Friday, 1 February 2013

Randy Newman and his audience

In April this year Randy Newman will enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the company of Rush, Heart, and Public Enemy. (Custom has it that acts who are still alive perform at their induction: ‘I sure wouldn't want to follow any of them’, Newman told Rolling Stone, no doubt sincerely.) Newman has earned his place in that pantheon, for sure, and he knows it, and has always been clear-eyed about why the recognition has taken so long. ‘Rock critics are very Bolshevik’, he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999. ‘If you use the wrong chords, like any that aren’t in Led Zeppelin tunes, then forget it.’

It’s relatively recently, thus rather belatedly, that I began listening to Newman’s music – that is, buying the records of his well-regarded songs, as opposed to overhearing him on the musical scores of Pixar films that my children watch. And I say 'belatedly' because Randy Newman is meant to appeal to people like me. Y’know the type, (if you’ll forgive a slip into cod-Newman vernacular) – kind of liberal people, who got they’sel some culture, and a college education, so they think they smart.

Yes, a big part of Newman’s appeal is his sly, searching address to questions of history and politics, often with a grand reach, if always in an American accent. He tends to deal in mordancy and irony, his apparent concern with the sheer badness of the world, the human animal's compulsively appalling behaviour. The tone tends to be lamenting; and wherever he seems to exult, you sense he intends you to shudder in discomfort. With an artist as brilliant and productive as Newman it's well-nigh fruitless to pass some political-propriety meter over the work and ask ‘Which side is he really on? What does he really feel?’ The songs thrive on ambiguity and contradiction like art is meant to, and even when Newman is going all-out to be cold and unfeeling – and he usually is – still, you’re meant to feel it.

It does take a sort of genius to attempt, with affection, a refutation of Marx – as Newman does in 'The World Isn’t Fair' – by twinning a music-hall jaunt through young Karl’s intellectual formation with Newman’s own well-heeled, late-life, ageing-dad experience of taking his kids to a new school and marvelling at the yummy mummies (‘just like countesses, empresses, movie stars and queens’) who are squired by ‘men much like me / Froggish men, unpleasant to see / Were you to kiss one, Karl / Nary a prince would there be.’) This clip isn't the best for sound quality, but you get a lot about Newman's gift for being the seemingly reluctant raconteur from his longish spoken intro.

Newman’s pride in his own achievement with that song is clear in this quite brilliant interview with Paul Zollo, which should be read by anyone with an interest in the craft of songwriting and scoring. If Newman considers The World Isn't Fair to be 'about the best song I ever wrote', still he's instantly self-critical about its construction ('It’s like one long verse. It doesn’t get to a tonic, or something. It never stops...). But he also comes around to telling Zollo pretty clearly what he really feels about it, such that maybe not a great deal more needs saying:

"It’s a giant subject in as few words as could be done... The guy in “The World Isn’t Fair” is interesting as a character. He’s glad. It’s me. I’m glad the world isn’t fair. I’m glad that Marx was wrong. In a way, you know. I’ve been very lucky. And yet, I’m not that happy about it. [Laughs]" 

Here's what I would add. One bonus of coming late to the Newman oeuvre is that I can pick and choose from recorded versions of the songs just as if I was some Wagner buff deciding whether Solti's Ring is more worthy of my £24 than Karajan's. A couple weeks ago (sorry, Newman cadences again...) I downloaded a range of his tunes from across the pair of sets he released in 2011: Live in London, recorded in 2008 at the LSO St. Luke’s, where Newman was backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra; and Volume II of The Randy Newman Songbook, in which he revisits his old tunes in the studio on solo piano.

Why Live in London, not, say, Paris, New York, Amsterdam? As ‘Rand’ told Rolling Stone, ‘I'm always surprised when I go to England and they think so highly of me in terms as a writer.’ They certainly do. There’s a fair bit of delighted crowd noise on the record, rightly so, though I find one could wish people didn’t feel the urge to emit a showy kind of laugh at Newman’s mordant zinger-lines, much like the way the National Theatre crowd still pretend to crack up at Shakespeare’s comedies.

