End of the Roky road

 

© Sumet Sound Studios

 

Roky Erickson, the Texan singer-songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player who passed away on May 31st at the age of 71, was a man who suffered for his art.  Diagnosed with acute schizophrenia in 1968, and a year later claiming he was insane to avoid jail after a drugs-bust, he was incarcerated in a series of psychiatric and state hospitals and put though electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatment.

 

Later he displayed levels of paranoia, delusion and obsessiveness that a Philip K. Dick character (or indeed, Philip K. Dick himself) would be familiar with.  By 1982 he believed that he was an alien – one under psychic attack from the human beings around him.  Later in the decade he was charged with the theft of his neighbours’ mail – not only was the postally-crazed Erickson stealing the mail but he was plastering it all over his walls.  Only after 2001, when Erickson ended up in the legal custody of his brother Sumner Erickson, did his mental health and his situation generally begin to improve.

 

No doubt most if not all of Erickson’s demons sprang from the amount of acid that he and his comrades in the psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators consumed during the 1960s in their quest for a state of heightened perception that, in turn, would add more depth and profundity to their music.  It makes you wonder how much you should applaud the art, knowing that the circumstances that helped produce the art also wrecked the body and soul of the artist.  Erickson was unlucky enough to belong to a tradition of tormented musicians, writers, poets, composers and painters whose ranks include Thomas de Quincy, Malcolm Lowry, Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Allan Poe and Edvard Munch (who once made the sad confession that “without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.”)

 

Well, I have to applaud the art of the 13th Floor Elevators.  That’s although before I heard them I hadn’t much patience with the psychedelic-music genre to which they belonged.  Previously, I’d mainly been exposed to British psychedelic bands who seemed to sing about garden gnomes, bicycles, teapots, newspaper taxis (presumably black London cabs made out of copies of the Evening Standard) and marmalade skies – artefacts of a twee, stereotypical Little England, viewed as much through a prism of Lewis Carroll as through a haze of consciousness-altering drugs.  But the 13th Floor Elevators sounded literally far out.  Theirs was a frequently distorted noise that might’ve been made on another planet.  It consisted of Erickson’s yelping voice, Stacy Sutherland’s fuzzy guitar, John Ike Walton’s berserk drums and Tommy Hall’s electric jug.  The jug was an instrument that accompanied the songs with eerie wibbling sounds and sometimes made you wonder if there was a flock of turkeys gabbling in a corner of the Elevators’ recording studio.

 

Somehow, out of what initially seemed an unpromising clatter of disparate noises, there emerged great tunes: Reverberation, Roller Coaster, Slip Inside This House, You’re Going to Miss Me and Kingdom of Heaven.  Meanwhile, the Elevators’ takes on other people’s songs, like Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Them’s Gloria, predictably bent them into new and fantastical shapes.

 

You’re Going to Miss Me became an unexpected hit and the Elevators got to perform it on American Bandstand (1952-1989).  “Who is the head man of this band here, gentlemen?” inquired Dick Clark afterwards.  “Well,” came the perfect reply, “we’re all heads.”  And Kingdom of Heaven was used by T Bone Burnett on the musical soundtrack of the first and best season of True Detective (2014-2019).  It provided an unsettling but soaring accompaniment to the finale of the second episode, when Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey discover a sinister human figure with antlers painted on the wall of a burnt-out church.

 

The Elevators managed four albums between 1966 and 1969, though Erickson’s contribution was increasingly diminished by his mental problems.  Thereafter, I quite like the two albums that he and a new band recorded as Roky Erickson and the Aliens – aptly titled, since at the time Erickson did think he was an alien.

 

And unlike another famous casualty of the psychedelic era, Syd Barrett of the Pink Floyd – note how I called it ‘the’ Pink Floyd, to distinguish the earlier Barrett incarnation of the band from the bloated, Jeremy Clarkson-friendly soft-rock behemoth that it mutated into later – Erickson enjoyed something of a musical comeback in his later years, gigging in America, Europe and the Antipodes and even participating in a 13th Floor Elevators reunion in 2015.

 

Incidentally, the Elevators exerted a fascination over Scottish rock bands of a certain vintage.  Slip Inside This House was covered by both Primal Scream and the Shamen, while the Jesus and Mary Chain, possibly my favourite band ever, did a splendid if sleek and cleaned-up take on Reverberation.  (Yes, it says something about the original version that it makes the Jesus and Mary Chain version sound sleek and cleaned-up.)  And Erickson himself appeared on Devil Rides, a track on the 2008 Batcat EP by the rumbly Glasgow band Mogwai.

