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Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Pogues: love the music, fear the lifestyle implications

The first word of James Fearnley's memoir about The Pogues, Here Comes Everybody, is "Shane". It opens with a band pow-wow in a cramped Japanese hotel room, at which it is decided to expel their front man for the colossal drunken ineptitude that led him to miss a flight to the US, where they were supporting Bob Dylan. If this sounds harsh, it should be said that it was only the most serious of many acts of unconscious - and I mean that in an often literal sense - psychological terrorism that would have completely broken the spirit of a group of less tightly bonded musicians.

For his part, Shane MacGowan - who is going under the nom de guerre "O'Hooligan" when we first meet him - arrives in the book of Fearnley's life apparently fully formed, already defined by a chronic alcohol dependence, his stunted brown teeth ill-concealed by a set of crowns. His response to the news of his expulsion, a wheezing "What took you so long?"

Fearnley, the Pogues' multi-instrumentalist accordian player, narrates his tale of substance abuse and the seething emotional condition of a band containing several highly volatile characters, with an even-ness that speaks of the very long time over which the book was written: apparently more than eighteen years. It has the quality of a well-worn pebble, something polished by time and the forces of life, and is none the worse for that in these days of instant online media. The story is structured in such a way that Fearnley, a Mancunian recently ex-public schoolboy at the outset, jets off into the west to live with his Californian princess - the actress daughter of a successful movie producer - as the credits roll, whereas years of alcoholic excess and life on the road must surely have made the transition to a new life a little more complicated than that. Yet there is an absence of ego at the heart of his writing that legitimises his version of events: a story has to begin and end somewhere, right?

It's certainly impossible to believe that someone who was drinking as heavily as Fearnley (below in 1988, further down today) says he was, could recall so much detail, for instance about the behaviour of individual band members - facial expressions, eye-contact - at gigs that, after a while of everyone standing in the same relation to each other on stage night after night, would have rolled seamlessly into one.

And yet there is so much colour dancing in his perfect prose, so much emotional accuracy about appallingly messy events and so much acute pain - emotional and physical - here that it's impossible to doubt the book's veracity in relation to the things that matter. Fearnley admits that, of necessity, it's partly fictionalised and MacGowan's quote on the back cover - "It's just how I imagine I'd remember it" - says it all really.

Among the many priceless set-pieces are an unflinching description of MacGowan urinating on a roadside, heedless of the usual niceties, another occasion on which his stock with the band was so low that repeated slurred demands for a cigarette yielded nothing more than a refusal by the others to betray each other by giving him anything, and the transition of Cait O'Riordan, The Pogues' only female member, from emotionally inept wild-child to beatnik Cleopatra opposite Elvis Costello's Antony. (Reader, she married him.) Her psychological footprint presses nearly as deeply as MacGowan's in the earlier chapters. There are also painful passages about Fearnley rooming with his gay band-mate Philip Chevron, who proceeded to fall in love with him, which are delicately and respectfully handled.

Witty turns of phrase combine neatly with their subject matter to become unforgettable. Of his early years in London Fearnley wrote: "Gigs, so far, had been ordeals of unrequitedness, a series of sporadic confrontations with an audience's neutrality." The Dubliners were "older men, hirsute, portly, moist of consonant"; whereas Bono's singing with U2 was "the grand incantation of phrases resembling advertising copy" (god I wish I'd written that).

From this rich palate bigger themes emerge: the dynamic of a band under threat from within, the recognition of and responsive roar by The Pogues' audience to their fierce Anglo-Irish underdoggedness, the tolerance required to manage extremity.

But lurking disturbingly at the centre of it all is the conundrum of the attractive-repulsive Shane MacGowan. As Fearnley writes: "More and more the question on people's lips was whether Shane wrote so beautifully because of the amount he drank, or despite it." There are clues, though nothing vastly illuminating, to what in his background leads him to value his health so little - how is it possible that he's still alive today? - or to have such a relentlessly negative world view. "I couldn't understand how anyone could let himself become so bereft of responsibility for anything and yet write songs of such incisive beauty, full of chastening pity for the human condition," writes Fearnley. MacGowan's family makes a brief appearance during a description of a gig in Ireland but are sketched mainly in terms of their clothes and we're told that his childhood "had sometimes been difficult" - though frankly whose wasn't?

I loved The Pogues as a teenager and I love them still, for the albums and for their terrifying, riotous live shows. I learnt more detail about the extremes of substance abuse reading Here Comes Everybody than I did during several years as a nurse, but am glad to have done so in such witty and erudite company.

