Pete Seeger RIP

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of folk music, (though I did enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis on a rare trip to the cinema this weekend) but I was sad to hear that Pete Seeger had passed away today, at the grand old age of 94. His songs seemed to soundtrack much of US radical politics in the last 70 years, from pre-war labour struggles, through McCarthy witch-hunts, civil rights marches and anti-war movements, right up to the Occupy protests of the last few years.

I’m not sure that the protest ballad as a cultural form is quite so popular on this side of the Atlantic, but hearing Seeger deliver a fine old union song like Which Side Are You On? certainly still rouses some revolutionary fervour.

2013: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

After my poor showing on the cultural front in 2012 I set myself some rather modest targets for this year; every month get two new records, read two new books, and see two new films. How hard could that be? Harder than I thought evidently.

I didn’t do too badly with music, managing to acquire 30 albums, mostly new stuff, and getting along a few live shows too.

Here’s this year’s mix tape (and here it is on Spotify, with a couple of substitutions for tracks that aren’t available):

Untitled 28 – The Twilight Sad (Killed My Parents and Hit the Road)
Nil - The Twilight Sad (No One Can Ever Know)
Holy – Frightened Rabbit (Pedestrian Verse)
Xcommunication – My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult (I See Good Spirits And I See Bad Spirits)
Girls Are The New Boys – Saloon ((This Is) What We Call Progress)
Partners in Crime – The Strokes (Comedown Machine)
Subway – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Mosquito)
S.O.S. In Bel Air – Phoenix (Bankrupt!)
Husbands – Savages (Silence Yourself)
Magic Bullet – Wire (Change Becomes Us)
W/ Glass In Foot – Guided By Voices (English Little League)
Turn Each Other Inside Out – Primal Scream (More Light)
I Sat By The Ocean – Queens of the Stone Age (Like Clockwork)
Bad For My Body – Deap Vally (Sistrionix)
Bagboy – Pixies (Bagboy)
Tomorrow Tomorrow – Eleanor Friedberger (Personal Record)
Athsma Attack – The Fiery Furnaces (Gallowsbird’s Barkl)
Navy Nurse – The Fiery Furnaces (Widow City)
Canary Island – Houndstooth (Ride Out The Dark)
Morningstar – Grant Hart (The Argument)
Low F – Superchunk (I Hate Music)
Pandora’s Box – Throwing Muses (Throwing Muses)
Hitch – Speedy Ortiz (Major Arcana)
State Of Mine – Sebadoh (Defend Yourself)
Joan Of Arc – Arcade Fire (Reflektor)
Opiates – Throwing Muses (Purgatory/Paradise)
No Shelter – Blouse (Imperium)
Turning Violent – The Flaming Lips (The Terror)
I Need My Girl – The National (Trouble Will Find Me)
Only Tomorrow – My Bloody Valentine (mbv)

I’d have to admit that my musical tastes haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, hence the somewhat retro look of the above selection. My favourite album of the year – Major Arcana by Speedy Ortiz – is a new band’s debut, but the sound is distinctly 90s. Similarly the concerts I attended – Pixies, The Breeders – had a definite nostalgic edge.

It’s downhill from here I’m afraid. I only managed eight full-length novels, though in my defence I would say that I was on a bit of a modernist binge, and books like Gravity’s Rainbow, To the Lighthouse and Umbrella take a while to get through. Rewarding though, and in particular I found Will Self’s tale of psychiatric exploration and wartime loss both structurally intriguing and professionally fascinating, which made it my favourite read this year. In lieu of serious literature I did consume a lot of shorter pieces; reviews, essays, medical and political articles, and rather too many blog posts and other bits of online trivia. I like to think that this is a reflection of the fragmented nature of contemporary cultural discourse, but it probably has more to do with my ageing brain’s declining attention span.

My cinematic experience was similarly underwhelming; I just about managed one film a month. Behind the Candelabra was probably the best of these, and I also liked Before Midnight, though it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the previous instalments in the series.

