Monday, January 31, 2005


Sometimes someone emails you over something – and then you get chatting.

And sometimes you get to know a bit about her, her life in South Africa, her business and her dogs and her man, and sometimes she gets to know a bit about you, too.

And then you discuss other things, musical tastes say, and end up arranging to send each other tasters.

And then she’ll write – before you’ve sent it – that maybe she’ll learn more about Adam through his choice of music than through all the emails in the world.

And then as you sit burning the CD on Saturday afternoon, you wonder just what can you say about all this music?

1 Cassandra Wilson – Tupelo Honey

Lilting, lovely, relaxed, night-time music. Music To Ignore The Washing-Up With. If only there were more women singing to me such songs.

2 Paul Weller – Broken Stones

From an illegal recording of a live session: our student union markets were full of such pirate music. Mostly, you listened to them and realised the long haired man with the electric guitar really couldn’t sing and was an idiot. Like a monkey at a typewriter who got lucky, and typed out a lost sonnet of Shakespeare’s, this song from that period of my life has endured in my affections. Whereas the music of the big posturing overgrown adolescents, funnily enough, hasn’t. Except:

3 The Stone Roses – Going Down

A mythic band: hurtling from the hard, northern, working-class streets of Manchester into moody or groovy bedrooms everywhere. They were the fountainhead of several strands of new, ‘authentic’, musical subgenres, that became cool in 1990s, and which were a blessing to sincere male students across the land who wanted to belong to something, or feel like they did. This is a b-side and not one of their more famous or ambitious songs, but I’ve always liked it. It’s about oral sex.

4 Aretha Franklin – Call Me

That emphatic, powerful, tender voice making a masterpiece of truly naff lyrics, probably towards the end of the most successful part of her career.

5 Royksopp – Sparks

The football TV programme had this loopy, crazy tune they used in the stylized highlights. And an advert for a phone had this strange, edgy, electronic symphony, which accompanied images of a baby that were scattered throughout a city: on the sides of buses and buildings, in shops, in newspapers. A metaphor for picture messaging. Both were by Royksopp an internet search showed, but this is the song that I have ended up really liking from their otherwise disappointing album that tired quickly, neutered of the momentum that moving images provide. Funny how these things come about.

6 Presence – So Far Far Away From My Heart

I used to read a lot of music magazines, and have a lot of friends who were DJs or aspiring DJs or carried around their university work in record bags, at least. A lot of them liked ‘deep house’. Well, one magazine said Presence’s album was the best deep house album of the year, so back home during my summer holiday, I bought it. I didn’t like it much (it’s grown on me a bit now) but this particular track, a melancholic, late night cry, I do.

Back at university, it turned out Presence isn’t ‘deep house’: it’s tuneful house or garagey house or vocal house some other type of inferior house. What they meant by ‘deep’ was usually either intricate (i.e., some detailed thought went into the percussive arrangements) or better still, intricate with an emotional force (usually some sad instrumentals above the beats or something like that.) Although, probably what they really meant by ‘deep’ was, I’m deep for understanding and liking this stuff.

Where are they all now, the deep DJs? In offices, in banks, in pubs, their bedrooms stuffed with old records, if they haven’t overcome their nostalgia and sold them. Although to be fair, a few of them, fuelled by blind optimism and a sniff of cocaine to see them through the garish night, still make fools of themselves by entertaining at parties. Whatever. I like this tune. It doesn’t mean anything now, just that I like it.

7 Stevie Wonder – All I Do

Ok, I like 70s music. Great stuff. I have no idea if this tune is actually from the 70s (doesn’t Mr Wonder do the same thing in every decade, blissfully blind to the changes which time brings?) but it suits the coherence of my memory to say it’s from the 70s.

