Rendezvous Houston

Jean Michel Jarre
(1987)

Jarre Houston Jarre was on the radio one morning, promoting his new record and tour. I liked the sound of him and I felt moved to dig this out. It’s sitting in the corner of the CD shelf that sees least light, gathers most dust. When I play it, instantly I’m back in the summer of 1988, fresh from my year in El Paso, drawl intact, an honorary Texan.

But the CD and the intervening decades pose one question the interviewer didn’t ask: What on earth, exactly, is Jean Michel Jarre for?

In the 70s and into the 80s, it was for for filling unlikely public spaces with massive sound and light shows for one-off gigs that played to millions. How he got into that racket was never obvious to me but it seemed to point the way for one-off gigs in unlikely places by lots of other big-name bands looking for a quirky backdrop to shoot the video for their live ‘best of’ record.

The Rendezvous Houston concert film played on TV one night and I fell in love completely with the whole mythology of the event – much of it captured in the various voxpops and bulletins that are bundled in with the concert footage – as well as the sheer scale of it. I’d never seen anything like it. I don’t think anyone really had.

The show is a tribute to the space age, in many ways, when we were still innocently impressed by things like rockets and lasers – god knows the gig had enough of them, including that big Star Wars-y laser harp. Later, movingly, there’s a song dedicated to the memory of the astronauts lost in the Challenger disaster earlier that same year, and the piece that was written to be played on board the shuttle in orbit by Jarre’s friend Ron Macnair is here played with elegance and passionate intensity by Houston saxophonist Kirk Whalum.

I wanted to have been there. I’d been a massive Jarre nerd all through high school. I was a fan of all that stuff. Mike Oldfield. Vangelis. Tomita. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. If you asked me what music I was into then, I’d have told you “instrumental music”. I remember toting my library copy of Concerts in China round all my classes one day in second year, to a mixture of curiosity from fellow nerds and the usual slights from the usual snides, because I needed to take it back after school to renew the loan. I’m pretty sure it was that album that got me into his music generally.

If Britain in the 70s was dressed in beige and smelled like coal and fag smoke, it probably sounded like analogue synth. Everything on telly was scored by BBC Radiophonic Workshop which meant that everything from children’s maths programmes to family quiz shows to gritty suburban dramas sounded like a scary Doctor Who horrorscape. Jarre, on the contrary, managed to make music in the 70s that sounded like a future where everyone was nice to you. And in 1987, and probably later, it still sounded like the future. A nice future with nice tunes and nice men in nice suits.

I loved Oxygène, in fact, I still have the LP – which might have belonged to my brother. We both listened to it a lot when we were kids. Hearing it again, it has fared better with time than the execrable Live in Houston CD with its one-finger melodies and one-dimensional pomp. Oxygène‘s Moog-y atmospherics are 3D sound, they seem to come out into the room at you, probing the space around you. There’s a comfort to his blend of easy melody and ambient electronics. Nothing’s being challenged here. It’s music for a utopia, not a dystopia. Music you can paper your dreams of tomorrow with. Music that maybe takes you on a bit of an adventure.

Listening back to the Houston album, I’m rapidly bored. I try to watch the concert footage on youtube but it’s really only the sax solo that compels me to listen – interestingly, it’s the one acoustic instrument in the whole gig. The bombast and hype and 1.3million-people-shut-the-freeway-longest-tailback-in-history schtick wears very thin very quickly and is clearly of its moment. These days, stats like that just make you think of climate change and the dreadful inconvenience of it all.

Nonetheless, undeterred and still inspired by the radio interview I go digging and I’m curious to see that, far from playing in whatever unlikely places there are left for him to play in, Jarre has downsized considerably and is playing a tour of regular venues, including one they built in my hometown a few years ago, two miles away from where I’m writing this. I contemplate going, but I ask myself who I would most want to see Jean Michel Jarre with – and it’s obviously my brother. Who I seldom see. Because he lives in Paris. Which is the last gig on the tour.

I’m still not really sure what Jean Michel Jarre is for. Lots of people make electronic music that’s more interesting to listen to. Some do ambient electronics you never tire of. A few imagine possible futures you want to live in. Jarre’s latest couple of CDs sound like a desperate attempt by an aging star to get radio play by partnering up with a few hip hitsters, a bit like Sinatra once did with Duets.

But if all Jarre does is give me a reason to go hang out with my brother and talk about our own forgotten futures as we go to our first gig together for over 20 years then that’s reason enough for me: Rendezvous Paris.

I send you this Cadmium Red…

John Berger & John Christie
Actar (2000)

I Send You This Cadmium RedI must have been feeling flush when I bought this. It’s a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated, impeccably realised. It feels expensive.

Essentially, it’s a dialogue, an exchange of correspondence, between two exemplary artists on the subject of colour: John Berger, the novelist, critic, painter, poet; and John Christie, the filmmaker and artist.

Berger I’d heard of. His Ways of Seeing was a key text in my studies, first as a student of Media and Communication, then later as a student of English literature and linguistics. The university course that most shaped my learning, that best trained my mind, that forever changed the way I looked at the world, was called Ways of Reading, after Berger. I have a few of his books of essays on my shelves, and as much as I love his voice I do find him a difficult read.

I send you this Cadmium Red… is a book that requires no prior knowledge, no specialist learning, no fancy vocab. Just a bit of time to call your own for a while. Big thoughts like the ones contained in here need space to land. I think about this book from time to time for lots of reasons: as an example of the best in mass print reproduction; as a text that sings the virtues of a fine editor; as a paragon of the kind of connection I tend to seek out in friendships; and as an inspiration for the kinds of places quiet, mindful contemplation can take you when artfully applied.

In a series of letters, Berger and Christie discuss colour in all its complexity and variety: where colour comes from (crushed beetles, rust, chlorophyll); its qualities (“slippery” gold, “luminous” blue, “liquid, undulating, mobile, pushy” green); and its application by various painters (a Caravaggio red, a Joseph Beuys brown, an Yves Klein blue), alongside anecdotes, life stories, quotations, allusions, associations. It’s a quirky history of 20th Century western art written up as an epistolary chinwag. It so happens that the chinwags in question are learned, erudite, insightful, candid and make for joyful company. You just want to hang out with them all the time. You want to be part of their gang. As well as the letters they exchange, sometimes, they send poems, or pictures, or – best of all – unique, hand-made artists’ books.

I bought Cadmium Red… when I was getting into making my own books. I think perhaps because I was getting into making my own books. And I got into making books around the same time I was thinking about getting into writing more seriously. As such, making books and the writing that goes into them have always been inextricably entwined for me. I feel happier when the two things come together.

In 2001, at the suggestion of a close friend, A-, we both went up to Aberdeen for the weekend to attend a crash course in book-binding at Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen. A- had studied fine art photography at the Glasgow School of Art and already knew a wee bit about making books. I was a total newbie.

Marking. Measuring. Cutting. Scoring. Folding. Stitching. Gluing. Pressing. The tutor took us through all the basic bookbinding techniques. I learned that paper has a grain, which you can use (or choose to work against) when folding. I learned how to stitch stacks of sheets laid flat, how to stitch pamphlets. I learned what a folio is and how to stitch several of them together to make a hard-back book block. I learned the astonishing versatility of the bone folder: a genius piece of technology and, of the many tools in the bookbinder’s arsenal, weapon of first resort.

I came away from that weekend with the feeling, for the first time in my life, that I was capable of making art. That art was something I could do. Imagine that.

A- I and I embarked on a project soon after our Peacock weekend called Praties is Tatties, a series of six hand-stitched books incorporating A-‘s photography and my text on the subject of, well, potatoes. We sold a few at the Glasgow Art Fair and returned to Peacock a year later with another project called Inventories, where I interviewed various people about an object and A- photographed it.

I’ve made countless books since. When I studied for my Masters in creative writing, my submissions were always presented as hand-made books. I continue to make books when the situation seems to require one and I think the intended recipient might enjoy it. I’ve made books for many of my friends. I made many for a difficult girl I once loved. I made one earlier this year for my dad’s 70th birthday celebration – a collection of postcards from guests at his birthday lunch last year, recalling a memorable event with him, accompanied by three words to describe him. Recently, a dear friend from the old country whom I hadn’t heard from for over 20 years sent me a letter. I was surprised and touched and delighted. It seemed fitting – inevitable, really – to respond with a book.

And, looking back, I realise that the act of making books as a way of connecting in a very personal way with people I hold dear comes from the correspondence collected in I send you this Cadmium Red.

Ideas take shape in infinite ways. And sometimes the best way is with a book.