Tuesday, 25 April 2017

travelling notes (xxv)

In a roadside cafe a local family will serve you the best dinner of your life. You will pay a few coins and walk to the station wondering how it could possibly be this cheap. By this point, however, the green wine will have taken its effect, and getting on the train, you will not remember much beyond the rough hands of the woman and the language you could not understand.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Favourite Bookstores, p.4

There are books so rare they basically do not exist.

However, before I get to this idea - something about Livraria Lello. In a word, overrated. Because after paying three euros (for entering a bookshop, no less), you will be struck by the huge back of a giant Turk making a selfie at the entrance. Your blood will be up already, but wait until you see the screaming multitudes of Harry Potter fans blocking the staircase. Which is an impressive staircase, and would be even more impressive if you were here alone. The book selection is all right I guess, but it's not about books, is it?..

Ironically, my new favourite bookshop is not about books either. Or maybe it is, but I wouldn't be too sure. The place is called Alfarrabista Chamine da Mota and it's in Rua das Flores, Porto. I do not even know if I'm describing a particular spot or a series of similar-looking places (I've seen a couple of bookshops like that in Portugal).

When you enter the place, you feel the dust and the sheer age of things on display. Old maps, globes, postcards, gramophones, things you can't even name. It's a fairy-tale sight, and you are allowed to view it from within. The shopkeeper? The shopkeeper won't care as he is a man from the past inspecting a leather-bound ledger in the far corner of the giant room. He looks like a sleepy insect who will not be disturbed by any noise, never mind a visitor. His hair is silver by default and he is wearing a corduroy jacket abandoned by every moth possessing a vestige of self-respect. 

Soon, however, you focus on the centuries-old bookshelves soundlessly cracking under the weight of centuries-old books. You come closer to inspect the green, yellow, brown covers, but there's a catch. The book selection is vague to the point where you start wondering if these writers ever existed in the first place. For years you read English and American literature, you think you know it all, but you are left licking your wounds in the face of such mind-numbing obscurity. 

Inevitably, you open one of these books written by an author whose name sounds vaguely familiar (it is not familiar, you are deluding yourself), and you see a barrage of words you know well and you almost have to scream in bewilderment: "How in God's name?..." After which you close the book without buying it because buying books here will seem like an act of sabotage totally uncalled for.


Portugal is filled with bookshops. In fact, I haven't seen another country that would compare. 'Livraria' is the word you will see as often as someone will say 'obrigado' to you. You will see it under bridges, by liquor stores, in dead-ends, at places where bookshops do not belong. And you will walk in (unless you are dead inside), you will look around and you will see a million books that either do or do not exist.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

How I Learned to Love Edith Piaf

In art as well as in life, you can only achieve greatness through obsession. Things you do not obsess over are bland and easily forgotten. In the final moments, on your deathbed, alone or else surrounded by people, you will not remember them. Not a flash. Not a fucking flicker. 

Filmmakers who do not obsess over their characters simply waste your time, as do poets who drive cars and musicians who write to order. They have no sense of passion, loss or true enjoyment of what they are doing. Like anyone who falls in love with an idea of getting married, they have no grasp of the process and will only look for the result.  

So I bought a vinyl player. 

God knows when the sense of obsession will hit you. But it will, and not necessarily the moment that "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" starts crackling softly but distinctly around your apartment. Could be Mark E. Smith snidely intoning 'Oh! Little brother! We are in a mess!' Could be at any point during "Town With No Cheer".  

The thrills are not cheap, and there is nothing materialistic about the needle plunging into narcotic depths of The Delines' Colfax (still one of the greatest albums of this century). And once, lying on the floor after a great day at the gallery, you and I, we fall in love with the voice of Edith Piaf like never before. 

It is the voice of Paris as it used to be, slightly muddied by the time and the dust. It is time-travelling, and it will not be forgotten. Because you know what I think? A trip is not a trip if it's not a journey. 

