It Was 50 Years Ago …

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I’m reminded today, with much coverage in the media of this being the 50th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper, that, some good few years ago, I was in a men’s clothing shop on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham when one of the assistants came up to me and introduced himself as a former student of mine at Heanor-Aldercar secondary school in the 60s. “You won’t remember me,” he said. And I promptly apologised, because that was, indeed, the case.

One thing I’ll always remember about you, he said, you came into our English class one day with the record player and said, Right, you’ve got to listen to this, and played the whole of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through.

It would have been around the same time that the Head of English at the school, Gordon Leake, and myself, inspired, I think, by having seen The Mersey Poets – Messrs Henri, McGough and Patten, along with Heather Holden – performing at the Co-Op Theatre,
decided to suggest to the students in our top set of 13/14 year olds that they ask their parents for the money to buy individual copies of the recently published Penguin Modern Poets 10 : The Mersey Sound for themselves. This despite being wary of possible parental complaints about some of the contents once the books were taken home, though, in the event, we need not have worried. No words of complaint were forthcoming. And when, happily, I met up with another former Heanor-Aldercar student, Mel Cox, many years later – 2014 – at a reading in Derby Waterstones, he had brought his well-thumbed copy of The Mersey Sound with him, along with a copy of Prévert’s Paroles, which I’d signed back then and given him as a prize.

None of that would likely happen today, I suspect, at least not in the same way – aside, of course, from teachers begging money to buy books. Plenty of that still around.

Summer Playlist, 2017

No accident these, no throw of the random dice, but compiled with loving care.

  1. Body & Soul : Billie Holiday, from The Quintessential Billie Holiday Vol. 8
  2. Brickyard Blues : Helen Shapiro, from Rhythm on the Radio – Oval Records 1974-87
  3. California Bloodlines : Dave Alvin, from West of the West
  4. Don’t Take This the Wrong Way : Graham Fitkin Band, from Veneer
  5. Falling in Love Again : Billie Holiday, from The Quintessential Billie Holiday Vol. 8
  6. Flamingo : Earl Bostic, from Larkin’s Jazz
  7. Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves : Cher, from Cher’s Greatest Hits 1965-92
  8. Hemingway’s Whiskey : Kris Kristofferson, from This One’s For Him, A Tribute to Guy Clark
  9. I Got Rhythm : Django Reinhardt, from Djangology
  10. I’m Down in the Dumps : Bessie Smith, from Larkin’s Jazz
  11. I’ve Had It : Aimee Mann, from Whatever
  12. Is This America? : Charlie Haden, from Rambling Boy
  13. The House That Jack Built : Jack ‘N’ Chill, from Rhythm on the Radio – Oval Records 1974-87
  14. Jumpin’ at the Woodside : Count Basie & His Orchestra, from Larkin’s Jazz
  15. Leaving the Table : Leonard Cohen, from You Want it Darker
  16. Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor : Mississippi John Hurt, from Today
  17. Never Not You (Remember to Breathe) : Girlboy, from Late Bloomers
  18. New Orleans Hop Scop Blues : Bruce Turner & Wally Fawkes, from That’s the Blues, Dad
  19. Now’s the Time : John Lewis, from Improvised Meditations & Excursions
  20. Our Song : Joe Henry, from Civilians
  21. Private Life : Grace Jones, from Island Life
  22. Rosetta : Allen Toussaint, from American Tunes
  23. Round Midnight : Robert Wyatt, from For the Ghosts Within
  24. Runaway : Bonnie Raitt, from The Bonnie Raitt Collection
  25. Sister Mercy : John Stewart, from The Day the River Sang
  26. Someday You’ll Be Sorry : Louis Armstrong, from Louis Armstrong at The Crescendo 1955
  27. Stone for Bessie Smith : Dory Previn, from Mythical Kings & Iguanas
  28. Vamp : Graham Fitkin Band, from Vamp
  29. When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful : Fats Waller, from Larkin’s Jazz
  30. You Don’t Own Me : Dusty Springfield, from A Girl Called Dusty

Perhaps the most surprising, to me, single track is Helen Shapiro’s remarkably strong version of Allen Toussaint’s Brickyard Blues, originally written for Frankie Miller, and recorded by Shapiro for Charlie Gillett’s Oval records in 1984. I knew she had grown to be a far better singer than her very early Don’t Treat Me Like a Child pop days, touring and recording with the Humphrey Lyttelton Band, for instance, but this – this is, I think, superb.

