Thursday, October 18, 2012

Malala Yousafzai: A little guidance please...

Let me get this straight: The Taliban were sufficiently threatened by this brave, beautiful child and her public advocation of women's access to education, that they actually sent gunmen to board a school bus in order to shoot her? Not only do they admit to this unthinkable atrocity, but they gleefully maintain that they will again come after her in the event that she recovers from her injuries.

I'm trying to think of something worthwhile and insightful to say about this horror story, but I'm honestly at a total loss. It's so far beyond my comprehension that all I can do is scream silently inside and hope to God (or perhaps to that oft-mentioned prophet whose name and image I'm hesitant to mention lest I use it inappropriately and get my own personal fatwa issued just in time for Christmas) that someone can offer me some little pearl of wisdom or a little spiritual guidance that might help me process this.

Photo: Getty Images

Friday, September 14, 2012

Weather or not...

What has happened to weather forecasts? It used to be that you'd have this reassuring, crusty old TV voice letting you know in a couple of terse sentences exactly what weather conditions to expect in the coming hours -  "Mostly sunny this morning, followed by increasing clouds and a chance of a stray shower during the early evening hours." Or, as was quite often the case in the UK, "Rainy this morning, becoming showery later."

 I miss that. Now, of course, we have so much extraneous information that it's hard to see the torrents for the breeze. We go online to any one of several hundred thousand weather sites scattered about the interwebs, where we're regaled with endless charts, graphs and interactive radar images all showing you what the weather was like during the past hour. Want to know how many cloud to ground lightning strikes occurred this morning? No problem. Today's pollen count? Click here. Perhaps you'd like to see a time-lapse visual (courtesy of our very own radar with a cutesy name) where you can see the exact movement rain showers that popped up earlier this morning? Step right this way...

Given the  technology on display, you'd think that finding out whether or not you'll be needing your brolly during the coming afternoon hours would be a straightforward affair. Alas no. With eye-catching distractions like the Marine Forecast, Ragweed Report and the ubiquitous Tropical Update Designed To Scare The Crap Out Of You As Soon As It Gets Cloudy Over The Cape Verde Islands, the actual forecast can easily get lost in the haze (no sunny pun intended).

At work today, I spent a several minutes on a local news website trying to gauge the chances of rain this very afternoon, but instead came away armed only with stats concerning current visibility, wind speeds and assorted regional rainfall totals during the past 24 hours. On the weather page in question, the main graphic was an oversized map of our region, which might have been helpful if there had been something informative superimposed on it, like, "Rain is very likely here during the next 2 hours; bring an umbrella or your hairdo will be as flat as a fart within minutes" or even, "Not a cloud in the sky here; wear your sunscreen or perish, lobster boy." That's information I could definitely use. Instead, the map was plastered with a plethora of mostly identical numbers representing current local temperatures.

Whose idea was this? Has anyone embroiled in a Florida summer ever made a decision on whether or not to go outside based on the temperature? It's summer! You know full well that it's going to be between 88 and 92 degrees. Every. Bastard. Day. And every night it will be in the mid to high clammy 70s. Is anyone really interested in an occasional one-degree difference in the daytime high between towns five miles apart? What possible difference could it make? These numbers should all be replaced with a single line of copy over the map that simply says, "Miserably to unbearably hot and sticky until sometime in late October. Or maybe November."

So, I stumbled from tab to tab, passing on the Tide Times page because I've never once in my life wondered when low (or high) tide might occur in any locale I've ever been in. Similarly, I resisted clicking on the Sunset/Sunrise Calculator because the idea of entering the realm of mathematics to find out how dark or light it's going to be at various times of the day seems a little daft. I mean, if it's night it's going to be a little dark, and when day breaks it's going to be a little lighter isn't it?

Perplexed by this soggy information overload, I did something quite extraordinary. Taking a breather, I tore myself away from the computer, walked out into the lunch room and took a peek out of the window. A real window, with a view and everything.

It was raining.

Photo by Bob Hinchcliffe.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Shhh dear, don't cause a fuss. I'll have your spam; I love it!

