisome bluebottle landed on my computer screen. The nearest item to hand was ‘Hidden’, which did a messily efficient job of flattening the insect, with the operation concluded by a swift mopping up of its guts using a moist tissue. The book, alas, is sullied and will soon be sent for recycling.

One of the book’s “questions for discussion” says that it is only when the book’s characters “put their futures in the Lord’s hands that they find joy,” asking, “When has following God’s path brought you success?” I played God with that irritating (and undoubtedly evil) fly, consequently reaching a state of peace and contentment due to the absence of its buzzing and dive-bombing. It seems the mysterious delivery of ‘Hidden’ into my post-box was all part of A Plan. Count me in as one of the truly inspired.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Rabbits And Recession

My next-door neighbours asked me to look after their dog for a couple of days, so last night I took the mutt for a walk at twilight. She’s a malleable black Labrador that jumps back at a rustle in the leaves and runs from runty, yapping curs a quarter of her size. I admire her pacifist leanings in showing no desire to hassle the deer we saw, or the skulking fox in the undergrowth of the nearby wood.

Our route was illuminated by thousands of fireflies, those amazing insects that are wise enough to simply light up their back-ends when they want to have sex. Other than the odd passing car, a Dad and his two boys at the playground, and a handful of others out dog walking, it was already quiet by 9pm. Even in houses with lights on, you saw no signs of life besides the odd flickering TV screen. We could just as easily be living way out in the countryside.

The other conspicuous thing since I last walked around my local streets is the comparatively high number of empty houses, either available for rent or up for sale. Until a couple of years ago, they would have been sold or inhabited almost as soon as they were empty. Now, families are suddenly gone and you never get to hear their stories. Ask a neighbour and they’ll shrug. Does that house belong to the bank now? No one knows, or wants to say. In suburbia, even the recession is silent.

This morning, I took the hound out early, watching birds of all colours and sizes at their most active hour - blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, wrens, and three blackbirds having an argument. A woodpecker hammered away at a tree trunk, somewhere out of sight. There were also two rabbits on a front lawn, guarded but not alarmed at our approach. This year rabbits have been an increasingly common sight, and no more unusual than a grey squirrel. When I tell my daughters that dinner’s on the lawn, it just needs to be caught and cooked, they are no longer upset by my lame stab at black humour for the U-teens.

I’m not one for omens, but I recently read Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, about the recession in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, caused partly by drought, and partly by the environmental rape of the previous decades, when farmers rushed to rip up the grass lands of the High Plains and plant wheat. The only creature to thrive was the rabbit, and for thousands of poverty-beaten people its meat became one of the few sources of food, pickled for nourishment through the barren winters. Towns organised rabbit drives, where thousands of the creatures would be clubbed to death in a single afternoon, both to provide food and to control a pest that might eat any of the few crops that managed to grow.

The current economic woes haven’t yet reached the point where I’ll meet my neighbours out on the street wielding a baseball bat rather than a dog leash. At the same time, the financial news delivers little besides stagnation and slump. Walking tonight in the gloom, I may begin to imagine those empty houses filled with the wandering and the dispossessed, sleeping on bare floors and roasting culled rabbits on a rusty, flickering grill fuelled by firewood from nearby Rock Creek Park. Maybe they’ll be singing to pass the time. Finally breathing human life into suburbia.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lucky Lightning

Last Saturday night a storm came through our neighbourhood. A huge tree was struck by lightning and landed right next to a house a couple of streets away. The house suffered barely a scratch.

Does that make the inhabitants of the house lucky or unlucky? It was good luck that the tree missed their house. But surely it was bad luck that the lightning struck a massive tree right in their garden and no one else's. And that next day they had to call and pay for a timber crew that spent two days cutting up the tree and removing it.

The inhabitants might still have considered themselves lucky had the tree actually landed on their house, but they’d been out at the time. Or if they’d been sheltering in the basement. On the other hand, they might have considered themselves unlucky that half their house had been destroyed. Ultimately, though, most of us would think ourselves lucky that we were still alive, regardless of any destruction or the inconvenience of having lumberjacks occupy our garden.

Why then does someone like myself, living a couple of streets away, not consider himself lucky that the tree struck by lightning in my neighbourhood fell nowhere near to my house? Why am I not more relieved than my neighbour who’s gone through a massive cut-up and clean-up operation the past few days? Why am I not thanking God (or the Gods) that he or she or they sent that lightning bolt through a tree several hundred yards away, instead of the one in my back garden?

It's a different question, however, to consider getting missed by lightning as a piece of good luck, as opposed to having a narrow escape from an act of divine providence. God did not smite the tree upon your house because he is merciful, one might say. To me, though, it’s just further proof that he doesn’t exist. Otherwise, seeing as he was in the neighbourhood anyway, he’d have sent a stern message to the recalcitrant atheist via thunder, lightning and the crash of heavy wood. Look what I can do, infidel! Instead he apparently chose to warn an old couple who always keep a very neat garden (I suppose it’s possible that God really really hates very neat gardens. Or that they have several bodies buried under their flower beds and God reckons it's about time they fessed up).

You often read about people who had near-death experiences saying that they prayed to be saved, and now they are hugely grateful to God that they’ve been spared. To me, that’s strange. If you believe in God, and you think you’re about to die, shouldn’t you be happy you’re about to meet this entity you credit with creating the world and the universe? I’d be just dying to ask, “Dude, how the hell did you make the nudibranch and the twelve-wired bird of paradise?”

And second, if believers think that God controls their destiny, why do they think that God put them through this near-death experience? What sort of God gets a kick out of scaring the shit out of a nice old couple? A psychotic prankster? If that’s the case, perhaps eternity will turn out to be more entertaining than I thought. A massive amphitheatre with a giant screen where we can watch God toy with mankind and we all get to vote on typhoon, tornado or tsunami.