So, pass marks for music, but could do better for books and movies. Will things improve over the next twelve months? I’m not sure that I’ll see more films, since I seem to have lost my old cinema habit, but I have bought a few volumes that were on the critics’ “Best of 2013″ lists, so I might catch up on current literary trends, albeit a year behind. We’ll see.

The Spy in the Cab

As if we denizens of Second Life were not paranoid enough already, we learned today that US and UK intelligence agencies have been covertly recording our in-world activity over the last few years.

In reports published in the Guardian and the New York Times, drawing on files provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it was revealed that the spooks viewed virtual worlds like SL and World of Warcraft as a “target-rich communication network”, which could be used by terrorists and subversives as a tool to plot the overthrow of Western civilisation. At one point “so many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life … that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions”, and “while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications”.

Interestingly, while Blizzard have denied they were aware of the WoW snooping, both Philip Rosedale and the current Linden Lab management declined to do likewise when invited to comment by the NYT, which also reported that Cory Ondrejka, then Chief Technology Officer at LL (and also apparently “a former Navy officer who had worked at the N.S.A. with a top-secret security clearance”) had “visited the [NSA's] headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members”.

I used to believe that no one would ever bother to trawl through the minutiae of SL interaction looking for subversion, but it seems that my faith in the anonymity of the virtual crowd has been badly misplaced. It’s certainly made me think about some of the political conversations I’ve had with people in SL over the years, which, for all I know, may have triggered all sorts of automated warning bells, and landed me on some agency’s watch list. Scary stuff. I’ll certainly be more circumspect in the future.

First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait

Sad news about Lou Reed this week. I have to admit that I’ve never been a great fan of Reed’s post-Velvets work – I have a copy of Transformer of course, but it’s on vinyl, so I haven’t listened to it for years – but The Velvet Underground & Nico is still one of my all-time favourites. I’m especially fond of I’m Waiting for the Man, which always reminds me of the one and only time I bought dope in NYC (at Washington Square Park rather than uptown), when I managed to score $20 worth of the city’s finest cardboard.

My God Is The Sun

Normally around now is when we start posting gloomy pieces about the falling leaves, the lengthening nights, and the looming onset of yet another brutal North European winter (usually shoehorning the change of season into some clumsy metaphor for the dread of mortality), but this year my characteristic summer contentment has persisted well past August for the first time in while, and I’m actually feeling fairly upbeat about the coming months.

This may be because I had a relatively straight-edge summer – I didn’t sign the pledge or anything, but I did largely eschew intoxication in favour of healthy outdoor pursuits. Back in high school they told us that a natural high was sweeter than any drug, and while I probably wouldn’t go that far, I will say that it was different, and it’s certainly left me in a better physical shape than I’ve been for ages. Perhaps it’s this echo of youthful vitality that’s allowing me to face the winter without the gnawing subconscious fear that I won’t see the spring, or it could just be that I spent enough time in the open air to be healed by the fire from above.

Either way, I can feel my natural slothfulness reasserting itself, so I expect I’ll soon be slipping into my default winter mode of minimal exertion and comforting overconsumption, and undoing all the good work I did over the summer. On the positive side this should mean that I have time to devote to more cerebral pursuits, like reading and watching movies, or even blogging, so there might be a little more activity in this space than there has been of late.

Green Typewriters

And we’re back… Slightly longer summer break than usual this year, for various reasons, not all connected to idleness. Mostly connected to idleness though.

But who can blame us for staying away from the internet? What with twitterised death threats, cyber-bullying, extreme porn everywhere, topped off by the NSA snooping on us all, browsing the web these days feels less like strolling around a virtual utopia, and more like dodging the cops in the town’s sleaziest neighbourhood.