People are so touchy when it comes to spam. Spammers are often spoken about in tones usually reserved for child pornographers and Taliban insurgents. Is it annoying to see dozens of daily e-mail teasers from insurance companies, dating services and pharmaceutical suppliers in your daily inbox? Of course it is. But it's way down on my list of annoyances and pet peeves.

Speaking of pet peeves, honey containers are rubbish aren't they? Actually, honey itself is rubbish too. God bless the bees and hives and the whole notion of it being nature's sweetener and all that. Just don't ask me to eat the bloody stuff. As my granddad used to say when remarking upon foods he didn't like, "Ugh, it gets in your mouth."

I actually quite like the taste of tea, so I wouldn't dream of putting any kind of sweetener in mine (natural or otherwise), but my wife insists on using honey in hers every morning, and since I'm generally the tea boy, I also have the chore of squeezing honey out of a bottle and into her mug. As many of you no doubt know, honey is deplorably sticky and and feels so grotesque on your fingers that you have to immediately run to the sink in a blind panic, soap up and wash your hands. I do this on a daily basis.

What I can't for the life of me figure out, is how the hell the honey always manages to repeatedly get on the outside of the container. It can be a freshly opened bottle, but by the next morning the whole exterior will be tacky to the touch. Even if you take it to the sink, lather it up with specially formulated anti-bacterial honey-eating soap and then dry it off completely, by the next morning the bottle will be honey-coated again. How can this be? Does it ooze its way through the plastic to spite us as we sleep? I ponder this on a daily basis. Seeing a spam-filled inbox pales in comparison, I can tell you.

Anyway, yes spam is decidedly tasteless, lowbrow and unnecessary, but then so is most of our reality TV-fueled celebrity worship culture. We don't hit the delete button enough on that, in my opinion. Quite the contrary really. They keep selling gossipy garbage to us because we keep buying it. Not only that, we actually go in search of it with our TV remote controls.

So, while it can get tedious sifting through your e-mail messages, not all junk mail and spam is useless. Oh no. Just today I discovered that just by mailing a cashier's check to a Mr Codogo in Namibia, I can stake my rightful claim on a sizable inheritance. Can't get that from the latest episode of Baby You Can Drive My Kardashian can you?

If that weren't enough, there's always the good old anti-impotence drug offers. You know, the ones that they even advertise on TV now, complete with outrageous and embarrassing disclaimers that you try to cough over when your children are within earshot. For a while there, they were showing an ad featuring a couple holding hands while sitting in separate bathtubs. On a cliff. I always thought this was the most barmy ad I'd ever seen. Thankfully, I haven't seen it for a while. Perhaps the drug company realised how bizarre it all was and surmised that if you and your wife are in the recreational habit of dragging bathtubs up onto a cliff, impotence might just be the least of your problems.

No, give me spam e-mails over Unreal Housewives and Celebrity Chef Food Fights any day. They're at least good for the occasional giggle. Why just this very afternoon, I was informed by way of a demographically targeted message that mature single ladies wanted to meet me. Not that funny by itself, but the next e-mail up was from a self-described cougar dating site, and I found the juxtaposition quite amusing. Who are they trying to set me up with? Betty White?

Now, that's entertainment.

Friday, August 03, 2012

NBC: Nicely Butchered Coverage

Yes, it's that time again: time for NBC to show us how inept they are at covering the Olympic Games.

This is not a rant against the usual jingoistic, flag-waving (stars and stripes only, please), USA-centric coverage of the games themselves; I'm used to that by now. I know that the average NBC Olympics viewer could be forgiven for not knowing that other countries also have national anthems, or that there are actually events other than gymnastics, swimming, and the Kerri Walsh-Jennings & Misty May-Treanor swimsuit parade in the Olympic line up.

No, I'm still a little peeved about the botch-job that they made of covering the opening ceremonies.  I can sort of understand NBC delaying the broadcast until prime-time, for ratings bragging rights; I can almost get past the insane number of intrusive commercial breaks that continually halted the flow of the show, but what I can't fathom is why they saw fit to edit out an entire sequence.