8 Daft Punk – One More Time

Probably the best kind of all-round house music: good to dance to, complex and groovy enough to listen to, if you can get into it. I’m really not sure if you’ll like this tune or not – some familiarity with the type of music makes it more accessible. I don’t know what you listen to out there in South Africa, on the other side of the world. Are Daft Punk famous, world-wide? Or just a little European phenomenon? I have no clue. Probably best played loud, on your own, when you can try to bop around a bit. But maybe you’ll hate it. If so, here’s the bad news: the next track is similar…

9 Cassius – Feeling For You

… although a bit more obscure. The type of people who really like this kind of music aren’t my type. It’s Saturday night music for people who’ve been in an office they don’t mind, are doing reasonably well in, but like to on the weekend indulge in something of the drugs and dancing available to them. Contented, normal, mostly-unthinking 20-somethings. They like to wear trendy clothes, have stylish hair, seduce each other randomly and promiscuously, proudly announce the quality of the drugs they’ve got, and then aggressively stride back to work on Monday, admittedly feeling a touch off-colour. But knowing they wear a knowing smile. And email each other accordingly, using code words.

But make no mistake – there’s nothing counterculture here, except the fact of illegality; there’s no spirit of rebellion, no dream of a utopia, no energy for meaningfulness. It’s an instant, intense, speedy, shared fun – with no pretences or desires to be more. (Occasionally the lyrics will suggest a little bit more – but this is an illusion, a mist. A mist suggesting magic. A mist thinly spread amongst the parochial utilitarianism of their particular fair, which is nested in no more than a village market, disguised as a world. Mist.) But some of the music is really good.

10 Nightmares on Wax – A Nights Interlude

Music for short people from the suburbs who want to dress cool, in a hip-hoppy way, and sit around stoned with music that has a bit of emotional content and depth. It says, “I may be a midget, but I have quite a mind, you know.” Handily for such awkward, self-conscious creatures, you can’t really dance to it either. I’m tall and was never really one of them, although some became my friends, and this is the only track from a whole album of this kind of stuff that I can listen to without being bored. Years later, I heard Quincy Jones’s version of ‘Summer In The City’ (?), and realised this whole song is basically an elaborated version of a section of that song, which is a much more interesting song. But I don’t have that tune to hand I’m afraid.

11 Roy Davis Jr with Peven Everett – Gabriel

A beautiful song I think, slow-paced for its genre, a dispersed jazziness interlacing with an ethereal, lamenting voice. I found it on an album of music that blurred the line between jazz and dance music, and which features many excellent, unusual tunes: Gilles Peterson & Norman Jay’s ‘Desert Island Mix’. Gilles Peterson is a famous DJ whom has introduced a lot of interesting, eclectic music to the scene in Britain. Unfortunately, it’s part of a mix, so the beginning is blurted, and has some stupid, ugly voice hectoring you to “Listen, Listen” and some other crap over the top. O well.

12 The O’Jays – Back Stabbers

I like quite a lot of tunes like this – some of which are a lot more disco-y, whereas this really is soul-pop music, I suppose, from the 70s. (Unfortunately, most of it is on tape – copied from a friend years ago – so I can’t record it for you.) The lyrics of love and the streets being tough, with people out for themselves, might sometimes form an evocative cliché. Useful for those who wish to suppose music gives them a connection with distant others, others whom for some reason have come to have a certain cachet. Black, tough, urban, American, but with a 70s strut and stomp – I suppose that is the particular cachet. And perhaps the attraction of this alien world has something to do with a lack of a feeling of authenticity for those growing up comfortably with dull parents, here in little old Britain. Anyway – most of the lyrics from this type of music, especially the more obscure stuff, can be a lot more interesting. My favourite, from an otherwise unremarkable song which isn’t on this CD, features a couple arguing about where to make love: outside or inside? Public or Private? The closet or the park? Duets, especially of this sort, are all too rare.

13 Donald Byrd – Elmina

I have always had an interest in jazz; my Dad liked it, I improvise at the piano, and used to play the trombone in a jazz band. This is a flukey find: an obscure album I picked up in a student union market. Perhaps it’s deservedly obscure, because the improvising isn’t that great. But what I like is the timbre – a fuzzy, lush mix of jazz and electric instruments, a warm but also energetic and perhaps even edgy sound, and also the complicated, fast rhythms that, remarkably, anticipate certain types of sophisticated 1990s electronic music. It’s slightly hard to listen to: going on for a long time and that. But it’s highly representative of a lot that I like. There’s no accounting for taste? Or the music you like says a lot about you? You tell me, my lovely Michelle!

