Saturday, 2 December 2017

Afterwords

Afterwords from B4 films on Vimeo.
The connection between science fiction and (eerie) landscape is one that my colleague Bruce Bennett and I were keen to investigate when we were making Afterwords, a short film about a young woman traversing an empty, post-peak oil landscape. In particular, we use both visible signs of human presence in landscape, connected with energy infrastructure and networks: wind farms, pylons, power stations. The soundtrack we composed refers directly to modes of music identified with an electric modernity: Kraftwerk (another ‘power station’), analogue synths, glitches, electric white noise and hum. It’s not the kind of electronic distillation of the sound of folk horror and hauntology identified by Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher in the work of The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group and Belbury Poly, all on the Ghost Box label. Belbury Poly’s name, of course, refers to CS Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, a novel at the science fantasy/ planetary romance end of the ‘eerie landscape’ mode, which reads the ‘occupation’ of the English landscape by malign forces in an overtly theological (and Grail legend-inflected) mode.

We filmed part of Afterwords around the lake at Trawsfynydd, one of three that lie in sequence as you drive into the southern foothills of Snowdonia: Llyn Tegid (at Bala), Llyn Celyn, and then Trawsfynydd. Only one of these is natural, the first. The other two are valleys flooded at different points in the 20th century. There are several of these lakes dotted across the landscape of North and Mid-Wales. Llyn Celyn submerged a village, Capel Celyn, in the mid-1960s at the behest of the Corporation of Liverpool, displacing a village in the name of providing Liverpool with fresh water, for which the city council has subsequently apologised. This drowned village figures strongly in the contemporary cause of Welsh nationalism, and if you drive south from Aberystwyth into Ceredigion on the main coastal A-road, you pass a famous painted rock outcrop with the words ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn) which is re-painted on a regular basis.

Lake Trawsfynydd was flooded in the 1920s, and its water was used to power the hydro-electric plant at nearly Maentwrog. In 1965, however, the same year as the flooding of Llyn Celyn, a nuclear reactor came onstream there. The Trawsfynydd power station was designed by Basil Spence, best known for the Coventry Cathedral commission. The power station was constructed to sit in the landscape like other monumental (English) buildings that ring North Wales: the aforementioned Norman castles of Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech. Ironically, in attempting to historically ‘camouflage’ the building, Spence’s design recapitulates the symbols of English occupation and control of Welsh land. Most importantly of all, Trawsfynydd was a Magnox reactor. Magnox technology was an inefficient and dirty nuclear technology, and its most significant by-product was plutonium. This plutonium was used, of course, for nuclear warheads. There were two clusters of Magnox reactors in England, Wales and Scotland; one based around the Irish Sea, the other on the South West and South East Coasts of England. The Irish Sea stations were, from the North, clockwise: Hunterston A (Ayrshire); Chapelcross (Dumfries and Galloway); Calder Hall/ Windscale/ Sellafield (Cumbria); Trawsfynydd; Wylfa A (Anglesey). And in the South: three in Gloucersthire and Somerset, and Sizewell A (Suffolk), Bradwell A (Essex), and Dungeness A (Kent).

The most well-known of these, perhaps, is Dungeness, and this is through the connection to Derek Jarman, whose Prospect Cottage was on the headland and whose garden was the location for his 1990 film of the same name. Jarman is an important reference point for Afterwords. Our film was shot on Super 8, like Jarman’s early, experimental films. His Journey to Avebury (1971), with its evocation of the standing stones in that charged landscape, was something I had in mind when visiting Anglesey for a family holiday a couple of years ago. I particularly wanted to see the neolithic burial chambers that can be found on the island, but as it happened, we were staying not far from Cemaes Bay in the north of Anglesey. From the upstairs window of the cottage, you could see in the distance the massive square bulk of Wylfa A, which they decommissioned just a few weeks after we visited. Pylons carried cables in multiple lines away from the power station. Wylfa stood like a Modernist version of the standing stones, intruding on the skyline like Garner’s Jodrell Bank radio telescope: territorial, imposing, a sign of human domination of the environment and its resources.


