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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

It seems that one book which divides opinion is Truman Capote's 1966 non-fiction novel, "In Cold Blood", which tells the tale of the 1959 murder of four people in rural Kansas, and the subsequent trial and execution of the culprits.

One of the first things which became noticeable to me when reading "In Cold Blood" was that although the story is set primarily in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, there is also a distinct Steinbeckian/Dustbowl character to it, as if many of the sweeping cultural and economic changes of the post-war period had not yet reached certain parts of America.

There is quite a lengthy build-up to the crime itself, allowing us to gain a flavour of the temperament and background of all concerned. There is real poignancy in the passages portraying life in the town of Holcomb, the people going about their everyday business, oblivious to the horror which was to shortly be visited upon them. As we the readers know what is going to occur, we are given a keen appreciation of all that is about to be lost.

As many have observed, the interplay between the two murderers, Perry and Dick, is gripping and unsettling. The constant ruminations about the raw deal which life had supposedly dealt them, are food for thought, even if they do not diminish the disdain which one feels for them and their deeds. Whatever one might think of them, though, they are not one-dimensional people.

Whenever I am exposed these days to "true crime" literature or television, I am left thinking what else society could have done, pro-actively or otherwise, to prevent such terrible things happening. Maybe what really needs to be done to make resentment, alienation and envy marginally less prevalent is too much to ask for. The genie was out of the bottle long ago.

Another feature of "In Cold Blood" which intrigues me is that certain stereotypes are not adhered to. For example, the uneven attitudes to the death penalty, and the humanity and understanding shown by some residents and law enforcement people towards the prisoners.

The final stages of the novel deal with the execution of the two men, after their legal avenues had been exhausted. It didn't really feel like any particular stance was being adopted about capital punishment, and the story didn't do anything to shake my opposition to the practice. The words and the imagery speak for themselves.

The final scene, when the detective Dewey meets Susan in the cemetery, is a suitably eloquent note on which to close matters.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Helter Skelter - Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry

Just recently, my interest in the Charles Manson phenomenon has been re-awakened, and as part of this process I revisited the book "Helter Skelter", written by Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry. This is a comprehensive account of the infamous murders of August 1969, and the subsequent investigations and trial, seen partly through the eyes of Bugliosi, who was the prosecutor in the case.

As well as chronicling the intricacies of the police enquiries and the assorted legal manoeuvrings, we get some insight into the motives and mindset of Manson and his followers, although this is not really a biography as such. This is a true crime work with considerable cultural resonance.

The investigations are methodically detailed here, including the initial reluctance to connect the two sets of murders. The notion that the second incident was the work of copycats seems laughable - do copycats operate within such a short timescale, and do they go to such lengths? The inflexibility of some officialdom also comes through, in its refusal to believe or take seriously stories supplied by people who had knowledge of who was responsible, and why. Was the gap between "straight" society and the counterculture even wider in 1969 than it is now?  Those who pursued an "alternative" lifestyle were not to be trusted, it seems.

One gets a sense of how the investigations assumed greater urgency, cohesion and imagination once Bugliosi became involved, and he tries hard to hide his exasperation at the inefficiency of some sections of the police. I also gained a heightened appreciation of the skill, sharpness, diligence and ingenuity required to be a prosecutor (or any kind of lawyer, for that matter). The peculiar nature of this case clearly placed a premium on those qualities. From early on, the prosecutor realised what, and who, he was up against.

Of equal fascination to the purely criminal nature of this story are the wider socio-cultural aspects, such as the question of whether these terrible events caused the end of "the Sixties". This precise question is not directly addressed in this book. My feeling is that the murders, and what preceded them, was just one symptom, rather than the cause of the end of the "dream". This all assumes, of course, that "the Sixties" can be classed as a single entity. Some observers have pointed out the signs of decay and trouble which were present as early as 1967, and of course 1968 had scarcely been all sweetness and light. The events of August 1969 must have been a shocking affirmation that things had changed. Quite apart from the terrible nature of the crimes, a side-effect of the saga was that "non-conformists" in general were tarred with the brush of being deranged or potentially dangerous.

