Top Ten For 2002
2002 was a strange year – It would have to be after the horror of the year before. However, no sooner had fire- fighters become ‘the new heroes’, and ‘real people’, the subject of ‘real news’, than what passes for the media on this planet regurgitated their obsession with celebrity and artifice. While a child dies every twenty seconds from starvation and Al Quaida recruit fresh martyrs from the backstreets of Karachi and Hounslow, our papers and TV led us into the struggle for the survival of our civilisation with fresh revelations about the break up of Justin and Britney, the antics of a coke sniffing, whoring news quiz host and taxed our intellects with the burning question – who’ll win Big Brother in 2002?
That’s why I’ve found it a tad difficult to pluck ten wonderful things from the cornucopia of delights that have showered down on us over the last twelve months. Difficult, but not impossible.
Here they are, in reverse order as usual -
Number Ten – Case Logic folders
Pam and I were in America at Easter. We started off in Philadelphia and spent a few happy days exploring the city looking for examples of her great-grandfather’s plumbing in various city buildings (the basement toilet, sorry, rest room, in the Bourse being the best one by far). Then we spent a few days in New York where I’d been invited to play on the bill with singer/songwriter Pete Stone Brown. The day after the gig we went to visit a new friend, Hodah. It was in his apartment that we shared an exhilarating epiphany – Case Logic.
Housing in Manhattan being at a premium, Hodah had to make the most of the limited space in his apartment. One of the first things I do when I visit anybody is look at their bookshelves and CD racks. There were his books and other ephemera, he works in the movie industry so there was a lot of that, but try as hard as I could, I couldn’t see any CDs. There was music playing on the hi-fi, but none of the usual piles o f discs that I associate with the home of a Dylan collector. When he was putting the next selection of music on I was intrigued to watch him go to a book case and take down a large, black folder, unzip it, open it up and take out a CD. It was one of many that stood in a row on the shelf. I’d originally thought they were photo-albums or such like. Hodah carefully explained to me what they were. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Case Logic binder.
We got quite excited by the possibilities. I don’t kno w how you store your music, but back home in Manchester, things had got out of control, mounds of discs, some in jewel cases, more and more just in plain slips and plastic envelopes, were in danger of overwhelming the living room. And that’s not counting the ones that were on the purpose built shelf and in CD towers. Quite bluntly – we were in danger of drowning in music. Case Logic offered a chance to get it all under control.
Now, I’m proud to say, that over our original shelf is another shelf on which reside the cases, each one holding 80 CDs with covers contained opposite, or 160 without. Unfortunately there are still a heap of CDs in shoe-boxes, little wallets and a pile residing in slip cases by the sound system that grows taller day by day because of my top ten choice number three, which will be revealed shortly.
Number Nine – The Second John Green Day
Once again, the perfect opportunity to meet and greet friends old and new. The amount of organisation that goes into the JG Day always amazes me and a heartfelt thanks and congratulations to my fellow Freewheelers who actually do all the work. The assorted guests on the bill this year were interesting, informative and entertaining, the traders’ hall of delights was a veritable bazaar of the bizarre, and the bar awash with bonhomie and ideas that definitely reached the parts that other bars can’t reach. In particular, I’d like to thank Bob Dylan for the sartorial inspiration that I feel made my contribution in 2002, just that little bit different. Next year, Keith Agar should be given some kind of award for his sterling efforts on behalf of the Side-Splitting Society, and finally, next time, put the speakers on in the afternoon and the music on in the evening because it’s a long day and inebriants take the ir toll on even the stoutest of hearts.
Number Eight – Bob Dylan live at the Manchester Arena
Unlike a great many of his followers, here and abroad, I don’t see a Dylan tour as an excuse to flash the plastic and re-mortgage the house in order to go to every gig. I like to keep things simple and I try to attend maybe at least one gig during every tour in order to make it a ‘special’ event. I’m not setting out here to denigrate those who do, I just find it nigh on impossible financially and work-wise to take that step.
Having said that, I have to add that for me, having heard recordings of the other gigs on the UK leg of 2002, Manchester sounds like the right choice. ‘Maggies Farm’ was dizzying. Here was Dylan, in Manchester where all those years ago he’d been attacked for going electric playing his first electric single as an acoustic number! The ironies abounded. I know other people will say their particular favourite was one place or another, but I guess for all of us the ‘had to be there’ factor kicks in, rightly or wrongly.
A main reason for the choice would have to be the band. They are now at a peak of musical ability as a backing outfit for Dylan. I’d even go as far as to say that at times they are even stronger musically than The Band were, though obviously, time and circumstance are radically different. It’s the way they can cut across styles and genres with such ease that I find delightful. To be able to watch Jim Keltner, as I was able to do at Manchester, made it even more wonderful for me. Before this he was simply a name on albums that I’ve cherished. Two legends in one night was wonderful.
I have to make a negative observation now, one which is purely personal. A two hour set experienced from a crushed, standing position is too long. Well, it is for me at least. I don’t profess to having an answer to this problem, I know some people like to get down and boogie, but I find myself yearning for the golden days of 1966 when you sat down and watched it like a ‘proper’ concert. Next time Dylan comes I’m going to go into training a month or so before.
Number Seven – Jerusalem by Steve Earle
“Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America”, write Steve Earle in the liner notes to his latest album, before continuing with an impassioned plea for the voice of dissent as part of an American tradition to be upheld in this, its darkest hour. He cites Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers as an inspiration before urging us to remember those others like Emma Goldman, John Reed and Martin Luther King who also fought for the rights of the Constitution, but have now almost been buried by history for daring to question America’s ‘leaders’.
Earle is quite possibly the most direct link we have now in American popular music to the message song tradition as exemplified by writers such as Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie. As such, he is also part of the Country lineage that includes the ‘response’ song, and ‘commentary’ song. Not all the tunes on this album are specifically written to stir up the blood; Earle recognises that that would be too polemical and ultimately destructive to the message he’s trying to deliver. There is one song on this collection however, that has brought the wrath of the American right-wing down on his head and led to death threats and boycotts. Called ‘John Walker’s Blues’, the song is built on the story of nineteen year old John Walker Lindh, the so-called ‘American Taliban’, who was captured last year in Afghanistan and is now serving a 25 year sentence for ‘bearing arms against the United States’. What Earle does, and presumably what’s aroused the anger of the rednecks, is to write the song as if in Walker’s own words. The narrative takes us from his early teenage disillusionment with the American way of life, to the discovery of the word of the Prophet, and ultimately to his desire to die in the Jihad – ‘But Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed – Now they’re dragging me back with my head in a sack, to the land of the Infidel – Al shadu la ilaha illa Allah – There is no God but God!’ It’s been a long time since a song sends shivers up and down my spine when I hear it. This one does every time.
Bear in mind if you buy this album, or hear any tunes from it, that there are people in America who actually tried to have Earle arrested for having created it. Much worse than that, there are actually people who have threatened to kill him over it. Now, it’s a long, long time since a song had the power to stir up that kind of reaction, and for that alone we must support Ea rle as much as we can.
Number Six – The Bootleg Series 5 – Bob Dylan 1975
Hang out the bunting – Old Bob’s back in town with a ding-dong dazzler from the archives. Whilst it’s great to have a properly re- mastered memento of the Rolling Thunder era complete with a pristine DVD to boot shouldn’t we be celebrating the brilliance that is the current touring band?
Why doesn’t Dylan agree to the release of a live album from this, his most fruitful period in years?
Number Five – The Coral live at Manchester University
In a vainglorious attempt to garner some street cred, I’ve been trying to listen to more contemporary music, and actually liked the CD of The Coral so much that we went to see them live in a venue I first played in 1967. I hadn’t set foot inside for a long time and was surprised at how much the interior had changed, until, that is, we went into what used to be called the Main Debating Hall. It didn’t appear to be any different from when I went to see Cream or Captain Beefheart, or Bob Marley and The Wailers, basically 1200 people crushed into a long room watching a band playing at the other end. And what a band! Hailing from Liverpool and containing at least two brothers there isn’t one of them over the age of twenty-one. Their music is, I suppose there’s no other word for it, post-modern, that is to say, they’ve paid very close attention to their parent’s record collection, and as such are impossible to pin down to any one particular influence. The result is a wonderfully bouncing celebration of styles and forms, complete with close harmonies, trumpets, keyboards and chutzpah. They even had a light-show, that for me, brought back memories of the Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett played with them.
Number Four – A Tea Dance At The Savoy by Robert Meadley
There used to be a seedy bookshop in one of the inner city wastelands that used to blight Manchester. What made it special was that they also had bootleg records for sale. In fact Clinton Heylin bought his first one there. What I never knew at the time was that the owners had a masterplan for world domination. Using the profits from the sale of soft-porn mags and Bob Dylan out-takes they were busy setting up a series of cultural incendiary devices with titles like ‘Crucified Toad’ and ‘New Worlds’. These maga zines specialised in publishing the best of a new wave of literature that was totally the opposite to that of the University of East Anglia/Granta Mafia. From these humble beginnings emerged Savoy Books, champions of writers like Michael Moorcock, M John Harrison, and Charles Partington. In the 1980s they earned the wrath of Chief Constable James Anderton and went to prison for their cheek in daring to publish a series called ‘Lord Horror’. This Rabelasian journey through the nightmare of the 20th century was the first book in England to be prosecuted for obscenity since the ‘Lady Chatterley’ trial in the early 1960s.
Bloodied but unbowed, Savoy carried on by perpetuating a series of outrages in the 1990s mainly evolving around the concept of reviving PJ Proby’s career. For Savoy he produced a CD Talking Book of ‘Lord Horror’, and a handful of other masterpieces, including his version of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and Irish rebel song ‘Kevin Barry’.
The whole story of Savoy is celebrated in this brilliant collection of essays by mountaineering plumber, Robert Meadley. His take on the Savoy story is punctuated by visits to Schopenhauer, the Moors murderers, Paul Newman and much, much more. It has to be read to be believed and is one of the most stimulating books I’ve seen in a long time.
Number Three – Emusic
We had Napster and Kazaa, and all the other dubious download sites on the internet, but it wasn’t until we came across Emusic that it all began to come together and make sense. Emusic is an internet music download site that’s actually owned by Universal Music. Presumably sensing which way the wind was blowing they decided to offer their entire catalogue over the internet. In exchange for the extremely modest charge of $9.99 per month, you ha ve unlimited access to everything they own, and what they own is formidable. I’ve slightly scratched the surface of the Shanachie Yazoo one of the labels that they own the rights to. This is one of the finest Folk/Roots imprimaturs around. Their Rock archive is magnificent, as is their Jazz. You name it, they’ve got it or something approximating it.
We probably download three or four CDs worth of music a week, which to some people may not seem a lot, but it’s about all we can manage to absorb at the present time. I’ve just discovered that they’ve got a massive collection of Lenny Bruce, so that’ll have to be next. That’ll be when I’ve finished listening to the five CD set of Charlie Patton… and all known recordings of the Mississippi Sheiks… and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers… and… and… The amount of money that it’s saved is enough to buy more Case Logics to fit the bloody things in!
Number Two – Dig Infinity – The Life & Art of Lord Buckley by Oliver Trager
I said about all I can say as regards this wonderful book in Freewheelin’ last year. Suffice to say that it’s the perfect companion to the forthcoming BBC Radio 4 documentary on the life of Lord Buckley scheduled to be broadcast later in the year.
Number One – Arthur Lee Live at Manchester Academy
After Dylan’s ‘disappearance’ in 1966, there were many cultural avatars to weigh up to fill the void. The most prominent one for me was Arthur Lee, who, with his band Love, were producing a series of recordings for Elektra Records that seemed at the time to be as re volutionary in style and content as anything could get. Love offered a wonderful melange of Latin tinged rhythms, swirling electric guitars and surrealistic lyrics, and the progression from their first album to the ecstatic high that was ‘Forever Changes’ is one of the most exciting in Rock history. We shouldn’t write the post 1967 Love off either, the recently re- mastered ‘Four Sail’ is another masterpiece.
But Arthur was a man beset by daemons, and after a rickety ride during the 1970s he was imprisoned under the ‘three strikes law’ for threatening a neighbour with a firearm. Arthur wasn’t a criminal, just a slightly damaged product of the acid days (daze?) of the 1960s, and to be sent to San Quentin was a barbaric and stupid application of the law.
Anyway, he emerged in the late 1990s and I heard with some disbelief that he was touring the UK. Somebody once said you can’t repeat the past. Then somebody else said, what do you mean you can’t – of course you can’. So we took a chance and went to see a flawed living legend. I went fully prepared to be let down. There is something sad about people you’ve formally regarded as heroes standing on a stage and churning out a greatest hits package. It can be a really daunting experience watching a formally great talent slide into mediocrity, but nothing could have prepared me for Arthur.
Almost the same age as Dylan, what was amazing was the power of his voice. Once described as ‘the underground Mel Torme’, he swooped and swung from the opening number, ‘My Little Red Book’, and then carried on blowing the minds of everyone at the gig. I’d waited nearly forty years to see this man and he did not let me down. Remarkable.
Addenda – Number Eleven
I know this is supposed to be a Top Ten, but I can’t resist including what, for me at least, was a very moving experience – The Manchester earthquakes. Yes, earthquakes plural. Not just one, but dozens of them. What the seismologists call a ‘cluster’ apparently.
The first one happened on a Monday morning as we were having a cup of tea in bed. At first we thought a lorry had crashed into the front of the house. When we put on our local BBC radio station reports started coming in that it had actually been an earthquake. Another tremor at midday had us all checking our insurance policies. That night an ‘expert’ came on the TV and said it was nothing to worry about, we’d had a tremor and the aftershock.
At work the next day the whole room shook as another tremor hit. I had the strangest feeling of utter helplessness. You just stand there and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. The whole experience is remarkably atavistic and primal. Now, to be honest, these quakes were small fry in comparison to what other parts of the world get, but I’m a Mancunian and these things don’t happen here. Nor do we get tidal waves, hurricanes, or volcanic eruptions, but what chance they might happen now? The quakes were occurring so often in fact that we were all becoming a bit blasé about them. Some wag even renamed the city ‘Man Fransico’.
Later in the week the ‘expert’ appeared on telly again and admitted that he was totally baffled. Seismologists from around the country relocated to Manchester and set up their equipment. By the end of October I believe there had been over fifty quakes. An old Mancunian mate who now lives in California emailed and told me he was quite jealous as they hadn’t had a decent quake for over a year. Well, as far as I’m concerned – He can keep them!
Finally – A Happy New Year to all Freewheelers – May the fruit be on the vine!
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