Book Review: The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl

From the PR: “In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz.

In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.

And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

Written with Dahl’s trademark characterization and elegant plotting, The Courier sees the hugely respected godfather of Nordic Noir at his best, as he takes on one of the most horrific periods of modern history, in a exceptional, shocking thriller.”

First read of 2019 and, while it’s really early days to be making such statements given we’ve just passed the halfway point of January; The Courier is going to take some beating in the best read of 2019 stakes.

An instant classic, The Courier contains everything I look for in a book – it’s set in WW2 and uses that time period’s underlying menace and drama, it’s got a deep, involved plot that spans across different periods in time, there’s mystery and espionage everywhere, it’s populated by great characters that you actually care about and it’s written in the formidable style of the master that is Kjell Ola Dahl. It almost feels like it was tailor made for my bookshelves.

There’s a great many well-read books  on WW2 in my library yet, aside from David Howarth’s We Die Alone (recommended if you’re after some non-fiction on the subject) and summaries in overview works, life in Norway during its occupation is an area I was fairly unaware of – certainly when you factor in the persecution of the country’s Jewish population at the hands of both Nazi intruder and Norway’s own collaborative government and STAPO. The Courier details this period in a manner that is both authoritative and realistic as a result of the author’s research / knowledge without being heavy handed in its portrayal and it’s that which makes it a great piece of historical fiction – as well as adding an additional level of underlying menace to the tension of the mystery in those chapters set in 1942.

What am I trying to say here? I’ve often toyed with setting a story against the backdrop of global conflict and the possibilities but it’s full of pitfalls. Using a period as well documented and broad as the Second World War can go either way – it takes a gifted writer to frame a story against such a vast backdrop and not throw the kitchen sink at it. For every Winter in Madrid or All The Light We Cannot See there’s a dozen City of Thieves –  that overdo it and try to hit try every emotional and historical touch point whether it’s relevant or not.

Kjell Ola Dahl is an exceptionally talented writer and manages to set a gripping story against a backdrop of global menace and terror that perfectly blends the historical with the thrill of fiction in an authoritative manner.  The Courier sits up there with my favourites of the historical fiction genre like Fatherland and Gorky Park and the aforementioned All The Light We Cannot See.

The Courier is peopled with characters that really hook you in and a mystery that will keep you glued until its, frankly, shocking reveal. Kjell Ola Dahl, best known for his Oslo Detectives novels, has here created a deep, slow-burning thriller that’s not only one of the best reads of the year but one of the best reads of the genre.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy – it really was right up my alley .

Over and Out

It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”

It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.

Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.

I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.

Nirvana – In Utero

Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.

As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.

In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.

Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.

Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.

In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.

Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).

Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:

Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?

Band of Susans – Here Comes Success

Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.

Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.

Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.

Full of lush production,  pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.

 

Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.

REM – Collapse Into Now

How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is.  Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”

Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh  My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.

Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…

The Replacements – All Shook Down

The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.

As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.

The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.

Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.

Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.

Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.

There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”

Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Two quotes:

“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.

Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.

Chances of a follow-up: Nah…  While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.

 

The poets round here don’t write nothing at all… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part One)

Throughout my career I’ve been required to wrestle with the written word. Some days “thoughts arrive like butterflies” while on others it’s akin to wading through waist-deep mud with no solid ground in sight.

Perhaps that’s why I appreciate  a great lyric in a song, the knowledge that it doesn’t always come easy and what sounds so beautifully simply more likely than not took a lot of work and refinement. Meanwhile, my love for the written word has also meant that I always seek out those lyrics and love a good ‘story’ song.

Bruce Springsteen has written more songs than it’s possible to count. For every song that has been released on each album there’s a good five or six that didn’t make the cut and, even when they’re released on archival products such as Tracks, The Promise or The Ties That Bind, there are still countless others that remain locked in vaults.

From a songwriting point of view I’d rank Springsteen as one the greatest in terms of both qaulity and consistency – certainly equal to Dylan and, while he has just wrapped up his equivalent to a Vegas residency, Bruce has yet to resort to churning out nothing but albums of cover songs. His lyrics have tackled everything from the circus to war, New York to front line in Iraq , love, birth, death, cunnilingus and lobbing it up the wrong’ un.

So, I thought it was time to put together a list of my favourite Springsteen songs from a lyrical perspective. This is Part One with Two (and the Spotify playlist) to follow as time allows. While not necessarily my favourite Springsteen songs full stop, from a lyrical point of view, these take some beating. In no particular order….