When, for instance, Newman plays 'A Few Words in Defense of Our Country' from 2008 – in which he laments the waning American imperium, and makes a carefully derisory defence of the outgoing Bush presidency against its worldwide detractors by dint of some arch references to a few more atrocious leaders from the annals – well, you would expect a London audience to lap that up, and they sure do. But I suppose it's part of the pleasure of the night out - the ticket price and the babysitter and all that - and Newman plays up to it. As he told Zollo: 

'If you’re offensive and it isn’t clear that you’re joking or it isn’t clear that you know what you’re doing, you lose the audience. People in my audiences at shows know I’m joking. But a lot of people don’t get the joke.' 

So it's important to Newman's audience as to him that they stay on the right side of 'the joke'. Updating his very astute appreciation of Newman in Mystery Train back in 1975, Greil Marcus agonised somewhat over the success Newman achieved with his Good Old Boys record and the subsequent concert tour in which he delighted a growing audience. Performance and acclaim, Marcus thought, coarsened one’s feeling for the fineness of what Newman had achieved on record. ‘A Wedding in Cherokee County’, about the impotence of a backwoods farmer, evoked not winces but laughter from a crowd who’d paid their money and wanted their wicked fun. And Marcus saw Newman complicit in this, not just by how he put the song across but in his droll spoken preambles: 'He promised that the song was a joke, that its characters were jokes, and that their predicament was something those smart enough to buy tickets to a Randy Newman concert could take as a freakshow staged for their personal amusement.' 

Would Marcus be so tough on Newman and his audience today? Maybe so, maybe not, since we are, let's face it, all a little bit older. Anyhow, don’t get me wrong, I still relish Newman's brilliant tunes, whoever's chortling all over them, and I’m glad I bought these new downloads, and Live in London is really swell, the orchestra are terrific. But if I had to take one disc to the desert island I would spend the £11 on the Songbook Volume II. The one off that I keep playing is 'My Life is Good', which typifies one Newman style, as defined by Robert Christgau, of 'targeting a privileged class that explicitly includes the artiste.' This clipped version below is from younger days, but he plays it much the same as on Songbook Vol. II. And of the barroom whoops that greet his mordant zingers? All I'd say is that they sound a little more agreeable coming from a smaller audience...

Thursday, 31 January 2013

'Balancing Acts' revisited

This morning I read a comment piece by Martin Kettle in the Guardian, in praise (a little overstated, in my view) of the present Home Secretary’s accomplishments to date. I then gritted my teeth and scrolled through some of the readers’ Comments. They weren’t, altogether, so bad. But one of the bad ones – who tried to contend that the Guardian has no sane and cogent writers on its books, just Kettle on the right of Labour and Polly Toynbee on the left, balancing/cancelling one another by their commensurate wrongness – reminded me of someone... yes, the late muckraker Alexander Cockburn, who wrote the following in the Nation on October 27 1984, having thrown aside his New York Times in despair at the Reaganaut fervour of William Safire followed so hard upon by the dead liberal hand of Anthony Lewis:

This is what Op-Ed intellectual discourse has got us into. So long as you can strike some sort of ‘balance’ it doesn’t matter that on one end of the seesaw sits a man saying things that in a rational world would have him held by doctors for observation...

So I didn’t agree with that Guardian Commenter, see – just as I didn’t agree much with Alexander Cockburn, at least in the later years. And yet the conviction they had in common seemed to rise up again like a rank odour when I saw the guest list for tonight’s BBC Question Time, onto which the show's entertaining bookers had shoehorned – alongside the now customary comedian – the Guardian’s Zoe Williams and the Telegraph’s James Delingpole. Christ alive. And you wonder why you never hear a decent argument on that show? Evidently they make it incoherent on purpose. And presumably people still watch. I don’t think I can manage that now, not after Harry Enfield’s rightly praised parody, which took out the show’s middle stump with a fairly straight and medium-paced delivery.

