Tag Archives: music

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist

thesadnessoftheposttruthpianist

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist by Chris Green

You don’t hear Mozart a lot on the radio these days. While his music isn’t officially banned like that of Beethoven and Bach, playing it is strongly discouraged. You can no longer buy decadent European music in the shops. No Fauré, No Debussy, no Chopin and certainly no Sebelius. Jingoism has spread to most areas of culture but it is perhaps most noticeable in music. Fed daily by post-truth sound bites, prejudice is now rife. England’s isolationist stance has strengthened its grip. Classic FM now feeds its listeners on a diet of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and even the latter is a bit suspect because of his Welsh sounding name. Wales and Scotland are of course long gone, this by mutual agreement in the aftermath of Brexit, so no Karl Jenkins or …… William Wallace. No, I guess you’ve not come across William Wallace all that frequently either. Perhaps the bagpipes were a natural obstacle for Scottish classical music that was never successfully overcome.

For those of us that really love music, it is thrilling to hear Wolfgang Amadeus’s Piano Concerto no. 23 again. It is heart-warming that in this stifling climate of fanatical bellicism, one or two broadcasters like Miles London still risk playing European music. Miles, despite his British-sounding name, has always been a champion of free speech. It could be argued that he gets away with his stance by virtue of his name. John Schafernaker was imprisoned for playing Shostakovich, this before the Russians actually appeared on the blacklist. Others, like Martin Paris and Michelle DuBois, were not only taken off the air but deported. Boys born today are required to be called Hugh or Rupert, Trevor or Nigel while girls must be named Audrey or Doris, Millicent or Lesley. In exceptional circumstances, Mary and Jane are allowed but notice has been issued to Registry Offices up and down the country to no longer allow names like Jennifer or Anne that have their origins across the Channel.

I used to enjoy going to Ristorante Rossellini for a Caprese salad with pesto sauce followed by tagliatelle Genovese and tiramisu. My partner, Patrizia and I would share a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. Puccini or Donizetti would be playing gently in the background. Luigi would come over during the meal and ask if everything was a tuo piacimento. Sadly, Italian restaurants have all been closed down and Patrizia has been repatriated. Cheese on toast with a bottle of brown ale on my own at the Dog and Duck with whippets running around and Ed Sheeran blaring out is just not the same.

Puzzled by how the wave of nationalism grew so rapidly, I decided to investigate its origins. What had happened to the idea of the global village? Jingoism seemed to be going against the general tide of cultural exploration. After all, until recently we had been all too willing to go on Mediterranean holidays. We couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sex. We were quick to develop a taste for wine, olive oil and garlic. We readily took to café society and al fresco dining and brought it home. Pizza parlours proliferated and late night kebab houses opened in every town. We didn’t even baulk at eating snails or some of the unsavoury things Germans put in their sausages. We eagerly participated in European sporting events and brought over so many European footballers that it was difficult to find a British one in any of our top flight teams.

The turn of the tide appears to have been the outbreak of mad cow disease in the late 1990s which prompted the EU to refuse to buy our beef. This struck at the heart of the British psyche. Cows, it appears were the linchpin of our culture. British beef, British beef, British beef, we chanted. We railed and railed but to no avail. Our continental comrades refused to listen. Brussels quickly became branded as the root of all evil. We wanted a life without the interference of Johnny Foreigner. Everything bad that happened could now be blamed on the foul capital of that slimy little lowland backwater that nobody wanted to visit.

But, to fully explain the demonisation of all things European, perhaps we might turn our eyes once more to music. Every year the United Kingdom, as it was then, would carefully craft the perfect song to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Each year it was announced in the press that this time we stood a realistic chance of taking the trophy but each year we would get fewer and fewer points. This was a travesty as we felt, with some justification I understand, that we produced the best pop music in the world. This was the area in which we excelled.

I wish I could go back to those days before the ignominious tabloid headline about bovine TB. To the days when you could hop across the Channel on Eurostar. To when you could peruse the Picasso paintings in the Tate or buy an Alfa Romeo legally. To those days when Bruch’s Violin Concerto was number 1 on the Classic FM Countdown. To the time when I was a dazzling young pianist, fresh from an Amadeus Scholarship and enjoying the first fruits of success. I had hopes and dreams. I did not need self-help books or a prescription for anti-depressants. Things were better then.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Hat Band

hatband

Hat Band by Chris Green

A jazz musician making his way down an Exeter street on a Wednesday morning with a charity shop bag full of bargain books can hardly be blamed for failing to notice that he is being tailed by a tall, thin man in a dark overcoat. Musicians are more accustomed to being looked at than looking, a matter which helps to explain why the thin man in the dark overcoat has been able to keep an eye on Max Tempo’s movements unnoticed for a day or two. Max is simply not aware that there is anything untoward in his world and why would he be? His quintet has a full diary of bookings, the promise of a recording contract and he has the beginnings of a new tune in his head. This is what preoccupies him as he approaches RAMM in Queen Street, where he feels he might drop in and have a cup of tea and sketch out the chords of the new tune on the pad he carries around with him. Maybe afterwards he can have a look at the paintings in the new exhibition by the modern artist whose name temporarily escapes him. Belinda mentioned him that morning over breakfast. Portraits assembled from cut up phone books or something like that, she said.

Max Tempo is not even curious when he catches the tall, thin stranger casting furtive glances from the corner of the café in RAMM, where he is enjoying his lemon polenta cake. The man probably recognises him from one of his gigs. This happens all the time. People are just too shy to come over and say they enjoyed the set. Or, is he merely admiring his brightly coloured African blazer and striped Jazz cap. It does register with him however when he encounters the same stranger waiting outside the gents toilet, but he does not give this a second thought. After all, there are gay men everywhere these days.

‘I wonder who that fellow in the black Jaguar is,’ Belinda says, looking out of the bay window of their townhouse. ‘He’s been sitting there all afternoon.’

‘Probably broken down or something,’ Max says. Max is working on the arrangement for his new tune on his iMac. The piano part is coming along well but the guitar part is proving trickier than he first thought it was going to be. This is the trouble when you try to put in too many minor chords.

‘Now I come to think of it, he was there yesterday afternoon too,’ Belinda says. ‘When I came back from the leisure centre. I noticed it because it’s quite an old car, isn’t it? Fellow in a dark coat and hat with his head in Jazz Weekly. Peering over the top of it, he was. I remember the banner headline Big Fifties Jazz Revival. I thought he must have been a friend of yours. There were some instruments in the back of the car too. Saxophones, I think.’

‘Perhaps he’s with Green Flag,’ says Max, who has not been listening. ‘They are pretty slow in coming out.’

‘He keeps looking over this way, Max.’

‘You want me to go and ask him what he’s doing, is that it? Perhaps I should invite him in for a tea and cake. Maybe, he can stay for dinner.’

‘No need to be like that, Max.’

‘I’m trying to finish this tune, Bee.’

Max feels It is always a good idea to open the set with a good old jazz standard. So, at Cool for Cats, the Max Tempo Quintet open with Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. As he looks around, Max feels pleased that there is a healthy turnout for a weekday, a couple of hundred perhaps, a good mix of all ages, couples and singles, a few gays and a few hipsters thrown in. So, Max feels they might try out the new number, now that Buck has put in the new guitar part and Bram has the tenor saxophone solo worked out. Max has given it the working title, Borsalino.

The band’s set, featuring highlights of their own material along with reworked standards, goes well. There is a good response from the audience to the new number. Although it is sometimes difficult to see everything that is going on from behind the piano, during the last few numbers, Max can’t help noticing that there are two men with no rhythm dressed in dark vintage overcoats sitting at a table towards the back. Alongside the revellers, they seem oddly out of place and out of time. As Max leaves Cool for Cats after the set, humming a new tune that is coming to him, he finds the same two men are waiting for him by his car. Is that a Fedora the one pointing the gun is wearing?

