Neil Peart RIP

When people ask me what the first record I ever bought was, I usually tell them Heart of Glass by Blondie, which was the first single I purchased, but the first LP that I bought was Moving Pictures by Rush. I’ve been a little reluctant to admit that over the years, as Rush are not generally felt to be the coolest act on the planet, but I was definitely a big fan for a while, and they were one of the first bands that introduced me to the idea that music could be something beyond an ephemeral distraction.

After Moving Pictures I quickly acquired all their previous albums, and their next release Signals, but my initial enthusiasm didn’t last, partly for reasons I’ll mention below, and I hardly listened to them at all over the following three decades, until some nostalgic impulse prompted me to get 2012’s Clockwork Angels, which in turn led me to revisit my collection of their old material. I’m not sure that I would sit and listen to any of the albums all the way through, but there are certainly some highlights, especially on Fly by Night, Permanent Waves, and the aforementioned Moving Pictures.

So I was sad to read in the paper this morning that Neil Peart had passed away, at the early age of 67. Much of the appeal of Rush’s work lies in the storytelling of his lyrics, particularly on the earlier albums, where he crafts some intriguing Tolkienesque fantasy, while (mostly) avoiding any lapses into ridiculousness.

There are some problematic elements to Peart’s legacy though; 2112, dedicated to “the genius of Ayn Rand”, is difficult to forgive. It’s said that Peart later disavowed Rand and identified himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian”, but the official Rush website featured a sympathetic portrait of the alt-right icon as late as 2012, and in 2018 Peart was still describing 2112 as the story of “a hero who fights against collectivist mentality (depicted by the evil red star)“, so I probably won’t be putting that back on the turntable any time soon.

I much preferred Peart when he stuck to the elf-related whimsy, so I think that’s how I’ll remember him.

2019: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

Here’s our look back on our most notable cultural experiences of the year; the full list is, as ever, on our Tumblr.

Film – I’ve started going to the cinema regularly again over the last few months, mainly matinee shows at the multiplex, but a few trips to the arthouse too. I liked Ad Astra, Knives Out, and Rolling Thunder Review, but my favourites were the monochrome Bait, an expressionist tale of class conflict in Cornwall, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s flawed but ultimately beguiling portrait of late-60s California.

Books – I’ve read less than I would have liked this year, mainly because I spent a lot of time obsessing over the news, which, for much of 2019, was not unlike a melodramatic potboiler, though surely one that any editor would have rejected as implausibly plotted. Of the actual fiction that I did get through I thought the best was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, though I felt it was a bit more predictable than many of the reviews suggested. I enjoyed the poetic memoir of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy, and caught up with some historical reportage; Vasily Grossman’s notes from the eastern front in WW2, collected in A Writer at War, and Svetlana Alexievich’s anthology of first-hand female accounts of the same conflict, The Unwomanly Face of War, easily one of the most moving works I have ever read.

Music – no big changes in my musical taste this year; here are my top ten albums, in the order I bought them:

  • Get Tragic – Blood Red Shoes
  • Remind Me Tomorrow – Sharon Van Etten
  • Lung Bread For Daddy – Du Blonde
  • Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
  • Stranger Things – Yuck
  • Joanthology – Joan As Police Woman
  • Any Human Friend – Marika Hackman
  • Dolphine – Mega Bog
  • Life’s An Illusion – The Sorry Kisses
  • No Home Record – Kim Gordon

I probably listened to Joanthology more than anything else, but it is a retrospective; my favourite of the original releases was Lung Bread For Daddy. I didn’t go to as many concerts as usual this year; but the two I did manage were great – Laura Gibson and Marika Hackman.

I’m planning to keep up my weekly cinema trips, at least until the winter is over, and I definitely want to start reading more fiction, though I guess I say that every year. It would do me good to step off the treadmill of trying to keep up with all the news, all the time, and just slow down a little – I did manage that for a while over the summer, but events drew me in again, as we’ll see in part 2 of our annual review, when we look back at the year in blogging.