This, then, is part of the narrative of Afterwords, the use of Wales by England, the extraction of its resources, the impositions on its landscape by castles and lakes and power stations. The networks of communications – road, rail, canal, dykes, power lines – are inextricably bound up with this historical process of extraction. Far from being an isolated and neglected adjunct to England, North Wales is in fact an integral part of a modern, capitalist, infrastructure network, whose resources are extracted and distributed along those networks. But if anything goes wrong with one of the power stations – well, it’s still a long way from London.

Many thanks to James Riley and Evie Salmon of The Alchemical Landsxape project for hosting a showing of this film this week.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Fantastika (and After)

Having returned home from this year's Fantastika conference, organised by my (now former) PhD student Chuckie Palmer-Patel, I feel tired but invigorated by the papers and talks I heard, and also much heartened by the supportiveness and engagement in evidence among those new to the conference and those who (like me) returned for its fourth year. That's been the mode of the Fantastika conference from its inception some four years ago, and the community that Chuckie has helped build up at Lancaster and elsewhere, where scholars of science fiction, fantasy, Gothic and the Weird can come together and talk across and between different modes in a fruitful conversation.

This year's conference, for me, has also been coloured by a kind of wistfulness as Chuckie is leaving the UK and returning to Canada, to Edmonton in Alberta. Chuckie's always been a source of great energy and purpose since she arrived at Lancaster. Chuckie's vim and vigour meant I always had a lot to read, to guide and suggest things, and sometimes to help edit down, but it was her way of dropping in at other times, outside of the schedule of supervisions, that I will remember - she would often come in and stand in the midst of my (rather cell-like) office space and we'd talk about what was going on.

This morning I checked the corrections of another of my supervises, Freyja, who also finished her doctorate at the end of last year. I was particularly struck by what she wrote about my having confidence in her project even during the times when, for her, this had been lost. Partly, I think, that is what being  a PhD supervisor is all about.

The word often used for young adults leaving the parental home is 'fledging', and helping supervisees to fly is often the way I feel about the process. I'm a flying instructor, allowing the person (as well as the scholar) the time and space to find their own way, providing help and guidance as they take their first leaps into the air, then suggesting adjustments to their technique, and then at last, watching proudly as they fly around on their own, calling encouragement. Very often, their aerobatic abilities exceed my own.

As Chuckie goes back to Canada, she leaves the legacy of Fantastika behind, and we'll try to carry on: in some form, After Fantastika. Alongside the conference, she has also edited and published the Fantastika Journal, which has just come out, and I'm proud to say that I'm in the inaugural issue. Hopefully, she will go on to do many more.

The scholarly community studying across the field of Fantastika modes remains strong at Lancaster. Colleagues such as Catherine Spooner and Taj Hayer gave fascinating lectures at this year's conference, and on the creative side of things, Lancaster is the home to a group of writers that work in sf/f including Eddie Robson, who spoke about working in tv and radio and writing science fictional work. Others colleagues such as Andrew Tate and Sara Wasson also work in these fields, and have supported the Fantastika community. Thanks to everyone!

Several of my present and future postgraduate students presented and attended the conference, whose work I'll support and guide as they take their own leaps into flight, which I look forward to. It's an amazing privilege to be able to do this part of my job, and part of the thrill of seeing them fly is getting to know where they land. And finding out what they do when they get there.


Saturday, 1 April 2017

Post(card)s to Morecambe

A few years ago now, I attended an event in and about Morecambe, and later wrote a blog post about it. Next week I'll be going again for a related gathering of colleagues called Sandscapes, and in thinking about it I looked through past work to see how often I'd looked at the sea, seaside or the beach in my own work. It appeared more often than I thought.

