Friday, 12 February 2021

Mavis Staples

An interview I did with Mavis Staples, before her November 2012 concert in the National Concert Hall.

Gospel blues legend Mavis Staples is playing the National Concert Hall on Saturday, November 3rd, as part of a European tour, and I was lucky enough to speak to her before a recent Washington DC date, in advance of the trek across the pond. Considering this is someone who, as the youngest member of The Staple Singers, along with family patriarch Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne, was in the eye of the Civil Rights Movement maelstrom in the ’60s, with Freedom Songs such as ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’,  ‘Long Walk to D.C.’ and ‘When Will We Be Paid?’, I feel a bit like a gushing, weak-kneed teenage fanboy trying to do a passable impersonation of a mature adult in the presence of an idol. The ice-breaker is a question about if she’s been to Ireland before, and what her impressions were.

  “I was there in 1989, I think it was, with Prince. Ireland is so beautiful, so green, and everybody was so friendly. We went to Dublin, and Cork, and I kissed the Blarney Stone.”

   Informed of the local belief that said action can work in reverse, i.e. while it is famous for imparting the gift of the gab to the normally reticent, it can also render the previously loquacious a tad taciturn, she says:

  “Well, it didn’t work that way for me. My sister Yvonne (now one of her backing singers, and her roomie on tour) always says, ‘Mavis, you talk too much and you talk too loud.’ ” As we crack on, the truth of this admission becomes increasingly self-evident. The woman doesn’t need much prompting to launch into story after story, and is not shy about expressing her views.

  Born in 1939 in Chicago, where Pops had migrated from Winona, Mississippi, Mavis began singing in church with her family, aged eight, and attracted attention from the off.

  “We weren’t singing for money in those days, we would just be singing around the house all the time. We used to sing at Aunt Katie’s church. The first time I sang Ms. Vivian Carter from Vee-Jay Records happened to be in the congregation, and she said, ‘Pops, you gotta record these songs.’ But I was only eight, he wouldn’t let me start singing outside church until I was 11. Our first single was a song we sung that day in church, ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’.”  It was a best-seller, as was the subsequent ‘Uncloudy Day’.

  The group signed to Memphis-based Stax Records in 1968, joining their gospel harmonies and deep faith with more contemporary sounds. The first two albums, Soul Folk in Action and We'll Get Over, were produced by Steve Cropper, although Mavis is at pains to correct any false impression that they were backed by Booker T. & the MG's: “It was our own band that played on the records.” In 1970 producer Al Bell took them down the road to Muscle Shoals, and things got decidedly funkier. Starting with ‘Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)’, The Staples hit the charts 12 times between 1971 and 1975, including two No. 1 singles, ‘I'll Take You There’, and the Curtis Mayfield produced ‘Let's Do It Again.’ By this time, Mavis was carving out a solo career, but the group continued to have hits on the R&B chart into the ’80s, once with an unlikely cover of Talking Heads' ‘Slippery People.’

  Probed about The Staples’ Civil Rights Activism, Mavis recalls meeting Dr. Martin Luther King:

  “We were playing in Montgomery, and we just had to go and hear Dr. King preach at his church. He knew we were there. He acknowledged us at the door of the church, and spoke to us.’

  But how effective is socio-political dissent expressed in music? Can it change anything, or is it just a form of comfort? 

  “You know, I’ve been singing for 62 years, and I remember the first time we were able to drink from water fountains, I felt so proud. We were part of that.”

  Given that she sings songs like J.B. Lenoir’s ‘Down In Mississippi’, which makes direct reference to segregated drinking fountains, and ’99 and ½’ and ‘My Own Eyes’, all from 2007’s Ry Cooder-produced album We’ll Never Turn Back, it’s a bit of a stupid question on my part in the first place. She continues with an anecdote around that record:

 “When I went to meet (former Dr. King associate and current Democratic Representative for Georgia) John Lewis in Washington, because I’d asked him to write the liner notes for We’ll Never Turn Back, he told me: ‘You should be proud, because you helped to bring about all those changes.’ Still, when I look at the news today in Chicago, where I live, I see when black families move into white neighbourhoods, they’re still not accepted. They get ‘the n-word’ sprayed on their cars. So it’s not like that’s all in the past.”

  Incidentally, Lewis’ eloquent liner notes affirm that politically charged music can both contribute to social change, and be a source of comfort during struggle: ‘Back then, some people thought legalized segregation in America would never come to an end. But those of us in the Civil Rights Movement were inspired by a higher calling. And even if it cost us our very lives, "we weren't gone to let nobody turn us `round". We believed that the action of peace, the way of non-violence, and the power of love could overcome our oppression and remind our oppressors of their own humanity. Through the power of this faith our nation witnessed a non-violent revolution of values, a revolution of ideas that changed America forever. 

  ‘The music you are listening to right now was the soul of that revolution. It was this music that gave us hope when it seemed like all hope was gone. It was the heartbeat of this music and its steady, reassuring message that bound us together as one solid force. So when we were beaten, arrested and jailed; when we stood together on picket lines or marched through the streets of the Deep South; when we faced the guns drawn, the billy clubs and the bullwhips raised; when we were teargased, trampled by horses, or scattered by fire hoses, it was these songs that lifted us and pushed us to a higher place. 

 ‘It is my hope that when you hear Mavis Staples, when you hear the Freedom Singers, and the other artists on this CD, that you too will be inspired.’

  So, what about the forthcoming Presidential Election, and the Obama versus Romney debate?

  “You know, I watched that debate last night, and I was so proud of President Obama, the way he just kept his cool. Romney was getting in his face all the time, but he was so calm.”

  Will you be able to vote, if you are abroad on tour?

  “I’ve voted already. Yeah, in the big cities they let you vote early, so you can avoid all the queues.” Which makes the pre-election debates rather redundant, no? “I have no doubt that President Obama will be our next President. If he isn’t, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

  As mentioned, Mavis has had some stellar collaborators over the years, with Prince on 1989's Time Waits for No One, followed by 1993's The Voice, and with Cooder. The latest in the line is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced and played on 2010’s You Are Not Alone, and contributed a couple of songs as well. 

  “Jeff came to me with this song (the title track), and said, ‘I hope this song will comfort you’, and I thought it was just about the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. In the studio, Jeff asked me, ‘Do you know what I’m listening to on my iPod?’, and it was the old Staple Singers’ songs. That’s why we started recording some of them. He told me he used to work in a record shop, and that’s where he first heard our music. It’s my band on the record, but I love Wilco. Maybe I’ll make an album with them someday.”

  Given all this recent activity, what songs are in the set?

  “It’s a mixture. We have some people who’ve been following us for a long time, so we put some old with the new.”

  I intimate, as subtly as possible, that life on the road at 73 might not be without its more onerous side.

  “Oh, friends say to me, ‘Mavis, now you’re getting up in years, why don’t you think about retiring?’ But the truth is, I enjoy singing so much. My work, it’s fun. I’m gonna sing as long as the Good Lord lets me.

  “You know, when I was a little girl, I hated rehearsals, I was always the last in. And Pops, one day he said to me, ‘Mavis, the Lord gave you a gift. And if you don’t use it, the Lord’s gonna take it away from you.’ That scared me so much. Ever since that day, I was always first into rehearsal.”

  Yes, she would have talked all night, and what’s more, I would have listened. Do yourself a big favour, and don’t miss this great lady on November 3rd.

Favourite Books #34

This endeavour began as a list of favourite novels, then morphed into a list of favourite books, and books includes volumes of poetry, and we haven’t had any poetry yet. So, moving on from football tomes, here’s the first of some verse. 

The Dream Songs by John Berryman is my Book of Common Prayer

There is a mistaken notion around that JB as a craftsman is a bit sloppy, i.e. not as formally rigorous as some of his contemporary big guns: Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop; and consequently his posthumous reputation has suffered somewhat in comparison with theirs. However, I contend that it is his innovation, inventing new forms, which sets him apart from them: he is more jazz, to their classicism. Besides, he’d already served his time with sonnets – a collection of earlier love poems was published after 77 Dream Songs, if written beforehand. Also, I think he is not now held in as high esteem as other major poets of his generation, in poetry circles, because he is perceived as a bit of a messer, i.e. he has a sense of humour. But, if he admits of more of the comedic, even the flippant, in my opinion he lets in more of the tragic, the pain, too. This wryness, I observe, has in contrast made him something of a reference point for a younger generation of indie rockers, who might share a similar sensibility: The Hold Steady, Okkervil River, Nick Cave and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! all mention him in songs.  