A thing which is brought out in the book is the process by which Manson cast a spell on his followers. It was a combination of methods, many of them learned by Manson during his spells in prison. The task was made easier by the fact that many of the people with whom he came into contact were receptive to his overtures because of their own background and/or foibles. They invariably had "issues" and lingering resentments and antipathies before they even met Manson, who was equipped to press the right buttons, so to speak. It is emphasized as the book progresses that some of the members of the group refused to go beyond a certain line, their moral compasses still being functional.

"Helter Skelter" is a compelling but at times disturbing read.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

'Til I Die - The Beach Boys

When the music of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys is discussed, it is invariably asserted that their most "cerebral" and important music was recorded around the time of "Pet Sounds", and in the period shortly thereafter (i.e. "Good Vibrations" the Smile Sessions and so forth).  However, the song "'Til I Die", included on the group's 1971 album "Surf's Up", may well represent the zenith, and the logical conclusion, of what Wilson had been aiming at since 1965 or thereabouts.

"'Til I Die" has nakedly existential lyrical content, and is ethereal to an almost otherworldly degree. I have heard it described as a mantra as much as a song, and I can see why. The inspiration apparently came to Brian Wilson during a night-time visit to the beach. At once, it conjures up the notion of the utter insignificance of each one of us in the grander scheme of things, hence the references to "a cork on the ocean", "a rock in a landslide" and "a leaf on a windy way", and it all ties in with the songwriter's other ruminations about loneliness and alienation.

It is quite pertinent that this track is regarded by many observers as Brian Wilson's last great song. It signifies almost a settlement or reconciliation of the territory which had been explored. Was this the end of the journey which had begun around the time of "California Girls"?  It is significant that this was purely a Brian creation. Input from, or collaboration with, other people would have tainted the purity of the emotions being expressed here.

The song can be interpreted as an expression of resignation, despondency or helplessness, but it can also be seen as a "coming to terms" with the realities of existence. This multi-levelled meaning is one of the things which makes "'Til I Die" so compelling.

Songs about spiritual or cosmic concerns run the risk of being trite or pretentious, but "'Til I Die" pretty much hits the spot. It does not outstay its welcome, having lyrical conciseness and a complementary rhythmic base. The complexity of the harmonies and the melodic nuances merit repeated listening.

It is well worth a listen even for non-Beach Boys fans, and for non-music fans for that matter.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (film)

When the iconic movies of the 1970s are discussed and evaluated, one that is sometimes unaccountably left out is One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, released in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson, and based on the novel by Ken Kesey.

Due in part to my interest in mental health issues, criminology and "counter-cultural" topics, I recently watched the film for the first time in many years. I found that some of my perspectives had changed because of my own experiences.

The plot revolves around the battle of wits between McMurphy (Nicholson) and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Naturally, such a struggle between the anti-establishment patient and a figure of authority can be seen as symbolic of wider societal tensions, but this story has a lot of guile and finesse to it. It never overtly descends into straight "system vs the people" territory, and it is seen that the methods of control and oppression are more subtle and insidious. The fact that I didn't see Nurse Ratched as particularly tyrannical in the conventional sense clearly shows that these techniques were "working"!

It took an outsider, in the form of McMurphy, to recognize what was going on, and to begin to challenge the apathy and subservience of the patients. the rigidity of routine and procedures, how they had become institutionalized, and how "divide and conquer" was a central plank of the regime. A striking aspect was the suggestion that the "voluntary" and "committed" patients thought in very much the same way, even when the former had the right to get up and leave.

A secret to watching One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is to refrain from reading weighty symbolism into every scene, as by doing so the quality of the acting and the writing can be obscured. The fishing trip sequence is particularly entertaining, the more so because it represents a break from the confines of the hospital (the references to "big fish" and "little fish" did register), as are the various basketball games.

Among the sub-texts, the most prominent is the issue of young males being domineered by female authority figures, viewed via the character of Billy, and McMurphy's efforts to help "liberate" him. Perhaps this is all more about individualism and self-realization than broader socio-political conflict. The fate of both McMurphy and Nurse Ratched at the close of the piece maybe conveys to us that nobody wins....