I grew up by the sea, if one calls Estuary Essex the seaside: Leigh-on-Sea, Westcliff-on-Sea and Southend-on-Sea certainly think they do. The water is certainly briny, the expanse of water broad, the air full of the tang of salt. True, you can see the North Kent coast, or the Isle of Sheppey, on a good clear day. It's not the wide Atlantic, nor yet the cold North Sea where my forebears fished for oysters, up the Essex coast at Tollesbury; but I do feel like I have salt water in my veins, and though I now live in the Welsh hills and mountains, the sea always calls me away from the uplands.

Here, then, a four postcards which correspond to my recurrent visits to the beach and the sea in my own work. They are interleaved with 2 related musical connections.

Brighton beach I (UK)


Following the Morecambe event, I gave a paper at a conference on The Who's Quadrophenia and the 1979 film of the album. This was a great event and has led to a collection of essays, which will be out soon, to which I'm proud to have contributed. I presented a paper on the scooter and Mod masculinity, and concentrated partly on the image on the back of the Quadrophenia album, in which a scooter lays half-submerged in the sea. If 'the beach is a place where a man can feel/ he's the only soul in the world that's real', the beach is also a place of possible dissolution, of disappearance from the world. (One of the songs on the album is called 'Drowned'.) As a look at the videos I have assembled in a playlist below will show, this is a common theme in thinking about the beach and the sea. It's a place of escape, even of refuge from the everyday world; but it's also place of danger, a place where the land (and life) ends.




Brighton beach II (Melbourne)


I have, like many British people, family connections to Australia. My aunt, uncle and cousins live in Perth, WA; and back in the early 1960s, my Granddad planned to take the family to Adelaide as 'ten pound Poms' on the emigration scheme then in existence, but my Nan backed out at the last minute. I taught Australian cinema many years ago, in my first academic job, and I've subsequently written a couple of things on Australian themes, both of which feature the beach and the sea. The first was on Nevil Shute's On The Beach, a post-apocalyptic novel in which the residents of the Southern Hemisphere await the radioactive fallout from a terminal nuclear war in the global North, in a slow decline into death. The second, more recent, was on Alan Garner's novel Strandloper and can be found shortly in the Fantastika journal. This is a 1997 novel which focuses on a Cheshire man who is transported to Australia and, escaping from his shackles, is saved from death by the local indigenous peoples and enters the Dreamtime as 'Murrangurk'. Eventually, more settlers arrive and the man returns to Cheshire, to find all has changed; he takes it all as a part of the path of life. An extraordinary novel, it describes, in essence, the destruction of Aboriginal life through colonialism. 'Strandloper' is referred to in the text as a 'estuarine Plover', a bird, but its derivation also comes from Afrikaans, meaning the Namibian bushmen of the Skeleton Coast who, like many Australian indigenous peoples, did not survive long the arrival of representatives of the global North.

The Terminal Beach I (Ballard)


I've long been fascinated by the writing of JG Ballard and have written about him many times. In a collection on Ballard's work, I contributed a chapter on Ballard's short stories and his early novels of the 1960s. Ballard's third novel, The Drought (aka The Burning World) is one of his four symbolic apocalypses that constitute an early fiction sequence. (The other elements are wind, water and crystal.) In a scene from The Drought, where a thin film of polymer has covered the oceans and has prevented evaporation, leading to massive climate change, survivors live in a small community on a beach. The protagonist becomes a kind of 'water herder', sweeping small runnels of water along the hard strand to be collected and desalinated. This appears like an image of labour at the end of time: attempting to sweep and contain the uncontainable. A short story from the year before, 'The Terminal Beach', is one of the most important items in Ballard's oeuvre. It begins the period of his formal experimentation which comes to a peak with The Atrocity Exhibition (1969). It is set on Eniwetok Island, among the concrete blocks of the nuclear testing ground in the Pacific, where nuclear powers flexed their Imperial control over spaces in the global South through atmospheric testing of atomic and nuclear weapons. (As I wrote about in relation to On The Beach, the British had also done this on the Australian mainland, displacing many Aboriginal tribes in the process.) This 'terminal beach' becomes a symbolic site of dislocation and alienation for the Ballardian protagonist, prey to the algebras of power and violence of the Cold War world.