‘Nice and easy now!’ the other one, the stockier of the two says, stepping out of the shadow.

Definitely a Trilby, the stocky one is wearing, thinks Max. Wait! He’s also got a gun. What’s happening to people in this sleepy corner of the country? It’s always been so peaceful and laid back down this way. The Max Tempo Quintet have been able to get away with more slow numbers here than anywhere else in the country. You wouldn’t be able to follow Misty with The Nearness of You in Bristol or Swindon.

‘You are coming for a little ride with us,’ Fedora says, without the menace you might expect from a seasoned gunman. He ushers his Max towards a Jaguar with blacked out windows. Against his weak protests, he is bundled into the back. Without ceremony, Fedora and Trilby get in and the car speeds off.

………………………………

Ella Valée plays jazz singer, Liv Golden in the long-running television series, High Tide. In case you’ve not seen it, High Tide takes place over an indeterminable time frame and is set on an imaginary island where nothing is what it seems. When Ella is snatched from the set at Shepperton during filming by two thugs with bad manners in dark suits and nineteen fifties hats, she takes it to be an unscripted development in the plot. Surprises like this often take place in High Tide. Director, Leif Velasquez does nothing in a conventional way. Uncertainty, he says, keeps actors on their toes. The series plays around with alternate realities, multiverses, sadomasochism and jazz. A typical episode of High Tide will feature flashbacks and flash-forward sequences, secret agents, doppelgängers and speaking dolphins. Liv Golden usually gets to sing a number or two, in a carefully selected hat. This is one of the regular features of the show, probably the only regular feature the show.

Ella Valée first begins to suspect that something might be wrong on the silent drive away from the studio in the big black Jaguar. Neither the stocky gangster in the Trilby who forces her in at gunpoint or the long, lean one in the Fedora has anything to say. It would be unusual, she thinks, to place such a protracted silence in a prime time TV drama. Not that the unusual phases Ella these days. She has learned that anything can happen shooting High Tide. But, why are they going so fast and where are the cameras? She looks around her. She can see none of the usual paraphernalia for filming inside the car and the vehicles that usually accompany them with kit for the shoot are nowhere to be seen. This is not something that is scheduled to happen. These goons are for real. They are abducting her.

For miles upon miles, the forbidding silence in the car persists. Why don’t the two goons speak, Ella wonders? They could at least threaten her or swap stories with one another about buying hats or gunrunning. She notices they are keeping to windy B roads. Back lanes these might be but she recognises the some of the place names. Stockbridge, Middle Wallop, Winterslow. They seem to be heading south west. It would help to have some idea what was happening. It’s not likely to be good but it would be helpful to know.

………………………………

Whichever genre of popular music, drums and bass represent the driving force of a band. There have been some great rhythm sections over the years. Depending on your proclivities. Max Roach and Charlie Mingus, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, or Sly and Robbie might be ones that spring to mind. Sticks Mullins and Bernie McCoy may not enjoy the same stature as the aforementioned, in fact, you have probably not heard of them but for years they have been the backbone of the jazz combo, the Zoot Norris Seven.

Sticks and Bernie are puzzled as to why two burly hoods should seize them in the middle of the day from the Pannier Market in Tavistock where they were innocently trying on hats and bring them to this big old house in the middle of Dartmoor. Questioning their captors on route about what was happening met with the cryptic, you’ll find out soon enough, sunshine. They haven’t. The hoods appear to have just dropped them off here and left them. Not a clue as to why they might be here. However with the doors triple-locked and the windows barred and boarded, they are unable to escape. Apart than this, it seems they have free run of the place.

Someone is tinkling the ivories in an upstairs room. They follow the direction of the notes and find a showy pianist playing a catchy jazz number on a Yamaha.

‘You need a bit of a beat behind that, bud,’ says Sticks. Secretly he quite likes it. Zoot doesn’t come up with melodious arpeggios like this.

‘And perhaps a nice hat instead of that bandana?’ says Bernie. ‘Something with a brim. And a hat band. How about a Panama?’

‘I’m Sticks and he’s Bernie, by the way,’ says Sticks. ‘Other than hat advice, we might be able to help you out with some drums and bass.’

‘That’s what we do, bro,’ says Sticks. ‘I’m drums and he’s bass.’

‘Cool!’ says Max, surprised but pleased by the intrusion. ‘There’s a string bass in the closet and a set of drums.’

‘Seriously?’ says Bernie.

‘And a cupboard full of saxophones along with a trumpet or two,’ says Max.

‘Really?’ says Bernie. ‘All we need now is a chanteuse,’

‘I can be your chanteuse,’ says the beguiling woman in the wide-brimmed pink hat who seemingly appears out of nowhere. ‘I’m Ella Valée.’

‘I bet you are, babe’ says Sticks.

‘Very droll, Casanova. Ella Valée is my name. You may have seen me in High Tide. I play Liv Golden, the jazz singer.’

They begin to share stories about being picked up off the streets by hoodlums. Max Tempo and Ella Valée it transpires have been at the house for two days. They too were just dumped there. ‘Wait for developments,’ they were told and then left to their own devices. Both were a little frightened at first when they found the doors and windows barred. But, they discovered running water, food, electricity, musical instruments and even some recording equipment, not exactly state of the art but even so, serviceable. Certainly, a better state of affairs than you might expect after being abducted. They even found changes of clothes and toothbrushes. So, instead of thinking of escape, they settled in. There are no phones of course. The captors took away their mobiles. Max hopes that Belinda isn’t worrying too much but he imagines she will be and Ella, if she is honest, is glad of a break from her fiancé, Brad. Brad has become a bit serious of late, she feels, and she’s not sure she’s ready for that level of commitment.

‘Why do you think these geezers have brought us all here then?’ asks Bernie. ‘And who the fuck are they?’

‘Exploitation,’ says Ella. ‘They must think they are going to get something out of us. Some kind of performance or product.’

‘The music business is a more cut-throat game than it was back in the day, for sure’ says Max.

‘Agents in the music business all behave like gangsters these days,’ says Sticks. ‘Managers and promoters too. Crooks, the lot of them.’

‘But, the geezers who brought us here are a throwback to the fifties,’ says Bernie. ‘They are wide-boys, spivs, whatever you want to call them.’

‘Perhaps they have brought us all here to form some kind of retro band,’ says Sticks. ‘Apparently, vintage jazz is making a comeback. I read about it in Jazz Weekly. And they’re keeping us prisoner here to cut some tracks and make some money for them. That’s what I reckon.’

‘Bit of a longshot though,’ says Ella. ‘We’ve not even played together.’

‘But they would have seen you sing every week in High Tide,’ says Bernie. ‘So not completely a longshot. And clearly, they’ve seen Max play. And the dude’s damn good.’

‘I already have a band,’ says Max. ‘The Max Tempo Quintet. And we’re doing pretty well. We might even have a record deal. Clint Snider of CPS Recordings should be in touch any day now. Come to think of it, he was supposed to get back to me last week. I probably missed Clint’s call through being here.’

‘We’re in a jazz band too,’ says Bernie. We’re the Zoot Norris Seven.’

‘Sorry, I don’t think I’ve heard of you,’ says Max.

‘I guess Zoot’s not that ambitious,’ says Bernie. ‘But we get gigs locally. The Nobody Inn and The Jolly Yachtsman last month. And we’ve had one or two good reviews.’

‘Hey! Look at the name on the bass drum,’ says Sticks. ‘Hat Band! It’s all beginning to make sense now.’

‘What?’ says Max.

‘Don’t you see, fellas?’ says Sticks. ‘Bernie is right. Those rogues are setting us up as Hat Band. What kind of name is that?’

