Thursday, 17 August 2017

David Bowie

Oliver James
ISBN 978-1-7822049-0-9 Softcover. 192 pp.

This is a tale of two half-brothers. One of them, Terry, became schizophrenic and committed suicide. The other, David, reinvented himself and became one of the biggest rock stars of the last fifty years. There was a history of mental illness in the family – three maternal aunts also went mad – and a toxic legacy of shared childhood from which David emerged as the favoured son and Terry as the emotionally neglected sibling.

James’s book is part psychobiography and part self-help manual. The author is a practising therapist and a firm believer in ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’. Genes play little part in determining who we are, he says: childhood adversity causes psychosis, not genes. Believing his family cursed by madness, Bowie avoided the same fate for himself by inventing ‘personas’ – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke – and playing them out on the public stage until he reached a state of psychic equilibrium in midlife and made peace with himself. This is a model, James argues, for how we can all develop a dialogue between different parts of the self and reintegrate them, producing new personas and pushing old ones into the background.

James began writing his book before Bowie’s untimely death in 2016, so he cannot be accused of ‘cashing in’. He traces effectively how Terry’s experiences surface in his brother’s lyrics and how personas, Ziggy in particular, enabled ‘David Bowie’ (another assumed identity) to reconnect with David Jones (his birth name). I was less convinced by James’s efforts to turn Bowie’s psychodrama into everyone’s struggle to keep it together. Many of us find something to identify with in Bowie – be it the sense of alienation, the gender-variance, the self-questioning, the restless need like the whale shark’s to keep swimming in order to stay alive. But there was only one Ziggy.

[First published in RnR

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Laura Nyro

Revisiting Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968)

There was soul, gospel, Brill Building pop, Motown, doo-wop, the jazz of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, a touch of Broadway, even a hint of opera. It was a frantic synthesis of so many of the styles I was coming to appreciate. I never expected to find them together in one place, and the mystery was compounded when I found them in someone about as far removed from my nerdy suburban self as it was possible to get. Laura Nyro was a feisty Italian-American from the Bronx, of mixed Jewish-Catholic background. But it is to her that I owe my lifelong passion for women singer-songwriters.

I’d probably encountered her before without even realising it. Her earliest songs were picked up by other artists. I remember Pan’s People on Top Of The Pops, a vision in white polyester, applying their painfully literal choreography to ‘Wedding Bell Blues’, a hit for The 5th Dimension in 1969. Then an older brother bought The Rock Machine I Love You, a CBS sampler that included ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’, and I had my first exposure to Nyro’s own voice. Alternately soothing and shrill, ranging unfettered over several octaves, it was not quite of this world. Of course, I had to have the album from which this track was drawn.  

Nothing, I discovered, about Eli And The Thirteenth Confession was conventional. Famously, the original US pressing used perfumed ink on the lyric sheet, enabling Nyro’s college fans to identify each other by smelling its lingering aroma in each other’s dorms. No such luck with my UK copy. And some olfactory prompts would have been useful, for I never met anyone else who shared my taste, or even knew how to pronounce her name correctly (think “Nero”, like the Roman emperor).

The lyrics were obscure but poetic (“Silver was the colour | Winter was a snowbell | Mother of the windboys | Livin’ off the lovewell”). Sometimes she just made words up: “Surry down to a stoned soul picnic”. Humpty Dumpty tells Lewis Carroll’s Alice that words mean whatever he chooses them to mean: this seemed to be Nyro’s position likewise. I envied her for getting away with it. At other times a line of pellucid simplicity would jump out at you: “Emily, you ornament the earth | For me”. Her world was peopled by larger-than-life characters, God, the Devil, someone she called ‘The Captain’. Later in life, her music loosened up (to its detriment, in my view) and she’d refer to this early work as “a little crazy”, but to a young man ill at ease in his own skin it was a revelation.

There were celebrations of alcohol (‘Sweet Blindness’) and a cautionary tale about drug abuse (‘Poverty Train’). I suspected that the concerted whole was a song-cycle about coming of age. For a teenage boy grappling with the “facts of life”, she seemed to allude to dark secrets. The invitation on the final track to “super ride inside my lovething” was the most explicit proposal I was likely to hear all year. Present throughout was an inescapable theme of neediness, of dependence on a man, but on first exposure my antennae were barely attuned to other hints in the lyrics. When Nyro's bisexuality was finally confirmed in the obituaries, there were murmurs of “I told you so” as fans looked back to ‘Emmie’, a track on this early album infused with a near-romantic intensity.

Released in March 1968, when she was only twenty, Eli is a work of astonishing maturity. Later, as I learned more about her, I understood that the artistry went even deeper than I’d realised. Having transferred from her original label and won the support of David Geffen, she was given unprecedented creative control by Columbia. The careful sequencing of tracks across the two sides of the LP was hers. She insisted on accompanying herself on piano at a time when girls were supposed to be singers, not instrumentalists. The abrupt tempo changes and weird jazz voicings of her piano style were left unregulated. It would fall to others to make her songs hits by smoothing out their contours, simplifying the harmony – Nyro stuck to her guns.

What I realise now – but barely intuited at the time – is that this album lies at a cusp of Sixties music, a time when women were transitioning from singer with the band or soloist performing songs written by professional (usually male) songwriters to the empowered singer-songwriter figure who emerges at the end of the decade. We think of Carole King, and Joni Mitchell. But it’s no accident that Laura Nyro is the only female songwriter that Joni Mitchell namechecks with reverence.

She did one concert on British television, in 1971. Somehow I missed that – probably doing my homework – which is a crying shame, as the BBC, with customary disregard for my feelings, has since wiped all but seventeen seconds of the video master. I never did get to see her live. Alas, she died of ovarian cancer in 1997, but she lives on inside me and inside all those whose lives she has touched.

First published in R2 (Rock'n'Reel)

Monday, 23 January 2017

John Lennon in Bermuda

Scott Neil and Graham Foster
ISBN 978-1927750-02-5 Softcover. 120 pp.

The summer before his death, John Lennon hired a 43-foot yacht and, with a small crew, sailed to Bermuda for a little R&R. Arriving after a storm-tossed passage, he rented a house on the island and reconnected with his muse. The result was his final album, Double Fantasy, named after a freesia he spotted on a visit to the local botanical gardens.

It’s hard to believe there’s any cranny of Lennon’s life that hasn’t been picked over, but journalist Scott Neil has found one of the less-explored and tracked down those he met in Bermuda. The Lennon recalled by islanders was not the self-obsessed star they expected. He was polite, laid-back, into healthy eating and clean living. A generous, companionable man who returned favours and remembered kindnesses shown him. After five years out of the limelight, he relished going incognito as ‘John Greene’ and rewarded those who respected his privacy.

The book’s style is a little feverish at the outset, as the “former Beatle” battles crashing waves, alone at the helm against a “storm of Shakespearean proportions”. But once the prose settles down, the story is well-told and the reminiscences deftly woven into a highly readable narrative. It’s a tale about negotiating celebrity and finding the quietude to write. Songs like ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Watching The Wheels’ – Neil shows how both were inspired by events in Bermuda – may not be Lennon’s greatest but they fulfil his aim of writing for people of his own age group.

The sensitive artwork is by Bermudian artist Graham Foster, who also designed the memorial sculpture to Lennon in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens. Best of all are the scattered photos of the singer, some with son Sean in tow. He looks relaxed, like a man ‘starting over’ (another song-title), blissfully unaware of what lay ahead.

First published in R2 (Rock'n'Reel)