Friday, October 28, 2005

Pete Doherty

Catch A Falling Star. . .

Pete Doherty: on the edge
Nathan Yates & Pete Samson
John Blake

In an age when people are famous for being famous rather than actually doing something, there’s an pronounced tendency to tout the latest flavour of the month as a being genius. This is true of the rock press and even more so in the tabloids. It’s no surprise then that Yates and Simpson of The Daily Mirror should find Pete Doherty to be not only a genius but that most overused cliché, a troubled genius.

From this bottom of the Doherty barrel scraping, we can all agree he’s troubled but we see scant evidence of much else. We learn insightful gems such as Pete read voraciously, that he was prone to Byronic brooding and that Lady Caroline Lamb was the Kate Moss of her day.

Oh and he was a bit like William Blake because of his fondness for referring to England as Albion. Whereas Blake’s Albion was full of mythic archetypes involved in a titanic and allegorical struggle against orthodoxy, Doherty’s Albion is populated by Leonard Rossiter, Billy Liar, Tony Hancock and Sid James, i.e. not really the same at all.

Dodgy comparisons are tossed about like so many used syringes. Orwell, Dickinson (Emily not David), Wilde, de Sade and other literary heavyweights are frequently invoked although the authors never quite explain how Pete’s writing as opposed to his lifestyle, gives them a run for their money.

After wading through endless pages of tittle-tattle about his drug habit and sex life, one begins to empathise with Libertine Carl Barat’s decision to injure himself by repeatedly smashing his skull off a sink when forced to hole up with his ex-mate in order to write songs for the next album.

Music is not what this book is concerned with. The merits of The Libertines and Babyshambles are barely alluded to, reduced to walk-on parts in a stupefied trail from one score to another. Rather it revels in, and by implication applauds, Doherty’s appetite for self-harm. The boy who once spent time as a grave-digger has been steadily digging his own grave with the collusion of the music industry and their apologists in the media. If Pete were a bus driver, a doctor or a member of any profession dealing with the public, he would be compulsorily retired.

Reading this tosh brings it home how someone somewhere in the industry is probably itching to put together the Pete Doherty “best of” compilation. Posthumously of course. Then the hacks will really be able to go to town with the superlatives, adding “tragic” and “legend” to the already overlong list. I bet they can’t wait and if Doherty carries on like he is, then they won’t have too much longer to hang about with those cliché-ridden obits.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Inner Mounting Flame

Deeper by John Seabrook

I first read John Seabrook’s account of life online when it first came out in paperback in 1998. I was still pretty new to the web myself back then and Seabrook acted as a travel guide to this weird, often wonderful world and more often perplexing world. His account was couched in a homely, non-nerdy style that avoided any lofty digressions that would lose me in an undergrowth of footnotes and technical details.

His cleverness was to be able to view the subject with the eyes of an innocent, bringing a disarming naivety to sometimes difficult and complex questions such as ethics and implications of the web for the off-line world.

The chapter that really caught my imagination first time around and continues to resonate is My First Flame. This is his description of his first time of being abused online.

“I knew something bad had just happened to me, and I was waiting to find out what it would feel like. I felt cold. People whose bodies have been badly burned begin to shiver, and the flame seemed to put a chill in the center of my chest which I could feel spreading slowly outward. My shoulders began to shake. I got up and walked quickly to the soda machines for no good reason, then hurried back to my desk. There was the flame on my screen, the sound of it not dying away; it was flaming me all over again in the subjective eternity that is time in the on-line world.”

I suppose it’s the relative anonymity and almost no “real” comeback that makes them feel like they can badmouth people in ways that would never occur to them when out in day world. Online they get throw their weight around, show how witty they are with cutting remarks, quips and quick putdowns.

They get to be a big guy, a wise guy; in fact, and this is perhaps the nub of it, they get to be one of the guys. And make no mistake – this is a macho thing we’re talking about. Online testosterone makes up for the paucity of it in their real-life interactions.

Were they to try acting this way in the pub or supermarket or in any other public place they’d get their block knocked off. Of course it would never come to that; in the real world they’d merely fumble their words, blush a lot and most likely not have the balls to say anything at all in the first place.

One recent example of truly clueless online knee-jerk mentality I witnessed was someone criticising an album that they hadn’t even heard. Far enough to say that they don’t like the artist in question but to slag it off and attribute speculative motivations that lay behind the making of an album without ever having heard a single solitary note seemed to be spectacularly dumb.