Recently, my friend Bruce discovered a cassette- and digital-only music label which releases albums by electronic artists, creating new soundtracks inspired by obscure films. Here is the first of two we have recently collected, 'Anja & the Memory People' by The Asistent, which was inspired by a Czech sf film. The other, inspired by French film noir, can be found here.



The Terminal Beach II (Wells)

The final connection is to a book I have taught regularly and refer to all the time; I'm fascinated by time machines and time travel and I'm doing some writing about it at the moment. HG Wells's The Time Machine was the subject of one of my earliest posts on this blog. Towards the end of the novel, in the section called the 'Further Vision', the Traveller arrives on a far-future beach with a large red sun hanging low in the sky. Though he has travelled far in time, in space he has travelled hardly at all: this terminal beach now occupies the space of the London suburbs he calls home in 1895. While he is there, he spots the remnants of life on Earth, a distant descendent of human beings, a tentacled football-shaped thing that 'hops fitfully about' on the beach. (He refrains from having a kickabout.) This presents Wells's rather bleak view of human 'progress' under the mechanism of evolution; there is little room for hubris here. What strikes me here is that the Traveller ends up, on the outskirts of London, staring out from a flat beach. It is almost as though he has used a different kind of late Victorian 'time machine', the train, and has gone on a day-trip to Southend. In a much later sf novel, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect find themselves on a strange vision of Southend Pier (after escaping from the Vogon spaceship). They realise something's wrong when they notice that the water stays still while the pier comes in and out like the tide.

The beach, in all four of the calling cards, is a place of endings and beginnings, a place between the land and the sea. It is a place of movement and migration, but also a place of stillness, of contemplation. One stares out to sea, like the Time Traveller, or one walks along the stones like Jimmy from Quadrophenia, thinking about his future. It is located in space but also fluid, changing, shifting its ground all the time. For writing, for the imagination, it is a place of possibility.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

A rich man in a poor man's shirt (Springsteen part 2)

In 1984, Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA, which broke him as a major star in Britain. I’ve never been a particular fan of the title song, nor of ‘Dancing in the Dark’, and the latter seemed to anticipate a wider shift in the charts to an American pop and AOR that I had no love for. Two of my formative music shows of the early 1980s, The Tube and Whistle Test, both eclectic and with regular live performances, were soon to be cancelled, the latter in favour of a horrid Jonathan King confection called No Limits, full of pap. I remember hearing people on the radio who had been to Springsteen’s live shows and were wowed, but the rhetoric of ‘the Boss’ put me off. That is, until I heard ‘I’m on Fire’ on Top of the Pops, when it showed a couple of minutes of the video as it became a minor hit. And I thought: this is subtle, especially compared to the bombast of ‘Born in the USA’; I liked the dark persona, the spare instrumentation of ticking rim- shots and picked guitar. And I thought: I’m going to have to reconsider Springsteen if he’s capable of this.

My friend Ed, throughout the mid- to late-1980s, embarked on a series of compilation tapes that largely reflecting his love of 1970s hard rock and metal, but there was also a strong thread of Americana, particularly in his love for Tom Petty. Ed bought the Springsteen Live 1975-85 box set, and quite a few songs made it onto the tapes, which were played incessantly in another friend’s Ford Cortina. He also bought Tunnel of Love, and we went to see Springsteen at Villa Park when we were both at university. I enjoyed it, but thought the stage set and the patter with Clarence Clemons a bit cornball, to be honest. In retrospect, not having much of a grasp on Springsteen’s back catalogue was also a bit of a handicap for a three-hour concert. And so, yes, enjoyable, but it wasn’t what I was really into. And then Springsteen didn’t release another album for five years.

