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.

 

Movie mood music

 

(c) Stage 6 Films

 

Recently, I wondered what my favourite pieces of ‘movie mood music’ were.

 

By movie mood music, I mean compositions that are instrumental – sorry, Celine, no singing (or in your case, caterwauling) allowed.  I also mean compositions that fit closely with certain scenes or themes in the films they accompany, to the point where it’s difficult to imagine one without the other.  And I mean compositions that aren’t so grandiose that they need to be belted out by whole orchestras.  No, they have to be intimate.

 

For that last reason I’ve excluded film music by the likes of John Williams, Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrman and John Barry.  And for the sake of simplicity and brevity, I’ve limited my choices to the 21st century.  So, alas, I’ve had to eschew such composers as Lalo Schifrin, Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter too.

 

Anyway, here are half-a-dozen such tracks from half-a-dozen movies that I can listen to repeatedly and always feel ‘moved’ by.

 

I’m old enough to remember Clint Mansell before he became a famous film composer.  For he was once lead singer with the unglamorous ‘grebo’ band Pop Will Eat Itself, whose finest hour was probably the hit single Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies! in 1993.  I was thus a wee bit surprised in 1998 when I went to a cinema to see Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and discovered that its marvellously frantic and pulsing music was the work of a now reinvented Mr Mansell.

 

Aronofsky is the director with whom Mansell is most associated.  He’s contributed scores to subsequent Aronofsky movies like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2005), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014).  But for my money his greatest work is for the Duncan Jones-directed Moon (2009).  In particular, I love Welcome to Lunar Industries, the first tune on that film’s soundtrack album.  Its plaintive piano sound captures both the loneliness of the film’s setting – the moon’s surface – and the melancholy of its storyline, which is about the sole human inhabitant (Sam Rockwell) of a futuristic lunar mining installation discovering the tragic truth about who and what he really is.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lAfMT5FIZE

 

Incidentally, Mansell has teamed up with director Ben Wheatley for his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel High Rise, to be released later this year.  I can’t wait to see – and hear – that.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

Similarly, Trent Reznor has a background as a rock musician.  He’s the mastermind behind the excellent industrial / synth / metal band Nine Inch Nails.  Unlike Mansell, though, he’s kept his original job going whilst also providing music for films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Gone Girl (2014), not to mention assembling the brilliant musical soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers back in 1994.

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl were both directed by David Fincher, and it’s from another Fincher movie that Reznor worked on, 2010’s biopic of billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg The Social Network, that I’ve picked my next piece of music, Intriguing Possibilities.  With an urgent, high-tech sound that’s practically Reznor’s trademark, Intriguing Possibilities suggests the context of dizzyingly-fast technological change that facilitates Zuckerberg’s rise to fame and fortune.  It also suggests the entrepreneurial thought processes whirring endlessly inside Zuckerberg’s head.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vvs4__2XRI

 

I’ve heard people say that Intriguing Possibilities turns up too on the soundtrack to 2011’s Drive, but I can’t remember hearing it when I watched that movie on DVD a little while ago.

 

(c) Legendary Pictures / Syncopy

 

As Clint Mansell is to Darren Aronofsky and Trent Reznor is to David Fincher, so German composer Hans Zimmer is to Christopher Nolan.  So far he’s worked on Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005, 2008 and 2012), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014).  (Actually, Zimmer has had an equally productive, if less famous association with Ridley Scott – at my last count he’d worked on a half-dozen Scott movies, including 2000’s Gladiator.)

 

I really can’t not nominate Zimmer’s instrumental Time, which plays near the end of Inception when Leonardo Di Caprio and his team wake up from their dream-hacking mission and Di Caprio then goes home and is reunited with his children.  It’s a gorgeous piece of music and, again, it manages to capture the different themes running through the film.  Its grander moments evoke Inception‘s big ideas about taking dreams and transforming them into spectacular cinematic backdrops; while its more intimate moments reflect the personal trauma that’s quietly but mercilessly haunting its lead character.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxabLA7UQ9k

 