If not, we’re back to plain old good and bad luck.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Reluctant Listener

I can hear you better now thanks to two tiny and extremely expensive devices made by Siemens (see left). I’ve been the proud owner of defective ears all my life, and ever since my Dad first noticed that I would say the phrase, “Eh?” 50 times a day, I’ve been told that I should get some hearing aids. Instead, I’ve spent decades straining to pick up the words of those who mumble or speak in whispers. Or at least that’s how they sounded to me and my knackered aural nerves.

Since last Thursday I can hear almost everything, even if now I can afford almost nothing. How many CDs, how much synthesiser technology, and how many Bose speaker systems could I have bought instead? It doesn’t bear thinking about, so instead I concentrate on my Loud New World, where my fingers on the keyboard sound like a plunge hammer in a plastics factory, and where a friend’s casual whistle grates like a feral tomcat caught nuts-first on a sawmill.

Then there’s your conversation, which frankly hasn’t been worth the wait. I’m sure that in my youth, when I was still making the effort to listen, people were talking about more interesting topics. Books they’d read and films they’d seen and revolutions they were planning, and all that kind of stuff. In the intervening 20 years, my generation’s brain-matter has turned to mush, and now we’re pre-occupied with (in approximate order):

1. The width of the aisles in the new Safeways 2. Tomorrow’s weather 3. The minor infringement of child-endangering safety regulations 4. The standard of assisted living facilities in, say, three to four decades’ time 5. That last-ditch resort of the destitute dialogue - this summer’s holiday plans. In fact it’s like listening to a conversation in the barber’s shop, except that it’s non-stop. Perhaps I’ve died without realizing it and gone to a worse place, and this is my punishment for a life spent ignoring others. For eternity, I get to listen to them.

Bird song, at least, is more accentuated. And it befits a man of my experience to point out that the creatures of the sky are sounding much better than the crap my daughters listen to on 99.5 Hot FM. The eldest of the two, by the way, was most disappointed to find out I’d turned my inner volume up, despite having complained for years about me being a deaf old fart.

“It won’t be fun any more,” she said, citing the numerous times when I’ve completely misunderstood something that’s been said, and repeated a version of the sentence so wide of the mark that I ended up as the family’s live-in sitcom novelty act. She’s not the only one not having fun. Instead of a ready-made excuse for avoiding chores and bores, I get to appreciate the hum of the air conditioning unit. Or was that just someone droning on about the price of petrol? The technology’s not quite perfect, so sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tom Perrotta And Fiction For Film

I just read Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, a suburban satire about a neighbourhood of unfulfilled soccer moms and their reaction when a convicted sex offender comes out of jail and moves in close by with his mother. It was a good, quick read, if not a memorable one, mainly due to the lack of particularly interesting characters, reflecting as they did the predictable archetypes of the Book Club Belt. Also, I resent it when you’re reading a book and it’s obviously been tailored to be flogged for its film rights. The soap opera plot culminates in the overtly contrived tying up of all loose ends, and you’re left feeling less like a reader and more like a sucker.

Little Children has already been released as a film, as was one of Perrotta’s earlier novels. That’s grand for the author, who has to make a living like the rest of us. I just wonder why he didn’t quit the pretence and type it up as a film script to start with.

The two occasions I’ve managed to sign up with literary agents were because of novels that apparently had film potential. Again, it’s a business like any other, and literary agents who have to pay the mortgage know that selling a novel on its fine literary merits alone will maybe pay for a new hat. And more likely a baseball cap than a handmade Tyrolean with a feather in its band. But rather than share the bubbling enthusiasm of the London agent who once said, “Ian, this has got film rights written all over it!” I was more disconcerted that this was seen as the book’s main selling point. Although, as neither book of the two ‘film potential’ novels was sold, that was maybe not the case after all (leaving them with a total of zero selling points).

Not that I’d have been turning my nose up at a fat check from a studio eager to secure the future production of a book about a…ha ha, I’m not going to tell you what it was about in one line. When I attended a script-writing class, that was the first lesson. Learn to sum up what your film is about in a single, two-clause sentence. “It’s about a [main character], who [has a goal].” Hollywood moguls are busy people, and they get distracted if your idea takes more than three seconds to explain, supposing you (or your agent) can actually get to talk to one in the first place.

You have a little more leeway when writing a novel and presenting it to a literary agent (also very busy people). Maybe as long as it takes to describe a book on the back of its jacket. Typically, that will be a three to four sentence paragraph, and each sentence will include a teaser, with references to at least one of the following: an unhappy marriage, a stunted career, a sexual deviant, an unfulfilled parent, a character with a seemingly terminal illness, an addict of some sort, and a group of people who are members of a book club.

The agent will then judge if your novel has the potential to sell as a film, and may agree to read the first three chapters. Depth, length and too much ambiguity are unwelcome, while vague membership in a discernible current publishing trend or category such as Lad Lit, Sad Lit, Bad Lit, Buddy Lit, Lamp Lit (just invent one and say you saw it mentioned in the New York Times Book Review) is an absolute imperative. If necessary, spell it out and put the words into their mouth: “I really feel this book has film rights written all over it.”

There are three sorts of novelist. 1.Unpublished – that would be most of us. 2. Acclaimed – that is, published and admired by family, friends and a handful of discerning readers and critics. And 3. Successful – that would be your Tom Perrottas. Readable, forgettable, but very sellable. Writing to a formula that succeeds. Mrs. Pop believes it’s the key to her early retirement. I’m still waiting for the Big Bad Idea to encapsulate in a single, two-clause sentence.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Walking Into Cars

This is why I never leave the house. I just get annoyed by stuff.