Human Touch, one of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, is considered to be one of Springsteen’s worst albums, if not the worst. Reviews I’ve read cite its inconsequentiality, and compare it unfavourably to the higher-rated Lucky Town.  But I’ve always quite liked it. It’s got one of my favourite tracks, ‘With Every Wish’, on it; the title track is good; and while there are some slightly run-of-the-mill tracks, it’s fine. But, critics say, there’s a song about television, for goodness’ sake! ’57 Channels’ is cited as a sign of the failure of inspiration, and a marker of the throwaway nature of the album. And yes, it’s light-hearted, but the way he sings ‘I bought a bourgeois house in Hollywood hills/ with a trunk load of thousand dollar bills’, as ‘boo-jwah’, is kind of self-reflexive, a moment of revelation: Springsteen and Patty Scialfa had just moved to LA, and he was well aware of the accusations against him. These charges (‘what do you have in your defence, son?’) are to do with Springsteen’s blue-collar persona, the worst thing that can be said of someone invested in a politics of authenticity: that he’s a sell-out.

Springsteen knew it. On ‘Better Days’, the first track on Lucky Town, he sings 

a life of leisure
and a pirate’s treasure
don’t make much for tragedy 
It's a sad man, my friend, 
who's living in his own skin 
and can't stand the company

and the both this and the line ‘a rich man in a poor man’s shirt’ is a kind of self-indictment. (Springsteen quotes both lines in his autobiography.) But, of course, Springsteen is a rich man: the question is, what do you sing about once you’re a superstar celebrity? The rock catalogue is littered with albums by artists who write about the trappings of fame because there's nothing else left to write about. Neither Human Touch nor Lucky Town finds the answer, but it’s not surprising that Springsteen had broken up the E Street band in the late 1980s, had largely made these albums and Tunnel of Love without them. By the 1992 albums, he’s searching for something to sing about, and a style in which to perform. He wouldn’t begin to find an answer until The Ghost of Tom Joad, where he recuperates the musical tradition of political dissent: folk music. (What would become The Seeger Sessions were begun a little bit after.)  Springsteen has said the 1992 albums were not popular because they were ‘happy’, but I see them as deeply anxious works, Springsteen fretting that he had indeed sold out.

All of which is in deep contrast to the album that precedes them, Tunnel of Love.  This is my favourite Springsteen album of all (and the last to be sequenced with ‘sides’, before the dominance of the cd), full of wonderful songs and, of course, a rather heartbreaking thread of melancholic reflection on broken relationships. This is an album that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and that makes me cry: when Janey takes her baby son to the riverside, thinking to lay him in and ‘let the river roll on’, before she ‘lifted him up and carried him home’,  on ‘Spare Parts’; on ‘Cautious Man’,  when Bill Horton ‘woke from a terrible dream, calling his wife’s name/  she lay breathing beside him in a peaceful sleep, a thousand miles away’; or in ‘Walk like a Man’, which begins ‘I remember how rough your hand felt in mine/ on my wedding day’, where it’s the feelings of sons for fathers, loving but ambivalent feelings, coloured by sense of loss or not matching up to one’s sense of oneself, that is crucial. (He is much more explicit about this in the autobiography.) 

On ‘One Step Up’, he sings: ‘when I look at myself I don’t see/ the man I wanted to be’, and that sense of disappointment with oneself, that somewhere the persona ‘slipped off track’, is a keynote for the album as a whole. It’s also a marker for where Springsteen was in his career: with huge albums and huge tours behind him, a global superstar mis-quoted by his own President (the autobiography is pretty scathing about Reagan’s nods toward ‘Born in the USA’), he’s deeply troubled and unhappy. In a sense, Springsteen ‘slips off track’ for about 10 years. Taking off again is no solution; like Bill Horton, when he gets to the highway, ‘he didn't find nothing but road’.

Despite my continued lack of enthusiasm for the two big hits from Born in the USA, the rest of that album reflects a more sadly romantic, sometimes melancholic, outlook than one might suspect from its popular reception in the mid-80s. ‘Downbound Train’ is another track that makes the hair stand on my neck, for similar reasons to the Tunnel of Love material: it’s about loss, and hopelessness, and little lives. This is typical of the Springsteen mode, of course, prior to Born in the USA, particularly on albums such as Darkness At The Edge Of Town (1978). In some ways, it’s the dance-band arrangements of the Born in the USA tracks – some, like the title song, originally worked out on acoustic guitar in the manner of Nebraska (1982) – that give it its energetic, even optimistic sheen, one that runs counter to the melancholy of some of the lyrics.