Monday, 28 January 2013

David Stacton: He did it his way

David Stacton 1923-1968

Last Saturday the Guardian Review kindly published a longish piece of mine about the late American novelist David Stacton, a swathe of whose novels I’ve recently reissued as Faber Finds. 

It’s always a pleasure to occupy the Guardian’s retrospective 'Re-Readings' slot (I was last there with this piece on Yukio Mishima’s The Seaof Fertility) and it's a good fit for for me since, for better or worse, I tend now to re-read rather more than I read...

David Stacton is a rare and strange and special case, and certainly the sort of writer about whom one wants to spread the word. As I say in the piece, his subjects included Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Lord Nelson and Ludwig of Bavaria, Cardinal Richlieu and Axel Oxenstierna, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. And I just don’t believe you can read that without getting at least a little bit curious.

In describing Stacton as an ‘ambitious’ novelist – in the creative rather than career sense – I want very much to stress the inspiring example he still offers to those who would write fiction. In an age of so much teaching of creative writing, so much focus on storytelling conventions, on shaping personal experience into 'pitching your book', bringing the story to market and building the author’s career/brand – the whole industry now devoted to realising the novels often thought to lie inside each one of us… it’s useful, now and then, to be reminded of a writer who set out to do grand and astounding and unconventional things on a page, beyond even his own ken, and without first asking anyone’s permission.

I certainly don't mean to say that writers don't benefit greatly from skilled tutelage and/or by extending themselves to the imagined reader - only that once in a while it's good to have someone around who makes it up pretty much all by themselves.

Stacton’s incredible productivity was such that you have to believe he loved writing (or felt bound to it) as much as any scribe who ever lived. Certainly it’s difficult to imagine there was any time when he wasn’t deeply immersed in writing a book or else researching it. Rewriting was probably as distressing for him as it is for most working novelists, but he brought it on himself: he had the exceedingly common writer’s self-delusion that his next project would be relatively ‘short’ and delivered on time, but his ambitions simply didn’t tend that way. 

As he wrote or edited he always kept one or more grand and enthralling project on his horizon simultaneously. When I sifted Stacton’s archived correspondence with his Faber editor, the great Charles Monteith - whom he was very fortunate to have as his champion - I laughed aloud to read Stacton mentioning almost off-handedly to Monteith, ‘I thought recently it would be fun to take the Popes on whole – a big book about their personal eccentricities...’ Big that certainly would have been. But had he lived longer he might have done it, you know. He did nearly everything else.

One last embroider on what I mention in the piece about Stacton’s mind being temperamentally inclined to bold patterns and designs – such that every novel had to form part of a trilogy on a theme, the trilogies themselves interlocking within the larger oeuvre... This is the mark of an artist who liked to set seals upon things. And in 1954, at the very outset of his relationship with Faber, Stacton sent the firm a ‘logotype’ he had drawn, an artful entwining of his initials, and asked that it be included as standard in the prelims of his novels (‘Can I be humoured about my colophon as a regular practice?’) 

A tad grand in one so young, perhaps - but Faber thought it worth obliging him, as have I with these new reissues, each of which bear the Stacton colophon as shown.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Economic Growth: Desperately seeking 'some thrilling and utterly unexpected change'

Cameron at Davos: (AP Photo/Keystone, Laurent Gillieron)

When I'm after some pointed comment on economics I often read Chris Dillow, the avowed Marxist who writes a column for Investor’s Chronicle and a blog (rather more noticeably Marxisant) called Stumbling and Mumbling. He posts a lot, always provocatively; but with the UK economy shrinking over another quarter – this piece from a US vantage in The Atlantic, ‘Britain's Economy Is a Disaster and Nobody Is Entirely Sure Why’, pretty well sums up the dismal mood - I'm reminded that I've kept revisiting a post on Dillow’s blog from August 2011, ‘The Growth Problem’, which still seems to these eyes to tell the whole predicament. There's no good bolthole for capital to flock to, the Eurozone isn’t buying, generous credit is for yesterday, the coming industries we ought to have nurtured and developed we lag hopelessly behind in, our austerity - whatever you make of its degree - isn’t working, because none of the conditions under which it’s worked previously are now present - and so on. Last week Dillow suggested he believes the economy is being further depressed by ‘irrational animal spirits that drive [investor] sentiment and capital spending.’