What else is worth commenting on? The way in which both the Leonard Cohen and John Stewart tracks seem so knowingly valedictory, Cohen aware, I think, that he was dying; Stewart conscious, perhaps – just listen to the opening lyrics – of the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

And the fact that most of the jazz tracks included here come from a 4 CD compilation commissioned by The Philip Larkin Society,  based upon Larkin’s years of jazz record reviewing – how could someone who often came across in his other writing as being uptight, mysogynistic, mean-spirited and cheerless, have enjoyed such joyous music?

 

 

Denis Johnson, 1949 – 2017

JesusDenis Johnson, poet, short story writer, and novelist died on the 24th of May.  Although his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke – sprawling, busy with moments of brilliance and confusing and difficult to grasp as the war itself – won the US National Book Award in 2007, for me his best work is to be found in his shorter fiction, Train Dreams (2002), set in the American West at the turn of the century, the fast and nourish Nobody Move (2009), and the collection of incendiary short stories for which I suspect he will always be best known, Jesus’ Son (1992), from which these short extracts are taken.

The Vine had no jukebox, but  real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. “Nurse.’ I sobbed. She pour doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will  beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.

 

It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mending. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.

 

And then came one of those moments. I remember living through one when I was eighteen and spending the afternoon in bed with my first wife, before we were married. Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange colour I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fibre and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath. A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and way, and the miraculous balls of hail popping a green translucence in the yards?
We put our clothes on, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that.

And, finally, a poem …

PASSENGERS

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through those intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always those definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning – her languid flight of hair
travelling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die>

Sadly, not true.

Listening to Jazz – 2

 

 

This is the second of the extracts from my writing dealing explicitly with jazz, chosen by Sascha Feinstein to accompany his interview with me which appeared in the Summer, 2017 issue of the journal of jazz and literature, Brilliant Corners.

 

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he’d been able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.

Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across the shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed wide and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed at the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focused, waiting his time.

It comes from a stand alone crime novel, In a True Light, which was originally published by William Heinemann in 2001. Beginning with the release of its central character from prison …

They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday. Three years for deception, reduced on appeal to two; six months in Brixton, the remainder in Ford open prison.Naturally lean and wiry, Sloane walked out through the gates a fitter man than when he’d walked in.

A painter, the particular deception of which Sloane was found guilty was that of forgery; of late, he had found other people’s work, in his own exact interpretation, more saleable than his own. The novel works on two time frames, one in the present, following Sloane to New York in search of the daughter he never knew he had, the other tracing him back to the late 50s when he was a young, aspiring abstract expressionist painter in Greenwich Village – which is where and when he gets to listen to Monk.

In my opinion, it’s not a wholly successful novel – I’m not sure now well the different parts fuse together, the contemporary crime scenes in particular – but it does have some scenes of which I’m very fond and even, dare I say it, some writing of which I’m proud. And, of course, it gave me the opportunity to think and write about the art, jazz and poetry of New York during a period that has long held a strong fascination. Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Thelonious Monk.

“Lonely Hearts”: Resnick at the Beginning

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A quick check on AbeBooks.com suggests that copies of the Viking Press, 1979, first edition of Lonely Hearts, in fine to very fine condition, signed, can be snapped up for between $350 and $450. Whereas, anyone wishing to read the same novel on kindle, can do so, from today until June 26th, for a mere £1.99, thanks to Amazon’s Start a New Series promotion.

You pays your money, as the saying goes …

One of the questions I used to get asked quite regularly in those far off days when my publishers used to send me out on tour, my American publisher Henry Holt especially, was did I always think Lonely Hearts was going to be the first of a series? The answer being, well, yes and no. Yes, in that most of my formative pulp days had been spent working on series so it was what I was used to. [Even the novelisation of Herbie Rides Again sprouted Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.] And no, in that it had been hard enough to get this one book published, how much harder was it going to be for a bunch of them? Also, I should add on the plus side, the two most obvious [to me] and relevant inspirations for the novel were both television series, the long-running Hill St. Blues and my own relatively short-lived Hard Cases, which was, in most respects, Hill St. relocated to Nottingham and centred around the probation service rather than the police.