On Monday afternoon I was walking across Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, in order to get from one side of the street to another. Everything was in order – both my legs were working, and the pedestrian light was clearly indicating that now was the time for walkers to make the transition from one footpath to another. Yet I hadn’t reached the road’s middle island before meeting a major obstacle in my path – a stationary automobile.

The driver had decided at the last minute he wasn’t going to jump a red light, so settled instead for obstructing pedestrians. I saw no reason why I should walk around the car, so I walked into it, thumping the passenger window. Then I walked around it and looked back to see if the driver had noticed. He was laughing, like he was in on a big joke with me. I made a gesture to let him know I wasn’t that amused. Just as he might have been annoyed to come to a green light and find a line of pedestrians standing around in the road, looking vacant and impeding his progress.

Coming back the same way a few hours later, at the exact same crossing, I found a mini-van in the same position. Like the earlier car, the driver had plenty of space to reverse and free up the pedestrian’s right of way, but he had an important phone call to make instead. For a second time, I walked straight into the car door, causing him some surprise and consternation. He didn’t think it was as funny as the first driver, and some hostile gestures were exchanged. Next time I’ll just climb over and leave a boot mark on his roof.

“How did you know he wasn’t packing some heat?” asked the sensible Mrs. Pop. I only think about these things afterwards. Despite having lived in the US for nine years, I still have faith that most people won’t pull a gun on me just for trying to make a point.

Mind you, walking into someone’s car is more likely to be construed as violating an American’s basic human right to do whatever the fuck he or she wants when they’re behind the wheel of a car. But what a way to go, as a martyr to the cause of pedestrian rights.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Be Sure Your Bin Will Find You Out

To the left is a photograph of our amazing and magical kitchen bin. Regardless of how much rubbish you put in, it never overflows, at least according to the rest of my family. No matter how full it appears, they claim, if you press your new rubbish in hard enough the bin will miraculously create just enough space to allow you to force the lid back down.

Eventually, though, someone comes along who doesn’t believe in magic. That would be me, the first person in the family to get sick of picking up apple cores, chicken bones and bottle tops from around the bottom of the bin when the magic hasn’t quite worked. While the family is out at school and work I’ll empty the bin into the rubbish can outside, and when they come home at the end of the day – abracadabra! The magic bin’s working again!

What they don’t witness is the sight of a severely compressed plastic bag of kitchen waste being eased from its receptacle in an operation that requires strength, skill and patience, all executed with suspended breath to suppress your sense of smell. The dense sack and its festering contents must then be carried down the back steps and into the much more spacious dustbin outside. Often, something sharp or pointed pokes through the plastic, creating a hole through which a malodorous combination of bacon fat, vegetable oil and several indeterminate liquids can create a slick several yards long. But at least a liquid spillage can be mopped up, usually with a sense of relief that, over the course of a week, nothing has mutated inside there to now burst forth with an evil laugh and announce that it intends to kill its creator, and then, ha ha, take over the world.

Yesterday, though, just before I reached the outside bin, the bag split and spilled its entire contents on the ground, and I was privileged to see a geological depiction of what the family had eaten over the past week, composted in layers with a line of moist ground coffee marking the cut-off point for each daily menu. Plus some other stuff. Then I had the pleasure of scooping it all up.

Despite our best efforts to recycle as much glass, plastic and paper as possible, it’s still alarming to be confronted with all the things you’re throwing out (especially when it makes you gag). There was still plenty of garbage in there that will outlive me by thousands of years. It’s probably why the rest of the family prefers to believe in the myth of the never-emptied bin, rather than risk a mucking-in session with fetid peelings, moldering leftovers and, worst of all, discarded items like the blood-smeared thick plastic packaging that encased the ribs of industrially farmed pigs. Oh, the shame.

I cared enough about all this to buy a book called Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, subtitled ‘On The Secret Trail Of Trash.’ Wired magazine calls it “a riveting travelogue punctuated by a scathing indictment of American consumption.” But although I know I ought to read it, I don’t really want to (I hate being indicted). I bought it in the middle of last year in a brief fit of troubled consciousness, but it keeps getting perused and then placed back at the bottom of my reading pile.

Maybe I’m hoping that one day I’ll look at the pile of books and – abracadabra! Garbage Land will have magically disappeared.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Greater DC's Last Tram (And It's Dutch)

Want to ride a tram in America? There are one or two cities that kept a few lines as tourist attractions, but in Washington DC and its suburbs they axed the entire system in the early 1960s. They must have been slowing down too many senators and congressman as they rushed by car from Capitol Hill to capital whorehouse. But there’s still a way to ride the tram if you know where to look – it’s in a field in the middle of nowhere in Montgomery County, Maryland.

That’s where you’ll find the DC trolley museum, and that’s where we went yesterday afternoon. What counts as a cheap and efficient method of getting around town in hundreds of cities across the world is, for DC area residents, a 30-minute drive for a brief, historical trip down recent memory lane. And a painful reminder of the short-sighted ignorance that now makes any journey by car in or around DC a slow, frustrating and climate-wrecking experience.

The only working tram is not actually a DC museum piece, rather it’s a Dutch model (interior shot, left), built in 1972, which was bought by the museum at the start of this century. It takes a clunky ride through some woods running parallel to a busy road, does a quick loop, and comes back again to the little faux station with some exhibits and a souvenir shop filled with sepia-tinted books that document the trains, trams and trolleys of yore. Most heartbreaking of all are the 1930s maps showing that public transport was accessible across the region, and that it reached out to almost every suburb and settlement in and around the city.