The Wall

“I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry”

Asking if Springsteen’s got any good ‘Nam songs is like wondering whether a bear defecates in wooded areas. From ‘Lost in the Flood’ to the tubthumping ‘Born In The USA’, you could easily make a great compilation album of his songs that use Vietnam as a touch stone, but for me the most poignant lyric is to be found on an album that’s otherwise stuffed with re-heated leftovers, melodies with stapled-on effects and Tom Morello wankfests. Yup; I’m talking about High Hopes. ‘The Wall’ is one of the most personal and affecting of Springsteen’s many Vietnam songs as Bruce – against minimal musical backdrop, sings a ‘short prayer’ inspired by the memory of his friend Walter Chichon, who taught guitar to Springsteen but would die in the Vietnam War at around the age of 19.

The deeper I get into Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War series the more I understand just how horrifying and wide-reaching it was and just why Springsteen – and others – found it such a source for lyrics and stories.

As such, the more I listen the more the line “I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry” just kicks me each time. When parents like Carol Crocker say how they chose to have their sons buried at Arlington because she ‘feared that if he had been buried closer to home, she would claw her way into his grave to once again “feel his warmth.”‘ it’s hard to fathom that much pain and loss but, hey, McNamara says he’s sorry… “apology and forgiveness have no place here at all.”

Blood Brothers

“The world came chargin’ up the hill and we were women and men”

Springsteen wrote ‘Blood Brothers’ on the eve of working with the E Street Band again for the Greatest Hits album and it’s just full of great lines. He’s stated that it’s filled with ‘the ambivalence and deep affection of revisiting a relationship spanning twenty-five years’.  For me the lyrics feel like an acceptance of life’s inevitable changes, the trade off that’s required between fantasy and reality, of  how ‘the hardness of this world, slowly grinds your dreams away’, and ‘we lose ourselves in work to do and bills to pay’.

Yet it’s an optimistic song too, one of togetherness that was fitting for the band’s reunion and as a final song – some five years later – on their reunion tour, it’s almost like it became the story of the band’s friendship: “I’ll keep movin’ though the dark with you in my heart, my blood brother.”

The River

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse”

The River, while an extension of the themes explored on Darkness on the Edge of Town,  marked a big change in Springsteen’s song writing: “my first attempt to write about the commitments of home and marriage.” While given a hard kick up the arse by the rockers, the album’s story songs are huge: ‘Point Blank’, ‘Stolen Car’, ‘Wreck on the Highway’… but ‘The River’ is just an out and out classic and one who’s lyrics are just so ridiculously well written it stands as his benchmark ‘story’ song for me.

Springsteen took his inspiration from reality – the crash of the construction industry in the late 1970’s and the impact it had on his sister and her family: “I watched my brother-in-law lose his good-paying job and work hard to survive without complaint”. This was the song that sold Springsteen to me when I first heard it on Greatest Hits, at the time I would’ve been reading Steinbeck for school and it felt like an extension of that classic American literature style story telling.  Springsteen had hit a rich vein for songwriting inspiration and would continue to tap into it with great results for the rest of his career.

Long Time Coming

“Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world kids, it’d be that your mistakes would be your own”

Dating back to the Ghost of Tom Joad era, ‘Long Time Comin’ is one of the standout tracks on 2005’s Devils and Dust album. The song marks the first use of the word ‘fuck’ on any of his records (let’s not talk about ‘Reno’ here) in what is a great song about redemption that bounds along and is shot through with great, joy-infused lines – including a sly nod to his own past with “it’s me and you Rosie” – but it’s the “if I had one wish in this god forsaken world…” line about not passing your own baggage on that stands out for me.

Bruce felt so strongly about it that it was selected for the ‘soundtrack’ album to his autobiography Chapter and Verse and would – during his his Broadway show – explain that it was inspired by a visit from his father just before the birth of Bruce’s first child “to warn me of the mistakes that he had made and to warn me not to make them with my own children, to release them from the chains…  that they may be free to make their own choices and live their own lives.”

Racing in the Street

“Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece”

What I really enjoy with Springsteen’s ‘archival’ releases like Tracks and The Promise is listening to earlier takes of songs and tracks that didn’t make the cut at the time and hearing him try out different lyrics, evolving them, seeing if they fit in this song, then that and then, finally, they appear fully polished on the album version.

‘Racing In The Street’ is one of the greatest songs on the best Springsteen albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I love the “give up living” but if you listen to the ’78 version of the song on The Promise, it’s not there. That great line doesn’t appear anywhere in ‘draft’ form, I get the impression it arrived like a bolt of lightning and really moves the song into a different place.

