Category Archives: Music and the Arts

Book Review

I’m not usually in the business of writing book reviews, but here goes…

Some friends with whom I’d normally volunteer heard, back in January or February, that I was back in hospital and sent me a present. It was the book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. In the event, I had other reading material and only read it a few weeks ago. It was published after much hype on 6th January. My colleagues were well-intentioned: they knew how deep my contempt for Trump was thought it would keep me amused.

dung sir
Dung sir?

My summary: don’t bother – it’s a pile of crap.

The Author

Wolff’s face stares out from the end cover of the sleeve, which informs us he has received “numerous awards”. He certainly has an over-inflated sense of his own self-importance and access to the Trump White House during his early months in office. Try as he might, it’s obvious he’s a bit of a fan of Steve Bannon: the book kind of runs out of steam when Bannon joins the long list of White House resignations and sackings.

Apparently, according to Wikipedia, it was the New York Times’ No. 1 bestseller, which tells you more about the alien nature of the USA, and New York City, than anything else. Well, whoopee-do.

Not familiar with Steve Bannon: if you saw any of the amusing Saturday Night Live sketches in early 2016, he’s the one depicted as the Grim Reaper standing behind Trump at his presidential desk and exercising a malign influence over the totally inexperienced (to politics) Trump. A fair depiction of the man. Bannon and Breitbart’s views are so far to the right they would be off the scale in any European context.

The Beach

Nevertheless, I read the whole book from beginning to end, but I was mightily relieved when it was all over. It put me in mind of an incident from the 1980s when I was on holiday on a Greek Island with my first wife and kids. A friend, whose judgement I thought I could trust, lent me a book by a very well-known American author. Clue: he sold over 750 million books and is mentioned in the episode of Fawlty Towers called The American. Against my “better” judgement, I took the book on holiday: it was the only reading material I had.

The incident I remember distinctly took place on the beach. A fellow Brit tourist, noticing what I was reading, approached, thinking he had found a fellow fan. He made some reference to the book and how much he enjoyed it. In an excess of candour and distinct lack of diplomatic skills, I said just four words in reply – I regretted the words even before they had left my lips: “I think it’s crap”. I still recall his disappointed facial expression as he backed away, confused: why would this idiot (i.e. me) read a book he didn’t like? Why indeed?

The Language Used

The book is really unsuitable for a UK audience. It’s written in a style which required a good understanding of US (or New York) slang terms and requires a great deal of knowledge of the workings of the White House. It’s full of the characters Trump has surrounded himself with and the macho, testosterone-fuelled aggression of the rich and powerful. Much of the language is simply inaccessible to a UK reader and I had to let it wash over me and get the general drift.

The Premise: Life in the White House

The overall tale is of a bunch of non-politicians totally unprepared for government: the Trump White House is utterly dysfunctional. It starts its days as a random bunch of feuding tribes, all busy stabbing each other in the back and leaking like crazy to the traditional media, the purveyors of “fake news”. Then it gradually coalesces into two rival groups, vying for Trump’s attention (his attention span is notoriously short). One faction is the uber-right, an incomprehensible world inhabited by Bannon, Breitbart and such like, the other faction Wolff calls “Jarvanka”, basically the family running government like the Trump businesses, Sopranos style. (It’s a conflation of Jared and Ivanka, of course: witty or not?)

The overall picture presented is of entirely dysfunctional White House. Two of our favourite US box sets were The Sopranos and The West Wing. The picture painted is pure Sopranos. Trump’s White House differs from the Sopranos in two ways. Unlike Tony Soprano and his extended family, no one in the Trump White House has any endearing human qualities: it’s all scheming and back-stabbing. And Trump and his rich cronies with whom he has chosen to surround himself are rich enough to pay for very clever lawyers who can help keep them out of trouble with the law.

(That having been said, Jared Kushner’ s father Charlie has spent time in prison for “tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations” – p17).

Trump Himself

If the book is to be believed – and it’s clearly “sexed up” to sell more copies – Trump himself is every bit as dreadful as your worst nightmares – and then some. He has the attention span of a gnat, refuses to read any written brief if at all possible and certainly not any longer than one side of A4 paper. He refuses to watch PowerPoint presentations (some sympathy there!) so White House staff have had to try various methods to get his attention. His outright refusal to study detail and his almost total ignorance of foreign policy matters are confirmed in the book. One chink in his armour is a child-like need to be liked personally: this trait is exploited by the cannier members of staff.