There may be trouble ahead

So, after hanging on grimly to her premiership for what seems like forever, Theresa May has bid us a tearful adieu. The identity of our next Prime Minister, and with it the fate of the nation, and perhaps the continent, lies in the hands of around 300 Conservative MPs, who will choose two candidates to go forward to the final reckoning, at the end of which a victor will be anointed by the hundred thousand or so elderly oddballs who make up the Tory party membership. What could possibly go wrong?

Don’t worry, be happy

Today is International Day of Happiness, so I’ve been trying to think positive thoughts all day, and mostly succeeding. In times of national crisis like this there is definitely something to be said for forgetting about the big picture and just living in the moment. Despite all my angst over the political situation, my life is mostly very agreeable, and will probably continue to be so in all the ways that really matter, whatever happens. I’ll try to hold on to that thought over the next week…

2018: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Time for our annual run through my cultural highlights of the year – as usual everything is on our Tumblr.

Music – buying records has become my main cultural pursuit over the last few years; I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to purchase anything that catches my fancy, and, since nothing is more than a click away these days, I do get a lot. That said, the stuff I actually end up listening to regularly doesn’t tend to vary that much. Here, in no particular order, are my top ten albums of the year:

  • Floating Features – La Luz
  • Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts
  • Goners – Laura Gibson
  • Quit the Curse – Anna Burch
  • Future Me Hates Me – The Beths
  • Paycheck – Pip Blom
  • Fall into the Sun – Swearin’
  • Possible Dust Clouds – Kristin Hersh
  • Clean – Soccer Mommy
  • The Lookout – Laura Veirs

I kept up a fairly regular rhythm of gig-going; my favourite show was Parquet Courts, though La Luz and The Beths were a lot of fun too.

Film – I had a pile of DVDs I wanted to watch this year, but didn’t get around to; I don’t seem to have the time, or perhaps the attention span, to sit through a whole movie very often these days. Of the few I did see, The Love Witch was my favourite. My few cinema trips were mostly social affairs – I saw The Greatest Showman, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, neither of which I would have chosen to go to alone, but both of which I enjoyed unironically. Far and away the best film I saw all year though was one I did go to see of my own volition – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

Books – I’ve been reading a lot about existential philosophy in the last half of the year, no doubt because I’m getting older, and struggling more with the absurdity of life. Mostly it’s been articles in places like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but also The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, and de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s not an area that I was unfamiliar with, though I hadn’t read much of the original material before, but it does seem a lot more relevant now than it did when I was in my 20s. My fiction highlights were completing my annual volume of Proust, The Sweet Cheat Gone (only one more to go for the set), belatedly catching up with Shark and Phone, the sequels to my favourite book of 2013, Will Self’s Umbrella, and taking a rare dive into poetry with one of the Booker Prize nominees, The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. My favourite read of the year though was more existentialism; Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins. Although the questions debated by the characters in the book may seem to be dated – there’s a lot about the Soviet Union – the underlying message, of the responsibility we have to engage in political activity to at least try to change the world, couldn’t be more relevant in today’s troubled times.

Next up: The Year in Blogging.

Pete Shelley RIP

Sad news tonight of the sudden death of punk icon Pete Shelley, lead singer of the legendary Buzzcocks.

I was too young to see the band in their original incarnation, but I got into them towards the end of my school days, and listened to them a lot when I was in college, a time in my life when lovelorn pop-punk was exactly the right soundtrack. Of course I eventually grew out of that phase, and it’s a good while since I last put on one of their records, but I still turn the sound up, and dance around a bit, if they come on the radio.

Anyway, here’s my favourite Buzzcocks tune – how could it ever let me down?