 

Mogwai member Stuart Braithwaite spoke for a lot of music fans the other day when, hearing of Erikson’s death, he tweeted: “The worst news.  Rest in peace Roky.”  Mind you, considering everything that he’d been through, maybe we should just celebrate the fact that Roky Erickson made it to the age of 71.

 

From boingboinb.net

 

My favourite gigs

 

From ticketcollector.wordpress.com

 

The other day, something made me sit down and compile a list of all the musical acts I’ve seen play live, along with details and dates for where and when I saw them.  I ended up with a list of 153 bands and performers, kicking off with that hoary old Scottish hard rock / heavy metal group Nazareth, whom I saw in Aberdeen in 1984; and culminating with mask-wearing Sri Lankan death metal band the Genocide Shrines, whom I saw in Colombo at the end of last year.

 

Anyway, as my previous blog-post dealt with an utterly depressing topic, I thought today I would write about something happy and imbued with the glow of nostalgia.  Here are the best musical gigs I’ve ever attended.

 

The Proclaimers – Aberdeen Ritzy, 1987

I didn’t know what to expect when some mates got me along to a concert by Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as Scottish folk-pop duo the Proclaimers.  I liked the Reids – their hit song that year, the politically charged Letter from America, was already becoming Scotland’s great anti-Maggie-Thatcher anthem – but I had no idea what they’d be like live.  Also, they were performing at Aberdeen Ritzy, a place I had an aversion to because I’d once worked there as a member of the floor-staff and it was probably the least enjoyable job I’d ever had.

 

Well, I had no reason to be apprehensive.  The gig felt like a giant, joyous football match where the entire crowd supported the same team and that team was winning 10-0.  I suspect one reason why the Proclaimers went down so well that night was because the Aberdonian audience could relate to their song Throw the R Away, which is about the frustrations caused when standard English-speakers can’t understand your accent.  Which of course is a common hazard if you speak fluent Aberdonian.

 

© Chrysalis

 

The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine, Blur – the Rollercoaster Tour, London Brixton Academy, 1992

From Craig and Charlie Reid to two more Scottish siblings called Reid.  These were Jim and William Reid of the feedback-drenched East Kilbride noise-niks the Jesus and Mary Chain.  Their Rollercoaster Tour date at Brixton Academy in 1992 offered not only excellent support from American alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr and dreamy, swirly shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, but also a chance to sample a young, up-and-coming band called Blur (though my reaction when I saw Damon Albarn onstage wasn’t that he was destined to be an icon of the future Britpop movement but that he resembled a musical version of Norman Wisdom).  Meanwhile, the headliners blew me away.  Promoting their recent album Honey’s Dead (1992), which was packed with behemoth tunes like Reverence and Sugar Ray, the Jesus and Mary Chain played their set as dark silhouettes against a huge blood-red backdrop and were simultaneously glorious, imperious, uncompromising and terrifying.

 

The Manic Street Preachers – Sapporo Penny Lane, 1993

Welsh rock band the Manic Street Preachers were promoting their album Gold Against the Soul when they turned up in the Japanese city of Sapporo, at whose Hokkai-Gakuen University I worked at the time as a lecturer.  In Britain they had a reputation for being shit-stirring retro-punks, but in Japan they were seen as a sort of Guns n’ Roses-lite, possibly thanks to their then-predilection for wearing eye-liner and glam-ish clothes.  Accordingly, their gig at Sapporo’s Penny Lane attracted a squad of young Japanese ladies dressed in floppy hats and silk scarves who spent their time squealing ‘Rich-ee!’ at the band’s iconic but troubled guitarist, Richey Edwards (who’d disappear, never to be seen again, two years later).  The gig was great, but Edwards was on edge.  At one point he raged against an illuminated fire-exit sign at the auditorium’s far end that he claimed was distracting him.  In a typical face-saving Japanese compromise, the venue manager didn’t turn the sign off – he just tied a big strip of cardboard over it so that nobody, including Richey, could see it, but it stayed switched on in accordance with fire regulations.

 

I bought the Japanese edition of Gold Against the Soul and I’ve always had a soft spot for it – maybe because its sound had a naively youthful quality that gave way to darker, more austere music on later Manics albums like The Holy Bible (1994) and Everything Must Go (1996).  Years afterwards, I listened to Gold Against the Soul again and discovered the CD case had a second tray that I hadn’t noticed before, containing a second, bonus disc – a live one of them performing in Japan.  I played it and immediately felt a nostalgic sadness, for in the crowd I could hear those Japanese ladies shouting “Rich-ee!” again at poor, doomed Richey Edwards.  It wasn’t so much a CD as a time capsule.