The difference between the sparseness of Tunnel of Love or Devils and Dust (2005) and the widescreen, E Street band arrangements of Born in the USA or The Rising (2002) is stark.  Much as The Rising is an excellent album, rousing and anthemic, I tend to prefer the subtlety and quietness of the solo albums (although many feature regular band members in small roles, of course). Devils and Dust, for instance, a parched Western album, finds Springsteen in a rather twangy, country voice, and on ‘Reno’ sings sexually explicit lyrics that will be out of place on a more mainstream, rock album.

I sometimes feel that there is a conservatism about the E Street arrangements which can, at worst, give the albums somewhat over-familiar feel, and reveals (rather than helps to mask) any deficiencies in the songwriting. Magic (2007), for instance, is very much like The Rising in tone: ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’, the most anthemic pop track on Magic, reprises The Rising’s memorable melodies and singalong dynamics, but with a sunnier outlook than that of the post-9/11 ‘uplift’ album. 

Since Springsteen reconvened the E Street Band for The Rising, it does sometimes feel as though he’s going over well-travelled ground. This might have something to do with how he records these days, too: he lays down tracks while touring, rather than spending weeks or months holed up (as with The River) getting a particular and different sound. The E Street Band are, of course, a marvellous live proposition – check out the extemporised covers they do on YouTube – but latterly, Springsteen’s albums are both a bit homogenous in sound (you can't really tell what album a track might be from, the way you can with Darkness or The River or Born in the USA) and lack in coherence and consistency as an album, a set of songs. When Tom Morello comes aboard for High Hopes (2014), this gives the guitar work a different sound and style, but the overall arrangements aren't that different to what came before. In a sense, Springsteen is where he was before he broke up the band; but now he’s in his 60s, and more comfortable with what the E Street Band provide.

Working on a Dream (2009) is a diagnostic text for my sense of Springsteen’s career ever since Born in USA: the mastery of Heartland Americana, of big rock dynamics, remains in tension with a desire or need to do different, to find another style, another voice. This speaks to restlessness that I find quite attractive and winning, and is something that Springsteen returns to again and again in his autobiography. If Human Touch is accounted Springsteen’s worst album, for me, Working On A Dream is a bigger failure; I didn’t listen to it much when I first got it, and having giving it a few plays more recently I first thought that the vocal tracks were sometimes ill-matched with the music, and though this feeling has faded a bit, the diversity of styles make it difficult to get a handle on. Thinking about it, Working On A Dream works best as Springsteen’s homage to the 1960s: ‘My Lucky Day’ is British- invasion beat combo stuff; ‘Good Eye’ is heavy psychedelic blues; ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (note the title!) is Dylan sings Glen Campbell; ‘Surprise, Surprise’ pure 60s pop. The arrangements are lush with a surprising use of strings and notes to Brian Wilson vocal harmonies. But it tends to end up as pastiche, a kind of musical tourism. He returns here to the old to find something new, and it doesn't quite work.

Springsteen hasn’t settled for remaking Born in the USA over and over, as he could have done, even in the later albums with the E Street Band (Wrecking Ball is probably my favourite of those). Just has he has become more vocal about economic injustice and class politics (as well as blue-collar lives), what the autobiography reveals is a deliberate turning away from interiority and domesticity towards the social and communal. For an individualist ‘born to run’ like Springsteen, who presents himself as someone in need of being in control, in need of the road and the new challenge, but who has drawn a tight-knit ‘family’ of musicians around himself, the tensions are self-evident. ‘I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it’, he sang on ‘Glory Days’, ‘but I probably will’.  Not yet - and for that I’m grateful, and I admire him for it.


Black and White

I’ll start this post with Roy Orbison, though it isn't really about him. On 30 September 1987, along with contemporary luminaries Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, kd lang, Bonnie Raitt, and Elvis’s TCB Band, Orbison gave a concert to a select crowd of celebrity fans and well-wishers at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles. It would be broadcast early in the new year as Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, and it was indeed shot in black and white. I remember it well, not least because my Dad was quite a fan of the ‘Big O’ and I’m pretty sure I would have watched the concert with my folks when it was broadcast in the UK, when I was home from university. Most of the songs are now on YouTube and look, and sound, wonderful, Orbison’s voice at age 51 as powerful and smooth as in his prime. And what a prime that was: from 1961 to 1965 he had hit after hit after hit in the UK and the US, culminating in ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, his most famous number, which spent 18 weeks on the UK chart, sold over a million singles in the US and was a global hit. It was also pretty much his last; with the growing dominance of beat groups, Orbison’s star waned rapidly and by the 1970s he could hardly sell a record. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, with A Black and White Night, and his involvement in the Travelling Wilburys (and a Jeff Lynne-produced album, Mystery Girl that posthumously hit no.2 on the UK album charts and no.5 in the US in 1989) that his career was belatedly revived.

Watching A Black and White Night now, it’s interesting to see how such a seemingly shy, unimposing figure as Orbison completely dominates the proceedings. Cutways to Springsteen often see him noodling fitfully on his guitar or gazing awe-struck at Orbison’s singing; only on ‘Dream Baby’ and ‘Pretty Woman’ does he come forward to share the stage. Costello is similarly limited to strumming a jumbo acoustic, though he’s given a harmonica-solo spot in one song. The year before, with pretty much the same TCB band, Costello had cut King of America (for me, his most enduring album); in 1987, Springsteen had eschewed the E Street Band to release Tunnel of Love, and on the front of that album, Springsteen himself is in black and white: black jacket and trousers, white shirt and bootlace tie, his hair brushed back in something like a quiff, anticipating the late 50s/ early 60s look and feel of A Black and White Night. While Costello had styled himself as ‘L.H.C’ (the ‘Little Hands of Concrete’, so-named because he broke lots of strings while thrashing away at his guitar) on King of America, Springsteen is a very gifted guitarist himself and duels with James Burton on an extended ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’. His self-deprecation is rather located in his awareness of the limitations of his voice (in stark contrast to that of Orbison): in his recent autobiography, Born to Run, Springsteen notes that he never had that much of a pure voice, he was more of a shouter, but what he did have was durability: he could sing for three hours a night, every night.

I went back to A Black and White Night because I’d just finished Springsteen’s book, and last year I’d read Costello’s Unfaithful Music and Invisible Ink which, I’m afraid, sealed a rather negative deal: I’d fallen out of love with Costello’s music in the preceding years and the persona he presented in the book I didn't like much either. The covers of both books are also in black and white. On Born to Run, a photo by Frank Stefanko, possibbly from the session that produced the Darkness on the Edge of Town cover in 1978 (and that of The River in 1980), with Bruce propped up against a muscle car on a wintry suburban street; on Unfaithful Music, Costello laying on a hotel bed, also around 1978, his Fender Jaguar wired up to a portable Vox amp, one arm cocked behind his head. Both images present a kind of restlessness, the male singer/guitarist still but coiled in energy, brain whirring, expression blank. And both books present a pretty unvarnished picture of a largely unpleasant masculinity: selfish, sexist, aggressive, surrounded by fellow fucked-up males, who blow off steam in a variety of morally dubious ways. Such is rock and roll, at least in the 70s, I guess. But in lots of ways the books are quite different. As I read Unfaithful Music, I began to feel that Costello’s (post-)punk ‘rebelliousness’ masked a deep longing for acceptance and validation by not only his peers, but also established older musicians who were highly successful in their own areas. So Costello wrote and played with McCartney in the late 80s; then with Burt Bacharach; then with Allan Toussaint; and with Tony Bennett. In the back half of the book I got a bit bored with the name-dropping, having got a bit bored with his self-presentation beforehand: ‘when I was cruel’ (the name of a later album) seemed to be the theme of his personal relations, from wives and girlfriends to band members to journalists. This leads to the most notorious moment in Costello’s career, which dominates the entire book (though he dismisses it, having said that he apologised for it ad nauseum before and anyway, he was drunk and fucked-up): when he called Ray Charles an offensively racist word.

