Friday, February 29, 2008


Ochres, at Jumped Up Creek, Northern Territory, Australia (from the book).
  • Victoria Finlay. Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks. 2004 [2002].
I admit the recent trend towards narrow single-topic histories has struck a resounding chord within me. You know what I mean -- books like Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. These books are like core samples taken at an oblique angle through our world, revealing angles and facets you would never imagine. Now Victoria Finlay has written one. Well, by "now", I mean I've just found it, but since this blog is all about me, I'm going to pretend it's new.

And it is new to me: I know a little art history, not too much, but I've never thought much about the technology of paint. I knew that some of them had funny names, like "burnt sienna" and "carmine lake", but I never thought about what they meant, or what the connection is between what artists do now and what they have done for millennia. Lately, as I've been thinking about aboriginal Australian art, a modern art but also the oldest art tradition on earth, the question of materials starts to appear, and I found this book fascinating.

One story that's not in here, but has echoes in the slapdash work of eighteenth-century British painter Joshua Reynolds, which is, is that of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. I'd heard how in the forties and fifties he would dash out and buy the cheapest, nastiest paint at Woolworth's, and that now, many of these paintings had faded into uniform browns that, despite the oohs and ahs of some modern viewers, didn't reflect the color glow that he originally had in mind.

Reynolds did the same sort of thing, as told here: he used megilp, a combination of mastic (an evergreen resin) and linseed oil, to give some of his paintings a golden glow that was supposed to evoke the Old Masters, but which has darkened and degraded to the point where people now mistake it for a presage of the Impressionists.

That's just one of the stories in the "Orange" chapter. The entire spectrum is represented here, and the entire history of art, from the first ochre daubs in Australia up to modernists using acrylics colored with artificial dyes made from coal tar.

Given my recent interest, the Australian chapter, the first in the book, was the most interesting to me. Findlay traveled to the Australian outback, including some normally off-limits areas of Arnhem Land in Northern Territory, to see the traditional styles, which are still practiced. Australian rock painting forms an unbroken tradition up as long as 35,000 years in some places, but many of the sites are not historical; they are palimsests, with new paint applied every year, and on many of them you can trace a clear stylistic history all the way to the present day.

This is the question that's been driving me crazy lately, though it's mostly not in this book: how did Australian aborigines arrive at modern art without knowing anything about modern art, without working through the Western tradition that became modern art? Because aboriginal art is emphatically not primitive art, even when it's in a traditional mode, and it transferred seamlessly into a modernist idiom when acrylic paints arrived.

Traditional Australian art is done on rock with ochre. Ochre isn't a single substance, but a range of brown, red, yellow rocks that crumble easily and have the plasticity and easy drawing stroke needed to paint with directly. You just pick up the rock and rub; or you grind it up, and make a paint, or take it in your mouth and spray over a stencil, such as your hand -- a technique used by the Mayans in Central America as well as the Australians. Ochres are found on every continent, but their most developed use is in Australia. Traditional painting is done on bark as well, and much of this work is modern (though in a traditional vein) -- because barks, and canvases, can be carried away by paying customers.

The process by which the aboriginal peoples were introduced to the possibilities of commercial art, and modern materials, like most dealings between the whites and aborigines, is immensely painful to read. The most horrific story, and an act of cultural and artistic vandalism as brutal as the destruction of the enormous Buddhas at Bamiyan, Afghanistan by the Taliban, is the story of the Honey Ant Dreaming at Papunya, in the central desert west of Alice Springs. There, a white man named Geoffrey Bardon taught the locals how to use acrylics, and how, haltingly at first, to find and express their own voice while still using the language of their tribe and ancestors. It is in cultural collisions like this that the modern world is invented.

The elders of the tribe took this new possibility and offered to paint one of their Dreamings on the concrete wall of the school. This was momentous: never before had the black men used the white tools to tell their story, on an equal footing: for the white man to see, but with equal meaning for the black men. The first version of this painting, the Honey Ant Dreaming, was after its completion deemed by the elders to be too revealing; too many secrets were shown. They painted it again. This time, Geoffrey Bardon said no, it has too much of the whitefella in it. They painted it again.
It was probably the first time that symbols had been deliberately swapped in order to show the "blanket" and yet keep the secretes that lay beneath it. In a way it marked the beginning of these dispossessed people finding a way of representing what was esoteric by something that was exoteric -- something that was hidden by something that could be shown.

It was an amazing act of generosity for these men to paint their Dreaming -- the representation of their layered system of knowledge -- on the walls of a whitefellow building, Bardon said. "But few people really appreciated it. Nobody cared what they were doing." In those days he used to joke that with the industrial-strength glue he had provided to bind the colored poster paint, the Honey Ant Dreaming would last a thousand years. But it didn't, it lasted only until 1974, when a maintenance man, on someone's orders, painted over it with acrylics. If it existed today it would be one of Australia's greatest works of art.

In addition to destroying their masterpiece, the whitefellow overlords started to steal their money, taking the proceeds from sales back in Alice Springs before the artists could get their hands on it.

Not every story in this book breaks your heart. Some of it is just weird, like the manufacture of carmine red from crushed cochineal insects living on a particular Mexican cactus; some of it is exciting, like the discovery of the secret of Chinese celadon in sealed-off caves. Saffron yellow, from the stamens of flowers, was once a mainstay of Spanish agriculture, but is now mostly grown in Iran. Findlay visited the fields there, and she went to Afghanistan, where she saw the Bamiyan Buddhas and visited the lapis lazuli mines, still today the source of almost all of this beautiful blue stone, which is ground into ultramarine pigment. Along the way we meet Antonio Stradivari and Michelangelo, shell-divers in Mexico and Lebanon (for their purple), indigo farmers and the stained glass masters who worked in the great medieval cathedrals of Europe.

I'm a bit obsessed with the Australian chapter, but it's a small part of the book. The entire history of art is in here, in terms of the materials they used. It's beautifully written, and works as art history, cultural history, history of technology, and travelogue. I loved it.

The Sound of Young Huddersfield

  • Simon Armitage. All Points North. London: Penguin Books, 1999 [1998].
One can't read pop books all the time. A book I'd bought online after returning from England last fall, but which only arrived in the mail recently (via the slow boat from England), was this little oddball. It's a highlight of the short shelf of (semi) recent books about the North. It's illustrated on the cover by a Martin Parr photograph of an old couple sitting glumly in a cafe, which pretty much sums up my aesthetic worldview. If there were a thousand of these books, I'd read them all. Sadly, there are not.

All Points North (from which this post's title was stolen) is more phlegmatic, more impressionistic than the partisan enthusiasms of John Grundy's Northern Pride: The Very Best of Northern Architecture or Stuart Maconie's seven-eighths-brilliant Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North. It's about the author's life in insular Yorkshire, starting in Huddersfield and then in a widening ring as he discovers the world. The book thumps with exciting (to me) placenames: Staithes, Emley Moor, Elland, Keighley, Crimble Clough, Ravenscar, Scisset, Penistone, Marsden, Bridlington, eventually across rivers and ranges to places like Rochdale, Manchester, Grimsby, and London.