Monday, 3 April 2017

travelling notes (xxiv)

There is always a scene from an unwritten book taking place in a certain part of a city. A local citizen wouldn't know, stuck as he is on his way to work or behind the familiar spot of a bar counter. You, however, are right in the midst of it. With your clumsy ways and your travellers' handbag, you came out of nowhere. Like a character from an unwritten book. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Album of the Month: DISAPPEARED BEHIND THE SUN by Angles 9

In a month when Jarvis Cocker released an album of such great beauty and style. When Stephin Merritt released 316,456 songs out of which 29,459 are really bloody good. When Aimee Mann released another great Aimee Mann album. When The Jesus And Mary Chain released a comeback that was in all honesty as good as it could ever be. When Johnny Flynn released his best album since A Larum.  

In a month like that... best new thing I heard was an album of Scandinavian free jazz released in January. 

Angles 9 are the sort of band you discover by chance, by way of some random, left-field list on which a good 90% of featured artists are pure nonsense. In fact, I was fully expecting to write them off twenty seconds into their second album (Injuries, their first, was released in 2014), but then all of a sudden it started to make perfect sense. 

Disappeared Behind The Sun is free jazz with lots of conviction and little-to-no subtlety. Most of the songs are born out of chaos. Then a rhythm is formed. Then you hear a perfectly realised groove of such intensity that any free musical expression added to it seems to work. The result is a rush of blood to your head as well as to every cell of your body. The moments of calm and beauty are relative and all the more worthwhile for that.

There's nothing bland and wishy-washy about Angles 9. They seem to know their business and they do it well. Disappeared Behind The Sun is to be swallowed in one gulp. This album is what Ornette Coleman would do in a world where punk rock was the only music allowed.    

* My only excuse (if I needed any) is that the vinyl version of this record was, indeed, released in March. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

My Big Midweek

I only tend to remember this once a year, when Mark E. Smith has a new album out, but The Fall really are the greatest music I've ever heard. 

There's an episode in Steve Hanley's autobiography My Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall where Craig Scanlon, The Fall's longest running guitarist, comes up with this verbal perversity:

'The worse the atmosphere in the band, the better music they make'.

You may think this is absurd, or else a bad joke, but no: it really is what he thought at that point in the 90s when the group ('the band is what plays in Blackpool') was still going strong. I specifically wanted to single out these words, albeit quoted from memory, because they give you a rough idea of the fucked-up mindset of someone institutionalised in The Fall. 

Steve Hanley joined The Fall as a young man back when Mark E. Smith was still singing "Repetition". For a Manchester lad with the grim prospect of a life in a parents' bakery... I mean, what more could you possibly wish? Then came the rest. The rest unfolds here like some fucking thriller.

Mark E. Smith's dysfunctional brilliance is not in doubt, and don't pretend you knew nothing about the bullying and the backstabbing. However, My Big Midweek is unique in the sense that it describes The Fall institution from the inside. Hanley is right. You don't need to be a fan to love this book. You don't even need to like music (though in that case you would miss a million priceless references with varying degrees of snide and affection).

For once, it's beautifully written. With true, unfading passion - but then with love, too, so that your eyebrows are barely raised when Hanley thanks Smith in the acknowledgements. 'For the opportunity and unique life lessons'.

It was 19 years, too.

Hanley has a lot to get off his chest. He has every right to feel embittered, being one of the greatest bass guitarists of his generation and the single most crucial member of The Fall whose name is not Mark E. Smith. What follows is a perfect snapshot of the band during one of their last tours together: 'a feral rogue and his rival, whose soul he's sucking dry, a reluctant guitarist who hasn't faced the audience for five years, a deconstructed dance-head whose bouncy edges are still being sanded-down, a claustrophobic snug-dwelling diva and me, a big, bald, grudgeful idiot from Ireland'. Beat that.

You know by the end of this book (which will leave you battered, though not as much as an average member of The Fall) that, against all common sense, Steve Hanley would never have chosen a different life. Because he fucking cared.

But equally there's a perverted sense of joy in the way he finishes the book: 

'I'm not going to play bass with The Fall again'.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

travelling notes (xxiii)

There's a precious feeling Jarvis Cocker is trying to communicate in Room 29. It's about hotels. Great ones. It's that feeling you have on the second day, having enjoyed the vanilla-smelling bedsheets and the fine wines and the spectacular view from the window. It's when you start thinking, 'well, what if it's ALWAYS like that'. But then you know it isn't. Tragically, or else fortunately, it isn't.