………………………………

Do you really think those bozos will make us a million?’ says Frankie.

Of course, Frankie,’ says Duke. ‘No doubt about it.’

It’s just that I’m not sure that many people watch High Tide so they may not know who Ella Valée is.’

You worry too much, Frankie.’

Also, I think that the pianist might be a fairy like that Elton whatshisname.’

It hasn’t done Elton whatshisname any harm, has it?’ says Duke. ‘Anyway, this is jazz we’re talking about. Jazz isn’t about image.’

I know that, Duke. Jazz is all about the music.’

And, fifties Jazz is going to be the next new thing, remember.’

I guess you are right, Duke. We are due a bit of good luck, aren’t we?’

Luck’s got nothing to do with it, Frankie. Certainly you have to be able to take advantage of a situation. But, it’s all to do with calculation and confidence. But, with a name like Hat Band, they can’t fail. …….. I wonder who the original Hat Band were.’

We’ll probably never know, will we? But it was dead lucky you came across that job lot of their instruments, Duke. By the way, how did you know that big old house on Dartmoor was empty and the owner was away in Japan?’

I keep my ears open, Frankie.’

The best bit was you coming up with the toy guns, though, They all really went for it. Scared the living shits out of them.’

Shall we finish our drinks and go back and see what they’ve got for us? They are bound to have got a number or two by now. We’ll tell them they need to have enough tunes for the album before we let them go. Got your gun, Frankie?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Concerto

concerto2

Concerto by Chris Green

1: Allegretto con moto

There are not many famous Spanish concert pianists, fewer still from Cantabria, that rainy green strip in the north of Spain. Nia Buendía might have joined this small elite, if only she had had larger hands. She mastered Mozart’s piano sonatas before she was ten and won regional competitions playing Beethoven Concertos when she was in her early teens. Catalan composer, Isaac Albéniz’s piano works are considered by many to be challenging, but Nia breezed through them. She took on Chopin and Schumann, winning acclaim for her lyrical interpretations of both composers. Even the difficult Carnaval caused her no problems. She was at the top of her game. At this stage, fame beckoned.

Sadly for Nia, classical pianists are eventually expected to have a go at Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov raises the bar a little. Even the greats have trouble. Rachmaninov, of course, had very big hands. He could comfortably straddle a thirteenth, whereas Nia could just manage an eighth. Nia could have exercised caution and elected to play his Piano Concert No 2, which is less challenging, but she chose to perform the famously difficult Rach 3. Somehow she managed to get through the first two movements, but the Third Movement proved to be her downfall. Her hands were simply too small to span and reach the extra notes of the giant chords. This was the Iberian National Young Musician of the Year event and her performance was televised. It was a disaster and afterwards, Nia broke down. She did not perform in public again. She was just nineteen.

For months afterwards, Nia experienced a recurring nightmare about her performance. In the nightmare, instead of shrinking off from the stage meekly at the end of the concerto, she took a blacksmith’s hammer and set about breaking the Steinway into pieces. Her therapist, Juan Loco, suggested that this was a positive sign. He said that by smashing the piano, she was taking control of the situation. It did not feel this way to Nia. Her spirit crushed, she withdrew further inside herself.

She tried to hide her despair under a cloak of normality. She had one or two lovers and eventually got married to Pablo Rodrigues, a provincial town planner in Santander with whom she raised two normal if unexceptional children, Javier and Josefina. But something was missing from her life. Her sparkle had gone. She was just going through the motions of living. Days passed and years passed with nothing to distinguish them from one another. Nia worked part time at the library then came home to cook dinner for the family. She pretended to like the television shows that Pablo liked and to understand golf. He, in turn, pretended to forget her birthday and not notice when she had her hair done. Twice a year they would have Pablo’s friends from the planning office and their wives round to dinner and she would cook paella and twice a year Pablo’s friends would return the compliment. Every year they went on holiday for the last week of August to Gijón, one hundred and forty kilometres along the coast.

Many of us pass our sad little lives never rocking the boat or troubling the pens of history’s copy writers. Perhaps we have nothing to say. The ennui of Nia’s early adult years may indeed be typical. What happens when in the middle of life we discover that time has begun to speed up? The expression mid-life crisis is perhaps apt. Sometimes it takes an unexpected event or a major health scare to jolt us out of our complacency. To show us that life is actually something that is finite.

To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, there came a point in her late thirties when Nia realised that Paris, sports cars and warm winds blowing her hair were not going to feature much in her life. She decided that a stable town planner might be better equipped to deal with the heteroclitic needs of teenage children than a soul in torment. Also, there was the terrible secret that she was not ready to share. She felt it was for the best all round that she made a clean break. In short, one day when Pablo was at work and Javier and Josefina were at school, she packed a bag, cleared out the joint bank account and left. Had she thought a little more about it she might have left a note to explain her reasons, but then Pablo might have pursued her and taken her prisoner again.

2: Largo misterioso

Let’s join Nia Buendía in New Orleans, Louisiana, the centre of voodoo, blues and jazz. Nia has taken an out of season riverboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. The blame for this strange pilgrimage must rest with young Javier’s copy of Las Aventuras de Huckleberry Finn which she found lying around. Reading it made her realise that human beings were nothing without an adventure. She also read Simone de Beauvoir’s El Segundo Sexo, which her friend, Flavia lent her. Why shouldn’t women as well as men have adventures? You had to take your chances in life. This was not a dress rehearsal for something else.

It has been a year or two since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. Nia is at Po’ Boy’s Bar on the famous Bourbon Street and has had her bag stolen, with her passport and credit cards. This does not come as a surprise to Red Sayles, the jazz musician who has come over to comfort her. ‘Since Katrina, there’s no point in going to the police,’ he tells her. ‘They ain’t that big on crime solving.’

Unable to pay for the hotel and with nowhere else to go, Nia takes up Red’s offer to put her up until she gets sorted. He has an apartment just off of Basin Street, which he shares with some other musicians, but as luck would have it they are out of town. Red takes the opportunity to tell her what life in The Big Easy is like.

‘For the first few weeks after Katrina there was violence, looting, murder and rape,’ he says. ‘Then they sent in The National Guard. But that did not seem to help that much. There was more violence, looting, rape and murder. People was afraid. Except for journos looking for a story they just stopped coming. Everything was closed. There was no work. There was nothing in the shops.’

‘But I thought it was alright now,’ says Nia. ‘Well, until I had my bag stolen.’

‘It is alright. You was just unlucky, ma’am, that’s all. I guess it all takes time for things to settle. The city is slowly recovering. Places are re-opening, but for many it is a hand to mouth existence.’

‘I did see a few beggars.’

‘Yeah, but only a few, because people here have got pride. New Orleans is made up of Cajun and Creole. Cajun is French-speaking white American and Creole is French speaking black American. Now, I’m half Cajun and half Creole and I don’t speak French. Work that one out.’

‘I see.’

‘But I get by. If you know the right people, though, you can still get by. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is probably the only city in the modern world that is not homogenised, it has its own character. Most cities have become theme parks, but New Orleans, ma’am, New Orleans is real. I don’t think I will ever leave. The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air.’

‘That’s nice,’ says Nia. ‘Where is that from?’

‘Satchmo,’ says Red.

‘That’s Louis Armstrong, isn’t it,’ says Nia.

‘Yeah, the one and only. New Orleans got soul, you know. Music is its soul. You don’t play for the money here, you do it for the music.’

Nia is guarded about what she shares. She talks about how her trip down the Mississippi was an attempt to satisfy her vagabond spirit. She says little about her life with Pablo and drops it casually into the conversation that she has two children as if it is something that happened in a past life. Red does not pursue the enquiry.