Another economics commentator I look to a lot is Merryn Somerset Webb at Money Week, who is not a Marxist, or at least I doubt she is. She ended 2012 on a note not so far from that Dillow sounded in 2011: 'It is perfectly obvious that, barring some thrilling and utterly unexpected change in our national circumstances, we should continue to be in a low growth environment for the foreseeable future. It is also pretty obvious that there isn’t much we can do about it.'

And there was me thinking I was a black pessimist... In the past I may have sounded sarky on this page about Ed Balls’ Five Point Plan, but then the leading critiques of it have argued that Balls isn’t indicating willingness to borrow/spend what it might take; and for various reasons, he’s not going to get a chance to do that. As for the government, I have in recent times been quite sympathetic to David Cameron’s arguments that the UK must ‘rebalance its economy’ and ‘pay its way in the world’, but now I think – trying to be charitable to myself – that I’ve been wasting my own time, talking a load of wishful rot. I guess these are nihilistic times. Here's to the surpassing of rock-bottom expectations, then - or else to that thrilling, bolt-out-of-the-blue change...

Star Wars: If they'd given me the 'Episode 7' gig...

Probably the main emotions I associate with the Star Wars movies – such a hot thing back when I was 6 years old, not to say ever since, and fervently so again now the resumption of the series has been announced – are vague disappointment and anti-climax of the childish kind, a bit like the taste of flat Coca-Cola? Even by today’s standards few motion pictures have ever been so aggressively and unremittingly marketed; a process that’s not always compatible with innocent ideas of escapist fun.

I think that’s why, when I was kindly escorted to see Star Wars (‘Episode 4’, as we never knew it) at the age of 6 – I was quite puzzled to find that what was on the screen hardly lived up to what had been going on in my head, having already seen tie-in comic books, picture books, kiddie-novelisations and breathless reports on the whole phenom by John Craven’s Newsround and Frank Bough’s Nationwide. I suppose one learned something there, before one could give it words, about how the excitement of the human imagination lives on its own and seeks objects to attach itself to. The main point is, I’m certain I enjoyed playing with Star War toys (i.e. a great deal) vastly more than watching Star Wars.

Those, then, are the big twinned disappointments of the Star Wars thing: its vanguard role in the modern-day science of Selling to Kids, together with the variable quality of the movies lurking in back. Again, memory is vulnerable (I was 12 when I saw it) but I find it hard to believe viewers of any age weren’t groaning through Return of the Jedi (‘Episode 6’), with its pat resolutions and endless talk and insufferable fur-ball cuteness . With the second trilogy of movies that came out between 1999 and 2005, pictures I admit I’ve only glimpsed on small screens, even the diehard fans seemed to break out in revolts of distress, despondency, rage.

My one clear thought about Star Wars around that time came when me and a small film crew were scuttling around Denmark making a Channel 4 documentary on the Danish Dogme 95 film movement, during the production of which I was constantly being told by sneering US and UK film journalists that this vaunted avant-garde was just a shallow marketing ploy to sell a slate of low-budget Danish movies. That critique never looked more kneejerk-insular to me than when our crew stopped for supper at a motorway McDonalds outside Copenhagen, and with our Happy Meals we were served, quite irrespective of our wishes, a little set of plastic tat promoting Star Wars Phantom Menace (‘Episode 1’). There’s marketing and there’s Marketing, see.