 

© Getty Images / NME

 

The Beastie Boys – Sapporo Jasmac Plaza, 1995

I almost didn’t attend this concert, which also took place while I worked at Sapporo’s Hokkai-Gakuen University.  The show was due to begin at 7.00 PM – concerts in Japan tended to start when the tickets said they would – and the same evening I had to give a late lecture until 7.20 PM.  Plus I calculated that by the time I got from the university campus to the venue, the Jasmac Plaza, the Beastie Boys would already be an hour into their gig.  It didn’t seem worth it.

 

However, a few weeks before the concert, it was announced that work had been completed on a new Sapporo subway line, which had a station called Gakuen-Mae directly below the campus where I was working.  I also discovered that the next station along the new line, Hosui-Suskino, had an exit that was only a block from the Jasmac Plaza.  And a subway train left for Hosui-Susukino from Gakuen-Mae every evening at 7.30.  I figured that if I caught the 7.30 train, and moved very fast, I could be at the concert hall in the Jasmac Plaza ten minutes later – hopefully not yet halfway through the Beastie Boys’ set.  Fate seemed to be urging me to buy a ticket, so I did.

 

That evening, I finished my lecture on the stroke of 7.20, ran like hell for the subway station and charged down what seemed like half-a-dozen escalators, descending deeper and deeper into the earth.  The train was already at the platform and I ran and jumped through its about-to-close carriage doors.  At Hosui-Susukino, I sprang out of the train, ran up more escalators, ran along a city block into the Jasmac Plaza and up several staircases to its fourth floor, where the concert hall was.  Live music blasted out of speakers above me.  I dashed into the hall, gasping for breath, my university lecturer’s suit, shirt and tie soaked in sweat…  And I discovered that the Beastie Boys weren’t onstage at all.  What I was hearing was a support act that hadn’t been mentioned on the bloody ticket.  The Beasties didn’t appear until forty minutes later.

 

After that, this needed to be a superb gig to justify all the hassle and indignity I’d suffered.  Which, thankfully, it was.

 

© Mute / Reprise

 

Nick Cave – Edinburgh Princes Street Gardens, 1999

During the 1999 Edinburgh Festival, goth-rock troubadour Nick Cave – sans his backing band the Bad Seeds – performed in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, which meant he had the craggy Edinburgh Castle rock, crowned by the battlements of the castle itself, as a spectacular backdrop.  But there was a problem.  Taking place in the castle was the Edinburgh Tattoo, that celebration of tartan-swathed, bagpipe-wailing Scottish military kitsch held every August; and the Tattoo organisers were not happy about having to compete against a concert below in the Gardens.  Indeed, a few evenings earlier, the Gardens had hosted the psychedelic / space-rock outfit Spiritualised and their percussive beats had caused the Lone Piper – the bagpiper who appears on the ramparts at the Tattoo’s finale to play the lament Sleep Dearie Sleep – to lose concentration and mess up the tune.  This evening, to placate the Tattoo, Cave wasn’t allowed to start playing until it had finished, meaning the audience turned up at the time specified on the tickets but then had to wait an hour.  (To keep us entertained, some local performance-poets were brought onstage, including the late, lamented Paul Reekie.)

 

One consequence of this was that when Cave finally did come on, the end-of-Tattoo firework display was erupting above the castle.  Talk about a spectacular entrance!  And the ensuing gig was worth the long wait.  The songs, mostly stripped-down versions of stuff from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call and 1996’s Murder Ballads, were wonderfully enhanced by the gothic surroundings – the rock, the castle and finally a gorgeous full moon ascending into the starry Edinburgh sky.

 

The Waterboys – Newcastle, Tyne Theatre and Opera House, 2003

In the mid-1980s, there was a considerable buzz about the Waterboys, who were expected to go stratospheric and join U2 and Simple Minds as one of the big Celtic rock bands of the era.  Instead, under the leadership of Edinburgh man Mike Scott, they decamped to Ireland and became a folk band for a while and rock superstardom never quite arrived.  Actually, I preferred their folky stuff (like 1988’s When Ye Go Away) to their rather bloated rock stuff (like 1985’s The Whole of the Moon).