The entire infrastructure was in place, and the city destroyed it to make more room for cars at a time when, for most commuters, the privacy of your own space and the pride of owning an automobile presumably made driving to work the more attractive option. But you’d be hard pushed nowadays to see much joy or pride in vehicle ownership in the faces of the thousands of commuters I see stuck on the Beltway every afternoon as I do the school run in the opposite direction. That run, I confess, involves a 15-minute, gas-wasting drive, but if the kids tried to come home by the currently available public transport, it would take them the best part of two hours.

In the meantime, the DC area has lost the sense of community to be gained from seeing and talking to your neighbours on public transport, and from linking one neighbourhood directly to another. The roadways are clogged with loud, dangerous, carbon dioxide-pumping cars that make walking (pedestrian deaths from speeding vehicles are as regular a local news item as drive-by shootings) or cycling either unpleasant or plain impossible.

Although DC has an underground train system, it has nothing like the reach or capacity needed to take cars off the road. But with petrol at almost four dollars a gallon, the talk in recent years about rebuilding the tram system may rise up the transport agenda. We had the technology one hundred years ago, but cheap oil apparently rendered it obsolete. While the city and its suburbs continued to grow, mass transit remained a great, but wholly forgotten, idea.

Never mind Jesus - here’s a second coming that could actually make a difference to millions of lives. America, resurrect the tram.

* To give you an illustration of what mass transit advocates in the US are up against, the Action Committee For Transit is a local body that has sought for decades to build a light rail system that would run close to my house, linking the suburbs of Silver Spring and Bethesda. The disused railway line, now a cycle trail, already exists to build the proposed Purple Line. But house owners adjacent to the line have over the years let their gardens encroach so far back on to the proposed route that they claim there’s no space to build the line and allow the cycle trail to remain. They also say they want to preserve the trail for the sake of nature. Conveniently for them, it also runs through the golf course of Columbia Country Club (induction fee – a non-refundable $70,000), where the wealthy are not keen to have quiet but pleb-carrying trains disturb their concentration at the ninth hole, and have lobbied accordingly. Wish us luck.

** Recommended further reading: The End Of Oil by Paul Roberts
The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Music Inspires...Health?

Ari Hest and Ingrid Michaelson were heading the bill at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium last night, and although it’s a sit-down theatre with no atmosphere and, even worse, no bar, I’d mercifully been given the night off because the wife and kids were off watching the daughter of some friends take part in an amateur school production in a land far beyond the last metro stop.

Yes, I went, even though there was no bar. The last time I can remember going out on a Friday evening and there being no bar, I was 15 years old at a disco in Tealby Village Hall, where they were serving pop and crisps to raise funds for the local youth club. But at least there was the consolation of having a bottle of vodka hidden in the bushes outside. If you tried to hide a bottle of vodka in the bushes somewhere in downtown DC, someone would assume you were hiding a Molotov cocktail, and you’d find yourself face down on the floor of a helicopter heading for Guantanamo Bay with a marine’s muscular knee grinding the back of your manhood to bollocknese sauce.

Worse still, this wasn’t any old pop concert. Barely mentioned in the publicity, it was being sponsored by Kaiser Permanente and an organisation billing itself as Music Inspires Health. I am serious, and I’ve got the free t-shirt to prove it. So not only did you have to abstain from alcohol on a Friday night, but between acts you had educational videos on wearing a condom, not drinking yourself into a coma, and on how to talk to your bulimic friends when they’ve spent a suspiciously long time in the bog after dinner. And then endless talks from the dull young man running the whole thing, who thanked everyone he’s ever known, and also let us know where he met his girlfriend and how far along she is with her medical studies.

Now I know how the homeless feel when they want a bowl of soup from the Salvation Army, but only after they’ve said their prayers and listened to a pious lecture on their low-down homeless ways. Except that here we were paying twenty bucks for the privilege, and being asked to fill out a survey asking us our opinion of Kaiser Permanente, and whether tonight’s event would change the way we thought about our health.

Admittedly, I’m no longer in the target age range for this kind of event, but even so. There’s something not quite right about pop and rock singers going on a tour aimed at telling young people not to smoke and get hammered. Of all the things music is supposed to inspire, I’d put health somewhere below ‘world peace’, ‘further studies into the history of calligraphy’ and ‘a better attitude towards your superiors’. And way below ‘going out on a Friday night, getting off your head, getting your ears numbed while shaking your brains out close to a tower of amps, and finding out both good and bad things about yourself, life and the universe.’ But then I'm an old fashioned guy in that respect.

Ingrid Michaelson was very funny and entertaining, but the concept behind the evening was way too worthy to make for a good time. I was, however, inspired to leave early, walk out into the warm, moonlit night, and then into the nearest bar to sink a pint of Sam Adams’ Summer Ale. It was the best way I could think of to toast everybody’s health.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Gym Rules

Suburbanites are so opposed to being seen on the streets of their neighbourhood that instead of taking their recreational exercise outdoors, they pay for the privilege of going to specially enclosed indoor day camps filled with torture instruments that make them grimace and sweat while at the same time deluding them they’re going to live longer. Otherwise known as the gym.

There are certain rules at the gym. The main rule is: don’t look at anybody, you pervert. Even though gyms are about as sexy as bank managers. Because although everyone’s striving for the perfect body, it’s all about the journey – none of us have got there yet, and most of us never will. If we had, we’d be living in California showing it off, not suburban DC with its cold, grey winters and close, clammy summers that last from May until October.

Second rule: don’t talk to anybody, except to grunt when asking if you can ‘work in’ with them on a torture machine. When grunting, don’t look them in the eye. Usually when someone talks to me and makes a vague gesture, I’m listening to my iPod and have to take the earphones out to ask them to repeat themselves, which makes them irritable. What else would they have been asking other than if they could ‘work in’, stupid? Do you always sweat like a bison? Do you really think this is ultimately going to enhance your sex appeal? The only time I talked to anyone was to tell a genial old bloke how much I liked his t-shirt, which showed Bush and Cheney above the caption: Meet The Fuckers.

