Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Low Fidelity

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity brought into very sharp focus the fact that chaps of a certain tendency take inordinate pleasure in ranking things in lists. In the book - and Stephen Frears' excellent, John Cusack-fronted film adaptation of it - protagonist Rob augments the apparent boredom of running his own record shop by compiling lists, such as:

  • Most Memorable Break-Ups [in chronological order]
  • Top 5 Films (a predictable but nonetheless endorsable parade of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs)
  • Top 5 Subtitled Films
  • Top Five Elvis Costello Songs
  • And, for the vinyl-obsessive - Top Five Best Side One, Track Ones - Janie Jones (from The Clash), Thunder Road (Born To Run), Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nevermind), Let's Get It On (Let's Get It On) and Return of the Grievous Angel (Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel).

I once worked around the corner from an actual record shop in Islington run by a Rob. At the time, I was also working with a bunch of Robs. I was a Rob. We'd spend entire lunchtimes in pubs inconsequentially discussing unimportant items such as the relative merits of Scritti Politti's first and second albums and whether or not Haircut 100 were the new Beatles (they weren't, by the way).

Most Robs have now grown up and become respectable fathers, husbands - regular folk. Regular Robs: the kind of people who appreciate the lyric of Pink Floyd's Time: "And then one day you find/Ten years have got behind you/No one told you when to run/You missed the starting gun." The kind who find being English, middle-aged and melancholy are, apparently, part-and-parcel.

This week sees the 20th anniversary of Nirvana releasing Nevermind, an album whose perceived importance in the history of rock music meant that it - or at least its opening track - was, unsurprisingly, mentioned in one of Rob's lists.

The anniversary is being marked by being re-released as both a 'Deluxe Edition' and a 'Super Deluxe Edition', packaged by record company marketeers to add a few unreleased bits and pieces to one package, and even more bits and pieces to the other.

The album in its original form was fine. Adding in a pile of DVDs, bootlegs and outtakes doesn't really add anything, unless you are a Rob who has grown up to have a respectable job and a mortgage on a house with space for such paraphernalia.

So in the same week we read that EMI is re-releasing everything Pink Floyd ever released - on vinyl and amongst an eye-boggling array of formats, box sets and even - gasp - downloads. Same exercise - let's exploit the forty/fifty/sixtysomething's appetite for nostalgia while pulling in the completists who would probably buy up David Gilmour's broken guitar strings (or any other personal refuse, come to think if it) if it could be endorsed and sold.

Such gripes aside, are any of these exercises in repackage marketing worth it? For now, I'll spare you treatise on the Floyd releases, but will happily say that Nevermind was - is - a good album. Now regarded as the standard bearer of grunge, it's release on September 24, 1991 did for the so-called 'alt rock' movement what the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks had done for punk in 1976 - and with an eerily similar title. Neither are exactly the best albums of their respective ilk, but they carried important flags.

Thanks to its riff-heavy opener (Smells Like Teen Spirit successfully replaced Smoke On The Water - until Seven Nation Army came along - as the only song you would ever hear coming out of a guitar shop on a Saturday afternoon), Nevermind became the most talked-about album of the year...and perhaps the following decade, playing a leading role in blowing away the poodle-haired cock-rock and over-produced, lip-glossed and gelled-up pop of the late eighties.

But as with all these things, Nevermind didn't change as much as musos might think it did. Punk was the same: three years after the Pistols broke through, Pink Floyd released The Wall, as bloated an anti-punk record as there could ever wish to be. Three years after Nevermind, Nirvana came to a bloody end as Kurt Cobain became another successful applicant to the 27 Club (founding member, Robert Johnson, most recent admission, Amy Winehouse).

One of the problems with the Robs of this world is that once they arrive at convention, it's hard to break that convention loose. Nevermind is a good album, but like an unelected hereditary peer, it seems to guarantee permanent place in the upper reaches of many a Rob's Top 10 list.

Such lists, The Word (and former Smash Hits and Q) editor Mark Ellen told The Independent in 2007, have become predictable. "The list I can stand the least is the 100 greatest albums of all time. It makes my blood boil, I know what they're going to be," and lists Revolver by The Beatles, Radiohead's OK Computer and, of course, Nevermind. "It's utterly meaningless," Ellen added. "There's a vast orthodoxy that has built up around rock music where there is a consensus view of what is officially recognised as being classic."

And he's right: one Rob's Top 10 should be as individual as the next Rob's list. Because if all the Robs agree with each other on Top 10 lists, there would be nothing for them to talk about.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Criminal records

The opportunity to board a plane and put distance between myself and life's current rich pageant has given occasion to tick off a few more items on the bucket list, including a maiden visit to New Orleans. Three years ago, when I was last in the South, I passed up the opportunity to add The Big Easy to my itinerary on the grounds that the city probably needed leaving alone while it continued its clean-up from Hurricane Katrina.