I’ve always seen him as a petulant 3 year old. At different points in the book, colleagues liken him to 2 year old and 9 year old. In the latter stages of the book, it’s clear Trump has absolutely none of the basic attributes needed to be President. Audit trails exist all over the place, any one of them damning enough to start impeachment proceedings. By the end of the story, his supporters on the uber-right broadly divide into two groups. There’s the “let’s make the best of it and wait until 2020 and find another empty vessel as our puppet” group – Trump doesn’t have the self-discipline to be their man. And then there’s the “Trump must go now” camp.

The UK

These folks are really not interested in the affairs of our little island. Theresa May makes her first – and only – appearance on p258 – and then only in describing the seating plan at a G20 conference. Mr Slime fares rather better, if only in word count. On p275, he is described as “the right wing British Brexit leader who was part of the greater Breitbart circle”. Oh, and on the following page, there is, surprisingly, an extensive quote lifted from the Guardian. And that’s it.

So, further evidence (of sorts) that our infantile, needy delusion about a “special relationship” with the USA is just that: delusion. I draw the obvious conclusion as to who our best friends are (and it’s not Trump’s America).

A Warning for the Future

I finish with a direct quotation from the book: it brought a chill to my spine.

Trump, in Bannon’s view, was a chapter, or even a detour, in the Trump revolution, which had always been about weaknesses in the two major parties. The Trump presidency – however long it lasted – had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders their opportunity, Trump was just the beginning.

Standing on the Breitbart steps that October morning, Bannon smiled and said ‘It’s going to be as wild as shit’” (My emphasis)

Be very afraid, and avoid this dreadful book!

[Since writing the above, I have looked at “professional” reviews from the Guardian, Irish Times, Amazon (4 stars) and the New York Times. Two comment on Wolff’s previous notoriety for inaccuracies in reporting. Otherwise, nothing to add.]

[And finally, I realised that the still picture comes from a Monty Python Sketch called Book of the Month Club. Its selling point, according to the John Cleese deleivery character, was “Join our club and, after the third book, you get a pile of dung”. It left me pondering what three books I’d be forced to read to get Wolff’s book for free!]

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King of America

The American War of Independence in the late 18th century was fought to free the American people from the yoke of English government, under a mad King of America, George III. Nearly 200 years later came another known as The King: Elvis Presley. Elvis’s life, I believe, can used as a metaphor for the USA itself.

Elvis’s Life: The Story of the USA

Elvis was born on the wrong side of the tracks and was brought up in a poor neighbourhood. He was exposed to musical influences reflecting the ethnic diversity of the USA: country, gospel and R&B. The young Elvis recorded songs at the legendary Sun studios in 1954-5 that blended these styles with a freshness and energy that was truly revolutionary to mainstream (white) audiences. It was he that brought the raw energy of rock’n’roll to a wider public. (Yes, I know Bill Haley was the first to have a rock’n’roll chart hit. But Haley brought a less threatening, more country orientated style with cleaned up lyrics. Check out the real deal by listening to the original version of Shake, Rattle and Roll by Big Joe Turner, in all its gruesomely – to modern ears – glorious misogyny.)

Elvis Presley at Sun Studios
Elvis at Sun Studios

The young Elvis can be seen as a metaphor for a relatively young country with all the energy and expectation you would expect from the diverse range of people who moved there to forge a new life.

Later Years

A year or two later, there now enters the villain of the story, Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker. He saw the commercial potential of the young Elvis and soon changed him from a raw, threatening teenage idol into a mainstream entertainer. This transformation, reinforced by Presley’s conscription, gradually sapped the energy and the excitement of his performances. Parker can easily be seen as a metaphor for American corporate capitalism at its worst. Parker’s approach reduces real talent to a commodity to be exploited and a predictable, standardised product. Fans become consumers.

This process reaches a nadir with the Las Vegas concerts. An overweight Presley in lurid, tasteless costumes badly performed old hits and family-friendly numbers. It was cruel caricature of the streak of lightning from his early days. His poor diet and consumption of prodigious quantities of prescription drugs led to a major health deterioration and early death at the age of only 42 years. This sorry tale has its counterpart in the story of the USA. Over-consumption, obesity and a profit-driven health system – recently rated as the worst value for money in the world by a UN agency. And, not surprisingly, a shorter life expectancy that other western countries, including the UK.

The USA, with its fine, inspiring written constitution started full of promise and energy. It welcomed the “tired, poor and huddled masses” to build something to be proud off. Slowly, starting with the robber barons of the late 19th century, it all started to go wrong. The steady, cancerous corruption of public and political life through the overarching power of the dollar and of corporate lobbying got us to the sorry state we’re in today. Americans are taught from an early age to be consumers, not citizens. Hence the obesity, the rip-off healthcare and poor health outcomes.  The parallels with Presley’s life are striking.