Why might a person say such things? For effect? For a laugh? To get some discussion on the board? Perhaps they might regard such activities as challenging the orthodoxy of group thinking; an irreverent iconoclastic bent on upsetting the applecart to make life a bit more interesting? Who knows.

On the question of anonymity Seabrook makes this observation.

“Crucial aspects of your identity--age, sex, race, education, all of which would be revealed involuntarily in a face-to-face meeting and in most telephone conversations-do not come through the computer unless you choose to reveal them. Many people use handles for themselves instead of their real names, and a lot of people develop personae that go along with those handles. (When they get tired of a particular persona, they invent a new handle and begin again.). . .On the net, people are judged primarily not by who they are but by what they write.” (my emphasis)

That last point whilst applicable to all who use the net seems especially apt in relation to the post-now, think-later flamers. The truth is that kind of behaviour says more about the poster rather than the subject they’ve posted on. It reeks of someone desperately craving attention and who will go about getting it in any way they can. As the wise old saying goes "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Swinging Sixties And All That Jazz

Revolt Into Style by George Melly

George Melly is probably best known in this country as an aging jazz singer with a penchant for loud suits that could double as a pair of gaudy curtains in full sail. Whether as a satirical writer of Wally Fawkes’ satirical cartoon strip, Flook, art historian or author of the hilarious Owning Up series of autobiography, the lugubrious Melly has always brought an extra large personality to his work.

During the early 60s he began reviewing the trends in the emergent pop scene for the quality Sunday newspapers who wondered if their might be any cultural significance in this new fangled pop music. The domestic UK music scene was still a stodgy mixture of polite variety acts and clean-cut beat groups singing whatever Tin Pan Alley could palm off on the industry. As the aftershocks of Elvis Presley’s hip sway vibrated through an innately conservative post-war Britain, a shockingly fast transformation had been set in train.

No stranger to wiggling various parts of his anatomy on stage himself, Melly embraced the role of poacher turned gamekeeper, ideally placed to fire off dispatches from the fast-moving frontline of pop culture from those early buds to its resplendent bloom.

His descriptions of the London clubs in which the great and good were rubbing shoulders with the bad and the ugly reek of the stale cigarette smoke such is the first-hand, first rate nature of his prose.

He’s grappling with all the inherent contradictions and tensions of the era and understands he’s attempting to document something fickle, something that’s transient.

Whilst welcoming the pop arts and positing their impact on art and literature as well as music, he also recognises the difficulty of coming up with a precise definition of the movement; the zeitgeist is a slippery customer at the best of times.

Melly recognises though that the pop arts, at a particular juncture in the period, are in part the product of an increasingly educated and ambitious working class rather than from the usual arts hierarchy (i.e. the middle and upper classes). Effectively this means The Beatles.

Welcoming and approving of their transition from mop-top entertainers to cultural agent provocateurs, he sees past the electrifying novelty of Sgt. Peppers (which was new at the time of his writing) viewing it not so much as an indicator of the future of pop but rather a celebration of what had gone before, concluding “They display little enthusiasm for the way we live now”

If Melly is right, this surely explains their ability to traverse the generations in terms of popularity.

Dismissive of the psychedelic boom as something more to do with marketeers rather than “something in the air” as the propaganda put it, he applauds Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine for their attempts to cross the divide between the dance hall and the art gallery. The rise of the underground music scene predicated on the UK blues boom and the elasticity of American acid rock which in turn is rooted on authentic principles of musicianship and finesse is welcomed.

Even here though he detects the pervasive stain of fickleness and fashion “Here, as always, the old dilemma remains; to succeed you need a powerful individual image (gimmick is the less friendly word for it), and inevitably, with the passing of time, that image seems dated, ossified, out. In consequence the heroes come and go. Currently (August 1969) they include Jethro Tull, the Family and this month’s big deal, King Crimson; but in six months?”

Revolt Into Style: The Pop Arts In Britain, is an quick-witted eye-witness account of what was going on as it was happening without recourse to sentimentality or sensationalism. Throughout these pages, one senses that Melly had his sleeves rolled up and was getting stuck in. It’s this aspect that gives the book the frisson of authenticity that steers it clear from being a dry stand-offish academic survey that it could so easily have become.