But of course I’m not here to bury Star Wars. I suspect for many viewers, and not just apostates like me, it’s the indisputable excellence of The Empire Strikes Back (‘Episode 5’) that provides most of the abiding images of the series. I do recall going to see that one (aged 9 this time) as the first occasion 'going to the movies' felt both giddily exciting and also a bit painful in the heart vicinity – rather like how falling in love would shortly come to feel. And one needn’t summon critical respectability to this, but Pauline Kael’s championing of Empire as the best American movie of its year (a year that included Raging Bull) was quite telling. What’s good about the picture, as with most good pictures, is its writing (by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, veteran of the Hawksian western and film noir) and directing (by Irvin Kershner, who began his career making smaller ‘personal’ films, and nearly turned this one down), and its production design, in the fullest sense. 

Pauline Kael was also very big on the movie’s visual-aural texture – Darth Vader’s armour lit for maximum gleam and menace, the venerable green-fuzz aura around Yoda, the affecting sounds of Chewbacca’s deep mournful howl and Luke’s grim whimpers after his sword-hand is lopped off. Empire was shot by Peter Suschitzy, whose son I knew slightly at university, and who went on to become David Cronenberg’s preferred DP. The film is properly dark, hard-edged, a really satisfying pop version of all that mythological stuff George Lucas professed to love in the creative anthropology of Joseph Campbell.

And now the Star Wars series is cranking up again, three more movies resuming the storyline after the events (!?) of Return of the Jedi. They’ve gone and hired Michael Arndt to write it and, professionally, I accept that – I wouldn’t have been the man for the job, my screenwriting CV hasn’t got quite the same lustre as his, I doubt I would have aced the pitch meeting... However I’m happy to offer Mr Arndt these tips on ‘which way to take it’:

1. Stay dark. Whoever the hero is this time, undermine him, menace him, keep in mind the limits of heroism, make everything come at a cost, such that triumph feels like perplexing failure. After all, the seeming point of the series has been that there are continual reversals of fortune in this war between The Force and the Dark Side. You need to preserve a sliver of ambiguity there about which is which.

2. Remember Hitchcock’s maxim: the better the villain, the stronger the picture. No Darth Vader this time out. But you need someone interestingly threatening, not called Darth.

3. Keep it mythological. Go Greek, go Shakespeare, go Wagner, go folktale. But avoid attempts at contemporary resonance (e.g. about the corruption of great republics and whatnot, when what your story proposes is an ‘evil empire’ of cosmic proportions.)

4. By all means ‘feed the theme-parks’ with white-knuckle-ride set piece sequences (which even partially redeemed Return of the Jedi.) But please think less about feeding the toy stores with opportunities for marketing soft gonks to pre-schoolers.

5. Kill Han Solo and kill him well, as Harrison Ford has long seemed to wish – the mere threat of which did so much to distinguish Empire Strikes Back. Clearly there is potential in ‘Episode 7’ for an Ibsen-like plotline of the aged warrior summoned out of brooding retirement by the woman from his past who urges him to take a final but fatal stand.

6. Try and cast older actors with proper voices, who can cope with the kind of fanciful dialogue these pictures seem to require. Star Wars got so much mileage from Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. Episode 3, conversely, took the mystery of how Anakin Skywalker came to be imprisoned in Darth Vader’s armour then voided it of interest by casting Hayden Christiansen. (A proportion of these proper actors should be British/Irish but don’t have to be the biggest British/Irish movie stars of the moment...)

7. These stories require characters, not stereotypes, however much the audience likes to give the impression they prefer the latter. A big trick of them, it seems to me, is how to pace a character’s slide from good to evil, or their ascent in the other direction. Even Billy Dee Williams was briskly effective in Empire as the unreformed scoundrel who betrays Harrison Ford. (He got turned round very swiftly in Jedi, but I suspect that had a bit to do with saving Williams from a lot of abuse at fan conventions.)

8. Nothing is written, everything is permitted: didn’t Lucas invent quite late on the whole wheeze of Darth Vader being Luke’s father? And thank god for that. Anything twisting of previously given information is forgivable in the cause of making things less boring.

9. Really you need a family at the centre of things, with tensions therein, and... but, what am I saying? Over to you, Michael Arndt. Disney, I am available for Episode 8, probably.