The Comeback Show 1968

After the early promise, for Elvis it was mostly downhill all the way. One bright exception to this trend was a US TV show in 1968, the Comeback Special. The show included edited extracts from 2 semi-improvised live sessions. Elvis was joined by his old supporting musicians from the original Sun Records days. Appearing his most relaxed for years, they joked and reminisced and jammed their way through his back catalogue and some rock’n’roll classics.

Elvis comeback special
Comeback Special

The show ended with a song written by Walter Earl Brown for the occasion, If I Can Dream. It speaks of hope for the oppressed and brotherly love. Playing the pantomime villain role, Parker didn’t want to use it, but Elvis disagreed. I remember at the time immediately and instinctively liking the song. But for nearly fifty years since, I have put it in the category of “guilty pleasure”. The lyrics are a bit cheesy and the arrangement almost too perfect, too polished.

In the wake of the recent awful news events, I was reminded of the song and played it again. I also found out that the lyrics include quotations from speeches by the third King of America in our tale: civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King. The TV show was recorded two months after King’s assassination and Presley wanted something appropriate to conclude the show.

Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King

I now find that those erstwhile clunky lyrics speak to me about what I’m trying to say. My previous guilt has gone and I’m an “out and proud” lover of the song. Right now we need a political leader, or leaders, to articulate the thoughts captured in the song and to find a way of making them happen.

In the meantime, if you don’t know the song or haven’t heard it for a while, check it out. Use it as balm for the soul or to reignite your energies. Elvis belts out those words with force and a passion we’d thought had been lost in the lean years. So, give it a play, and whatever you do, play it very LOUD!

Out there in the dark, there’s a beckoning candle…

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Master of Ambivalence

So, farewell, Leonard Cohen. The sad, sad news of his death rounds off a truly dreadful week in an awful year. I confess to shedding the odd tear when I heard the news on the radio this morning. The loss of such a gentle and humane person seemed an apt, if tragic, metaphor for a wider sense of loss this week.

There are those who see Cohen’s music as simply mournful or gloomy. I disagree. His songs, at their finest, explore the whole complexity of human relationships in an empathic, insightful way. Many are the times I’ve listened to one of his songs to help me think through my emotions in response to some difficult life event.

Leonard Cohen
The Master

For me, the true genius of the man is the way he explores the contrasting and often contradictory emotions we feel as we go through life. Darkness is contrasted with light, joy with sadness, despair with hope. His friend Bob Dylan – he and Cohen both wrote songs of their time at the Chelsea Hotel, New York – makes my point with these words from My Back Pages: “Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed”. Cohen explored the complexities of relationships: between lovers, friends, enemies; between men and women and nations.

This ambivalence was apparent from the very start. “It’s time to laugh and cry, and cry and laugh about it all again” (So Long, Marianne). “It looks like freedom but it feels like death… It’s something in between, I guess” (Closing Time). In perhaps his most famous, or most covered, song Hallelujah, it’s not a cry of unalloyed joy or triumph, but a “cold and broken Hallelujah”. But amongst the contrast and contradiction, Cohen was also an optimist. “There is a crack, a crack in everything… that’s how the light gets in” (Anthem). And also a wonderfully dry sense of humour: “I was born like this; I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice” (Tower of Song) was a wry take on his deep, gravelly delivery.

O2 Concert 2008

My wife and I saw Leonard Cohen at the O2 Arena in 2008. His humility and modesty was touching. At the age of 74, he seemed genuinely surprised, delighted and moved by the rapturous reception he got from the audience. We saw him just a few days after the world got the joyful news that Barak Obama has won the USA Presidential election, after eight long, awful years of George W Bush.  He sang the song Democracy, whose chorus includes the line “Democracy is coming to the USA”. With one voice, the whole audience erupted in an orgasmic roar of joy and delight. (For those who have never been there, the O2 auditorium is huge and packed to capacity that night. So that roar was LOUD!!) It was a moment I shall never forget. Those were days of hope and expectation. What a difference eight years make!

O2 arena interior
O2 Arena

Perhaps to show his gratitude to the audience, Cohen performed seven – yes seven – encores that evening. It’s the best live concert I’ve ever seen. Thank you, Leonard. I’m glad I was there.

A Toast to Humanity

What has always struck me about Leonard Cohen is the sheer humanity of the man. It’s something we’re sorely in need of, right now. When I was checking on the exact lyric of the Dylan song quoted above, my eyes were caught by the previous line: “Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, ‘rip down all hate’, I screamed”. Yes, Bob, that’s a good place to end.

So a toast to Leonard Cohen, Master of Ambivalence, 1934-2016, and all he stood for. The man is gone, but the songs will sustain us. Thank you, and rest in peace.

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