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In which exhaustion loses us the ability to fly broomsticks. And we save The State the trouble, and interrogate ourselves into insanity.

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September 2019

The Prisoner (or A Life on Hold)

Where am I? In The Village. What do you want? Information. Whose side are you on? That would be telling. We want information… information… information. You won’t get it. By hook or by crook, we will. Who are you? The new number 2. Who is number 1? You are number 6. I am not a number, I am a free man!

So goes the introduction to the delightfully bonkers TV series which forms the chief recommendation for this month.

Also for your delectation are recommendations for a heartwarming ode to singing, a celebration of toxic masculinity (technically, but not in the way you might think), and the inspiration for one of Madonna’s biggest hits.

And there is a video essay that uses a Hayao Miyazaki (yes, him again) film as a metaphor for 21st century burnout.

The other category — the projects I so nearly had time to make this month — are a bit… well, 2019. I try to avoid the political stuff, I really do. I wish it would try to avoid me.

Projects Which I Would Do If Only There Were 25 Hours In A Day…

‘Strong & Stable’ - The late 2010s musical

There was a point a year or two ago when I felt like the only way to express the current political climate in art was in a farce like Dr Strangelove. But as the landfill landslide continues, I actually don’t think that’s absurd enough. I think we need to go full Springtime For Hitler. I think we need a musical.

Song titles include...

  • Surely This Time He’ll Resign
  • Feed The Trolls
  • Back On Twitter (Has The World Collapsed Yet?)
  • Caps Lock And Load
  • Are You An Expert?
  • The Good Ship Titanic
  • Panic Fatigue
  • That’s Not What That Particular Law Means

And the final showstopper:

  • Whatever Else Happens, That Old Socialist Is A Dangerous Lunatic Who Must Not Under Any Circumstances Be Allowed To Take All Our Toys Away

Twitter Gran

An app that will use AI to sweep the trending topics on social media, but then explain them to you in the manner of a phone call with your grandmother. The day's hot take topics will be a bit vague and muddled, all abuse is ignored, and even the most serious scandals are followed with "But I'm sure it'll all be fine!"

The Icarus Moratorium

I’m sorry folks, but that's it! We have just about reached our international quota of Icarus metaphors in art. According to new UN proposals, all use of this beloved ancient Greek myth will be phased out for songwriters by the end of 2021, for political cartoonists by mid-2022 and in the titles of spy novels by early 2023.

Sorry, I mean, I don’t make the rules…

Recommendation

THE PRISONER
"You... are Number 6."

You might be very familiar with this iconic 1960s TV series. You might not have heard of it. But I’ve always been fascinated by it, and when I recently dipped back into it I was amazed by how topical it feels now. How angry, and paranoid, but yet still wildly wonderfully imaginative.

It’s Kafka-esque in capital letters: a spy tries to leave the secret service but gets kidnapped (possibly by his own government — it’s never made clear) and wakes up in an insane futuristic prison camp known as ‘The Village’, where prisoners are endlessly interrogated in bizarre and disorientating ways.

The 60s really was a golden age of British entertainment: just watch the first 3 minutes of this clip and marvel at how concisely the opening titles set up the story. It’s thrilling, intense, sinister, and yet incredibly clear exactly who everyone is and what is happening.

This series was very much the labour of love of its star, the unfathomably charismatic Patrick MacGoohan (the man first offered to play James Bond but who turned it down and suggested Sean Connery instead). He came up with the original concept and developed it, and was about as hands-on as it’s possible to be. He wrote and directed many episodes.

He was also, by all accounts, a monster to work with. Bullying, obsessive, always on the verge of violent anger. In the penultimate episode the producers were genuinely afraid that he might kill fellow actor Leo McKern (who played the baddie), so blurred was his perception of fiction and reality.

And normally that would put me off the work, but oddly… not this time. MacGoohan was obsessed with individual liberty, and the State trying to break people down and dominate them. To begin with, this show is a funny, sarcastic, brutally mocking dissection of Englishness — which in its way is very 1960s, in the spirit of Peter Cook and Monty Python. But perhaps MacGoohan’s Irish heritage gave him an edge that the shock-hungry Oxbridge crowd lacked: underneath it all he was deadly serious.