James Fearnley is a brilliant writer, this book is a gem and I urge you to read it.

* Here Comes Everybody is published by Faber.

* If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in this, which is about the London Feis in Finsbury Park and includes a vivid description of a Shane McGowan performance.

* If you'd like posts from this blog to arrive in your Facebook news feed you could make it so by *liking* its Facebook page and then using the drop-down menu to indicate that this blog is one of your "interests". This will enhance the probability that you'll receive the notifications. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Friday, 22 June 2012

Musicians get police escort to Isle of Wight festival 'disaster zone'

Frank Moon (below, looking very much as he must have felt by late yesterday), also of The Urban Folk Quartet and the Bev Lee Harling band, unexpectedly ended up opening the Isle of Wight festival's main stage with Cerys Matthews last night after one of the most stressful experiences of his career trying to get to the festival site.

'The festival is a disaster zone," he told me on the telephone. "I can't see how on earth they're going to get everyone on site. Last night - Thursday - was the opening night and it's supposed to be going on until Sunday but the whole experience was a farcical adventure.

"We got on the ferry at Portsmouth at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon and spent four hours going in circles on the Solent. After a while we heard it was because the ferry wouldn't be able to unload cars because they were backed up right to the ferry port and traffic wasn't moving.

"Eventually we got off the ferry and sat on the ramp for another two and a half hours, by which time we'd missed our stage slot. We couldn't get hold of anyone to talk to so we decided to turn around and go home. We'd just convinced everyone in the car park to let us turn around when we managed to get hold of someone on site, who said they had no bands and they'd like us to turn up if possible.

"The police got us an escort, which was great. But then someone from the festival - the police said it was a man called John Giddings - told them that all the bands had already arrived, which set us back again. We had to get hold of the festival organiser and ask him to ring the police to put things straight.

"The police were forced to take us all the way around the island to find a route into the festival site and - when we finally got there - the guy running the stage we were supposed to be playing on, said 'I'm sorry. You're too late. We can't put you on'.

"Mysteriously, Howard Jones was already there. He was still in Portsmouth the last time we'd seen him, so he was obviously better at hustling than we were. But he took ages to set up, there was supposed to be a Pink Floyd band on and between these two things they decided that there wasn't space for us. Then someone said 'We could get you on the main stage if you go there right now'.

"When we got there The Stranglers had already set up and we couldn't use a lot of their stuff. Plus there were only four channels available and we needed five. The crowd was baying for blood because the show was running so late and they wanted The Stranglers.

"Cerys's guitar had gone missing somewhere between the two stages and The Stranglers wouldn't lend her one, despite having racks of them, which I thought was a bit much. So I had to play some guitar parts I didn't really know. Plus we had this amazing African musician with us called Tunde Jegede, who didn't get to play a note because they didn't have enough channels.

"We only did three songs. We opened with a Hugh Cornwell song called Chardonnay, which went down quite well, and then did a Woodie Guthrie song and Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash. But we had to stop before Cerys could do her show-stopper - Road Rage - because they said there wasn't time.

"The Stranglers were about to go on when the tent shifted - the whole stage was inside an enormous tent - and they had to evacuate the area. We went to get some dinner in a Portakabin somewhere - which was something at least - and, memorably, Primal Scream were in there too.

"On the way back to the ferry we saw the car that had been in front of us when we got off the boat and it had only moved 500 yards down the road. The road from Fishbourne, where you disembark, to the site is five miles and we were pretty much the only people on the ferry coming back.

"The people in charge of the festival were not really with it. It was just so stressful - farcical. I think what happened was that some heavy lorries had got stuck in the mud at the festival entrance because there weren't good enough tracks for them and it stopped everything else.

"If I'd been running things I would have sent someone down to the ferry port to find out if there were any bands stuck in traffic. There was just no communication between the back of the queue and the festival. One of the festival organisers actually said to us on the telephone 'Well, everyone's in the same boat' as if that was good enough.

"It's not as if the situation was impossible to anticipate either. It was raining, but not in any unusual quantities. It was just typical British summertime weather.

"But the police were brilliant. It was them who made it happen for us. In particular I'd like to say thank you to  Martin Norman - policeman 1908 - and Stuart Woods (I think), who was number 14411. Policeman 1908 was the one who got us out of our mess, he was also at the main tent evacuating it later on, and then when we got back to the ferry terminal he was there as well. I reckon there must only be about three policemen on the island but they were doing great work."

Frank will be having a little lie down today.

Here's Cerys Matthews singing Road Rage, which seems appropriate.