American Skin (41 Shots)

“If an officer stops you promise me you’ll always be polite, that you’ll never ever run away, promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”

“I had the title and a few stray lines, an idea for a song about American identity, sitting in my workbook for six months…” It would, as with The Rising, take a tragedy to spur Bruce into writing a powerful song that would reaffirm his place as a songwriter able to tap into the public consciousness again. While the reunion tour had seen new songs like ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and even ‘Further On Up The Road’ show that Springsteen still had new songs up his sleeve, ‘American Skin’ was the one that showed he could still take a step back and then come up with something unexpectedly hard-hitting in its lyrical content and relevance. The lyrics are hard-hitting without being exploitative and remain evocative with repeated listens, best heard delivered live and never really captured effectively in the studio as the genie had already been let out of the bottle.

Born To Run

“Beyond the Palace hemipowered drones scream down the boulevard”

A first-person love letter to a girl called Wendy. A song about busting out and making a break “on a last chance power drive”. It’s a refined, more direct blast of power than Springsteen’s previous work. It’s got the same passion but there’s a sense of dread and more urgency in the need to escape than on, say, ‘Rosalita’,  but, for me, the album and song still contains as many evocative lines as those on its predecessor and there’s just something about that line… I mean, how many other rock songs or radio hits have used a phrase like ‘hemipowered drones’?

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

“Windows are for cheaters/ Chimneys for the poor/ Closets are for hangers/ Winners use the door”

Before there was ‘Born To Run’ there was ‘Rosalita’ and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is just full of Bruce’s poetry in full swing. Shorn from the inhibitions of his debut and flowing wonderfully throughout, it’s tough to pick out anything specific but I love the humour of this, Springsteen’s autobiographical ‘getting out of town’ preview for his next album, and the poetry in…

Wild Billy’s Circus Story

“The runway lies ahead like a great false dawn”

‘Circus Story’ is stuffed to the rims with great lines. It’s a “black comedy” of a song in which Springsteen uses his memories of the circuses that would visit Freehold during his childhood to paint a romantic picture of “the seduction and loneliness of a life outside the margins of everyday life” like that of a musician on the road, say.

Atlantic City:

“Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay”

For all the power and fun of The River‘s rockers, Springsteen’s next move would be to veer toward the more serious side of his song-writing, to tap further into those characters and ideas established in its story songs.

With Nebraska, Springsteen would create songs written quickly and recorded (as demos) with minimal musical backing. There’s a direct line between the sense of misfortune stories on The River and Nebraska – the young couple  who escape to Atlantic City only to continue to struggle and, in the line “with you forever I’ll stay” a continuation of Springsteen’s exploration of marriage and commitment that would thread through into Tunnel of Love‘s documentation of his own, an album which I think this lyric would be equally at home on,

Turning Pages: 50 Great Reads

So we’ve entered that time of the year known as ‘List Season’.

I don’t think I can honestly drop a ‘Best of 2018’ list this year as I’ve only given a handful of new albums a real deep listen and most of my reads this year were not published in 2018 so it would be a case of shuffling those into an arbitrary order. Plus – who gives a flip.

However… an ALL TIME list… now that’s something that’s always worth sitting up and paying attention to in between wrapping up gifts and eating your own body weight in Christmas dinner, right?

Well, William over at a1000mistakes recently dropped two such lists – 50 Great Reads and a Top 50 Movies. I don’t think I could get a list of 50 films together but books… that I can do.

So, without further preamble, here are my 50 favourite books /reads in no order other than alphabetical – though if it’s in bold it’s in the Top 10. This is also limited to fiction or I’d have been here all day:

Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu

How to Be Brave – Louise Beech 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin-  Louis de Bernières

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernières

Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov*

Confessions – Jaume Cabré

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

White Noise – Don DeLillo

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

Perfidia  – James Ellroy

Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada

Iron Gustav – Hans Fallada

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks 

Hell at the Breach – Tom Franklin

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith

Epiphany Jones – Michael Grothaus

The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hašek

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

The President’s Last Love – Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kurkov

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

The Life of Pi – Yann Martell

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

See You Tomorrow – Tore Renberg

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian

Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

Perfume – Patrick Süskind

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Where Roses Never Die – Gunnar Staalesen

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz

Jihadi: A Love Story – Yusuf Toropov

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Man Who Died – Antti Tuomainen 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughter House 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

*Master and Margarita is, in all likelihood, my favourite read full stop. However, as with all translated fiction, finding the translation is crucial and can make or break a book. The Penguin edition published in 2006 with the blue cover is the best I’ve found and the fact that this was the version given to me as a gift by my wife one day in Oxford after she expressed disbelief that I’d not yet read it only helps ensure it’ll not be toppled from the top of this list.

