Tag Archives: rock music

Artists PUSH THE BOAT OUT in South London and talk about rock & toy cars

Tin Tin in Elephant & Castle painting by Harry

I usually tell people that appearing in this blog will not get them paying bums on seats to see their productions, but it may – or may not – get them noticed.

I was going to post this blog about a week ago, to basically plug a week-long London art show titled PUSH THE BOAT OUT – EIGHT SOUTH LONDON ARTISTS. It was previewed last Wednesday, opened on Thursday and runs until Monday this coming week.

Complications in my life plus my dead MacBook Pro laptop and, this week, a cowboy almost destroying my iMac desktop computer for several days intervened.

But the two people who set up the exhibition are so interesting in their own right that I think this blog is well worth a read. And, at the time of posting, the exhibition is still on. Just.

PUSH THE BOAT OUT is an exhibition of mostly-new work by four painters and four sculptors at the Art Academy in what used to be the library of the town hall at Elephant and Castle. The two people who organised it are Harry Pye and James Johnston and I met them in Harry’s studio in New Cross, South London.

Obviously, in what follows, I digressed.


Artists Harry Pye (left) and James Johnston

JOHN: So you live in New Cross…

HARRY: No. This is my studio. I live in Lewisham and work at Tate Britain. I’ve worked in the bookshop at Tate for 22 years – so half my lifetime. I like working there. Hearing people enthuse. It keeps me going.

Like you, I do a blog where I interview creative people. It’s like therapy for me. There are so many terrible things going on in the world that I find, if I pick out a few people and say “Tell me about your project,” it calms me down.

JOHN: I’m the opposite. I just get people to tell me all the terrible things that have ever happened to them. Very cathartic for me. But why organise an art show? Indeed, why bother painting or doing anything arty at all?

HARRY: I think, for a lot of artists, the answer to the question: “Why do you do things?” would be: “Because we’ve got rocks in our heads.” It really doesn’t make sense financially.

JOHN: Ah! Rock! James, you’re a musician. What’s your connection with art?

JAMES: Well, I’ve done touring for years and years and years.

JOHN: As a session musician?

JAMES: Just joining different bands.

JOHN: What instruments?

JAMES: Different stuff in different bands: organ, guitar, violin.

JOHN: Proper bands? Not pub bands but touring bands?

JAMES: All sorts of things really. I had my own band which I started in 1990 – Gallon Drunk, based in London. Then I did big tours with Nick Cave, the German band Faust and, recently, PJ Harvey.

JOHN: Faust? German heavy metal?

JAMES: No. They started in the 1960s as a German hippy band.

JOHN: Hippy?

JAMES: We would turn up at a venue and, to create the right atmosphere, we would all go out and have to pick up a load of stuff in the street and bring it into the venue in binliners to create ambience. We took a threshing machine on tour to blast a load of stuff out into the audience.

JOHN: Isn’t a threshing machine rather large?

JAMES: Massive. We were travelling round in this hopeless old van, sleeping underneath it at petrol stations. It was such a wild experience. One of the things that the bass player would use while we were playing was a chainsaw. I still have a huge great cut in my guitar from when he was waving it around. Mostly he would be carving things with it. Another interesting thing with them was when I went to stay on their farm.

JOHN: They have a farm?

JAMES: Yes. To focus before going on tour, it was suggested that we go around picking all the grass out from between the cobblestones. So we went round the farm on our knees pulling it all out by hand before we went in to rehearse.

JOHN: Because…?

JAMES: It got you into such a different mindset.

JOHN: I imagine it would.

HARRY: One of Faust’s biggest fans is Julian Cope. He said when you write the song it’s a brilliant buzz and then everything else is boring. So he started going into the recording studio naked and then the next time he got a giant tortoise shell just to try and make it exciting. In the same interview, he talked about collecting toy cars. He said if you have no control over your life then have that little hobby and you can say: “Well at least I can control my toy cars”.

I think art is a bit like that. If you have a life that is all compromise, then art allows you to be you – it allows you take a line for a walk.

JAMES: Art is like playing a song for the first time. Each time it’s totally new.

JOHN: But why put on an exhibition?

Harry has a message in one of his distinctive paintings

HARRY: We liked the idea of getting these particular people together. We could be completely wrong but, in our fantasy delusional heads, the show will be even bigger than the sum of its parts. I do feel, in order to make this show as good as it is, it did need all the different elements the eight people bring to it. We think we have the right combination to make it very interesting. We think with these south London artists we have enough differences and similarities to…

JOHN: Is South London particularly arty?