Armitage is a poet by trade, and has a deep demotic feel for his native region -- which is a bit of a trademark of Northerners; they feel place more acutely than soft southerners, or suburban Americans for that matter. There sure aren't any books like this about my suburbs.

He not only has a good eye for the landscape of trains, motorways, stone walls, terraces, probation offices, and so on, but a keen awareness of the humorous truth of Northern cliche: the grimness, the self-deprecation, the amusing stupidities, the embarrassment, the attitude, the bitter wit. We get amateur theatrics, quail fighting, Alan Bennett, and this: "Inside the building, above the taps, there's a notice saying PLEASE DO NOT WASH FOOTWEAR IN THESE SINKS, signed by the Chief Technical Officer of Ryedale District Council, and above the hand-dryer there's a plaque commemorating the 1989 Loo of the Year Award, presented to Helmsley car park." That's the Britain I love most.

On John Peel:
His comments and quips and mumblings were just as important as the music, as were his technical hitches, which included playing at least two records per night at the wrong speed, and talking at great length about somebody's new single before playing the B-side. Such cock-ups usually ended in Peel apologizing through a burst of laughter as he dragged the needle across the vinyl and flipped the record over, or cranked the turntable up to the right speed. I still can't listen to the twelve-inch version of Atmosphere by Joy Division without anticipating the moment when Ian Curtis changes gear from 33⅓ to 45 r.p.m., about three seconds into the opening line.
At Headingley, watching cricket:
viii) Some bright spark on the Western Terrace shouting, 'I'm Spartacus,' followed by thirty or forty shouts of 'I'm Spartacus' as security guards try to identify the man responsible for throwing a plastic beer bottle on to the field at deep square leg.

ix) The spontaneous chant of, 'Three pounds an hour, you're earning three pounds an hour' to the tune of 'Guantanamera', as security guards move in to eject a man from the Western Terrace for shouting 'Fuck off you Aussie cunt' as Matthew Elliot raised his bat to the sky in celebration of his second Test century.
At a social-services training exercise:
In an exercise designed to put us in touch with our body language, we were all invited to select a sealed envelope that contained a word describing a human emotion. Turning to the colleague on our right we then had to demonstate that emotion usuing facial gestures only. The colleague had to identify the emotion, and then it was his or her turn, and so on.

Finding the word LOVE inside your envelope, you turned to the tall shy man who'd taken the seat next to you, and in the spirit of the occasion, beamed lovingly at him, summoning up all those achingly precious moments of devotion and desire, and shutting out the image of the pale, bespectacled and bewildered man only six inches from your lips. Just at the point where you wondered if you might have to actually kiss him, he nodded his head and asked, 'Is it HATE'?

There was a moment of tense silence, before he further misinterpreted an expression of dumbfoundedness for one of agreement, and went on to announce, 'It is HATE, isn't it? I thought so.'
During a trip to the US:
New York, New York. Internet, the Yorkshire Post. Robert Ancliff of Bradford was left with 'a sour taste in his mouth' when he read the note left by his milkman on his doorstep. The previous day, Mr Ancliff had typed a polite letter of complaint, asking what had happened to the extra pint of milk he had requested. The handwritten reply read: 'I did get your milk delivered. It must have been stolen, so kiss my f****** a***.' The milkman has quit without notice and has not been seen since. A company spokesman has apologized, and Mr Ancliff has been given complimentary milk for his trouble.
This is a very sweet, funny book. I wish there were more like it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Bouquet of Barbed Wire?

I bought this magazine for Zeke Manyika, who was the drummer in Orange Juice. I didn't know who the June Brides were. I still didn't; I didn't pick up one of their records until the "Every Conversation" 12" on Pink about two years later. I missed out; they were done by then. All the while I was sitting in my stupid apartment thinking that Orange Juice was the end of the world, and no pop records would ever be made again, things were happening. I remember buying the LP version of C86 and a Felt record and, I think, "I Heard You The First Time" by the Razorcuts at the same time, in Berkeley, which is when I found out how wrong I was. I bought a lot of records then, which seemed to always suck; but all of a sudden they didn't. I got a Chesterf!elds record right after, and then a Brilliant Corners one, and then a dopey-looking single on something called Sarah Records, and I was down the rabbit hole.

"Bridal Suite" by Mat Snow, New Musical Express, 1 September 1985, p. 14. Photographs by Derek Ridgers.

I wish I'd listened up in 1985. I could have heard a lot more a lot earlier! It seems so bizarre now that the Brides were actually on the cover of a big-time magazine, picked to pop, you could say. Of course they didn't, which is the world's fault, not theirs.

The June Brides played out of tune; that's what everybody said, and it was true, and possibly out of time as well, but they were wonderful too, and all you had to do was cock your head and all the flaws fell into place and the delicacy shone through.

The article here makes some oblique references to Josef K, and you can hear a little Paul Haig in Phil Wilson's reedy, uncertain tenor, but where Josef K scratched and jerked, and kept the listener at a distance, the Brides bounced and popped, and pulled the listener in. What really made it work was the trumpet. God love a trumpet in pop.

I don't hear any Smiths in them, and certainly not any James, though I can see why someone might have in 1985.

My favorite quote from the article:
Jon: "We played a gig in Glasgow and we got up early so we could go to Liverpool, where we had a gig, via the Lake District so we could have a picnic by Lake Windermere. We could have stayed in Glasgow and got drunk down Sauciehall Street, but we didn't!

This is the most genuinely shocking on-the-road story I've ever heard.

You'll have to click on the article text pic and view the large size to read the rest. The pics are magnificent as well!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An Amazing Connection

A couple of years ago I scanned in an album of my grandfather's photographs, taken in Montana mostly in the 1910s and 20s. The majority of these are from Jordan, a remote town in Garfield County -- the most remote town in the contiguous United States, in fact. I occasionally get comments from Jordan residents or other Jordan genealogical researchers, which is always nice.

But some of the photos are more obscure, like this one. After college, my grandfather taught school in a series of small towns across the northwest, in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. One of these was tiny Camas Prairie, a hamlet on the Flathead Indian Reservation southwest of Glacier National Park.

At Camas Prairie School, in 1924, my grandfather shot the girls high school basketball team, the younger kids playing in the school yard, some young boys displaying their freshly caught fish, the lake they caught them in, and some local Indian children. About all I know of this place is the name and where it is.

Today, out of nowhere, a fellow named Michael Lee Ross found me. It turns out the picture of the girls basketball team features his grandmother, Rose Ross (nee Muster), and her sister!

This is an amazing coincidence, and an amazing find, all the more so if you have ever spent much time looking for your obscure Montana relatives online. I hope Mr. Ross doesn't mind me blogging here my excitement at being found by him.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Edwyn Collins in Smash Hits, 1983.

