Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dave Brady RIP

A couple of musicians who made a strong impression on me when I was in my teens and whose work I continue to value very highly have died recently. There's plenty of coverage of Ligeti all over the place so I won't go to town on that here; but I did want to mention Dave Brady of Swan Arcade, who died last month: there's a Guardian obit here which was the first I heard of his passing, earlier today.

For me, Dave Brady was one of the great English folk voices of the last thirty-odd years, right up there with more widely feted singers such as Roy Bailey and Peter Bellamy. Swan Arcade's recording of 'The Wayworn Traveller' was, on my first encounter with it at the age of 15 or so, one of the most thrilling things I'd ever heard, and it still is.

The saddest thing for me, actually, is that I can't think of anyone I know who will mind much.

The Young (Disciple) and the Restless (Kind)

Better do this first, before I forget. The kindly and estimable Nate Dorward, the Colonel Kurtz of Canadian letters*, has linked to this blog from his own. This will increase traffic hereabouts twenty-fold and, I can only suppose, will lead eventually to exposure, gaol, and, finally, a tattoo that never completely heals. Nonetheless, I must return the favour: not least because ND (catchphrase: "Hm.") keeps an exemplarily orderly blog, with some useful pointers out into the world; and the wider site has many of his fabulously astute and snappily-written music reviews and remains the home page of The Gig, certainly the most consistently switched-on international poetry magazine I know. We can, for the generosity of these delights, forgive his desperately disappointing fixation on hyperadvanced ("Killer", if you please -- like the whales!) Sudoku, and of course his curious and ignoble peccadillo of passing off some of his own more experimental fictions as the work of his young daughter.

(Nate, btw, describes these posts here at Thompson's as 'massive' -- I kind of think of them as more gaseous than that, but I know what he means. Sorry if I go on a bit. I'm just talking to myself here.)

So I'm back home and (right now) a bit woozy on a buffalo-toppling dose of Solpadeine Industrial Strength, on account of certain, uh, toothache issues, probably exacerbated by the plane journey yesterday, though the problem is fundamental enough, this wisdoom tooth that for the last four or five years has been (slowly, intransigently) coming in sideways. That aside, I feel great. Tired but kinda happy. Cork was really a lovely week; I feel like my shoulders have dropped about six inches. The weather pretty much held, the performances I did were mostly fine, and I spent very happy times pottering around the town or hanging out at the flat watching the World Cup on RTE (drizzly picture but no Motty) and eating head-rotating Irish cheese and hardcore chilli-laced chocolate from the English Market. Almost everyone in Cork is beautiful. (This research was carried out in the Spiegeltent but I'm sure it applies across the entire city.) They're all young and bright-eyed like a lost tribe of woodland folk, but they're also engaging and cosmopolitan. -- I suppose what I really mean is that the whole week went by without anyone trying to kick my head in for wearing Muppet sneakers. In fact, o best beloved, there was even some quiet acclaim. And Ali, the festival director, knew someone else who has a pair, which helps the swelling of anomaly in my so-called life to go down.

Spending the week with J -- actually probably a total of about 45 minutes with him, but spread across the week -- was a giddy joy and though I think he eventually felt a little contrite for pushing back so hard and vigorously against many of my ideas and opinions about theatre, it was a treat to have more extended and candid conversations than are normally possible in the dreary hustle of home. He's a much more agile and penetrating thinker than he knows. (Nor will he believe that if he reads it.) Of course, now, 'agile and penetrating' is snagging my attention, but the reverberations are not inimical. The way some people think is, in itself, sexy, and he's one of them -- he thinks in the same shapes that he dances... Fortunately the arousing edge of all this is taken off partly by his continuing devotion to the ukulele and partly by his perky new gingham-trimmed hat, which places him (rather accurately, really) somewhere between the gondolas of Venice and the biscuit factory of Chigley.

Didn't get to see much more in the festival itself since my previous post -- had an after-show drink with J and a couple of the fellas from Nofit State in their big pod, which was very cool, but most other things clashed with the evening Quirkafleegs. Highlight of the week, artistically, for me, was the Stan's Cafe piece, Of All The People In All The World (which is on till July 1st at Triskel, if you're within a thousand miles of Cork). It's a quite overwhelming installation in which various statistics, historical and current, local and global, mostly geopolitical, are illustrated through piles of rice, with each grain of rice representing one person. A brilliantly simple and lucid idea, superbly executed: the narratives, the implicit timing, are so expertly performed by the layout within the gallery space, and yet everything is (almost eerily) still, these heaps of rice sitting impassively on white paper. I laughed out loud more than once; and I cried, too. I can't think of a more impressive piece of political theatre that I've ever seen. (Certainly when some of Stan's came to Quirkafleeg on Saturday I felt a bit abashed at requiring their attention for something so ornate and silly.) -- J and I talked quite a bit about the effectiveness of performance works that locate their concerns in one single idea or concept and then execute it brilliantly, so that the work opens out compellingly onto the world. (Thinking of other recent examples, I'd include Things Not Worth Keeping's Rime of the Ancient Mariner in that category, and also -- by the sound of it -- Leibniz's The Book of Blood at the PSI Conference a couple of weekends ago.) Worth keeping in mind.

Actually, I've come home with a couple of ideas for new projects, or renewed interest in abandoned ideas. In particular, I'm thinking again about Paul Goodman's play The Young Disciple, which has alternated with The Witch of Edmonton as the most urgent and impossible project in my head for a few years now. There's lots in Goodman I don't agree with, and lots more that I don't like, but the surfaces of his work are now so eccentric (by which I mean that the characteristic qualities of his more avant garde tendencies have aged much less well than his more reigned-in stuff, creating an interesting kind of warping effect) that there's lots to attach to; and his basic commitments -- to anarchism, to pacifism, to work, art and education as ends in themselves, to a scepticism about dislocating technologies and fake communities, to a genial sexual libertarianism -- are attractive and often, in his discussion of them, strikingly prescient. Everybody should be reading his Growing Up Absurd, but I suspect if I mentioned it among even my most politically and artistically engaged friends and colleagues I'd get blank looks. Or pitying stares. (Some of them are very good at pitying stares.)

The Young Disciple -- which seems to have no (documented) performance history beyond its premiere by the Living Theater -- is frequently preposterous and desperately uncomfortable. But for some reason I can't yet understand, let alone articulate, it speaks to me. So maybe that, rather than The Witch of Edmonton -- which is hopelessly out of range, for all that I love it and keep getting drawn back to it -- should be the big piece I hurl myself into next. Apart from anything else, I think it would demand updating erotically -- you can see in several places what he wanted to do that he couldn't do on stage fifty years ago, even with a group like the Living Theater -- and that interests me as a development of the thinking I've been doing, in or near my research work with Exit Strategy especially, around a sort of queered reconfiguring of Marcusian charisma as a descriptive or progressive response to the post-liminal impulse in theatre; as well as being an ethically vivacious brand of affinity that could, I'm convinced, be made to annul the horrible bogus anti-theatrical contract of fourth-wall social realism. Which is all a bit of a mouthful but I think it might unzip into quite a fun set of experiments. (You know how I mean unzip there, right?)

Right, I'm off to top up the analgesics before bed. Night all.

*I'm teasing, of course. Actually you have to imagine a cross between Garrison Keillor and Raymond Babbitt, drawn by Robert Crumb. And then you have to imagine him sticking pins in a tiny little bread effigy of Ken Vandermark. & let's be clear: when I say you have to imagine these things, I'm not kidding. There will be spot checks.

Friday, June 23, 2006


Ah but it's been a while, Thompson fans... This soft bulletin finds me in Cork, doing a last few Quirkafleegs before the show is given its long-awaited Viking burial. Three shows so far, and the first of them, on Tuesday, was possibly the best performance I've done since I began. Which hasn't done anything to arrest the usual pattern of dreading the show all day, doing it in the evening, surviving it, then trudging home in the grip of a kind of full-body existential cringe. The only part of my waking life that doesn't feel dominated by fear and loathing of the show is the couple of hours when I'm performing it. What a weirdo. Yeah.

Cork's such a beautiful city, and the weather's brightened up since we got here. In fact we trundled down to Cobh yesterday and I came back with some full-on sunburn. (Proudly upholding the tradition of the Englishman abroad by going the most appalling livid puce colour within an hour of being exposed to the sun, while retaining beneath my clothes the delicate lilac-white skin colour that only matron is allowed to see.) There's a lot of walking to do, which is probably a good thing, though the long main road that I go up and down twice a day is already getting a bit boring -- the tedium of doing the same last year hadn't fully dissipated, I think -- boredom has such a long half-life. (At any rate, I feel inclined to up the pedestrianism after an experience last night with a cab driver who was plainly drunker than a poet on pay-day...)

The festival programme is really strong this year, there are all sorts of folks over here now or about to be: Rotozaza are coming next week, Stan's Cafe are already here with Of All The People In All The World which I think I'm going to drop in on later. No Fit State are here too -- but I think I'll wait and see that in Edinburgh, when I haven't got my performance anxiety goggles on.

I'm here with J, who is good company as ever, easygoing and challenging at the same time, full of searching questions. I guess at the moment I'm taking those questions a little harder than I normally might, I feel like I'm a bit out of focus with everything I'm doing and my confidence is a little shaky; and of course this is totally self-perpetuating, so I'm kind of stuck in a slow feedback loop... I don't think I can be very good company for him while I'm this drearily self-absorbed, but he hasn't yet slapped me so maybe we'll get through the week OK. We were talking yesterday about our respective upbringings: very similar in some ways, but surrounded by quite different worldviews -- and one begins to see how the theatre that each of us makes, its terms and conditions and qualities were all in place by the time we were six or seven years old.

We talked too a couple of days ago about this 'blog' voice, the strange hybrid of private journaling and the performance of intimacy to an unknown public. I quite enjoy the ambiguity of it, but of course now, today, I'm starting to feel self-conscious. Not least because I'm still not writing well, I appreciate this is all pretty dull today. But is this for an audience? I dunno. I don't think there's anything in it that's dishonest but that's probably not quite the right answer anyway, it's not about honesty, is it? ...Hmm... Might come back to this when I'm less rubbish.

All The Real Girls was on TV late a couple of nights ago. I can't think of a narrative film I find more beautiful -- David Gordon Green is a straight-up-and-down genius. It was odd to just happen across it. I have it on DVD but I've been too scared to watch it, I just find it too... something. Much. So I submitted to it through the static haze of badly-received RTE and yeah it's very very beautiful in ways that are sooo not what I do and that's always a funny sensation. Particularly when one's feeling a bit doubtful about everything anyway.

Oh, brother, this is awful, I'm going to shut up now. There's a story still to tell about how I got really bullied on the Saturday night bus from Camberwell last week by a bunch of savagely cruel and remorseless teenage girls who were evidently overstimulated by my (admittedly extremist) Kermit sneakers. But that's for another day.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Declining and getting worse promptly

I've been reading Free at Last, the final volume of Tony Benn's diaries, and he mentions looking up his biorhythms and finding that they were absolutely accurate. I hadn't checked mine for probably twenty years - I used to have a program for the ZX Spectrum that did them: but that was in another country, etc etc - so I hopped onto and found mine were also astonishingly on the button:

Physical: Today you feel beaten and you'd prefer to lie down all day. If you can arrange it, why not do it? Emotional: There will be light at the end of the tunnel! Still, sitting in your shell is not much fun. Intellectual: The period of creativity is over. Your brain is in stand-by mode. And the outlook -- with a nice shipping forecast ring about it, I must say: Declining and getting worse promptly. (I might at least have hoped for "drifting eastwards and slowly losing its identity".)

I find biorhythms a lot more plausible than, say, astrology, though I suppose only to the extent that I find Gordon Brown more plausible than Tony Blair. Knowing that something is built out of maths rather than breath-mints tends to lend it an authority that of course reveals itself as utterly specious as soon as you expose it (and yourself) to the most trifling examination.

But there's no denying the accuracy of this account of my current state. I do feel completely exhausted and listless, though I was putting it down to the warm weather and, as ever, wayyy too much sugar. (No kidding. I made myself a Mars Bar quesedilla today. That's, like, one rung up from the grotesqueries of Pimp That Snack and, at most, two up from eating cake decorations out of a bin.) And, yes, intellectually, I'm absolutely in stand-by. Which happens often enough that I sort of know not to try and fight it. But it's puzzling. I suppose I work pretty hard but I'm always surprised that the sense of stimulation (and immense good fortune) of working in the contexts I do isn't kind of self-sustaining.

At any rate, I need to try and round myself up tomorrow. Work on Longwave, the new Signal to Noise show, starts in earnest on Friday and then I begin Quirkafleeg again on Sunday for a couple of weeks: but it needs quite a bit of revision which I guess I'm going to have to take care of on Saturday.

As regards future work and my orientation towards it, I seem to feel pretty much like a wasp boinking its head on a windowpane and not quite able to work out why it can't get out. (This image probably occurs to me because, in a moment of uncontrolled frustration a few days ago, I blatted a trapped wasp; that's the first time I've intentionally killed anything in donkey's years, and I really shocked and dismayed myself. I dreamt that night about an enormous wasp climbing out of a matchbox and crawling towards me: and serve me right.)

As I often do when I'm in this stand-by mode, I've been reading biographical stuff about other artists -- thumbing through Tony Peake's biog of Derek Jarman (it's not bad, a bit pedestrian maybe; one really sort of misses the furious relish of Jarman's own writings, uberpurple though they sometimes were), and the excellent Masthead issue on Alaric Sumner. This sense of the documentary, or the journalistic -- in respect of these artists allowing work to rise out of the milieu(s) in which they located and understood themselves to live. Reminds me of my unexpectedly passionate appreciation of Bruce Weber's film, Chop Suey. (Which really ought to be released on DVD, though my brush with Weber's company... ah, well, that's another story for another time.) That your work is to such an extent no more or less than the people you make it with, held up to attention. And also the sense of an inheritance -- in all these cases, a queer lineage, which is keenly felt -- I mean rationally understood and intuited. I suppose the formative importance of Jarman in my own artistic development must to some extent align me with that cultural history, but if Jarman was a maverick, I think I feel more like a double dissident. Or an infinite one. Maybe this is what my biorhythm report means about sitting in my shell. I just don't feel attached to anything other than a grab-bag of crossfighting influences, my affinity with each of which was (I think) determined by the time I was four or five. As someone (Max Wall?) used to say about his sex drive, it's like being shackled to a maniac.

I'd remembered that Jarman was friendly with Dom Sylvester Houedard but forgotten that he studied with Eric Mottram. Odd that he should have turned out such dreadful poetry all through his adult life. I get the sense he loved Ginsberg but understood the rhythms of his life much better than those of his poetry. In fact I'm not sure Jarman ever really 'had' rhythm (in a musical sense); I can't think of any of his films that demonstrate it: which is why the ambient drifts of Simon Fisher Turner made such a good sound foil to his later work.

Come to think of it, Jarman's influence was strongest on me before I'd ever seen any of his films. Imagining them, imagining his relationship with them and with the people who made them, was possibly more impressive than any of the movies themselves when I actually came to see them. Maybe that was always it. That the best work he did was being Derek Jarman, so vividly and unstintingly, for the particular benefit (I suspect) of those of us out in the sticks who needed that kind of a beacon somewhere out there.

What I wouldn't give for a tenth of his energy and courage. Especially today. ...I have been alive, according to this biorhythm chart, 12064 days. I can't work out whether that's nothing or loads. How many jellybeans in a jar, innit?

I was looking for some old Signal to Noise stuff a few days ago, to pass to a student who's working on the company for a dissertation or something, and I pulled out the first two chapters of a novel I started writing when I was first in London in 1997. I don't think I've read it between then and now. Some of it's absurdly overwritten but mostly, I have to say, it's pretty cool. Especially because I barely recognise myself in it. Quite a few of the ideas have turned up in later work, so it's not that I feel estranged from it in that way; just that I don't feel at all confident that I could turn out anything nearly as good now. Good as in, you know, solidly written, sensitively imagined, quite widely appealing I should think. I can't help wondering whether my increasing interest in more "marginal" (definitely scare quotes) writing practices over the last six or seven years has ended up with me being, or feeling, boxed in. I was thinking something like this quite separately today in relation to Philip Larkin, whose work I loved when I was a student. I can barely enjoy any of it now, though I recognise that there is a true and integral skill to it -- he was pretty good at writing like Philip Larkin, there's no doubt. But I don't know if I could ever love him again, even if I wanted to. Once you've read Prynne, or Barry MacSweeney, or Tom Raworth, you're stuck in the situation of thinking things that can't then be unthought. Which makes it that much harder to write a West End musical, say, or finish that novel... (Still. At least, I'm pleased to say, it has no discernible plot. I'd obviously already lost that.)

But I do, though, that's the thing. I do quite want to write a West End musical. IS IT A CRIME? etc. (Answers on the edge of a postcard.)

Right-o, there's some Richard Barrett just now being played on Late Junction, I'm going to go and pay attention to that...

[Time passes. Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold. You attack Thorin. With one mighty blow of his sword he cleaves your skull. You are dead. You have mastered 0.0% of this adventure.]

...Bit later. Just wanted to record three rather more positive things that happened today, in a blessings-counting sort of way.

There's a bit in Quirkafleeg about the blue-footed booby, and Nikki mailed me some photos today from someone who saw the show in her flat and who was -- amazingly -- inspired by Q.fleeg to go to the Galapagos Islands and see the B-FB for herself. They're terrific pics, too. Daft-looking bird, honest to goodness. Looks like its eyes are tippexed on.

And then, having been outbid in the middle of last night on an eBay auction for a pair of Stan Smith Adidas shoes with Kermit the Frog on them, I recovered my composure and managed to track down a pair, way cheaper than my defeated bid. So I shall be laughing both last and longest, at least until this new pair I've snapped up get delivered next week and turn out to be a pair of Dunlop daps with some fake Kermit decal stuck on the side.

And I was watching a DVD interview with the beautiful and extraordinary Julyen Hamilton, who said -- as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and of course it is -- a propos of making theatre etc: "Don't try; love it."

I should have that tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

)> words drown i... <(

The idea was to try to have a words-free day today. Yesterday I had to abandon a critical piece I was working on (on J.H. Prynne's Wound Response, mostly, and some varieties of jetsam in its proximity) because I was, frankly, writing like a schoolgirl on a work experience placement at a tv listings magazine. And if you don't have your chops about you when you get down and fandango with Jeremy Jeremy Halvard Halvard Wetherby George duPrynne, you might as well pack up and go home. Boy, he can really make you look like a sissy.

I felt worded out, comrades; no fluency, no fun. So today was cleared for recuperation. (Obviously I'm breaking my antitextual curfew right now, but this doesn't count; besides, I very clearly haven't got my groove back yet.)

Day started nicely with a package from Sound323. If it wasn't for Sound323, and especially their secondhand stock by mail-order, I'd hardly be buying CDs at all these days -- which is funny, considering how long I held out against downloading music at all, on principle. (I'm not quite sure I remember what the principle was now, but it seems to have lapsed...) But it does make a difference, sometimes, how a thing is packaged and presented. Part of today's ration was The Sad Mac, a Stephan Mathieu thing from last year: and I think I would hear it quite differently if I hadn't read the notes and enjoyed the design. It's beautiful, inside and out: and of course I'm a complete signal-to-noise sucker for the sweetest moment on the album, where the track 'Tinfoil Star' (layers of processed viola) reoccurs in a second version -- viz., the original track re-recorded on a 1909 Edison 'Fireside' phonograph. You had me at hello, as folks used to say.

And then I wandered down to the South Bank to have a look at the new rehang of Tate Modern. On the whole it's been pretty well received and I was looking forward to it, despite having been one of the few persons on the face of the planet who quite liked, and was prepared to stick up for, the thematic organisation of the original hang. It's always seemed to me -- as a complete layperson, and I may well be simplifying this beyond belief... -- that art and art history are not the same thing: and while the narratives of art history, even with regard to work from as recently as ten or fifteen years ago, may now be hardening into some kind of authorized version, I'm not sure that those plotlines and determinations have any kind of a priori claim on our relations with art works. On the other hand, even a city like London is only ever going to have one Tate Modern, and to refuse to behave like an educational resource (in other words, like an instructional resource, through which a response to art can be imposed rather than elicited, and the prop notions of progress and individual genius can be endlessly -- and neurotically -- retraced) is bound to seem so wilfully anomalous that it can only encourage those who would wish to discern some kind of agenda. (Cue thunder, lightning, "bwah hah hah" etc.)

Anyway, so now we have timelines all over the building, just in case arguments need to be settled about whether post-painterly abstraction came before or after Viennese Actionism and so on. The four wings still have theme-y titles -- I particularly hate "Poetry and Dream", as if the two concepts were more or less continuous -- but the organization of works within the galleries is, on the whole, more coherent than before, largely because the thematic titles are not much more than decoys for various -isms. There's still not much sense of historical development, by way of trade-off, but the old in-fighting between works has been somewhat alleviated. There are some insensitive juxtapositions, but the effects of these are not always unwelcome: pairing Martin Creed and Carl Andre at the entrance to "Idea and Object", on the one hand, is silly -- the Andre becomes negligible because Creed's work always (and sometimes brilliantly) sits obnoxiously alongside pretty much anything; on the other hand, I'm quite pleased that there's a prominent (if unexceptional) Kounellis piece stealing focus from that drearily overexposed de Chirico, 'The Uncertainty of the Poet'.

Ultimately, the weaknesses that remain are, as ever, the weaknesses of the collection, and there's already enough bitching commentary about that in the world to cover the walls of the entire building to a depth of several inches, so I won't add any more. I mean, you know, if you like yer Surrealism, shout Wa-hayy!!! and dive in. And the gathering in one room of some keyMinimalist works is impressive, and will be even more impressive once half term is over. If you're looking for any kind of account of the importance of installation, video, performance..., meh, there's not a great deal to look at except the big ol' timeline.

Some of the smartest and warmest effects of the rehang are in the way your journey around the galleries is partly impelled by an attractive sense of what's beyond. Dan Flavin's always-stunning 'Monument for V. Tatlin' draws you in from three rooms away; and being able to look past Beuys and see a Jenny Holzer piece scrolling away, sort of over his shoulder, is lovely, as is the conversation between Thomas Schutte's funny and poignant United Enemies pieces and the Bacon and Bourgeois works in the next room down. Someone's really thought cleverly and quite wittily about these eyelines: which perhaps is something you can only really do after the first few years of watching the flow (or otherwise) of people around the building.

I'm less excited by this rehung Tate, but maybe I was becoming less excited anyway. Maybe I'm just not as excitable as I used to be. ...I'm hoping to get over to the big L.A. survey at the Centre Pompidou before it closes next month: I think that would push a button or two, it sounds terrific.

Anyway. Enough words for one wordless day.