HARRY: Well, William Blake is very much a South Londoner. Lots of curious characters in South London. In the pub James goes to, there’s a Charlie Chaplin booth.

JOHN: What? Like Superman? You go into the booth, twirl round and turn into Charlie Chaplin?

JAMES: I think he was born round there and ran off when he was under ten to join a clog troupe.

HARRY: Nicola Hicks, one of the artists in the show, used to live in Fred Karno’s house. He was the one who got Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin to America. Did you know Vincent van Gogh was a South Londoner?

JOHN: What?

HARRY: He lived in Stockwell for a bit.

JOHN: Did he paint while he was here?

HARRY: He was trying to sell other people’s paintings.

JOHN: You could be the new Vincent van Gogh. Don’t you get frustrated being surrounded by other people’s art at Tate Britain?

HARRY: No. It’s inspiring. Even if you sometime see something you didn’t like, that can be inspiring because it makes you want to do the opposite.

JAMES: The last 2½  years I was involved in this enormous though very creatively rewarding music tour. But, on tours, there is an enormous amount of downtime – just sitting around in hotels and what not – and, during that time, I was admiring a friend’s art and, almost as a challenge, they said: “Why don’t you try doing a picture a day?”

I had no idea if I had any aptitude at all, really, because I hadn’t drawn since A-levels at school.

“Much more rewarding than being part of a rock machine”

So I just packed some art stuff and I had hours and hours of spare every day to do art. It turned into a daily practice and, when I got back, I thought: “This feels so much more rewarding in a way than being part of a big rock machine.” I do love that too but just going straight from that and locking yourself in a room and being insular about how you’re creating something is…

When I got back, I got a studio and I just spend all day every day in there and it has become a complete change of direction. Making a record has so much compromise and diplomacy in it. I quite like the idea of doing something and being totally responsible for everything, whether it’s a success or failure.

JOHN: So have you stopped being a musician?

JAMES: I have a few gigs booked for later in the year.

JOHN: Art is quieter than rock music.

JAMES: Yes, well apart from the raging tinnitus. That is pretty bad. I was on a plane taking off to go on tour and I thought: Christ I can even hear my tinnitus over this!

JOHN: Is that through being too close to big speakers a lot of the time?

JAMES: Yes. Rocking like a bitch.

JOHN: It’s interesting the changes people go through.

HARRY: I was at primary school with Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. He was very quiet. He and I and another chap all had birthdays in August and our mothers got together and made us Mr Men cakes. I remember him bring a very gentle soul, so it was strange he tried to blow up a plane with a shoe. But, then, he wasn’t very good at being a shoe bomber. He is going to spend the rest of his life in an American prison, Which is a waste.

JOHN: It’s a shame to waste your life.

HARRY: Yes.

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Filed under Art, Rock music

Edinburgh Fringe myths and Lou Reed

There were two notable shows which I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday, both about myths. One was Charlie Dinkin’s Child Star, in which she is a (fictional) eponymous and now slightly twitchy former stellar performer.

The other was Transformer, a tribute to Lou Reed. I am a big fan of Lou Reed.

Last night’s show – supposedly a performance at Max’s Kansas City in New York in (I think) the 1970s – was like a re-imagined Las Vegas version of Lou Reed. Loud, rocking, lively, hard-edged, professional. Everything you want in the West End or Broadway production of a rock star tribute.

On a bizarrely anal website which lists 776 gigs Lou Reed played over 44 years (1970-2013), someone who saw him perform live on a pier in Baltimore, a Bowling Alley in Dallas and at a club in Washington the night before he played the White House describes him as “an artist that created the ‘Punk’ ethos if not the music itself.”

Quite right. “If not the music itself”. When I think of Lou Reed, I think of quiet, cold melancholy. Last night, Lou Reed was turned into Meatloaf. There was a loud, rocking version of the Velvet Underground’s song Heroin. A loud, rocking version? Yup. I think someone, somewhere took the wrong drugs.

But the audience mostly seemed to love it. Even if they mostly seemed to think an acting-out of Andy Warhol being shot by a banana was a random irrelevant oddity. If it introduces Lou Reed to a new audience, then maybe it is worth it. And Pretty Miss Cairo as Candy Darling – not an easy part to cast – sang and stripped well: he was excellent.

