Through My Ears Only: Fame & Costello at the Royal Albert Hall

Talking about Georgie Fame last night, on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, Elvis Costello bemoaned the fact that he’d been too young to sneak into the Flamingo back in the 60s and see Fame and his band, the Blue Flames, in their pomp and early prime. Not so, yours truly, when trips up to Soho from New Cross were a not infrequent feature of Goldsmith’s College student life.

Since those early, heady days I’ve had the good fortune to see Georgie on a number of occasions, his Hammond Organ and Mose Alison-influenced vocals always rounded out by a bunch of hard-blowing jazzmen – most recently – and that’s as recent as last night – Alan Skidmore on tenor, Guy Barker on trumpet and Anthony Kerr on vibes. With only his white hair and a certain hesitancy of movement testifying to his 70-plus years, he was on fine form, his voice surprisingly accurate and strong as he swung through a selection of blues-based numbers, deftly interspersed with an old hit or two and an extended version of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’, strangely but effectively prefaced by an upbeat adaptation of a Paul Robeson number from Sanders of the River. When Elvis Costello, who was playing the second half, came on towards the end of the set to take the vocals on ‘Point of No Return’, it seemed the only way was up.

How wrong!

Costello I’ve also seen on a number of occasions and venues and in various settings: with the Attractions and solo; dueting with Bill Frisell; fronting a big band and singing with a string quartet. Always interesting; a terrific songwriter, a fine performer. Watching him last night, however, in front of a packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall, was a bit like watching a man drowning on dry land.

The first numbers, some old, some more recent, featured new arrangements by long-time partner and keyboard player, Steve Nieve, and seemed designed to show off Nieve’s florid and bombastic technique at the expense of both Costello’s voice and the actual songs. When Nieve departed, however, leaving Costello to accompany himself on various guitars, little improved. I quite understand that when you tour as much as Costello does, unless you’re to become a living waxwork of yourself, it’s important to rethink the material, present in different ways – it’s what Dylan has been doing, with wayward success, for years – and much as I appreciate that, few of these reworkings – with ‘Every Day I Write the Book’ a possible exception – added anything to the originals. Quite the opposite. And what is he doing with his voice? There’s an alarming tendency to shout into the mike, as if wanting to batter the audience into acceptance or submission, but the danger is that he comes across like an opera singer having a seriously bad day.

There was one blissfully quiet spell in which Costello took time off from striding – I almost said posturing – around the stage and sat down down to play a rather charming version of ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ and reminisce about his old man, but this, and a duet with the returning Georgie Fame, were about as relaxed as he got. Perhaps he was thrown by the all-too-evident lack of response from the audience (aside from a couple of women up on their feet and dancing, responding, presumably, to something different playing inside their heads) and he couldn’t have failed to notice the small but steady stream of people getting up from their seats and leaving – and not just because they had to catch an early train.

A bad night finished with an ill-judged attempt to serenade the Hall without the use of amplification, matched by the bewildered refusal of most of the audience to sing along.

Sad. Sad and bad. A shame.

 

25 Favourite Crime Novels

Because I knew I’d be doing a more than usual number of book events this year, and because I’m usually asked at such affairs either what I’ve lately enjoyed reading, crime-wise, or what my favourite crime novels are – and because when I am asked, my mind immediately goes blank – I took the precaution of making a list. Of course, nobody asked.

But here’s the list.

It will immediately become clear there are exceptions: no Hammett, no Chandler nor other ‘classic’ crime – so obvious that to mention them was, to my mind, unnecessary; and some writers – Michael Connelly would serve as an example – are not there on the grounds that the stream of their work is so strong, I would find it impossible to lift one prime example from the rest.

With those caveats, here we go – alphabetical order, of course …

1. Megan Abbott: The End of Everything
2. Kent Anderson: Night Dogs
3. Andrew Coburn: Voices in the Dark
4. K. C. Constantine: The Man who Liked Slow Tomatoes
5. James Crumley: The Last Good Kiss
6. Stephen Dobyns: The Church of Dead Girls
7. Jamie Harrison: The Edge of the Crazies
8. George V. Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
9. Bill James: Roses, Roses
10. Dennis Lehane: Mystic River
11. Elmore Leonard: LaBrava
12. Laura Lippman: The Innocents
13. William McIlvanney: Laidlaw
14. Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker
15. Walter Mosley: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
16. Jefferson Parker: The Blue Hour
17. George Pelecanos: Shame the Devil
18. James Sallis: Drive
19. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo: Roseanna
20. Neville Smith: Gumshoe
21. Peter Temple: The Broken Shore
22. Peter Temple : Truth
23. Ross Thomas: The Fools in Town Are On Our Side
24. Brian Thompson: Ladder of Angels
25. Daniel Woodrell: Give Us a Kiss

Up North Where Poetry Lives

 

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In the poetry world, magazines may come and most, sooner or later, may go, but The North, it seems, goes on forever.