But there’s no room for politics at the gym (just like everywhere else), which brings me to rule three: talk sports in the locker room. When you get the lunchtime jock crowd, rushing in for an hour of pumping and heaving between manly business deals, they use those five minutes of changing time to talk about last night’s game, usually to complete strangers, the assumption being that if you’re in a gym locker room then you’ll know all about last night’s game. There’s always been a game the night before, somewhere, in some sport, so it’s easy to bluff along. “Yeah, amazing play,” you can venture. “What a finish.” “Can’t wait for the playoffs.” “He came out of Duke, right?” “But thinking about it, what a supremely pointless waste of fucking time for all concerned.” Careful with the last one, though.

Final rule: use as much energy as possible, and not necessarily your own energy. Until we’ve burnt every last atom of available fossil fuel, it is our duty as human beings to exhaust our dwindling supplies in line with the President’s attitude on climate change – which is, we don’t give a fuck because the energy crisis is going to be a problem for the next generation, not mine. Yesterday I was on an exercise bike behind a woman walking on a step machine. Not only was the apparatus using electricity to aid her stationary perambulation, but she was on her mobile phone for 25 minutes, and watching the TV screen attached to the front of the machine too. That’s three sources of energy wastage while doing a simple activity – walking – that she could have done on the street outside, for free.

Which begs the question why I wasn’t out on a real bike instead of sitting on one fixed to the floor of the gym sneering at soccer moms on step machines. But if you ask such questions, you don’t understand the nature of suburbia. I’m no rebel. I’m just keeping a low profile out here, abiding by the rules, and keeping the streets free so cars can drive faster.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Squeaky Whinge

“It’s a squeaky hinge that gets oiled,” was the catchphrase of an Australian girl I used to work with in a London office. When it came to squeaking, she was the queen, and would badger our employment agency for higher wages so often - every week, when she went to pick up her pay - that they would cave in just to get her to shut up and leave. In that respect, her policy worked. (Either that, or she was using an antipodean sexual metaphor that went right over my head at the time.)

Her advice to me was to do the same and whinge like a hinge. Much as I shared her philosophy that if a thing was worth complaining about, it was worth complaining about at great length, I could only bellyache in the presence of like-minded moaners. I’m the kind of bloke who says that the soup’s shit, then two seconds later when the waiter comes and asks how the soup is, I’ll smile and say, “It’s fine, and thank you very much for asking.”

I’d been thinking about my former colleague every night for the past eight and a half years, because there was a squeaky hinge on our bathroom door, and every time I got up in the small hours to go to the bog, it caterwauled like a smitten tomcat with its nuts caught under a steam-hammer. And every time I thought sleepily, “Owch, I must take care of that sometime. Squeaky hinges should be oiled.” And yes, it’s round about eight and a half years since we moved into this house.

The middle of the night was the only time I thought about the squeaky hinge, which was why it never got fixed. But the other day, I was clearing out my tool box (for the first time in eight and a half years), and came across tons of useful stuff like glues and screwdrivers and wrenches that I never normally know where to find. And a can of something called WD-40, which, according to its own publicity, “stops squeaks.” Why did no one tell me we had this magical substance?

Another week of creaking nights went by before I actually got around to bringing the can of WD-40 all the way upstairs to spray on the hinge. It took me less than five seconds. Amazingly, after a couple of squirts, the hinge stopped squeaking. Now, in the middle of the night, I am struck by the silence when I pull open the door. But while continuing to admire the curative properties of WD-40, I miss the squeak. Thinking about it makes me alert and stops me going back to sleep.

This made me realise that even though I’m a grouch at the best of times, it’s better if I stay that way. Family and friends can tolerate me as an accustomed background noise, but have long since stopped listening to anything I actually say. Imagine if I became all sunny and positive – they’d worry about me and think that I was sick, or up to something devious.

It would be selfish to put them through that, so it’s best if I stay as the kind of hinge that malfunctions just often enough not to bring too much attention to myself. Not completely unhinged, just one that makes the same low-level, negative noise on any given subject. Bloody ’ell, even if they elect Obama, something’s bound to go wrong. It’s not worth Lincoln getting promoted, they’ll just go straight back down. Etc.

Stay away, well-intentioned handymen. Leave squeaking hinges be. They may not sound it, but they really are happy that way.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

On The Tennessee Border

‘Tennessee Border’ is the title of a 1947 Red Foley song that contains the memorable line, “I picked her up in my pick-up truck/And she stole this heart of mine.” It also claims to be the birth place of country music. More specifically, the city of Bristol, whose main street is divided by the Virginia-Tennessee state line, claims this title. Not that they’re really making the most out of it, bar the mural depicted above and a few streets named after early C&W luminaries.

In 1927, Ralph Peer of NY-based Victor Records came here with an early version of the portastudio and recorded a number of local acts who’d made their way in from the surrounding Appalachian mountains to lay down some tracks and get some cash in return. Most famously, Jimmie Rodgers and the astonishing Carter Family laid the musical foundations for all that followed. But it’s a few hundred years out to claim that country music was born the day it was first put on record.

On Monday afternoon of last week, Bristol’s main street reminded me of my home town on half day closing in the 1970s, except that Market Rasen in Lincolnshire has a population of under 3,000, and the population of Bristol is over 42,000. Many businesses are derelict, while the C&W Museum is stuck on the edge of town on the lower level of a shopping mall. Go through JC Penneys and down the escalator and you’re there.

The tiny museum had a handful of interesting artefacts, some pictures and exhibits missing from the walls, and several overpriced CDs. Not that I was looking for anything like Nashville’s Opryland Theme Park, but it was a bit like showing up at Gettysburg to find they’d built a NASCAR track, but left a Civil War souvenir shop down a tunnel and underneath the pit stop.