Which sort of takes me to a second frequently posed question: who, if anyone, is the character of Resnick based upon? To which the response used to be, he’s a lot like Captain Frank Furillo from Hill St. Blues, but dressed like Peter Falk in Columbo. A more specific model, following the Peter Falk example, would be the wonderfully fallible, hard drinking and sentimental Sgt. Valnikov, as played by Robert Foxworth in Harold Becker’s film The Black Marble, based on Joseph Wambaugh’s novel of the same name.

Like Furillo, I saw him initially as a kind of middle-management copper, holding together, through a mixture of firmness and inspiration, a fairly disparate group of younger officers. As the series developed, however, Resnick stepped out increasingly front and centre, in part due to the fact that I was increasingly enjoying writing about him, and in part down to the positive response to him from readers.

But here’s a little taste of Charlie as he initially appears at the beginning of chapter two …

Standing under the shower, Resnick massaged shampoo into his hair as vigorously as he dared: eyes closed tight, face tilted upwards, he lowered the temperature of the water until it reached minimum. When he looked into the mirror, his breath came back to him a mixture of German beer and sweet pickled gherkins. He was the usual eight pounds over on the scales. Cats swayed around his bare legs, slid under his feet as he pulled on his dark grey trousers, dark grey socks.

And this is the first impression of him from the social worker, Rachel Chaplin, with whom he becomes involved …

He was an overweight man in his early forties, whose narrow eyes were bagged and tired, and who couldn’t find the time to drop his tie off at the cleaners.

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Listening to Jazz 1

To accompany his interview with me that was published in the summer 2017 issue of Brilliant Corners, editor Sascha Feinstein chose extracts from four of my books as examples of the way I write about jazz … and the ways in which my characters, most often Charlie Resnick, listen to it.

This is Charlie and the Vic Dickenson Septet from Easy Meat

“Old Fashioned Love.” The opening growl from Vic Dickenson’s trombone sounds like the fanfare from a fairground barker, but once piano and bass have settled into their gentle stride, he nudges the melody along respectfully enough, just the odd hint of jauntiness to keep sentimentality at bay; then, rolling out from the lower register with that tart huskiness that marks his playing, Edmund Hall takes the tune through a second chorus before the clipped notes of Ruby Braff’s trumpet start to lengthen and unwind. Which is as far as Resnick gets, because now the phone is ringing and he reaches awkwardly toward it, fiddling the remote onto pause and then dropping it into his lap, where an aggrieved cat wakes with a start and jumps to the floor, one paw tipping the saucer that holds a half-finished cup of coffee growing cold …

Resnick retrieved his cup and rose to his feet, releasing the pause into the beginning of Sir Charles Thompson’s piano solo. Bud’s head nudged repeatedly against the backs of his legs as he stood there listening, the cat urging him to sit down so that he could jump onto his lap. Only after the second trumpet solo and Dickenson’s closing trombone coda, lazy but exact, did Resnick open the tray and drop the CD back into its case, switch off the stereo, carry cup and saucer into the kitchen to rinse, open the fridge on a well-honed impulse and lift out a slice of ham, warp it around the last half-inch of Emmental cheese, something to nibble while he put on his coat and hesitated in the doorway, patting his pockets for his wallet, money, keys.

The Vic Dickenson Septet recordings from the early 1950s, along with the first of the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions, the one with “The Hucklebuck”, were amongst the recordings my friends and I listened to most growing up, prime examples of what was then called Mainstream Jazz.

As for the novel from which this extract is taken, I always used to say, when asked, that Easy Meat [Proie Facile in France] was my favourite of all the Resnick novels and I think that just about stands – my favourite from the first ten, at least. And why? I used to say it came closest to fulfilling my intentions when writing (though there’s a major assumption there, that I knew what those intentions were). But I do think that overall I like it because it’s the most downbeat and unforgiving and also I allow myself to say I love the ending, those closing pages in which Sheena and Dee-Dee and their pals run amok outside the bowling alley. These are the final paragraphs …

Sheena staring at the blood beginning to swell up around the man’s white belly, fascinated, and Janie, out of her head beside him, laughing.

“Come on, girl! Move it!”

Running then, leaving Janie to face the music, the first sounds of a police car approaching at speed along Canal Street and Sheena, as she allowed herself to be dragged away, turning now and stumbling, looking back and thinking, awesome, truly awesome. I mean, absolutely fucking brilliant! Brilliant, right?