But as the show progressed and the pressure of its phenomenal success started to weigh on MacGoohan, and it got weirder, and darker, and weirder, and darker. And I think it moved from the political to the personal. MacGoohan started to realise that the things that made him a prisoner were actually in his head. And his character, Number 6 (“I am not a number! I am a free man!”), started to psychologically tear himself apart.

Fans of the show were really disappointed with the last episode, which just made no sense. But I think one way you could interpret it is that in the end the interrogators won. And Number 6 simply went mad.

Recommendation

TO NOISE MAKING (SING)
This is my current #1 earworm.

This a lovely, simple song by Hozier (of ‘Take Me To The Church’ fame) that I discovered on Spotify. It’s an ode to singing, whether you feel you’re any good at it or not.

You don't have to sing it right
Who could call you wrong?
You put your emptiness to melody
Your awful heart to song
You don't have to sing it nice, but honey sing it strong
At best, you find a little remedy, at worst the world will sing along

It’s a pretty new song, I think, but looks like it’s already becoming a firm favourite on the a cappella singing scene (see here and here).

Recommendation

CATHY DENNIS'S TOXIC
Remember 'Toxic' by Britney Spears?

Cathy Dennis is something of a legend in the songwriting community. A successful solo artist in her own right, she transitioned in the late 1990s to writing songs for other acts. And then went on to write some of the biggest monster hits. She wrote Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie, and I Kissed A Girl by Katy Perry. And she wrote Toxic by Britney Spears.

I had always assumed that what made the song such a uniquely great pop classic was the arrangement and production, which must have been some super-expensive production team.

But listen to Dennis’s originally demo.

It’s not just that everything is already in place. Britney even copied the way she sang.

Recommendation

PBS SOUND FIELD (YOUTUBE)

This is strictly Ballroom...

I’m really enjoying the new PBS Sound Field series on YouTube (co-presented by YouTuber Nahre Sol, who I recommended here way back when). It’s an exploration of music genres and subcultures.

And this video in particular is a really great example of a whole world that was completely new to me. I mean, I knew the song by Madonna. I didn’t know that she was actually reflecting a subculture that’s been around for decades, influencing more mainstream dance culture. And it looks like it ain't done yet...

Recommendation

PATRICK H WILLEMS ON BURNOUT

Yep, it's Patrick H Willems for the 2nd month in a row...

Patrick H Willems is becoming one of my top favourite YouTubers. I love his commitment to making video essays in creative ways.

Here he muses on the work of Hayao Miyazaki (whose Spirited Away I gushed about last time). Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of Miyazaki’s most gentle films (in a tie with My Neighbour Totoro perhaps). It’s a film about a young witch living in an idealised European city who becomes a sort of freelance courier.

The drama comes from when exhaustion with this lifestyle means that she loses the ability to fly. And Willems points out how this film is really about what it's like to live in the Gig Economy. And what happens you're doing the thing you love, but you're doing it to the exclusion of everything else, and you're doing it alone.

It’s great, you should watch it. (Both the Willems video and Kiki.)

Upcoming Events

Friday 11th October

Every second Friday of the month. Be seeing you.

Dear Diary...

I was listening to the audiobook of Stephen King’s On Writing.

Which is great, by the way. Not just for anyone wanting to be a writer, but anyone doing any kind of creativity. Some of his tips were familiar to me; some were completely new. But he said something that got me. He mentions the writers who write maybe just 2 or 3 books in their whole career.  He doesn’t want to suggest they’re lazy, he says, but… why so little output? If you can write, why would’t you?

What I was hoping would become a temporary hiatus on new songs, updating my website and adding to social media… seems to have become the norm. How come? (And, as ever, I’m writing this as much for me as for you.)

So. One more time, the story so far...

I went fully self-employed in February last year. Three months later I got sick, with an illness that stopped me working properly for about half a year. By the end of that time money was a big problem, and I started doing a number of things to stem the flow: from bar work to temping to selling anything I could on eBay.

And now that financial situation has stabilised. But, when I was ill, pretty much all my energy was focused on not being ill. And then, right after that, pretty much all my energy was focused on not haemorrhaging money. And then after that there was a personal crisis that needed all of my attention and more. And after that, it was back to the money again.