Now onto something darker.  John Murphy’s In the House in a Heartbeat has appeared on various soundtracks, including the KickAss movies (2010 and 2013).  It’s even been used on the BBC’s motoring show Top Gear as an accompaniment for the antics of Jeremy Clarkson and co.  However, for me, In the House in a Heartbeat is about one thing only.  It’s about being chased by an army of slavering, hyperactive, blood-spewing zombies.  For yes, it’s the signature tune of the 28 Days Later movies.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox 

 

In Danny Boyle’s original 28 Days Later (2002), it plays during the climax when the zombie-virus breaks loose in a storm-lashed mansion-house where the civilian good guys and military bad guys are holed up.  During the sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), it plays on no fewer than three occasions: most memorably at the beginning, when Robert Carlyle legs it from an under-siege farmhouse, only to discover that lots of zombies are rushing across the surrounding fields towards himActually, that scene came to mind one day when I went jogging and In the House in a Heartbeat started playing on my Walkman – I did a lot of nervous looking-back over my shoulder.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST2H8FWDvEA

 

Danny Boyle teased recently that he might return to direct a third film, called – what else? – 28 Months Later.  So I hope that Mr Murphy’s memorable tune will accompany more scenes of zombie-fuelled mayhem in future.  Its structure – uneasily gentle and mannered to begin with, then building to a thunderous climax – nicely mirrors the films’ plots, where civilisation gives way to nightmarish chaos.

 

(c) BFI / Film4

 

Even darker is the instrumental Death composed and performed by Mica Levi for the 2014 arthouse sci-fi / horror movie Under the Skin, in which Scarlet Johansson plays an alien vampire-ess preying on lecherous men in modern-day Glasgow.  The squealing, squalling and thudding Death accompanies the scenes where Johansson’s victims are lured into her apartment and meet a fate so unpleasantly weird that it’d give even David Cronenberg the jitters.  If Venus flytraps were sentient beings, Death is probably the sort of music they’d use to serenade one another.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp0EW4ReZcA

 

Finally, I have to mention something by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who’ve overseen the music for films such as The Proposition (2007), The Road (2010) and Lawless (2012).  I think I’ll go for Another Rather Lovely Thing, from the soundtrack of the stylish and elegiac western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by Andrew Dominik and released in 2007. The eighth item on the soundtrack album, it’s a wistful, ruminative and, befitting its title, rather lovely thing.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVa6eq84LgA

 

(c) Warner Bros

 

We are not worthy

 

From therumpus.net

 

I suppose your enjoyment of the recent documentary-film 20,000 Days on Earth will depend on your opinion of its subject, Nick Cave: the Antipodean singer, songwriter, musician, novelist, scriptwriter, co-founder of the Birthday Party and leader and frontman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

 

If you regard him as the coolest Australian on the planet, if not the coolest human being on the planet, then 20,000 Days on Earth is definitely for you.  If you’re less enamoured with Cave and his talents, you might conceivably regard the film as a pile of self-obsessed, self-aggrandising, self-indulgent and up-its-own-arse bollocks.  Happily, I’m a member of the first camp and so I really liked the film.  And in this post I’ll be singing its praises.

 

20,000 Days on Earth, which is directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (who co-wrote the script with Cave), purports to show the events in one day – presumably the 20,000th day – in the life of its subject as, mostly, he potters around his adopted hometown of Brighton.  However, the truth is clearly being bent here.  For example, during the film, we see Cave performing his songs, old ones like Stagger Lee and new ones like Higgs Boson Blues, in venues as far away as the Sydney Opera House.  Now even someone with as iron a constitution as old Nick has would be hard-pressed to jet from Brighton to Sydney, sing Jubilee Street to an adoring audience, and jet back again in the space of one day; and then manage, with nary a grumble or yawn, to sit on the sofa with his two young sons, munch some pizza and enjoy a late-evening showing of Scarface with Al Pacino (“Say hello to my little friend!”), which is what happens near the end of the film.  No, obviously, artistic licence is being deployed.

 

Indeed, it’s fun to speculate how much of 20,000 Days on Earth is actually real and not artistic licence – some of it, a little bit of it or none of it at all?  We see Cave clamber out of bed in the morning and go to the bathroom, whilst getting a brief glimpse of Susie Bick, the model who is Nick’s missus.  Later, we see him work both in his study and in the studio.  And we also see him meet up and chat with the hirsute Warren Ellis, who’s been a Bad Seed since 1995 and has also collaborated with Cave on movie scores like The Proposition (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Road (2009) and Lawless (2012).  But even this seemingly ordinary stuff is suspect.