Edwyn Collins in Smash Hits, 1983
"Flesh of My Flesh" was the follow-up to "Rip It Up", the Juice's only top ten hit, released in May 1983. It was supposed to propel them, and our fresh-faced boy Edwyn here, into the stratosphere, right up there with the likes of Paul Young. God, it's hard to even type that name: Paul Young!

The top ten that month was topped by "True" by Spandau Ballet, followed by Heaven 17's "Temptation", "Dancing Tight" by something called Galaxy featuring Phil Fearon, "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" by Human League. Tears for Fears, Wham!, Bowie, the Police, Culture Club, Yazoo, and the immortal Blancmange. But there was no room for "Flesh", which topped out at 41, and it was all downhill. Malcolm Ross and David McClymont split, Polydor was disillusioned, and further records were promoted less and sold less.

Not that I care. The song's great, with a nice faraway jazz in the next room horn part, and a swinging guitar riff over Zeke Manyika's groove. The long version on the back of the 12" reveals shades of dub things to come.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Glory, Glory Tottenham Hotspur

Congratulations! Tottenham Hotspur defeated Chelsea 2-1 in extra time at Wembley today to win the League Cup (aka the Carling Cup). Nancy and I watched it at the George & Dragon pub in Fremont (Seattle). Bit rough getting out of bed and down to the pub at 7 AM, but a hundred or so people did, about 2/3 Spurs fans by the looks of it. We roared them out of the house when Jonathan Woodgate bumped in the winner, a slow bobbler that came off Petr Cech's and then Woodgate's faces; it bounced once, twice, three times into the net. Spurs' first hardware since the 1999 League Cup.

Now on to the double: the UEFA Cup is next.

Next year we'll win some serious silverware as we return to major-club status. We're too good to sit down at eleventh in the table, and in the lesser cup competitions at home and in Europe.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

I just found these long-forgotten pictures in a drawer. They were taken at the Middle East Cafe in Cambridge. Honestly it's been so long I can't remember, but I think this is downstairs. Or upstairs. Whichever is smaller. I don't think they had an upstairs yet. I imagine the proscenium arch isn't there anymore!

Small Factory were part of a little early-nineties Providence-Washington "Love Rock" axis, along with Honeybunch and Velvet Crush (RI) and Black Tambourine and Velocity Girl (DC). Tsunami and the Simple Machines stuff sort of squeeze into the booth, too. It was an east coast counterpart to Beat Happening and that whole K Records scene; the bridge between the two was Lois Maffeo, the vivacious folk-punk strummer/singer who lived in both Olympia and Washington, DC at various times.

It's funny how at the time it seemed like Boston, where I was living, and New York didn't really seem to have any indiepop to offer; American indiepop has always come mostly from weird, out-of-the-way cities like Providence, Champaign-Urbana, Olympia.... College kids, sure, but Boston's packed with college kids, and in the immediate pre-grunge years none of them was listening to indiepop.

I gather that Seattle was having its little scene explosion around this time, too. The difference is, the music coming out of Providence and Washington wasn't terrible. Take that, grungesters, with your flannel, your chain wallets and your testosterone poisoning!

Quite a few times I took the train down to Providence to see Small Factory or Honeybunch at Club Babyhead or the Church House. This sucked, because there was no way to get home until the morning, so I spent a few late nights hanging out in all-night diners waiting for the trains to start up again at 6 AM or whenever it was.

But occasionally someone would venture up to the Middle East or TT the Bears. Usually that someone was my favorite band, Small Factory.

Alex Kemp played a great big Martin acoustic bass guitar, which gave their music a kind of dry crunchiness underfoot, while Dave Auchenbach strummed and jangled on guitar. The drummer was Phoebe Bluesky Summersquash, a perfectly ridiculous name for a perfectly charming girl, the perky and effervescent life of any party. She was the drill sergeant, too, as Alex frequently needed reminding that his between-song banter needed some songs to go between now and then. Everybody sang, and the harmonies were what you came for; Alex sang most of the sweetly nasal leads but it was when Dave joined in that they started to soar, and when Phoebe made three in the choruses they were zinging. Just pure joy.

By the time I first saw them they had quite a local following in Providence, mostly girls -- always a good sign, boys tend to prefer bands that suck -- who would do a little choreography with hand gestures when they played their big hit "Suggestions". They were FUN, and their songs were bright and cheerful even when they felt like being morose:

Keep your chin up, and I'll watch the highway
While we drive off for someplace cheap and amazing.

It's not so stupid and it's not so dumb
I am only suggesting that we could have more fun
Than we do....

Small Factory - "Suggestions" (mp3)

Small Factory never really came across on records; the "Suggestions" single captures some of the charm, but seems thin, and plods a bit compared to the real thing; and as the other records got better the band was getting worse. Tired, I think; and they tried to rock it up. Alex started playing electric bass, Dave's guitar got louder and fuzzier. It's a funny thing, when bands become better players on their instruments they often drive out the sweetness that drew you to them in the first place. The volume goes up, the drums start to pound, and the next thing you know they're, uh, rocking out, wailing when they used to talk to you. It happened to Small Factory too.

They got an album out, and had a good tour of the UK (with Heavenly) and a crummy one in the US, and they were done, really. There were some good moments, and some good songs, but it was never the same. Another album, another tour, and then Dave split and Alex took over on guitar in the spectacularly dreadful Godrays. The less said.

But man, those early days in Providence were magic.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I'm Sorry, Jane

steve and jane c1963
Originally uploaded by Fnarf
I would like to publicly apologize for torturing my sweet younger sister Jane when we were children. You can see by the hangdog look on her face that I'm about to inflict some kind of unnecessary roughness on her, compounding the torture that our parents have already put her through with the cowgirl outfit. I don't think she liked it much -- the outfit, or the abuse.

I liked it very much indeed. I can still remember the feel of that tin star between my fingers, and mentally checking just how cheap and inauthentic it was -- cheapness and inauthenticity having no bearing on play value, of course. As for the chaps, well, let's just say it's a good thing it was a safe neighborhood, with no older boy bullies around. Because I would have been dead meat.

That's a phrase I remember hearing a lot as a child -- "you're dead meat", following by the pounding of feet and my heart. I was a dweeb. A dork. A geek.

This is about the time I had to be removed from my second-grade class for having pooed in my pants, out of a pathological sense of embarrassment that prevented me from raising my hand. Despite my best efforts I was unable to prevent a few pellets of shame from falling down my pants leg onto the floor. A teacher -- a woman! -- took me to the bathroom and gave me the most horrible thing in the world: a pair of school pants, with an elastic waist. I wanted to die.

I peed my pants all the time too.

Sweet Jane didn't think I was a dweeb, though; she worshiped me. I repaid this devotion by telling her, right about this time, that there was no Santa Claus. That may explain the face in this picture.

I used to do naughty things, like scatter my dad's tools around, or damage them, or damage furniture with them. My dad would attempt to teach us both a lesson about honesty and forthrightness, and ask us each in turn, "did you do this?" I would solemnly shake my head "no", and Jane would just as solemnly nod her head "yes". Our dad was not a fool, and would punish me, not her -- twice, in fact.