Frankly, I prefer Lou Reed’s Berlin album to his Transformer album anyway.

On YouTube, there is a video of him singing Take a Walk on the Wild Side from the Transformer album. This is not a hard rock song.

YouTube also has a video of him singing Caroline Says II from the far more interesting Berlin album.

Meanwhile, Kate Copstick and I are not getting ready to start our live Grouchy Club shows at the Counting House Lounge tomorrow (15th-29th August). They are intentionally not advertised in the Fringe Programme because we are not really interested in random passing punters. It is more a chance for performers and media people to have a chat with the most influential comedy reviewer in Edinburgh (her) and a fat, slaphead daily blogger (me, although I see my blog hits are nearing a million and all publicity is good publicity).

The live Grouchy Club costs us nothing and costs the people who come nothing (not on the way in; not on the way out; no Free Fringe ‘bucket’). If people come along, we will have an interesting chat; it might turn into a podcast; it might even be streamed live on Periscope (via @thejohnfleming) – 3.45pm-4.45pm.

If no-one turns up, Copstick and I will have an interesting chat which will almost certainly be a podcast and might be live streamed on Periscope.

The reason we are not preparing for this in any way is that what happens totally depends on what happens… if you see what I mean.

Other people have to prepare for their shows.

Stu Turner

Stu Turner: “I’ve decided to use this photo for publicity to try and grab some attention with it”

I got an email from comic magician Stu Turner:

“Hope you’re well and it’s not pissing down with rain up there. I’m organising a big charity gala to raise funds for Autism Initiative’s Hermitage Garden project after it was vandalised twice last month. I’m organising it next Wednesday. It’s two hours (2100-2300) at the 400-seater New Empire Bingo Hall in Edinburgh and we’d love to fill it.”

On the ‘free’ principle, it is free to enter the charity show and there will be contribution buckets at the end on exit.

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show

Much like the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at The Counting house on Friday 28th August, then – free to enter; bucket at the end; 100% of all money goes to the Mama Biashara charity.

This is the Edinburgh Fringe. It is all about self-publicity.

And, on that note, an update on how my toenail – which fell off after a tragic shelf-falling incident – is re-growing. The last time I posted a photo of it, there were complaints from cutting-edge comedians who felt this crossed the line of acceptability. You know who you are.

BigToe_growingNail_CUT

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Filed under Charity, Comedy, Music

Wilko Johnson: the rock star who lived in ecstasy while under a death sentence

Last night, courtesy of Michael (son of Micky) Fawcett, I went to the premiere of The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, director Julien Temple’s almost abstract movie about the legendary British guitarist who also played mute executioner Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones. There is a trailer on YouTube.

It is a companion piece to Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple’s 2009 film about Wilko’s band Dr Feelgood.

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson was going to be about Wilko dying of terminal cancer, except Wilko did not.

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson poster

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson poster

Charlie Chan, a friend of Wilko’s who juggles being a music business photographer with being a breast cancer surgeon, realised that there might be some hope. Surgeon Emmanuel Huguet operated on Wilko for nine hours at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and the result was there to see last night.

Ironically, Michael Fawcwett told me, Wilko survived because he did NOT take any chemotherapy treatment. He just accepted he would die, did concerts and last year made a hit album Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey as part of his ‘farewell’.

“I decided,” said Wilko, “just to accept the situation and go through it and die, to live whatever life I had left and go with the flow, whether it was booking gigs or Julien making a film.”

Wilko’s wife Irene had died of cancer in 2004. So it goes.

Walk performing at the 100 Club last night

Wilko performing at the 100 Club last night

If Wilko had taken the chemotherapy treatment, he would have been too ill to survive the operation which saved his life. So his acceptance of death resulted in his life continuing.

The film had a special relevance to Julien Temple because, at the time it was being made, his own mother was dying. So it goes.

“All the twists and turns,” said Wilko, “that happened during that year…”

“That’s the thing about a documentary,” said Julien. “You don’t know where it’s going. There’s something fantastic about the element of chance which is what life’s about, really. If you over-script things, sometimes you… You would never write a film like this. No-one would believe a fiction film if you had written it like this. Who would ever believe a rock star so erudite?”

“If you wrote it in a book,” Wilko said, “it would be condemned as an improbable fiction.”