Brainchild of the poet Peter Sansom, it has been at the heart of the somewhat ironically named Poetry Business and its publishing arm Smith/Doorstop since 1986. Originally the magazine of the English Society of Huddersfield Polytechnic, it soon gathered round it a roster of like-minded poets such as Simon Armitage, Janet Fisher, Ian McMillan, Milner Place and Geoff Hattersley (whose own magazine, The Wide Skirt, was first published in the same year).

Huddersfield, during those years, was, it seemed, the new poetic heart of the country. Or, at least, the heart of a new poetics: plain speaking, personal, direct and not without humour – or sex – a bit dry stone wall and pints of mild yet with more than a nod across the Atlantic in the direction of Frank O’Hara and the New York School – I did this and then I did that. Bluntness almost disguising the depth of feeling and the craft underneath.

Peter edited The North first with Janet Fisher and then with his wife, the poet Ann Sansom. A move was made from Huddersfield to Sheffield, where the Poetry Business is still based. A first rate hands-on editor, Peter shepherded my own poems through two Smith/Doorstop collections, Ghosts of a Chance (1992) and Bluer Than This (1998); when he suggested a New & Selected Poems I was both surprised – my own poetry having fallen, shall we say, off the radar – but absolutely delighted. The resulting book, Out of Silence, was published in June and there’s a link to a recent double review from London Grip here …http://londongrip.co.uk/2014/08/london-grip-poetry-review-harvey/

Harvey-Out of Silence 2But back to The North. The current issue, No 52, is guest edited by Jonathan Davidson and Jackie Wills, and, in keeping with the usual format, has no fewer than 139 poems by 92 different poets, copious reviews, articles and regular features such as ‘Poets I Go Back To’ and ‘Blind Criticism’ – here, Catherine Smith & Gregory Leadbetter coming to terms with Lee Harwood’s marvellous poem ‘Question of Geography’.

As a sort of tease, a trailer if you like, there are three poems from Out of Silence: the title poem; an oldie-but-goodie,  ‘Failed Sonnet Home’ (until recently being taught on a sonnet class in the Department of English at the University of Nottingham – presumably, how not to do it); and a new, longer one – ‘Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)’ – which takes us more or less back to where we came in.

Except to add that, amongst a plethora of stonking good stuff in this issue, there are single pieces by Rebecca Goss and Peter Daniels and three poems from Ian McMillan’s new collection, Jazz Poems, including the irresistibly titled ‘Me and Dave and Thelonious Monk Waiting for the 14 Bus’.

To buy a copy of The North No. 52 or to subscribe – and/or by buy copies of Jazz Poems or/and Out of Silence go to www.poetrybusiness.co.uk

 

 

Dying for a Dime …

Mention of critic, cultural commentator, noir expert and now novelist Woody Haut in the previous post about Ross Thomas, reminds me to inform all and sundry that his excellent exercise in LA crime fiction, Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime, previously available only as an ebook, is now available as a large-format paperback – and a rather handsome one at that.

 

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Published by the admirable (some might say eccentric – in a good way) Concord ePress, a revolutionary outfit which gives away – yes, gives away – all its books, depending on the kindness of readers to make suitable donations instead. Any and all profits are then shared equally between publisher and author.

As I said …

If Weegee had set aside his camera in favour of a beat-up old Underwood, this is pretty much what the result would have been like – raw and up close, but off-centre just the same, the threat of violence exploding from the shadows.

Or, if you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s Duane Swierczynski – a man who knows his way around these areas better than most …

Strap yourself in as Haut’s imagination takes you to Los Angeles circa 1960 – where the streets are teeming with jazz, celebrities, hoodlums, popping flashbulbs, and wild secret histories. ‘Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime’ is as haunting as a fever dream, yet as crisp as a black-and-white tabloid crime scene pic. You’re in for one hell of a ride.

Sound fun?

 

 

 

Reading Matters: Andrew Coburn

I remember, it could be as long as twenty years ago (in the way that most things seem now to have happened twenty years ago unless they were the day before yesterday) I was meeting a group of other writers for lunch somewhere in Soho – Sarah Dunant would have been there, Frances Fyfield, Lisa Coda – is that possible?- , Michael Dibdin maybe, Mike Lewin? – and bursting in, excited over the book I’d just been reading, but annoyed also, because it’s opening chapter, opening paragraph were so damned good that after reading them I’d sent the first pages of the novel that I’d started writing caterwauling down into the trash. Not good enough.