Now fully shipshape and Bristol fashion, New Orleans is open for business again and to accompany the journey there, Mr Jobs' digital jukebox has been playing Let Them Talk, the debut album from Hugh Laurie. Yes, that High Laurie. Worldwide audiences now know him as curmudgeonly doctor Gregory House, while us Brits still think of him as a combination of goggle-eyed Prince George/Lieutenant George in Blackadder, goggle-eyed Bertie Wooster and...er...goggle-eyed Hugh Laurie with Stephen Fry in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie.

Like a trail of offal left behind by a particularly vicious wild animal attack, musical history is littered with ill-advised examples of actors cashing in on incumbent fame by stepping into the recording studio. Let Them Talk, thankfully, is an earnest and half-decent homage to New Orleans and its music. Recorded partly in New Orleans itself - and with a title of admirable belligerence towards those who might sniff at Laurie's indulgence - the album finds the actor singing and piano-playing his way through a collection of original and vintage songs.

Laurie also collaborates with New Orleans natives like Dr. John, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint, as well as Tom Jones, who comes from Wales but has spent his entire musical career singing like he was born a few thousand miles to the south-west of the coal mines he grew up amongst.

Let Them Talk is not perfect, but Laurie is earnestly transparent in his admission that it is a celebration of his love of the Louisiana chapter of the American roots songbook. "I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s," he says. "I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there’s no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south."

He's not the first white, middle-class Englishman to have done this - as the British blues boom of the mid-1960s will testify. Nor is Laurie the first actor to swap scripts for songsheets to venture forth into the recording studio. Some have been very worthy efforts: Juliette Lewis, for example, has forged a very successful career in both acting and music, forming the punkish Juliette and the Licks and, more recently, The New Romantiques. Likewise Jennifer Lopez, whose excellent turn in Out Of Sight with George Clooney included one of the sexiest bits of cinematic flirtation since Lauren Bacall asked Bogart if he knew how to whistle.

Some - no, sorry, most - actor-turned-singer efforts have, however, been shockingly bad vanity projects: Exhibit A, without hesitation, is William Shatner's bizarre Transformed Man, one of several albums in which the tubby space captain speaks his way through cover versions, including a mesmerisingly terrible Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. You Tube it. Clearly there was something in the water in the late 1960s as Richard Harris also committed himself to record with his cover of Macarthur Park. If only it had been intentionally tongue-in-cheek, such as Peter Sellers' brilliant reinterpretation of A Hard Days Nightperformed as Laurence Olivier playing Richard III.

In 1968 a young Joe Pesci - yes, he of the seriously psychotic turn in Goodfellas ("You think I'm funny?") - recorded a mainstream album called Little Joe Sure Can Sing. The record included another Beatles cover, a creditable working of Got To Get You Into My Life, with Pesci sounding a lot like Neil Sedaka. We will gloss over Pesci's follow-up record, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, which was made 30 years later to cash in on his role in My Cousin Vinny. It featured a rap song, Wise Guy. 'Nuff said.

The actor-turned-musician oeuvre contains plenty more nightmares: David Hasselhoff's leather trouser-clad rock superstar status in Germany may say more about German musical taste - or lack of - but then I did once willingly own a copy of Bruce Willis' horrendous ego trip The Return Of Bruno. Exploiting his smirk-laden Moonlighting fame, Willis rattled through a bar-room covers roster of soul standards - including The Staple Singers' Respect Yourself, which even troubled the charts. Luckily, that was his only record. Shame Don Johnson didn't stop at one: he not only made two (awful, over-produced 80s schlock) but even had the nerve to release a greatest hits compilation based on his two-record canon called, laughingly, The Essential.

Of course there are many examples of pop stars going in the other direction: Elvis Presley made 31 movies which, though mostly dreadful teen fluff vehicles for either staged song sequences or driving cars very fast against a studio backdrop, still made more than $150 million at the box office. Then there are Mick Jagger's turns in Nic Roeg's Performance and in Freejack, Meatloaf has had quite an extensive film and television career, and Phil Collins, who had been a child actor, turned up in Miami Vice and starred in Buster - to name but a few. And, of course, Mr Bowie - the cracked actor himself - has a long list of film appearances, including The Man Who Fell To Earth, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and, most recently, The Prestige.

But to return to actors making records, and indeed to the current roadtrip, one more item on the bucket list has been to finally watch Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges stars as washed-up country singer-songwriter Bad Blake, whose career has descended into a permanent haze of whiskey fumes as he drinks and drives his way from low-rent bar gig to low-rent bar in a battered old Chevy Suburban, chalking up marriages like frequent flyer miles.

