[[ Our sporadic yet much loved “A Bunch of Five” column where somebody special picks five things that make their world go around continues with author Ian Preece who shares five things in his tote bag after a trip to the bookshop. Preece wrote one of our favourite music books of recent years. Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels is part travelogue, part-history, part paean to the great contemporary record labels and their founders including Analog Africa, Light in the Attic, Thrill Jockey, International Anthem, Dust-to-Digital, Pressure Sounds, Heavenly, Touch and many others. Essential reading. Over to Ian... ]]
I’ve been vegetarian since an encounter with a greasy chicken sandwich on Clapham Junction station in 1992, but such is the simple beauty with which Joseph Torra talks about the old ways of Italian food from his childhood in Who Do You Think You Are? – braciolas of flattened meat ‘sprinkled with herbs and cheese and pine nuts and dried fruit or pieces of hardboiled eggs rolled up and tied up and seared in a pan before simmering in the gravy’ – that I’m almost tempted to change my ways and go full-on Joseph Mitchell, slurping brodetto and clam juice from the plate in Sloppy Louis’s by Fulton Fish Market like it’s 1939. Mitchell tracked the beat of mid-20th century New York, of course; Torra’s locale, a generation on, is the streets of the old, pre-touristified North End and working-class Italian immigrant suburbs to the north of Boston. Kerouac’s The Town and the City blew the doors off for a young Torra – ‘Literature, I thought, had to be about other people, not of my class or experience . . . I’d been yearning for what I didn’t know’ – before the Beats led to poetry and then jazz washing over him ‘like a rough surf over a toddler’, which in turn led East to China, and Chinese poetry, Buddhism and Taoism: ‘There was something about the economy of language in those poems – and how much those poets were able to change the language with thought and feeling,’ writes Torra – a description that applies, equally, to his own prose and poetry.
A brief childhood infatuation with tap dancing is clouded over with more unhappiness at the hand of his father, which morphs into teenage years spent hanging with the mechanics at the garage (greasers with quiffs, and cigarettes tucked into their sleeves) that formed the basis of his first novel Gas Station; before reading Dante’s Divine Comedy aloud in a poetry reading in Italian, and the exploding worlds of music, art, literature and poetry set the course for the life recounted in Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections of a Writer’s Life. This is no smug, quietly self-congratulatory missive from the world of letters, though. Torra is comfortable being just a drop of water in the ocean, a grain of sand on life’s infinite beach. In Who Do You Think . . . all of life jizzes all over the page. It’s a book about writing (and living) as a process, a craft, a journey, fucking with the form, learning the rules so you can subvert them properly; a poignant sax solo, the parps and gasps and gritty bits, solo toots, crests and dips of Roscoe Mitchell’s Solo Saxophone Concerts, not a smooth night at Birdland for Blue Note; an endless joining up of the dots, the stars, the connecting of the beauty and sadness in life. It’s a life of endless coffees and conversations about books and writing, recollections of haddock topped with chopped tomatoes oven roast potatoes, mushroom foraging, drink and drug user problems, bringing up kids, learning to paint, learning to teach writing, memories as clear as the swimming pool on sunny Saturday mornings in Medford in the 1960s . . . what it all boils down is that – as Lynsey Hanley put so well in her 1997 book Estates – once you’ve clambered over that wall, there’s no going back. Or, as Torra puts it: ‘One day I told an old corner friend that I wanted to be a writer. He looked at me as if I’d grown a third eye and asked: “Who the fuck do you think are?”’ (A further, older, introductory piece on Joseph Torra here)
I’d been reading a history of football programmes – pretty dry. Then a heavyweight historical account of the Scottish Clearances – the forced evictions of cottars and crofters in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Highlands and Lowlands; plenty of storms, rain, sheep, the Galloway Levellers, and breaking off a hunk of porridge poured into the bothy drawer and left to set for when you needed it – that was all pretty empirical and flirted with textbookness (c.f. the 15-page conclusion that is a boiled down retelling of everything you’ve just read). So, after those two, picking up Lucia Berlin’s collected/selected short stories A Manual for Cleaning Women was a bit like stepping aboard Ken Kesey’s magic bus having lived through the 1950s; or the first taste of fresh Mexican lime stew after a diet of crackers and water. It’s not just that Berlin, like a lot of Americans, lived an itinerant life (West Coast, Chile, Mexico City, El Paso, New York, back to Oakland then LA), was pretty wild herself and lived her days to the full – it’s the pulse, the vitality of the writing; and her sharp but warm sense of humour; her antennae attuned to the absurdity of existence. There’s myriad grief – child abuse; alcoholism; crack & HIV babies on the hospital ward where she works; drugs; oxygen tanks; the ever-downward spiral of poverty; all grounded in forms of first-hand experience – but more than that there’s the overpowering beauty in the everyday. Coffees, pan dulce, laundrettes, bars, diners and liquor stores; the turquoise neon sky at sunset, fields of bluebonnets; ‘the Mark Rothko show at MOMA, during the big snowstorm. The light was intense from the snow through the skylights; the paintings pulsated. We heard Bill Evans and Scott La Faro . . .’; a handyman trying to fit a tile floor in a trailer bathroom. Then there’s the realisation that even though you’ve been out of town for a year, the folk in the bakery, the bookshop and the chemist haven’t clocked this. In the 1960s Lucia Berlin had four kids by three partners; she worked as a high school teacher, cleaner, hospital clerk and switchboard operator, and, finally, as associate professor in literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder. All of life blows through A Manual for Cleaning Women. It’s full of truisms: the patients in the hospital who are really ill are the quiet ones – not those buzzing around the lunch trolley complaining about the food, or groaning all night about the catheter in their dick. Or, ‘I majored in journalism because I wanted to be a writer, but the whole point of journalism is to cut out all the good stuff.’ This is all probably old news now. I bought A Manual for Cleaning Women for my other half six years ago when it came out in hardback – 2015 was a rough year: my dad died (horribly of motor neurone disease). I’m pretty glad Ange pulled it off the shelves recently, though . . . where too much remains unread . . .
