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‘Too Much Junkie Business’ - Part 2

The above title is taken from a Johnny Thunders tune, a nice pun on a problem that has been in evidence in the rock/jazz milieu since the forties at least.  Will Self doesn’t cover music much in his books, mainly using song titles to situate the action in a particular time and place- he starts his 2012 stream-of-consciousness, crypto-modernistic slog of a novel, ‘Umbrella’ (it remains one of his best, imho), with a quote from The Kinks’ 1970 mini-hit ‘Apeman’. We could be fanciful here, and suggest that this might be an allusion to monkeys (on backs), given how drug culture loves to use indirect and suggestive meta-language. He describes  his own coming of substance-misuse age, during the punk and post-punk era (1977-81 approximately), an era that has its predecessors and successors, particularly in terms of heroin and other opiates (use of which Self implies to represent a kind of drug-taking masterclass).

It’s always been a seductive trope, the creative ‘smackogenic’ one. The punk/post-punk/industrial subculture of the time’s hero was always the Beat writer William Burroughs (along with non-addict J.G. Ballard), an opiate abuser of heroic stature for people like Self. Charlie Parker, one of jazz music’s unarguable ‘greats’ had a raging habit by 16 years of age. The fantastic Blue Note label has an unrivalled set of releases spanning the mid-fifties onward - a cursory study of its artists, featured on Reid Miles’s memorably hip record sleeves, reveals a group of junkie supremos. Art Blakey, Jackie McLean (an ironic name if there ever was), Hank Mobley, Sonny’s Clark and Rollins, Don Cherry,  Elvin Jones, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon. One of Eric Dolphy’s distinguishing features, apart from being a genius of the horn(s), was the fact that he wasn’t an addict (and never had been). Ditto the great Herbie Nichols. Many of our men here did get clean, but many didn’t, and died as addicts still (Clark, Mobley, the mostly-forgotten Tina Brooks). Even Thelonious Monk appears to have succumbed to smack’s siren song, so it forms an impressive list indeed, and it is little wonder why the upcoming rock generation of the sixties were also seduced by the very idea of opiate use.

All three of Cream’s members had affairs with heroin (Ginger Baker being famously influenced by arch-junkie Phil Seamen). Keith Richards, perhaps rock’s most celebrated addict, seems, ironically, to have only had a serious habit for a few years. More opaquely, good old John and Yoko seem to have been at it for a couple of years in the late sixties (’Cold Turkey’ being a bit of a giveaway). There were the founder members of the ‘27 Club’ (Brian Jones, Janis, Hendrix, Morrison), all dead within one year, with heroin as one of the secondary suspects. After these ‘smackies’ (hippie heroin users?), we had the advance force of proto-punks Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls (with Keef-besotted journo Nick Kent on typewriter?) ushering in the next wave. 

The influx of cheap heroin from Afghanistan and the middle east in the late seventies potentiated the availability of the drug for more ordinary people than the dilettante decadent Kings Road set that the Stones represented. Heroin hit the ‘estates’, in addition to the Second Estate. Hence the moral outrage of the time - Chelsea excesses (Burroughs lived there for a time, making use of the relatively lax contemporary British drug laws) were one thing, but the likes of Sid Vicious, Keith Levene and Malcolm Owen availing themselves of God’s own medicine? No way.

All this 1976/7 junkie business has been historically been ascribed to those Yank interlopers, Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, with Nancy Spungeon taking on the Yoko Ono role vis a vis The Sex Pistols (yes, I know it’s more complicated than that!). However, the scene that Will Self picked up at that time had already had an interesting history.

This blog will need a third, concluding part. There is more than I thought here, in terms of my responses to Will Self’s book.

Will Self - Too Much Junkie Business? Part One.