That book was Voices in the Dark by Andrew Coburn.

Formerly a journalist, Coburn has written a dozen novels, one of which – Goldilocks – was nominated for an Edgar, and three of which have been made into movies (all, I think, in France).  His work has been translated into fourteen languages and it may just be that he is one of those writers who are more honoured outside their own country’s borders than at home. Which, if it were the case, would be a shame. And US readers’ loss.

When I was compiling stories for a anthology called Men From Boys, Coburn came up with, not a short story, but a novella, My Father’s Daughter, which begins thus …

Hank West, womaniser, inveterate gambler and father of two, died as he had lived. On the edge. A razor passed so smoothly across his throat that he had no idea he’d been murdered.

Now Stark House Press have published Spouses & Other Crimes, a collection of Coburn’s short fiction, eleven stories ranging from early work in Transatlantic Review to the present. These are not crime stories, not in the usually accepted understanding of the term, though, here and there, crimes may occur; these are stories about mainly small-town characters leading – or leaving – small-town lives. These are stories to be set alongside those of American writers like Mona Simpson or Lorrie Moore. In language that is at once precise yet tricky, Coburn can give you two characters’ lives in a half-heard conversation in a diner forty minutes off closing. He can lead you on to solid ground and then, just when you think you know where things are heading,  pull the floor out from beneath you in a single sentence and send you spinning.

There’s a wonderful humour to a story like “A Woolf in Vita’s Clothing” (with that title, there’d have to be); a nicely critical astringency behind the manoeuvrings, financial and social, at play in “George W. Bush”. Both stories feature female protagonists out to improve on the hand life has dealt them.  This is the opening paragraph of “A Woolf in Vita’s Clothing.”

Ten years ago a man named Benson married her and took her to North Dakota, where gigantic skies diminished her, winds haunted her, and winters oppressed her. Her only means of escape was a Greyhound bus. People on the town called it “riding the dog”.  She rode the dog to Chicago, arriving with forty-four dollars in her bag, which was a weight because much of it was in coin.

“Jocelyn”, another story with a female protagonist, and, at this particular moment, my favourite in the collection, gives you the whole of one woman’s life, from the age of eleven, when she leads two boys, running naked, through the grounds of Kenwood Academy, into middle-age, in just glorious 15 pages.

As the author and noir expert, Woody Haut says of the stories in his recent review in the Los Angeles Review of Books

The stories that comprise “Spouses & Other Crimes” are acerbic and creepy, with envy, anxiety, and voyeurism the order of the day. Imbued with an undercurrent of class antagonism, Coburn populates his short tales with damaged and obsessed individuals who desire what they can or can’t have, and, in doing so, are fated to suffer the insufferable.

If you’re at all interested in reading further, please do check out Haut’s fine piece, in which, as well as giving details of Coburn’s background and setting his work in context, he talks about the stories themselves in detail. You can find it here …

 

Quittin’ Time

Artie Shaw quit blowing his horn, said he had blown enough. And Van Gogh produced 200 works in two years, an almost hysterical output; then he shot himself. … And Gerard Manley Hopkins could produce only nineteen poems in his last nine years – “time’s eunuch,” he said of himself, “never to beget.” And Hammett quit writing mysteries and never explained.”

Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott. Paul Hendrickson.

Art Chronicles: Malevich at Tate Modern

 

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In a not dissimilar way to Tate Modern’s Arshile Gorky retrospective in 2010, its current (till October 26th) – and, it seems to me, if you have any interest in 20th century art, unmissable – Malevich exhibition shows him moving through a range of early influences as he searches for a style of his own. So, as with Gorky, there are brushes with the Post-Impressionism of Cezanne and then the early Cubism of Picasso and Braque, as he moves towards a personal form of abstraction which takes him in a very different direction, leading to his famous, or infamous, Black Square, which seemed to block out/black out all that had gone before: an iconic full stop that would propel him towards the splendour of colour and form that he was to call Suprematism.

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To stand in Room 7, at the pivotal centre of this exhibition, is to be surrounded by a glorious and controlled outpouring of image and ideas that was to dissolve only a few years later in the wake of Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

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Painting died, Malevich said, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it.

He taught, and, when his work resumed it signalled a return, under the increasing strictures of Stalinism and Socialist Realism, to landscape, figuration and portraiture. With his death in 1935, his work all but disappeared from view, only re-emerging, in part, in the 1950s; it was not until the 1980s that his Black Square painting would be displayed again.

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