 

The study where Cave does his writing, for example, looks rather too bohemian and glamorous, rather too much like where we’d imagine him to be doing his writing.  He’s banging away at an old, manual typewriter, surrounded by stacks of books while pictures of iconic people (Elvis, Marilyn, etc.) adorn the walls behind him.  Actually, you can see a picture of him at work in this too-good-to-be-true study on the movie poster.

 

(c) Corniche Pictures / BFI / Film4

 

(I saw 20,000 Days on Earth with a mate at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, in south London; and when we compared notes afterwards I declared that I wanted to have a study exactly like the one Nick Cave has in the film.  My mate, however, wanted to have a house exactly like the one we see Warren Ellis living in – a pretty little structure located on a scenic stretch of the south English coast.  Though I don’t know if his enthusiasm for the house extended to the wax replica of a severed hand that we glimpse lying on Warren’s kitchen table.)

 

Much of 20,000 Days on Earth, though, is obviously staged – in particular, the sequences that are designed to make Cave open up and talk about his past life, his hopes and fears, his artistic inspirations and so on.  There are scenes where he visits a psychiatrist and talks candidly about his father and about what scares him most – which, without giving too much away, is something that’s understandably frightening for anyone with creative urges.  There are scenes set in an imaginary archive devoted to Cave’s past life, where he explains the significance of photographs and other artifacts to the staff-members.  And there are some slightly-ghostly sequences where Cave drives around in his car and people from his past simply materialise in his passenger seat and talk to him for a while.

 

Among these people-from-the-past are the Berlin musician Blixa Bargeld, who founded the industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten and who served as guitarist and backing vocalist in the Bad Seeds from 1983 to 2003; the somehow-inevitable Kylie Minogue (who sang a duet with Cave on the 1995 single Where the Wild Roses Grow, a song that culminates with Cave smashing in Kylie’s face with a rock); and actor Ray Winstone.  I was a bit puzzled about why Ray Winstone should end up in the film until my mate pointed out to me that he and Cave had worked together on the excellent 2005 Australian-western The Proposition.

 

Informative though these in-car conversations are, I’d have liked a couple of other past Cave-collaborators to turn up too.  It’d have been fascinating, for instance, to hear him have a blether with P.J. Harvey, who sang with him on the 1996 single Henry Lee.  Mind you, for Cave, that might’ve been a little too painful – in the mid-1990s, Cave and Harvey had a brief but passionate affair and when Harvey called it off, supposedly, Cave was so upset that he wrote his next album about her, 1997’s The Boatman’s Call.  (I’ve heard one cynic describe it as The Cave-man’s Bawl.)   And I’m sure if an appearance had been made by ex-Pogue Shane McGowan, with whom Cave recorded a cover version of What a Wonderful World in 1992, the resulting conversation would have been entertaining, if not exactly structured.

 

While we’re on the subject of omissions, I was slightly disappointed too that no mention was made of Cave’s career as a novelist.  1989 saw the publication of And the Ass Saw the Angel, while twenty years later he wrote a second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro.  In some ways the novels are as different as chalk and cheese, one being a Gothic epic set in the 1930s / 1940s American south, the other being a contemporary tale set in Brighton.  In other ways, particularly in their themes of self-delusion and self-destruction, they’re very similar.

 

All in all, however, if you’re an admirer of Nick Cave, you should find 20,000 Days on Earth an honourable attempt to do justice to the remarkable life and talents of its subject.  It gives you enough new insights into him to keep you satisfied while not – and this is important – stripping away too much of the mystique that makes him what he is.  And incidentally, though I’ve never been to Brighton and though I’ve heard mixed reports about the modern-day state of the town, the final sequence where Cave stands on the nocturnal seafront, looking out to sea, makes the place look impressively phantasmagorical.