Blog Tour: The Luckiest Thirteen by Brian W. Lavery

From the PR: “A true-life drama of an intense battle for survival on the high seas.

The Luckiest Thirteen is the story of an incredible two-day battle to save the super trawler St Finbarr, and of those who tried to rescue her heroic crew in surging, frozen seas.

It was also a backdrop for the powerful stories of families ashore, dumbstruck by fear and grief, as well as a love story of a teenage deckhand and his girl that ended with a heart-rending twist. From her hi-tech hold to her modern wheelhouse she was every inch the super ship the great hope for the future built to save the fleet at a record-breaking price but a heart-breaking cost.

On the thirteenth trip after her maiden voyage, the St Finbarr met with catastrophe off the Newfoundland coast. On Christmas Day 1966, twenty-five families in the northern English fishing port of Hull were thrown into a dreadful suspense not knowing if their loved ones were dead or alive after the disaster that befell The Perfect Trawler. Complete with 16 pages of dramatic and poignant photographs from the period.”

I’ve long held a fascination with the sea and am at my most relaxed when I’m by the water. Yet, as much as it has a calming effect on me and I’ve often looked at the small fishing boats in harbour bobbing up and down on the tide and fancied taking a go out to sea, the realities of the deep and the dangers of the sea outside of the safety of the harbour walls means there’s no real chance of my swapping my comfy desk-bound career for that of the life of the trawlerman –  especially the life of the deep-sea fishermen. Even with a lot of naval history in my family.

Yet, despite my interest, it’s not a subject I’ve read too much around so when I was offered the chance to review “a true-life drama of an intense battle for survival on the high seas” there was no chance I’d say no. I’d never heard of the St Finbarr or its fate but, then again – why would I? I was born over a decade after the fact and never really ventured further north than Coventry.

The Luckiest Thirteen is a startlingly vivid and detailed account of an oft-forgotten tragedy at sea – the fate of the St Finbarr and her crew and the devastating loss experienced by their families back in Hull. As laid out in cold hard fact in the opening pages: “On Christmas Day, 1966, a fireball explosion ripped through the super-modern Hull trawler St Finbarr in wild Arctic waters on Newfoundlands’ Grand Banks. Ten men from a crew of twenty-five died instantly. Two more perished in the subsequent desperate rescue bid”.

What makes The Luckiest Thirteen a strong addition to any bookshelf and so compelling is Laverly’s style. Non-fiction can prove a dry genre at times and even the most fascinating of subjects rendered somniferous by bad telling,  but Brian W. Lavery – who refers to this book as ‘creative non-fiction’ – combines an authoritative level of knowledge that can only come from dedicated research with the personal and human stories to create a heady mix.

It’s in the recreating of the crews personal stories, the lives they left – and in many cases never returned to – when they set out to sea in the St Finbarr that makes the events that befell the vessel so much more devastating. Laverly’s research and dedication to telling the stories of the people involved means The Luckiest Thirteen is more moving tribute than just plain fact.

I was gripped by the events as they unfolded on the St Finbarr and stunned by the speed at which everything went so spectacularly wrong – Laverly’s account is so detailed as to render events as if they were unfolding there and then rather than retold from decades-old memory. I had no idea just how perilously hard and near-impossible rescue from such situations is – the fact that two 1,000 tonne vessels could be thrown together by mountainous seas and thus unable to get close enough to each other for the ‘movie-style’ rescue imagined by those as previously clueless as I, for example – and, thus, how miraculous it was that so many were saved.

Yet perhaps most affecting of all is the impact the events had on those that survived. They were all left scarred in some way and the story of Walt Collier, in particular, has stayed with me long after finishing the book.

A thoroughly informative and yet uniquely personal and moving book, The Luckiest Thirteen is both gripping and highly recommended . My thanks to Anne Cater for my copy and inviting me to take part on this blogtour.

Faith will be rewarded: Bruce Springsteen – Madison Square Garden, New York 2000

“The floor was a mass of smiles and swaying bodies, and as I watched, I thought ‘I can do this. I can bring this, this happiness, these smiles.’ I went home and called the E Street Band.”

Back when the music press was writing it up and even when I bought the live album that documented it – Live in New York City – I didn’t really understand just how big a deal Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Reunion Tour was.  I’d only really been listening Bruce for a few years at that point and was by no means a decades-long fan.

