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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.


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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…

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Recently I was reading a blog post about the debut album by one of my favourite bands, Dire Straits. As well as celebrating the spell-binding guitar and characteristic vocal style of Mark Knopfler, Another Grumpy Commuter paid attention to the excellent lyrics on the album.

dire straits

“Down to the Waterline” is a tale of teenage liasons in Knopfler’s native North East, while “Wild West End” describes his wanderings around London before Dire Straits’ success.

Then there is the witty description of jazz musicians in “Sultans of Swing”.

Knopfler always has a fine eye for the detail of situations, but despite this, Dire Straits are rarely discussed as a ‘lyrics’ band.


It got me thinking, just how important are lyrics to music fans?


Songwriters can spend hours, days, months and sometimes years sweating over lyrics; but despite this I have often heard people – music lovers – say that lyrics are of no interest to them. This has always baffled me. Surely everyone’s enjoyment of a song must have some relation to what it’s about, or seems to be about?

Lyrics may complement or contrast with the music, but I don’t understand how you can hear the words without processing them on some level (as long as they are in a language you understand), and that affecting your response to the track.

At the other extreme are people who take lyrics far too seriously. Music critics are the worst for this. Because the actual sound and emotional impact of music is hard to describe, they tend to base album reviews around lyrical themes, trying to sum up what the album is ‘about’, rather than it just being a collection of songs that worked out alright in the studio (or didn’t).

This kind of analysis then becomes the basis of long interviews, with lyric scribblers being treated like they were the authors of great literature, as if anyone listens to an album in that way.

I guess most of us sit somewhere between those extremes; song lyrics may wash over us in a pleasing flood without us catching all of the meanings, or necessarily wanting to. We relish certain lines as they come up, and check on lyric sheets or online to find out the exact words, but it’s rarely a subject for detailed study.

As for my personal favourites among lyric writers, I love the wit of Morrissey and the ‘beat poetry’ style of Tom Waits, but I also like lyrics that I don’t understand. Michael Stipe’s lyrics for REM were affecting as well as often being experimental and opaque. I’m not sure why a “Candy Bar” and “Dr Seuss” crop up in this tune but it’s a beautiful slice of left-field pop.


Following on from that, on the classic “Motorcycle Emptiness” by The Manic Street Preachers, I can hardly make out a word James Dean Bradfield sings, but I don’t care. The drama of the song is not diminished by the indistinct lyrics, indeed it adds to the bittersweet beauty of this track, for me. Lots of things in life are enigmatic, which only makes them more fascinating.



Bob Dylan is probably the most celebrated lyricist of any generation, and he’s certainly one of my heroes. But for all his brilliance, like most songwriters he often wrote lines just to fill up his verses.

Bob Dylan

When interviewed in 1989, a journalist asked him:

“In the song Man in The Long Black Coat you sing ‘People don’t live or die, people just float’…what do you mean by ‘people just float’?”

Dylan: “well…I needed a rhyme for ‘coat'”

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I must get back that copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums that I lent to my friend Tobias. I keep thinking about it – it’s one of the most significant books I’ve read recently, and here’s why: it cured me of my facebook habit. For the two or three weeks it took me to read (I’m a slow reader) I felt less and less inclined to check in to that ubiquitous forum of trivia and interpersonal grooming that Mark Zuckerberg created.



If you haven’t read it, The Dharma Bums is basically On The Road in the mountains. Instead of Sal and Dean (based on Kerouac and Neal Cassidy), we follow the exploits of Ray (Kerouac again) and Japhy (based on the poet Gary Snyder), two friends bonded by a shared mission to explore the inner frontiers of the soul.


Like in On The Road, there are wild parties, poetry sessions and girls, but inbetween the bouts of revelry, Ray and Japhy trek into the mountains of Washington State to meditate and commune with nature.

Japhy is both a best friend and a guru to Ray. As a follower of zen buddhism, things like status, possessions and career advancement are unimportant to him – his goals are spiritual. Ray hopes to learn from him, but often the way is hard, and eventually they go their seperate ways.

When I say Kerouac cured my facebook habit I’m exaggerating. I didn’t avoid the site altogether, but while I was following Ray and Japhy’s quest for spiritual bliss, my reliance on those transitory little hits of happiness went right down. I was on – dare I say it – a higher plane.

Yes, I’d like to get that book back; I want to re-read it. And it’s got me thinking about the other things that left my life – on loan – never to be returned; the Patti Smith autobiography, the Ramones album and several other items that now live on other peoples’ shelves and bedroom floors.

pattiThese things meant something to me, and now the cultural library that I have gathered over time seems incomplete. When I think about this I feel indignant at the inconsiderateness of people, that is until I start looking through my shelves and cd stack. Where did that Michael Moore DVD come from?

Oh, I remember; Denny lent it me a couple of years ago! The book by Thomas Mann? I borrowed it from an old girlfriend that I don’t see anymore…

Yes, I’m as guilty as anyone; and I hope nobody asks for anything back!