I think John Lurie – of Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, The Lounge Lizards, Marvin Pontiac and Fishing and Painting with John – would be the first to admit he could come across as a bit of a knob at times back in the day. There was a fair bit of yobbery in his youth. He drove a gold Cadillac through the Manhattan of Taxi Driver and The Warriors. He hung out with hard-living types, the likes of jazzer Sirone, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rammellzee. He garnered a reputation as being difficult – but his memoir The History of Bones is at pains to point out this was generally because he cared too much about doing it properly, about the music, and not really about all the movie bullshit. On the minus side, I guess, cherished names, or at least those you thought cool, get it with both barrels: film directors Jim Jarmusch and, er, Paul Auster. Then there’s those you always wondered about anyhow: Chris Blackwell; David Byrne. Gatekeepers like EG Editions, Island Records and Luaka Bop don’t emerge smelling of roses. There’s a lot of reporting back re. Lurie’s sexual dalliances and escapades; there’s a hell of a lot of drugs; there’s even more axe-grinding and score settling. Basquiat and Warhol’s famous boxing poster with the pair in gloves and Everlast shorts: that was Lurie’s idea, somewhat appropriated. Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise – pretty much all Lurie. Dead Man – original concept by . . . he’s not quite over all this yet – and the fact he isn’t makes you warm to him immensely. He sounds like an outsider’s outsider: the Lounge Lizards were too punk for the jazz world, too jazz for a world beating to a different drum of post-punk. But Lurie knows how it all works, how it all sucks – especially in the movies. He can’t get decent numbers of a cd pressed in America because the 23-year-old marketing manager at David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label has a friend who accompanies her to the cinema one night who, when Lurie’s name rolls on the screen, doesn’t know who he is. That’s a pretty accurate summation of a lot of decision making in the corporate entertainment complex (Warner Bros pulls the strings at Luaka Bop). Later on he can’t even get an album released (which leads to a hilarious self-releasing encounter with a fulfilment centre through a late-night tele-advertising campaign). At a dinner party thrown by Francesco Clemente and attended by art figures like Basquiat, Warhol, the dealer Bruno Bischofberger and Bryan Ferry, Lurie drinks too much before wondering aloud, ‘What on earth made every napkin they drooled on so valuable?’ – and pointing out that, really, the world was full of equally great artists ‘taking quarters in toll booths or living on the outskirts of Coney Island’. There was a silence, but no one was offended, because ‘they were unoffendable. I had only shown myself to be uncouth. I was out of the club.’
There’s a lot of troubled times, difficult relationships, heroin, dope sickness and a fair bit of bad mouthing to wade through. But while, now and again, mostly early on, it can be hard going, it’s worth it: you have shed the toxicity to achieve a purified state of being. Aside from Taxi Driver and the music of jazz legends such as Monk and Ornette Coleman, the thing that blows Lurie’s mind most is a bunch of nomadic gnawa musicians he encounters when filming for The Last Temptaion of Christ in Marrakech. ‘The music is fairly simple and modal. But it has an imploring tone that is beautiful [as if] just gently asking, “Why, God? Why?” Acknowledging suffering but without complaining.’
There are regrets a plenty – relationships he shouldn’t have been so casual about; the drugs causing him to be so strung out – ‘if you can’t make it to Thelonious Monk’s funeral because of your heroin problem you are a pathetic loser’ – but he’s reached a kind of spiritual acceptance in his search for purity. This kind of thing that means the book is littered with sharp observational truths: he talks of hearing rich soulful laughter in Africa, ‘. . . in Cuba and the Caribbean there is music [in laughter] . . . in expensive restaurants in New York, it is the tight-lipped sound of people who laugh from the neck up. There is no solar plexus in the laugh. It is only what they believe to be laughter. One can learn pretty much everything about a person’s soul from the openness of their laugh.’