Nia does not even mention that she once played the piano. But, through a comment she makes here and there, Red begins to realise that she has an understanding of music. One night when he comes home from playing in a club, he catches her tinkling around on his practice keyboard. This is the first time in years that she has played. Red can’t help but notice that she is not a beginner. He listens quietly from the next room. He feels that there is a great sadness about her playing. It is not just the minor key that describes her melancholy but the way she puts that extra space between the descending notes.

‘It might not sound like it, but that’s the blues you’re playing,’ says Red. ‘That there tune your playing is coming from a place deep inside.’

‘Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there.’

‘It’s a pretty tune,’ he says. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’

Nia explains a little about her classical training and about her downfall.

‘Rachmaninov,’ he says. ‘You’re jivin me, right? He sounds like he’s hitting the dang piano with a blacksmith’s hammer.’

‘You mean …… the big chords?’ says Nia, taken aback by the image.

‘Yeah, them big chords, if that’s what you can call them. ……. But I do like some classical music. Satie is cool, you can do something with his tunes, and Debussy. …….. But Rachmaninov and all those Russian cats are a no-no. All artists and musicians should be looking for stillness in their art. You get disconnected when you lose your stillness and this Rachmaninov sure is disconnected.’

Red persuades Nia to sit in on a session at a lunchtime the following day and it goes down well with the punters. In his evening set, he gives her a solo spot. She finds that Chopin lends himself to jazz. She puts in a bit of Bach too.

‘That was great,’ Nia says. ‘I enjoyed that more than turning over pages of music over and over to get to the end of a piece. I wanted it to just go on and on.’

‘That’s cool then,’ says Red. ‘You’re hired.’

‘But it can’t last,’ says Nia, her face dropping. ‘You see. There’s something I haven’t told you.’

She tells Red the secret that she has shared with no-one. She tells him that she has a rare incurable degenerative blood disease and according to the doctors back home has just a few months to live.

‘Nothing’s incurable,’ says Red, composing himself. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve witnessed here in New Orleans. I know a Creole traiteur called Faucon Noir who can make the lame walk and make the blind see. He can probably even bring the dead back to life. They say Faucon Noir is 114 years old but you take a look at him, he doesn’t look a day older that you or me. Have you heard about Haitian voodoo?’

‘Isn’t it all dolls and pins?’

‘That’s the common myth isn’t it? But gris-gris, as we call it, is not just mojo bags of rabbits’ feet and dragon’s blood. It ain’t ginseng or tai chi or acupuncture, this is the real deal. It’s a spiritual force which can be used to heal the body, mind and spirit.’

‘How does this ….. gris-gris work?’

‘I don’t know how it works. All I know is that it does work. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans will tell you that it works. You just wait and see. Faucon Noir will cure you of your rare blood disease or my name’s not Red Sayles.’

3: Allegro con sentimento

Let’s move on. Having herself been spared, Nia Buendía feels she must do something worthwhile to acknowledge her good fortune. The Advance Africa initiative provides her with the perfect opportunity, teaching in a special school in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has suffered a catalogue of famines and disasters. It is near the bottom of the table in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and living standards. It badly needs people like Nia. She joins a team of committed overseas voluntary workers of various nationalities.

Nia’s role is to teach disturbed children through music. She believes where children have suffered trauma in their lives, that music can help them to develop individual, creative, and social skills in a way that language alone cannot. This is fortunate because although Nia’s French is good and French is the official language in Senegal, it is spoken only by an educated minority. With a population of over two million, Dakar is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Many languages are spoken here, but on the streets, the one that you hear the most is Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French and Arabic.

Dakar is all streetlife and primary colours. Everywhere there are vibrant markets selling fruit and fish, weaving medinas with makeshift stalls selling vivid textiles, tribal masks, mosaic tiles and brightly coloured beads. Citroen cars of every vintage criss-cross one another in bouts of traffic chaos. Children play football on swathes of urban scrubland and spin car tyres like hoops between streams of buzzing mopeds. Men carry accordions, bongo drums and curiously shaped koras down to the beach. You can hear the rhythms of mbalax music pounding day and night. It’s a musical culture. Senegal has a rich musical history and has spawned a wealth of talent. There are some brilliant musical role models for Nia to call upon, musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Mory Kanté.

Loup Gaultier is a teacher at Nia’s school. He is French-Senegalese. He has long grey locks tied back. He smiles a lot, revealing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wears a tribal necklace of tusks and shells, and snake rings on each finger of his left hand. He is softly spoken and is the sort of person that people feel they can open up to, sure of a sympathetic ear. He has worked in West Africa for many years. There is not a lot he doesn’t know about this part of the world.

‘What brings you to Senegal?’ he asks Nia. ‘We do not get many people from Spain.’

Nia explains about the miracle in New Orleans. How she was given a new lease of life by a venerable Creole mystic using ancient African spells. Loup understands the power of juju, djinn, hoodoo or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. He is not surprised by Nia’s tale. He has heard many like it.

She goes on to tell him about her previous life in Spain and how she does not feel she can return to her family there. ‘I can’t change what has happened, only what has yet to come,’ she says. Maybe I will be able to return one day, but I have work to do here first.’

Loup nods his agreement. It is always best to be non-judgemental when listening to others’ explanations of their actions. You can’t tell others what to do; they have to reach their own conclusions.

‘Why did I choose Senegal?’ Nia continues. ‘Simple. I found an advert for the voluntary service on the internet, was able to speak French and picked a place where speaking French might be useful. …….. And I’m loving Senegal. It’s so full of life.’

‘You might like what you see today with all the laughter and gaiety in the streets,’ Loup says. ‘But you have to realise that Senegal is putting on a brave face for the world. There is a lot that is hidden. Did you know there are three refugee camps within twenty miles of here? And, Senegal has a shameful past in collusion with the French. Saint Louis just down the coast was once one of Africa’s busiest slave ports.’

Perhaps they had touched on the slave trade at school back home in Cantabria, but Nia had not taken in the grim details.

Loup tells her how slavery was part of a triangular trade. The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people. For each captive, the African rulers would receive guns, ammunition and other manufactured goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods from slave plantations included cotton, sugar, tobacco, and molasses across the Atlantic to Europe.

‘In the twenty years from 1720, French ships enslaved two hundred thousand Africans to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean,’ says Loup.

‘I seem to remember hearing that a quarter of them died on the ships going over,’ says Nia. ‘In a sense, I suppose they were the lucky ones.’

‘Its impossible to even imagine the conditions today. Ships were packed, it was dark and hot and airless and they lived in shit, piss, and vomit. They had little to eat but even worse they had little fresh water to drink.’

‘And, of course, no better when they got there, I imagine.’

‘Many of those leaving from here were taken to sugar plantations in Haiti. During the eight-month sugar harvest, slaves worked continuously around the clock. The accidents caused by long hours and primitive machinery were horrific.’

‘And it went on for years before anyone did anything about it. And, it’s not that long ago.’

‘France continued the trade legally until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had abolished it. Even after this five hundred French ships continued trading illegally. Altogether, a million and a half enslaved Africans were taken by French ships.’

‘So the French were the worst,’ says Nia.

‘No-one comes out of it well. But, if it’s any comfort Spain abolished slavery twenty years earlier.’

‘Not a lot of comfort, really.’

‘Anyway, that’s enough of the history lesson, don’t you think?’ says Loup. ‘Except, of course, to say that the Haitian slaves became the Creoles in New Orleans.’

‘I know,’ says Nia. ‘Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, which means a slave born in the master’s household.’

‘Why I really came over is that I have something to ask,’ says Loup.

‘Fire away,’ says Nia.

‘I’ve been given this boy called Jimi,’ says Loup. ‘He can’t read or write but he’s a genius on the guitar and the piano.’