This photograph was taken by dad with a Kodak Retina IIa in 1963 or 64 in Magnolia, Seattle, Washington. I recently found it in a tray of my grandfather's slides.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pump Up The Volume

Hey, ladies! This doc wants to inject collagen into your G-spot to make it bigger:

Mind if I watch?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Australian Aboriginal Art in the Sixties

Unrecorded Melville Island artist, depicting a shark, sea-snakes, fish, shells, and other features encountered on a canoe journey in Snake Bay, Melville Island; ochre on bark, 28 by 19 inches; collected by C.P. Mountford, 1954.

  • Ronald M. Berndt, ed. Australian Aboriginal Art. With chapters by R. M. Berndt, A. P. Elkin, F. D. McCarthy, C. P. Mountford, T. G. H. Strehlow, J. A. Tuckson. With 73 plates in full color. New York: The Macmillian Company and London: Collier-Macmillan Ltd, 1964.

This book is the earliest general book on Aboriginal art I've been able to find in a Seattle library. (All the pictures in this post are from it). By 1964, the commercial sale of Central Desert paintings in modern media (acrylics on canvas) was starting to get underway, but was still regarded with scorn as a debased product for tourists. There's none of that in this book; this is all traditional artists depicting traditional scenes in traditional media: ochre and other natural pigments applied to bark or wood or stone with traditional implements.

Which is not to say "primitive". Ronald Berndt, who along with his wife Catherine was the most prolific and perceptive anthropologist of the Aboriginal peoples in the 50s and 60s, is careful to point out that, far from being a "primitive survival", as the old-fashioned Herbert Read put it, "the Aboriginal art available to us today is contemporary, or almost so, and no more prehistoric than the people who are responsible for it."

This was a hard idea for people to get their minds around in the 1960s, especially anthropologists; note that they still treat their subject anthropologically, and bury the artists' names deep within the footnotes, if they bother to collect it at all; they are still generalized representatives of an alien primitive culture. And much of the art depicted in the book is not only traditional but traditionally sacred, with ritual and often secretive meaning. It's interpreted in a modern way by modern people, is the conclusion Berndt is striving for, but he's not quite able to make the leap into seeing these artists as people fully involved in the modern world in quite the same way as his fellow researchers back at the University are. But he's getting there.

All the pictures reproduced here are traditional in style; but the root forms of modern styles are visible. Aboriginal art today, almost 50 years later, is a modern art; even if the forms echo the tribal traditions, they are identical to them, and they are market productions. Berndt seems to think, in 1964 at least, that market productions can't be art; he is not yet willing to let these artists be modern (or have names). Such is the state of white thinking in 1950s and 1960s.

I hope to show in some future posts just how wrong he was, and how powerful modern Aboriginal art can be (much more so than the etiolated, often vacuous, culturally starved productions of many civilized modern artists. Much of this art is not sacred, but is mundane and everyday; but it still throbs with power. For just a hint of the electric visual jolt of some of this work, even in the traditional mode, check out this Picasso head, by an artist who had never heard of Picasso; followed by some other favorites:

Joshua Wurungulngul, of the Gunwinggu people in the Oenpelli region of western Arnhem Land; molded ochre head, 6.5 inches tall; collected by R. Berndt, 1950.

Minimini, from Groote Eylandt, barracouta fish; ochre on bark, 36 by 13 inches; collected by F. D. McCarthy, 1948.

Dowdie (b. 1921), Milingimbi, NE Arnhem Land, Julunggul the rock python, protecting her eggs from the Wawalag sisters; ochre on bark, 28.5 by 15 inches; collected by the Methodist Overseas Mission, 1959.

Unknown artist, from Cape Stewart, north-central Arnhem Land, sacred maraiin painting, usually painted on men's bodies during secret rituals; ochre on bark, 20.25 by 11.75 inches; collected by the Welfare Branch of the Northern Territory Administration, 1959?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sergio! Sergio!

After my eviction from Jennifer's apartment, I was homeless. I went to work that day with a duffel bag and the newspaper, circling ads for rooms. The appearance of a duffel bag in an office always causes a commotion, and this office was pretty well geared for commotion anyways.

I was working on the Upper East Side, barely; we worked out of an apartment house on E. 62nd Street, just east of 3rd Avenue. Two apartments across the hall from each other, packed with telecommunications gear and eight or nine employees. We ran a calling card business; you know, the cards you buy at the corner store or the tacqueria that allow you to call long distance for cheaps. The business model was to buy minutes from AT&T and sell them on the cards. If we paid AT&T 6-and-a-quarter cents per minute, we made a fortune; if we paid six-and-a-half we lost our shirts. The company was run by two brothers, Victor and Raul, Venezuelans. Victor was the handsome, suave one, Raul the dark, funny, dangerous one. They were from one of Venezuela's richest families, and frequented places like "21", which seemed like something out of a dream.

The whole operation seemed shady; there was a closet full of binders of shell companies, maybe a hundred of them, and little stashes of serious cash in various drawers. I got the impression that the cash was there to tempt me, and if I took so much as a single bill I'd spend the rest of my life in a different time zone than my skin.

There was a third brother, Sergio, who was the black sheep of the family. I think that was his job title; all he did all day was sit with his feet up on his desk smoking furiously and reading the newspaper. We all smoked furiously; Victor the boss smoked cigars.

The office was a fire hazard in other ways too. Our primary lighting came from halogen torchieres with wobbly bases. They would fall over and burn the carpet. Once Victor stored a box of supplies on top of the stove in one of the kitchens (these were outfitted as ordinary apartments), only to fill the room with smoke shortly after as the gas pilot light in the burners ignited the box.

Despite the chaos of the office, Victor and Raul were fun to be around and fantastically loyal. The second they saw my duffel, they had their lawyer on speakerphone, who explained to me how stupid I was for vacating the apartment. Alas, it was done. But Victor said, "no, you can stay here until you find a place". So I moved into the apartment, sleeping on the sofa. The only drawback was that I had to be up and showered and dressed before anyone got there in the morning, about six AM.

The neighborhood was lovely; to the east, Madison, Lexington, Central Park and Midtown; to the west, the charming and leafy Upper East Side. I used the laundromat at the end of the block, and drank in the friendly bar on First. It was a lot closer to Brownies and the other clubs I was frequenting than my old place, too, seeing the Magnetic Fields, Holiday, and the Mad Scene play every other night. 125 blocks closer -- a feasible walk, even, from the East Village, which I did many times, either through the lonely wastelands of First Avenue past the United Nations, or the surprisingly varied neighborhoods up Second or Third, Lex or Park.

One day as the office was closing I was introduced to my new cross-hall roommate for the night: Miss Venezuela. She was the most beautiful creature I've ever seen to this day, achingly gorgeous, like a porcelain doll. She was going to be in one of the apartments, I was in the other. When I saw her in the morning I was suffering from a terrible hangover; she was still perfect. I wonder if I terrified her. She terrified me.