 

For this 2003 gig in Newcastle, the band did an hour of gentle, melodic music (kicking off with a version of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, which Scott decided to play because he’d “had it in his head all day”); there was an interval during which everyone enjoyed a pint or four in the Opera House bar; and then it was back into the auditorium for a second hour of up-tempo rock music.  The relaxed and nothing-more-to-prove Scott clearly wanted to have a good time and wanted to give his Geordie audience a good time too – which he did, in spades.

 

From rescuerooms.com

 

Alabama 3 – Newcastle, University of Northumbria, 2005

This was the best blues / country / techno / electronica / indie / trip-hop / acid-jazz gig I’ve seen, courtesy of the best (and possibly only) band in the world whose music ticks all those boxes, the Alabama 3.  Eccentrically, they’re not from Alabama, but from South London; and there aren’t three of them, but eight or nine.  With so many band-members onstage, producing such a stew of sounds, this gig at the University of Northumbria was inevitably a bit of a shambles – but, God what a glorious shambles.  Particularly epic was their rendition of the track Woke Up This Morning, which at the time served as the opening theme for The Sopranos (1999-2007).

 

Primal Scream – Norwich UEA, 2009

In 2009, I didn’t expect a great deal when the Bobby Gillespie-fronted alternative rock band Primal Scream turned up at the University of East Anglia, where I was in the middle of a full-time MA.  Feeling creaky and long in the tooth by then, too old for the mosh-pit and for jumping around, letting myself go and getting into the swing of things, I assumed my best gig-going days were behind me.  Meanwhile, I’d seen Primal Scream a few times before and found them hit-and-miss.

 

But I ended up really, really enjoying this.  I managed to snag a position right at the front of the stage, giving me a perfect view of Bobby and the boys.  And they were in blistering form.  Primal Scream concerts can feel schizophrenic because their music veers between harsh, experimental electronica (like 2000’s Kill All Hippies) and loose-limbed, traditional Rolling Stones-style rock ‘n’ roll (like 1994’s Jailbird), but tonight, somehow it didn’t matter.  They alternated, doing one hardcore electronica number (accompanied by a brain-frying lightshow), followed by a Stonesy number, then another electronica one, then another Stonesy one, and so on – and it worked brilliantly.

 

From nme.com

 

It’s alive

 

From GuitarParty.com

 

Christmas Day last year marked not only the 2017th birthday of Jesus Christ.  It was also the day that Shane MacGowan, singer, songwriter, musician, raconteur and front-man of the much-loved Anglo-Irish folk-punk band the Pogues, celebrated his 60th birthday.  Wow, I have just written six words that I never expected to write together in a sentence: namely ‘Shane MacGowan’ and ‘celebrated his 60th birthday’.

 

Indeed, back in the 1990s, the prospect of the famously and fearfully hard-living MacGowan reaching even his 40th birthday looked doubtful.  A man whose modus operandi had always been to be the Brendan Behan of the musical world, his industrial-level alcohol consumption and resultant unreliability had by this time led to him being ejected, temporarily, from the Pogues.  Also, late in the decade, he’d developed a heroin habit so severe that his pal Sinead O’Connor felt compelled to report him to the police before he killed himself with an overdose.

 

In the summer of 1995, I was in New York when I learned that MacGowan and his post-Pogues band the Popes were performing at a local venue.  So I bought a ticket.  The gig saw a mightily-inebriated MacGowan manage to sing all of two songs.  He spent another fifteen minutes sitting at the edge of the stage clutching his head while the Popes played a couple of instrumentals.  Then he disappeared.  The band did a few more instrumentals and then followed their leader’s example and exited too.  The crowd nearly rioted.  Poor Shane did not look like a man who had much of a professional future ahead of him.  Or indeed, much of a future.

 

Yet the old bugger was still on the go three years later when I saw him, with the Popes again, at the Fleadh music festival at London’s Finsbury Park.  This time he remained standing and remained singing for the entire set, even if he did have the dazed air of a man who’d just been returned to earth after being abducted and probed by aliens.  And it was touching how, when the performance was done, the crowd kept chanting, “Shane-o!  Shane-o!  Shane-o!” until, finally, an appreciative grin spread across MacGowan’s bleary features.

 

© WEA

 

He was in better form the next time I saw him, in the early noughties.  He and the rest of the Pogues’ classic line-up – James Fearnley, Jem Finer, Darryl Hunt, Andrew Ranken, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods and the late Philip Chevron, plus original bassist and sometime-vocalist Cait O’Riordan – had got together for a Christmas tour and they made an appearance at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was living at the time.  Admittedly, MacGowan’s voice was weaker than it’d been during the glory days of Pogues albums like Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), but he seemed to raise his game whenever Cait O’Riordan sang onstage with him; and their rendition of 1988’s famous Christmas song Fairy Tale of New York, with O’Riordan taking the place of the late Kirsty McColl, was rather wonderful.

