Riding With Joni

Popular music history is full of train songs from Boxcar Blues to Chatanooga Choo-Choo and Joni Mitchell continued the tradition on this cut from her 1974 album Court and Spark.

It’s a wistful tune – it is Joni Mitchell after all – but it rides on a gently funky chassis, suggesting the forward movement of a railway carriage. “I’m always running behind the times” she begins “…just like this train/ shaking into town with the brakes complaining…”

Like many songs from this period of Joni’s career there is a jazzy touch, with playful horns punctuating the track, along with wisps of electric guitar, which sweep past as if glimpsed from a window.

As ever, Joni’s lyrics are excellent. Observations of the waiting room include an “Old man sleeping on his bags, women with that teased-up kind of hair, kids with the jitters in their legs and those wide, wide open stares”.

All of this is woven into a back story of romantic ambivalence. It becomes clear Joni is not setting out on an adventure, but heading back to her man.  “Oh, sour grapes…I think I lost my heart” she sings ruefully as she anticipates a future of settled domesticity “watching your hairline recede, my vain darlin'”. Freedom versus commitment.

She worries that being in love has become too much of a sacrifice “Jealous lovin’ll make you crazy, if you can’t find your goodness, cos you lost your heart”. But she’s still seduced by the sensory pleasures of travel, with “these rocks and these cactuses going by, and a bottle of German wine to drink”

The supporting stars of this recording are the rhythm section – drummer John Guerin and bassist Wilton Felder – who move from a metronomic rhythm through various levels of clickety-clack funkiness, suggesting the varying pace and sonic rhythm of a train journey – without actually speeding up or slowing down.

Throughout the song, Joni sounds both innocent and world weary, playful and philosophical, holding those long notes that seem to melt her uncertainty into joy. Vulnerability is her strength.


Under The Radar

Rooftopping In Toronto...***EXCLUSIVE***  TORONTO, CANADA - OCT 2012: A slow exposure of the streets of Toronto, Canada.  WHATEVER you do  dont look down. Daring photographer Tom Ryaboi snaps the Toronto skyline from the top of skyscrapers. The 28-year-old is one of the pioneers of rooftopping, which sees members scale tall buildings to take pictures of the streets below. To achieve these breathtaking photographs, he often has to evade security guards, dogs - and even urban falcons defending their nests.  PHOTOGRAPH BY Tom Ryaboi/Barcroft Media  UK Office, London. T +44 845 370 2233 W www.barcroftmedia.com  USA Office, New York City. T +1 212 796 2458 W www.barcroftusa.com  Indian Office, Delhi. T +91 11 4053 2429 W www.barcroftindia.com

To all members of the soiled siblinghood who cling to the city streets, that feral fraternity bequeathed to us by Madame Thatcher, for whom the park bench is a couch and the church steps a social club, who live alongside our absurd society and happen to be addicted to the wrong things…

To these homeless souls I offer no pity. I offer congratulations. Because simply by surviving they deserve my admiration.

Survival is the thrilling feeling I have craved at different times; like the climber on the rock face, fighting the living rock with fingertips and toes, the unconditional lust of gravity begging him down to the boulder-field below. He KNOWS he is alive. Do you?

The further we get from the rock face, the essentials of survival, the less alive we are.

I look back to a time in Barcelona, living in a cold water flat, no amenities, busking on the streets, wild and hazy. It was a beautiful brand of poverty. At night in my room I always had company, but not of the species I would have chosen.

As soon as I put out the light I would hear scuttling, an ominous pitter-pattering, haunting me like an instant nightmare ‘cos I knew what it was. Cockroaches sweeping the floor, fanning out like an insect army in search of supplies.

My revulsion was such that I chose the only missile available – hurling unopened beer cans into their ranks, to quell the tide.  I didn’t like doing it cos it shook the beer up, and I had to wipe bits of cockroach off the cans before drinking them.

The Buddhist in me was appalled at my behaviour. Cockroaches are remarkable creatures; they can live off anything, live anywhere. Like rats, they’re survivors, and some say that they’d be one of the few life forms to survive a global catastrophe.  The pragmatist in me suggested better tactics – maybe I should call the landlord, put some poison down or move to a better flat. The realist in me told the other two to forget it. When faced with a strange problem I always find a strange solution…

An average city street might have  1000 people on it. 1000 minds in 1000 heads all containing lifetimes of experience and regret and fear and hope and love. Each head containing the world, the universe even, from one particular perspective. 1000 different yet individually definitive versions of everything there is. And each one of them is climbing a personal mountain path to some kind of ultimate reconciliation with the fact that at some point the journey is over. Or not.

1000 worldviews on one street, multiplied across a city, a country, a continent. How can we possibly understand ourselves as a species?

Well, we could try…the combined wisdom of 1000 can either be 1000 times wiser or 1000 times more stupid. We have to learn from insect culture.

The wise among us don’t walk down streets these days. We scuttle. Those carrying their heads too high will have them knocked off by the winds. The weather is not being kind. But we have the logistics, the nouse to survive. We have no pretentions to status. We live the low life, scuttling from one safe haven to the next, where it’s warm and interesting and we don’t feel as if we’re on the wrong side of history.

This is the only way to survive. This is the cockroach culture, low to the ground, resourceful, collective, living as best we can, dodging the governmental missiles raining down on us from above. Reconnecting with our invertebrate instincts, scuttling together under cover of darkness, we will fan out and take the floor…

greasy handsAll the sex in all the world could never compete with the feeling I experienced some years ago in a single, solitary moment, which was seared in my memory for all time and now resides at the forefront of my consciousness.

It happened when I was in the final year of my apprenticeship as a syringe-handler at a waste dump in South Wales. The dump lay at the bottom of a U-shaped valley in the rural hinterlands of Pembrokeshire. No-one could say how long the dump had been there, but a continuous inflow of material over time had created a monster.

From a distance one could see a vast, undulating expanse of greyish brown material filling one end of the valley. As you got nearer, it became possible to pick out rusting cars, smashed computer screens, mangled bikes and rotting hi-fi systems piled into peaks; a scene of pure technological carnage.

Just inside the gates of the dump was the ‘Homestead’ – a beaten-up caravan with a couple filthy sofas in front of it, plus a perforated oil drum with a fire continuously billowing acrid smoke. This was our office, canteen and bartering area. I will now describe to you my fellow workers…

Boz was the boss man. He didn’t talk much but pointed at the sky and waved his hands a lot. When he did speak, after half a bottle of whisky or so, he would inevitably begin discussing the intricacies of The Directives, the mystical set of rules which governed our strange trade.

My guru in the art of syringe-handling was Sweep, an ex-biker who had grown too fat to ride his beloved motorcycle, which stayed tethered to a crane. The sight of the chained-up Harley was a double source of pain to Sweep. Originally there had been two bikes, but a year previously one of them had vanished overnight. The culprit was never found, but we were all certain that the thief had come from a rival dump in the next valley. Making up our team was a gangly ex-youth called Crow.

The mystical rites of the syringe-handler’s graduation ceremony were well established. At the stroke of midnight, in front of the blazing oil drum, I would be anointed with sump oil and a rusty bike chain would be placed around my neck. Next, I would climb, blindfolded, to the top of a ceremonial tower made from three fridge-freezers and stand on one leg for precisely seven minutes. After this ceremony, and a two-hour group meditation, I would be an anointed syringe handler, and would finally be allowed to wear gloves.

It was all down to The Directives that we had to behave in this way. No-one would even think of questioning it. Boz was the sole authority on this arcane body of rules. It was unclear whether they were written down or memorised; but he could sometimes be seen absorbed in the four-inch thick, leather-bound volume that he kept in a safe in his caravan – he never let us look at it.

Our clients were many and various – bereaved families offloading the house contents of deceased relatives, bankruptcy agents dispensing with the unwanted contents of defunct businesses, then there were tradespeople – builders, gardeners or mechanics getting rid of what they couldn’t bury, burn or sell. All the waste had to be inspected, sorted and dispatched to various parts of the site. This was the theory, but often it was simply piled on top of the ever-expanding mounds.

The continuous inflow of material had necessitated the construction of ‘Molly’. Welded together from assorted crane and car parts, and standing over twelve feet tall, she was based on a mediaeval catapult of the kind used to throw rocks at castles. Using a concrete-filled oildrum as a counterweight, Molly could hurl items the size and weight of a washing machine deep into the interior of the dump, and keep our forecourt clear.

Visitors were free to roam the network of tracks that snaked through the dump, searching for treasures which they would then haggle for at the homestead. If a punter turned up in search of a particularly obscure item, Crow would go ‘off road’ to hunt for it. This was where his slender frame was a distinct advantage, allowing him to clamber easily over the precarious hills of twisted metal, which reached twenty feet high in places.

Crow would often enter the body of the dump, squeezing through gaps to enter a dark and rusty netherworld. The haphazard accumulation of material had created voids and corridors that only he could navigate; and like an intrepid caver, he would make his way to some of the oldest, remotest regions. Eventually he would return, greasy and grazed, with military helmets, wind-up gramophones, grandfather clocks, stuffed parrots…all manner of strange riches.

Sometimes Crow would disappear for days pursuing his own obsessions, with only an occasional wisp of smoke in the distance giving us a clue to his whereabouts. He told us he had created his own dens within the dump, lighting them with oil lamps and furnishing them with precious items he had found on his journeys as a scrap-mole.

I had been involved with this strange trade for three years, although for I never made any money from it – I handled syringes purely to relax. All the while I had been working on a secret venture of my own. I have always been a wine lover; not a connoisseur, but an enthusiastic consumer. And one night, while I was in the midst of a reverie brought on by a particularly fine Sainsbury’s Pinot Noir, an idea occurred to me.

Rare wines are extremely valuable, with the oldest and most sought after vintages fetching thousands at auction. None of these so-called ‘antique’ wines are ever consumed, of course – not only are the beverages usually undrinkable after about thirty years, anyone stupid enough to open a bottle would literally be pissing away a fortune.

Just like paintings, antique wines are investments – and well worth faking. A wine forger can safely fill his bottles with any old plonk. The challenge lies in creating convincing bottles, corks and labels, which have to pass rigorous authentication tests.

And so it was that when I decided to embark on a career as a wine forger, I conducted my initial research into the history of European inks. I discovered that the most valuable wines, from the Dordoigne vintages of the seventeenth century, have labels incorporate keratine, a red pigment produced from the crushed antlers of the Bolivian Harlot beetle. To fake such a bottle I would have to obtain exactly this pigment.

Unfortunately, there were no longer any Harlot beetles available. Extensive logging of Bolivian rainforests had led to the virtual extinction of the species in its native country. However, there was a ray of hope. According to the Zoological Review, two live specimens were still in existence in a zoo in Copenhagen – tantalisingly, a male and a female – raising the prospect of a continuing supply of the precious pigment. I wrote to the zoo’s director – could he tell me if the Harlots had produced any offspring? Dr Carlsson wrote back informing me with regret that the male had shown no interest in the female for at least five years and they were now resting on seperate twigs. All attempts to get the male aroused had failed.

Temporarily thwarted, I placed my project on hold. Meanwhile, life at the dump rolled by. Every month there was considerable excitement, as a van marked ‘Medical Waste’ would pull up and sweep and I would get busy with our chosen specialism, fishing out the syringes and valuable items before shovelling the rest into deep trenches which we dug by hand. Spades would have made the job easier, but The Directives would not allow it.

Then one morning, a vintage American car rolled up to the homestead – a beautiful 1950s Pontiac. As we all gathered round to admire the elegant vehicle, out stepped the driver. He was a thin man, even slighter than Crow, of an indistinguishable age somewhere between twenty and forty. He had a spaced-out look in his eyes, and through shaky lips he told us his story

He had won the car in a card game in San Jose a year previously and had it shipped to the UK shortly after. Ever since then he had been using it for his work as a bubblegum machine repairman. He then told us the reason for his disquiet – the car was haunted. Soon after he had got it, he had started noticing all sorts of rattling noises coming from the car, even when the engine was turned off. The dashboard instruments would also move of their own accord. But despite several investigations, no garage had been able to find anything wrong with the car. I’ve had enough, I just want rid of it, the man said, you can have it for £50.

We had had some bargains in our time, but this took the cake. Fair enough, said Boz, and pressed five tenners into the man’s hand. As soon as the deal was done he seemed to glow with relief. Oh, by the way, he said, there were three boxes of Needlework Monthly on the back seat as well. Boz explained that The Directives forbade us from accepting any paper – we couldn’t even have it on the premises. We gave him a wheelbarrow and pointed out the direction of the next valley, and he set off with the magazines like a man starting out on a new life.

The Pontiac was one of our best ever bits of booty. Not a rattle nor a haunting tone did we ever hear. After a couple of weeks work it came up a treat, and it was jointly agreed that the car be awarded to Sweep, in consolation for his lost Harley. And can you guess what I found in the glove compartment? I’ll tell you what I found in the glove compartment…some gloves.

This story was the first time I used what I suppose could be called ‘automatic writing’. For the first page or so I simply sat down and put down the first words that came into my head – a bit of thought came into play later on. The first paragraph is a kind of red herring. It is implied that some great revelation will occur later in the story but it never does. The “feeling I experienced some years ago in a single, solitary moment” never appears; it is simply at method of hooking the readers attention. The word ‘sex’ will always help to do that as well.  The dump is probably a combination of things. When I was small, my dad used to take me along on his visits to scrap yards looking for car parts and that seems to have merged in my imagination with TV footage of landfill sites and third-world rubbish tips. Modern British waste processing facilites are nothing like Boz’s dump of course…

Mellow Yellow…

What are sodium lights? They’re the yellow street lights that are ubiquitous in the UK and are gradually being replaced in Liverpool (I don’t know about other cities) with white ones.

This burnt-yellow light is a big part of me. As a teenager I hung around after dark on street corners drenched with it. In adulthood I have walked home from nights out countless times in the strangely narcotic yellow atmosphere. I never thought about it until recently. Why does it have to be yellow? I don’t know but it has a magic of its own. Not exactly cosy. Quite artificial. Industrial. But somehow romantic.

I remember as a kid there was a park in Sheffield where you could look down on the entire city and see the whole city’s twinkling orangey-yellow lights. They mapped out the street patterns and merged in the distance like a galaxy of sweets. We have the same in Liverpool on Everton Brow.

The sodium lights of a nearby city or town are a comfort to the night-time driver as they are glimpsed from the motorway.

The other magical thing about sodium lights is that they change colour slowly as they warm up. I remember playing out on the streets in my childhood, seeing a whole street light up at dusk and the lights gradually go from pink, to orange to Lucozade yellow as the night fell.

Now certain streets including mine have had their sodium lights replaced. Presumably they are not inefficient enough (god save us from the evil of inefficiency!!) It’s happening all over the city, probably the whole country, with white light flooding much more area than before. As a result, some of the quaint, odd character from the suburban British street is being lost.

It all seems to me part of a kind of gradual increase in the brightness of our night-time world. Look back to old films and you see a gentler world of interior gas lamps in houses, streetlights shrouded in fog and phone boxes lit with a soft glow. Nowadays a violent brightness is creeping everywhere. Under the relentless pressure of ‘safety’ concerns and 24-hour retail we are turning the night into the day.

Technology is already leading to an over-stimulation, with continuously flashing sources of electronic light, but the built environment has a similar effect. Electronic billboards blaze across obikeur cities, while ATM machines have recently got a lot brighter, as have the interior lighting on buses which I find unbearable. It’s like having your retinas scoured. I know I sound like an old man complaining about the way the world is, but I really feel this is an unstoppable process where designers and engineers will not be happy until they have eliminated night-time darkness altogether.

I asked a female friend about the safety arguament for brighter lighting. She said “Well, it just increases the fear doesn’t it? If you play up to the idea of the night being dangerous then it will be. We need to create more trust not less”

Night is the flipside of day, with its own special atmosphere to cherish. It’s the time when we we recharge; and even if we are active, we can avoid being over-stimulated.

The delights of a stargazing are increasingly becoming impossible in cities, as the wash of artificial light drowns out the fainter heavenly objects.

I would like to keep the sodium lights burning, and leave a little mystery and atmosphere in the night. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

Caving In…


It was Christmas Day and my step-mum had just given me a present – a DVD of the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. As I studied the cover she told me:
“They were talking about him on Radio 4. They’ve reassessed his life and career…you like him don’t you?”
“Yes, I’ve heard about this film. it’s supposed to be quite good”
“it’s thirty years since he died…”


“Er, Nick Cave’s not dead as far as I know” I said “He released an album just last year I think…”
“No” she said indignantly “they interviewed his sister…”
“Nick Cave is definately alive” a family member asserted.
Then the penny dropped.

“Do you mean Nick Drake?”

She didn’t seem sure, muttering something that was lost in the present-opening kerfuffle around us. But I wasn’t about to dwell on the mistake.
“…it looks really good anyway!” I shouted reassuringly.

I’m not into Nick Cave. I respect him but I’ve rarely managed to enjoy any of the pieces of his work that I’ve been exposed to. I’m slightly frustated by that. He’s one of the people I should like. The lyricism, the careful crafting and the mysterious image all put him in the category of bona fide legend. But Nick Cave has a similar effect on me to Leonard Cohen. There’s something about the way he puts chords and melodies together that I find kind of suffocating. There’s hardly any harmonic colour in there.

On Boxing Day my actual mum asked me what presents I’d recieved at my Dad’s house the day before. I mentioned various books and wooly items then:
“Christine gave me this DVD. It’s the Nick Cave film…we can watch it if you want”
“Ok, maybe…” she said “…what else has he been in?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he does much acting, not that I know of…”
“Leaving Las Vegas. I saw him in that”
“You’re thinking of Nick Cage, mum”

I put the film on and I liked it. We follow Cave through a series of presumably average days – rehearsing with his band, looking through photos with the staff at his archive (everyone has an archive, right?…) and driving around Brighton, where he lives. In these sections Cave randomly picks up a series of famous friends, incuding Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue, for chats about life, art and celebrity.
The whole thing is linked by Cave’s lugubrious voiceovers, discussing his life and work. Here he is on the recording process:

“I love the feeling of a song before you understand it. When we’re all playing deep inside the moment. The song feels wild and unbroken. Soon it will become domesticated, and we will drag it back to something familiar and compliant, and we’ll put it in the stable with all the other songs. But there is a moment when the song is still in charge and you’re just clinging on for dear life, and you’re hoping you don’t fall off an break your neck or something. It is that fleeting moment that we chase in the studio.”

Wise words, Nick. It’s nice when you’re in the studio with people who understand what you’re chasing – that razors edge between spontaneity and finesse. By the way, I always liked “Into My Arms” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow” – the one you did with Kylie. A few more like that and I’ll probably give in and like you.

My Ten Best Points…

Cultural end-of-year lists are so fucking smug. They’ve already started appearing, and I’m having to avoid the Sunday papers where cultural hacks declare which books, films and albums were the most essential. What a lot of great shit I’ve missed (as usual).
There’s nothing wrong in theory with writers looking back at their personal highlights, but in practice looking over these lists always makes me feel lazy, un-cultural and basically skint. I’m usually lucky if I’ve heard a couple of the year’s “best albums” or seen many of the films. The year’s best music gig? I was probably busking outside.
It’s all very well for Mark Kermode to appraise the hundred or so films he’s seen in the year and boil them down the ten best; he doesn’t have to shell out a penny. Cinema tickets are nudging ten quid these days, and that’s before you’ve made it past the popcorn and Ben and Jerry’s without hemmoraging another fiver. I don’t need to be reminded of all the arthouse classics I can’t talk about.
The best-of-year book lists give me a similar feeling of cultural failure. If only I had the time and application to keep abreast of the latest literary sensations. I’m a slow reader and the lack of anything I recognise on the lists just makes me feel distinctly low-brow. If I didn’t get around to them when they were the ‘hot new read’ I probably never will.
But these lists are not just there to make us feel like philistines; they also have a commercial function. A decent ranking in the end-of-year lists can turn an overlooked book or album into a must-buy christmas gift.
Let’s face it, though nominally independent, arts journalists are as much a part of the marketing machine as the billboard poster. Critics, who get sent pre-release albums and concert tickets, are just the unofficial wing of the advertising campaign.

Often it doesn’t matter if reviews are positive, all the industry cares about is pushing the product into the public conciousness. However, writing favourably about an author, singer and actor means that agents are more likely to grant a journalist inteviews with said star. Meanwhile, with their end of year lists, critics get to bolster their position as cultural connoisseurs, compiling the canons of our times.

The arts pages that specialise in this vanity are really for a small section of metropolitan luvvies with the means to hoover up whatever cultural product they fancy, whether it’s HBO box sets or tickets for the royal opera house. For those of us in the zero-hours trap or the boho bum category, there is much more adventure. Old stuff. Second-hand stuff.
My year’s cultural highlights included reading Herman Hesse’s Siddharta (1922), as well as downloads of BB King’s Live at The Regal (1964) and Mike Leigh’s film Naked (1993).
The arts press has nothing to say about the pleasures of exploring a second hand bookshop or dancing to your mate’s band in a sweaty basement. My idea of a cultural life isn’t just being a recipient for the never-ending stream of over-hyped new content being funnelled at us.

Despite this, I have managed to think of a few things that came out this year that I liked, so I can flag them up and feel like an arts journalist.
Album of the Year: Kurt Vile – Walkin on a Pretty Daze*
The American songwriter dashes off a folk-rock classic with his trademark stoned nonchalance. It’s got the attitude of Lou Reed and the sensitivity of Neil Young.


















Book of The Year: Sylvain Tesson – Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in The Middle Taiga
The journal of a Frenchman who retreated to the Siberian forest for six months to read and contemplate the wilderness. Full of philosophy and love for nature.
















Film of the year: Pride

Based on a true story, a group of gay Londoners raise money for striking miners in 1984, go to visit their Northern pit village and forge an unlikely bond. Flawlessly done, feel-good, moving and inspiring.



Gig of the year: Me, doing poetry at a night called the Secret Cabaret in Liverpool. I performed “Checkout Girl” and “Careless Wispa”, and according to someone who was there, I absolutely smashed it. I agree.

TV moment of the year: Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s interview with Richard Ayoade on Channel 4 News. A hilarious five minutes as he deconstructs the arts interview.

Theatre event of the year: I didn’t go to see any plays, sorry.
*ok, I’ve just found out this was actually released in 2013, but that’s still pretty current for me!

Ok, here’s the first in a series of posts about seminal moments in musical TV history. To be more specific, they are about various times in my life when I happened to see something that blew my mind, my heart, and generally left me in an exhilarated heap on the living room floor. This happened several times in my young life; and the occasions were often influential on my musical self.

Let’s start with BB King. It was July 1986 and like most people in the UK, and the world probably, I was watching the Live Aid concert on TV. Early on, BB King appeared with a performance beamed from a gig he was playing in Holland. I had already heard of him but as soon as he started playing I couldn’t believe that a guitar could make that noise.

His playing is so intense, but sparing. He contributes to the groove like a player in James Brown’s backing band. His voice is like the well-worn larynx of a southern gospel preacher with a fondness for rye whisky, roaring and barking the blues.

At the end of the first number ‘Why I have the blues’ he dazzles with some raw jazz phrasing that has been burned into my memory since I first saw it. I recorded the concert on a cassette tape recorder pushed against the TV speaker and those few seconds are my favourite part of the gig. It’s the slightly overdriven tone he uses here that really exites, combined with spiciest fretwork ever.

Here I may be controversial – on many of BB’s recordings he uses a completely clean tone that sounds annoying after a couple of verses. His playing is always at its best – like here – when it’s gritty and gutsy.

I went to see him the year after. The size and presence of the man is extraordinary. He had everyone at the Sheffield Octogan in the palm of his huge hand, with the call-and-response crowd skills he shows here. The trumpet player from this clip was there as well, still waggling his head around in a frankly worrying fashion – an unconventional brand of blues headbanging



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