After a month of this kind of living the Alves brothers had a proposition: move in with Sergio. Sergio lived in the company apartment and his roommate was leaving. 14th Street between Second and First. My room was a shoebox -- eight feet wide, twelve feet long. Sergio's room was the living room, stood off from the tiny open kitchen and hall with rows of tall bookcases. His room was three times as big as mine.

Sergio lived there with his Japanese girlfriend Yuko, who came to the US for expensive dentistry and found a chainsmoking Venezuelan instead. Yuko was stereotypically Japanese, covering her mouth with her hand when she talked, laboring endlessly in the apartment, cringing before her master and now her master's new roommate. I was unnerved to come home to her scrubbing the floors and apologizing for not doing it well enough.

Sergio's main form of entertainment was watching war documentaries on his large-screen TV. The volume was always turned up. He also liked to engage in loud sex with Yuko, featuring lots of vigorous spanking and crying. I would cower in my room hearing the rumble and roar of thousands of B-17 bombers with the voiceover describing the destruction of Dresden down below, punctuated by loud slaps and Yuko screaming "Oh, Sergio, Oh, Oh, Sergio!" and Sergio himself demonstrating the kind of command and discipline that was denied him at his job. "You've been very BATT!" Whap. "Oh, Sergio! Sergio!" Whap. Grrrarr, boom, boom-boom, boom. WHAP!

New Yorkers spend most of their spare time going out. Now you know why.

Sergio also smoked pot continuously, and he had a little cocaine problem as well. When he and his friends were high, and after inviting me into his side of the apartment to enjoy the evening, he would get paranoid, and push me up against the wall, alternately threatening and cajoling me, don't tell Victor, don't tell Raul, you're not going to tell anyone are you, I swear to God I'll cut you, man, PLEASE don't tell them, here, you want some?

There was an Irish bar on the corner, an old-fashioned workingman's bar, not fancy at all, and cheap. Three dollars for a pint of Guinness, and in the grand New York tradition the barman buys you every third one. I have no idea if this bar or this tradition has survived the relentless gentrification of the city. I hope so. Where else are the telephone linesmen and delivery drivers going to drink? I sat in there for hours most nights, if nothing was going on, sipping the black stuff and reading at the bar, to avoid the seige of Sergio and his bellicose love life.

This was the apartment which Mrs. Fnarf came to visit again, in summer. We were engaged to be married by then. The discussion about where we would be living afterwards was very short. The 100 square foot room with no furniture except a bed and a bookcase, with Yuko and Sergio and his giant TV on the other side of the wall, did not make up for the excitement of having the East Village on my doorstep. On her first night, we walked down First and Avenue A as far as Houston, and when she realized she had to walk fourteen blocks back as well she threw water on me. New York was not to be.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My New Favorite Car: Citroën Ami 6

Picture of Citroën Ami 6 by Flickr user davidbally, by permission.

I've had many favorite cars over the years -- the Mini, the Isetta (or even better, the French Velam model), the Smart, or the Hillman Minx that I used to own.

Picture of my old Hillman Minx by Flickr user nancyo23, by permission.

But I have a new contender: the Citroën Ami 6 shown above. Dig that crazy reverse-slanting rear window! And the jaunty way the roof flares over it! And the sexy drape of the hood over the headlights!

It also had a classically weird Citroen suspension: check out this lean! These two pictures are from the great Citroenet page.

They were sold from 1961 to 1970. I want one! I want to drive around in tight pants listening to Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, France Gall, and Brigitte Bardot.

PS --
I've given up on ever figuring out Blogger's screwed-up HTML implementation. Their "preview" isn't even close to what you actually get.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

English Teams Playing Overseas

The chief executive of the English Premier League, Richard Scudamore, wants every team in his league to play one game a year overseas, presumably in rich countries that don't have top-level soccer leagues of their own, like the USA, Japan, China, and so on.

Much as I'd like to see Tottenham play here in Seattle where I could see them, I think this is a terrible, terrible idea. It will among other things throw the perfect balance of home and away games into the toilet, with some teams gaining an unfair advantage. And, like all schemes of this type, it's only going to be successful for some teams and not others. Huge crowds will turn out for Manchester United anywhere they go (which means it will always be an away game for their opponent), but are you really going to sell a lot of tickets for Derby v. Bolton in St. Louis?

It's just another way for the top clubs to corner even more of the market than they already have. It does nothing for the smaller clubs, nothing for American soccer, and nothing for English football.

Michel Platini, president of UEFA, and Sepp Blatter of FIFA are resisting this idea. Here's my suggestion:

Tell Scudamore he can play his games anywhere he likes, but if he plays them outside of England, Premier League teams will be barred from the Champions League.

End of argument.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Jennifer, Oh Jenny

I moved to New York in the fall of 1995, because I wanted excitement. My first taste of the city the previous year, helping to put on the first Tweefest, had really set my mind ablaze. So when the opportunity arose, I took it.

It turned out the opportunity wasn't there, and my friend Keith Testcard had already promised my room in his Hoboken flat to someone else. But things move fast in New York, and at a party in a restaurant for Sally, an old friend from punk-rock days in Seattle, I met a girl who needed a roommate. Her name was Jenny.

The fact that later that night she took a bunch of ketamine in a club in the East Village -- a club which I stumbled out of at four in the morning, still throbbing away inside, might have told me something about her, but I was desperate. A couple of days later I was on the A train to see the apartment.

It was in Washington Heights, on Fort Washington Avenue at 187th Street. There's a picture of the building on the Wikipedia page for the street; the tall dark six-story block to the right. I got off the subway at 181st, terrified at what slum horrors I might find above, only to come out in a tree-lined street in a lovely old Jewish neighborhood. One thing people who don't know New York don't realize is how close the neighborhoods are to each other, and how abruptly they change; just a block away, down a flight of stairs to upper Broadway, it was solidly and vibrantly Dominican.

The apartment was a shambles. Filthy, matted with dog hair, sloping floors, fifty layers of cheap paint on the doors, no cupboards in the kitchen, only slanting bare wood shelves. Two bedrooms, though, and my room was huge by New York standards, with high ceilings. I would have said yes no matter what it looked like, but it had promise.

Jennifer had promise too. Blonde, blue eyes, short but built like a tank, and brim-full of fire and light, she laughed constantly and deep, and never stopped moving. She was intelligent and well-read, with a case full of Peter Handke and other interesting books. This is not a romance I'm telling, but I'd be lying if I said she wasn't attractive. But there was something else there, too: a kind of recklessness that was also attractive, but dangerous.

I got my first taste of this side of her personality the day I moved my belongings in. I had been keeping them in a storage facility in Hoboken near Keith's apartment. Visiting the place to pay my bill was always interesting; I met an amazing fellow there once who got out of a big black Cadillac, wearing a black pinstripe suit, black shirt, mass of gold medallions in the open neck, and slicked-back hair -- straight out of The Sopranos. I didn't ask him what he was keeping in storage.

Anyways, the day of the move, my friend Keith helped me move the boxes from the sidewalk up to the new apartment. Jennifer didn't help much, but at one point she did spend a great deal of time fixing her hair, topless, with the door open. An opportunity that some little bell inside my brain said "don't take". Keith could hear the same bell. I had met her boyfriend, a six-foot-five black man who, while charming, could have broken me like a toothpick. I think she would have liked that, actually, just for the excitement.

Her old roommate had had to leave when her heroin addiction got out of control and she stopped paying rent. That's the story I was told, at any rate. That's apparently what happened to the cupboards; she'd ripped them from the wall in a violent rage sometime. She may have been dead. I don't know; I didn't want to know. More excitement I didn't want to come near.

Jennifer was a bicycle messenger. Every day she got on her bike and rode 187 blocks and then some down to her lower Manhattan messenger office, rode all day delivering packages, and then rode home. When she got home, she usually stripped off her clothes, put her favorite Madonna record on top volume, mounted her track bike on rollers in the hall, and pedalled furiously until the entire apartment filled with steam. This was not an erotic spectacle; it was explosive and insane. She rode for up to an hour this way, laughing and occasionally screaming out loud; then she'd stop, and jump in the shower. I would be cowering in my room.

Jennifer had a dog, a German Shepherd named Hojo. I never did find out if that was after Howard Johnson, the popular (at the time) New York Met, or Cujo, the Stephen King killer dog. I've never read the book, but Hojo did have some Satanic tendencies. The poor creature was mentally ill; imprisoned in a tiny New York flat all day, he was fiercely, insanely protective of Jennifer. One thing he liked to do was bite shoes; if you put on your shoes, he would bite them while making an unearthly high-pitched throat growl. Jennifer would calm him, but if you made a move toward the door, he'd be up and at your feet again, biting them hard enough to mark your shoes and hurt your feet inside.

Another thing he liked to do was bite people, especially children. He only got a piece of me once or twice, but many times lunged at my hands. Only when Jennifer was there. When she walked him, or when I was roped into doing it, he would lunge and snap at people if they were foolish enough to come close enough to try and pet him. Kids were the worst, because the most keen on petting him. One night Jennifer came racing back into the apartment, slamming and bolting the door. "Hojo bit someone" she said, but nothing more. Later that week, groups of kids would come to the door while Jennifer was out demanding money for the doctor that a young girl had needed to see.

Jennifer had a succession of boyfriends. There was her steady boyfriend, the tall black radical in his army coat; but also a series of fellows she met through cycling or work or wherever, ranging from a nebbishy ponytailed accountant to the city's premier graffiti artist, whose name I wish I could recall. Her dates with him would be across rooftops with backpacks full of paint. She would frequently have sex with these men with the door to her room ajar, Hojo the dog wandering in and out, me in my room trying to drown out their sighs and moans with my latest finds from Other Music or Kim's downtown. Sometimes afterwards we'd sit and drink coffee all together in the tiny kitchen.

Jennifer liked to sit around and talk about her plans for the future. This mostly involved the bicycle trip she wanted to take to Italy. With Hojo, trotting along beside her. Pointing out how disastrous an idea this was, that a dog's feet couldn't possibly stand up to a high-speed run down a thousand miles of paved highway, only made her angry.

Some of our visitors were interesting. Rose, from upstairs, had lived in the building since the 1930s, and had grown up in an orphanage. She was in her eighties by then, and would sit telling stories of working in the garment industry downtown.

For all the dramatic happenings at home, the neighborhood was endlessly interesting. In the Jewish part there was an old-fashioned candy store, which in New York means kind of a combination candy store, newstand, and stationers; an old-fashioned deli, the likes of which had even by then nearly disappeared from most parts of what most people mean when they say "Manhattan", which served the best egg salad sandwiches in the world; and the most decrepit supermarket I have ever seen: an ancient A&P, about a quarter the size of an ordinary Seattle supermarket, with cardboard on the floors all winter long (for the rain and snow), and the most random and meagre selection of goods you could imagine. The produce section was simply appalling, sparse and limp and decaying at the edges, and I don't think anyone ever bought produce from them -- you went to the Koreans for that. The selection of Jewish foods was excellent, though.

A block away, and down to 181st Street, the neighborhood was all Dominican, and had everything you could need -- tiny hardware stores, a grand old Woolworth's with a lunch counter, Seinfeld-style restaurants, and all kinds of shops selling Dominican goods. I loved going into Woolworth's, and outfitted most of my apartment from there. I ate a few grilled cheese sandwiches for $1.15 there too; it was in a time warp. Across the street from Woolworth's was another, similar, but even cheaper five-and-dime store. I can't remember the name of it, but it was huge, and I remember on the top floor the ceiling was caving in and the rain pouring onto the linen section, draped with plastic. It seems grotesque but it was a wonderful place to prowl around, like being transported back to the 1950s -- I swear some of the merchandise dated from then. I wonder if it's still there? The Woolworth's isn't, of course.

One day I decided I was sick of the cockroaches and the filth, so I cleaned the kitchen. I took everything off the shelves and sprayed and cleaned, cleaned and scrubbed, scrubbed and sprayed, until the last of ten thousand roaches had emerged from their last hiding places. The sink was a double sink with a metal lid over one side; when I asked Jennifer why it was always covered, she said only "don't look in there". I looked, and it was pretty nasty, but sparing no amount of Ajax and elbow grease I made it presentable again. It took two entire days, but that kitchen was clean, dammit, and those roaches were gone. I killed thousands of them, literally trash bags full of the bastards. I'm a clean person.

Jennifer's family came to visit once, from Erie, Pennsylvania. Her dad was a pleasant enough guy, and worked for the company that made a lot of the cables and connectors I use in my line of work, so we had something to chat about. Her mother was kind of mousey and worried-looking; and her brother was severely disabled with Down Syndrome -- a cheerful fellow but
obviously a great deal of work. It was apparent that the purpose of the visit was to encourage young Jennifer to abandon her bohemian lifestyle in the city and get back to the college she had abandoned.

One day in late spring, after I'd lived there for six or seven months Jennifer asked to borrow my portable cd player, as she was driving up to see her folks. This turned out to be goodbye, as she then announced that she was packing up and moving out. Everything was taken care of, a friend of her boyfriend's was going to take her place in the apartment. I never saw my cd player again.

A couple of days after she left, the landlord came banging on the door. He was demanding many months of back rent, nearly a year. I had been paying my rent directly to Jennifer, in cash, and it turns out none of it was making its way to the landlord. The nicest part of this was that my future wife was with me then, still in the early stages of deciding if I was reliable enough to be a proper boyfriend, and here I was frantically negotiating with a very angry man in a beard, a black fedora and a long black coat. I had never met him before, but I had seen him and a dozen men who looked just like him going in and out of a special room in the basement of the building.

After a bit of one-sided discussion, during which I discovered that not only had Jennifer not been paying the rent, but that the apartment wasn't in her name but in the name of the heroin addict who preceded me, and I heard a great deal of abuse of her as well. This man wanted me the hell out of there and he wanted me out now.

I learned a bit more about New York rental law in the next few weeks, and it turned out I did a very stupid thing: I moved out. If I'd stayed, as Jennifer had stayed, I couldn't have been evicted, especially if I'd started paying rent; he could come and bang on my door, but the sheriff would never come to put me out as long as I had possession. I also didn't understand at the time how valuable it would have been to have the super on my side. But alas, I knew none of this, and so back into storage all my stuff went, or as much of it as I could get packed up in a day or two. The one thing I left behind that I still miss is my Mussolini atlas -- a huge, beautifully drawn and printed world atlas made at the request of Il Duce in the late 30s, as a particular matter of Italian pride, and especially in the face of the world's best atlas, the Times Atlas of the World, printed in London. Mussolini demanded its equal or better, and he got it -- it was gorgeous, but it was too big to fit in any of my boxes. In a landfill somewhere, I suppose.

And that's the story of Jennifer, my crazy roommate in New York. I never saw her again. Several years later, she found me by email, and after breezily asking "I hope you're not still mad at me?" started sending me emails with pornographic pictures in them, or stories of weird sex with German Shepherds. I told her to stop.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Hardest Working Band in Show Business

Some facts for young bands to dwell upon, taken from Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, by Ian MacDonald, third edition (Chicago Review Press, 2007 [1994, 1997, 2005) -- an A Capella Book.

April: 1 gig.
May: 11 gigs.
June: 11 gigs.
July: 6 gigs.
August 17-October 3: 48 gigs at the Indra Club in Hamburg.
October 4-November 30: 58 gigs at the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg.
December: 3 gigs.

TOTAL FOR 1960: 148 gigs.

January: 19 gigs.
February: 37 gigs (including their first at the Cavern Club).
March: 33 gigs.
April 1-July 1: 92 gigs at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg.
July: 25 gigs.
August: 34 gigs.
September: 31 gigs.
October: 19 gigs (with a 2-week holiday).
November: 34 gigs.
December: 27 gigs.

TOTAL FOR 1961: 351 gigs.

January: 31 gigs.
February: 35 gigs.
March: 37 gigs.
April: 11 gigs, then
April 13-May 31: 48 gigs at the Star-Club in Hamburg.
June: 25 gigs and a radio show.
July: 37 gigs.
August: 34 gigs.
September: 33 gigs.
October: 23 gigs, 2 TV shows, 1 radio show.
November: 17 gigs and 2 radio shows.
December: 20 gigs and 3 TV shows.

TOTAL FOR 1962: 351 gigs, 5 TV shows, 4 radio shows.

January: 24 gigs, 3 TV, 5 radio.
February: 30 gigs, 1 TV, 1 radio.
March: 27 gigs, 1 TV, 4 radio.
April: 20 gigs, 4 TV, 6 radio.
May: 17 gigs, 2 TV, 3 radio.
June: 21 gigs, 2 TV, 5 radio.
July: 10 gigs, 10 radio.
August: 13 gigs (including last of 274 at the Cavern), 3 TV, 2 radio.
September: 8 gigs, 1 TV, 6 radio.
October: 11 gigs, 5 TV, 4 radio.
November: 26 gigs, 11 TV, 3 radio.
December: 21 gigs, 4 TV, 4 radio.

TOTAL FOR 1963: 228 gigs, 37 TV shows, 53 radio shows.

January: 26 gigs, 1 TV, 5 radio.
February: 2 gigs, 6 TV, 3 radio.
March: no gigs (filming), 5 TV, 7 radio.
April: 2 gigs (filming), 7 TV, 2 radio.
May: 1 gig (holiday), 1 radio.
June: 17 gigs, 2 TV, 3 radio.
July: 5 gigs, 8 TV, 4 radio.
August: 14 gigs, 1 TV, 2 radio.
September: 21 gigs, 1 TV.
October: 36 gigs, 5 TV.
November: 18 gigs, 6 TV, 3 radio.
December: 16 gigs, 1 TV.
TOTAL FOR 1964: 158 gigs, 43 TV shows, 30 radio shows.

They played another 100-odd shows in 1965-66, but really they were done by then; the live act in later years was short and sloppy. That's a total, if MacDonalds's figures are correct, of 1,349 live shows in seven years. 200 shows a year is a heavy load, but think about 700 gigs in two years! And in those early days they weren't on and off in 20 minutes, either; they played for hours and hours seven days a week, two shows a day sometimes. Six hours a night in Hamburg.

And they recorded a dozen singles and six albums that you may be familiar with during that period, too. George Harrison wasn't yet 22 years old.

Get Rid of Washington's Caucuses!

Washington Democrats are in the unusual position of having BOTH precinct caucus meetings AND a primary election. But the state Democratic Party has decided to ignore the primary results entirely, and allocate delegates based on the caucuses only.

This is disenfranchisement. And the system should be scrapped. I advocate going to an ordinary primary election with proportional allocation of delegates.

On the way to my meeting, at Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center, I stopped into Ken's Market to grab a sandwich and a drink. Five people were working there; they didn't get to caucus. They didn't get heard. Next door, the bookstore and the bakery were open; their employees didn't get to caucus. Across the street from the center, Starbucks and Red Mill Burgers were open. In fact, all the shops were open, all over the neighborhood, the city, the state. That's thousands and thousands of people who don't get to have a say in who the nominee is.

One of those Saturday workers who didn't get to vote is Mrs. Fnarf. She and her cow orkers held a pretend caucus at work. 6-2 Obama.

At my caucus, an elderly woman mentioned her group of friends, none of whom have computers and none of whom knew where to caucus. Our caucus had moved from its 2004 location. They were too frail to come, anyways, and even if they had, the ones in wheelchairs could never have made it up the stairs to the third floor.

When this woman called the party hotline for help, the phone was busy, and the voice mailbox was full. She called many times. She finally got a neighbor to help her find her caucus.

Now unfolding is the scheduling snafu of the party. I'm an alternate delegate, and my little certificate has what turns out to be the wrong date for the County Convention on it: Saturday, April 19th. Unfortunately this conflicts with the Jewish holy day Passover (Erev Pesach). So they moved it to Sunday, April 13th. That's what I was told by my PCO at my caucus, at least. Turns out they moved it again, to Saturday, April 12th, but only in King County.

What we have now is a system where many of the people who want to participate are unable to do so, and many of the people who are able to can't figure out how to do it. Our nominee is going to be chosen by fewer than 10% of the registered Democrats in the state; the numbers participating is embarrassing even by the standards of an off-year school levy vote, and this is, as they continually remind us, the most important election ever.

Now, a lot of the people complaining about the caucuses are Hillary Clinton supporters. Barack Obama has done extremely well in caucuses across the country; they give him a clear advantage. Clinton has done better in primary elections. But I'm not a Clinton supporter; I caucused for Obama. But I would much rather hear from the two million or more of my fellow Washington Democrats than just rack up points for my man. I don't think it's fair.

I don't think it's democratic.

Get rid of the caucuses. Go to a primary election.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Yeah, so I'm writing in my blog here. I've never really done that before. I normally require a forum and a conversation; my best stuff, such as it is, whether on the Slog, the indiepop list, or elsewhere, has always been in response to other people. I'm going to try it this way for a while.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Pop Books

  • Simon Napier-Bell. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me. London: Ebury Press, 2005 [1983, 1998].
  • Trevor Dann. Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake. London: Portrait, 2007 [2006].
  • Joe Boyd. White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. London: Serpent's Tail, 2006.
  • Ron Jones. The Beatles' Liverpool: The Complete Guide. Liverpool: Ron Jones Associates Limited, 2006 [1991].

I read pop books like candy. Which is certainly the best way to approach Simon Napier-Bell's book, first published in expurgated form in 1983, when he was managing Wham! It's what you call a breezy romp through a quarter-century of pop music in Britain, beginning with his early efforts to play jazz trumpet, through his 60s heyday managing The Yardbirds and writing songs for Dusty Springfield, and dwelling mostly not on the records and stars but on the debauchery. Bisexual (more like omnisexual), hoovering up drugs and glugging Champagne, he partied his way through the Swinging Sixties, pausing only briefly to steal another 20 percent from his stable of artistes.

He's dismissive of the workload of pop management: "It took all of a minute a day, and suddenly there was so much money coming in that I had to take up eating lunch as well as dinner". Napier-Bell was one of the gay mafia that ran the London pop business -- Brian Epstein with The Beatles, Kit Lambert with The Who, Robert Stigwood with a variety of acts culminating in The Bee Gees, Larry Parnes, Lionel Bart. If kinky sex is your thing, there's plenty of orgy and bordello action here; if music is more interesting to you, then you'll be fascinated by the episodes with Burt Bacharach, Marc Bolan, Jimmy Page, and so on.

It's also a good look into the sprightly sleaze of the music business; one enchanting chapter tells how he traveled around all the record companies in America, selling them the rights to dozens of made-up groups that didn't even exist, solely on the basis of his reputation, without so much as a demo tape in hand, and walking out with large checks. Later, he'd find some random group playing in a club somewhere and have them supply the (terrible) music for the worthless record he'd sold.

He was right at home in the early eighties with pop confection Wham! George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley barely appear in the book. This is fluff, but lively fluff, which captures some of the attitude of the Sixties in hangouts like The Scotch of St. James, where the fellow on acid crawling under your table might be John Lennon.

Another fellow who remembers the Sixties is Joe Boyd. Boyd's not the storyteller that Napier-Bell is, but his career has involved a lot more interesting music. Getting his start putting on shows in the folkie revival scene in Harvard Square and later Greenwich Village, he was the mastermind behind the famous Newport Folk Festival where Bob Dylan plugged in and burned the eardrums of the Pete Seegers of this world. Later, he went to London, and ran UFO, the club night at the locus of the British psychedelic scene, where Syd's Pink Floyd came to prominence.

He produced Pink Floyd's first single, "Arnold Layne", but when they went on to bigger things he found himself leading a new folk revival, the one centering around Fairport Convention. He produced their earliest and best records, through the Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings period. He also did records for the Incredible String Band and, famously, depressive song genius Nick Drake.

I was most interested in the Fairport and Nick Drake sections, and I wasn't disappointed. The Drake story is well-known by now, and Boyd doesn't add much, except some nice and nuanced personal reminiscences -- and a great photo of Nick sitting in a chair reading the hilarious Richard Thompson liner notes for Fairport's Full House. The Fairport stuff is new to me, and great, particularly the contrast between the rather meek, polite boys in the band and the blowsy, loud, sweary, clumsy, emotional singer he got them to replace the less-gifted Judy Dyble: Sandy Denny, one of the great voices in the history of pop.

He also ties together some threads for me: the British folk guitar greats. I've heard John Martyn's records before, and of course Drake's; but I don't know much about Bert Jansch, or John Renbourn, or Robin Williamson, or the mysterious Davey Graham, who "combined blues and hillbilly techniques, jazz chords and traditional melodies", which sounds pretty interesting.

One of the best sections in the book describes the black blues-jazz-folk tours he led across Europe, starting with the unlikely mix of Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Brownie Terry and Sonny McGee. Terry and McGee were used to playing in front of white audiences in the folk clubs; Tharpe was America's greatest gospel singer, who also had a long career in the big band milieu, very unlike the Reverend's rough-edged swamp gospel; while Muddy Waters was of course the king of amped-up Chicago blues. Wary at first, if not downright disgusted -- in one scene the sophisticated Miss Tharpe watched in horror as the blind Reverend Davis picked up a fried egg with his fingers and dripped it into his mouth and down his shirt -- they ended up bonding together as musicians, and created some genuinely new synergy in front of gobsmacked Brit audiences. Later tours took jazz icons like Coleman Hawkins, Sweets Edison, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Kenny Clarke around Europe, with picturesque results.

Continuing in the same theme, Boyd's protégé Nick Drake gets an impressionistic look in Darker Than the Deepest Sea. Trevor Dunn can't compete with Patrick Humphries' book in biographical detail, but he's interviewed everyone, with great sensitivity, and tells the story fairly. Drake was not, of course, a one-dimensional emo poet; he was a guitarist of tremendous invention and strength, a lyricist unusually grounded in the English poetic tradition, and a soulful but subtle singer who gets into the listener's heart like few others. He was also a pathologically shy solipsist, an helplessly dependent smoker of marijuana, a petulant egomaniac, and a spoiled toff.

The first thing everybody wants to know, of course, is "did he commit suicide?" It's the nature of us to want to rubberneck tragedy. The answer is, I don't know; I don't think I care. He was obviously, painfully mentally ill; he was taking too many meds; and he'd apparently tried to hang himself sometime before his death. Suicide? Yes, no; that kind is too fuzzy for hard forensic answers. I really don't think that dwelling on the precise details of his last days is conducive to understanding his work, which is what matters; I'm especially creeped out by the tales of his legions of fans, who visited the family home, were invited inside to see his room, given dubs of his home recordings, and so on. It's ghoulish. I don't think the family can be blamed; they didn't understand what was happening for decades afterward.

Joe Boyd mentions in his book how many dreadful demo tapes he's had to listen to that were "inspired by" Drake; few of them have grasped anything beyond sad brainless acoustic guitar strums, and the few that show any kind of musical promise don't have anything like the literary reach. I can see why he doesn't listen to "White People Singing in English" anymore, even if I'm still interested.

Finally, The Beatles' Liverpool is a classic Liverpool production: sloppy, poorly edited, a bit pathetic. The cover is another in the apparently endless parade of terrible, terrible Beatles art that fills the city, which is, typically, only recognizable as them by their haircuts (sometimes you can only tell it's them by the suits, or the boots). But it's a labor of love, or a cash-in -- are they really so different? Roy Jones knows his stuff, and covers it all. As a work of Beatles scholarship, it is slight; but as a way of seeing this tragic light and lovely city, it's got some real personality. If you know Liverpool, it ties it together in a new way, and even if you don't, it's a useful way to see how geography illuminates the Fab's early life.