I added up the hours a few days ago. I sleep around 6 hours a night, and generally get up at 5.30am and on weekdays I work around 14 hours a day (on 3 or 4 different jobs). I also need to work a little on the weekends, as well as getting all other life admin done. That said, H & I do get to spend a fair bit of weekends going to films, eating out, go to the zoo, just general fun stuff. But other than that, all I do is work, pretty much. I hardly ever go out with friends. I don’t really take days off.

And everything else has basically been put on hold. Including making music, obviously (for myself, as opposed to music for income). And updating social media, which I don’t even really check that much at the moment. In fact, even my music-for-income has taken a hit over the last year: I’ve kept working on it, but not been able to spend anywhere near as much time on it as I would have liked to. I feel like I’m only really beginning get back to properly focusing on it now.

In these newsletters… I suppose I always feel like I want to apologise for not actually doing the thing I’m claiming to be doing: making music. I think that people that read them might not care at all, but it’s also as much just apologising to myself. And that Stephen King point… to be fair, I think he was probably talking about published successful authors (although author John Green has talked candidly about why he thought he might never write another book after The Fault In Our Stars).

But a lot of us… are really just paying the bills. I’ve hitched my wagon to music in career terms — it’s not like I could decide to be a financier if the music falls through. And there are ways to make money from music, but they require a lot of time and energy, and (I’m hoping only to begin with at least) they don’t really leave much time to do anything else.

So anyway. I’ve been in this position many times before, but here I am again.

And… in my way, I do feel a little bit like The Prisoner right now. Cut off from the world, trapped in this insane parody of England, in which the colours are garish and the Powers That Be are corrupt and invisible. Everything is suspect. And my old life feels so very distant, and possibly even rolling on somewhere else, many miles away, perhaps in a different country. And I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again.

So What Have We Learnt?

Except, of course, that actually that’s all bollocks.

Here’s the thing about Number 6. I don’t care what anyone says: I don’t think his predicament is that bad. Yes, the powers that be want to break down his individuality. But he lives a comfortable life, with all his basic needs catered for. In fact, he has a simple, focused, uncomplicated life with a clear goal: to escape. And/or to uncover who the mysterious Number 1 is.

And he gets to do all this in Portmeirion, the famously bonkers mock-Italian village plonked onto the Welsh coast. I think I could easily rock being a prisoner there.

The thing is, when I think about it, my life isn’t on hold at all. My creative hobbies are on hold, which happens, and is okay, and not the same thing. I still get to experience life, which is human relationships, sensory experiences, exchanging of ideas. And having the time to make music just for pleasure is really a luxury. And what I use it for is to reflect my own life back to me in a way that makes sense. And so when I’m not doing it it can sometimes feel like I’m not really living.

But that’s a trick of the light. Actually, my life is really good now. Busy, in a good way. My health is good. Autumn is beautiful. I’m back to working in offices, and I like all the people that I’m working with. And I’ve been in this suspended animation before but not, I think, while married. And that makes a big difference.

This morning we went to see the film The Goldfinch, and then got cocktails afterwards. I’ve just walked into the kitchen, and H ambushed me with a kind of flat-rolled wafer-thin chocolate hazelnut biscuit thing, almost like a delicate steamrollered Toblerone, before exposing me to her latest kitchen experiment: raspberry caramel. So, you know, life could be worse.

And actually, when it comes to making music, there can be something weirdly inspiring about not having the time to really make any of it. Something I noticed when in The Half Moon All Stars was how much of a dampener Reality is for artistic ideas. The more I actually make art in the real world, the more I’m reminded that I lack the time or money or professional support to do it properly. And so my ambition gets scaled down to what I think is realistic.

When I’m unable to make music, my imagination feels like it’s been set free.  In my imagination, I have all the resources I need, and can make whatever I want.

I mean… it’s not ideal. But it’s hardly a prison.

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the gigs. About life. About the universe. About why I left the secret service. About who is Number 1. About the nature of reality. Use mind drugs, seriously, go crazy...

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PHOTO CREDITS:
  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
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