And how about this cover for the Henry Holt edition? One of my absolute favourites, and designed by Raquel Jaramillo – credit where credit’s due.

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Art Chronicles: Howard Hodgkin – Absent Friends

I’ve always taken with a slight pinch of salt, Hodgkin’s assertion that his are not abstract paintings, but representations; representations, if I’ve understood him correctly, of place, people and emotions. Sometimes this works, it seems to me, sometimes it doesn’t.

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Howard Hodgkin: Going For a Walk With Andrew 1995-98

In the case of Going For a Walk With Andrew its easy enough to see the green infused orangey yellow as the land being walked and the varied shades of blue as the sky above. What of the figures (?) in red and pink bending forward slightly at one side? The artist and Andrew?  Objects in the landscape? Ephemera? Trees?  Emanations from the spirit world? If this is representational painting, it is so at its more basic; if it is abstraction, it is abstraction as fused with landscape painting as in the work of Helen Frankenthaler or Joan Mitchell.

In its current exhibition, Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends (till June 18th) the National Portrait Gallery seems only too aware of the need to hedge its bets. Portraits? Mmm, maybe. On the day I was there, there were quite a lot of confused people walking round the gallery, looking, some of them I suspect, for something that isn’t there. The exhibition, the NPG says in the very attractively produced handout, explores Hodgkin’s development of a personal visual language of portraiture, which challenges traditional forms of representation. Quite. And one would have to say that, as paintings, as works of art, the stronger that challenge, the more successful, more rewarding they are.

The early pieces on display here, painted between 1960 and 67, and under the influence, in part, of pop art, strike me as clumsy, almost self-consciously ugly. Unsurprisingly, the more mature the work, the finer the result, and there are, I think, some of Hodgkin’s very best paintings here, ones in which he has found a way of marrying representation and abstraction with a richness and complexity and a brilliant use of colour that repays repeated and prolonged viewing.

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Howard Hodgkin: Patrick in Italy 1991-93

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Howard Hodgkin: Portrait of the Artist 1984-87

The ambiguity that exists in the work, as the wall text in the gallery suggests, is one of its strengths, combining, as it does, (and I’m paraphrasing here) literal description with metaphor, within a situation that is not immediately recognisable. This is sensuous art and should be enjoyed as such: don’t strain for meaning, let the meaning, the emotion, come to you.

Near the end of the show there’s one of my favourite pieces, one almost entirely given over to metaphor. Two broad brushstrokes, swipes, if you like, down and across a piece of wood, Hodgkin’s memory of Selina Fellows, standing at the bar in a brilliant blue dress at the Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia in 2006. The painting was made in 2011-12. I love it.

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Howard Hodgkin: Blue Portrait 2011-12

 

 

 

 

Criminal Favourites

Gumshoe

Hmm, a friend remarked after perusing my recent listing of the 50 books I’d most enjoyed reading since the turn of the century, not a lot of crime fiction here – for a crime writer, especially. To which I might have replied, that in itself might be reason enough. And besides, if you stretch the definition a little there are five. No, wait, six.

But here, to set things right, or achieve some sort of balance, at least, is the list of my favourite relative recent crime novels, ones I’m likely to read again … and again.

1. Megan Abbott: The End of Everything
2. Kent Anderson: Night Dogs
3. Andrew Coburn: Voices in the Dark
4. K. C. Constantine: The Man who Liked Slow Tomatoes
5. James Crumley: The Last Good Kiss
6. Stephen Dobyns: The Church of Dead Girls
7. Jamie Harrison: The Edge of the Crazies
8. George V. Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
9. Bill James: Roses, Roses
10. Dennis Lehane: Mystic River
11. Elmore Leonard: LaBrava
12. Laura Lippman: The Innocents
13. William McIlvanney: Laidlaw
14. Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker
15. Walter Mosley: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
16. Jefferson Parker: The Blue Hour
17. George Pelecanos: Shame the Devil
18. James Sallis: Drive
19. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo: Roseanna
20. Neville Smith: Gumshoe
21. Peter Temple: The Broken Shore
22. Peter Temple : Truth
23. Ross Thomas: The Fools in Town Are On Our Side
24. Brian Thompson: Ladder of Angels
25. Daniel Woodrell: Give Us a Kiss

Two of those, you’ll notice, published by the late lamented Slow Dancer Press. The marvellous cover design the work of the excellent Jamie Keenan.

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