It’s hard to believe that only a couple of years ago everyone was saying that social media was going to save the world, and even nominating the internet for the Nobel Peace Prize. One might almost suspect that these scare stories (mostly concerning phenomena which, while obviously serious, have been around for years) were being hyped up by the authorities, and their allies in the old media, to convince us that we should steer clear of any online content that isn’t government-approved.

Anyway, I’m thinking that we should take a tip from the Russians, and start producing SLS on paper, with typewriters. We could hand out hard copies in the street, to anyone who looked vaguely interested. Our productivity and readership couldn’t be any worse than they are now…

Break On Through (To the Other Side)

Sad news today of the death of Ray Manzarek. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I was a big fan of The Doors as a young teenager. Like many another adolescent boy I initially styled myself after Jim Morrison, but it wasn’t long before I realised that I wasn’t really cut out to be a Dionysian love-god, so I adopted Manzarek as a role model instead. I had the glasses, the long hair, and (in my mind at least) the cool intellectual demeanour, but not, alas, the musical talent, though that didn’t stop me contributing dodgy organ licks to various teen garage bands.

I fell out of love with The Doors in my later teens, as I grew up and realised that Morrison was actually a bit of a dick, but in later years (probably fuelled by nostalgia) I have gotten into them again. I’m not sure that the shaggier blues and psychedelia of their mid to late period really stands up today, but their early numbers still sound fresh and exciting, underpinned, as the obituaries have noted, by Manzarek’s snaky rhythms. I can clearly remember the first time I heard The Doors, on a cassette a friend gave me, taped from his old man’s vinyl, and listening to it now takes me back to the days when the right music could promise a glimpse into a seductive world of adult possibility. Of course I know now that what seems deep and profound at the age of 13 is generally less so when one reaches some sort of maturity, but it’s nice to be reminded now and again of how fun life was before the cynicism of age set in.

Jennifer She Said

An interesting message arrived in the SLS inbox last week, from one Jennifer Gretson:


My name is Jennifer, and I’m reaching out because I noticed that your blog isn’t updated very often. Without an active blog, it’s really difficult to get website traffic.

That’s why I wanted to reach out to you; I’m a freelance writer trying to build a name for myself online, and I’d be happy help contribute to your blog if you’d like. You don’t need to pay me or anything, either… I just want to get my name out there as a great writer.

I’ll be happy to provide some samples of my work if you’d like; just let me know!

Of course, paranoid cynic that I am, I’m assuming that this is some sort of scam, and that if I reply “Jennifer” will try to persuade me to give her my credit card details by promising vast income from Google ads, or whatever magical internet paradigm is the get-rich-quick scheme du jour. Perhaps she wants access to my WordPress account so she can use it for spamming, or link-farming, or hosting dubious content, or some other nefarious purpose that will bring the FBI to my door.

Or perhaps Ms Gretson is sincere, and she really believes that publishing work in our little blog will help her become the next E. L. James. If so, it seems cruel to puncture her charming optimism by exposing her to the disappointing reality of our obscurity.

Anyway, Jennifer has one thing right; five posts in four months is hardly what one expects of an active blog. I’ll have to try to raise my work rate a little – as usual I’ve got lots of ideas, and surely I can’t go wrong if I put it in writing…

Ha Ha Thatcher is dead

I know that dancing on the graves of the newly deceased isn’t very classy, but I’d be lying if I told you that my reaction to hearing today’s news was anything other than a broad smile.

I’m actually a little dismayed by this – not due to any respect I had for the woman, but rather because I’m sure she would have seen the fact that her demise is being celebrated by the likes of me as a badge of honour. My brain wants to rate this event as a footnote in history, to condemn her to the obscurity she deserves, but my heart is saying otherwise.

Oh well, I guess the cool rationalism will win out over the next few days, but tonight we party…

2012: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Back in February I had the brilliant idea of starting up a Tumblr, upon which I intended to note every record I bought, every film I watched for the first time and every new book I read, so that come December I would have the raw material for a review of my year’s cultural highlights.