Despite considerable misgivings, I gave Will Self’s latest heroin memoire a read last week, and it made me think about the role of this particular opiate in rock and jazz music, as well as in literature,, over the years. It also gave me pause to consider how the drug still looms large in the consciousness of Self-types as somehow the acme of a presupposed ‘outsider’ status, one of the ultimate statements of separateness from the mainstream - don’t let anyone tell you that the spirit of Colin Wilson has been put to rest. Or that of Charlie Parker and all those who followed, at his wake and in his wake.

The overall impression that I have always had of Self is that he clearly wanted so badly to become a junkie as some sort of badge of honour (another example might be Pete Docherty perhaps?). In fact he, beyond parody, states early on in the book, which is entitled ‘Will’, that his path was to be one of three for this particular teenage Hampstead Garden Suburb tyro bohemian: the others were violent revolutionary politics (oh yeah, as if!) and exploring his gay identity (ditto). In fact, he chose the much easier option of macho, competitive drug taking, and the descriptions of his shenanigans over the next two hundred pages explore similar anecdotal material to that of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose (Self’s mate, the dire ‘Caius’, an entitled posh lout with a huge trust fund, is allegedly based on St. Aubyn himself). Like many middle class would-be risk-takers (who generally have some sort of access to an independent income), Self is fascinated with decadent aristos or near-aristos, just like The Rolling Stones et al, back in the Swinging Sixties. Comparisons to ‘Brideshead Revisited’ are inevitably injected into the text.

Probably the best chapter is the final one, where our junk-sick author finds himself in an exclusive private sanitarium (no mere NHS acute ward for our man!) for the wealthy and strung-out, paid for by his long-suffering mother, for whom Self reserves some of his most self-pitying prose. In a hilariously Oedipal section, he describes how traumatised he became by the former’s reference to having been ‘like a seal’ in the sack. And therein lies the problem, one might suppose. ”Her internalised voice eggs me on…” he complains on page 174, thus letting us know where he fairly and squarely lays the blame for his carefully acquired habit - the ‘smackogenic’ mother, anyone? (her analyst apparently managed to persuade her not to abort the embryonic Will). The entire book seems, to me, to be a continuation of Self’s need, even as an adult, to piss off his parents by adolescent unpleasantness, the marathon drug sessions presumably acting as an over-compensation for being crap at sports at his competitive north London state school? It is also an expression of an overall dislike of, and distaste for, people in general, who he seems to regard with a patronising air of superiority (hence his preference for Caius and other upper class Oxford Uni social X-rays)..Self has always claimed that only someone who has had a ‘fixing habit’ can call themselves a true junkie, This, and other such preposterous, junk-hierarchy, bon mots, accompany many other ‘how much, how often’ competitive  within the peacock posturings of the Drug Premier League. It really is so feeble. 

Will Self desperately wants to put himself up there with ‘Brother Bill’ (William Burroughs). On page 220, he pompously proposes the ridiculous on-the-nod notion that “Will’s dilemma is Brother Bill’s; the existential choice is between being and feeling - good, that is” . Burroughs had a cold, guiltless (gutless?) allure that Self entirely lacks, summed up in his first work, ‘Junky’, still the best literary primer on the subject. Self even finishes the last sentence of his book with a comparison to literature’s greatest addict, as a fellow homme invisible. There is little chance of Self making himself invisible on this topic, however - he has written yet another article, about this very book itself in fact, in this month’s ‘Prospect’ magazine.  Adding to this conceit, Self also sees as his peers: Aleister Crowley (a quote from ‘Diary of a Drug Fiend’ prefixes the book), Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Coleridge, and Hunter S, Thompson (the pteryodactyl reference on page 57 is a sort of ‘Fear and Loathing on the M4′). 

‘Will’ is another demonstration of the effect that narcotics have had on the sub-cultural mindset, an effect that is complicated, and which began to fully emerge in the forties with bebop. “There’s nothing remotely exciting about heroin addiction”, says Self on page 68, then proceeding to fill 390 pages with material that suggests the exact opposite, despite the author’s faux-confessional disclaimers. Let’s go back a bit, and look at what might have contributed to Self deciding on an initial career in scag, before opting into a second which has been spent largely describing  and pontificating on the first.