2017: The Year in Review – Part 2: Culture

While posts on this blog have been a little sparse this year, I have managed to keep our Tumblr up to date, providing a handy list of all my cultural experiences over the last 12 months; here are my personal highlights:

Music – I’ve been steadily buying more records every year since I gave up my fixation with physical objects and started downloading albums back in 2014, so picking out my favourites has been getting harder; this is a fairly arbitrary top ten for 2017, in no particular order:

  • Antisocialites – Alvvays
  • Semper Femina – Laura Marling
  • Life Without Sound – Cloud Nothings
  • The Gold String – Devon Sproule
  • American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
  • Modern Kosmology – Jane Weaver
  • Pleasure – Feist
  • Masseduction – St. Vincent
  • MILANO – Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts
  • Visions Of A Life – Wolf Alice

I managed to go to more concerts than usual this year too; my favourite was probably Cloud Nothings, though the Pixies gig was a fun blast of nostalgia.

Film – most of my cinematic experience this year was watching DVDs of stuff that came out last year; High Rise and The Neon Demon stand out. Of films I saw in an actual cinema easily the best was T2 Trainspotting, perhaps unsurprisingly, since I am exactly the demographic to appreciate it, having aged along with the protagonists, and shared their experience of change and maturity, though rather less dramatically.

Books – I completed another volume of Proust, The Captive, and filled a slightly embarrassing gap by finally reading some Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My intake of more recent literature wasn’t great, but I did manage last year’s Booker winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which seemed worthy of the prize, though it did run out of steam towards the end. My favourite fiction of year was another old one that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a hard-headed yet inspiring treatment of the challenges facing individuals in a communal society. I read rather less history, science and biography than in years past, Patti Smith’s M Train my pick of the latter category.

So that was 2017, insofar as it is possible to sum any year up in a few hundred words. I do regret not posting more this year, especially about politics; right now I feel resolved to do better in the months ahead, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, I’ll round off by wishing a Happy New Year to anyone who may be reading this, and hoping it finds you healthy and prosperous.

Grant Hart RIP

Sad news about Grant Hart. The one and only time I saw Hüsker Dü play live was more than 30 years ago, just after Candy Apple Grey came out, but I can still remember it clearly. It was in a tiny venue, and I was right at the front, about two feet away from the PA, which probably explains why I couldn’t hear a thing for about a week afterwards. Temporary deafness seemed like a small price to pay to be in the vicinity of genius though.

I’ve subsequently seen Bob Mould play loads of times, solo and with Sugar, but I never managed to catch any of Grant’s later shows, and now I never will. That’s obviously a trivial concern, when we’re talking about a man passing away at a tragically young age, but it’s another reminder that the list of things that I always just assumed would happen some day, but probably, or definitely, won’t, is getting longer all the time, and that perhaps I should pay more attention to the ephemeral nature of life, and how important it is to be in the moment. That sentiment isn’t a million miles away from the themes that Grant touched on in his best work, and I guess that that’s an epitaph that he might have appreciated.

Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.

Well, how did I get here?

Back in 1985 I moved right across the country to go to college in a new city. For various reasons I arrived a couple of months before the start of term, and consequently was pretty much on my own until the other students started showing up a few weeks later.

One evening, to ease my isolation, I ventured out to the cinema, which seemed quite adventurous at the time, as the movie I wanted to see was showing at a place on the other side of town, and I hadn’t really figured out even the basic geography of the city, let alone complicated things like the bus schedules. I eventually made it to the cinema though, and was rewarded with an enviable double bill; Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense, with the Coen brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple in support.

I came out of the movie theatre around midnight, facing a long walk back to my lonely flat, but buzzing with the excitement of living a new, free, life where such cultural delights were mine to enjoy on a whim.

That feeling lasted a good few years, probably until my late 20s, but, without me really noticing it happening, my life eventually became complicated by responsibility, and these days even something simple like taking in a new movie requires so much planning that I seldom manage it.

So it’s kind of bittersweet to recall that night; as it recedes further into the past the memory becomes increasingly infused with a sense of loss. I’d hate to forget it altogether though, since I don’t want to believe that it’s impossible that I’ll someday feel that way again.

Anyway, I was thinking of this tonight after hearing that Jonathan Demme had passed away. I have Stop Making Sense on DVD somewhere; I’ll have to dig it out for old times’ sake…