I spent half my life walking in and out of the old Tottenham Court Road tube station on my way to and from work, in and out of town, up and down the dank, dripping subterranean passage that ran underneath the fountains by Centrepoint. I just missed the heyday of the Virgin Megastore on the junction with Oxford Street there, when you could do cool things like have a coffee – in a record shop! – but I witnessed its decline over many a year. It’s a good place for Michael Bracewell to weigh anchor, and set off on his poetic voyage east, south, north and west across the capital, beautifully capturing the mien of streets, shops, clubs and offices, commuter trains and tube stations in icy winter; squares and gardens with blossoming dwarf cherry trees in the pale spring light. Souvenir is a beautifully written prose poem, a paean to the end of the old electric, analogue, modern city of bookshops and record shops; where wafts of a kind of Robinson in Space meet Jubilee and Hangover Square before the age of globalism and corporatized banking, marketing, homogenisation, bland chancerdom and Starbucks suck the life from everyone. Bracewell confessed at a recent Walthamstow Rock & Roll Book Club do that, circa 1982, he didn’t have members of Psychic TV sleeping on the floor of his wasted, elegant Charlotte Street bedsit – rather, he worked a series of dull office jobs in and around the City and the West End, and commuted in from his parents’ house in suburban Cheam every day. It’s that semi-outsiderdom that makes this book so shrewdly and beautifully observed and deeply appealing.
‘You’re riding the train, looking out of the window, and there it is: sadness. Everything is beautiful around you, you can’t look away, but the tears are running down your face and you don’t know what to do with yourself.’ I read Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time a few years ago – a huge brick of social and oral history that for once lived up to the publisher’s blurb in creating ‘a magnificent requiem to a civilisation in ruins’: i.e. Russia and the former Soviet states after the collapse of the USSR. I remember it as a vast and nuanced look at the once mighty Sovok nation – ‘the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the siege of Stalingrad, the first man in space: that was us!’ – now reduced to scrabbling around for cheap jeans, mobile phones, satellite TVs and knock-off trainers like the rest of us in the sordid capitalist West. It’s probably the best book I’ve read this century. In a reversal of the maxim that the best book never wins, Alexievich took the Nobel Prize for Literature for that title. The dog days of this winter felt like a good time to seek out her 1997 volume Chernobyl Prayer which, contrary to many assumptions (mine at least), is not really about Ukraine but Alexievich’s homeland of Belarus, which bore the brunt of the south-easterly breeze that happened to be blowing on the night of 26th April 1989 when Reactor no.4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant just north of Kyiv exploded. Chernobyl Prayer is not even really about the explosion, though – it’s more concerned with the aftermath. It’s a patchwork of interviewees’ tales recounting their lived experience through the subsequent decade, be they elderly villagers who witnessed the soil briefly glow blue but continued to milk the cows, plough the fields, eat the green sorrel and pick the cherries because they’d never lived any other way (and it was a beautiful, bountiful spring in 1986 anyhow); scientists despatched from Minsk or elsewhere, invited into homes of locals for a meal, who’d then place their dosimeter by the stove where pork fat was frying only for the stove to give off a reading equivalent to ‘a mini nuclear reactor’; school kids who watched their childhood homes levered off their foundations and buried whole, their new bike and everything; transient Russian street folk who quote Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin: ‘How can you look at a tree and not be happy’; the heartbreaking tales of widows of clean-up workers, enlisted in their thousands, some of whom ended up on the roof of the reactor clearing plutonium with shovels because the levels of radiation burnt out any remote-controlled equipment; the stories of widows of helicopter pilots who flew above the smouldering core, dumping sand with their windows open because of the heat; tractor drivers without sealed cabins; the children whose school friends have died one by one; the clean-up workers whose colleagues have died one by one. Reading this in early 2022 the parallels between the Soviet response to Cheronbyl in 1986 and the British government’s response to Covid-19 are striking: the same lack of protective equipment for ordinary workers; the same idiotic appeals to national pride; the same appalling levels of corruption – one law for those in power, another for everyone else; the same disregard for human lives on the front line. In ‘trying to capture the life of the soul; a day in the life of ordinary people’ Alexievich shines a light on just how surface most news journalism is. The Belarusian rural folk who make up the tapestry of Chernobyl Prayer – ‘peasants’ in western broadsheet journalese – have become philosophers in the face of the apocalypse, often pondering the depths of the Russian character, and in awe of the beauty of the natural world. ‘Chernobyl is a subject for Dostoevsky,’ says one historian from St Petersburg. ‘An attempt to justify the existence of man. Or perhaps everything’s much simpler than that, and instead we should approach the world on tiptoe and stop at the doorway. Contemplate this divine world with awe . . . and live our lives like that.’ An unbelievably sad and beautiful book.
Ian Preece’s Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels is available here and in many other places.
Ian Preece was a commissioning editor for Victor Gollancz and Orion for nearly two decades. These days he works as a freelance book editor and occasional ghostwriter, writes for Caught by the River and plays records all day. He has written for When Saturday Comes and is the author of The Heyday of the Football Annual (with Doug Cheeseman), as well as Stats, Records & Rock ’n’ Roll (with Daniel Tatarsky).