After the screening (L-R) Sheri Sinclair, d Derick ‘The Draw’ Hussey, Julien Temple & Michael Fawcett

After yesterday’s premiere (left-right) Sheri Sinclair, Derick ‘The Draw’ Hussey, Julien Temple and Michael Fawcett

After the screening, I went to the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where Wilko and his band played a one-hour, sweat-pouring, full-throttle gig. I had thought the 100 Club had closed but, like Wilko, it is still very much alive.

In the red-walled basement club, I bumped into Edinburgh Fringe regular Ronnie Golden aka Tony De Meur of the former Fabulous Poodles. His girlfriend Grace Carley was executive producer on The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. 

“I love this club,” Ronnie/Tony told me. “I remember it from the late 1970s. It looked almost exactly the same. It’s just a brilliant, brilliant shit-hole. In those days, there was no air-conditioning and they had a stall over there that sold Chinese food so you had this smelly stench and everybody smoked so the air was filled with smoke and this stench. It was insane and our drummer passed-out on stage. The sheer heat and everything.”

Ronnie Golden, former Poodle, at the 100 Club last night

Ronnie Golden, former Fabulous Poodle – 100 Club last night

“While he was performing?’ I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “And it happened in the Marquee Club too. He was susceptible to passing-out.”

“What,” I asked, “did you do when he passed out on stage during the gig?”

“We walked off and they played some music on records and then we came back on again.”

“With the drummer?”

“Yeah. It happened in Philadelphia too. But he would always rally very well.”

When I left the 100 Club, I walked to Oxford Circus station with Emmanuel Huguet, the surgeon who saved Wilko’s life. I asked him, perhaps tritely, what it is like being a surgeon.

“You get to meet some very interesting people,” he said.

There is a video on YouTube of Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltry’s Going Back Home.

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Filed under Death, Movies, Music, Rock music

Clifford Slapper and Bowie’s Piano Man

Clifford Slapper (right) with Bob Slayer yesterday

Clifford Slapper (right) at the party with Bob Slayer yesterday

Yesterday, I went to writer Polly Trope’s birthday party in Soho. Last April, I blogged about her ‘autobio-novel’ Cured Meat: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway.

Musician Clifford Slapper was also at her party yesterday. He, too, has written a book, published today. It is a biography – Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson.

“Have you ever worked with Bowie?” I asked.

“On Ricky Gervais’ comedy series Extras,” replied Clifford. “David Bowie had a cameo in one episode. I was David Bowie’s hands for the day – playing the piano you hear on the show. There was another piano hidden off camera which I was playing and Bowie had to sing and pretend to play. That was very exciting, because I’d been such a fan of Bowie’s for years and we had to spend a day of rehearsals together, just the two of us, and then the following day filming. He was very unassuming, really easy to work with.

Clifford Slapper with David Bowie (Photograph by Ray Burmiston)

Clifford Slapper (left) chats with David Bowie (Photograph by Ray Burmiston)

“A couple of years later, I met Mike Garson in Los Angeles. We were speaking about David Bowie and how he loves English comedy and Mike said: A couple of years ago, there was this really funny British comedy and David was playing the piano. I spoke to him and slightly teased him and said Your playing’s come on quite well – because Mike knew David played the piano but not like that.

“David had immediately laughed and told Mike: No, no no. That was some guy from England. And I was able to sit there quietly, then tell Mike: I was that guy. He and I partly bonded over that and we were swapping stories about the ups and downs of being a musician. And I said to him: Look, there are dozens of biographies of Bowie. Has anyone ever written your life story? That was five years ago and now the book’s out.”

“Why,” I asked, “did you, a musician, think you could write a biography?”

“I have written a lot of political feature articles,” Clifford told me, “for a Socialist magazine, the Socialist Standard.”

“Why a book about Mike Garson?” I asked.

“In the late 1960s,” Clifford told me, “he was a New York avant-garde jazz musician playing tiny gigs in smoky basements. He was married with a baby and struggling to make ends meet. He came home to his wife one night in the autumn of 1972 with $5 – that was his pay – and said: I can’t go on. I can’t feed three of us. 

David Bowie in 1967, the so-called Summer of Love

David Bowie in 1967, still an unknown performer

“The next day, he got three surprise calls, all offering him larger music jobs. Two were for Big Band jazz stuff, going on the road. The third one was from Tony Defries, David Bowie’s manager. The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars was out, Bowie had been touring Britain as Ziggy Stardust and captured people’s imagination but was not particularly known in the US: they were about to do their first US tour.