AMM, Parker/Lytton, ‘Treatise’ - the spirit of 1969?

I’ve had a grand old time over the past two weeks, attending four gigs that crossed the free jazz/improv/composition divide(s), and which served to remind me of similar boundaries that were being explored and transgressed fifty years ago. It’s wonderful to think that many of the masters of that time are still active today, and that their explorations continue to challenge and fascinate those of us who are predisposed to listen to this stuff.

It all started with a performance at the rather stuffy Purcell Room (at London’s South Bank) by Barry Guy’s Blue Shroud Band, on the sixteenth of November, playing their eponymous composition that ‘celebrates’ the shrouding of Picasso’s famous painting, ‘Guernica’, by Colin Powell, when he announced the invasion of Iraq at a United Nations summit. A monumentally hypocritical and cynical act, according to Guy. As with so much of the bassist’s large-group output, ‘The Blue Shroud’ is a mixture of composed music and improvisations by the various members of his twelve-piece band. Opinions will always vary regarding the advisability of combining jazz improvisation and large-group written material (apart from The Duke, obviously), and my companions were less sold than I was about the performance, but it sparked a vigorous discussion, which is never a bad thing. I’m not a great fan of the sprechstimme of Savina Yattanou, but there was much else to enjoy from this pan-European collection of spirited improvisers, across a one-hour set. Guy’s music is complex, and I did benefit undoubtedly from previous exposure to the composition.

Three days later, on the nineteenth, we experienced a vital ‘free jazz/improv’ date at Cafe Oto, featuring the French bassist Joelle Leandre, with her trio accompanists of Alexander Hawkins (now surely established as one of our greatest jazz-based pianists?) and veteran drummer Roger Turner. This was a predictably intense and rewarding trio, but Leande remains a fairly obscure name in this country, even though she has been playing in the free improv world for decades. Turner and Hawkins gave her magnificent support, and, as ever in these sorts of gigs, it was very difficult for we listeners to guess how much was pre-composed and how much was ‘instant composition’. As if it really mattered?

A few days later, I was back at Oto, on the twenty-sixth, for an encounter with the ‘classic’ AMM trio of Eddie Prevost and Keith Rowe (it has actually been suggested, by Rowe himself, that any AMM formation MUST feature both musicians for it to be AMM) and pianist John Tilbury - a rare event nowadays, given the ongoing fractious relationship of Rowe and Prevost.  This ‘true’ AMM played a separate set, and then performed a version of Cornelius Cardew’s graphic composition ‘Treatise’(which AMM have previously essayed) with the French (again!) duo Formanex. This gig really deserves a review by itself, but it’s safe to say that this form of ‘improvised music’ (the only proper way to describe it?) remains sui generis, and almost beyond criticism or description. And they are still going after nearly fifty five unlikely years!  Only The Queen has offered more dedication to the cause over so many years!

And to finish this run, we had the monthly Evan Parker residency at The Vortex. It’s still amazing to think that this ‘national treasure’ is still performing for a few quid on the last Thursday of every month at this most modest of venues (which is another ‘national treasure’, without doubt). On the twenty eighth of November, Parker presented us with a dream quartet of Alexander Hawkins (once again), hardy perennial bassist John Edwards (incredibly flexible and always inspirational), and, mirabile dictu, the great Paul Lytton, who first began sparring with Parker fifty years ago, in the long-lasting ‘Parker/Lytton’ duo (1969-1976). What with having seen the ‘laminar’ AMM, in tandem with the ‘atomistic’ music of former Spontaneous Music Ensemble member Parker, it did feel that we were (somewhat fancifully, it must be admitted) thrust back into the late-sixties ‘golden age’ of the ‘improv wars’ of that time, back when the music was entirely new and entirely controversial. The same challenges that faced the 1969 crew still continue to face modern practitioners, however - our obsession with categories and labels continue to distance ourselves from properly experiencing the music itself (free improvisation/free jazz/ post-improv/ free bop/ post bop, etc, etc). 