14 Herbie Hancock – Dolphin Dance

I like a lot of the jazz from the 60s which is called, I think, hard-bop, and a lot of jazz tunes and artists from that period are rightly listened to still, it seems to me. The music is accessible and subtle, energetic and emotional, complex and tuneful – tricky binaries to achieve. Herbie Hancock was a master – but this tune is not so famous and somewhat atypical, being slower, odder, more spacious and more reflective. I think it’s a great song – but I know people who find it overlong and dull. I’ve never seen Dolphins; maybe it expresses something of the way they dance, or maybe it doesn’t.

15 Bill Evans – Some Other Time

I, naïve and ignorant, was at a university interview, and announced to my interviewer that I played jazz piano. He told me that I had to get hold of some Bill Evans, whom I confessed to knowing nothing of: in fact, technically the most brilliant and innovative jazz pianist ever. I have several of his albums now, which I like to different extents. This is my favourite song from my favourite album of his (‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’.) A lilting refrain, reflective, emotionally acute, but very calmed, I think. There’s nothing aggressive at all here; a similar number on the same album is called ‘Peace Piece’. I think it’s also an influence on Miles Davis’s everlasting masterpiece of an album ‘Kind of Blue’ – where Evans was also the pianist. Certainly track 5 of that album – ‘Flamenco Sketches’, I think it is called – is another version of this song. Also very beautiful. I can’t seem to locate it at the moment in my CD collection, but I’m sure it will turn up somewhere.

When I try to play jazz piano, sometimes I try to capture the mood of this track. (The style – slow, spacious and simple – is elementary to emulate, I should say.) Anyway, maybe I have even done that once or twice. When I was 21, at the end of November, my Dad died at the end of a long illness. A week or so later I was booked to go for a weekend away somewhere with some people from a creative writing course I was taking. I made a mistake I suppose, and went. The course was held in this beautiful mansion in the middle of the Welsh countryside – think rolling lawns, covered with snow on the second day, then woods, and a backdrop of mountains. Think dark-panelled rooms, old portraits, high ceilings, old-fashioned sofas, roaring fires. There was a grand piano in one such room, and it was the right kind of piano for me – not too diffuse a sound, quite clear and loud when you struck the keys – so I could use the pedals to hide my lack of a controlled technique, which makes my playing somewhat painful on much better pianos, such as Steinway’s.

One night a few of my friends were sat on the sofas, and I played my version of this song – or something like it, more melancholic maybe. I had a beer on top of the piano and was very drunk, and would swig from it when I wanted to give my right hand a rest and allow the lilting, lonely left to pose centre stage. My friends listened in total silence from over in the lounge area, and somehow I improvised without a single slip.

Afterwards I saw some of the sensitive women were crying a little, probably thinking of my Dad – all thoughts of whom I was desperately trying not to show, to them or myself. Later some of them would ask about him, trying to get me talk about it. I didn’t know them well, and didn’t do so. I’m not in touch with any of them now. At the same time, I had a new girlfriend whom I liked a lot (and still do) and was very attracted to. She had only known me two months I suppose, and our relationship was fresh and raw. She didn’t know how to speak to me about what I was going through, and avoided the subject like it was a tribal taboo. She didn’t even accompany me to his funeral, although perhaps in a sense that was appropriate; she’d never met him, we didn’t know what the future held for us.

Anyway, when she listened to the kind of music that is on the last track of this CD, or me playing the piano and trying to emulate it, which she deigned to do once, she would never say anything – about whether she liked it, or the emotional content, or anything. She’d sit stony faced, avoidant, unable to communicate anything – even indifference or boredom or dislike, which would at least have been an honest response... She liked political rock music, scruffy men shouting about what is wrong with The System. I should like to look back on the changes in me and on those missed opportunities and such differences in people with a sense of wonder – but it is only really in sadness. If this last track on this CD hints at a distant sadness from some other time in its emotional tone, then at least it is a sadness which has been resolved into something for other people to listen to. Sad whispers transformed into a beautiful, wordless thing – clear and pure and good after all.