‘With a name like Jimi, perhaps he should stick to the guitar,’ says Nia.

‘I don’t think that Jimi is his real name, but anyway, I thought you might be able to teach him some classical music.’

‘I could take him through some Etudes to get him started, I suppose.

‘I believe he was thinking more in terms of Rachmaninov. He saw a young pianist playing Rachmaninov on television recently.’

‘Does he have big hands?’

‘Yes, he does as it happens,’ says Loup. ‘We think that his father might have been a ..’

‘Blacksmith,’ Nia finishes his sentence.

‘How did you know?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

Light Fandango

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LIGHT FANDANGO by Chris Green

July 1966: Sunny Afternoon

We are in the midst of a heatwave, there are smiles on people’s faces and Sunny Afternoon is at Number One. It seems that the gloom and austerity of the post-war years, which in my nineteen years is all I have known, have finally been stripped away. There is a new sense of optimism. According to Magic Max, the time is right for change. It’s the dawning of a new age, he says. A cultural shift is taking place. You only have to look around you to see that people are getting out a bit more and beginning to dress more colourfully.

There isn’t often a lunchtime rush at Licensed to Fill sandwich bar, more of a steady trickle of customers throughout the day. Although local artist, Gooch did some creative sign-writing to draw attention to our little establishment, we are not in what you might call a prime position. We are off the lower end of East Street. We are at the wrong end of Blind Alley to get the office workers from the banks and insurance companies and too near to the Eight Bells to be attractive to browsers from the gift shops in Coleridge Close.

However, today we are inundated. Swarms of young people in their gladrags are tentatively looking the place over to see what is going on. The singer from the Small Faces came in yesterday. I don’t know what he was doing here in the provinces but he seemed to know what he wanted. So, word has probably got around that there is more to be had at Licensed to Fill than cheese and tomato toasties and tuna mayonnaise baguettes. What we have is hashish. Nineteen kilos of Morocco’s finest that Arlo brought back last week in his converted camper van, along with his stories of how they smoke it freely everywhere in Marrakesh and Tangier. We can’t really put a sign up at Licensed to Fill advertising our new line as it is definitely illegal in the UK, but by the interest we are now getting perhaps we won’t need to advertise it. Word of mouth might be sufficient. Arlo says we just need to be cool. I think he means we need to keep an eye out for the law. Not that we see them too much in Sinton Green. It is not a crime hotspot.

Arlo runs Licensed to Fill with his partner, Orla. They bought the lease from Mr and Mrs Broccoli a few months ago. I am helping out at Licensed to Fill through the summer to supplement my meagre student grant. It was either this or deckchair attendant at Broad Sands beach which is ten miles away. An easy decision, as I have no transport. Licensed to Fill is a relaxed pace to work. We have a background soundtrack of all the latest releases as they come out. Arlo and Orla are hip to what’s happening. We’ve got Stan Getz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. We’ve got Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Love, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension and something by a new band called Jefferson Airplane. All to be played loudly.

September 1966: Tomorrow Never Knows

Magic Max might be right. Things are moving on. We have the Mothers of Invention. We have Seven and Seven Is. We have Revolver, with the transcendent, Tomorrow Never Knows. There is a new word, psychedelic. It’s not in the dictionary yet, but it will be. The whole language that we speak is changing. Guys are now dudes or cats and girls are now chicks or babes. Good things are a gas or a blast and bad things are a drag or a bummer. We’re having a name change too. Arlo and Orla have decided that the name Licensed to Fill is yesterday. James Bond is old hat. Gooch is painting a new sign. I’m not sure about the durability of a name like New Hat. People might think that it refers to a milliners, but it is Arlo and Orla’s decision. If they really were set on a hat theme, perhaps Mad Hatter might have been a better choice, considering the clientele we are getting lately. The dude in the floral brocade trousers and the lime green cowboy boots and the tall one in the orange boiler suit with the corkscrew hair, for instance. And the cat in the space suit, the one we call Major Tom. Someone should write about these people. They would make a great story, or a play, or maybe a song.

Our trade links with Morocco have been streamlined. Now the hash is brought over, hidden in cases of clothing and textiles. Being shipped it may be, but it is flying off the shelves. I think Arlo has an arrangement with the police, whereby he bungs them a few quid now and again and they turn a blind eye to what is going on in Blind Alley.

We have a monkey called Harold who performs magic tricks and a crimson-bellied parakeet called Oscar who mimics every sound he hears. Oscar can say hello, how are you today and would you like coleslaw on that. In addition, he warbles and whistles his way through the day like an accomplished flautist. His repertoire includes Autumn Leaves and Blue Rondo a la Turk along with passable imitations of Paint it Black and Norwegian Wood.

November 1966: Sunshine Superman

I missed enrolment. Somehow, it just slipped my mind and it’s been six weeks now. I won’t be going back to university. I can’t see the point. Sociology seems such a waste of time. All that number crunching about people’s lives and examining the ins and outs of matters that should simply be allowed to run their course. Besides, the opportunities for gratification are so much greater in this brave new world I am exploring through my connections with New Hat.

The cultural landscape, as Magic Max refers to it as, is becoming stranger by the week. I’m not sure who the Foucault and Bourdieu dudes that he speaks of are, but we do have conversations about the likes of Andy Warhol, Marshall McLuhan, RD Laing and Kurt Vonnegut, well, mostly Kurt Vonnegut, as I have just read Cat’s Cradle. We have started selling International Times, a cool new underground newspaper at the café. The editor, Miles is a friend of Arlo’s. But most importantly for us, the music is breaking new ground. With Sunshine Superman, Good Vibrations, Da Capo, and Don Cherry’s Symphony for Improvisers, stylistic boundaries are being expanded. Melody Maker is calling it progressive pop.

We have begun showing art-house films on Thursday evenings, Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut, Resnais. I’m not sure what some of them are about but perhaps that’s not the point. They are ambiguous, dreamlike, surrealistic. Perhaps this is enough. Weird is cool. Last Year in Marienbad was long and baffling but oddly enjoyable. Orla says you should not look for meaning in everything, you should go with the flow, whatever that means. She punctuates her conversation with aphorisms, like, be here now, do not hate, meditate, and you’re either on the bus or off the bus.

Lately, I am finding it hard to get in to work on time. Ten am. seems very early. It’s not that work at New Hat is strenuous. It’s the changes in lifestyle. Late nights now seem obligatory. I’m often not in bed before six. It’s a good thing that most of the customers also seem to be late risers and that Arlo and Orla are not too concerned with New Hat attracting breakfast trade.

By midday, New Hat will be crowded with colourful people. There’s Satan Ziegler and the earth magic crowd, waxing lyrical about ley lines and UFOs. There are the dandies of the underworld and the laid back musos. Then there are the jugglers and the clowns. Denny, Lenny and Bozo are usually buzzing around doing their business and Spike and Stoner will be doing drug deals with anyone who comes in looking to have a little scene. Although they should be at odds, macrobiotics and toking sit surprisingly well together. By mid-afternoon, the seating area will be awash with half-empty dishes of millet and buckwheat, being used as ashtrays and the place will be bathed in a thick fug of blue smoke.

January 1967: Light My Fire

Arlo brought in an album called The Doors by a new band from Los Angeles called The Doors. The title refers to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the celebrated author’s exaltation of psychoactive drugs. The music is minor-keyed, spacey and subterranean, with lyrics unashamedly about sex, death and getting stoned. It’s wild and free. New Hat has changed its name again. It is now called Soul Kitchen, after a track from the album. Soul Kitchen with the tagline, the doors are open.