Now, I don't think Costello has to apologise once again for this incident. He’s done so many times and I can only imagine that he feels genuine remorse and horror at its recollection. In fact, his 1980 album, Get Happy!!!, can be seen as a soul/ r’n’b tribute album from songs to packaging (and I love it: it’s one of his best) that is a musical mea culpa. But what you don't get in Unfaithful Music is the question I wanted him to ask himself, the question I’d ask if anyone I knew (or God forbid, myself) said such a horrendous thing: why, if you’re a good man, if you’re not racist (and his works suggest that he isn't), if you’re ‘not like that’, why would you say it? I’ve been drunk and angry many times but have never said something like that. Why did he? Being drunk, or provoked, or ‘cruel’, isn't really enough of an answer. And that, for me, left a gaping hole in the middle of the book. In the end, it seemed that Costello couldn't really look that moment in the face.

Springsteen doesn't spare himself, but he has no such moment to answer. There is his divorce from Julia Phillips in the late 1980s, of course, and his relationship with Patty Scialfa which dominates Tunnel of Love (and which makes it my favourite album of his, in all its lovely melancholy and hurt): Springsteen is pretty scathing about his behaviour, though unapologetic about falling in love with Scialfa (a marriage that endures). In fact, he’s pretty scathing about himself throughout, a result, one might think, of his later recourse to therapy. (That’s much more present, I think, in some of his responses to Marc Maron in the recent long interview.) It’s also a result of his relationship to his Dad, the other dominant theme of Tunnel of Love, a difficult man and father who was later diagnosed with mental illness. Springsteen also suffers from depression, and lost a number of years in his early 60s – just a few years ago – to the illness; he’s forthright about that, and about his struggles with his ambivalent feelings towards his father.

But where Costello’s immersion in, and love for, black music is mediated through this unhealed wound, for Springsteen ‘rock and soul’ is precisely the raison d’ĂȘtre of his music and the E Street Band. That’s why Clarence Clemons, the ‘Big Man’, looms so large in the book, literally, and his loss (and part-replacement in the ‘family’ by nephew Jake) is a moment of necessary coming to terms in the book, for Springsteen and the band as old fellas who rock. Right at the end of the story, when they’re thinking about who might replace the Big Man on tour, Springsteen chats about it with his friend and sparring partner Steve van Zandt (Little Steven). ‘Steve on Jake: “He’s black. He plays the saxophone. His name is Clemons. He’s the guy! He’s the only guy!” Steve dismissed the other candidates as … white’. The racial politics of the E Street Band are central throughout: Springsteen thought, he knew, they had to have an African-American man at the core of the band. (It’s Clemons and Springsteen, of course, on the iconic cover of Born to Run, the 1975 breakthrough album.) While Springsteen is only too aware that most of his audience was and remains white – he mentions towards the end that, playing for Obama, the predominance of black faces in the audience was for him an unusual and thrilling development – he is concerned to assert that without black music, without soul and blues and r’n’b and even pop, there would be no Springsteen, and no E Street Band.


So: A Black and White Night, recorded in 1987, the year Springsteen needed to move away from the band and record with other musicians; he wouldn't release another E Street Band album until 2002’s The Rising, another kind of reckoning. And watching it again, even though they’re playing Orbison’s songs, which were produced out of doo-wop and rock’n’roll and r’n’b and Elvis Presley (rather than Elvis Costello, though they do play one of his compositions, ‘The Comedians’), all suffused with black music, the performers are white. Tom Waits, kd lang, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis’s TCB Band, Jackson Browne, Costello, Springsteen, Orbison: a black and white night indeed.

Popular Posts