When we’ve been affected by something, it’s comforting to have it around. After a while the books and records on our shelves become a physical embodiment of our identity, even if they weren’t originally ours. I like the way cultural goods and clothes migrate between friends in this unplanned way; it’s a kind of unconscious gifting. We rarely miss these lost things unless we are suddenly reminded of them. In any case, there will always be new ones coming our way…

When we form relationships, there can be few stronger expressions of love than pooling what we own with our partner as our lives merge. Conversely, there is nothing to match the sordid experience of seperating your possessions when the split eventually comes. Retaining your dignity can be harder than regaining your stuff.

Maybe we should share more actively, with the knowledge that what goes around comes around – what Japhy would call the law of Karma. Giving something up often lets light in from an unexpected angle.


In the end, physical objects don’t matter. Wisdom matters, and it needs to be passed on. But I still need to read The Dharma Bums one more time – so I can learn to really let go…

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Me and Herman Melville are so over. After 298 pages of Moby Dick – that’s halfway through – I’ve finally called off the hunt for enjoyment. If I’d made it to page 300 that would have at least been some kind of landmark, a respectable point at which to give up. I didn’t want it to end like this…


This has happened before, of course. My reading life is scarred by unhappy liasons with literary ‘classics’ which for one reason or another, I just could not get along with; my bookshelves are tainted here and there with the embarrassing scent of failure. Sorry Lord Jim, it was just the wrong time for me…see you around Don Quixote, I guess you’re just not my type.

Of course, we value the idea of being ‘well-read’. It’s a middle-class aspiration that signifies depth and resolve (I mean middle-class in the British, bourgeois sense).  To be cognisant with the classics means you have scaled the heights of what is possible in literature; like the well-travelled, you have officially broadened your mind. And in our endlessly distracted 21st century lives, to read the classics is to invest time and commitment in accessing older, time-tested sources of wisdom.

That’s all very well, but who decides what the classics are?

Since the early 20th century, reading lists have been complied by academics in an effort to enshrine certain works as officially great, influential and important. Known as the Western Canon, this list consists of all the poetry, novels, and plays you might expect, but has also been criticised for overshadowing the works of women and people of colour.

However, this is not my primary problem with the classics, but the round about way of saying things that predominates; both for the characters and the authorial voice. For all the seductive poetry and wierdness of Moby Dick, the prose all too often makes me feel as through I’m wading through treacle:

“Nor, perhaps, will it fail to be eventually percieved, that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve. That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship. For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base.” (Melville, Moby Dick)

Did people actually talk like that? I know it was written in the mid-1800s, but trying to disentangle sentences like this drives me crazy. I get frustrated with these canonical books, then I feel stupid; because if they are officially so great but I don’t enjoy them then there must be something wrong with me.

That’s why it was a relief to realise that I have my own canon – a body of works that excites me and makes me salivate for more. It comprises all the books that came out the US counter-culture in the second half of the twentieth century, encompassing everything that made the 60s shimmer with ideas, exploration and arguament, from Catch 22 to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It starts with the Beats in the 50s – Kerouac, Ginsberg and Buckowski and stretches to drug tales like Trainspotting in the 90’s (it doesn’t have to be American)


By the way, I’d like to state that I’m not a druggy person. Other than booze, psycho-active chemicals and me don’t get on. But I am attracted to all those who have nudged open the doors of perception and written about what they saw, from Thomas DeQuincey onwards.

The associated works in this canon include political tracts by the likes of Orwell and Che Guevara and biographies of…well, anyone that interests me. This is really quite a varied and flexible canon, but every writer in it has a touch of beatnick in their soul.

My favourite writer of any kind is the late music journalist Lester Bangs. He knows exactly where I’m coming from:

“I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows toward its last raving sooty feedback pirouette.” (Lester Bangs)


Like Lester, the driving passion of my life is popular music, and I guess that identifying strongly with a late 20th century form of popular expression effects what culture you can relate to. I don’t like imagining a world where rock, jazz and blues don’t yet exist.

I know there are things in the big old books that I’ve missed out on, which is why I don’t give up nibbling away at the Western Canon. Part of what we seek in reading is insight into ourselves which we will only get by trawling through the thoughts of others. That’s what I’m doing – panning for philosophical gold; bits that will fit me, help me and enrich me. But I’m sure I’ll survive without knowing how to catch a giant whale.

For more on the literature of the 60’s counter-culture, visit Erich Ruppert’s excellent blog

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Ten years ago this summer, I embarked upon a musical journey through Western Europe, equipped with little more than six strings and a sense of misadventure. It was a memorable trip, and three years later I wrote up the escapade for an issue of The Korovian, the in-house journal of Liverpool music venue Korova (now defunct but rumoured to be making a return).

What better time then, to revisit that sun-kissed summer once again…

Tour of Beauty (Pt.1)                                                                                       

June 2003. I was a part-time muso dolebag facing another summer with a whole lot of nothing going on.  “Got to get me some kicks!” I thought. So I logged on and booked a flight to Barcelona, out of my self-imposed oblivion.

There was a plan, of sorts. I knew I could make money with a guitar on the streets, and a dreadlocked busking veteran had once told me that there were rich pickings to be had anywhere in Spain.  Now I don’t mind living on my wits, indeed it gives me a great sense of freedom, but the airfare for this little venture had damn near cleaned me out, and I got on the plane with just 300 Euros to last me seven weeks.

Hey, instinct told me to do it. And instinct was right…

As soon as I left the plane, I was hit by an all-over body massage of 30 degree heat. Truly, I’d made the right leap. I was EUPHORIC. So euphoric that I walked straight into Alanis Morrisette’s more beautiful twin sister, who told me her name was Alison, and whisked me through Barcelona’s Metro system, in the spirit of traveller solidarity, to the cheapest, cushiest hostel in the city.

The Kabul hostel has 4 floors of dorms and is a snip at 15 Euros a night. More importantly, it looks out onto Placa Reial, a massive square with fifty-foot pine trees and a fountain – a perfect chill-out zone. That evening I walked out to find hundreds of people sitting around in groups, drinking, smoking and swapping stories. I only had to sit down to make friends, and everyone wants to meet The Guy With The Guitar…


Next day I went scouting for the best busking pitches, and I didn’t have to look far. Las Ramblas is a wide street that runs between the beach and the town centre, and like Princess Avenue in Toxteth, it has a raised walkway down the middle. This teems with tourists day and night, and cafes have their tables set out on the walkway.  My technique was to work my way up Las Ramblas, playing 3 songs every twenty feet or so, and passing my hat round the tables.

Maintaining people’s attention like this gets exhausting after 3 hours, but it’s worth it for the interaction, and the big tippers.

There were several others working the same circuit as me; a tall smackhead with a penny whistle, a sexy green-haired juggler girl, and countless ‘human statues’ dressed as biblical characters or celebrities, who would move when you made a donation – easy money, if you ask me.

At night in Placa Reial, business inevitably merged with pleasure. I’d do a bit of Beatles, Dylan or whatever came to mind, pass the guitar round and meet new characters from every continent. Often, it felt so cheeky to soil the encounter with a sheepish “…any contributions, then?” but I was doing it to survive, and got respect for that.

One night a crowd of us stumbled off to the beach where, rumour had it, there was much partying to be had. I gatecrashed a campfire drum-party, introducing a little Bob Marley to the mix, while rappers took turns. Having played myself to exhaustion, I finally crashed out hugging my guitar, ‘cos it had taken me this far…

Next morning I awoke in searing sunshine, to a total absence of partying, no new ‘friends’ and no guitar either. I had 50 Euros to my name and a mission – to find the cheapest instrument in the city and get back to work.

In the hostel I had met Gali, an Israeli with a voice like Grace Slick. We teamed up and honed a crowd-pleasing set of covers – California Dreamin’ and the like – and worked the café tables with ‘Serena’, my new acoustic guitar which I’d managed to buy for just 30 Euros. (Gali had advised me to name it this one, otherwise it might leave me too)

We were a great team. I’ve often found that a boy/girl combo can become more than the sum of its parts, as audiences can speculate on the precise nature of the chemistry between you. There was no sexual spark between Gali and me, but for some reason we constantly tried to outdo each other with obscene jokes.


Exploring the back alleys one day, I came across a tiny bar which had just opened; a  bohemian cubbyhole with red spotlights and cushions. I got talking to the owners, two English guys who had decided to move to Barcelona on the spur of the moment. I had just moved into a big apartment that I shared with four others, and I too was starting to think “Fuck! I could just live here, full-time!” The new place was 25 Euros a night, but I was making twice that every day and having a ball.

But as perfect an existence as all this seemed, it was soon to become clear just how precarious a street musician’s life can be.  One night, I was involved in an amazing jam session in the square. One lad had a huge Djembe drum, and a charismatic French rapper was instigating call-and-response chants with a fifty-strong crowd who danced around us. We were really hitting a peak when a police van zoomed into the square. Two cops got out and started waving their hands and pointing at their watches; it was 2AM, so reluctantly, we wound things down.

Of course, once they had gone, we resumed our party. The cops soon returned, and dragged the drum into the back of the van, driving off with the poor owner of the instrument in hot pursuit. As far as the authorities were concerned, cultural vitality has its limits.

It was August and Gali told me she was moving on, heading for Paris. Not only that, I had just been stood up on a date by a girl from the English bar. But I didn’t care – 175 Kms South there was a ticket waiting for me at Benecassim, Spain’s biggest music festival, where in various ways, my trip would get even hotter.

To be continued…

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