* You might also enjoy this post about how to get yourself on Later with Jools Holland. Or this one, which is a silly picture gallery of folk musicians lying in foliage.

* If you'd like to get posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Bella Hardy's Cinderella tale

There is a point in most young lives at which it becomes clear that Father Christmas probably doesn't exist, the tooth fairy was your mum creeping around in the middle of the night and Prince/Princess Charming comes with baggage, ill-health and commitment issues.

Magic for grown-ups is hard to source and trickier to maintain.

So when I spoke to Bella Hardy the other day after her gig with O'Hooley and Tidow at The Old Queen's Head and she told me this story I was delighted, as it was evidence of a benign - not to say, slightly pervy - universe.

To set the tone, here's a picture of Bella's lovely shoes from the previous post. Wedges, black suede, nuff said.

For when I asked her about her best rock and roll touring story, she said: "Have you ever been to Celtic Connections in Glasgow? Two years ago I was there and I managed to lose a shoe somewhere between the venue and my hotel."

I pressed her for details about how the shoe came to be lost, thinking that the sight of a single shoe lying around in the street always poses bewildering questions. Was the owner running away from something when it fell off and is that why they didn't stop to pick it up? Where is its counterpart and what will happen to them individually now they've become separated? To my mind, a single shoe in a street is basically one long series of unanswered questions.

From the few details that were forthcoming I gather that the events of that evening are a bit hazy and will draw a veil over them. But I like to think she was wearing something more comfortable and the missing shoe fell out of her bag. Suffice it to say that she didn't realise it was gone until she started packing to leave town.

"A few weeks later I wrote a diary for fRoots magazine about the festival and mentioned it," said Hardy. "And as a result a man contacted my agent, Alan Bearman, last summer and said that he thought he'd got the shoe. We were a bit lax about fetching it from him, so it wasn't until this last year's Celtic Connections that he was able to return it. He brought it to the festival office - so they've been reunited."

I give you the shoes in question, which are a very dark blue and fit for a princess, in a picture taken by Hardy and emailed to me. How's that for a happy ending?

Walking away from The Old Queen's Head after the gig I was very grateful for the observations of David Firn, who took the pictures in the previous post as I was feeling a bit puzzled. Wasn't this all a bit pervy and weird, I asked? I mean, who in their right mind would pick up a single shoe of unknown provenance in the street, take it home and hang on to it? Moreover, what are the odds that the man in question would be a reader of fRoots magazine? Infinitessimal, I'd say - although enhanced slightly by the fact that there was a folk festival going on nearby.

But David simply asked me what kind of a shoe it was and when I explained that it had a heel and a bow, he nodded. "It sounds like a nice shoe. Why wouldn't you keep it if you found it in the street?"

All observations gratefully received.

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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Bella Hardy and O'Hooley & Tidow do rock'n'roll

Mostly this is a photo essay of Sam Lee's Nest Collective gig at The Old Queen's Head in Islington last night, where Bella Hardy & Ewan Macpherson played alongside O'Hooley and Tidow. They'd all driven a long way to get there but it was properly memorable.

And not just for the music...

For early on in the set, which was two mini ones by O'Hooley and Tidow, sandwiching a longer one by Hardy & Macpherson, Belinda O'Hooley became so passionately involved with her piano that the instrument - let's call him Roland - crashed to the floor in a rock'n'roll moment that excited a competitive streak in the others.

"I'm going to wait until the end of our set before smashing my guitar up," volunteered Macpherson indicating the back wall.

"And I'm going to smash my fiddle over my own head," added Hardy in a spirit of one-up-manship that showed the big city had certainly raised her blood. You go girl!

Fortunately there was a spare stand and O'Hooley and Tidow were able to return to their first number, Hidden from the Sun, without causing any further alarm among the more conservative members of the audience.

Or perhaps that was her.

Anyway, David Firn, of the camera, had only just arrived when the piano smashing incident happened and I was afraid he was getting entirely the wrong idea about this folk music stuff, what with all the loud noises and sudden movements. But then he went and took these pictures, which have a kind of loving quality to them, I think.

That's Bella H in the foreground. They are his copyright, although if anyone's looking for a photographer I'll take the credit for having discovered him when he was only a struggling editor at the Financial Times.

I should say that there was also an appearance by Tom Paley,

whose fiddles those are, tuned differently from each other - in case you wondered why he needed two. And that in a weirdly prophetic moment David took this one of Bella's feet

which is both a reflection of his wide-ranging and artistically literate interest in ladies' shoes (honest) and a throw-forward to my next blog post.