The sequence in question was widely perceived as a tribute to victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London in 2005. These attacks occurred the very day after London was awarded the 2012 games, and the 52 victims were among those memorialized in a poignant dance sequence set to the strains of "Abide with Me" performed by Scottish singer Emile Sande.  By all accounts, it was quite moving, and one would think a rather important part of the ceremony. But for some reason, NBC honchos felt that their US audience would be better served by splicing in a taped and tepid interview with Michael Phelps instead.

What? We missed the most sensitive part of the proceedings to watch Michael Phelps squirm and shrug his shoulders at the same old tired, inane questions again? Surely we'd be seeing enough of that during the coming 17 days or so? I can't imagine what their reasoning was. Was it somehow politically motivated? Like NBC, I have no clue. It certainly wasn't to give the three nitwit NBC presenters something more to do; after all, they were already busy yammering incessantly over much of the broadcast.

Actually, when I think about it, the trigger-happy TV presenters might have been the real low point of the broadcast. Losing the memorial tribute section was, after all, achieved by way of a swift editorial scissor snip, and much of the US viewership was none the wiser. In contrast, the wince-inducing commentary from the boorish Bob Costas, the comfortably smug Matt Lauer and the completely batty Meredith Vieira cast a pall on the entire programme.

During the National Healthcare tribute segment, Vieira was heard to utter, "Quite frankly, none of these children look really sick to me," which although a bit of a head-scratcher, still wasn't the kind of wtf moment that occurred with her use of the term money shot while referring to the Queen. I know the editors were busy engineering the coverage to suit what they perceive to be American tastes, but you'd think that since this was a delayed broadcast, someone would have thought to put those censor's scissors to good use here.

I suppose you could forgive Ms.Vieira for not being familiar with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, although her eagerness to admit it just as he was being featured in the ceremony came across as a little cavalier ("If you haven't heard of him, we haven't either.") and certainly the irony of Matt Lauer's response, "Google him" is giggle-worthy, but the fact that she later saw fit to actually impose herself on the musical soundtrack by singing along with karaoke-like aplomb to the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" for a few bars was painful, and well, unforgivable.

Not to be outdone, Lauer's schoolboy-insightful commentary included such zingers as, "Djibouti's name sounds funny!" and "Madagascar - for our younger viewers, a country associated with a few animated movies." Wow. Sounds like he really did his homework.

The unbearably glib and condescending Bob Costas, is of course, an Olympics veteran and should know better. Actually, when I think about it, he does know better -  he knows better than almost anyone how to routinely belittle and marginalize an entire nation with a smarmy, xenophobic quip. Political failings? Budgetary crises? Lack of international sporting success? It's all fair game for Bob. 

 He demonstrated this ably during the parade of nations part of the broadcast. As the athletes entered the stadium, his commentary veered between patronizing and mean-spirited, and made for uncomfortable viewing. Botswana, for example, simply merited a mention as a country whose basketball team was crushed by the US "Dream Team" in 1992 by over 40 points, while Egypt's political climate was referenced with a condescending comment about the country being in "a transition of some sort," adding, "From military dictatorship to Jeffersonian democracy? Not quite." 

His dismissive barb about Australia being "originally founded as a penal colony" was simply lazy and irkesome, but the dismissive "Not a country I would be visiting soon" comment aimed at the North Korean contingent was totally unnecessary, and by the time the Ugandan athletes entered the stadium and Costas actually saw fit to reference Idi Amin, the ex-Ugandan dictator/mass murderer, I broke out in cold sweat and had to throw in the towel. 

Oh well, looking on the bright side - we've got another 4 years before we have to endure the NBC's own broadcasting dream team treating us to assorted vapid factoids about Carnival, and (Brazilian bikini) waxing about life in the slums of Rio. Can't wait. 

NBC: No Bloody Clue.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

All that glitters...