Back on State Street downtown, there were two businesses of interest. One was the Mountain Aire record shop on the Virginia side of the street, where I spent a happy half hour as the sole customer. On the Tennessee side was the far busier Uncle Sam’s Loan Shop, a massive pawn emporium catering to those in need of instant cash. You have to hand it to the concern’s marketing strategists. By making poverty seem patriotic, they were drawing in more customers than the rest of the shops on State Street put together.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Dirtbombs At Grimey's

A week after the fact, but I wanted to add Day Four of the Nashville trip in tribute to the non-country side of the city’s music scene. Apparently, it comes in after LA and New York in terms of the number of bands looking to make themselves a name, and there are more rock and pop than C&W acts here. Tip to up-and-coming groups: relocate to Murdo, South Dakota to ensure yourself a larger share of the local market before you try and move on up.

Because in the ‘local bands’ section at Grimey’s record shop on 8th Avenue South there’s a three-tiered rack full of CDs (and tapes) made by city artistes, which is not necessarily a good thing if you’re in one of the bands (I’d not heard of a single one). “In the end,” said Layne Ihde, the lead singer of Nashville-based three-piece The Ides, “you end up performing to the same 30-50 people every time you play live. And every one of them is in a band too.”

Layne moved to Nashville 12 years ago, “for the music”, and you can judge for yourself how good his band is from its MySpace page. They’ve released an LP and an EP, and have had respectable sales in Japan, which once lead to a Japanese girl inviting them to play at her birthday party…in Italy. They couldn’t make that, and neither have they been able to make it beyond the stage where they play to the same 30-50 people. Not that this means they’re unhappy, or would even consider giving it all up for ‘proper’ careers.

We met at Grimey’s on Layne’s recommendation. It’s not just the best record shop in Nashville (the three-mile walk from the town centre down a long and faceless street making it feel like you’ve earned the right to shop there), it’s possibly the best record shop in the world, run on love and independence. The almost faultless selection of both new and “preloved” CDs are generously priced in the listener’s favour, while bands play live in the second hand section, and the staff hand out free beer.

Last Saturday it was The Dirtbombs, featuring a punk-soul singer, two guitars, two drummers and a fuzzbox bass to shake the shop and the eardrums of all the patrons, most of whom were too young to take advantage of the beer giveaway, or to have heard this kind of music in most of its early incarnations. It was an anthemic, string-grinding six o’ clock warm-up for the evening ahead - perfect grime-time music.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nashville, Day Three - The Moon And The Songbirds

I was staggering back to my hotel well after 2am on day three when I heard something odd coming from a tree on Church Street – a bird singing. I thought it might be another Nashville downtown gimmick, like the piped country music that seems to come out of the sewers, and the pedestrian crossing beepers, which sound like a sparrow being squeezed to chirp in rhythm. But it was in fact a real live American Robin, not known for being a nocturnal bird, perched on a branch and singing up at the almost full moon.

“There’s a full moon hanging over Nashville/And an empty heart that’s singing down below,” the robin was probably singing. Even the birds are inspired by the moon to be country and western singers here. And although country’s always been dominated by males, it’s had its fair share of songbirds, my own particular loves being Sara Carter, Bobby Gentry and Kitty Wells. And my favourite of them all, who just brought out a four-disc boxed set called ‘Songbird’ that I got for Christmas.

And so I was sitting at the bar of the Station Inn last night - a shack stuck at the end of a dark street, but that’s not a surprise location for a music venue in a city of such fragmented layout. And sitting at a table a few feet away there’s this white-haired older chick who looks distinguished and beautiful and vaguely familiar, but I don’t think any more about it and start to read my recommended Tennessee book, Nick Dawidoff’s In The Country of Country. And 15 minutes later a woman sits down next to me just as the support act, Fayssoux McLean, is about to play and says, “Did you see Emmylou’s here?”

“Oh yes,” I say, all nonchalant. “I saw her earlier.” Because we all know Emmylou on a first-name basis here in Nashville. And when McLean, who looked like a worried soccer mom but who used to back Harris and Linda Ronstadt in the 70s, did perform, the songbird came on stage and did backing vocals on four numbers. Which made it all worthwhile, because neither McLean nor the main act, Peter Cooper, did as much for me as the raucous country bands playing standards for free in the bars on Broadway.

Cooper told us that it was exactly eight years since he’d moved to Nashville. It’s a tough town to impress, and I didn’t think the crowd really warmed to him. His voice sounded too smooth, and his songs awkwardly structured. If it hadn’t been for Lloyd Green on the pedal steel, I’d have ducked out early (Emmylou, wisely, didn’t stay after she’d done her bit for Fayssoux).

But on the encore a well-lived female singer came on to do backing vocals on a cover version (can’t recall what), and she sounded like Bonny Tyler after three packets of cigarettes. I wished she’d been singing all night. Songbird or song-bloke, you’ve either got country or you ain’t.

For me, it’s a case of ain’t. I never made it to the Nashville Star auditions yesterday due to a lingering hangover. I did get as far as taking the travel guitar out of my car and carrying it up to my hotel room, but I haven’t taken it out of its case yet. I’ll just have to come back next year.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Nashville, Day Two - When Music City Became Soccer City

Any sceptics who think that soccer will never catch on in the United States should have been at LP Field here last night, when 69,000 flag-wavin’, gun-totin’, neck-wobblin’ home fans shunned college basketball and cruising around town in a pickup truck to pack the stadium and fanatically cheer on the US Under-23 team. Traffic was blocked in the downtown district for hours as the patriotic homeboys celebrated sending Uncle Sam’s fledgling kickers off to Beijing in August to take on the might of the totalitarian Communist state in the 16-team Olympic tournament. If there’s one place where Tibetan independence will be achieved, it’s on the soccer field. Woeful Canada, destroyed by three goals to nil, could only complain that they hadn’t been allowed to play on their favoured surface of snow.