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver, the 1976 film directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Robert De Niro, is not a movie to be watched for light relief, but it is immensely powerful and absorbing. It is one of the pictures which made the 1970s such a golden period for cinema. Indeed, some might argue that Taxi Driver is the quintessential Seventies movie, because it touches on so many of the themes which were central to the time - political cynicism, the fallout from the Vietnam War, urban decay, social disintegration and general ennui and stagnation.

I watched Taxi Driver again just recently, and it had lost none of its impact. Of course, the centrepiece of the work is the character of Travis Bickle, so magnificently played by Robert De Niro. Quite apart from the acting performances, the cinematography and other aspects, one of the major strengths of the project for me is the multi-faceted plot, which has a nicely ambiguous feel to it. Throughout the piece I found myself asking "what are Travis Bickle's real motives and aspirations here?"  The movie therefore is imbued with real substance and depth, and actually encourages, even forces, the viewer to think constantly.

To summarize, Bickle is a Vietnam vet who take a job as a New York taxi driver, choosing consciously to work the night-shift. He is repelled by the corrupt and sordid activities which he witnesses, and begins to nurture visions of "cleaning up" the city. The movie documents his voyage into some dark places. The "diary" format of the narrative is a clever device, and it helps to strengthen the impression of a man going through a process of change, soul-searching and torment.

I had forgotten just how vivid and evocative the night-time sequences in Taxi Driver really are, capturing the sleaze, grime and insidiousness of the the world which Bickle inhabits, all bright lights, menace, vice and shadowy figures. The opening title sequence sets things up perfectly in this respect, as does the wonderful music by Bernard Herrmann, which is a feature of the entire movie..

The most unsettling thoughts which occurred to me whilst watching Taxi Driver recently concerned the main character's state of mind and motivations. Was Travis Bickle seeking to give his life some focus and meaning?  We are also left wondering whether Bickle's deeper motivations are selfless or self-serving .Perhaps there are both positive and negative consequences of alienation.  The character was not stereotypical or straightforward, even though popular perception has tended to see it that way.

The ending, it seems, has attracted much comment down the years. It does have some characteristics which one would associate with the average "dream sequence", for example the images of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and the delivery of parts of the dialogue.  It seems that it was not intended as a dream sequence, but it has the effect of keeping people guessing. Despite everything, has Travis been purged of his demons?

Whichever way we choose to interpret Taxi Driver, it comes nearer to meriting the word "masterpiece" than most cinematic works.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Stage Fright - The Band

The Band's third album, Stage Fright, released in 1970, had a lot to live up to, following as it did in the wake of the group's brilliant first two records, Music From Big Pink and The Band.

Regardless of whether Stage Fright can be said to be "better" or "worse" than the two works which preceded it, it was without doubt different. Several theories have been put forward to explain this. The rock n roll lifestyle may have begun to affect the musicians, together with the rigours of life on the road. It may be that the initial magic and enthusiasm of the group striking out on its own had begun to diminish.

This record is markedly darker in tone, and The Band may have been reflecting some of the uncertainty and perceived bleakness of the new decade. The shift in atmosphere and sound may have been a conscious attempt to explore new territory, both sonically and lyrically. Trying to replicate the feel-good factor of the first two records, even assuming that they had the energy, would have represented treading water.  There wasn't so much a decrease in intensity here;it was just a different kind of intensity. It wasn't a comedown or a hangover, but more a change in direction and emphasis.

One of the major differences immediately discernible on this album is the comparative absence of the idiosyncratic and endearingly chaotic vocal harmonies which characterized the band's work of the late 1960s. This is one of the reasons why the sound on Stage Fright feels thin and lacking in depth and warmth. The instrumental backdrop is also quite sober, in keeping with the lyrical content. The keyboard layers of past times are thin on the ground.

There are a few genuine highlights, and not all of this record has a soulless reticence. Track number two, "Sleeping" contains many of the Band's traditional hallmarks, and is marked by a fine Richard Manuel vocal. "The Shape I'm In" has some real character and drive to it - the vocals, again from Manuel, but also this time the harmonies have real presence. This is one of the few tracks on the album where Garth Hudson's keyboards are permitted full freedom, and his contribution helps propel things admirably.

The second half of the record is much stronger than the first. "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" reminds us of the mystique which surrounded the group, and has the welcome bonus of a horn part. "Daniel And The Sacred Harp" has similar attributes. There is some feeling in the vocals by Manuel and Levon Helm, and the words are nicely enigmatic. There is even a hint of the Cajun, in the employment of accordion and fiddle.  All in all, plenty is going on to hold the interest.

The title track is one of the key numbers. It has quite an affecting melody, and Rick Danko delivers one of his most effective lead vocals. This is one song where a lack of harmonies is an advantage. The subject matter suggests one voice only.

"The Rumor" is a downbeat, even sinister, track with which to finish proceedings, but not inappropriate. It is very much a "Seventies" song, in its ambiguity.

So there is some fine material here, and a distinctive vibe which makes Stage Fright a fascinating listen, both on its own merits and as a period-piece. It is less accessible and lovable than what went before, unsettling even in its tone, but it also encourages the listener to think....

Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones

Of the four "classic" studio albums released by the Rolling Stones between 1968 and 1972, Let It Bleed, their 1969 effort, has traditionally inspired the most mixed feelings in me.  Made during a time of turmoil in the band, with the decline and subsequent death of Brian Jones, it has commonly been described as one of the cultural artefacts which most cogently captures the close of a decade and its attendant idealism.

Much has been made of how vividly the record evokes the disillusioning tail end of the Sixties, but I often thought in the past that this has hampered an objective appraisal of the album's musical merits. Just lately, however, I have come to realize that my own views about its perceived sociopolitical weight has clouded my own judgement on the artistic offerings contained within. Some concentration and analysis is required to fully appreciate it.

The album is not as uniformly "rustic" as Beggars Banquet, and this can make it seem disjointed. I would go so far as to conclude that Let It Bleed actually contains less filler than its 1968 predecessor, although strangely there are also fewer memorable or "classic" songs here. Only "Gimme Shelter" truly resonates these days.

Whereas the underlying mood before was part anger, part confusion, part defiance, here there is more a sense of fear, ennui and resignation. Many of the songs almost drift by unnoticed rather than grabbing the listener by the throat and demanding attention.

"Gimme Shelter" looms ever larger as one of the group's towering achievements, both for its relevance and for its musical power. The multiple parts performed by Keith Richards, including the oft-overlooked thundering rhythm guitar, Charlie Watts' drumming, the dramatic vocal intervention of Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger's harsh harmonica interludes.

It is easy to disregard the fact that the stylistic thrust of Let It Bleed is not fundamentally different from that which characterized the previous record made by the band. A country-blues ambience is clearly evident on such tracks as "Love In Vain", "Country Honk" and "You Got The Silver". However, the sound is somewhat "cleaner" than before, and this can mislead one into thinking that there had been a profound departure between 1968 and 1969.

A couple of tracks situated in the middle of the album help to lighten the mood, for different reasons. "Live With Me" can seem like a lightweight item, but its danceability and aggressive rigour are welcome in a contextual way. On the other hand, "Let It Bleed", the title track, instills levity with its risque lyrics and ebullient, almost tongue-in-cheek register.

For a long time I had a blind spot about the studio version of "Midnight Rambler", as it appeared clearly inferior to the version later included on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, and the production felt cloudy and muddy. However, I now consider that this is one of those tracks which requires real listening, and the clinical and cold feel here is actually highly appropriate. "Monkey Man" serves a similar purpose to "Live With Me", in its injection of energy, although it has an added drama and menace which makes it one of the more underrated cuts on this LP.

"You Can't Always Get What You Want" is the other popularly "iconic" song on the album, forming a potent pair of bookends along with "Gimme Shelter".  I must admit that I prefer the "single" versions, though, as they are shorn of the "choral" introduction...

Of course, Let It Bleed marked the debut of Mick Taylor on a Rolling Stones album, and although his role is limited, his slide guitar touches, even though low in the mix, indicate the way in which his talents would enhance the sonic tapestry of the band in the four or five years ahead.

So, Let It Bleed is prone to be misunderstood. It can seem a forbidding prospect, but if one gets past the mildly unwelcoming exterior it is revealed as a substantial, intriguing and entertaining collection, and it should not be regarded as in any major way inferior to the other works in the Stones' golden 68-72 run.