I have managed to keep this going (unlike the Pinterest project, but that’s another story), and it has revealed, disappointingly, that the cultural landscape of my life is more akin to an arid desert than the tropical rainforest I imagined it to be.

I did best on the recorded music front, with 24 albums purchased, a fraction of what I consumed back in the 90s, but perhaps not too bad for an old dog. Books read numbered an embarrassing 11, none of them published this year, while my movie intake was a mere dozen, with only two actual trips to the cinema (and one of those was to see The Muppets). I seem to have managed to completely avoid going to concerts and exhibitions.

Have I descended then into philistinism? Has the pernicious effect of the accursed internet completely rotted my brain? Not quite yet I hope. I spend rather more time than I should on idle web browsing, but I do try to keep up with the Arts sections of the papers, so I can join in conversations about contemporary culture, even if most of my opinions are gleaned from reviews rather than direct experience. I still listen to music pretty much all the time, though I stick more to stuff I know I’ll like than I used to. I do need to start watching more films again, starting with the stack of DVDs I accumulated this year that I never quite got round to viewing.

Anyway, on with the review. Music first; here’s my 2012 mix-tape, made up from my favourite track from each of the records I bought this year, mostly new releases, but some older stuff too:

Chocolate Boy – Guided By Voices (Let’s Go Eat the Factory)
Norgaard – The Vaccines (What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?)
On a Neck, On a Spit – Grizzly Bear (Yellow House)
Wasted Days – Cloud Nothings (Attack on Memory)
Boyfriend – Best Coast (Crazy For You)
Secrets – Headlights (Wildlife)
Love Interruption – Jack White (Blunderbuss)
Can We Really Party Today? – Jonathan Wilson (Gentle Spirit)
Better Girl – Best Coast (The Only Place)
Be Impeccable – Guided By Voices (Class Clown Spots a UFO)
No Cars Go – Arcade Fire (Arcade Fire)
Neighborhood 3 (Power Out) – Arcade Fire (Funeral)
Yet Again – Grizzly Bear (Shields)
June – Unrest (Imperial f.f.r.r.)
Harnessed in Slums – Archers of Loaf (Vee Vee)
Polyester Bride – Liz Phair (Whitechocolatespaceegg)
Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know – Dinosaur Jr. (I Bet on Sky)
Season in Hell – Dum Dum Girls (End of Daze)
Pinhole Cameras – …And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Dead (Lost Songs)
He Gets Me High – Dum Dum Girls (He Gets Me High)
Waking Up The Stars – Guided By Voices (The Bears For Lunch)
Keep Believing – Bob Mould (Silver Age)
The House That Heaven Built – Japandroids (Celebration Rock)
The Anarchist – Rush (Clockwork Angels)

There are several contenders for my record of the year, including Attack on Memory, Silver Age, Celebration Rock and both the Dum Dum Girls’ EPs, but I’ll give the nod to the pleasingly complex Shields by Grizzly Bear.

The best book I read this year was The Cambridge Modern History Volume IV – The Thirty Years War, a majestic tome published back in 1906, available on the Kindle for pennies, which covers not just the titular conflict but also the English Civil War and religious, philosophical and cultural developments of the period. The editors’ Victorian prejudices do show to some extent, but the raw material is so dramatic that it can’t miss being a gripping read.

My fiction reading this year mostly consisted of catching up with books I’m faintly embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read already, like The Trial, The Gambler, Crash, and, my favourite, The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing. I liked it for its depiction of life in the CPGB in the 50s, which is a little specialised I guess, but it’s also worth reading for the experimental structure and proto-feminist sensibility.

Film of the year? I hardly feel qualified to comment, but I thought On the Road was quite good. The Muppets was OK too I suppose.

So, that sums up my year of culture. Not my best ever, but not too shabby. Hopefully I’ll be inspired to try a bit harder in 2013…


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