 

The whole event, shameless, nostalgic cash-in though it was, was rather wonderful in fact.  Well, with a combination of the Pogues, Christmas and a few thousand boozed-up Geordies, how could it not be wonderful?

 

In the meantime, in 2001, MacGowan and his long-time partner, the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, had published a book called A Drink with Shane MacGowan.  A rambling mixture of memoirs, anecdotes, opinions and philosophy related by MacGowan and recorded and edited by Clarke, A Drink… is great.  It’s both fascinating and knowingly hilarious.  I particularly liked the bit in it where he theorises why Samuel Beckett was such an existentialist misery-guts.  (It was because Beckett was the only man in the whole of Ireland who liked cricket.)

 

© Pan Books

 

Anyway, the other evening, three weeks after his sixtieth, MacGowan was honoured with a belated birthday-bash at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.  During the proceedings, some of his most famous compositions were played and sung by various musical talents, luminaries and icons (and Bono).  Near the end, the birthday boy himself was wheeled onstage – he’s been largely wheelchair-bound since 2015, when an accident outside a Dublin recording studio left him with a broken pelvis – to sing Summer in Siam, from the 1990 Pogues album Hell’s Ditch, with his old mate Nick Cave.  He then brought the event to a close with a solo rendition of the venerable Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, his now-weary and gravelly but somehow more-affecting-than-ever voice probably ensuring that there wasn’t a single dry eye or lump-free throat in the building.

 

Here’s a list of my ten favourite Shane MacGowan songs – ones he’s written and / or ones he’s sung.

 

The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (from the 1985 Pogue album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Glasses of punch, whiskey, banshees, ghosts, angels, devils, rattling death-trains, midnight mass, Euston taverns, “lousy drunken bastards”, pissing yourself, getting syphilis and decking “some f**king blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids…”  If ever a song was the Pogues’ manifesto, it’s this one.

 

Sally MacLennane (from Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Equally rousing and elegiac, this is the perfect song for bidding adieu to an old friend: “I’m sad to say, I must be on my way, so buy me beer and whiskey cos I’m going far away…  FAR AWAY!

 

If I Should Fall from Grace with God (from the 1988 Pogues album of the same name).  This is surely the one that makes all Pogues fans ‘go wild on the dance floor’.

 

Fairy Tale of New York (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Obviously.

 

Thousands are Sailing (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Written by Philip Chevron, this paean to the millions of Irish people forced to migrate to North America in the 19th century receives much of its power from MacGowan’s vocals, simultaneously wistful and exultant.  It just didn’t sound the same when, minus MacGowan, the Pogues performed it in the 1990s.

 

Down All the Days (from the 1989 Pogues album Peace and Love).  A tribute to the severely-palsied Irish writer Christy Brown, who had to “Type with me toes, drink stout through me nose, and where it’s going to end, God only knows,” this also contains the memorable lines, “I’ve often had to depend upon the kindness of strangers, but I’ve never been asked and never replied if I supported Glasgow Rangers.”

 

© Mute Records

 

What a Wonderful World (a 1992 duet with Nick Cave, available on the 2005 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album B-Sides and Rarities).  MacGowan and Cave’s amusing, but still tender and respectful, version of the Louis Armstrong classic is the song I want played at my funeral.

 

God Help Me (from the 1994 Jesus and Mary Chain album Stoned and Dethroned).  Considering what MacGowan was going through at the time, this melancholic, low-key collaboration with the usually abrasive, feedback-drenched Scottish alternative-rock band the Jesus and Mary Chain is probably aptly titled.

 

That Woman’s got me Drinking (from the 1994 Shane MacGowan and the Popes album The Snake).  This features one of the best choruses ever: “That Woman’s got me drinking, look at the state I’m in, give me one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten bottles of gin!

 

Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway (from The Snake).  Gerry Rafferty’s rumination on a relationship that’s gone wrong is reworked by MacGowan and the Popes in their own inimitable manner.  I wonder what Rafferty thought about the subtle changes made to his lyrics at the very end of the song.  The Rafferty version simply concludes, “Her father didn’t like me anyway.”  The MacGowan one concludes, “Her father was a right c*nt anyway.