I also notice, having just read a recent Irish Times review of his Selected Letters, that the feminist revisionist backlash is in full swing against him (‘the male gaze’, etc). Look, as a male heterosexual, I am genetically programmed to find female anatomical attributes attractive. So was JB, and so is every other heterosexual male. You’re not going to propagandise that fact out of existence. Or, maybe you are, and sexuality will become as repressed and joyless as it was in this country under the Catholic Church dispensation, or as it is reduced to in Orwell’s 1984 – just a New Puritanism. To upbraid male heterosexual poets, playwrights and novelists (or any artists) for giving voice to such expressions of desire amounts to censorship; and to not write about such impulses would be a form of self-censorship at the most basic biological, hardwired level. 

Equally unnecessary is the fatuous gripe about 'the deeply troubling minstrel interlocutor' in The Dream Songs. The voice which addresses Henry as Mr. Bones is Thanatos, the voice of Death, which reprimands the lustful longing of Eros in many Dream Songs with a bucket of cold water guilt, and an intimation of mortality. 

Martina Evans quotes the first two stanzas of Dreamsong #4 in her review, as evidence of Berryman’s culpability:

Filling her compact & delicious body

with chicken páprika, she glanced at me


Fainting with interest, I hungered back

and only the fact of her husband & four other people

kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying

'You are the hottest one for years of night

Henry's dazed eyes

have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon

(despairing) my spumoni.—Sir Bones: is stuffed,

de world, wif feeding girls. 

It would have been helpful, and fairer, if she had included (or had the space to include) the third stanza also:

—Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes

downcast … The slob beside her feasts … What wonders is

she sitting on, over there?

The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.

Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.

—Mr. Bones: there is.

Meanwhile, here’s one of my favourites Dream Song #14 (although the sequence of 385 poems can be opened at any page at random with pleasure and profit): 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.‘dream-song-14’/


Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Favourite Books #33

Okay, let’s get down to what really matters: football. David Conn is a Guardian sports journalist who qualified as a lawyer, after reading English and Politics at York University, who now specialises in financial investigations of contemporary soccer. He is also, mutatis mutandis, a lifelong Manchester City fan. Richer Than God mixes personal memoir with a thorough analysis of the changing fortunes of the club he has supported since boyhood. But Richer Than God is not just for City fans, but for anyone interested in the evolution of the modern game, as it engages with the ethical incongruities and cognitive dissonance involved in following a football club through thick and thin, and reckons with what it means to retain such affection in the face of the grubby late capitalist world we all endure. 

He has written three other books: The Football Business: Fair Game in the '90s? (1998) and The Beautiful Game?: Searching for the Soul of Football (2005) focus on the influence of money on modern day English football; while The Fall of the House of FIFA (2017) charts the corruption endemic at football's world governing body. He is also currently filing some fine pieces on the UK government’s handling of the Covid 19 pandemic. 

Incidentally, another great football read from the same year of publication (2012) is The Outsider by Jonathan Wilson, a study of the game’s odd man out, the goalkeeper (he can handle the ball!). The title provides a neat call-back to the previous entry in this series, which featured the famed Algerian shot-stopper, Albert Camus. (Nabokov, it may interest you to know, also briefly donned the gloves, playing as custodian while at Cambridge.) Whenever anyone sneeringly calls into question the validity of a grown man retaining a passion for watching twenty-two other grown men running around a field chasing a piece of inflated leather, I merely refer them to the quotation from Camus which forms the slogan which adorns one of my favourite t-shirts from my collection. See below. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Favourite Books #32

At first sight, rereading Camus’s The Plague during the time of Covid, as I have done recently, may seem appropriate. It isn’t. So similar to contemporary events are its descriptions of how individuals, and the wider society, behave in Oran during the time of crisis, that many passages could have been culled from today’s newspapers and news bulletins. Which tends to make one despair for human nature, and embrace the cliché that it doesn’t change much. So, if you want to avoid something clear-eyed and sobering, then don’t look here. 