If you don’t believe the effect that soccer fever has had on Nashville these past two days, then here are just a handful of the song titles I’ve picked up while walking down the street and hanging around the bars:

I Saw You Cheatin’ On Me At The Guatemala-Honduras Game
God Is My Referee (And Jesus Is My Coach)
Daddy Couldn’t Buy Me A Ticket To The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament
That 4-5-1 Formation Left Me Lonely On The Bench Again
Hard Player, Soft Heart
Where Were You When My 10-Dollar Cleats Split At The Seam?
While I Was Playing Soccer, You Were Scoring Goals With Another Cowboy
Jesus Stopped Me Simulating
Honky-Tonk Full Back
It Ain’t Right Watching Chris Albright Without You At My Side
The Things We Used To Do Before You Met Freddy Adu

Speaking of Freddy Adu, I spotted the young US midfielder together with striker Jozy Altidore checking out the footwear in Boot Country on Broadway yesterday lunchtime, taking advantage of the shop’s offer of buy one pair of cowboy boots, get two free.

“Jozy and I have always had a bit of a country thing going in the locker room,” Adu said as he tried on a pair of tan Nocona Kangaroos with a medium round toe. “I’m more into the raw early mountain stuff and the post-war honky-tonk deal. Little Jimmy Dickens’ Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait) always reminds me of sitting on the bench at DC United hoping for playing time. And it’s a big comfort for me again at Benfica now.

“As for Jozy,” Adu confided as his team-mate went to the back of the store to try on a Montana Silversmith belt buckle, “he’s really into The Judds and Tammy Wynette. You know, that soapy commercial stuff from the 70s that sent Nashville’s reputation down the pan? He says Stand By Your Man is inspirational in helping him pick up his mark when he comes back to defend on corner kicks…”

Altidore returned at this point and there was an awkward silence, and the pair was last seen heading to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop where Adu planned to pick up a Merle Haggard boxed set. No one can deny that placing the Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament here has been a huge success on every conceivable level. Soccer City Nashville will never be the same again.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nashville, Day One

There’s a five-piece band on the tiny stage of the Full Moon Saloon on Broadway, meaning that there are more people in the band than there are in the audience. They seem to be playing power country. That’s not an actual genre, but on the ten-hour drive to Nashville I thought about a few things, and one of those things was that every band in the world should have its own unique category, even if it just means juggling around the concepts. Because southern soul gothabilly is a genre waiting to happen. To someone.

The lead singer is the kind of bloke you’d want stepping out of his pick-up truck to help you fix a flat tire when you’ve broken down on a rural road. He’s reassuringly country, with a deep voice and an approachable face. The pedal steel player is the youngest in the band, and leans moodily over his instrument – maybe it hurts to be good on pedal steel and only have four people come to watch (three of whom are clearly connected to the band, making me the only genuine, in-off-the-street punter). He looks like the quiet, surly kid brother a team-mate would bring along to make up the numbers on a Saturday afternoon. Then during the game he starts yelling at his team-mates and the referee, and gets sent off for fist-fighting an opponent.

“Cowboys add class to barroom brawls,” says a sign on the wall. Yet a lot of people in Nashville shun cowboy hats for the turned around baseball cap – that all-pervasive head accessory that doesn’t keep you warm, doesn’t keep you dry, but lends you the special demeanour of a human being whose brains have been shaken out of his ears. Our audience is trebled when several college students walk in donning this unique headwear, adding the sweat shirt with a college name in block capitals (UNIVERSITY OF STUPIDGRIN), baggy jeans, and a perpetually operated cell phone to take pictures of everyone with their arms around everyone else, holding bottles of beer. Yes, they bought bottles, even though Shiner Bock was on tap.

They swell the numbers, but ignore the band. A heavy gal in a top that’s showing me more than I want to know comes round with a bucket for tips, because there’s no cover charge in this joint. “Any requests, put them on the back of a hundred-dollar bill and we’ll see what we can do,” quips the singer. Their CD costs five dollars, but I have two dollar bills, so can decently avoid having to take it home.

On the bar is a flyer for Nashville Star, the televised open audition for the C&W version of American Idol. “One dream. One country. One Nashville Star.” I just have to show up with my travel guitar tomorrow between 10 and 6 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, the country and western theme park built on the edge of town. And I’ll need to write a country song in the next 24 hours. “I’m Britpop indie-country, actually,” I’ll explain to the judges. “This song’s about how I quit my job, but because there was no refund on the hotel I’d pre-paid to come to Nashville for the CONCACAF Olympic soccer qualifying tournament, I ended coming anyway to try and become a country star instead.”

That will have them weeping so hard they’ll forget to listen to the song and I’ll make the callback stage on the strength of hotel heartbreak alone. Before long I’ll be packing them in at the Full Moon Saloon and starting a classy brawl with anyone in a baseball cap drinking beer from a bottle.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sticker Sickness

When I was nine years old, I would occasionally be granted the massive privilege of a sleepover at the Harcourt Brothers (names changed to protect the virtues of a small town dynasty), who were as close as you could get to pre-pubescent hip in early 70s Lincolnshire. They were the first to get Chopper bikes, and they had rich half-sisters in Canada who’d send them money that they accrued in a savings account. We would regularly hear from the brothers how many hundreds of pounds they were racking up, with interest, and be scorned for suggesting that they might blow some of it on, say, a mass visit to Arthur’s Tuck Shop. They may not have actually used the words ‘retirement fund’, but they were definitely implied.