Lots of cool things are starting to happen. The underground is burgeoning. It’s being called the counter-culture and its long-term aim is to overthrow straight society. This make take a few years but even Magic Max is surprised by the speed of change. A restless energy has taken hold. The emphasis is now firmly on youth. It’s a great time to be nineteen. Nineteen months ago I was still at school and now here I am living the most extravagantly decadent of lifestyles. There are Dita and Rita and Suzie and Pixie and, of course, there’s Mary Jane. Life is an endless party. I feel so alive, I’m probably going to live for ever. …….. There again, perhaps not. I’m with Pete Townshend on this one. I don’t think I’d like that. Imagine what it’s like being thirty five or forty. It must be awful.

April 1967: Strawberry Fields Forever

Soul Kitchen has been so successful that Arlo and Orla have taken out the lease on the vacant premises next door. It is colossal. We are going to have live entertainment and circus acts. You will be invited to bring flowers, incense, candles, banners, flags, families, animals, drums, cymbals and flutes to happenings here. Arlo feels that a few of these will really put Sinton Green on the map.

Artists and musicians from far and wide are already starting to drop in, despite the fact that we are miles from the capital. Peter Blake, the artist who is working on the cover for the new Beatles album has become a regular at Soul Kitchen and that dress designer who does the geometric prints comes in quite a lot. Salvador Dali, at least I think it was him, called in with a Siamese cat on his shoulder and promised to paint a mural. Brian Jones and his entourage dropped by last week, resplendent in their Berber finery and, I’m not sure, but do believe I saw Stanley Kubrick secretly filming here a day or two ago. I can’t be sure of everything. Things can be a bit blurry round the edges at times.

Rock music is reaching dizzying new heights. We have Cream. We have Pink Floyd. We have Purple Haze and Strawberry Fields and we now have paper suns. Paper suns are LSD. LSD or acid, as it is becoming known, heightens your awareness of yourself and your surroundings. You feel that you are floating and have a great sense of well-being. You experience things that were probably always there but you could never reach before. Acid helps you to appreciate music with all of your senses. You not only hear it but taste, smell, feel and see the music too.

Meanwhile, a moral panic is breaking out about acid. Nathan Blocker in The Daily Mail says that it makes you strangle kittens and jump out of fourth floor windows. That the God that people have claimed to see under its influence is not the Christian God but Beelzebub. Blocker goes on to says its advocates like Timothy Leary, Ram Dass and even Paul McCartney should be boiled alive, hung drawn and quartered or keel hauled. Well, something like that. Sufficient to say the paper is not in favour of LSD. My parents read the Mail, and aren’t what you might call free thinkers, so this will be their view too. I haven’t spoken to them since the row about Mao Tse Tung a year ago. I was only trying to wind them up; I didn’t really carry the Little Red Book around with me.

June 1967: A Whiter Shade of Pale

A Whiter Shade of Pale is at Number One. Everywhere people are skipping the light fandango and feeling kind of seasick. The crowd is calling out for more. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is blaring out from living rooms across the country. The Fourteen Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in London, a tripped-out psychedelic gathering of the underground has set the scene for the summer. We are going to stage some far out gatherings of the tribes at Soul Kitchen.

But, philosopher-poet, Christian Dara, who sometimes pops in for his mint tea and Lebanese crêpe, says that this is it. The dream is already fading. It will soon be over. The underground, as it has been called, is becoming visible at ground level. The quiet revolution, he says, is being appropriated by the mainstream. There, it will be neutralised, cleansed and absorbed into the everyday. There will perhaps be a summer of beads and bells, love and peace and false sentiment and then it will be back to business. On to the next thing.

Why would turning on, tuning in and dropping out be any different to say, angry young men, teddy boys, mods and rockers?‘ he says. It’s just another fad. ……. In any case, it would not work.’

‘Why?’

‘It lacks substance. It’s impractical.’

‘How?’

‘OK, you’ve all turned on. That’s fine. You’re all sitting cross-legged on the floor. You all feel mellow yellow. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. ……. You’ve tuned in. You’re listening to some groovy music. You’re turning cartwheels across the floor. ……. You’ve created some cool art. You‘ve painted your rooms in a colourful way and everything around you is dripping in psychedelic patterns.

‘That’s what we want. Get loaded. Groovy music. Cool art. What’s wrong with that?’

‘Nothing. That’s fine. ……. But now, you’ve all dropped out. You’re calling out for another drink but there is no waiter to bring a tray. The waiter too has dropped out.’

‘Hey.’

There’s no plan. You have no plan.’

‘Perhaps we don’t need a plan. Life is organic, not mechanical.’

First of all, you need to identify how you want to shape your organic life. Decide what you want to create. Not what you want to stop, but what you want to make.

‘We’ll make love, not war.’

‘Well, that’s a start, I suppose, but what will you do then. You’ll have lots of babies.’

‘We’ll use contraceptives.’

‘But remember, the pharmacist who sells the contraceptives has dropped out. He’s off somewhere kissing the sky. You’ll have a growing population and no means to feed them. There are no crops. The farmer has dropped out. Or perhaps he has grown a different crop and he’s eight miles high. Should you not have factored all of this in? Everything will fall apart if you don’t have a plan. You will perish. You will …….. wait for it, turn a whiter shade of pale.’

That’s not going to happen.’

No. You’re probably right. Once they’ve woken up to what is going on, the powers that be will be on your case. And you‘ll be busted, busted and busted again and your dealers will end up in jail. And then you’ll have no drugs. And no motivation. At best, you’ll end up as small enclaves of weekend hippies, working at dead-end jobs to pay for damp basement flats, saving up to go to occasional pop festivals to listen to long-haired bands singing protest songs about police brutality and conflicts in far off lands. A far cry from skipping the light fandango.

© Chris Green 2016 : All rights reserved

Where’s Your Car, Debbie?

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Where’s Your Car Debbie? by Chris Green

‘Where’s your car, Debbie …… Debbie where’s your car,’ screams a cracked voice. There is an air of desperation about it. It is coming from some distance away. It sounds like it is coming over a PA system in the park. As we approach, Betty and I notice that a large crowd has gathered to listen. There are now hundreds of people in the park, perhaps thousands. Earlier when we had a cup of tea at the café by the bowling green, the park was empty. Betty was saying how peaceful it was, and wondered if we ought to bring a picnic down in the new basket that Bob and Ros bought her as a retirement present.

To find out what is happening, we ease our way forward through a throng of unkempt rebel youths. Many of them look no more than ten or twelve. But then most people look young to us these days. As we near the front, we see two tattooed men in vests jumping around on a makeshift stage. One of them is strangling an electric guitar while his friend is banging on a a drum and shouting hysterically ‘where’s your car, Debbie, Debbie where’s your car.’

‘The man is obviously having some sort of breakdown,’ says Betty. Betty was a psychiatric nurse. She tends to view everything from a mental health viewpoint.

Rather than coming to his assistance though, everyone in the crowd is treating his existential crisis as an excuse to leap up and down. Why are they celebrating his sorry plight? What has happened to compassion?

‘Debbie must surely be in the crowd somewhere,’ I say. ‘Why isn’t she helping?’

‘Where’s your car, Debbie, Debbie where’s your car.’ the man screams over and over.

‘Look at him. The poor man is at his wits end ,’ says Betty

‘What make of car do you think it is?’ I say. ‘A Ford perhaps, or a Vauxhall? A Nissan or a Toyota? If we knew, Betty, we might be able to help. We might have seen it on the way here.’

‘It would of course be helpful to know who Debbie is,’ says Betty.

‘For sure,’ I say, looking around to see if there are any likely candidates. There are no obvious Debbies.

‘I expect the poor man’s life saving drugs are in the car or something and he needs them,’ Betty says. ‘What on earth is Debbie thinking?’

‘Of course, the pair of them might just be trying to get a lift home.’ I say. ‘And Debbie whoever she is doesn’t want to give them a lift. She doesn’t go that way or perhaps she hasn’t got any petrol.’

Betty tells me I can be a bit cynical at times. She says I am unfeeling. But I think I have a point. The man cracking up over there seems be a bit of an attention seeker. And now he has got his audience.

‘You could be right,’ Betty says, as we edge closer. ‘They don’t look like they are from round here, do they, Bill?’

‘You don’t think it might be some kind of ……. street theatre do you,’ I say. ‘Look. ……. There’s a name on the drum. It says Slaves.’

‘You not heard of Slaves, man,’ says the youth spilling Tennents Super down his ripped vest. He lurches towards me. ‘Slaves is big, man. You wanna look out for them. They’ll be headlining Glastonbury soon. That’s where you old folks go, innit. Glastonbury. Look out for Slaves.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

The Devil’s Interval

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The Devil’s Interval by Chris Green

I have not always been a killer. I blame my descent into malevolence and murder on Holst and Wagner. Oh! And Black Sabbath. Mostly Black Sabbath, in fact. Perhaps I had better explain.

It all began when in February 1970, I was listening to a Dutch radio station late at night with my friend, Ray. We were both eighteen. We had just moved into our first flat. We had come back from The Cellar Bar and had just finished a big fat spliff. It was a stormy night with the wind rattling the shutters. On the stroke of midnight out of the static of the night-time radio, soared an apocalyptic new track. It was like nothing I had heard before. It was hypnotic, sinister, demonic. Four stinging chords on the guitar repeated over and over with a screaming vocal. But what chords they were! This was music from the very depths of Hell. We caught on straight away that something was happening, but to paraphrase Bob Dylan, we did not know what it was.

‘Far out,’ said Ray. ‘It’s badass. ……… But at the same time, I’m a little scared.’

‘I know what you mean,’ I said. ‘It’s like a thunder cloud blotting out the sun. It’s really cool, but you know that something real bad is going to happen.’

What was happening was, in fact, the birth of heavy metal music. It all started here at this very moment. At the tail end of the sixties, music had been heading in this direction with The Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin, but their music was tame, legitimate by comparison. This was the real deal. The Dutch station we were listening to played the music with no DJ’s babble, but I managed to find out the following day that this was the title track from Black Sabbath’s eponymous album.

Much later I was to discover that the secret behind the track lay is something known as the diabolus in musica or The Devil’s Interval. The diabolus in musica was considered so ominous in the Middle Ages that it was banned by clerics for fear it would raise Lucifer himself. It consists of a tritone (augmented fourth or diminished fifth) and spanning as it does three tones, the interval violates a musical convention and sounds dissonant, producing an unsettling feeling in the listener. Playing the note of C followed by F sharp somehow encapsulates the essence of evil. Black Sabbath may have stumbled on this accidentally, but they were not the first in the modern era to use it. Wagner used it in Götterdämmerung and Holst used it in Mars – The Bringer of War.

The difference perhaps is that these two classical greats were fully aware of what they were doing. Dissonance was precisely the effect they were after. There were, of course, no stoned freaks listening to late night Dutch radio stations in their day whose lives might be driven off course by The Devil’s Interval. Wagner and Holst had only the hoi polloi as an audience and many of these were beyond redemption anyway, involved as they were in either military manoeuvres and empire building.

I bought the album, Black Sabbath and over the next few weeks Ray and I played it over and over at deafening volume. Ray had just bought a powerful NAD amplifier and some Wharfedale speakers and this punched the satanic sound around the small front room of the basement flat, through the whole house, up the street and possibly the next town. Dozens of stoned freaks dropped by to listen and went off to buy the album. In no time at all Black Sabbath was the one of the three albums they carried around with them and rolled their joints on.

I can’t say for certain whether the tritone repeated over and over was a factor in the landlord’s suicide. We were so taken over by the music that we did not realise that he had gone. We just thought it odd that he hadn’t been round to collect the rent. I cannot claim therefore that this was the beginning of my killing spree. This did not really take off until years later.

If you’ve ever been to a Black Sabbath concert you will know what I’m talking about when I say that it can instigate feelings of violence. I felt rancour and malevolence to the very core of my being when I saw them play live at Malvern Winter Gardens. It was lucky I didn’t get arrested for flattening the bouncer. The Devil’s Interval resounded in my head for hours after the show. I was wired. I could not get rid of the feeling. On the way home I punched the taxi driver. After this, Ray insisted that we give Black Sabbath a break for a while.

I met Linda and she carefully monitored of my heavy metal music listening, and for years, I managed to keep a lid on my violent tendencies. Linda was a nurse and knew people who might be able to help me.

‘You’re doing very well, Martin,’ my anger management counsellor, Hortense would say. ‘It’s been months since you hit anyone.’

I got married and did the things you do when that happens, bought a house, went to dinner parties, had children, slept with my wife’s best friend and got divorced. Ray met Mary and did the same, in fact, most of my friends did the same. It was never going to work, was it? It was a generational thing. I’m sure Linda and Mary slept with our best friends too but didn’t tell us. This was what happened back then.

‘At least you’ve got that out of your system, Martin,’ Hortense would say. ‘Now you need to get on with your life.’

It was now the late seventies. Freed from responsibility, I felt the need for some more heavy metal music. Although punk had taken over mainstream rock music, fortunately, there was also a burgeoning choice of very loud heavy metal bands to listen to. If anything the volume had been turned up. These bands needed LGVs to carry their kit around. Many of them had also discovered the potency of The Devil’s Interval. I went to see Judas Priest play at Cheltenham Town Hall. They used the devastating tritone over and over in their set. I began to feel the violent impulses again. After the concert, I went on the rampage. I set about a complete stranger and impaled him on the trident in Neptune’s Fountain. While I was only charged with manslaughter, custody threatened to put a halt to my appreciation of heavy metal.

Thanks to a glowing report from Hortense I got off with a ten year stretch and was out again in five. There were now so many metal bands that I didn’t know where to start, ACDC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Slayer, Megadeth, Def Leppard to name but a few. And amazingly Black Sabbath were still going. Hortense recommended that if I did listen to them I should do so with the volume down and under no circumstances should I go to a gig. She lent me some Al Stewart cassettes to listen to. I was not impressed. He sounded too posh to make meaningful music. Next, she tried me on Billy Joel. He was even worse, a real pussy. I was pleased when my machine chewed up the tape.

It is never easy for ex-prisoners to find work, so I was overjoyed when after a few weeks of twiddling my thumbs and feeling depressed I managed to get a job in a musical instrument repair workshop. The manager of Black Keys, Matt Black gave me a chance. I think he sympathised with my plight because his son, Jett had himself been in trouble.

Matt Black explained the rudiments of music to me. He taught me about scales, chromatics and dissonance. It was Matt who told me about the Devil’s Interval. It was just my bad luck that he continued to demonstrate it. The Planets apparently was his favourite piece of music and Mars was his favourite section of it. He played it on repeat in the workshop. At least this is how it appeared. Perhaps I had developed earworm, but as I rubbed the glue into the crack on the cello neck, the dissonance of Holst’s diabolus in musica echoed endlessly in my head. The frightening crescendo kept building until I could take no more. I brought the instrument down on Matt’s skull.

My barrister, Miles Wimpler buckled when he found out who was presiding over the case. Judge Bearcroft was notorious for his no-nonsense stance. The old curmudgeon was variously rumoured to have jailed people for loitering, for not wearing a seat belt and for stealing pencils from the office. He described me as a ferocious animal that needed to be caged. Hortense’s mitigation regarding the diabolus in musica fell flat. Judge Bearcroft had a low tolerance for musical mumbo jumbo and he gave me a twenty.

I was out in ten, just in time for the Black Sabbath Reunion Tour. The publicity promised that they were going to play louder than ever. They did. Much louder. And Black Sabbath the key number in their set was deafening. The tritone echoed around the auditorium like a battle raging. I know I shouldn’t have gone. And I know I shouldn’t have killed Hortense. And it would be foolish to deny the connection. My rage was clearly a result of those demonic chords rattling round in my head. It was the Devil’s work all right. With no-one to mitigate my plea, this time, I got life.

I am a few years into my sentence. I was in Wandsworth at first, which was tough, but as prisoner numbers rose I got moved to Belmarsh, which is not quite so bad. I share my cell with Denzel, another lifer. Denzel was a big name in gangland in the early eighties. One of the characters in the film, The Long Good Friday was based on him. Denzel has been in here a while. It shows in his demeanour. He is massively overweight. We chat about Staffordshire bull terriers and Millwall FC.

I have got what others might consider a cushy job working in the prison library. The problem I have is that the library is right next to the Prison Governor’s office and Governor Kraut keeps playing Wagner, more specifically Götterdämmerung. Why is he doing it? Doesn’t he know about The Devil’s Interval? Isn’t he aware of my history, or is the bastard just trying to wind me up? I nearly killed Nolan Rocco yesterday in the canteen. I had my hands around his throat. What stopped me? It certainly wasn’t Floyd Edmondson. Big Floyd was egging me on. What stopped me was the thought that maybe one day I might be able to get out of here, but I know I won’t. Judge Block told me that life would mean life. And with the diabolus in musica pulsing round in my head, it is surely only a matter of time before I kill someone else.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

nowyouseeit

Now You See It, Now You Don’t by Chris Green

The arbiters of taste are notoriously fickle. While The Moody Blues were cool in 1968, if you listened to their music a few years later you would be considered a bit sad. But if anything their musical powers had grown. Their tunes became even better. Perhaps this was the problem. They became too musical. They no longer fitted in. As in other fields, fashions in music are fleeting. A case of now you see it, now you don’t.

I didn’t pick up on The Moody Blues again for years. In fact, it was the week before last. I came across a couple of their albums on CD in CLIC Sargent. In Search Of The Lost Chord and On The Threshold Of A Dream. Perhaps the owner had died and their CD collection had been part of a house clearance.

Mike Pinder is not a household name, but perhaps he ought to be. He was a pioneer, introducing the mellotron, the pre-runner of the synthesiser, to the musical world. Before he formed the Moody Blues, Mike worked as a tester for the company that invented the mellotron, so he knew the difficult instrument well. He subsequently introduced the instrument to The Beatles, a popular combo of the time, who used it to great effect on Strawberry Fields Forever and then on virtually every recording they made until their breakup. Despite the instrument’s ethereal sound being such an emblem for the times, The Moody Blues were the only band to regularly use it on stage.

But …… What I am doing back in ………. 1968? Somehow I’m back in 1968, listening to In Search Of The Lost Chord. …… I am used to the year being 20 something. ….. 2015, wasn’t it? Isn’t it? How can 1968 be happening now, like it is present time? In sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch actuality. …… I haven’t seen Yvette for over forty years. She is exactly how I remember her. Mia Farrow hair, flared jeans and cheesecloth smock. What is Yvette doing back in 1968? How did we come to be here? ……… We are in a large murky room lit only by a single red light bulb suspended from the ceiling. There are something like twenty people crowded in here, sitting around on beanbags and cushions. Incense and patchouli compete with the acrid hash smoke, that hangs in the air like captured stratocumulus. Someone has just passed me a joint and I am smoking it. I do not know him – or is it her. In the haze, it is difficult to tell the gender beneath the crusty hair and the Afghan coat. ……. House Of Four Doors is playing, with the volume on the Super Dansette record player turned up. As I look around, I think I recognise one or two of the others in the room, but I can’t put names to the faces. Things were like that back then. People came and went. We were eighteen. ……… In this scenario, we are still eighteen.

‘The expression, the Lost Chord,’ Yvette is saying, ‘refers to a song by Arthur Sullivan.’

‘Who?’ I say, passing her the joint.

‘Arthur Sullivan. You know. From Gilbert and Sullivan.’

‘Ah,’ I say. I find it difficult to imagine that The Moody Blues would have listened a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan.

‘Sullivan wrote the music at the bedside of his brother Fred when he was dying. The words come from a verse by Victorian poet, Adelaide Procter,’ says Yvette. She was always the clever one. Straight ‘A’s for Yvette. I always struggled with my grades.

‘Ah,’ I say.

‘It is about a divine chord that she hears when playing the organ that she cannot find again and imagines she will only rediscover when she reaches Heaven.’

‘Now you see it, now you don’t,’ I say.

The song about Timothy Leary flying his astral plane is now playing. I want to remark that people don’t write songs about Timothy Leary and astral planes anymore, but the place I want to make this comment from is fading fast. The idea about what I should regard as now is retuning like a random radio scan.

Across the room, or perhaps it is from across the universe, it is difficult to focus in on scale, they are talking about a story by the writer Jorge Luis Borges called The Garden Of Forking Paths.

The story is about the construction of a labyrinth that folds back upon itself in infinite regression,’ an adenoidal voice says. ‘All possible futures happen simultaneously, man’

Man says that this can be explained by quantum mechanics, man.

‘Yeah, like Einstein said it, man,’ says someone else. ‘Or was it the other guy? Dirac. Paul Dirac.’

No-one seems to know, but the conversation rolls around like thunder in the hills.

I continue to have difficulty working out who is who. It does not help that everyone, male or female seems to be called man. No, wait, one of them is called Buzz and another is called Doggo.

Doggo begins to talk about Schroedinger’s Cat. It is both dead and alive apparently. I lose the drift as other conversations begin to drift in and out, just as my consciousness is doing. Someone has turned the LP over. Voices In The Sky begins. The mellotron sounds like a symphony orchestra.

‘Am I really here?’ I ask Yvette.

She thinks this it is a strange question. She puts her hand on my forehead as if feeling my temperature. She laughs and tells me I shouldn’t get so stoned. Perhaps Yvette is still living in this time as her present time. Perhaps she has not grown up yet. I cannot remember if we saw each other much after this, or even at all. Perhaps she has not left the room yet. …….. Perhaps I have not left ……. I want to be able to feel that I have lived long enough to understand reality. But now I’m not sure that I have lived long enough. What if I’m only eighteen? ……. I might be imagining the irregular shift patterns of the job at the kaleidoscope repair shop. I might be imagining those years of living with Fabula and the twins in the Stroud valleys. I might be imagining Dr Alkerdahji’s diagnosis. Or, all this might still be in the future. …… Or, what if everything is happening simultaneously as in man’s story? Perhaps John Lennon was right and nothing is real. Might all of our experiences be an illusion? The universe could be a mental construction, a great thought rather than a great machine. After all, if matter is energy condensed to a slow vibration, then we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. Life is a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves.

I remember something about quantum theory that I saw, or am one day going to see, on television, or perhaps I am watching it now. It is known as the double-slit experiment. In the experiment, when scientists watch a particle pass through two slits in a barrier, the particle behaves like a bullet and goes through one slit or the other. Yet if a person doesn’t watch the particle, it acts like a wave. This means it can go through both slits at the same time.

Now you see it, now you don’t.

Dr Alkerdahji tells me I am improving. It is a good sign, he says, that the hallucinations are becoming less frequent. So long as I keep taking the medication, I might even be able to return to work at the kaleidoscope repair shop in a week or two. I am in CLIC Sargent again, looking through the CDs. £1 for A Saucerful Of Secrets and £1 for Dark Side Of The Moon. Another house clearance probably. Fashions in music are fleeting but somehow The Pink Floyd always managed to circumvent the arbiters of taste. Roger Waters is not a household name but ………

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved