Wednesday, 28 December 2011

We Could Be Heroes

In amongst the Christmas Hoopla ( I rate amongst the top 5% on the Grich Scale and can never forgive dear Old Ebeneezer for going Soft on Santa in his dotage) there was some tragic news.
2 Pillars of Great Men cultural and spiritual influence died taking with them the promise of fresh insight into and amusment at what it is to be a Human and more specifically for me how to be a male one.
Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died within a day of each other both have deeply affected me through what they have written and how they lived their lives. Both men were political animals but with a big fat streak of the poet which made what they had to say more personal and able to stir the senses than any dry academic or career parliamentary nay-sayer. Neither of them lived a vice free life and approached their polite hedonism with a relaxed glee.

I first read about Havel at university, a semester studying socialist states and social revolutions invariably climaxed with the events of 1989. During the Reagan era cold war I grew up less than 20 miles from a US air base in East Anglia and I vividly recall have a very serious, matter of fact with my parents about what would happen should a nuclear war occur. It was an odd feeling as a 7-8 year old trying to understand that living so close to the base meant we would be lucky – we would die instantly. The Russians were evil, hated everything we held dear, were all powerful and would probably cause the end of the world. So it seemed so fantastic that just a decade later I was learning how some very ordinary people doing some very ordinary things had wrestled the ultimate boogey man of my childhood into submission.

The velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia fascinated me because the ordinary people who caused it were artists. Playwrights, poets, novelists. Pennyless, abused, arrested and placed under complete scrutiny by the security services and media in their own country they fought back using the only weapon they had. Truth.
In his essay the Power of the Powerless Havel describes in a beautifull and unassuming way how dissent can bring down a post totalitarian regime. Not by mass demonstrations (although this would come later) but by the simple pleasure of living in truth. If you know that the regime is not working say so. If you know that state produced products are of poor quality don’t buy them. If you know the propagnda to be a lie – don’t repeat it.

I didn’t read his plays until some years after… I’m not a theatrephile but was seeing a girl who was studying the performing arts so reading Havel allowed me to employ the Hitchian trick of “keeping two sets of books”. On the one hand I was being open minded and embracing something that she was passionate about while privately I was revelling in the dull dusty history that she pretended to find attractive in me.

What struck me, particularly in the Vanek plays was that by using humour and absurd irony to merely point at and describe the idiocies of the powerful you could inform more people, more quickly about those idiocies. You could belittle the strong and empower the feeble with laughter provoking words or a barbed witticism far more easily than with hours of rhetoric. I began to become aware of the immense power and pleasure of words as art.

It was this mixture of the profound and the purile that I found again in Hitchen’s writing as well as his television appearences in the US and more lately the set piece theatre (that word again) of the organised debates he was invloved in. My opinion of what he wrote seems a little flat when the internet is awash with eulogies from Salman Rushdie to Richard Dawkins – however the phrase “I couldn’t eat enough to vomit enough” is one that I have cheerfully stolen and will continue to use. It in essence contains the strength of feeling and Hitch’s preparedness to be rude when required as well as highlighting a fresh, playful use of language that he almost always provided. In his Letters to a Young Contrarian he describes and admires an american servicemen who “ratted” on the attrocities conducted by his brothers in arms during the vietnam war. A man who became hated and ostricised for living in truth.

Why are they heroes? For what they’ve done I have to admire them. Havel simply wouldn’t let his art be silenced and learned how to use it to destroy his previous captors. Hitch can’t claim to have rescued a country from an evil despot but by being a leading light in the New Athiesm movment in the US he can say that he at least tried…

Moreover they are my heroes in the way they did these things, it wasn’t what they thought but how they thought. A smile, anecdote and a drink was never far from them (Havel was a bohemian in every sense of the word) and both seemed determined to enjoy these things despite their failing health. While being an unashamed fan boy – their deaths by cancer and lung disease have only strengthened my resolve to not start smoking. However Hitch’s pieces in Vanity Fair describing his travels “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady”, never blinked when considering his own role in his untimely demise.

Kind, witty and angry when required both have a little bit of oldschool gentleman rogue about them that I can’t help but find compelling. Not only have they done some trully amazing things they did it with a charm and intellect that I think I’ll struggle to replace. Which is what heroes should be: irreplaceable (especially for a man in his mid-thirties who should know better).

While thinking about this I have been sharing my feelings on heroes with frends and have noticed a distinct gender shift. Men for the most part either have them or can cheerfully recall those thay had when they were younger. Childhood heroes were footballers, graduating to musicians, writers and historical figures later. A hero is the guy who did things you couldn’t, they guy you wanted to be like. Some-one to look upto – ape and admire like King Louie who wants to be like you-ooh.

Of those women that had definite heroes the choices were unexpected. A friend told me with a little embarrasment but meant every word that she was little bit obsessed with Tina Turner and latterly Beyonce. I’m not sure what a nice white middle class english girl wanting to grow up to be a sexually aggressive black american women tells us – but it is certainly a statement.

No-one mentioned the women that I expected, there were no Dianas, Thatchers or Marie Curie (who I recently learned is the only person to have won a Nobel Prize in both Physics and Chemistry) and so I realised that I was again applying my male fan boy criteria.
Most of women I spoke to had a very different attitude for the most part their heroes were people that they knew – Grandparents who were so very kind or other reletives who had dealt with a tradegy. I swung wildly between being slightly underwhelmed to actually being deeply touched by the fact that all these heroes were incredibly real. Empathy with them and a feeling of “I hope I would act in that way when it happens to me” seemed more important than the blokey “if my life were amazing I’d be like you” . I must balance this by sharing perhaps the most moving wedding speech I’ve heard was when a friend who was acting as best man for his brother declared with no embarrasement what-soever that his big brother was his hero, so perhaps it not a gender thing afterall.

I spent christmas with 4 generations of Mackenzie-Naughton women and was relegated along with my dad to fetching and carrying duties. Watching them clearly learn to admire what each had gone through in bringing children into the world while still doing all the practical caring for them I did wonder if there was something in having a hero you could actually talk to.

While I’m waiting to meet mine though, I’ll be the monkey in the corner with a glass of Johnny Walker Black Label…

Monday, 12 December 2011

Zappadan: Being Frank

In part 2 of my contribution to this year's Zappadan I thought I'd talk about, and play a few examples of, the times I've tackled Frank's music. Covering FZ is wrought with danger; how does one balance the musicality, the repertoire and the attitude? I've seen bands try and I've seen bands fail (Dweezil's Zappa Plays Zappa being a notable exception). I've tackled a few in my time, 3 of which are below for your listening pleasure. Sadly missing from the archives (frustratingly I know these are both recorded somewhere!) are a live version of My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama (stylistically somewhere between the Mothers version and the G3 version), and both electric and acoustic guitar renderings of What's New In Baltimore.

Willie The Pimp by chris-walls

Treacherous Cretins by chris-walls

Crew S**t by chris-walls

Something that always tickled me was that Frank's unique soloing style, of just playing whatever was on his mind, was incredibly honest, direct, personal and idiosyncratic. Or in other words, Frank was being frank. Inspired by this turn of phrase and by Zappa solos such as Watermelon In Easter Hay and Zoot Allures I've played about with a guitar solo vehicle called "Let Me Be Frank" a few times over the years. Here are two that made it to tape:

Let Me Be Frank by chris-walls

Let Me Be The Revolution, Frank by chris-walls

Music is the best!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Zappadan: Finding Frank

One evening recently I was sitting in my living room in Holloway, North London, listening to some albums by my favourite artist Frank Zappa. I tweeted a passing comment to this effect and was surprised to generate some interest, including a notification that between December 4th (the day the present day composer stopped refusing to die) and December 21st (his birth), the internet would be celebrating Zappadan. For what it's worth then, I thought I'd share some of my personal Zappa experience.

I don't remember the first time I heard of Frank, but I do remember the first time I heard him. Through my early teens (and to this day) I was a big fan of Primus. Reading interviews online, a recurring theme was guitarist Larry LaLonde's love of Frank Zappa. I remember one interview in particular where Ler said something like "every time I play guitar, I'm trying to sound like Frank". Well I loved Ler's unique style and this just piqued my interest. As a young guitar player I was also getting into Steve Vai's Passion and Warfare, and discovered that Vai started his career as "stunt guitarist" for FZ. I picked up the G3 video where Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson team up for a cover of Frank's "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama". My favourite band of all time (and I'd argue also the greatest band of all time) was and is Queen, and I read an old interview where Brian May said he was a fan of Frank's. Basically through my early teens Frank's name was becoming increasingly unavoidable, although his music was notably elusive in the public domain.

In September 1999, when I was 15, I went on a week's work experience with a Leicester producer and music called Steve Nutter. Hi Steve! Steve's girlfriend, it turned out, was a massive Zappa fan (pretty much the only type of Zappa fan you'll find), and after hearing me play guitar she insisted (as we Zappaphiles tend to do) that I should check out Frank. So that Friday afternoon we sat down in Steve's living room and put on the Sheik Yerbouti album. My overriding memory of that moment was that I had never (and still haven't) heard anything like it: thick feedback guitar, lush layers of vocals, complex band performances and bluntly eloquent lyrics.

My next encounter with Frank would be around 5 months later, my 16th birthday in February 2000, after a few months of bewildered browsing in the variable and extensive Frank Zappa sections in Leicestershire's record shops. My friend Seth asked what I'd like for my birthday and I asked for the Cheap Thrills CD you could pick up for £2.99. Seth delivered the goods (thanks dude!) and with my friends gathered round in my living room I slipped it into the stereo. Spoken word opener "I Could Be A Star Now" built my anticipation before the 1988 live version of Catholic Girls blew my mind: unfathomable time signature guitars and horn section stabs trading places with obscene crooned jazz.

I was hooked.