 

A quick word of recommendation for Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema.  It seems to do a good job of combining the features of a normal, commercial cinema with the features of a specialised, art-house one.  And last year, after Margaret Thatcher died, it gained some notoriety when local people celebrating the Iron Lady’s departure climbed up its façade and rearranged the letters on its hoarding – so that instead of spelling out the titles of the films currently showing, they spelled out the message MARGARET THATCHER’S DEAD LOL.

 

Now that’s what I like.  A cinema that serves the needs of its local community in all sorts of ways.

 

The moonshine boys: film review / Lawless

 

(c) Filmnation

 

Lawless, the recent 1930s-set American-backwoods gangster movie, comes with impressive credentials.  It’s directed by John Hillcoat, whose CV includes the 2005 Australian-western The Proposition and the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.  It’s scripted by singer-songwriter and occasional novelist Nick Cave, who also scripted The Proposition.  (Along with Warren Ellis, he supplied the music for The Road, but had no hand in that film’s screenplay.)  And its cast contains a number of big-hitters, both established stars like Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman and up-and-coming ones like Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Shia LaBeouf.  Yet despite the talent on display, and despite some good moments, Lawless never manages to be the sum of its parts.  Why not?

 

Part of the problem is the weight of expectation attached to Lawless, following Hillcoat and Cave’s previous collaboration, The Proposition. That film was remarkable – ostensibly it was a western, though one set in the 19th-century Australian outback rather than on the American frontier.  It was suffused with lyricism but also doused in brutality, and – an increasingly rare thing for a period movie made these days – it was unflinching in its depiction of the dust, dirt, flies, grease and general squalor that constituted the daily living conditions for most people at that particular time and place.  Indeed, it left you feeling that the great civilising moment in Australian history came when somebody decided to import shampoo.

 

The plot of Lawless has some similarities with that of The Proposition.  Both films concern a trio of brothers living on the wrong side of the law, three sibling bushrangers in The Proposition, three sibling bootleggers called the Bondurant brothers – played by Hardy, LaBeouf and Jason Clarke – operating in the Virginian mountains during Prohibition in Lawless.  Also, both feature a lawman who tries to resolve problems through moderation and diplomacy, only to have his work violently and bloodily undone when a hard-line and unsympathetic superior intervenes.  In the case of Lawless, things turn bad with the arrival of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, whom Guy Pearce plays as an out-and-out and practically psychotic bastard.

 

Unfortunately, that’s all there is to Lawless.   At the start, the three Bondurants are happily distilling moonshine while the county sheriff and his men tactfully turn a blind eye to their activities, provided a few free jars of the stuff are occasionally passed their way.  Then Pearce appears on the scene, disturbs the equilibrium, makes life hard for the Bondurants, and things reach an inevitably vicious conclusion.  Not only does the overall plot seem a bit thin, but it feels illogically protracted.  Even half-an-hour in, Pearce has shown himself to be such a malevolent prick that you wonder why Hardy and co couldn’t just shoot him to shreds there and then.

 

As a sub-plot, we have LaBeouf as the youngster of the family trying to prove himself to his older and more experienced brothers.  At first, he fails to impress.  He makes a fool of himself, gets beaten up and generally achieves nothing but derision.  Later, however, after he manages to strike an audacious deal that allows him to supply moonshine to a mobster in Chicago, played by Gary Oldman, he wins their respect and becomes a proper player in the family business.  Needless to say, as LaBeouf gets more successful, and as the money rolls in in growing quantities, his suits become costlier and smarter, his 1930s jalopies become bigger and shinier, and his demeanour becomes slicker and brasher.  But of course this young-novice-ascending-the-ladder-of-crime theme is one that’s appeared over and over again in gangster movies, ever since the days of real Prohibition.  Al Pacino, for example, has played a character undergoing the same rite-of-passage twice in his career, firstly in Francis Ford Coppola’s original Godfather movie in 1971 and then in Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface in 1982.