Blake - an apparent amalgam of various real country performers including Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson (whom Bridges uncannily resembles) - calls into Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he falls romantically for single mother and journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Vowing to get himself clean, sober, he attempts to pull his career back up to earn decent money in an effort to hold on to his relationship with Jean and her son.

It's all enjoyably bittersweet stuff, and Bridges turns in another fine performance, well worthy of the 2010 Oscar he won for it. Bridges also performs all of Bad Blake's songs himself, a reflection of his real-life talent as a pianist and guitar player.

Bridges has just released his second album, the eponymous Jeff Bridges, having been signed this year to the legendary Blue Note Records. The album of country songs reunites Bridges with T-Bone Burnett, the American roots music producer behind the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss hit Raising Sand, BB King's excellent One Kind Favor, and the soundtracks to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, Jeff Bridges is very good, if you like country, and while it's unlikely to bother the Grammies, it is certainly authentic, well intended and the product of an actor who actually can sing. As opposed to an actor who only thinks he can...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Out of ammo, God save the King

It's a cold, crisp but vividly sunny Sunday morning in November. Hatted, gloved and generally protected against the elements of the early Dutch winter, I'm walking amongst the dead.

Around me are the graves of soldiers. Captains lie next to privates, enlisted alongside conscripted, boys and men. All are casualties of one of the bravest, and yet most ill-judged operations of the Second World War, the Battle of Arnhem.

Known now as much for Richard Attenborough's star-studded 1977 film A Bridge Too Far, it erupted 66 years ago today on Sunday, September 17, 1944, when thousands of British troops landed by parachute and gliders into the fields north-west of Arnhem in the Netherlands.

The Arnhem mission was the final element of Operation Market Garden, a bold attempt to capture the bridges over the rivers Waal, Maas and Rhine, which would enable the Allies to push into Germany and end the war by Christmas. By the beginning of September 1944, Allied confidence was high: they had successfully invaded France on D-Day in June and then broken out of Normandy to liberate Paris and Brussels in the space of two months. Confidence was high, and General Bernard Montgomery, the enigmatic British military hero of the North African campaign, ambitiously devised Market Garden with the view that its penetration of Germany would make as good progress as the Allies had made from the beaches.

Market Garden's success relied on the deployment of over 30,000 airborne troops - many behind German lines - to take the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen as well as Arnhem, the furthest of the three. Intelligence reports had suggested that German tanks were hidden around Arnhem, but the British command - under political pressure to prosecute the mission - dismissed the information, infamously predicting that German opposition would be light - "old men and boys on bicycles". It was to prove to be anything but.

On the morning of the 17th, 2000 transport planes and gliders took off from England, laden with troops, vehicles and armour. Paratroopers of the British 1st Airborne Division landed just north-west of Arnhem, at Oosterbeek, from where they started for their main objective - the distinct arched bridge across the Rhine. The idea was to hold the bridge until tanks of the British XXX [30] Corps - commanded by the colourful General Brian Horrocks - arrived to shore up the crossing. However, logistics and German resistance along the road from Eindhoven slowed Horrocks' progress. Outside Arnhem, the Airborne troops encountered resolute German defence - far tougher than had been expected - taking casualties as well as German prisoners. Into the bargain, the British found that a large proportion of their radio equipment was either faulty or had perished in the glider landings.

Eventually, a Parachute Regiment force led by Lt. Colonel John Frost reached Arnhem and took up position at the northern end of the bridge. Although the Germans had been genuinely caught short by the Allied attack, the German area commander Field Marshall Walter Model mobilised the 2nd SS Panzer Corps under the battle-hardened General Wilhelm Bittrich. Armed with the latest, factory-fresh tanks and armour, Bittrich unleashed an astonishing barrage on the town of Arnhem in an attempt to demoralise and flush out Frost's troops. Over the next few days, the British Paras fought on bravely - sometimes with just their bayonets - but dwindling in number as casualties mounted up. Further down the road, the XXX Corps tanks were making slow, difficult progress from Nijmegen.

By the Thursday morning those who were left - the injured and those who had volunteered to fight on to protect the injured - were taken prisoner. A final message - transmitted by one of the few working radios in British possession - said, simply: "Out of ammo, God save the King". Arnhem had become a bridge too far.

Although some 2500 Paras managed to get out of Arnhem, 1500 were killed and a further 6000 taken prisoner, including Frost. Today the bridge over the Rhine  at Arnhem is named the John Frostbrug in tribute to the plucky British colonel who, with his huntsman's horn, gathered his troops with rifles and machine guns to take on some of the most powerful weapons in the German army, commanded not by old men and boys, but by elite soldiers.

War stories have a habit of celebrating heroism and triumphalism. The story of Operation Market Garden is certainly about heroic bravery, but also of epic military arrogance. Rather than shorten the war, it probably extended it: by December 1944, Hitler felt suitably confident to sanction the so-called 'Battle of the Bulge', the surprise counter-attack through the forests of the Ardennes in Belgium, leading to a miserable winter of terrible attrition which could, so easily, have reversed all the progress made since D-Day.

The Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Oosterbeek contains the final resting places of almost 1800 casualties of the battle for Arnhem. Walking along the well-tended rows of headstones, there is an eerie calm around the woods where the cemetery is located. It is also provides a fascinating snapshot of the sacrifice made by soldiers of both sides. The graves bear ages - 17, 20, 21, 25, 30 - and English, Welsh and Polish names, the occasional Star of David, as well as every conceivable rank and duty from officers to glider pilots, cooks to medical orderlies. Significantly, they also bear the dates - September 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25, 1944.

Operation Market Garden, in total, cost the lives of several thousand Allied soldiers and a large but undetermined number of German troops. More than 500 Dutch locals were killed in the fighting. The Dutch population paid a terrible price in the winter that followed, as they were deprived of food. But their appreciation of the doomed but brave effort of the Allies to capture the bridge at Arnhem and shorten the war in the process continues to be recognised even today. Every year local children from the Arnhem and Oosterbeek area join the few remaining veterans of the 1st British Airborne  to lay flowers at the cemetary. As World War 2 - and its survivors - disappears further into history, it's a genuine and heartwarming gesture of remembrance. Remembrance of an episode in military history some might prefer to forget.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Insomnia at the Dream Factory

Hollywood has, apparently, run out of ideas. Really. A visit to your local multiplex over the next year or two is likely to be a horrendous case of déjà vu as remakes of Footloose, Point Break and (it is rumoured) even a 3D retread of Top Gun appear to underline the current depth of the film industry's creative profligacy.

I'm not, however, knocking the prospect of an eager young director attempting to breathe new life into an old story: Chris Nolan's Batman reboots have been amongst the best movies made in the last 20 years, but haven't attempted to remake, script-for-script any of the Dark Knight's previous celluloid outings. Sequels and prequels are also fine, if they add to a story arc. But what good could possibly come from redoing Footloose, a dreadful Kevin Bacon vehicle to start with, made worse by Kenny Loggins' theme song?

"Beyond improvement" may be superlative praise in other application, but in the case of Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow's FBI-meets-surfing-parachutists heist caper, which starred Keanu Reeves at full width of his legendary acting range, improvement would be beyond hope. There is worse to come with Colin Farrell taking on the Arnold Schwarzenegger role in Total Recall. While most of us would see the benefit of a thespian upgrade to the original, do we really need it?

Like endless sequels of Die Hard (run for the hills - a fifth is coming), Terminator (another rumoured - possibly featuring Arnie as an angry cyborg from the future hunting down divorce lawyers) and, yawn, another Beverly Hills Cop, there must be a slew of thirtysomething producers who clearly had their heads buried in Sesame Street during the 80s. Have they simply failed to notice these films have already had their time? Why else are we likely to see Red Dawn being remade with the Russian invasion of the original's premise replaced by Chinese soldiers landing on American soil.

The mainstream film industry long ago stopped being anything of any wholesale artistic integrity. Today it's just another FMCG business. Focus groups and demographics determine content and drive the mass production of sequels, franchises and the inexplicable rise of 3D, a medium no one - as far as I recall - asked for, and yet no visit to the multiplex today is complete without being handed a pair of imitation Wayfarers to enjoy the "enhanced reality".

“The studios have lost their nerve,” a senior movie executive told The Times this week. “There’s original writing out there. What’s lacking is the balls to give it a chance. That’s why you’re being fed sequels, superheroes and remakes.”

Some of this commercial risk aversion isn't particularly new, of course. The so-called 'Golden Age' of cinema was all about exploiting the box office pull of marquee names. But like so many aspects of the entertainment industry, creativity is being usurped by homogenous predictability. I know mainstream cinema subsidies more interesting, eclectic filmmaking; I understand that for films of the quality of The Godfather, Schindler's List, Apolcalypse Now! and Taxi Driver to be made we also need Pirates Of The Caribbean and its brethren to fund them. But how long can a cash cow be milked?

This brings me neatly to yet another home video release from the Star Wars series: when junior school resumed for the Autumn term in early September 1977, the classroom chatter was dominated by how many times everyone had seen Star Wars over the previous six weeks.

Long before we were overloaded with convoluted back stories, CGI-infested prequels and the revelation that the first three films were actually the last three, we had an entertaining movie. Star Wars quite unashamedly nodded to the swashbuckling Saturday morning matinees of George Lucas' youth, coupled with Second World War epics like Guy Hamilton's Battle of Britain. It introduced us to the surround sound experience, with the famous opening scene - now used excessively in science fiction - of a large, rumbling Imperial battlecruiser filling the frame from, apparently, behind the viewer. It was an incredible experience.

In 1977 there was no mention of "A New Hope", The Empire Strikes Back or Return Of The Jedi. But just after the first sequel appeared, the new medium of home video started to take off, and all of a sudden, Star Wars became Episode IV: A New Hope. In the years since, the original three films have been re-released theatrically, on VHS, on LaserDisc (technology dear old Philips first developed in 1969) and on DVD a number of times.

Now, as if our video shelves don't have enough copies of the whole sequence, not to mention all the other paraphernalia and Lego we've been peddled over the last 34 years - the inevitable Blu-ray Disc box set is being released today - Star Wars: The Complete Saga.

Blu-ray, perhaps the final suck at the optical disc teat, has given Hollywood a vital lifeline to plunging home entertainment sales. Those truly fussed by the additional quality the medium offers, have embraced the medium enthusiastically. But with online movie distribution clearly the way forward - offering both HD quality and the convenience of not having to find shelf space for all those movies you buy but only watch once - Blu-ray is likely to be the last instalment of a movie franchise in its own right.

I'm sure Blu-ray releases of the Star Wars sextet will be hugely popular. I'm sure the HD picture quality will be spectacular, perhaps to the extent where the viewer pays more attention to the cinematography than the wooden script of The Phantom Menace. I'm sure the 6.1 DTS sound will add crispness to Ewan McGregor's scenery-chewing dialogue in Episodes I-through-III.

But, knowingly drawing accusations of being an old fart for saying this, nothing can recreate the first time that spaceship appeared from Row Z, the sound swelling over and around my head, and a truly unique movie experience, about a galaxy far, far away, kicking into gear.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Unplugged at last

With the majority of summer tans now less deep mahogany as peeling like a Minnesota blizzard, What Would David Bowie Do? has finally down-tooled, thrown a selection of tastefully decorated Tommy Bahama shirts into a bag and jetted away for its first proper break of 2011.

In so doing, colleagues have been left behind still trying to get on top of the e-mail deluge that mounted, like pizza delivery leaflets behind the front door, during the Great August Exodus, when the office made the Marie Celeste look like Oxford Street on Christmas Eve.

As I sink the first of many cold ones to toast Brer Rest and Brer Relaxation, I'll be counting on the goodwill of others to ensure my week-long sojourn is uninterrupted by the expectations placed upon the modern worker bee. In particular, I hope the Out-of-Office notification is actually heeded, and I don't receive any of those "I know you're on holiday, but I just wanted to grab a couple of minutes of your time" phone calls that beggar belief at their downright ill-consideration.

The nerve of these calls notwithstanding, it is, sadly, a facet of modern working life that, thanks to the electronic age, time off is rarely that. More than a third of us now have a smartphone with ownership rising at a phenomenal rate. But in these uncertain and insecure times, taking time out to recharge the batteries is regarded by some as high risk, and by others - clearly on the extreme edge of rational thought - an act of professional perversion worthy of the white feather of conscientious objection.

As each summer in our 24/7-connected world comes along, more and more workers are taking to their holiday sun loungers with paperback, Factor 50 and a BlackBerry. Worse still are those who take their company laptops with them. I've even been on conference calls where the sound of crashing waves and partners complaining about sand in awkward places can be heard in the background.

Can we, today, realistically switch off completely while on holiday? Some manage just fine. Others struggle to make the transition between replacing the proverbial bowler hat and umbrella with the four-pointed handkerchief. Some find a system ("I'll check my e-mail once a day while the wife takes a shower and then I'm done"). Others don't, judging by the frequency throughout the working day with which I received e-mails in August from people who were meant to be amid their kith and kin on a beach.

There was a time when going on holiday meant queuing up to use a public pay phone if you had any reason to connect with home, office or both. Now we don't even send postcards - we have the tools at our disposal. It's our own fault.

Or is it. A study earlier this year by Virgin Atlantic found that a quarter of bosses thought it was acceptable to call an employee while they were on holiday. Worse, 14 per cent of employers have even telephoned minions to reprimand them during their holiday! Choosing exotic timezones for a holiday might thwart managers (though not all) ringing up in the middle of the night, but the study found that Europeans choosing a European destination for a holiday dramatically increased the chances of a boss calling on the grounds that they were 'only' in Europe.

If you're self-employed, an eminent heart surgeon or Prime Minister of a country suddenly overun by hooded youths torching shops and stealing sportswear, then the interrupted holiday comes with the territory. The poor old US President can't travel anywhere without a Navy officer standing behind him carrying 'The Football', the briefcase containing the codes to start nuclear war. For everyone else, nearly a quarter of adults don't think they're paid enough to warrant employers calling up during their holiday, even if possession of a company-supplied mobile phone gave greater justification for doing so.

Technology is to blame. It's not just the fact that digital umbilical cords like the BlackBerry make it easier to stay on top of work - for some it's just a force of habit. We Brits, apparently will check our mobile phone for e-mail messages up to 12 times a day while on holiday and, over the course of a two-week holiday, send as many as nine e-mails or text messages.

For Americans, who typically only get a couple of weeks off a year, giving up precious holiday time to deal with the office carries greater risks than just a ticking off from the significant other. Studies several years ago found that Americans who didn't take holidays stood a higher chance of developing heart disease, and the risk of a heart attack increased by a third. Spending your holiday at the bottom of a beer glass, of course, may not exactly reduce the chance of a major cardiovascular episode, but taking a week or two off is, most therapists agree, as beneficial as ensuring eight hours' uninterrupted sleep every night.

So, while it's impossible to completely drown out the cacophonous soundtrack created by the electronic noise of modern life, it may be better to get stressed out by not answering the phone when the boss dials up during your holiday, than accepting the call. After all, there's an off-switch on your phone for a reason.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years On

"From the firefly, a red orange glow. 
See the face of fear, running scared in the valley below."
Bullet The Blue Sky, U2, 1987

Ben Hughes was an 11-year-old Massachusetts schoolboy on the day the world changed forever. "When I arrived home [from school] I asked my mother if I could watch the news reports, and for what seemed like days we sat there, in both awe and terror. It was the first moment in my short life where I felt entirely helpless."

Hughes wasn't alone on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. His nation's president was helpless. And we were helpless, too, as we watched the enflamed North and South towers of the World Trade Center and saw people jumping from windows 100 floors up - choosing that over being burned alive.

Ten years on, a generation has grown up in a world changed forever. Almost 2700 families still grieve for the loved ones who vaporised in the toxic pile of concrete, steel and flesh that the Twin Towers became, little more than an hour after Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi sliced them open with the planes they were piloting.

Husbands and wives still ache at the absence of wives and husbands who went out to work one day but didn't return. A city remembers the firefighters who went up a staircase and never came back down. Proud parents, partners and children remember the courage of those who tried to do something about it before perishing in a Pennsylvania field.

Ten years on, there are still troops in Afghanistan, conducting what began as a fightback but has become another attritional war in that country's long and bloody history of attritional conflict. Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but air travel remains more inconvenience than convenience thanks to his followers who continue to regard commercial aviation as a viable platform for further savage mayhem.

Ten years on, people still struggle to make sense of it all. Myself included. Trying to understand what and how and why 19 young men could carry out such an audacious act of searing violation. The roots, origins, motivation and planning of the 9/11 attacks have been examined inside and out by commissions and investigative journalists alike. The conspiracy theorists have had their say - some with arguments that definitely warrant explanation.

In the run-up to today's tenth anniversary of 9/11, the hand-wringing has intensified. More theories as to what may or may not have happened and what should or shouldn't have been done. With every year beyond the original event, more information comes to light - tapes of air traffic controllers, the decision-making of military officials, and new insights into the hijackers themselves, all adding further pixel-level detail to the picture of that day.

Knowing more might help understand it more, but only just. Yes, Bin Laden had declared war on American decadence and, yes, New York represented that. Yes, Bin Laden wanted to punish America for its post-Gulf War military presence in his Saudi homeland and, yes, Washington D.C. and the Pentagon represented that. But with terrorism, beneath the ideology - flawed or not - beats a psychopathic appetite for carnage.

Poignant reflection
Of all the countless documentaries, books and articles about 9/11, the most poignant media reflection on the atrocity came from an unlikely and, on initial thought, inappropriate source.

David Letterman returned to his late night CBS talk show on September 17, 2001, a week after the attacks removed all entertainment programming from the 'big four' US TV networks' schedules.

The Late Show has always been a 'New York show’, recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. That Monday night it opened without its usual Manhattan-themed opening titles - just a fluttering American flag.

Letterman sat behind his chat show-staple desk, with a sombre expression on his face. "This is our first show on the air since New York and Washington were attacked," he intoned, "and I need to ask your patience and indulgence here because I want to say a few things, and believe me, sadly, I’m not going to be saying anything new, and in the past week others have said what I will be saying here tonight far more eloquently than I’m equipped to do. But, if we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes, and so that’s what I’m going to do here."

Now whether you regard this as indulgent, mugging for the cameras, or over-the-top American sentimentalism, Letterman's apparently unscripted opening monologue remains one of the most emotionally charged moments I've ever seen on television. It ran for the best part of 20 minutes and was a more impassioned, more heartfelt and display of raw emotional expression that I'd seen or read or heard in any presidential speech or newspaper leader column on the 9/11 attacks - then or since.

"I just want to go through this," Letterman continued, "and again, forgive me if this is more for me than it is for people watching, I’m sorry, but uh, I just, I have to go through this, I’m…", and he broke off to gather his composure.

"The reason we were attacked, the reason these people are dead, these people are missing and dead, and they weren’t doing anything wrong, they were living their lives, they were going to work, they were traveling, they were doing what they normally do. As I understand it (and my understanding of this is vague at best), another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we’re told that they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor… religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any God-damned sense?".

The applause that followed was polite and enthusiastic, but respectfully lacking the usual whooping and hollering typical of talk show audiences. Letterman had captured the world's hurt, anger and bewilderment. Who cared if it was an act of misplaced religious zeal or an inside job to justify war with Iraq - did any of it ever make any sense?

Folded corners
Commemorating a first kiss, first date, first argument, starting a new job, passing a driving test, buying a house - whatever -  anniversaries make retrospection easier. They provide a sense of order, a notch on our own timeline, like folded page corners.

Some don't see the value of looking back; some only look to the future, out of positive hope. I can appreciate that.

Anniversaries of unhappy events open wounds that probably should have healed a long time before. 9/11 is no different. But if nothing else, the 9/11 anniversary draws a necessary spotlight to how a sequence of savage events changed the world forever, and how it led to a further sequence of savage events - Afghanistan, Iraq, Bali, Madrid, London.

If Al-Qaeda's intention was to wipe the look of affluent contentment off our faces, it achieved that. 9/11 brought to an abrupt halt the good times that had preceded it and commenced a decade of uncertainty, jitteriness and mistrust. It wrought havoc on the global economy, and no sooner had things improved, than the world was plunged into another mess we're clearly not out of now.

Materially, there's not a lot of difference between the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and the tenth. And I somehow doubt there'll be much difference between the tenth and the eleventh next year. We have lived for ten years with near-perpetual economic uncertainty; a generation of Muslims has grown up with nothing but hate for the US, Britain, Spain and the other willing participants in the War on Terror; and all this time, the piles of soldiers' limbs have mounted in Afghanistan. All because, ten years ago, 19 hijackers, four planes and the deaths of almost 3000 people changed the world order again. Forever.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

You know me: likes a laugh. Why else would this blog have covered death, war and football so copiously over the last year or so? So, to keep things light and breezy, let me turn your attention to depression.

A couple of years ago the excellent BBC 6 Music radio station drew up the definitive Top 20 list of songs to listen to while depressed. The station's intention was to highlight, rather than mock, the depressive condition, but I'm not altogether sure the final chart did anyone any favours.

Topping these particular pops were (in at No.1) The Smiths' I Know It's Over, followed by REM's torturously whiny Everybody Hurts and, at No.3, that well-stocked barrel of chuckles, Comfortably Numb. It was the original version of Pink Floyd's opus of gloom of course. The Scissor Sisters' cover might have had a more uplifting effect.

The reason for dragging all this up now is that a research project in Finland has discovered that music may actually help people with depression. A study of 79 sufferers by the University of Jyväskylä found greater progress in the treatment of their condition when exposed to music therapy than those undergoing conventional treatments alone.

Professor Christian Gold, who lead the Jyväskylä study, thinks that music therapy might offer a unique solution for people with depression. "Music therapy has specific qualities that allow people to express themselves and interact in a non-verbal way," he says, "even in situations when they cannot find the words to describe their inner experiences."

"Music-making is social, pleasurable and meaningful," British mental health specialist Dr Mike Crawford commented about the Jyväskylä research in the British Journal of Psychiatry. "It has been argued that music making engages people in ways that words may simply not be able to," he added. "These results suggest that [music] can improve the mood and general functioning of people with depression."

It is well known that a vigorous workout will give release to endorphins (not sure what the endorphin's collective noun is - I'm tempted to offer 'pod'), leaving the excerciser out of breath but on a natural high and with a grin fixed somewhere between Jack Nicholson's Joker and the average male at the moment of arrival.

This goes a long way to explain why exercise is regarded as one of the best aides for coping with depression, amongst many other conditions. Music therapy has, for a long time, been an effective recovery aid for both mental and physical trauma. A few years ago I had the great privilege of visiting Nordoff Robbins, the music therapy charity, and saw for myself the cognitive improvement people with a range of disabilities were enjoying as a result of interaction with music.

So could music really treat those struggling - and I use that word with caution - with depression? Music has always been able to capture the human condition and wring it dry. The blues probably wouldn't exist if it wasn't for downtrodden tales of loneliness and romantic failure. Why else would lovelorn middle-class white boys have fallen for the music of the American South's immigrant underclass?

But is it music itself or the choice that makes the difference? One man's tonic might be Leonard Cohen while another's is Lady Gaga. My own spirits will be lifted instantly by an outing for Solid Air or What's Going On in their entirety, or simply the opening chords of the Rolling Stones' Monkey Man. By the same token, don't count on anything flushed through the televisual sewer that is The X-Factor to raise more than a dull, nauseated pain.

©2003 Arsenio Corôa

One of the joys of having a decent-sized music collection - or, simply, a fully paid-up Spotify account - is the ability to match music to mood. It's a theme explored superbly in the fascinating book This Is Your Brain On Music by San Francisco-born overachiever Daniel J Levitin (I say 'overachiever' out of profound envy: Levitin is a real-life version of Buckaroo Banzai - prominent neuroscientist, psychologist, record producer, sound engineer, music consultant, musician and writer).

In his book, Levitin opened up "...the intersection of psychology and neurology..." as it relates to music, meaning, enjoyment - and emotion. In particular, he drew attention to the commonality of purpose with which advertising executives, movie directors, military marching bands and lullabying new monthers use music or song to evoke a certain emotional response.

Levitin points out how an advertising creative will give the Ford Focus some gravitas by bedding a 30-second spot for it with an operatic excerpt; the film maker, on the other hand, will use music as part of the narrative, a practice dating back to the silent era when pianists and organists accompanied the screen from the orchestra pit. Think about Jaws and John Williams' tension-building theme, or the pivotal application of Barber's Adagio For Strings in Platoon. For a master of the brilliantly evocative soundtrack, listen to Michael Mann's eclectic, hand-picked choice of music in Heat, Collateral and, don't laugh, the original TV series of Miami Vice.

Levitin's own research identified how the brain responds differently to variations in rhythm, tempo, pitch and timbre. This is something you can easily put to the test: load up your preferred MP3 device with your favourite songs, head to the gym and see how your effort peaks and troughs as your workout soundtrack varies.

I know from personal experience that my response to London Calling and Led Zep's Immigrant Song differed dramatically to the random inclusion of a more mellow track by Richie Havens, but avoid doing - as I did - and including Wings' Live And Let Die on the playlist: the Nordic cross-trainer didn't know what was going on as your sweating correspondent peaked and troughed between the song's frantic rock and stretches of cod-reggae. Even now, I think the machine might have been mistaken into thinking its guest was having some sort episode...

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Don't mention the war

To state the bleedin' obvious, war is neither entertaining nor funny. But this being the 3rd of September provides gratuitous opportunity to offer you my favourite opening to any book ever written - Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall.

"HOW IT ALL STARTED. September 3rd, 1939. The last minutes of peace ticking away, Father and I were watching Mother digging our air-raid shelter. 'She's a great little woman,' said Father. 'And getting smaller all the time,' I added. Two minutes later, a man called Chamberlain, who did Prime Minister impressions, spoke on the wireless. He said, 'As from eleven o'clock we are at war with Germany.' (I loved the WE.). 'War?' said Mother. 'It must have been something we said,' said Father. The people next door panicked, burnt their post office books and took in the washing."

The British are often accused of being fixated with events of 72 years ago. Our apparent love of war humour does underline the point. If you listen, however, to the many WW2-themed episodes of The Goon Show - the seminal 1950s BBC radio comedy which Spike Milligan wrote and performed in with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe - you'll hear an old soldier expunge six years of slaughter. In particular, you'll hear him reflect on the cost to his mental health (Milligan suffered chronic manic depression after the war, which he attributed to the effects of a mortar shell exploding near him in 1944).

As the World War Two generation has receded, the politically correct have frequently stepped in to complain about anyone finding humour in war. It depends on how you look at the subject: Robert Altman's M*A*S*H is generally regarded as one of the sharpest satires on the insanity of armed conflict, especially as it appeared in the midst of Vietnam (a war notably lacking comic reflection, Robin Williams notwithstanding). In the Netherlands, bafflingly, the BBC's 'Allo, 'Allo was a huge hit, even though the Dutch have as much right as any to be offended by occupation-themed comedy (a variable description given the laboriousness of some of the series' jokes...). I've even heard German friends of mine repeat the immortal Fawlty Towers line: "Don't mention the war - I mentioned it once and think I got away with it."

September 3, 1939 was merely the day that Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. The six years that followed were, clearly, anything but a laughing matter: the Holocaust; the devastation of Poland, Russia and the Baltics, 60 million deaths throughout the world - 40 million civilian, 20 million combatant; the eventual first use of a nuclear weapon in anger; the start of the Cold War thereafter.

But while we rightly remember the days when wars ended - the 1918 Armistice on November 11, for example, or the two-day Dutch Nationale Dodenherdenking (remembrance) on May 4 and Bevrijdingsdag (freedom) on May 5, would remembering when and why these wars started help prevent them happening again? It's just a thought.