It’s difficult to choose with Camus, as The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, or the short but perfectly distilled The Fall, would all be eligible candidates. But, you know, given the times we live in, I thought it was appropriate. 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Favourite Books #31

I am a great admirer of the work of Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. Although his more straightforward narratives have a dreamlike quality, and his more experimental work remains rooted in everyday yet universal concerns, there is certainly a noticeable distinction between his first three novels, and his fourth. Having secured his reputation, and presumably enough financial security not to have to worry too much about money, by winning the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day, what he sprung on the public next came entirely out of left field, and sharply divided critical opinion. Esteemed literary critic James Wood – whose work I also have a high regard for, opined that The Unconsoled ‘invented its own category of badness’. As for me, I think it invented its own category of goodness. With all the atmosphere of an elongated series of anxiety dreams, it is my favourite novel of his, not least because he had the balls and the integrity to do it in the first place, but also because it is a literary work as startling, inventive and singular as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or Kafka’s The Trial , which it resembles a cross between Look out for concert pianist protagonist Ryder’s obsession with World Cup trivia, and his son Boris’ fascination with Subbuteo table soccer. 

Ishiguro also seems like a good bloke as well. See profile below.

Also find a link to my review of his Never Let Me Go Below too.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Favourite Books #30

I have long been an admirer of the at once vibrant yet tremendously subtle writings of Ali Smith, and plan on getting stuck into her ‘Seasons’ quartet over the holidays (ha! ‘holidays’), now that it is completed. An earlier tome well worth checking out is 2005’s The Accidental – which owes something to Pasolini's 1968 film Teorema, in that the arrival of a charismatic stranger into a middle class family home has a profound effect on each member of that family. It also cleverly plays with multiple voices and points-of-view. A treat. 

Friday, 11 December 2020

Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu

Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu


Desmond Traynor


To say that this album has received overwhelmingly negative reviews would be perhaps the most monumental understatement of the now nearly 12 year old century (apologies, but the hyperbole is sanctioned by Lou Reed’s own pre-release assertion to the effect that, ‘It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever’ – a statement which, in itself, despite how far you gauge Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek, might go some way towards explaining the widespread derision the project has been greeted with).  

  Most of the opprobrium focuses from the outset on the inherent incompatibility of the participants, and then continues, self-fulfillingly, to cite spurious examples of how Reed and Metallica sound not so much as though they are not on the same planet, but not even in the same room. All tosh, of course. Lou, after all, once claimed to have invented heavy metal, and contrary to what some of these know-all detractors would have you believe, I don’t think he was talking about the largely atonal Metal Machine Music, which I agree has little to do with the genre. More likely he had in mind 1974’s Rock’n’Roll Animal and 1975’s Lou Reed Live, both products of the same December 21st, 1973, concert at Howard Stein's Academy of Music in New York, where Dick Wagner’s and Steve Hunter’s humbucker-equipped guitars pump out the power chords and riffage in a way that has served as a template for the more melodic side of metal ever since. Indeed, the Loutallica versions of ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘White Heat/White Light’, performed when the two first got together at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert in 2009, owe more than a little to those mid-70s predecessors. (It is a testimony to how great a song ‘Sweet Jane’ is that it can run the gamut of genre interpretation from these raucous arrangements to the Cowboy Junkies’ hushed campfire rendition, which Reed has called, ‘The most perfect realisation of that song I’ve ever heard.’) And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the interminable noise guitar work out ‘Like a Possum’, from 2000’s Ecstasy. Metallica, meanwhile, have more often than not cast themselves as the thinking person’s (let’s not be gender-specific about their fan base) hard rockers.  

 The source material is late 19th century Munich playwright Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box (the latter more well-known to contemporary audiences via G. W. Pabst’s 1929 silent film classic of the same name, starring bad girl Louise Brooks), which relate the story of a free-spirited stripper who becomes a social climber only to wind up a prostitute murdered by Jack the Ripper, whose uninhibited and amoral lifestyle bring tragedy to herself and those associated with her. Lulu is, incidentally, much in the local ether at the moment, between 3epkano’s live soundtrack for Pabst’s film at the IFI, and Camille O’Sullivan’s show The Lulu House at the recent Dublin Theatre Festival. 

  So, are the results of this collaboration as dire as they say? Absolutely not (and you saw that rhetorical answer/response coming a mile off, didn’t you?). ‘Brandenberg Gate’ kicks off proceedings, with ‘small town girl’ (as James Hetfield harmonises) Lulu arriving in the big smoke and soon tiring of her factory shifts, setting the agenda with ‘I’m just a small town girl who wants to give it a whirl/While my looks still hold me straight’. Lou gets to establish Berlin atmospherics, which hark back to his masterpiece of that title, by name-dropping obvious cultural reference points. A further agenda is set in ‘The View’, and continued throughout, most pointedly in ‘Little Dog’ and ‘Dragon’, which is Lulu’s zeitgeisty Nietzschean rejection of the conventional value system, especially the life goals expected of ‘decent’ women: ‘There is no more time for guilt/Or second guessing/Second guessing based on feeling’.

  Lyrically, BDSM is the recurring metaphor in all of Lulu, affording Reed the opportunity for a generational update on themes first explored all those years ago on the VU’s debut ‘Banana’ album, in ‘Venus in Furs’.  If lines such as ‘Pumping Blood’’s ‘I swallow your sharpest cutter like a coloured man’s dick’, or ‘Mistress Dread’’s ‘I beg you to degrade me/Is there waste I could eat?’, or ‘Frustration’’s ‘To be dead, to have no feeling/To be dry and spermless like a girl’ leave you nauseous, then this probably isn’t your idea of sexual recreation. One suspects the Marmite principle is going to apply with this one: there will be few neutrals. Disc 1 is written largely from Lulu’s perspective, while Disc 2 seems to be an angrily impotent (and impotently angry) male response, although point-of-view can be nebulously interchangeable, with first Disc closer ‘Cheat On Me’ the most reflexive of the bunch. The sadist needs the masochist as much as vice versa, and Lulu’s submission is a form of dominance.

  Musically, many of the songs begin with acoustic and/or orchestral tinkering before launching into full-blooded rockers. ‘Little Dog’ stays that way for its duration. As one who doesn’t listen to a whole lot of metal, I’m struck by how much, like blues, it uses the flattened fifth, or so-called Devil’s Note, for its effects. It’s not all super heavy either: ‘Iced Honey’ is straight, melodic barroom rock’n’roll, while 19 minute finale ‘Junior Dad’, a meditation on the disappointments of domesticity from the male point-of-view, shares tonal affinities with ‘Street Hassle’ and Songs For Drella’s ‘A Dream’, even if it goes on a lot longer.  

  Why all the hostility, then? I can only hypothesise that it stems from good old-fashioned snobbery, straight and inverted. One detects a sniffy assumption amongst the taste-making cognoscenti that poet and legendary art rocker Reed shouldn’t be demeaning himself by slumming with these raggedy, not-quite-house-trained, plebeian thrashers; while, from the other side of the fence, the notoriously conservative metal audience, who subscribe to a faith built upon simple pieties, don’t like to see their heroes getting all artily above themselves and up themselves. (One would think, however, that their worldview would be reinforced by a morality tale of a ballbreaking, never mind heartbreaking, femme fatale who comes to a bad end.) Pointing out the limitations of either case of tunnel-vision need not detain us here. One also suspects that a fair proportion of the naysayers may not have even given the discs a whirl, assuming from the outset that the whole shebang is an elaborate postmodern joke. Personally, I detect no irony in either of the collaborators’ professed admiration for the other.

  Not that Lulu is perfect, mind, not by a long chalk. Quite a few tracks are too long by half, particularly on Disc 2, seeking to bludgeon the listener into submission with the kind of dominance that depends on relentlessly lengthy repetition rather than genuinely inventive intensity. Pushing 90 minutes when an hour would have sufficed, the cliché about how an average double album would have been a great single album could certainly be invoked here. Also, Reed’s lyrics, for all that they may seek to, and arguably even successfully do, epater le bourgeois, too often come across as half-baked, repetitious, and lack a narrative arc. These considerations aside, Lulu is, while not quite the best thing either party has ever done, certainly the best new material either has come up with in some time, and deserves more of a hearing than the critical scorn it has been met with will probably allow it to receive.