I was actually one of the generation of fans that made Bruce realise it was time to get the band back together again after a “two young kids” introduced themselves to him outside a pizza joint and expressed their dismay at having never seen the E Street Band live “I started realizing there was a sea of young people out there who never saw the greatest thing I did: PLAY LIVE… with the E Street Band”.

Here we are in 2018 – with a number of studio albums completed with E Street Band tours and shows further on and it’s clear how important that Reunion Tour was. For the decade leading up to it had been filled with two tours from Bruce. One with ‘The Other Band’ in support of Human Touch/Lucky Town and what became known as the ‘Shut The Fuck Up’ Tour for Ghost of Tom Joad. So when Bruce took to the stage with a full E Street Band in 1999 many, including the band themselves, weren’t sure how long it would last.

It had been 11 long years since the end of the Tunnel of Love tour and Steven Van Zandt hadn’t toured with the band since 1981. Questions abounded: was it a one-off? Was it just a nostalgia tour? Was there anything left in the tank? Would this be the start of a new chapter?

By the time the Reunion Tour reached New York in June 2000 for it’s grand finale – a ten-night, sold-out stand at Madison Square Garden – all of those questions had been answered. The E Street Band was firing on all cylinders, tighter than a duck’s arse and clearly a force to be reckoned with now and into the future. The set contained a healthy mix of classic ‘Jersey greaseball’ and ‘Mega’ Bruce along with a selection of Tracks‘ most euphoric moments and new songs to boot.

Songs from June 29th and July 1st would be chopped up and spliced into the ‘live’ album Live in New York City. Back in my Least to Most on Bruce I mentioned how this album suffered from “strange sequencing and fading out”. I stand by that. Until recently a real document of that tour and its closing stand has not been available. But, as Bruce and others, continue to use that weird old ‘Nugs’ service and release more individual shows to the public, I’ve added (thanks to Black Friday the best $4 I’ve spent) Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 1, 2000 to my collection and, let me tell you now: it’s fucking awesome.

Hearing the show from start to end, in full and uninterrupted is a new experience that highlights just how vital and powerful a performance it was. It would be a few tours before Bruce started abandoning setlists and taking requests so those core songs that it revolved around – ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘Two Hearts’, ‘The Promised Land’, the fiery recasting of ‘Youngstown’ leading into ‘Murder Incorporated’ are all here as per Live in NYC but still fantastic and exuberant in their performance.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that now, with the benefit of understanding the band’s history, hearing the Van Zandt spotlighting ‘Two Hearts’ is even more rewarding.

There’s a stunning take on ‘Lost in the Flood’ which – it turns out – was the first time this one had been tackled since the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. Tracks favourite ‘The Promise’ is met with a near-orgasmic reaction from the crowd after every verse and chorus and the guaranteed crowd pleasers ‘Badlands’, ‘Backstreets’ both ‘Born’s – though the USA in a heavily stripped-back slide-blues version closer to the take on Tracks delight as they always do. Given that Bruce almost cut all the classics from the set, wanted to stick more closely to Tracks material, makes you more grateful for Landau’s sage wisdom in guiding him toward doing what he does best. There’s also the introduction of Bruce as ‘rock and roll televangelist’ as he promises salvation though the power of rock and roll. Yes, it’s rehearsed and probably didn’t change night to night, but the band and the performances are so tight you can’t help but get caught up in it.

The sound of the band had changed too as this tour marked the point at which the guitars became more dominant. With both Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren in the mix now alongside Springsteen’s own teak-like tone and Patti Scialfa adding an extra rhythm the band shifted to a four-guitar attack which, when coupled with the power of Max Weinberg, makes this era sound so much heavier and more powerful than takes on previous live recordings. It fucking kicks.

But it’s the stuff that, for some bizarre reason, was left off that record that really shines a new light on these concerts. Springsteen chose to open this show with a new song – the Joe Grushecky co-penned ‘Code of Silence’  and dropped a pre-The Rising version of ‘Further On Up The Road’ later into the set. Of course, two other new songs were featured on Live in New York City and also feature here but there placing in the setlist is more natural. Tour anthem and ‘theme’ song ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ is the penultimate song while ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ came earlier on in the night than that album would lead you to believe. It’s one of Bruce’s finest and made for performing live -which is probably why it’s never been done justice in the studio – because it’s the reaction, the silence as attention is given then the cheers that greet this song and it’s meaning are always worth listening to:

‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ , with it’s message of inclusion and moving forward as one, had been played every night of the tour, usually the set closer. As he introduces the song here, