Shakespeare – The Winter’s Tale Sunday, Apr 12 2009 

I’m not very keen on plays as a general rule, but how can you say no to Shakespeare? It’s hard to beat watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Lear in the summer of 2005 – in Stratford-on-Avon no less – even if I did have to leave 10 minutes before the end in order to catch the last train out. That wasn’t quite sufficient to justify the extravagant ticket price when Lear with Ian McKellen came down to Singapore a couple of years ago, but I decided I shouldn’t miss the relatively more affordable Winter’s Tale by The Bridge Project.

I haven’t read much of Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale included, but I’ve taken it to heart that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be watched by a mass audience, not read by literature buffs or boffins. Anyway, anything with Ethan Hawke has to be relatively accessible, right? I didn’t know much else about this production, except that it received rave reviews in New York where it opened, which was enough for me.

We arrived only just on time at the Esplanade, with no time to grab a programme and not much more to prepare the mental palate. And being woefully out of practice in rapid-fire Elizabethan English, I literally did not catch anything of the first five minutes. Luckily, I got into it subsequently and followed most of the rest.

This production was agreeably surprising in several respects. While making use of a few familiar Shakespeare devices, the plot was interesting and altogether very effective. Having shed buckets of tears prior to the intermission, I was expecting pretty much the same kind of tone in the second half, only to be assailed by (early 17th-century) populist comedy and a good deal of laughs, before a goosebump-inducing denouement. No wonder this play has been described (in the press) as having an unwieldy structure – but the direction of Sam Mendes (otherwise known as Kate Winslet’s husband) got around it admirably. I liked the use of British accents for the citizens of Sicilia and American for Bohemia – a practical decision, too, given the transatlantic nature of Bridge Project. Then I was blown away by the standout performance of Rebecca Hall amid a uniformly excellent (and, for Shakespeare, restrained) cast: her Queen Hermione was utterly admirable where she could easily have come across as strident. I was delighted to recognize Dakin Matthews in a sizable role – I’ve always enjoyed his appearances as Headmaster Charleston on Gilmore girls. The sets and costumes were elegant and beautiful (rather than minimalist or deliberately rough), the lighting was very intelligent. And our seats were upgraded (no doubt due to the recession-hit attendance) to a fairly good vantage point.

To top it all off, I learned from the programme that the Old Vic theatre in London is the other of the twin homes of The Bridge Project, which brought on a nice wave of nostalgia because I used to stay just behind the Old Vic. Didn’t manage to watch anything at the Old Vic while I was there, although I recall Kevin Spacey was already there at that point (in Henry III I think); he must really have taken to it since he’s now the artistic director.

Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed this superb production, and am relieved that my brain hasn’t quite gone to mush since I started work. This was sort of a warm-up after a long hiatus from so-called intellectual pursuits – as part of my resolution not to waste too much time on mindless activities this year, I’m embarking on a major book-reading, film-watching, music-listening spree…

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An Introductory Microeconomics Rap Sunday, Feb 22 2009 

I’m not quite sure what this falls under – poetry? music? But as an economics graduate, it gave me a giggle. ‘Think margin, think margin’!

Thanks to the Freakonomics blog for reproducing Dan Hamermesh’s summary to his introductory microeconomics class at the University of Texas.

It’s all about the Law of Supply and Demand,
Prices are set by the Invisible Hand.

A floor that’s put on your product’s price
Is something the consumer will find not nice.

If you raise your price when demand’s elastic,
Your revenue will drop and you’ll go ballistic.

Get the same extra utiles for each extra dollar,
The maximum utility is sure to follow.

Produce where price equals marginal cost
If you don’t you’ll find that your profits are lost.

Always think about cost, opportunity,
If not, you’ll find you’re hurting your community.

Think margin, think margin.

Monopolists set MR to marginal cost
The result is that consumer surplus is lost

Make sure your strategies are subgame perfect
Plan your strategic interactions without any defect.

Tax the inelastic, or you’ll be hurtin’
Because you’ve created a large excess burden.

With positive externalities it’s always wise,
To encourage more production — subsidize.

A tariff or a quota helps a few producers,
But consumers will always be the big losers.

Sometimes you gotta choose efficiency or fairness,
Ya need more than econs, ya need political awareness.

Think margin, think margin.

The Clash – Combat Rock Sunday, Jun 8 2008 

I feel a little guilty writing up Combat Rock when I haven’t yet listened hard to all of its songs, because the Clash always deserve the benefit of the doubt and certainly earned the right to a thoughtful listening. But just a little. Simply put, Combat Rock isn’t up to the same standards as the Clash’s first three records (viz. the UK version of The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and London Calling). At twelve songs, it is at least more concise and therefore more manageable than their fourth (the originally six-sided Sandinista!) – but still packs too much of the unremarkable.

Still, the Clash’s 1982 effort is by no means a bad record. In fact, it boasts at least a couple of darn good, fun songs and at least half of the rest is pretty decent. Top two on my list are ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and ‘Rock the Casbah’. The former is not a typical Clash song, if you think of such a creature as boasting intelligent and/or lyrics; in fact, the lyrics are as stoopid as they come. Sample verse:

Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

The brilliance of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ is in the music and the performance. Its appeal is thoroughly visceral: Mick Jones whoops his way through the song, accompanied by heavily fuzzed bass line and guitar riffs and resounding drum beats, and backing vocals by Joe Strummer in Ecuadorian Spanish, just for fun. The simplest of tunes with the simplest of sentiments, but it WORKS, and apparently to great effect when Levi’s used the song to advertise jeans a decade later, causing it to belatedly shoot up the charts. (Or so Wikipedia tells me; Combat Rock was released in the year before I was born and I was nine when ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ enjoyed its renaissance.)

‘Rock the Casbah’ is a hilarious political fantasy and more in the Clash’s usual mould. But the tune and instrumentation are, unusually, written by drummer Topper Headon rather than Mick Jones, and consequently rather new-wave-dance-floor-friendly. Legend has it that, in response to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision to ban rock music in Iran, Strummer wrote a song imagining the people’s defiance of the ban. But he peppered it with a mish-mash of cultural references from all over the Middle East and North Africa to eliminate the specificity and gleefully hollered his way through it.

Now the king told the boogie-men
‘You have to let that raga drop’
The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top

By order of the prophet
We ban that boogie sound
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound
But the Bedouin they brought out the electric camel drum
The local guitar picker got his guitar picking thumb
As soon as the sharif cleared the square
They began to wail

The king called up his jet fighters
He said ‘You better earn your pay
Drop your bombs between the minarets
Down the Casbah way’
As soon as the sharif was chauffeured out of there
The jet pilots tuned to the cockpit radio blare
As soon as the sharif was out of their hair
The jet pilots wailed…

Sharif don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah

(He thinks it’s not kosher!)

Of course, in horrifyingly typical fashion, conservatives latched on to that one line ‘Drop your bombs between the minarets’ and practically christened ‘Rock the Casbah’ soundtrack to the 1990s Gulf war. Never mind the Clash’s hopes for the peoples of the Middle East to be united by rock music, as depicted on the single cover. Just look at the Arab and the Hasidic Jew boogie-ing together and see if you can help smiling. Almost three decades on, it still isn’t much more than fantasy…

While I was very amused by the mix of cultural references in ‘Rock the Casbah’, the mix-up in ‘Straight to Hell’ actually irked me at first, perhaps because this one is meant to be serious. I applaud Strummer’s concern for the plight of the ‘Amerasian’ babies of the Vietnam War who were abandoned by their soldier fathers when they returned to the US – but the only Asian culture in which ‘san’ is used as an honorific is Japanese. Oh, I suppose I’m picking nits, but for me, the error detracts from Strummer’s otherwise sophisticated rendering of immigrant hopes and dilemmas in several different contexts.

Wanna join in a chorus
Of the Amerasian blues?
When it’s Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
Kiddie say ‘Papa Papa Papa Papa Papa -san take me home’
See me got photo photo photograph of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Lemme tell ya ‘bout your blood, bamboo kid:
It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice

Straight to hell, boys
Go straight to hell, boys
Oh Papa-san
Please take me home
Oh Papa-san
Everybody they wanna go home
So Mamma-san says

Can you cough it up loud and strong?
The immigrants
They wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier
Any hemisphere
No man’s land
There ain’t no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived round here

The music of ‘Straight to Hell’ pulses with an insistent slow drum beat, guitar strokes and mournful, siren-like, Oriental-sounding violin melody. It’s merely memorable here, but was sampled cleverly, and to stunningly gorgeous effect, by M.I.A. in the song ‘Paper Planes’ off her recent album Kala. To be honest, it was ‘Paper Planes’ – which, aptly enough, also dealt with the travails of with immigration – that made me give ‘Straight to Hell’ another chance. It’s still not my favourite, but the general consensus is that it’s one of the Clash’s major songs.

So… depending on who you are, Combat Rock has either two or three classic songs. Maybe not enough to make a classic record, but when the good songs are so good, still a worthy record.

Lily Allen – Alright, Still Sunday, Jun 8 2008 

The two things I tend to like in popular music can be summed up thus: (1) musical aesthetics and (2) lyrical content. (On the other hand, my attraction to classical music is solely aesthetic.) My very favourite bands, such as The Clash, are rich in both aspects, but most of the popular music I’m fond of tend to perform relatively more strongly in one aspect than the other.

Lily Allen’s record Alright, Still is among the latter, with the emphasis falling on the aesthetics. Its very best tracks combine stellar tunes, pretty harmonies, the irresistible guitar/percussive skank of ska, and little touches of instrumentation (horns, piano) that testify to Allen’s song-writing chops. I am also very partial to the juxtaposition of her rather sweet singing voice with her refreshingly down-to-earth London accent – not the posh southern ‘BBC’ accent foreigners might be more familiar with, but rather the common, man-in-the-street one complete with glottal T’s.

Not that Alright, Still is empty of lyrical content. If you interpret Allen’s songs as autobiographical, then she appears to be a relatively average twenty-something with the usual preoccupations, viz. love and its end, though with a few exceptions. What makes these entertaining is the tone: this is not a girl who minces her words (nor censors her profanities), and her attitudes are bold and her observations wryly funny. I know ‘Smile’ was the smash-hit charts-wise (and I do enjoy her blithe rejoicing in her ex’s misfortunes) but the knock-out is ‘Knock ‘Em Out’. It is rather well-acted, with Allen serving as both narrator and as shameless girl, and appropriate interjections from the hapless object of her attentions:

Cut to the pub on a lad’s night out
Man at the bar ‘cause it was his shout
Clocks this bird and she looked okay
She caught him looking and walked his way:
‘Alright darling, you gonna buy us a drink then?’
‘…Er no, but I was thinking about buying one for your friend…’

She’s got no taste, hand on his waist
Tries to pull away but her lips’ on his face
‘If you insist I’ll have a white wine spritzer!’
‘Sorry love, but you ain’t a pretty picture.’
(‘Er sorry, yeah, I’m butting out.’)

And then there are the standouts that focus on more unusual subjects. ‘LDN’ cheerfully peels the romantic epidermis from London to reveal a rather less appealing side, and acknowledges that ‘that’s city life’:

Riding through the city on my bike all day
‘Cause the filth took away my license
It doesn’t get me down and I feel okay
‘Cause the sights that I’m seeing are priceless
Everything seems to look as it should
But I wonder what goes on behind doors
A fella looking dapper, and he’s sittin’ with a slapper
Then I see it’s a pimp and his crack whore

There was a little old lady who was walking down the road
She was struggling with bags from Tesco
There were people from the city having lunch in the park
I believe that it’s called al fresco
When a kid came along to offer a hand
But before she had time to accept it
Hits her over the head, doesn’t care if she’s dead
‘Cause he’s got all her jewellery and wallet

‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’ gets a bit more personal. I can’t quite decide if she’s being bitterly sarcastic or just resigned.

Why can’t I sleep at night?
Don’t say it’s gonna be alright
I wanna be able to eat spaghetti bolognaise
And not feel bad about it for days and days and days
All the magazines they talk about weight loss
If I buy those jeans I can look like Kate Moss
I know it’s not the life that I chose
But I guess that’s the way that things go

Oh yes, I’m fine
Everything’s just wonderful
I’m having the time of my life

I doubt that Alright, Still will be one of the (few) enduring classics that I return to repeatedly. But it’s a good diversion and very enjoyable.

On the humanities Saturday, Apr 5 2008 

So I decided to retitle this blog. The original ‘Music, Books, Film, &c’ had the advantage of being upfront and descriptive of its contents but on the downside was a little literal and lackadaisical since I am very bad at thinking up pithy or memorable titles for anything (essays and papers included). Can you tell that I like alliteration?

Anyhow, ‘Jolly Good Stuff in the Fine Arts’ fits the bill quite well for a blog that (currently) includes posts of praise on art, film, literature and music, if what we’re going for is a title that describes the contents. (One should not underestimate the importance of titles befitting their contents.) The travel portion is a little tricky but it does offer insight into (the rest of) this world and the people in it, much like the fine arts. I always do feel that, by imbibing good books, good music, good film/television, and good art, one can become more learned and yet more humble simultaneously.

Though I’ve had a lifelong appreciation of the fine arts, I studied science subjects all the way through my Singapore education (although I did 4 years of history and English literature during secondary school) and am tremendously thankful that I decided to make a switch to the social sciences in university. Luckily the University College of Oxford decided that this biology/chemistry/physics/mathematics student was worth taking a chance on, and accepted me to study 3 years of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. I am absolutely a better person for it and I think many others would have a similar benefit as well. They don’t call ’em the humanities subjects for nothing.

Apropos of this, here are some thoughts from someone who would evidently agree with me, Professor David W. Oxtoby, president of Pomona College in the USA. Excerpts from his speech last week to the National University of Singapore faculty, reproduced in The Straits Times:

A liberal arts education at its deepest aims to teach students the skills they need to function effectively in a democracy.
A devastating critique of society and education by the 19th century sociologist Max Weber is relevant here. ‘In a modern state, the actual ruler is necessarily and unavoidably the bureaucracy,’ he said, ‘since power is exercised… through the routines of administration.’ Even more harshly, Weber said: ‘The world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs…’
Weber argued that education needed to focus not just on the training of specialized experts to sustain a bureaucracy, but also on the education of statesmen who can change that bureaucracy. In this regard, he held out the goal of educating the ‘cultivated man’ who can stand outside of a bureaucratic structure, critique it and transform it. This, to me, is the central purpose of liberal education.
… we must recognize that we are not only educating our students to move into professions; we are also preparing citizens who can help the world make wise decisions. Education for responsible citizens needs to be a core goal. As technical challenges influence our daily lives more each year, everyone needs a more advanced understanding of the scientific method, and the quantitative meaning of probability and uncertainty. As we become more globally inter-connected, every college graduate needs to understand not only economics and politics, but also religion and culture.

London lessons Thursday, Apr 3 2008 

I studied in London for a year but spent much of that time doing, er, studying. I can’t say that I’ve properly experienced the city as a true Londoner. Oh, I’ve done the usual tourist suspects – Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Hampton Court, &c. But apart from occasional visits to Leicester Square for food/gatherings, I’d never really taken advantage of the unique, simple pleasures that living in London offers. Dropped into a random church just out of curiosity, say; or spent a weekend exploring the British National Museum. It was only great good luck that enabled me to revisit London on two work-related occasions in the past 6 months. And this time, with the help of my York-born but London-living friend, I had a few successes in my quest to stop experiencing London as a tourist and learnt a few things along the way.

interior of the victoria & albert museum

1. Visits to (free) art galleries are like balm for the soul. My fourth trip to the National Gallery reminded me of the beauty of Sassoferrato’s work and the genius of Michelangelo and da Vinci. My maiden one to the Tate Britain confirmed that I can love modern art, key criteria being (a) ‘if it makes sense’ (as my dear friend pithily observed); (b) if it is aesthetically appealing. It also exposed me to the gorgeous works of John Piper and reaffirmed my fondness for the pre-Raphaelites. The Victoria and Albert Museum is also delightful, with its exhibits ranging from cartoons by Raphael to Islamic art, fashion, furniture, and E. H. Shepard’s original Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations.

2. A good classical concert can literally give one chills. I attended a ridiculously affordable concert (my seat with restricted views cost nine quid) by the extremely competent Vasari Singers held at the lovely (undergoing-restoration) St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the baritone solos in Fauré’s Requiem literally raised goosebumps on my neck. I had no idea quite how famous the Vasari Singers are until I Googled them. This concert triggered a spell of massive re-listening to all my classical favourites, including J S Bach, Mozart and of course Fauré.

interior of st stephen walbrook

3. I’m not a Christian, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a church service held in London. (Funny thing is, I can’t say the same for the church services I have attended in Singapore.) It so happened that when I entered the interestingly round church of St Stephen Walbrook – designed by Sir Christopher Wren – there was a service going on. Quite befittingly, the service ended with a quietly beautiful three-part mass by de Victoria, sung a cappella by an alto, tenor and bass. The whole experience was clean and elegant – not unlike the church itself.

hampstead heath

4. It’s lovely to have easily accessible parks to pop into fresh out of a tube station. There’s the Hyde, the Regent’s, and of course, the (Hampstead) Heath. It was winter and the trees were skeletal, but the green alone was pretty and peaceable. In a similar vein, London gardens can be jolly nice – I envy the English their varieties of native plants.

charing cross tube station

5. The London Underground, despite frequent delays, suspensions, surprise closures and tonnes of stairs, is really an excellent way to get around because of the density of the stations, especially in central London. What the Tube doesn’t adequately cover, the buses make up for, which is a great credit to the city’s public transportation system. (Love Ian Bostridge too – where else would you find an advertisement for one of his concerts?)

hampstead village

6. And yet the great thing about London is that you can have a rather fulfilling everyday life without walking further than 20 minutes from your home. The ‘village’ concept is still in force; you can generally find a good array of shops, food places offering varied cuisines, Starbucks, your local bank, the parish church, and even a cinema. I watched the excellent ‘Michael Clayton’ at the Swiss Cottage Odeon on a Saturday evening and it was lovely to be able to walk home discussing it.

Driving in Mumbai Sunday, Mar 30 2008 

The thing about travelling overseas on business trips is that, unless you expressly take time out to properly immerse yourself in the place, you’ll tend to experience it at a distance. Through a glass, as it were. This was literally the case on my January trip to Mumbai in India, where much of what I saw was through the windows of various taxis en-route to meetings. But even one step removed, so much of what I experienced was endearing and fascinating.

I particularly enjoyed the painted entreaties on all goods vehicles’ bumpers requesting overtaking vehicles to (sound the) ‘Horn OK Please’, all of which were lovingly done up with flourishes and bright colours. Of course, in Mumbai, one hardly needs to be told to sound the horn: the horn is the communication instrument of choice on the roads. Most vehicles’ direction signals don’t work (or simply aren’t used). Plump grandmothers unhurriedly cross main roads with no pedestrian crossing in sight, willy nilly, in full confidence (justified) that vehicles will give way. Drivers who miss their turning execute ridiculous manoeuvres and drive against the direction of the traffic to get to the right place. There is the occasional buffalo-drawn cart that makes a too-wide circle while turning.

And yet, despite the chaos, and the constant chorus of horns, not once did I witness a single accident. Mumbai drivers are unbelievably skilled and surprisingly considerate of other road users. Four (small) cars abreast will happily share a three-lane road. If your taxi driver is lost, he will pull up beside a rank of taxis idling by the road and get directions from the waiting drivers, all of whom will take an interest in the problem. In the face of the constant interruptions (plump grandmothers et al), drivers are philosophical and simply give way to those who need it. It is truly a joy to observe.

We had one afternoon for sightseeing and by great good luck got into a hotel taxi driven by Dipen. He had attended university for a few years but had to drop out mid-way (he didn’t say why), and he had an impressive command of English, which he continued to hone by watching the Discovery channel at home. He explained to us a rather cryptic banner we saw outside the Mumbai Stock Exchange that seemed to be advertising a movie being made within the building. It seems that the banner was actually a sarcastic criticism of the Indian Finance Minister’s failure to prevent the dramatic falls in the stock market in the preceding fortnight. He impressed upon us that India was like a state composed of 42 different countries, all with their own culture and language. He brought us to the Dhoby Ghaut, or laundry area – which, unlike the Singapore equivalent, is still functioning. He explained the intricacies of the taxi company system and confessed his ambition to one day own his own taxi company. And despite being as good as a tour guide, driving us to all the main city sights, giving potted histories for us ignoramuses and even helping us to take photos, he did not demand a large fare at the end (hotel taxis are not metered) but humbly suggested that we pay him whatever extra we deemed appropriate.

In spite of the crumbling and discoloured buildings, the evident poverty, the pollution and the littered streets, the overwhelming impressions and memories I have of Mumbai are of the vivid busy-ness and life of the city and its inhabitants. Everyone we saw was dressed in such bright colours, walking, chatting, or laughing with others, staring curiously at our Chinese faces, congregating around the Gateway to India which was erected to welcome Queen Victoria in from the Bay of Bengal. People seemed to derive joy from simple pleasures like enjoying popsicles of dubious sanitary standard bought on the street, or even getting themselves weighed.

I don’t know if traveling in India really broadened my mind all that much (as travel is purported to do). I promptly forgot almost everything Dipen imparted to me, save the fact that Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is named after an Indian historical figure. But if there can be such a thing, I feel like I have a broader idea of the range of human experience.

Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous Sunday, Feb 10 2008 

I fell for Rilo Kiley when I heard More Adventurous – a record that comprising a wonderful mix of musical styles, lyrical subjects and emotional tones; by turns dramatic, passionate, musing, amused. It isn’t perfect, but just about everything is catchy, aesthetically gorgeous, tuneful, richly and carefully detailed, and lyrically interesting, so that it gets even better with repeat listens. I dropped it for a while and recently returned fairly obsessively to it, amidst renewed appreciation for Rilo Kiley’s newest album Under the Blacklight… but that’s another blog entry for another day.

Lead guitarist Blake Sennett is due tremendous credit for the lovely guitar-playing – including all sorts of beautiful effects, whether crunching electric riffs, folkish acoustic, shimmering picking, legato phrases, layered lead lines, rhythmic plucking, harpsichord-like tinkling. Then there is Jason Boesel’s light, intuitively agile, warm and superbly detailed drumming. And of course, Jenny Lewis’ remarkable voice: a clean, bright, warm mezzo-soprano, capable of shading from sweet to ferocious; delicate to strong; spare to full-blown and back again… But the main strength of More Adventurous is the amazing songwriting.

I was rather surprised to recognise ‘I Never’ – which I’d first encountered in the film Must Love Dogs – since I’d never (haha) knowingly heard Rilo Kiley before. It was used quite appropriately in the film: Diane Lane’s character haplessly falls for a charming cad to Jenny Lewis’s confession that ‘I’m only a woman/ Of flesh and bone’. (Yes, I’ve watched this film quite a few times – it’s got John Cusack in it.) This is a seemingly straightforward soul number, complete with big voice, organ chords, strings and even a male chorus going ‘ah-ooh’; but with structural and lyrical tricks. Jenny declares – no less than 50 times – that

I never … loved somebody

The way that I loved you.

And what a triumphant declaration it is, followed as it is by a dramatic coda of electric riffs that sweep you along to the song’s conclusion.

‘Does He Love You?’ was the next song to strike me: an indelible, emotionally-wrought adultery song, with a musical and lyrical narrative twist of the knife at the end. Lewis’ envy of her friend’s perfect marriage suddenly becomes entirely too personal:

Late at night, I get the phone

You’re at the shop sobbin’ all alone

Your confession is coming out

You only married him, you felt your time was running out

But now you love him, and your baby

At last you are complete

But he’s distant and you found him on the phone pleading

Saying ‘Baby I love you and I’ll leave her and I’m comin’ out to California’

Let’s not forget ourselves, good friend

I am flawed if I’m not free

And your husband will never leave you

He will never leave you for me

In quite a different vein is ‘Portions for Foxes’, where Lewis sweetly and blithely admits ‘Baby, I’m bad news/I’m just bad news, bad news, bad news’. The song is a veritable showcase for various guitar tricks. Swirling bell-like notes alternate with drum-led crunching chords, mandolin-like vibrato, percussive plucking, and pulsing legato harmonies… The lyrics are solidly pessimistic, but are sung with an endearing air of cheerful unrepentance:

I know I’m alone if I’m with or without you

But just being around you offers me another form of relief

When the loneliness leads to bad dreams

And the bad dreams lead me to calling you

And I call you and say… ‘C’mere!’

‘It’s a Hit’ was Robert Christgau’s Song of the Year for 2004. Not hard to see why: it is smart, verbose, reflective, political, philosophical, and… funny. To a catchy tune and cheery instrumental accompaniments (including Christmas-time type jingling bells), Lewis observes wryly that

Any chimp can play human for a day

Use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform

And run for office on election day

Fancy himself a real decision maker

And deploy more troops than salt in a shaker

But it’s a jungle when war is made

And you’ll panic and throw your own shit at the enemy

The camera pulls back to reveal your true identity

Look, it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing

A smoking gun-holding ape

[…]

Any fool can play executioner for a day

And say with fingers pointed in both directions ‘He went that-away’

It’s only a switch or syringe, ah-huh

Exempt from eternal sins

But you still wear a cross

And you think you’re gonna get in

Ah, but the pardons never come from upstairs

They’re always a moment too late

But it’s entertainment, keep the crowd on their toes

It’s justice, we’re safe

It’s not a hit, it’s a holiday

Shoo-bop shoo-bop, my baby

The title tune describes one girl’s breathtakingly total and complete submission to love, set to a sweet country melody, with beautifully tuneful steel guitar and harmonica. Would that we were all as brave and articulate and witty.

I read, with every broken heart

We should become more adventurous

And if you banish me from your profits

And if I get banished from the kingdom up above

I’d sacrifice money and heaven all for love

Let me be loved, let me be loved

[…]

And maybe ours is the cause of all mankind:

Get loved, make more, try to stay alive.

‘Table for One’ (Liz Phair) Sunday, Jan 13 2008 

Robert Christgau has been getting a lot of flak on the Rolling Stone website for his reviews of (what he deems) ho-hum or poor albums. Most readers’ criticisms centre on the dense, (in Singlish) ‘cheem’ nature of his writing, essentially a complaint that the review is difficult to understand. Well, that brings to mind a Terry Pratchett quote on the problems he has had with American publishers, captured for posterity in The Annotated Pratchett Files:

That seems to point up a significant difference between Europeans and Americans.

A European says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with me?’ An American says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with him?’

I make no suggestion that one side or other is right, but observation over many years leads me to believe it is true.

More difficult to dismiss is the criticism that Christgau’s negative reviews are just, well, off-the-mark – that he has somehow missed the genius at work, mistaken brilliant music for terrible music, &c. For whatever reason, however, I find almost all of his reviews spot on. A sample of negative reviews of artists I like reveal quite clearly that careful listening has gone into that particular album review. The great thing is that he will (for ‘Honorable Mention’ and ‘Choice Cut’ reviews) identify the one or two excellent songs on an otherwise dull record.

Liz Phair’s 2005 album Somebody’s Miracle received one such (B-plus, which is actually not too bad) review.

In pop, when the production’s solid and the voice a little less so, the songs had better be on the money (“Got My Own Thing,” “Table for One”)

And this is precisely the case. Somebody’s Miracle is not very remarkable save ‘Got My Own Thing’ and ‘Table for One’ – the two songs I find myself returning to, especially the latter. A simple but lovely melody, gorgeous classical Spanish-style picked acoustic lines, and a vivid, sweetly-sung account of alcoholism:

It’s morning and I pour myself coffee

I drink it till the kitchen stops shaking

I’m backing out of the driveway and into creation

And the loving spirit that follows me

Watching helplessly, will always forgive me

Oh, I want to die alone

With my sympathy beside me

I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me

Feasting gleefully

On my desperation

I delight in Ms Phair’s lyrical tricks, and many they are, too, like this mid-sentence switch of (grammatical) subject:

I hide all the bottles in places / they find

And confront me with pain in their eyes

And I promise that I’ll make some changes

‘Both Sides Now’ (Joni Mitchell) Saturday, Jan 5 2008 

I am inordinately fond of the quietly pretty performance of ‘Both Sides Now’ found on Joni Mitchell’s 1974 live album Miles of Aisles. The song structure is simple enough, with a memorable melody repeated through 3 verses (no chorus); it is the lyrics that are remarkable.

They start out merely poetic, but then become surprisingly pointed and even downright declarative: describing ‘both sides’ of clouds, love, and life – and concluding quite firmly that she doesn’t know any of them at all.

Her thoughts on life:

Tears and fears and feeling proud

To say to someone ‘I love you’ right out loud

Dreams and schemes and circus crowds

I’ve looked at life that way, sometimes I still do

Now old friends are acting strange

They shake their heads, and they tell me that I’ve changed (Yes, I have)

Something’s lost, but something’s gained

In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From up and down, and give and take

From win and lose and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions that I recall

Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle Sunday, May 27 2007 

During this long hiatus, engendered by huge work events, I have listened to any amount of music and comforted myself by re-reading favourite Terry Pratchetts on the weekends. But the mere thought of writing about them was too draining, till today. The impetus: a wonderful novel by the enchanting albeit obscure title of I Capture the Castle, the first novel of one Dodie (short for Dorothy) Smith, more famously known for children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmations. But I had picked up I Capture the Castle not because of the Dalmations connection (of which I was unaware).

In June of 2003, while on my (Singapore Airlines) flight back home after my first year in Oxford, I casually picked an in-flight movie – you guessed it – I Capture the Castle. That was one of the most delightful, quietly funny, subtle, intelligent, and evocative films I’d seen in ages, with all the gorgeousness of writing and cinematography associated with the English period (specifically 1930s) film. More importantly, it had real depth and warmth, and somehow managed to leave me with an intense feeling of nostalgia – for what, I’m still not quite sure. I subsequently acquired both the DVD and the original novel that the film was based on.

The cast of I Capture the Castle was astounding, but I’d never seen or heard of any of them before. Most striking were the luminous and phenomenal lead actress Romola Garai, who plays the intelligent young girl and sharply observant narrator/writer Cassandra Mortmain; character actor Bill Nighy as Cassandra’s (ex-?)genius of a writer-father whose persistent inability to turn out any successor to his well-received first novel has landed the family in deep but genteel poverty; and Australian actress Rose Byrne as Cassandra’s elder sister, Rose, who as the beauty of the family is determined to marry well and pull them all out of their poverty. The Mortmain family is rounded off by geekily clever younger brother Thomas; Stephen the family ‘hired boy’; and kind-hearted, kooky, self-consciously arty nude model and stepmother Topaz.

Now, this might sound like a bit of an English eccentricity-overload, especially when the film opens with Topaz running out of the family’s crumbling castle-home – they have it on 40-year lease from the owner – to ‘commune with nature’ on a rainy night. Naked, naturally. This eccentricity shows up quite strongly, especially in contrast with the American characters – brothers Simon and Neil Cotton, the owners to the castle who come to England to see it after inheriting it, and cause quite a stirring up in the Mortmains’ lives. But all the characters are genuine in spite of their quirks, their motivations and passions are real and relatable, and their story is absorbing and told not just with pathos but also well-leavened with that rarity, a great sense of humour. The film does a fine job of translating seemingly untranslatable tones and moods onto the screen; all credit to director Tim Fywell. But no film can ever be quite as good as one’s own imagination while reading the novel.

This scene wasn’t in the film, so my imagination of it is original. Miss Marcy, the village librarian, has come by the castle to drop off some detective books for Mr. Mortmain and be a little bit of a well-meaning kaypoh, helping to conduct an ‘Enquiry into the Finances of the Mortmain Family’. Mr. Mortmain has just come into the room in the middle of the enquiry. As recorded in Cassandra’s journal (slightly edited for length):

‘Well, don’t let me interrupt the game,’ said Father. ‘What is it?’ And before I could think of any way of distracting him, he had leaned over Miss Marcy’s shoulder to look at the list in front of her. As it then stood, it read:

Earning Capacity for Present Year
Mrs Mortmain – nil.
Cassandra Mortmain – nil.
Thomas Mortmain – nil.
Rose Mortmain – nil.
Mr Mortmain – nil.
Stephen Colly – 25s. a week.

Father’s expression didn’t change as he read, he went on smiling; but I could feel something happening to him. When he had finished, he said quite lightly: ‘And is Stephen giving us his wages?’

‘I ought to pay for my board and lodging, Mr Mortmain, sir,’ said Stephen, ‘and for – for past favours; all the books you’ve lent me –’

‘I’m sure you’ll make a very good head of the family,’ said Father. Then he thanked Miss Marcy again for bringing him such a good book, and said good night to her very courteously.

Miss Marcy made no remark about the incident, which shows what a tactful person she is; but she looked embarrassed and said she must be getting along. I went out to see her off. As we crossed the courtyard, she glanced up at the gatehouse window and asked if I thought Father would be offended if she brought him a little tin of biscuits to keep there. I said I didn’t think any food could give offence in our house and she said: ‘Oh, dear!’

The rest of this blog entry will consist of particularly memorable and/or characteristic bits from the novel that reflect just what I love so much about it. I suppose this is the modern-day equivalent of Cassandra copying letters into her journal. None of them actually made it into the film that I recall, but perhaps that is to be expected given the constraints of plot, running time and filming costs.

Rose is asleep – on her back, with her mouth wide open. Even like that she looks nice. I hope she is having a beautiful dream about a rich young man proposing to her. […]

I could easily go on writing all night but I can’t really see and it’s extravagant on paper, so I shall merely think. Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing.

———-

Father came from the bathroom and went through to his bedroom. The next second I heard him shout:

‘Good God, what have you done to yourself?’

He sounded so horrified that I thought Topaz had some accident. I dashed into Buffer State but stopped myself outside their bedroom door; I could see her from there. She was wearing a black evening dress that she has never liked herself in, a very conventional dress. Her hair was done up in a bun and she had makeup on – not much, just a little rouge and lipstick. The result was astounding. She looked quite ordinary – just vaguely pretty but not worth a second glance.

Neither of them saw me. I heard her say:

‘Oh, Mortmain, this is Rose’s night. I want all the attention to be focused on her –’

I tiptoed back to the bedroom. I was bewildered at such unselfishness, particularly as she had spent hours mending her best evening dress. I knew what she meant, of course – at her most striking she can make Rose’s beauty look like mere prettiness. Suddenly I remembered that first night the Cottons came here, how she tried to efface herself. Oh, noble Topaz!

I heard Father shout:

‘To hell with that. God knows I’ve very little left to be proud of. At least let me be proud of my wife.’

There was a throaty gasp from Topaz: ‘Oh, my darling!’ – and then I hastily went downstairs and kept Rose talking in the drawing room. I felt this was something we oughtn’t to be in on. And I felt embarrassed – I always do when I really think of Father and Topaz being married.

When they came down Topaz was as white as usual and her silvery hair, which was at its very cleanest, was hanging down her back. She had her best dress on which is Grecian in shape, like a clinging grey cloud, with a great grey scarf which she had draped round her head and shoulders. She looked most beautiful – and just how I imagine the Angel of Death. […]

Of course I have always realized that she is kind, but I should never have thought her capable of making that noble sacrifice for Rose. And just as I was feeling ashamed of ever having thought her bogus, she said in a voice like plum-cake:

‘Look, Mortmain, look! Oh, don’t you long to be an old, old man in a lamp-lit inn?’

‘Yes, particularly one with rheumatism,’ said Father. ‘My dear, you’re an ass.’

———-

When Neil was getting me my second glass of cherry brandy I took a good look at Rose. She was wearing her very oldest dress, a washed-out blue cotton, but it looked exactly right for sitting outside an inn. One branch of the chestnut came down behind her head and, while I was watching, a strand of her bright hair got caught across a leaf.

‘Is that branch worrying you?’ Simon asked her. ‘Would you like to change places? I hope you wouldn’t because your hair looks so nice against the leaves.’

I was glad he had been noticing.

Rose said the branch wasn’t worrying her in the least.

When Neil came back with my second cherry brandy, she said: ‘Well, now that we’ve finished lunch, I’ll have one, too.’ I knew very well she had been envying mine. Then she called after him: ‘No, I won’t – I’ll have crème de menthe.’ I was surprised, because we both tasted that at Aunt Millicent’s once and hated it heartily; but I saw what she was after when she got it – she kept holding it up so that the green looked beautifully against her hair, though of course it clashed quite dreadfully with the chestnut leaves. I must say she was being more affected than I ever saw her, but Simon appeared to be enchanted. Neil didn’t – he winked at me once and said: ‘Your sister will be wearing that drink as a hat any minute.’

A bit that quite sums up the famous British reserve (which I think I have, too, despite being Singaporean):

Neil had driven coming out, so Simon drove going home, with Rose at the front beside him. It was fun at the back with Neil. He told me lots of interesting things about life in America – they do seem to have a good time there, especially the girls.

‘Do Rose and I seem very formal and conventional, compared with American girls?’ I asked.

‘Well, hardly conventional,’ he said, laughing, ‘even madam with her airs isn’t that’ – he jerked his head towards Rose. ‘No, I’d never call any of your family conventional, but – oh, I guess there’s formality in the air here, even the villagers are formal; even you are, in spite of being so cute.’

I asked him just what he meant by ‘formality’. He found difficulty in putting it into words, but I gather it includes reserve and ‘a sort of tightness’.

‘Not that it matters, of course,’ he added, hastily. ‘English people are swell.’

That was so like Neil – he will joke about England, but he is always most anxious not really to hurt English feelings.

A particularly funny (and true) description of some of J S Bach, although I adore Bach:

‘Well, Debussy’s certainly made a hit with you,’ said Simon, ‘though I’m not sure you wouldn’t outgrow him. You’re the kind of child who might develop a passion for Bach.’

I told him I hadn’t at school. The one Bach piece I learnt made me feel I was being repeatedly hit on the head with a teaspoon.

An interesting conversation between Cassandra and the village Vicar which presents one aspect of ‘finding religion’ in a new light to me:

We got started on religion, which surprised me rather, as the Vicar so seldom mentions it – I mean, to our family; naturally it must come up in his daily life.

‘You ought to try it, one of these days,’ he said. ‘I believe you’d like it.’

I said: ‘But I have tried it, haven’t I? I’ve been to church. It never seems to take.’

He laughed and said he knew I’d exposed myself to infection occasionally.

‘But catching things depends so much on one’s state of health. You should look in on the church if ever you’re mentally run down.’

I remembered my thoughts on the way to the village. ‘Oh, it wouldn’t be fair to rush to church because one was miserable,’ I said – taking care to look particularly cheerful.

‘It’d be most unfair not to – you’d be doing religion out of its very best chance.’

‘You mean “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity”?’

‘Exactly. Of course, there are extremities at either end; extreme happiness invites religion almost as much as extreme misery.’

I told him I’d never thought of that.

Role reversal Sunday, Apr 1 2007 

It’s funny. My mum sticks her head into my room whenever I put on the Clash or the Ramones, grimaces and says, ‘I don’t understand how you can like something so noisy.’ And yet, yesterday, when I suggested she pick some song from my collection for her mobile ringtone, she plumped for the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ and Joey Ramone’s cover of ‘What a Wonderful World’ – hardly tranquil, soothing pieces of music.

I pointed out the incongruity, but she said the whole point of having a loud ringtone was to wake her up – and, of course, to be heard. Ironically, I had avoided picking loud music for my own mobile ringtone because I didn’t want to give my colleagues a shock every time it came on in my (quiet) office. Of course, the net result is that I hardly ever notice when my phone starts ringing (playing the intro to Camera Obscura’s ‘Lloyd I’m Ready to be Heartbroken’), and even less when a text message arrives (to the tune of the low-key ‘Center of Gravity’ by Yo La Tengo). I think it may be time for a change… Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’ or the Clash’s ‘Death or Glory’, perhaps…

Carlo Gesualdo – Sabbato Sancto Sunday, Mar 25 2007 

I’ve decided to preserve, for posterity, the only music review I’ve ever written outside of this blog. It was written on Amazon.co.uk more than 4 years ago (gorsh), just for a lark. Since at the time I listened almost exclusively to what most people term ‘classical’ music – that is, if you, like Amazon, divide the music world nicely into classical and popular music – it was a classical review. I still remember that I bought this CD at random while in Melbourne for a summer school programme in 2000, and it had the hugest impact on me, kicking off my obsession with Philippe Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale and the harmonia mundi music label. I still think they’re the bee’s knees, actually, and have recently started listening to their records again.

Carlo Gesualdo is not your run-of-the-mill Renaissance composer of vocal music. Juicy details about his rather exciting life abound, and his unusual experiences are believed to have contributed to the very unusual nature of his music, but to focus on them would be to miss the point. His music is the work of absolute genius and unbelievable originality – there is no way that his work could be mistaken for that of any other – and at the same time utterly gorgeous. The melody lines are unexpected but make complete sense, a remarkable feat at a point where most of his contemporaries were reduced to producing formulaic stuff, rehashing tried and trite methods. The frequent changes to tempo and dissonant interjections keep you on your toes, and the interplay between the different voice parts is fascinating.

The Sabbato Sancto showcases Gesualdo at this best: dark and ominous, lullingly beautiful, or quietly contemplative by turns, there’s never a dull moment. The motets included on this disc are equally outstanding in their own way, and illustrate the sheer skill that Gesualdo possessed for putting music to words in a way that colours in their very meaning.

So, in the first place – brilliant music.

In the second place – brilliant performance.

It is sad, but unsurprising that Gesualdo’s music isn’t more well-known than it is: it simply defies convention and classification, and requires a great deal of bravery and technical skill to execute. But Philippe Herreweghe and the Ensemble Vocal Europeen, as expected, achieve it with their usual panache. Herreweghe directs with surety and intelligence, and the stellar Ensemble Vocal Europeen provide purity of tone combined with goosebump-raising sonority. None of those jarring vibratos; just clean, crisp vocal lines, each of which can be followed individually. As usual, the sopranos are wonderfully dark, perfectly suited to the music; the altos are strong; the tenors hit their notes with nary a sign of strain; and the basses are simply outstanding: deep and effortlessly sonorous. The pronunciation is consistent and the enunciation disciplined. This is just about the finest example of vocal performance available.

Sandro Gorli’s Requiem rounds off the disc, and is entirely in keeping with the experimental air of the whole thing. An extremely ‘modern’ piece that probably is more difficult to appreciate than the Gesualdo tracks; I loved it though, if only because it demonstrated yet again the technical finesse of the Ensemble Vocal Europeen. It’s not the familiar Latin Requiem either, but an Italian one of poetic beauty. Altogether a delightful ‘extra’.

This disc approaches perfection.

Joni Mitchell: For the Roses Sunday, Mar 11 2007 

Blasphemy though this may be to most Joni Mitchell fans, I like For the Roses even more than I like Blue. Writing-wise, it’s more masterful; musically, it’s more filled out; stylistically, it’s more varied; lyrically, it’s more adventurous; and tone-wise, it’s more cohesive, invoking a sort of dreamy, detached mood throughout the album. Kind of like the album cover, with its washed-out blues and greens and scene of calm pastoral natural beauty. And the album title, which is somehow indirect and evocative all at once.

Most of the songs on For the Roses are remarkable in some way or other. ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’, for example, is the first use of a seventh interval for vocal harmonies that I have encountered in Western popular music, and sounds, quite against expectation, gorgeous. The lyrics are atypical of Ms. Mitchell, being a lot of disparate but vivid phrases strung together to form a bizarre narrative of sorts. And the whole thing is kept from floating off into the ether by the rather organic sound of squelching fingers on guitar strings during the complex chord changes.

But there’s lots of typical Mitchell here too, exemplified by the very personal, incisive, yet somehow clinical dissection of her relationship with her parents in ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’:

She don’t like my kick-pleat skirt

She don’t like my eyelids painted green

She don’t like me staying up late in my high-heeled shoes

Living for that rock and roll dancing scene

Papa says, ‘Leave the girl alone, Mother

She’s looking like a movie queen’

Mama thinks she spoilt me

Papa knows somehow he set me free

Mama thinks she spoilt me rotten

She blames herself, but Papa, he blesses me

It’s a rough road to travel

Mama, let go now, it’s always called for me

The title track is simultaneously a showcase for pretty acoustic guitar and a knowing, biting commentary on the funny business that is the music business. You can’t help but wince when she describes the contradictions inherent in selling ‘art’ or ‘self-expression’:

In some office sits a poet

And he trembles as he sings

And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around (…)

Remember the days when you used to sit

And make up your tunes for love

And pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee

And now you’re seen on giant screens

And at parties for the press

And for people who have slices of you from the company

But what makes ‘For the Roses’ special among the many diatribes against the commercial nature of the business, apart from the degree of articulateness, is the degree of self-awareness which keeps her from sounding pompous and hypocritical. Mitchell is quite cognisant of the fact that

I guess I seem ungrateful

With my teeth sunk in the hand

That brings me things I really can’t give up just yet.

And, of course, the imagery. It really is quite unfair that she can come up with such apt and unusual comparisons as

The caressing rev of motors

Finely tuned like fancy women in thirties evening gowns

and

The moon swept down black water

Like an empty spotlight.

‘For the Roses’ is one of the quieter songs on the album, utilising the spare combination of guitar and vocals that characterise much of Blue. But the song, like the rest of For the Roses, exhibits substantially stronger melodies and even more beautiful vocal lines. Furthermore, Mitchell incorporates quite a few other additional elements in the arrangements, to good effect. Apart from the (plumper) piano, doubled guitars and richer harmonies, new instruments include the flute, saxophone, hand-drums. There’s even harmonica on the country-inflected number ‘You Turn Me On I’m a Radio’. As rock-and-roll myth has it, this was the sarcastic product of the record company’s directive to produce a radio-friendly hit, quite like the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. And like the latter, the result is pretty great: a catchy, breezy gem of a song that acts as a successful extended metaphor complete with puns.

You turn me on, I’m a radio

I’m a country station

I’m a little bit corny

I’m a wildwood flower waving for you

Broadcasting tower waving for you (…)

I’m going to tell you again now

If you’re still listening there:

If you’re driving into town with a dark cloud above you

Dial in the number who’s bound to love you (…)

If your head says ‘Forget it’ but your heart’s still smoking

Call me at the station, the lines are open

‘Electricity’ is another shining example of extended metaphor. And you might be forgiven for thinking, ‘Hey, what is with all the extended metaphors? Are they just poetic exercises of some sort? Is she just phoning it in?’ But no worries on that account. ‘Electricity’ is once an expository tale of a pair of lovers, as well as a thoughtful commentary on relationships between men and women and on the wider state of the world.

And she holds out her flashlight and she shines it on me

She wants me to tell her what the trouble might be

Well I’m learning, it’s peaceful

With a good dog and some trees

Out of touch with the breakdown of this century

They’re not going to fix it up too easy (…)

And she begs him to show her how to fix it again

While the song that he sang her to soothe her to sleep

Runs all through her circuits like a heartbeat

And in spite of this complexity, everything pulls together with the help of Ms Mitchell’s usual vivid imagery, memorable melody, and the apposite but subtle arrangement – note the steady, light, hypnotic, pulsing taps on a hand-drum that come in for just a couple of drawn-out breaths right around ‘heartbeat’.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Woman of Heart and Mind’, which features a lovely guitar riff and painfully sharp lyrics:

I am a woman of heart and mind

With time on her hands, no child to raise

You come to me like a little boy

And I give you my scorn and my praise

After the rush when you come back down

You’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high

Drive your bargains

Push your papers

Win your medals

Fuck your strangers

Don’t it leave you on the empty side?

Again, as in the case of Blue, there are a couple of songs (on a 12-track album) that I don’t much like. For whatever reason, they are the opening and closing items: the excessively dramatic, sanctimonious ‘Banquet’ (‘Who let the greedy in and who left the needy out?’) and the aimless (music-wise, lyrics-wise) ‘Ludwig’s Tune (Judgement of the Moon and Stars)’ respectively. Then again, it is easy enough to skip these without sacrificing the flow of the intervening tracks.

I understand that Mitchell’s most popular albums by far are Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974). The intervening For the Roses (1972), has perhaps gotten lost in the scheme of things. Undeservedly so, in my opinion.

The Velvet Underground: Loaded Saturday, Feb 24 2007 


I’ve read a few reviews of Loaded that equated its commercial approach – the Velvet Underground were instructed to make a record ‘loaded with hits’ – with poor quality. Indeed I recall one purist complaining that bassist Doug Yule’s ‘sappy boy-band influence’, or something like that, had come to fore after the departure of multi-instrumentalist John Cale whose tastes ran to the extreme avant garde. Perhaps it’s simply not as, uh, cool to like something as accessible and listenable as Loaded.

But I’ve never thought that the Velvets’ need to produce something that would appeal to the mainstream marred the record. Loaded is simply less perverse than, say, White Light/White Heat (the second album), the most difficult of their oeuvre, being full of wailing, screeching instruments, extended improvisation, dissonance, feedback, and of course a preoccupation with drugs and similarly unpalatable themes. Furthermore, in the case of Loaded, the commercial imperative resulted in pretty melodies and harmonies; catchy, structured songs; and disciplined yet exuberant, tuneful solos. What’s not to like?

I first encountered the music of the Velvets – specifically, the music on Loaded – when I watched the film High Fidelity, which prominently featured the first and last tracks off the album. They both feature Yule’s gentle voice rather than songwriter/guitarist/primary singer Lou Reed’s flat, sarcastic one, and are the better for it. The album opener, ‘Who Loves the Sun’, is an exercise in contradiction, with petulant lyrics set to bright, cheerful harmonies and chiming acoustic riffs:

Who loves the rain?

Who cares that it makes flowers?

Who cares that it makes showers

Since you broke my heart?

The other High Fidelity soundtrack item, ‘Oh Sweet Nuthin’’, is my favourite song on Loaded, and ironically enough the least commercial of the lot, being (a gripping) 7 and a half minutes long. In fact, it is perhaps my favourite song by the Velvets. Gorgeous major-key blues music; amazing extended guitar-plus-drum solos; shadowy harmonies; and a profound subject – poverty – given simple, wistful treatment and an earnest, cracking, empathetic vocalisation:

Say a word for Polly May

She can’t tell the night from the day

They threw her out in the street

Just like a cat she landed on her feet

And say a word for Joanie Love

She ain’t got nuthin’ at all

With every day she falls in love

And every night she falls when she does

She said

‘Oh sweet nuthin’’

You know she ain’t got nothing at all

Lou Reed’s expressive, exuberant vocals are put to good use on this album, though. He sings ‘Train Coming Round the Bend’, a relentlessly pounding blues rocker, in a strangled, off-key voice that occasionally drops out and suggests the train isn’t the only thing going round the bend. And he puts a whole lotta feeling into ‘Rock and Roll’, which perhaps is not surprising since, as he said, what happens to Jenny in the song was what happened to him:

Jenny says when she was five years old

There was nothing happening at all

Every time she puts on the radio

There was nothing going down at all

Then one fine morning she puts on a New York station

You know she don’t believe what she heard at all

She started shaking to that fine fine music

You know her life was saved by rock and roll

Despite all the amputation

You know you could just go out

And dance to the rock and roll station…

It was all right

The song may be highly personal in origin but its appeal must be universal: it really captures that feeling you get when you discover rock and roll. Reed’s energy is infectious and you can’t help obeying when he admonishes you ‘Oy! Listen to me now’ (he’s Jewish). ‘Rock and Roll’ is preceded by ‘Sweet Jane’, a great pop song that is similarly amusing and affecting all at once:

And there’s, you know, some evil mothers

Well, they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt

You know that women never really faint

And that villains always blink their eyes

And that, you know, children are the only ones blush

And that life is just a dive

But anyone who ever had a heart

Oh, they wouldn’t turn round and break it

And anyone who ever played a part

Oh, they wouldn’t turn round and hate it

If it seems like I’m quoting rather a lot of the Velvet Underground’s lyrics, I am. Displaying the lyrics in their full glory is the best way to make the point that Lou Reed has really interesting things to say, even on this supposedly most commercial and therefore least-worthy-of-cult-interest album. The bouncy ‘Cool It Down’ advises – unusually for a rock song – a young man to take things slowly with his young lady, though without a hint of old-fogeyness. I also love the fact that this advice is given in two slightly different versions of vocals, which has the effect of an uncoordinated Greek chorus – especially when one comes in ever so slightly behind the other.

The music on Loaded is full of such cute, creative touches, typical of this notoriously ground-breaking band. ‘Sweet Jane’ has an organ blasting a deep bass melody for just a few seconds right at the end as the song fades out, but that’s enough for impact in a song that is otherwise built on a repeated series of simple, rhythmic guitar riffs. Then there’s that delightful musical transition in ‘Rock in Roll’. It comes after the first bluesy guitar solo, where, although the lead guitar line has reverted back to the melody of the verses, the drumming and rhythm guitar delay their switch back for two bars. The effect is… captivating.

In short, Loaded emphatically does not exhibit the superficiality of theme and tone and that one usually associates with mainstream pop music. It still sounds remarkably like the Velvet Underground, and looks like them too: the album cover depicts an entrance into the New York City subway, complete with emanating cloud of stench, coloured pink for some reason. (To be fair, the subway has been cleaned up and the smell wasn’t bad when I was there last year, despite it being summer). Again, what’s not to like?

Once & Again: The Mystery Dance Tuesday, Feb 20 2007 

No single television series has ever spoken to me as much as Once & Again did – and does. No, I’ve never experienced divorce, either directly or indirectly, which is the basis of the basic storyline. Neither am I American, WASP or Jewish. None of the characters is my age. But Once & Again is perhaps one of the best-written, best-acted, and loveliest shows ever made; the best example for the case that TV can be educational, edifying, eye-opening. (My So-Called Life, the other series by creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, is pretty outstanding, but Once & Again is the very pinnacle of television.)

And it is moving. Today, as I re-watched the first season episode ‘The Mystery Dance’, a poem, read in turns by two characters at a crossroads in their lives, leapt out at me. It had never made the same impression before; its relevance had been confined to the characters’ situations. I suppose I’m at the point in my life that makes me ripe for it. This is my first Chinese New Year holiday since 2002, my first as a working person, at the start of the rest of my life.

‘George Gray’ is part of a collection of poems, each of which is a posthumous, autobiographical epitaph, by the American poet/biographer/dramatist Edward Lee Masters. It was originally published in 1915 in his Spoon River Anthology, which is proof positive that some things are universal. ‘George’ contemplates his headstone and his life-that-wasn’t – a sharp nudge in the ribs, a painfully sad reminder to those of us, still living, to live.

George Gray

I have studied many times

The marble which was chiseled for me –

A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.

In truth it pictures not my destination

But my life.

For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;

Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;

Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.

Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.

And now I know that we must lift the sail

And catch the winds of destiny

Wherever they drive the boat.

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,

But life without meaning is the torture

Of restlessness and vague desire –

It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

Edgar Lee Masters

A. S. Byatt – Possession Monday, Feb 5 2007 

Sometimes I think that A. S. Byatt’s greatest appeal to me as a writer is the gorgeousness of her descriptions and her (related) ability to supply all the materials required for the reader to imagine a scene of great natural beauty. Consider, for example, this lavish and perhaps extraneous but – for an urbanite who has always hankered to revel in the Prince Edward Island described by L. M. Montgomery – wholly enjoyable paragraph, which was in the Postscript to Possession, no less:

There was a meadow full of young hay, and all the summer flowers in great abundance Blue cornflowers, scarlet poppies, gold buttercups, a veil of speedwells, an intricate carpet of daisies where the grass was shorter, scabious, yellow snapdragons, bacon and egg plant, pale milkmaids, purple heartsease, scarlet pimpernel and white shepherd’s purse, and round this field a high bordering hedge of Queen Anne’s lace and foxgloves, and above that dogroses, palely shining in a thorny hedge, honeysuckle all creamy and sweet0smelling, rambling threads of bryony and the dark stars of deadly nightly. It was abundant, it seemed as though it must go on shining forever. The grasses had an enamelled gloss and were connected by diamond-threads of light. The larks sang, and the thrushes, and the blackbirds, sweet and clear, and there were butterflies everywhere, blue, sulphur, copper, and fragile white, dipping from flower to flower, from clover to vetch to larkspur, seeing their own guiding visions of invisible violet pentagrams and spiralling coils of petal-light.

But it’s not fair to suggest that Dame Byatt is good for lovely prose and nothing else, since she is also full of intelligent and perspicacious observations on numerous favourite themes of hers, including literature and the academia. Possession exhibits this, and manages to cover plenty of other subjects big and small even while the story develops through the masterful use of all sorts of narrative methods. People who are impatient to find out ‘what happens next’ might skip the chapter that comprises solely an extended correspondence between two Victorian poets, to their peril. They’d be missing out on a whole lot of interesting ideas, not to mention the delightful repartee and growing fascination between (a) man and (a) woman. (They can skip the poetry without much loss, though.)

Excerpt from a letter from Randolph Henry Ash to Christabel LaMotte:

… I must tell you that I have been in some distress to think that my poem had occasioned doubt in you. A secure faith – a true prayerfulness – is a beautiful and a true thing – however we must nowadays construe it – and not to be disturbed by the meanderings and queryings of the finite brain of R. H. Ash or any other puzzled student of our Century. Ragnarök was written in all honesty in the days when I did not myself question Biblical certainties – or the faith handed down by my fathers and theirs before them. It was read differently by some […] and I was at the time startled and surprised that my Poem should have been construed as any kind of infidelity – for I meant it rather as a reassertion of the Universal Truth of the living presence of Allfather (under whatever Name) and of the hope of Resurrection from whatever whelming disaster in whatever form. When Odin, disguised as the Wanderer, Gangrader, in my Poem, asks the Giant Wafthrudnir what was the word whispered by the Father of the gods in the ear of his dead son, Baldur on his funeral pyre – the young man I was – most devoutly – meant the word to be – Resurrection. And he, that young poet, who is and is not myself, saw no difficulty in supposing that the dead Norse God of Light might prefigure – or figure – the dead Son of the God Who is the Father of Christendom. But, as you perceived, this is a two-handed engine, a slicing weapon that cuts both ways, this of figuration – to say that the Truth of the Tale is in the meaning, that the Tale but symbolizes an eternal verity, is one step on the road to the parity of all tales… And the existence of the same Truths in all Religions is a great argument both for and against the paramount Truthfulness of One.

Excerpt from a letter from C. LaMotte to R. H. Ash:

I do not say but there must be – and is – some essential difference between the Scope and Power of men and [women’s] own limited consciousness and possibly weaker apprehension. But I do maintain, as stoutly, that the delimitations are at present, all wrongly drawn – We are not mere candleholders to virtuous thoughts – mere chalices of Purity – we think and feel, aye and read – which seems not to shock you in us, in me, though I have concealed from many the extent of my – vicarious – knowledge of human vagaries.

That last bit about female self-censorship of opinions/knowledge is, sadly, all too familiar. Even today!!

Gosh, what long excerpts. (I’m guessing that the only place in which quotation at such length is appropriate is literary criticism; if this was meant to be a book review, it would surely have met with the instruction to edit.) And certainly the entire novel has quite substantial heft. However, this is one of the joys of Possession: the leisureliness and narrative manner of Byatt’s prose allows for some pretty tough ideas and characterization to be contained in an altogether relaxing read. It’s plenty impressive too as a post-modernist achievement, and probably quite deserving of its 1990 Booker Prize.

Still, it is because I don’t share her favourite themes that I don’t consider Byatt one of my favourite authors. I’ve always been unconsciously and consciously concerned about the exploration of ethics, and more recently have become very fond of humour in the stuff that I read/watch; as far as I can tell these are limited in Byatt’s novels. They are, at the least, quite limited in Possession. Nevertheless, it’s excellent fun to read and reread: literate (duh), awash with beauty, and completely escapist.

I watched the film adaptation too: as a fan, I felt compelled to, although I know quite well that the film can never quite live up to the book. But the storyline on the literary detectives was distorted by the very unfortunate decision to change the originally working-class Brit Roland into a hunky-but-nice-and-intelligent American played by Aaron Eckhart (the better to contrast, I suppose, with the classic chilly Englishwoman Maud played by ironically-not-English-at-all Gwyneth Paltrow). And Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle (both of whom being actors I like and respect tremendously) simply weren’t given much to work with in their roles as the Victorian pair. In short: while the main plot was preserved, the focus and tone of the film was completely divergent from that of the book. (Isn’t it always the case? See Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, shudder.) Which sort of misses the whole point of Possession.

List: Pop Music on Gilmore girls Saturday, Jan 27 2007 

The Gilmore girls (© 2006 The WB Television Network)

I’ve been watching Gilmore girls [sic] since its first season – that is, since 2000 – and never caught any of the popular music references. And there are a lot of references, partly because Lorelai and her daughter Lorelai (Rory) Gilmore, the girls in question, are deeply steeped in pop culture, and partly because Rory’s best friend Lane is a complete audiophile and plays drums in a rock band. There was even one episode in which the Bangles made an appearance (the girls were attending a Bangles concert in New York City) and we were treated to a bracing dose of the classic ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ as well as footage of the band ‘performing’ ‘Eternal Flame’, ‘Hero Takes a Fall’, &c.

But in the time that I’ve started exploring popular music, I’ve been rewatching old episodes and find that I get a lot more of the music-related jokes, am capable of identifying songs played on the show, and have (re-)discovered good music too.

A few of the memorable jokes and references:

  1. Rory, in an effort to persuade her boyfriend to go to her formal coming-out (into society) that requires correspondingly formal wear, makes him watch Neil Young’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction because ‘doesn’t Neil Young look cool?… If you’ll notice, he’s wearing a tux.’ Her boyfriend’s rejoinder: ‘Neil Young looks cool because he’s Neil Young, not because he’s wearing a tux.’ How true.
  2. Grumpy diner owner Luke warning his ne’er-do-well nephew Jess to knuckle down and pay attention to his studies: ‘If you’re not careful you’ll wind up like that loner at the back of the class who repeats every year and listens to Steely Dan.’ Retorts Jess sarcastically: ‘Steely Dan? Nice topical reference.’ Luke, unabashed: ‘The band may change, the guy never does.’
  3. The guitarist of Lane’s band, threatening the hapless asthmatic bass player to shape up or else: The Who bassist ‘John Entwistle’s nails were still growing when they found his replacement.’
  4. Lorelai’s immediate reaction to the lounge pianist hired by her stuffy parents for a posh Thanksgiving party – ‘He can play anything’ – was the shouted request ‘Free Bird!’, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that is a staple request at rock concerts
  5. Taylor Doose, Stars Hollow’s town selectman, making things difficult for Lorelai when she attempts to acquire the requisite permit to set up her own inn, insists that the inn’s 18 parking spaces won’t be enough for the potentially 20 guests occupying its rooms. Lorelai argues that ‘if the parking’s not enough, we can always add more.’ Rejoins Taylor, quoting Joni Mitchell’s delightful ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: ‘So, pave paradise and put up a parking lot?’
  6. An excerpt from Rory’s high-school valedictorian speech: ‘My mother never gave me any idea that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do or be whomever I wanted to be. She filled our house with love and fun and books and music, unflagging in her efforts to give me role models from Jane Austen to Eudora Welty to Patti Smith. As she guided me through these incredible eighteen years, I don’t know if she ever realized that the person I most wanted to be was her.’

Songs I hadn’t known in my previous (unexposed to popular music) life, but which I actually recognized this time when played (either by the original band or by Lane’s band) on the show:

The Clash – ‘London Calling’, ‘White Riot’
The Ramones – ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’
Siouxsie and the Banshees – ‘Cities of Dust’
Pixies – ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’

Songs that Gilmore girls introduced to me:

The B-52’s – ‘52 Girls’, ‘Dance this Mess Around’
Joey Ramone – ‘What a Wonderful World’
Blondie – ‘Heart of Glass’
David Bowie – ‘Suffragette City’
XTC – ‘Then She Appeared’
Bananarama – ‘Shy Boy’
Yo La Tengo – ‘My Little Corner of the World’
Ella Fitzgerald – ‘I Can’t Get Started’

Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps Sunday, Jan 21 2007 

I still remember the very first thoughts I had when I heard this album for the first time. I couldn’t believe my ears when faint sounds of the audience cheering and clapping came through on the first track, ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’. They went thus:

1. This is an amazingly clean recording, for a live performance. It sounds like a studio recording.

2. This is live. LIVE. He’s playing that acoustic guitar and blowing that harmonica and singing perfectly, all at once, and live.

3. Eeks. I hope there isn’t going to be audible cheering and clapping all throughout the recording.

No worries on that last account. I understand that the audience track was removed from what was indeed a series of recordings made of new, unreleased songs that Mr. Young was trying out on a previous tour. But Rust Never Sleeps is more than just a pioneering effort. Had it been a conventional Neil Young studio effort (if there is such a thing), it would still have been an astounding musical achievement. Especially that guitar-playing. This is the album that made me want to learn guitar. Whether acoustic or electric, I didn’t care – and there’s plenty of both on the album – I just wanted to be able to produce the gorgeous/ferocious combination of sounds that was assailing my ears.

Not that Rust Never Sleeps is all harsh on the ears. I wasn’t paying full attention on first listen, but I got a vague feeling that the songs were getting more and more fierce/wild/loud/fast as the album progressed. It was quite a surprise to find out subsequently that the album had in fact been neatly split into acoustic and electric halves, coinciding nicely with the two sides of a vinyl record in, ahem, the days of vinyl. I listen to it in CD form, of course, but it’s still a nice idea. At any rate, it showcases to good effect the two (main) sides of Mr. Young’s musical personality – elegiac acoustic folk and heavy electric rock – as became apparent to me the more of his albums I heard.

I like both sides. Both sides of Rust Never Sleeps and of Neil Young’s musical personality, that is. The acoustic portion of Rust Never Sleeps has some of the most lovely music he has ever written and performed, in particular the gorgeous bridge of ‘Ride My Llama’, which juxtaposes jerky, rhythmic acoustic guitar and bass and the silky-smooth unison singing of Mr. Young and Nicolette Larson to incredible polyphonic effect. But ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Sail Away’ have no less beautiful, though simple, melodies and arrangements. The appeal of the really loud electric half, with its distorted guitars, occasional feedback and extended soloing (never mind if it sometimes consists only of repeated single notes) is more… visceral. Crazy Horse, Mr. Young’s usual ‘back-up band’ (although I don’t think the term does them justice) are tremendously sympathetic in their playing and vocal harmonies. And I’m very fond of the percussive clapping used in ‘Welfare Mothers’ (at least, I think it’s clapping): I wonder just who did that; perhaps the stagehands were roped in? Plus, the huge contrast between the two versions of what is essentially the same song – the acoustic album opener ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and the electric album closer ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ – is a wonder to behold.

Rust Never Sleeps is also special to me because this is where I first recognised Neil Young’s wonderful and essential lyrical weirdness. He is real knacky where the music is concerned, but he’s no slouch with the words either. The songs on Rust Never Sleeps are tied together loosely by a few motifs, including Native American history, time travel, a long journey, &c, and sometimes they come together in a bizarre but highly pleasing mix of imagery. To wit, ‘Pocahontas’:

I wish I was a trapper, I would give a thousand pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt

In the morning, on the fields of green

In a homeland we’ve never seen

And maybe Marlon Brando would be there by the fire

We’d sit and talk of Hollywood, and the good things there for hire

And the Astradome, and the first tepee

Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me

The idea of a long journey – often an allegory for the artistic quest – is not exactly ground-breaking in rock music. But few, if any, have written about it in such an interesting manner, I think. From ‘Thrasher’:

It was then that I knew I’d had enough

Burned my credit card for fuel

Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand

With a one-way ticket to the land of truth

And my suitcase in my hand

How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.

The above evokes the most important idea in Rust Never Sleeps: that the artist must vigilantly fight the temptation and tendency to stagnate. Even the album title serves as a rather lyrical admonishment: Wikipedia informs me that ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ was the slogan of an anti-rust paint, Rustoleum. This theme, together with the acoustic/electric split, makes for quite a concept, and is itself fully embodied in Neil Young’s work on this album.

Rust Never Sleeps was released in 1979 (strangely enough, in the same year as my favourite album London Calling). The musical event which provoked Mr. Young’s reflections was, of course, the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s. Punk rock was anti-establishment in both its musical style (short, loud, ferocious, simple to the point of simplistic) and lyrical preoccupations (aggressively rebellious, politically and socially aware, and sometimes anarchic). It was uncomfortable and uncomforting, a direct counterpoint to the popular music that came before, and emphatically not inclined to rest on its laurels. A secondary musical event was perhaps the 1977 death of Elvis Presley, himself a pioneer in his prime. So Neil Young pays tribute to those newcomers – like the Sex Pistols – who were, at that point, forcing established artists like himself to keep staying relevant or suffer artistic death:

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

This is the story of a Johnny Rotten

It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

And to underscore the crucial importance of guarding against artistic complacency, Mr. Young made it the subject of the album’s ‘bookends’, viz. ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’. The late Kurt Cobain may have shared this belief, including a now infamous line from the former – ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’ – in his suicide note. (I say ‘may’ because there is controversy over the rather romantic suggestion that Mr. Cobain killed himself because he simply could not deal with the massive and unexpected success of Nirvana.) And I did quite a double-take when I re-watched the film High Fidelity (one of my favourites, in part because of John Cusack), and finally recognised the line, coming out of Jack Black’s mouth while his character Barry was ranting to Cusack’s character Rob:

‘Rob. Top 5 musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s and ‘90s: Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticise a formerly-great artist for his latter-day sins? Is it better to burn out or to fade away?’

That line, that theme, and Neil Young by extension, have certainly entered pop culture. A funny incident occurred the other day. I mentioned to a colleague that Mr. Young’s 1970s retrospective compilation album Decade was going for a rather exorbitant price in a music shop in Singapore, and my colleague replied: ‘Oh, but Neil Young is rather esoteric, isn’t he?’ Well, perhaps he’s considered esoteric here. But even though 10 months ago I myself had never heard of Neil Young, I find it funny now to hear him spoken of as if he weren’t a Major Artist in the history of popular music. Rust Never Sleeps plays a big part in that.

Irving Stone – Lust for Life Sunday, Jan 14 2007 

Vincent van Gogh, Four Cut Sunflowers, 1887. Scan obtained from the wonderful Carol Gerten’s Fine Art.

A while back I made my way through Irving Stone’s 1935 fictionalised biography of Vincent van Gogh – presented in fiction form, but based on Stone’s first-hand research and meetings with the people in van Gogh’s life. I daresay that is a one of the most palatable, readable forms of biography possible, especially for one who doesn’t much like biographies. This was no doubt one of the reasons that I actually picked up Lust for Life in the first place: as a casual appreciator of fine art I am fond of a few paintings by van Gogh (check out his stunning Four Cut Sunflowers above) but not a massive fan of his work. (Another reason was that I was completely blown away by The Agony and The Ecstasy – Stone’s equivalent biography for Michelangelo – when I read it years ago.)

I hate to say that Lust for Life demystified van Gogh for me. It did, but it’s just so darn cliché to say so! He seems to be a remarkable man first and foremost, and that makes him more endearing to me than he could ever be by being a great artist. (More on this another time.) Genius burned, to be sure, but he had to work on his craft – really work at it, like ordinary folks – and was plagued not just by the naysayers (who are unavoidable, I suppose) but by his own insecurities about his artistic ability. How refreshing to see, metaphorically speaking, a painfully earnest, socially awkward, religious-then-overtaken-by-a-higher-calling, communist-then-reminded-of-his-higher-calling, fellow, with feeling for human creatures – especially the simplest and humblest of them. As opposed to (say) a sophisticated, literary-verging-on-the pretentious, obnoxiously self-confident Artist who is supremely self-conscious not just of being an Artist but also of being a Great one.

Theo sent… the admonition to work hard and not become a mediocre artist. To this advice Vincent replied, ‘I shall do what I can, but mediocre in its simple signification I do not despise at all. And one certainly does not rise above that mark by despising what is mediocre. But what you say about hard work is certainly right.’

With regards to the actual art, Irving Stone perceives the most salient quality in van Gogh’s work to be a sense of the life and energy bursting from his subjects (be they trees or people), a sense of inherent ‘power’, conveyed by decisive brush strokes, thickly-laid paints and vibrant colours. I actually found this to be quite insightful, from the perspective of someone who has not studied art, whether in general or van Gogh’s in particular.

And learning about what van Gogh did in his lifetime – his stints in Paris, in Arles, in Provence, in the sanitarium; the people he met (the Potato-Eaters, the peasants wherever he went, Gauguin and various Impressionists) – imbues disparate works of art with a collective narrative quality. It’s strange. You do hear that good art stands on its own, but sometimes the art is better-appreciated, improved even, by some knowledge of the artist. I’ve found this to be true for popular music too. Anyway, this simply means that Lust for Life is a good read that also ups my enjoyment of something else. And that makes it cool in my book.

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