Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

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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My first visit Berlin six years ago coincided with the global financial system going into meltdown. It was all over every screen in my hostel, with panicked-looking people in suits trying to explain incompehensible columns of figures. But I wasn’t there as a financial journalist; I was on a mission to explore a very different universe which exists at the heart of Germany’s capital – the radical underground of Berlin...

There was much that I had planned to check out on this trip, such as the Brandenburg gate, several gig venues and the famous art-squat Tacheles. But despite all my pre-planning, I was prepared for the unexpected to happen. Five days in to my visit, it did.

At about 3pm on 11th November, I was walking through the city centre when I saw a large gathering of people on the central square of Alexanderplatz, so I went over to see what was going on.                                                                                                                                      berlin demonstration

They were mostly young people, many of them punks and alternative types, and some were wearing bar codes across their foreheads, while others had hats made out of tin foil. It was obviously some kind of demonstration.

Many of the protesters had T-shirts and placards with the image of a Big Brother-style face –with the slogan Stasi 2 underneath. (the Stasi were East Germany’s secret police during the communist era)   

Having a pitiful knowledge of German, I couldn’t work out what was going on. But I found someone who could tell me in English. His name was Roman Froelich.

“The German government is enacting laws to enable the state to intercept emails and phone calls, to examine peoples’ computers and install CCTV widely” Roman explained “…this march is a coming together of almost 200 different groups to oppose these policies”

The march was moving off, so I joined it. Drum’n’bass and electro was blasting from sound systems on the backs of graffitti-painted trucks as we walked down Karl-Liebnecht-strasse. The people around me were holding banners proclaiming ‘Frieheit nat angst’ (freedom not fear) and Num Ziem Stalker-staat’ (stop the stalker-state)

Those standing on the street watching the procession, many from an older generation, were genuinely interested in what the protestors had to say, and the leaflets they handed out as they went. For Berliners, state surveilance is a very sensitive issue. A population that lived under the original Stasi are not as willing to tolerate it as people are in the UK.

An interesting factor was the low police profile. Where British police often line the routes of marches in massed ranks, here there were just a handful at each corner where the march took a turn. It looked as though people are allowed a little more chance to have their say in this city.

The marchers were not tightly packed, and I was able to move towards the front of the the march. As I did, the atmosphere got more confrontational.

black bloc

I found myself amongst a lot of young men, most of whom were dressed in black hoodies, sunglasses and in some cases, face masks. Their banners screamed “Fuck Control” and “Save The Resitance”. The police were in greater in numbers here, watching menacingly in their military-style fatigues and helmets.

Suddenly, on the wide street Unter Den Linden, the march slowed and came to a stop. I couldn’t work out what was going on, but dozens of police began running back the way we had just come. The young contingent then erupted into massed chants and gestures in their direction. Someone told me that there had been a fight further back involving some fascists. There was a tense atmosphere, but within 3 minutes we were moving again.

I moved up further to where the march was passing the Reightstag – the German Parliament building. The building itself had been totally sealed off with wire fencing. More police and vans were around, and dog handlers stood on the pavement at ten metre intervals, holding back their snarling animals, which were being driven crazy by the noise from the samba band which I was now walking with.                                                                                                                          

berlin cops

We were being filmed by police cameramen here. And in return, some marchers were filming the police. We eventually wound up at the Brandenburg gate, where speeches were given from a stage.

A few days later, I met up with Roman at a left wing pub in Mitte district. Roman told me he had been immersed in the Berlin radical scene for ten years. Firstly, he expained how Berlin’s radicalism has been nurtured by the squat scene.

“the squat scene happened after the wall came down in 1989. During the GDR era, the authorities moved a lot of people into new tower blocks and left the old buildings abandoned. When the wall came down, lots of people came over to Eastern Berlin to make use of them…the squats offered a lot of space for people to do creative things in the new atmosphere of freedom. More alternative and radical people came to the city. It was a place where they could fulfil their dreams in a non-capitalistic way”

This led to an era in the early nineties where whole neighbourhoods were utilised, with squats providing meeting places, living spaces and venues for the new subculture, largely collectively organised along anarchist lines. However, the city authorities eventually decided to act against this movement.

“In 1993 a law was passed which said that squatters could be evicted within 24 hours of entering a building unless they had signed a contract with the landlord…so now there are no real squats. All of the squatters have contracts, or in some cases they have managed to buy the buildings”

The original squat scene was pioneered by punks, a group that been cruelly oppressed during the communist era.  “Punks were punished in the GDR. There were no punk gigs allowed. The only places that punk bands could play was in churches…Some people were put in prison just for being punks. A lot of people from that time are now sufferring from psychological problems.”

berlin squat

Our drinks finished, it was time to visit one of these spaces. Roman took me to a squat-bar which is used by a number of radical groups as a meeting and organising point. The interior had flaked plaster, raw bricks, red lights and layers of graffitti. There were shelves full of underground literature and gig posters on the walls.        

Young people were gathered round the bar, playing table football or huddled away having conversations in corners. Amusingly, Sham 69 was playing on the stereo. It was such a cool place, but a universe away from the superficial, commodified world of mainstream youth culture.

Getting back to our conversation on the radical scene, I asked Roman about the black-clad marchers I had seen on the demo a few days before. “They are known as the ‘black bloc’” he told me “they are a movement throughout Europe, have been for about fifteen years…they physically confront the fascists – fight with them. They also fight with the police and cross police lines on demonstrations. They cover their faces to remain anonymous, although covering the face during a demonstration has been made illegal.

in recent years fascists groups have started to adopt the icongraphy, music and style of anti-fascists, to attract the youth…also there is a long history of infiltration of anti-fascists by fascists, and vice versa. And by the police.”

berlin police

The black bloc seemed to be an almost exclusively male force, with a very confrontational energy, which you feel could attract people who simply like violence, and could go either way. “That is a problem” Roman agreed “…it is a very male thing. But there are also many feminist groups here in Berlin. There’s a big gay and lesbian movement too…but it is not entirely safe. Some lesbian friends of mine were coming out of a squat party once and they got beaten up very badly by turkish fascists”

Berlin’s squatters might not be changing the world but in their adopted buldings something like an alternative, free society has been created. But as Roman explained to me, this radical subculture is under threat as Berlin becomes increasingly gentrified.

“In the last ten years a million new people have come to Berlin, many from abroad. For many years people were coming here and just hanging out. There was a very special alternative and non-commercial culture. But the success of that non-commercial culture has attracted people who spend money on culture. They want to be a part of it.”

Indeed, the amount of UK and American accents to be heard in the cafes of bohemian areas like Freidrichstain is striking. I personally know of arts professionals who have moved to the city, attracted by its edginess, energy and affordability.   

“Rents are rising ” Roman says “…and in areas like Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, a lot of poor people have had to move out. When the rents are put up, the new people will still pay it, because it’s still cheap compared to where they are from.”

Many of the squat-clubs in Mitte district have closed in the last 2 years, and are now luxury flats. But the underground is not giving in: “15 years ago, ‘Mietshauser syndikat’ was formed – it’s a charity to help squatters buy houses. Lots of people in the radical scene pay a contribution each month to this”

This kind of solidarity is astonishing. Berlin remains a centre of alternative culture that can inspire, inform and amuse. And remind us of what is possible.

This article was originally written for Nerve magazine.

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When I was a kid I was in love with motorbikes – along with dinosaurs and knights, they were one of the great obsessions of my childhood. 

I can’t remember how it started, but by the age of nine my bedroom walls were lined with posters of Kawasakis, Suzukis and Hondas; I amassed a sizeable collection of books on the subject and I drew and painted the machines incessantly. When we moved onto a street with a motorcycle showroom on the corner, the fire was stoked still further and I would indulge my two-wheeled fantasies constantly.

All of this was of some concern to my mother, who envisaged me killing myself as soon as I got the chance to ride. An ex-nurse, she was full of lurid tales about road accidents involving motorcyclists and would recount them regularly in order to put me off. It didn’t work however. It was clear to me then, as it is now – the motorcycle is the most exiting invention humankind has ever devised.

The sound of a bike is enough to quicken the blood; the growl of an exposed engine turning over gives off a feeling off danger before you let even out the clutch. That element of risk is what makes it sexy, combined with the individualism of the solo rider, who is bonded to his metal steed in a way humankind has known ever since we first tamed wild horses millenia ago.

I have never understood how anyone could get exited by a car. Sitting off to one side of the vehicle, dragging round a whole lot of extra seats, space and weight, the car driver is contained; cossetted within a piece of vehicular real-estate. Contrast that with hurling yourself through the cold air, exposed, with an angry engine between your knees. A motorbike is pure freedom.

As I got older, my interests changed. To everyone’s surprise, and some relief, I didn’t become a motorcyclist; I kept my feet on the street. But I still salute the individualism that the motorcycle represents, and the cultural impact it has had.

Motorbikes have appeared everywhere in popular culture, from films like Easy Rider to literary eulogies such as “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. But my favourite piece of motorcycle culture is a song by the English singer/songwriter Richard Thompson.

A master of storytelling and character in song, Thompson (a founder member of folk-rock legends Fairport Convention) recounts the tale of a rebel motorcyclist who woos a  flame-haired woman “Red Molly” on his motorbike, only to come to a messy end, handing her the keys to the machine on his deathbed. Accompanied by his unique, virtuoso guitar playing, this is a Thompson classic. Enjoy…

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Nerve Magazine – Interview with local singer, songwriter and writer Tom George.

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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…

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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.

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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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