They're waiting for it avidly (isn't that a great pic?)

A search was undertaken for a version of Mein Deern on YouTube to insert here because it's my favourite song from their last album, The Fragile, but all I could find was this. And I find myself wondering: is it really possible that there is a Mein Deern ringtone? Really?

So here's Gentleman Jack instead.

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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Bev Lee Harling meets the police in Hackney

Just a short one. This made me smile when the improbable sounding I Love Hackney posted it the other day.

And it made me think of this

from Bev Lee Harling, which deserves a wider audience. It's a big enough umbrella, but it's always her who ends up getting wet: know that feeling. Here's a review of her album, which I love. She's an original voice doing something compelling... often with power tools and kitchen implements.

Covering other people's songs is the folk process in action I think. It's all in the telling...

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Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Josienne Clarke, Sam Brookes and Laura J Martin go all Ron Burgundy at The Old Queen's Head

It's traditional for The Old Queen's Head on Essex Road in Islington to hold an all-day music festival on bank holidays for those unwilling to leave the big city and commit to a couple of nights under canvas in the face of meteorological uncertainty.

The essential queeniness of this particular weekend made the pub feel like even more of a destination than usual - the upstairs room is so beautiful that it's a pleasure simply to be there.  But this time, rather than the regular, slightly under-organised folk event, it was publicised using the name of a Radio Six DJ, Tom Ravenscroft, who turned out to be John Peel's son. He hit the decks when the live acts finished at 10.30pm and the day's music was as eclectic as you'd expect it to be when Peel's name is invoked - although to be fair, they hadn't done that. I only realised who Ravenscroft was this morning when I was poking around on the net.

Taking a strong early stand for the folk contingent, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker were on second at 1.45pm and the opportunity to hear them play while eating a doorstep fish finger sandwich (me, not them) was too good to resist *wipes imaginary breadcrumb from the corner of mouth in happy recollection*

They've nearly finished making an EP of four original songs including Homemade Heartache, which I insert into this blog at the slightest opportunity. In fact I've a good mind to make it my personal mission to get a copy to Emmylou Harris, for whom it could have been written. But they also rolled out a version of Sandy Denny's Who Knows Where the Time Goes? that both nailed the song's source code and lifted it higher than I've ever heard it go, emotionally speaking. It took so much vocal power to produce that Josienne said she's going to have to be a bit careful: they played it live for the first time this weekend and in four different venues on Sunday alone - which was uncomfortably depleting by the sound of it. Ten out of ten for effort though.

There was lots else to see, lots to talk about, including a rather moody and attractive PJ Harvey-a-like called Anna Lena and the Orchids, a stadium-ready synth outfit called Plant Plants, who only needed a light show to rival DeadMau5, and a couple of testosterone-fuelled guitar bands called The Riff Raff (all werewolfy facial hair, biceps and popping veins, though sadly they seem to have the same name as someone else and I can't find them or their biceps on the web) and Glitches, who were great, though their unpromising taste in knitwear made me think that the invasion of the UK by Polish plumbers must have been singlehandedly responsible for the 80s revival.

But the most fun for me was to be found at the acoustic end of the spectrum, where Sam Brookes produced an assured and original set: he simply wasn't trying to be like anyone else and sounded as if making music came as easily to him as breathing. I'm not sure I'd remember any of the songs but would go out of my way to test that theory because the spirit of his playing was so free, as if he were playing the best gig of his life on an empty mountaintop.

The find of the day, however, was Laura J Martin, who plays something akin to jazz flute, uses sampling to reproduce herself during live performances and has a wonderfully kooky stage presence that involves hopping, finger-wagging and emphatic nods of agreement in response to her own music.

"Uh-oh," said one of my companions as she kicked off her set with a loud jazzy toot. "It's Ron Burgundy." But the affection I feel towards Anchorman knows few bounds, so I was much more taken by the novelty of hearing something this unusual and well-put-together and less with the eccentricity of it. She also plays the mandolin, is from Liverpool and made a huge impression on my rather shy second cousin Alick, who talked to her for a little while afterwards before sliding under the table on his way to the loo in a gesture that made it look as if she'd just melted him.

I love The Old Queen's Head as a place to spend bank holiday weekends. If they'd put beer taps upstairs so you could avoid having to make a choice between expensive bottles and climbing the crooked stairs with a tray it would be perfect.

By way of encouragement to the pub's management, here's some ham and eggs coming atcha... Hope you've got your griddles.

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