 

In the absence of anything new, and with a lack of any real narrative meat, Lawless reminded me most of Sam Mendes’ 2002 effort with Tom Hanks, The Road to Perdition – another 1930s-set gangster film that looked good and had its moments of drama, but in the end simply hadn’t enough substance to become a classic.  I find this disappointing to report as I’d hoped the 1930s American Prohibition / Great Depression setting would fire Nick Cave’s imagination and inspire him to pen a weightier script than he did.  (Then again, he was working from the 2008 book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, a descendent of those Bondurant brothers, who in fact were real-life bootleggers in 1930s Virginia.  So Cave may have found his hands tied.)  Cave obviously has a fondness for this period, since it’s been a setting both for several of his songs, such as Stagger Lee, which begins, “It was back in ’32 when times were hard / He had a Colt 42 and a deck of cards…”; and for his first novel And the Ass saw the Angel, whose main character is described on the back-cover blurb as ‘(o)utcast, mute, a lone twin cut from a drunken mother in a shack full of junk.’

 

That said, Lawless contains much to enjoy during its two-hour running time.  The cinematography, capturing first the melancholy autumnal hues of the Virginian mountain forests (though it was actually filmed in Georgia) and then their verdant summer greenery, is gorgeous.  And Cave’s script does provide some inventive moments: lyrically inventive moments, such as when LaBeouf, infatuated with the local Baptist preacher’s daughter and tanked up on moonshine, stumbles drunkenly into a church service and finds himself participating in a weird but somehow erotic foot-bathing ceremony; and violently inventive ones, such as when Hardy punches a guy on his – ouch! – throat tumour.

 

And the performances are good.  LaBeouf manages to stay on the right side of smug – even as he rises towards the position of bootlegger kingpin, he keeps his character human and faintly mock-able, so that he doesn’t lose our sympathies.   Oldman’s role barely amounts to more than a cameo, but it’s always good to see him.  Pearce, meanwhile, doesn’t so much give a performance as serve up a king-sized portion of ham.  It’s quality ham, though — you can’t say he isn’t entertaining.

 

Among the supporting cast, mention should be made of Bill Camp as the peaceable local sheriff who finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place while the situation between Pearce and the Bondurant brothers escalates into warfare; and Dane DeHaan who plays the Bondurants’ timid and lame-footed cousin Cricket.  As the brothers’ backroom boffin who designs and maintains their illicit stills and carries out repairs and improvements to their cars – he even discovers that their vehicles can run on moonshine when gasoline is in short supply – I suppose Cricket is to them what Brains was to the Tracey brothers in Thunderbirds.

 

However, if the film belongs to anyone, it belongs to Tom Hardy, who plays Forest Bondurant, the alpha male of the pack.  Hulking, brooding, often near-inarticulate and sometimes frighteningly brutish, Hardy generates a physical magnetism that makes it wholly believable that, say, a character as smart and sophisticated as the one played by Jessica Chastain should fall for him, mountain hick though he is.  I think a while back I wrote on this blog that Britain had never produced an actor the equal of the scary-yet-fascinating Oliver Reed, either B.O. (Before Ollie) or A.O. (After Ollie).  Well, on the strength of Hardy’s performance here, Britain has now.  Though I hope Hardy doesn’t blow his career as spectacularly as Reed did.

 

A word about the film’s musical soundtrack, which as you might expect from a production boasting the heavy involvement of Nick Cave, is very good.  For Lawless, Cave and Warren Ellis formed a ‘house band’ called the Bootleggers and invited a number of famous singers and musicians to collaborate with them, including the former Screaming Trees frontman and Isobel Campbell’s sometime partner in song, Mark Lanegan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8A5tfubT_k), Gram Parson’s old muse Emmylou Harris (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yVfrkQjiB4) and legendary 85-year-old Virginian singer and banjoist Ralph Stanley (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3_BXZphU3Y).

 

The soundtrack isn’t for those expecting the music of a 1930s Virginia-set film to be historically and culturally accurate.  Among the above names, only Ralph Stanley belongs to the musical tradition of the area — the tradition brewed from Irish-Scottish folk, jazz and blues influences that, by the mid-20th century, was going under the name of ‘bluegrass’.  Purists may balk too at the fact that Stanley contributes a solo track that’s actually an eccentric cover of the Velvet Underground’s White Light / White Heat (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77lc1yxBtFE).  But most aficionados of good music won’t need to imbibe much moonshine before they find themselves tapping a foot to the tunes accompanying this movie.