Me? I’ve decided that ‘improvised music’ just about nails it. And am so glad that this dialogue between great improvisers continues across various London gigs (and beyond, I am reliably informed).

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 17th. studio album - ‘Ghosteen’

This isn’t an album review; there are plenty of those already out there. I actually waited to get a hard copy of Ghosteen, even though it’s been. available on-line for over a month. As usual, I love product ‘packaging’, in this case the much discussed ‘kitschy’ cover and the enclosed lyric sheet. Cave and his Seeds seventeenth studio outing, taken along with their live and soundtrack material, on top of The Birthday Party and Grinderman, is one more contribution to one of the most significant bodies of work in the rock canon. So, I’d just like to make a short set of observations about Cave and his not-so-merry men.

The key discussion point, for me. is whether it is appropriate to  who demonstrated a kinship with the techniques of Tsplit The Bad Seeds into two periods of productivity; the Blixa Bargeld/Mick Harvey era, and that of the ‘Warren Ellis period’? Harvey, a multi-instrumentalist, and Bargeld, a guitarist who demonstrated a kinship with the techniques of The Birthday Party’s late Rowland S. Howard, formed an obvious linkage to Cave’s first band. Ellis was a veteran of the Aussie trio The Dirty Three, another multi-instrumentalist, specialising in violin and keyboards’ joined as a junior member of the Seeds in time for 1997′s The Boatman’s Call (which still gets my vote for their greatest work, 12 short songs of immense emotional concision and depth). By the time of Ghosteen, Ellis has become the band’s musical director-in-chief, all keyboard washes and choral backgrounds, church-like in their accompaniment to Cave’s songs of innocence and experience, loss and redemption.

These two proposed incarnations of The Bad Seeds are very different beasts indeed (only Thomas Wydler and Martin Casey remain from the pre-1997 period). It is interesting to follow on-line discussion between Cave obsessives as to the changes that the band has gone through since 1984 and From Her to Eternity. These changes have been gradual and organic. Bargeld left at the cusp of the millenium (the albums of this period, 2001′s No More Shall We Part and Noctorama from 2003 are, coincidentally, the band’s two weakest, imho). Harvey lasted till 2008 and Dig Lazurus Dig!!!, another rather ho-hum affair, which produced few memorable tracks. 2004′s double, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (comparable to Tom Waits’s contemporary pairing of Alice and Blood Money?), and 2013′s Push the Sky Away are The Bad Seeds 2.0 most outstanding records for me. None, however, approach The Boatman’s Call, 1996′s Let Love In (which seems to be the dedicated Cave fan’s overall fave, from what I can ascertain) or Tender Prey (1988), my own particular introductory portal into the band’s universe.

Without labouring the point, the death of Cave’s teenage son in 2015 was a caesura of incalculable importance for the music of his band, without even considering its effects on his lyrics. He doesn’t seem to have recorded an up-tempo composition since the tragedy, andante seeming to be the fastest pace that he can consider. As a consequence, both 2016′s Skeleton Tree and now Ghosteen might be emotionally consonant with Cave’s state of being and are albums of remarkably moving maturity, but as works of art they can both be recondite and rather  monolithic. Understandably, Cave’s previously healthy sense of irony and humour have been largely sublimated. The portrait of the naked woman on the cover of Push the Sky Away now appears to be both flippant and prelapsarian from today’s perspective. One can only attempt to empathise with Cave’s loss and Ghosteen is a devastating listen, but inevitably things can never be as they were in musical terms. We can only be grateful that Cave is still as creative as ever, especially as Tom Waits seems to have retired (Bad As Me came out as far back as 2011), the only other rock writer from their generation that can hold a candle up to the quantity and quality of the Australian’s output.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 17th. studio album - ‘Ghosteen’

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