The Harcourt Brothers didn’t just collect money. Another benevolent relative would send them valuable coins which, they assured us, had never been touched by a human hand. These coins were locked away somewhere in case some non-believer in the importance of limited edition currencies took it upon themselves to slap a fingerprint on a virgin surface. A wise move, because I must admit that I would have been severely tempted. Meanwhile, we could see their stamp collections, but they had to be handled with extreme care, an earnest expression, and the odd declaration of spurious awe. But what I liked best of all among their hoarded treasures were the stickers.

Some of us find it hard to save money (we spend it), or collect stamps (rather than soak them off the envelope, dry them out, then carefully fix them in to a designated book, we chuck them out). Some of us also find it hard to see a sticker without peeling off the back and sticking it somewhere, as the inventors of stickers intended. ‘Stickers stick’ is the centric principle of stickerdom. Especially for a nine year old. But the Harcourt Brothers possessed the strength of character to resist that temptation. They coveted piles of unstuck stickers. They’d let me look through them, but although I begged pleeeeease, they wouldn’t let me have any spares. They weren’t a charity. These boys were investors in adhesive-backed futures.

Every year I went to the Lincolnshire Show and ran from tent to tent collecting free stickers. I didn’t care if they advertised tractor tires, pig feed or the benefits of five portions of potatoes a day - I’d grab them and run, and when I got home I stuck them down, mostly on to a cupboard in my bedroom, which was eventually covered entirely in stickers, with neither theme nor form. The idea of preserving them in a stack and keeping them for some unknown future purpose was as unthinkable as being given a tube of Smarties and being told to keep them until my fortieth birthday.

I was reminded of my free-sticking habits last week when reading ‘Swap Yer! The Wonderful World of Football Cards And Sticker Albums’ by Rob Jovanovic, a compact and delightfully pictorial history book that delivers on its title. It had me reaching for my still incomplete Panini sticker albums of the late 1970s. And the reason for their incompleteness? Instead of using my doubles for swaps, I would just stick them somewhere else. On my pencil case, on my cupboard (which started to acquire second and third layers), on my radio, on my school bag, or on any available surface that wouldn’t garner me a crack around the head for spoiling the paintwork.

I looked on EBay to work out the chances of getting the last eight stickers I need to complete my Football 78 album. It seems that the Harcourt Brothers weren’t the only hoarders. There are people who have been sitting on their swaps for 30 years, resisting for nigh on three decades the urge to peel the back off and stick them. This is of course good for my chances of eventually filling the Football 78 album, but a pitiful reflection on the characters of the EBay vendors. Upon discovering the items in an old shoe box they should have ripped off the backs and slapped them on to the nearest desk top or household item. That is, if they had been even half way human.

But no, like some seedy pornographer, they lined them up on a table side by side, took photographs of them, and then put them up for sale on the internet. And they didn’t even have John Hickton (Middlesbrough, Football 78 sticker number 258) or Irving Nattrass (Newcastle United, 265) for sale. Bloody sticker sickos. As Captain Beefheart would have told them - lick my decals off, baby.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Back To The Kitchen Of Obscurity

No doubt to the dismay of my multi-million readers, this blog’s been living a white lie for the past year. Its title gives the impression that I am a stay-at-home Dad who cooks, irons, shops and does the kids’ homework for them while they pretend to understand my (Queens of the) Stone Age method for calculating long division. But until last Friday I was something different – a stay-at-home journalist.

After an eleven year career break, I resumed the perennially dubious career of hackery-pokery, as editor of and contributor to a football website. The conditions suited me well – I could work from home, setting my own agenda, writing about something I think I’m supposed to love, tied to colleagues only by a Monday morning conference call, during the course of which I usually swept the floors while saying “yeah” and “uh-huh”.

However, in my zeal to make up for eleven years out of the business, I took it all too seriously and achieved burnout after just 13 months. Also, something got broken that couldn’t be fixed, and my previous professional verve evaporated overnight into a hollow existential void wherein echoed the question, “Exactly why the fuck am I writing a piece about the Colorado Rapids’ off-season signings?”

Some people have expressed surprise that I quit my job. That’s because they didn’t realise I’d gone back to work in the first place. When I told them I’d quit working, they assumed Frau Indie-Pop had thrown me out. “Were you so bad at the shopping?” Having to explain that I’d actually resumed my career and now I’d jacked it all in again somewhat blunted the impact of my dramatic decision to get back in slack.

Frau Indie-Pop was suspicious too. Was this going to be like my recent decision to retire from playing football that lasted exactly two weeks? On top of that were all the grand proclamations last year about how happy I was to be working again. Followed by all the declarations this weekend about how happy I am not to be working again. Given this time scale and my history of vacillating enthusiasms, I should be taking up a 90-hour-a-week CEO position at a top blue-chip company in around 24 hours (offers notwithstanding).

“My stepson’s worried because he’s 16 and he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life,” a friend told me on the phone today. How we laughed. Wait until he’s 42 and still hasn’t got a fucking clue. How could you ever trust someone who thinks they have a clue what they’re doing with their lives?

And another question, in counter-response to those who have asked me why I quit. Why not? Who in their right mind doesn’t want to quit working? Never mind walking the streets in your underpants barking quotes from Leviticus in Latvian dialect – the only true rule of an individual human’s insanity should be his or her willingness to stay in the job.

So it’s back to slouching around Safeways at a decent pace instead of muttering curses at pensioners standing in the middle of the aisle peering at the instructions on the soup cans as they try to work out if cream of broccoli will knacker up their intestines for a day. “Out the frikkin’ way,” I’d seethe before. “I’ve got to get back and check my e-mails to see who Real bastarding Salt Lake picked up in the waiver draft.”

Now it’s: “Cream of broccoli? One of my favourites too, sir. Beautiful out again, eh?” Which it is.