I'd come back if only you'd let me in
I'd be there without warning
Bring back pennies, steam trains and Slade Alive!
I'd be there by the morning

Wonder if I'll ever manage to release a collection of songs without inserting all manner of lyrical allusions to trains and glam-rock bands of the 70s?

Probably not. The fixation with trains is a given, really. My grandfather worked on the railways for over thirty years; my dad was an avid trainspotter as a kid, and his older brother was a train driver, so I suppose it's in the blood a bit.

As far as sparkly glam-rock goes, well, I grew up with the stuff didn't I? Not that I could ever sound remotely like Noddy Holder, of course. Who could?* It's just that along with Marc Bolan's T.Rex, Slade were such a big part of the soundtrack of my youth that during any nostalgic flashbacks I happen to have, they're nearly always playing in the background.

Speaking of T.Rex, they were equally massive for me. When I got my first electric guitar as a Christmas present in the early 70s, I attempted to glue silvery glitter to the front of it so I could look like Marc. As I once noted in Lucky 7 (another one of my overly nostalgic musical meanderings), "Blame it on T.Rex, blame it on Slade, blame it on the 45s The Shadows made, but I was miles away". I was Miles away alright; I was utterly convinced that I looked wickedly cool with my glittery guitar as I worked on my lip-synching skills in front of the hallway mirror. I'm sure that in reality, I looked a complete prat.

Given my somewhat glittery roots, I suppose it's funny that the music that I now make is about as un-glam as anything out there. I mean, glam was all about riotous sparkle and making a spectacle of oneself, usually while wearing towering platform boots (sorry, no photographic evidence remains, thanks for asking). In contrast, my drippy, confessional singer-songwritery posturings appear more sullen than sparkling; more prone to moribund reflection rather than youthful riot. In short, I'm a bit of a dull fucker. A staid and stodgy old geezer (feel free to interrupt...) 

And platform boots? That's a laugh; I get vertigo from air-cushioned running shoes. Oh well, at least there is still the occasional glistening flash of silver about my person whenever I set foot on the lighted stage. Of course, it's not on my guitar these days; it's on my head, but let's not split gray hairs.

*Anyone caught offering up the name Kevin DuBrow ( of Quiet Riot fame) will be excused and promptly ordered to don dunce cap and hairshirt, and go and sit in the corner.

Friday, April 20, 2012

RIP Levon Helm

A lovely man, and one of the great voices ever. Watching and listening to this clip makes me sad and jubilant at the same time. What an amazing talent. 

Back in the mid-80s, my old band, The Headlights opened a show for The Band, and Levon was late for the show for some reason. A roadie filled in for the first few songs, and when Levon finally arrived at the venue, he slipped onstage and with a big smile, deftly took over in midsong. He made it look so effortless. He always did though, didn't he?

Man, this one hurts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Richard Thompson, w/ special guests Steve Robinson & Ed Woltil - Tampa Theater, Friday, Feb 3rd.

I love this theatre. It's gaudy and beautiful at the same time. A bit like my adopted homeland, you might say. You might. I wouldn't, of course; might come across a trifle haughty and judgmental. A bit like the old country, you might say. You might. I wouldn't, of course; it might appear fickle and ungrateful. A bit like the French.

Jesting of course. I don't have anything against France, or any other nation come to that (except Argentina, of course). Sometimes you just have to have a laugh don't you? Joie de vivre and all that.

What the hell am I talking about? I have to wonder sometimes. What I should be talking about is the upcoming show with the legendary Richard Thompson this coming Friday. My musical comrade of Dutch extraction, Ed Woltil, and I are huge RT fans and we're both well chuffed to be opening the show. 

The doors open at 7 pm and Ed and I go on at 8. We'll be playing a selection of songs from our upcoming Sunshine Drenchy CD release, Cycle, and then settling in to enjoy a set from one of our musical heroes.  Should be a lovely evening. 

Hope they move that big organ from the stage though. Looks a bit intimidating to me. A bit like Germany.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Love is real...

...and sometimes it's really complicated, messy and ragged, often taking a long time to mature. A bit like songs, I suppose.

