Real Gone

Tom Waits
Anti (2004)

realgoneThe first time I saw Tom Waits in concert was on the 2004 Real Gone European tour.

I belong to a now semi-defunct group called the Zornlist, which back then was a pretty lively discussion and information sharing forum which allowed people from all over the place – mostly Europe and the US – to post stuff about John Zorn and the various genres of music his output crossed. Which is a lot. From free-improv to cartoon scores, hard bop to hardcore, modern classical to radical Jewish music. His roster of regular collaborators is a tower of talent that would make you giddy and includes the guitarist Marc Ribot, a regular collaborator with Tom Waits since Rain Dogs.

One of the guys on the list posted about a ticket that he was selling for the upcoming Tom Waits tour. I was lucky and got in first. I could have high-fived the sky. I was going to see Tom Waits. If I could get to Antwerp for Saturday 13th November, the ticket was mine. The seller was honest with me, said he he was going to ask twice the ticket price, which meant the gig was going to cost me €200 before I had even booked a flight or thought about a hotel room.

But fuck it. This was Tom. Fucking. Waits. The only other musician I would travel to a different timezone to see was John Zorn. It was totally worth it. A bargain, even…

There was just the tiny detail of the transaction to take care of.

At the time of the gig, back in 2004, Paypal and the whole business of paying for things online was a bit unclear to me and still considered to be plenty risky. Before the ticket seller and I had worked out how to handle the transaction, I asked around – a few friends, a couple of business savvy pals, some guys I knew who worked on web stuff – about how to go about securing a concert ticket from a guy who lived in Belgium whom I’d never met. Everyone basically sucked their teeth and narrowed their eyes. They were all like, “So, how exactly did you meet him? An email list? Right. And how much is he asking?  Wow, really. And what’s his name?”

They all thought I was winding them up.

“Rob Alert”.

Guy with a comedy rip-off merchant name (tho spelled in a Flemish way with many more letters than syllables) whom I didn’t know, couldn’t vouch for, who could’ve been a bullshitter, could’ve been a scammer, lived in Belgium wanted to sell me something online that I could only redeem by travelling about 800 miles.

Basically, you can probably guess, I was on my own.

Happily, however, we came to a pretty straightforward agreement. No Paypal, no Western Union, no bank transfers. If I was willing to make my way to Antwerp, he was willing to sell me the ticket. We just agreed to trust each other.

Call me sentimental but I wish there was more of that in the world.

I remember depressingly little about the gig. I think he maybe started with Make it Rain? I couldn’t tell you much more than that. I don’t even think reading the setlist on the Eyeball Kid blog could help shake loose a few memories. No wonder people make bootlegs.

I remember quite a lot of detail either side of the gig, though. The early morning flight to Amsterdam, reading the Saturday Guardian from cover to cover on the train to Antwerp. I had to buy razors from a Turkish man in a Spar because I’d forgot to bring one and he only sold packs of cheap shit Bics. There was the market. The place was scented with vanilla from the waffle sellers. I had a pretzel. I scouted the venue. I walked around Antwerp and found it familiar/strange. The accents sounded like home, full of hard consonants. I had a really quiet room in the hotel I checked into, then fell asleep watching Monk on BBC2 in my room with the volume on low.

Then I met Rob and there was the whole rigmarole of getting the ticket. Tom Waits and his management made an admirable effort to beat the re-sale market. You could only get the ticket itself on the day of the gig. The buyer had to have ID that matched the details supplied at the time of purchase. You could only buy a maximum of four tickets for the gig and your guests had to be in attendance at the time of collection in order to have a wrist band strapped to you. It meant that everyone in the audience was a True Fan, not just a bunch of schmos on a corporate jolly.

So I met Rob at the theatre, gave him his €200, got my wristband. We went in like a couple of kids on a blind date.

toneelhuisI remember how beautiful the venue was. I was amazed it was in a theatre. Waits could have sold out any stadium, any mega venue. I couldn’t believe how tiny it was. This is what they mean in the music press when they talk about an intimate venue. We were sat in the 6th row from the front, a few seats in from the left hand aisle. I was a bit overcome by the whole experience, safe to say.

The gig passed in a blur. I knew I was having a “bucket list” kind of night. I wanted to hang on to every note, to be able to quote every ad lib quip, to mime every contortion, to recall every single signal from Waits and his band that meant I wasn’t listening to a recording but watching and listening at close range.

But I couldn’t. This stuff slips away like liquid soap. I do remember the incredible bar we went to afterwards, next to the cathedral, that was full of religious statues from old churches and that sold beer in these weird test tube looking glasses. I remember enjoying myself a lot and enjoying Rob’s company.

But I don’t really remember much about the show. Nor do I remember the busker singing Tom Waits songs outside the venue, but two friends of mine knew for a fact that there was one. These friends didn’t know each other but they both knew Raymy. I had met him, briefly, years before at a jam session, through the first of these friends, a fellow sax player and improviser. He was a bit mad, carried a box of musical toys with him, had albums worth of songs on cassette that he tried to sell to people. I met him again, years later, through the second of these friends, a girl I was seeing at the time, when I got to hear about his adventures on the Real Gone tour.

Basically, the story goes that Raymy couldn’t get a ticket for any of Waits’s European shows, so he decided he was going to follow the tour schedule and busk outside each venue before the gig in the hope of attracting the band’s attention and a) gaining admission. b) acquiring memoir material, and c) actually meeting the Man himself.

When I met Raymy I learned that he had written a book about it and was totally outraged that no-one wanted to publish it – so he published it himself. You can read about it here.

I had a day in Amsterdam the next day which I spent walking in circles for about eight hours. It was my favourite time of year. November. Cold, clear, crisp evenings. Blue skies. I walked until the sun went down and everyone’s windows were lit up like mini tableaux, scenes from a thousand lives.

I bought a book in a beautiful big busy bookshop called What Should I Do With My Life? which, as much as I enjoyed it, failed to give me the momentous epiphany I realised I’d been seeking when I bought it. It was the same when I answered the Zornlist post from Rob. I felt then, as I kind of still do from time to time, that my life had gone wrong somewhere, taken a wrong turn, and I was looking for the way back.

I had booked an early flight home which I managed to miss. It wasn’t to be for the first time, either. I literally arrived at the check-in desk as the flight was leaving. The airline sales woman couldn’t believe I had been so stupid and contemptuously took €100 off me for the next flight back to Glasgow. I had an awkward conversation with my boss too, as I was going to miss my two classes that afternoon that I was timetabled to teach at the college I worked at.

I saw Tom Waits again when he played in Edinburgh in 2008. I had a new job by that time, and a new girlfriend. I hadn’t answered Po Bronson’s question, but it felt like I was making a reasonable attempt.

The Edinburgh gig was in a theatre again, albeit a much, much bigger one. The same security measures applied, and then some. Tom was exceptional, as he always is, but don’t ask me to remember anything from the gig.

I wonder if he’ll ever tour again.

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Three Colours: Blue

Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski (1993)
with Juliette Binoche

three_colors_blueIt begins with a woman taking back control of her life and ends with a song for the unification of Europe. Could there be a more fitting film to mourn our country’s departure from the European Union?

The Song for the Unification of Europe which ends the film, poignantly, is sung in Greek. Greece, the cradle of democracy. Also, the country that gave us Grexit, that begat Brexit. The disastrous handling by the European Union of the Greek debt crisis over the past few years nearly brought about the collapse of the shared currency, and created a wobble within the Eurozone, the reverberations from which saw the UK vote to leave the EU only this morning.

I remember seeing posters for the film – Juliette Binoche, that tall typeface – in cinemas in Tel Aviv when I travelled to Israel in 1994. I didn’t see the film itself till over a year later, late one evening on Channel 4. Then, in the summer of 1996 and living in Edinburgh, I went with my flatmate Eduardo to the Cameo cinema to see the full Three Colours trilogy, of which Blue is the first, that was being shown there over one day. We sat in that cinema close to 7 hours, with only short breaks in between to get a quick cig and a breath of fresh air. It was one of the best cinema-going experiences of my life. The beauty of the filmmaking, the tone, the interlinking narratives, the themes of love and loss and hope and desire and redemption and everything magical that Kieslowski puts into his films leached out into the fabric of my life. I felt as if I was living in Kieslowski’s world.

I had just spent the previous year in Poland, the year before that in Turkey and would be heading off in the autumn to spend a year in Spain. I would have a beautiful and intense Before Sunrise kind of romance with an Italian girl called Monica later that summer. I was surrounded by Germans, Austrians, Catalonians, Spaniards, French, Poles, Russians, in my day job as an English language teacher. Edinburgh was Europe. The summer was suffused by a cinematographic light, everything seemed interconnected, open. Everything seemed possible.

Three Polish artists – director Kieslowski, writer Piesiewicz and composer Priesner – along with a team of Polish and French collaborators, cinematographers, editors etc., conspired to create Three Colours in 1992 when the European project was still emergent – still a Community; not yet a Union. Poland wouldn’t become part of that united Europe for over a decade – they were still discovering democracy, their artists were starting to explore the freedoms available to them after the collapse of Communism three years before. Elsewhere, Soviet Russia and the whole eastern bloc was disintegrating, making the Cold War a thing of the past; Clinton and the Democrats were in the White House bringing fresh hope after years of right-wing Republicanism; and apart from a series of niggling tremors from Israel, Iran, far far away, the fallout from the Gulf War, peace seemed finally within our grasp.

To many of us, the European Union represented that peace. Working together across borders and languages. Finding shared languages, shared beliefs, shared dreams. Common ground as well as a common market. The European Union was about nations working together to transcended nationalisms, to build something that was bigger than us all. It seemed to usher in a new era of international openness, the dissolution of borders, the expansion of freedoms.

Fairly early in the European project, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was adopted as a European international anthem, with its celebration of the ideals of freedom, peace, and solidarity. As unification grew ever more likely, the words of the French motto – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” – seemed to resonate across the continent, so it seems entirely apt that Kielsowski should choose these as the themes for his cinematic trilogy. And for him to choose as a unifiying plot device the creation of a piece of music that unites a continent – and for his composer Zbigniew Priesner to rise to the challenge and succeed – is truly majestic, one of the greatest achievements of this film.

The film’s take on liberty is a curious one. Isolation is liberation, it seems to say. One cannot find liberty in love; one cannot love without losing one’s liberty. Interestingly, like Brexit, Three Colours: Blue is built on a paradox: that finding one’s freedom and taking control of one’s life means isolating oneself, severing all connections to the past, to those nearest you. Happily, however, Julie comes to realise that in order to love again, she must unite with the world, the people around her. She embraces love and extends her care to those around her, making her world and theirs, better.

For Kieslowski, for Priesner, and for his screenwriter Piesiewicz, hope resides in art, specifically in music. Music penetrates the main character Julie’s inner life at every opportunity. It steals up on her in her quietest moments, invades her dreams, crops up unexpectedly on the telly, and every time when she thinks she has buried her memories. In the melodies he improvises outside the cafe on Rue Mouffetard, the music of the flautist offers Julie a way of connecting her past musical associations with future ones.

I want to believe in art.

I want to believe that music will bring us together in joy. I want to believe that the glorious harmonies and polyphony of voices that resound in the chorus of the song that ends this film represent in some way the best of our species, the highest aspirations our culture – our shared musical and political culture – is capable of. I want to believe that the ideals of a united Europe are somehow not lost in the cacophony of hatred and isolationist nationalism that seems to be rearing its ugly, violent head across the continent once more and frighteningly ever closer to home.

I want to believe that. But as I watched this film back again, I watched through tears. There were tears, certainly, for the plight of the character of Julie who lost her daughter. The unimaginable horror of that, of having to live with that pain forever. Then following her story, her learning to trust love again, finding purpose in living again, making a piece of music to unite people across a continent in song. It is beautiful, and it is moving. This is what Europe can be for the millions across the world, fucked by our oil wars, whose dead children wash up on beaches across the Mediterranean – a place to find purpose in living again. Imagine what they might be capable of if we let them, imagine the beauties and wonders they might create out of the hell of this world.

I cried for my generation who have been betrayed by the politicians we trusted to look after our dreams. I cried for the death of that dream.

I cried for my own daughter, who will remember nothing of the best aspirations for the European project, who will know nothing of this bleak episode in our history. She will live through its consequences, though, and she and her generation will face challenges in her lifetime that will exist as a result of this moment.

I cried because where there was liberty, we chose restriction, closed borders, isolationism. We chose to highlight our differences with the world around us instead of the similarities. Where there was equality, we chose inequality, injustice, we chose to deny our history and geography. We chose fuck-you, me-first. Where there was fraternity, we turned our backs on our friends and neighbours and those who most need our help. We walked off alone into a cold, friendless darkness.

I cried because where there existed dreams and hope and love and unity, we chose hate. And I don’t know that art is good enough or powerful enough to stand up to all of that.

The Art of Miles Davis

Art of Miles DavisMiles Davis takes up a lot of room on my shelves. His autobiography sits among my books. His music proliferates among the cassettes and LPs and CDs. I’ve got a couple of VHS tapes kicking about somewhere, stuff I recorded off the telly when he died, a Live in Paris concert. The film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, for which Miles created the soundtrack, sits between À bout de souffle and Diva among the DVDs.

But this post takes its title from the one item that doesn’t fit on any of my shelves: The Art of Miles Davis. An outsized paperback edition that reproduces 70 odd drawings and paintings alongside an extended interview with the book’s editor. I ordered my copy from Waterstone’s in town, I think, when it still occupied the Ca’d’oro Building in Union Street, 1991. It’s great to see it again.

The book was a total revelation to me. I had been slowly broadening my appreciation of his music, mostly through cut price Fopp purchases (when they still occupied their original shop further up Renfield Street) and the occasional EK library borrowing. I wrote about how I got into Miles’s music, here, but this book acted as a gateway drug into another form of artistic expression entirely. It made a powerful connection between music and images. It made me want to make art.

From reading the interview with Miles in the book, I learned that he was influenced by Picasso and Kandinsky – names I’d heard, but didn’t know anything about, and which I subsequently set out to discover. I learned about African tribal art, and the influence that had on Miles’s painting. I started doing paintings of my own, out in the greenhouse, while listening to the murky funk of Miles’s mid 70s period, albums like Dark Magus and Get Up With It – which the Guardian describes as “a tremendously odd record, one that begins with a tribute to the just deceased Duke Ellington, a 32-minute piece of colossally-cool ambient space jazz” – perfect for creating the necessary conditions for the dreamy headspace needed for creating art.

Looking back at the book after many, many years, I’m struck by the vibrancy of the colours, the fluidity of movement. Robots mingle with dancers, faces peer out at you, figures stand and pose proud and indifferent. It doesn’t come to me as music, exactly, but there is a definite rhythmic quality to the compositions of many of them, and an improvisational element going on throughout. I’m drawn to the textures of the oil paintings as well as to his sinewy, figurative drawings. I can identify many techniques I’ve used myself – masking off areas with tape, gestural brushwork, scratching into the paint, I can immediately see Picasso and Kandinksy, also Klee and Rothko, a lot of abstract expressionism – a style I love, possibly because of this book.