Gullible Travels – for Russell

There’s nothing like the death of a dear one to make you ask all the big questions.

Why do we do what we do?
How do we know who we know?
Why do things die when they die?
How does friendship survive?
How does love thrive?
What’s the point of doing anything?

The older I get, the longer I live, the more I think that the point of living is simply to make life that bit more bearable for other people.

Colin and Russell, Worcester MAYou don’t know it, my friend, but you kind of showed me that. Not just for me but for countless others who knew you and loved you. You had an amazing talent for looking after people. You even made a living out of caring.

You took people in to your heart, your home. You gave them your time, your space, your energy, even when it cost you, even when it irked you, even when it pained you. Whoever it was, you always had your eye on their angle of vulnerability, and you did what you could to make it better.

Now we’re all taking in the news that you’ve gone. Suddenly and without fuss or fanfare you just slipped away quietly one night, hoped we wouldn’t notice. But we noticed. We’re going to be noticing for a long time that you’re no longer with us.

You were always such a plotter, a planner, a schemer. There was always a project to be getting on with, always a new destination to be setting off for. When we met that time back in East Kilbride at the end of 2015, some twenty years since the last time, it was the day before my birthday and everything was up in the air with both of us. I remember saying to you how much I had always admired this aspect of you, that you were always so firmly future focussed.

And suddenly we were the best of friends again, swapping music crushes, sudden pashes, flash-in-the-pan fads, new raves, old faves. Like twenty years were nothing. I assumed from that point on we’d stay friends into our old age, checking in, hanging out.

It was music that made friends of us back then, at that draughty old rehearsal studio out in the country lanes by Auldhouse. It was music that brought us close, that started conversations, that led to deep discussions long into the night.

IMG_2735You had my name listed as “Sax” in your phone (was that the joke? “Sax in ma phone”?) which made me laugh, even though I haven’t played the thing in earnest in years. For me, Russ, you were all about the bass.

There’s so much music in my life because of you. Things I’d never have listened to in a lifetime have become lifelong companions because of you. There are bands who are indelibly stamped in my mind with your passion and enthusiasm, like a rock n’ roll tattoo. There are songs that conjure places, people, gigs, jams, days spent wandering, nights spent smoking menthol cigs in cars and bars in East Kilbride, Glasgow, London, New York, Boston, Worcester MA.

It’s impossible to list every single piece of music that magically sings of you, but here’s a few things kicking about my shelves at home that conjure you as I best remember you.

Supertramp - SupertrampSupertramp
Supertramp (1970)

You liked proper proggy muso music. Long songs, extended solos, big looping bass lines. I only really knew Supertramp from their hippy-haired Top of the Pops hits; you were all about their early stuff, which I grew to love. Try Again was your favourite, you said, and my first entry point into your musical universe. Weird, trippy, slightly gothic, melodic, mellifluous and emotional.

But it was there in the air that we share in the twilight
Humming a sad song, where was our day gone
But in the dark was a spark, a remark I remember

Traffic - Eagle

Where The Eagle Flies
Traffic (1974)

It’s really all about that one song, Dream Gerrard, and that incredible wah-wah tenor sax. I remember buying a wah-wah pedal for £25, using it a couple of times on my own horn in the rehearsal studio then eventually passing it on to you (who made much better use of it). The song appeared on one of the mix tapes you made that I played a lot, which also contained another Traffic track that’s quintessentially you – The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys – as well as a song you wrote and recorded yourself, called Gullible Travels, which I liked a lot.

Gullible travels
Baby’s gone and papa’s dead
Gonna leave this place now
It’s cold and sick
And I’m feeling blue
cos I’m leaving you

You were amazed I even remembered the song, never mind quote the chorus to you…

Edie BrickellShooting Rubber Bands at the Stars
Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians (1988)

I’m not usually big on lyrics, as you know. I’m paying more attention to them now though, especially the first song of this album, What I Am, and I wonder if the reason you loved it so much was because it seems to sum you up so well.

I’m not aware of too many things
I know what I know if you know what I mean

What I am is what I am
you what you are or what

Or maybe it was just the wah-wah solo. I remember you describing me once as a “Bohemian”, which I thought was preposterous. But by East Kilbride standards, though, I suppose both of us probably were.

QueenQueen
Queen (1973)

I’m thinking, obviously, of the first track, Keep Yourself Alive. It’s a rather cruel and ironic title given the circumstances, but I bet you’d allow yourself a chuckle. Or even a LOL. I never got on with Queen, though God knows you tried to win me to the cause. I eventually bought this album at your insistence and listening again now I think I hear something of what you heard. Adrenaline pumping hard-rockin bombast, a bunch of guys acting as if they were already superstars, doing wildly inventive things with guitars, and a massive flouncing fatally flawed show off in the middle of it all. It’s basically your anthem.

rush

Moving Pictures
Rush (1980)

Another key piece of genetic material in your musical DNA. Not hard to see what appealed to you about this triumverate of turbocharged neo-prog hyper-rockers. And the 1991 Roll The Bones gig was a big one for us.

Again, the lyrics in the first track, Tom Sawyer,  seem to say meaningful things about you.  I don’t know. Pick a lyric.

Don’t put him down as arrogant
He reserves the quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events

Always hopeful yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is

The world is, the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his eyes are wide

Janes Addiction RitualRitual de lo habitual
Jane’s Addiction (1990)

We played the bejesus out of this. Manicmetal. Mischief music. The song about shoplifting caught your ear by accident late one night on MTV, you passed it on like a flu bug. Every few days another track became a fevered favourite. Like we’d invited a pyromaniac worm into our ears. You’ll find this weird, but I always think of the song Of Course… as being about you and me. I have no idea what the song is actually about, but these lines spoke to me of our relationship: simultaneously close and aloof, affectionate and brusque, concerned and indifferent. Like brothers in music.

When I was a boy,
My big brother held on to my hands,
Then he made me slap my own face.
I looked up to him then, and still do.
He was trying to teach me something.
Now I know what it was!
Now I know what he meant!
Now I know how it is!

VarmintsVarmints
Anna Meredith (2016)

You used to send me things in the post. Ruth Gordon’s autobiography appeared one day – the Harold and Maude actor you had a massive thing for. You were so delighted to have found it from an ebay seller halfway across America. There was the card you made from a photo you’d taken congratulating me on a new job. Mostly it was music, of course – Future Islands, Tame Impala, couple of other things, chief among which was this album by the Scottish artist Anna Meredith which I grew to love enormously. I bought tickets for her band show in March at the CCA that I wanted you to come to but by then you were doing the First Bus thing and you couldn’t commit the time. Things moved so very quickly after that. The year passed in a blur and I saw you only a couple more times.

Empire State and Twin Towers 1993The Anna Meredith thing was so typical of you in so many ways. You were so open to new and interesting stuff. For every Rush or Bryan May gig we went to, there was an equivalent Ornette Coleman & Prime Time or John Zorn. And as much as you loved big bombastic cockrock, you could be just as passionate about female artists – Joni Mitchell, Ricky Lee Jones, Tracy Chapman, Oleta Adams, Aimee Mann.

Only latterly I found out we had a shared love of St Vincent. Now, since you’ve gone, I keep returning to her song about love and loss and New York. It always transports me to our week there in 1993 when you were heading to Worcester, MA, to begin a career in care and I was off on a transcontinental train trip.

All the things we did. That first sunset taxi ride into Manhattan from JFK, taking in that breathtaking skyline – a waterside city the height of the clouds, the colour of rust and diamonds. Staying at the Chelsea Y. Endless wanderings. Walking downtown to Battery Park from 110th St. Dinner in the Dojo. Tasting tahini. Camp Kiwago. Nights with Carolyn. Seymour’s house full of whales in Jersey. Then returning the next year when you were settled in Worcester and the madness of all that.

I was in New York recently and the wide city streets still ring with those memories.

She sings,

I have lost a hero
I have lost a friend

and boy do I know it.

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Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

Dir: Jim Jarmusch
With Forest Whitaker,
Isaach de Bankolé, Henry Silva
(1999)

ghost-dogOf all the millennial-themed movies around at the end of the last century, and for a few years before, this is one that has kept its flavour freshest.

There was a a rising sense of dread at large in 1999: existential dread, technological dread, theological dread, things moving towards their end. So we got doomy, dready zeitgeist-defining offerings like The Matrix, Fight Club, Summer of Sam, films called things like End of Days. And, the doomiest, dreadiest of them all, The Blair Witch Project.

Hagakure symbol

“It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream.
It is said that the world we live in is not a bit different from this.”

It’s not a watertight theory. Ghost Dog came out the same week as the first of the new Star Wars prequels

But Ghost Dog felt, still does, fresher and cooler and had more interesting things to say than many of the other offerings that year. Watching again, 17 years after it was released, it still has plenty to say about themes that have come to define this age too: urban decay and alienation, multiculturalism, the demise of the old order, the terminal decline of the New World and its eclipse by the Far East.

And as much as it’s a twist on the lone hitman movie – a philosophical Dirty Harry, a zen Leon – it’s also a film about the enduring relevance and validity of the old codes of honour, respect and valour and what happens when they disappear.

Hagakure symbol

It is said that what is called “the spirit of an age” is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end.
For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done.
Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.

I love Ghost Dog for many reasons. I love its humour, its stealth, its grace. I love its clever use of text, its bookishness. I love its cast of mad gangsters gone to the wall, gone to seed. I love that it’s set in a North American version of Glasgow. I love the music.

Above all, I love Forest Whitaker’s performance. He brings something simultaneously fragile and threatening to the title role. His beautiful, serene face and lazy left eye suggest tranquility, passivity, possibly even weakness, but also deep intelligence, compassion, humility. His size and agility suggest strength, danger: you completely believe in him as a assassin who cuddles pigeons. In other hands, the pigeon thing could have been an affectation; the hitman thing laughable. If there had been anyone else in Jim Jarmusch’s mind to play the part, I’d be astonished. He is Ghost Dog.

Hagakure symbol

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road.
But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking.
This understanding extends to all things.

Leaving aside the whole hitman scenario, if we can, Ghost Dog is the story of a man who has overcome hardship to find peace within himself, who has made peace with his outsider status, who has found a way to live – at one with nature, and with his own nature – who by doing so has earned the respect of his community, his peers. In the face of a dog-eat-dog world that’s turned to bear-baiting, where values are eroding along with the infrastructure, where the system’s dying but the ancient ways are not yet dead – this is an achievement that’s nothing short of heroic.

It’s an achievement that’s managed to elude me, anyway. Like the best, art, Ghost Dog contains philosophies I still yearn to live up to. Like, I’ll never learn that lesson about rainstorms. Certainly not literally, living in a country where you’re only usually a couple of days from receiving your next soaking. Even figuratively, I’m still dodging along under the eaves, still getting wet.

Hagakure symbol

There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there is nothing left to do, and nothing else to pursue.

I tried to live by this code, once upon a time. Living in the moment, taking care of now…

Perhaps I needed to take better care of my moments. Perhaps I lacked the necessary understanding and insight. Perhaps texts like this exist for one only to aspire to, never achieve – which is surely the point of all codified systems of thought, from diets to religions: peddling false hope to the credulous.

I fall for it every time.

Hagakure symbol

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall, there was this one:
“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.”
Master Ittei commented, “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

Could almost be a motto for this blog.

 

Slacker

Dir: Richard Linklater (1991)

SlackerI’m still not sure I want to watch this film, even as I slide the box out of its yellowing sleeve. Even as I press play on the DVD remote I’m not sure it has anything to say to me any more. And as the trailers play out (remember trailers?) I’m recalling the last time I tried to watch it and got no further than about 20 minutes into the movie.

Why this film? Why now? As various online articles attest: We get older, Slacker stays the same age.

I saw the film probably in 1992 or 93, a year or so after its US release, at the suggestion of a friend. I don’t think either of us really appreciated the kind of film it would turn out to be. I don’t think we properly knew what a “slacker” was, at least not in the director’s coining of the word, but something about it spoke to us. Generation X was out and had started to catch on as an idea in a tabloidy kind of way, McJobs and all that.

But we didn’t really have slackers in the UK – we had the Protestant work ethic. We had loafers, layabouts and scroungers, the feckless and the workshy, dole-ites, people asking you when you were going to pull your socks up, get your finger out, get a job, get a real job.

I was definitely a slacker. Signing on during the extended summer holidays from uni. Staying up late, waking up whenever. Playing in bands. Playing chess. Wandering the streets of a New Town in decline, secondhand Pentax K-1000 round my neck. Making animated cine films in my attic bedroom. Painting in the greenhouse. Reading the Beatniks. And travelling. Always looking for my next ticket out of a town I was completely at odds with.

We might have had The Jesus and Mary Chain, we might have had Roddy Frame, but if East Kilbride had once been the Town of Tomorrow, it was never going to be Austin. It’s just not big enough, or warm enough. You don’t really get flâneurs in cold, wet climates. We had Rockschool, the Key Youth Centre, the Village Theatre, John Menzies, the entertainment section of the EK News, and the bus into Glasgow.

What were my concerns back then? What were my ambitions? I had a curious mind, but an undisciplined intellect. I was doing a version of what I’ve continued to do my whole life, trying to find my place in the world by wandering about and sort of bumping into it.

A line in the film jumps out:

The First Hurdle of the True Warrior:
To those humans in whom I have faith,
I wish suffering, being forsaken, sickness, maltreatment, humiliation.
I wish that they shjould not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust and the misery of the vanquished.
I have no pity for them.
Because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not: that one endures.

The Slacker generation is my generation. I was too young for punk. Punk sent its energy outwards, a seismic shockwave that took years for its ripples to reach the suburbs. It was performative, social, communal. Slacker/ Generation X was an equivalent force for introverts, nerds and misfits filled with self-contempt and self-mistrust.

There’s a community-of-sorts being defined in this film. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the film’s structure, but it feels like the people who form this community are more like individual links in a chain rather than a mass gathering of like-minded souls. A collaboration of coordinated individualism, perhaps. Relationships are almost always, one-to-one, personal, intense.

Watching the film requires a bit of work, it’s not a film you can tune out of easily. There’s no protagonist, no plot, no “stakes”, no denouement. Nothing really happens. It’s like a giant mix tape of eavesdropped campus stoner chat. I take notes. I list the scene transitions, give the characters nicknames. I list the subjects of conversation. I’m not sure I get any closer to the truth of the film than if I’d just sat back and let it happen, but I’m more engaged with it. I breeze past the 20 minute mark.

There’s a lot of conspiracy stuff – Warren Commission, JFK, FBI, moon landings. Pop culture stuff – Smurfs, Scooby Do, Wizard of Oz, Madonna, Elvis. Politically it veers from anarchy into a kind of freelance conservatism. There’s stuff about dreams/ reality, freedom/ slavery, destruction/ creativity, ways of seeing/ ways of being. A lot of ripped jeans and terrible shorts. Meaningful t-shirts. Beers n smokes. Sex n (traffic) violence. Philosophy n prophecy. And walking. A lot of walking.

Where do the film’s philosophical insights take us? I watched Slacker, and later its follow-up-of-sorts Waking Life, hoping some of that sagacity would rub off, that I would incorporate at least some of it into my everyday life, that it would lead me out of my own self-contempt and self-mistrust towards something like an enlightened self-sufficency which would allow me to create great art, or at least create something.

In 25 years, nothing has changed. Still with the self-contempt, still with the self-mistrust. No closer to enlightened self-sufficiency. Still ambling, still looking to bump into my reason for being.

I watch Slacker now as a 44 year old and I want to say to half of the characters, “Quit wasting your time with that shit, man. Read some real books. Get some real skills.” I catch myself shaking my head, thinking, “You’ll learn, kid”. I’ve become the one saying “When are you going to get a real job?”

To the others, I want to say, “I totally get where you’re coming from!” I want to join in their conversations. I realise I’m engaging with these characters as if they’re real. I simultaneously wish I was one of them, while accepting the world they inhabit isn’t just gone – it’s ancient history.

These characters gave rise to the hipster – essentially, a slacker with an iPhone and a job in the digital economy. The Austin they inhabited in 1991 is now a hipster boom town, the Austin of SXSW, the live music capital of the world, unofficial headquarters of corporate creativity that now, ironically, campaigns to hang on to what remains of the place that Linklater’s heightened sense of the local helped to define, that made it attractive to the kinds of homogenising forces that are now levelling out the kinks.

Globalisation in 1991 really only meant Coca Cola. Now it’s the very air we breathe. Every conspiracy is available online to indulge – no need to go ferreting in bookstores. No need to visit the scrapyard to fillet junked cars for parts – just hand your car back to the leasing company and get another. The guy who disappeared leaving a pile of cryptic postcard-length messages – all the mystery lost in a series of tweets.

The film ends with a convertible full of kids with Super8 cameras, riding around in the dawn, making movies. The last scene shows one of the group tossing a camera off a cliff, the resulting whorls and swooshes, one imagines, are the retrieved (and processed and edited) film. Derek Malcolm found this scene “tiresome”. I find it exuberant and joyful and beautiful. It recalls every night staying up till sunrise in the company of fast friends and lifelong alliances. It wordlessly recalls every moment of unselfconscious creation, of earnest conversation, of endless possibility. It’s the blur and the tumult of youth, the “fuck it, why not”, the leap into the void.

We may grow old; Slacker may stay the same age. But like the best of all art, its message is timeless.