The chords and melody of this song were married back in the early 80s. I was still living in England at the time and had inherited an old upright piano that I used to plonk away on, gamely trying to figure out how to play Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again, Naturally. (Yes, I've always been quite the hipster.)

Love is Real was the first original song that I came up with on the piano. Now, if that were entirely true, I might be quite proud of myself. As it happens, I cringe with embarrassment whenever I recall the original lyrics I came up with. Mercifully, I've blocked out many of them, but I do remember that the working title was "After All", with the chorus being built around the woeful phrase - "Love's not all ... after all". Ugh.

Yes, it was all written from the dour point of view of a lover spurned and giving up on the idea of real love. It wouldn't be so bad if it had been based on a real life experience, and I was simply venting or expressing true sorrow. Alas, I rather think it was merely a half-arsed, self-indulgent exercise in dopey doe-eyed singer-songwritery. Even then, I must have known it was crap, because it sat untouched for some 25 years or so.

Truth be told, I was always quite fond of the melody and the chord progression, and thought it had potential, and I'd long intended to rescue it from the scrap heap and write some new lyrics for it. As it turned out, it took me until 2006 to actually get around to it. Talk about a lazy songwriter!

As it happened, I'd been working on a bunch of songs that would ultimately surface on the Undercurrent CD, and for grits and shins, I decided to record a snippet of After All (Ugh) to see if it inspired anything. Like I often do when coming up with lyrics, I set up the vocal mic and sang stream of consciousness-type gibberish over the recorded instrumental track in the hope that something remotely usable might pop out.

This process can be alternately funny, frustrating, fruitful, futile, and various other terms sometimes beginning with "f". It can also be particularly harrowing for anyone in the vicinity who overhears what you're doing. Since I record at home and I live in a small house, my family has to endure such indignities on a regular basis.

Sometimes, the noises made aren't even real words; they're just noises (a bit like a Geordie accent, really*) that act as a sort of placeholder for the lyrics when (and if) they finally come to you. Other times, phrases that have no business being anywhere close to a song tumble out from Lord-knows-where and make you question your own sanity. Once in a while though, you'll vomit up a line that excites you, and you realise that you can build a song around it. Some might consider it profound and poetic; others may find it closer to peurile or pathetic (and various other terms beginning with "p") but, it hardly matters. When that moment of recognition happens to you, and the words actually please you, it can be exhilarating. And it keeps you coming back for more.

In this instance (please excuse the soul baring here - I'm cringing, if that helps) the rather daft, and certainly cringe-worthy phrase - "Hide behind the corner, hide behind that tree" tumbled out of my mouth. (Ugh.) But, before I had the chance to roll my eyes in disgust, the line - "You'll find love is real" had tumbled out of mouth and plopped into my lap, and I thought - Love is Real, there's your song, dear boy.

So, all the other lyrical snippets (including any and all mystifying tree references) were stripped away and all I had to do was piece together the rest of the song around that phrase. Just like that, it went from a whiny 'love is nothing but a pain in the arse' lament, to an exulting 'love is everything' lullaby.

Like I said, whether it's good, bad or mediocre, hardly matters, really. For me, the process is just so thrilling. Sometimes they take days to blossom; sometimes they take decades, and sometimes they don't flower at all. I really don't understand how songs happen, or for that matter why I've suddenly taken to using flowery metaphors. What I do know is that I'm just grateful for every little brush against the beautiful mystery that is songwriting.

What does any of this have to do with the old film clip from "The Sealed Room" that I snared for this little video? I'm buggered if I know, although on reflection, a sealed room might be perfect for any future songwriting brainstorming sessions. It's certainly be appreciated by my poor family and neighbours. Nah, I'm just a sucker for these old silent films. This one features a minstrel who looks like he just stepped out of an old Monty Python sketch. Good enough for me.

* No offence intended to Tynesiders; I've recently been immersed in Steve Coogan's "I'm Alan Partridge" TV series and it's rubbing off on me I'm afraid.