“Tony Defries told Mike: David Bowie wants to add an avant-garde ingredient to his music and you’ve been recommended. Would you come on tour with us around America? And Mike’s reply was: David Who?

“But, a week or two later, there he was on the road playing rock concerts to thousands of people. He was catapulted from dozens to thousands. He was in his late twenties, but was actually the old man of the band because the rest of the band were in their early twenties.

Mike Garson in 2006 (Photograh by Alex Boyd)

Mike Garson, 2006 (Photo by Alex Boyd)

“He toured the world with Bowie 1972-1974 and was featured on several of the key albums of that period. Then there was a very long hiatus until the late 1980s and then he got the call again at the outset of the 1990s and again recorded and toured with Bowie right into the 2000s. Last time they played together was 2006.”

“I’m not a musician,” I told Clifford, “why should I be interested?”

“Human interest,” replied Clifford. “And because we’ve approached his life thematically. It’s not a dry, chronological account. We examine the themes that emerge from his life. We have a chapter on addiction – of all kinds. Not because Mike has suffered from addiction but, ironically, because he has not. Almost everyone else in those circles has.”

“So he can give an objective view?” I said.

“Exactly,” laughed Clifford. “He’s one of the few people who did the big rock tours of the 1970s who can remember anything about them.”

“Musicians, actors, comedians,” I said. “Performers in general seem to have addictive personalities.”

“I think,” said Clifford, “that it’s to do with the approval, the validation. From the first time you perform and get that applause – sometimes as a child – it becomes part of your identity – This is my brother: he plays the piano. I think something happens psychologically where, if you’re not careful, that can become a source of validation. Applause. It’s like something digging into you. Something starts to be missing, you’re less self-sufficient in feeling good if it’s not there and you start to become dependant on outside factors for that feeling of approval and satisfaction.

SennMicrophone_wikipedia

The addictive roar of the greasepaint; the smell of the crowd

“What happens with a lot of musicians, particularly in the rock scene where the social environment has got that decadent element to it, is you come off the stage, you’ve had the applause, it might be a while before your next show, so you get fidgety and, in the absence of huge applause, you will perhaps try to get drunk or drugged instead to get to that feeling where it doesn’t matter.

“It doesn’t necessarily make for the nicest people. If I sit here and say: Oh, I love it when people scream for more, most ordinary people would say: Oh, that’s not the kind of person I want to be friends with: someone who loves it when people scream their name. That is what it boils down to.”

“It must have been interesting,” I said, “for one pianist to write about another pianist.”

Clifford Slapper book - Bowie’s Piano Man

The book grew out of a pianists’ dialogue

“The book grew out of a dialogue,” explained Clifford. “The starting point was this dialogue between us. I went back to LA three or four times and recorded conversations. I had about 25 hours solid.”

“And you are a pianist too,” I prompted.

“When I was six or seven,” Clifford told me, “my parents bought me a toy piano which rapidly became my favourite toy. So then they sent me to piano lessons with a little old lady called Miss Silley – Beryl Silley. I remember her having a huge photograph of Margaret Thatcher in the hallway.

“Around the age of ten, I started to get a little interested in pop music. My grandmother bought me a cassette tape of Elton John’s Honky Château album and that opened my eyes to the fact that playing piano was not just about playing Chopin or Beethoven to Miss Silley every week.

“What really made a difference to me, though, was David Bowie hitting the scene in about 1972/1973. I bought his album Aladdin Sane in 1973 and was completely hypnotised by the whole album. It has loads of wild, eccentric, crazy piano on it – unpredictable cadences and dis-chords. And, that, of course, was Mike Garson.

Clifford on the set of Ricky Gervais' TV show Derek (Photo by Ray Burmiston

Clifford Slapper on the set of Ricky Gervais’ TV show Derek (Photograph by Ray Burmiston)

“I was hooked by Bowie – his voice and persona – and Mike Garson was the piano man on the albums and my own piano-playing became very tied-up with this, because I realised piano could be exciting and quite cool, because everybody at school was talking about this album. So you can imagine how I was very excited to work with David Bowie many years later and to meet Mike Garson.”

“So when,” I asked, “is your own autobiography coming out?”

“I’ve started work on it,” Clifford told me. “And I’ve got another rough structure for a book on addiction.”

There is a YouTube clip of Clifford Slapper accompanying singer Lisa Stansfield in 2010.

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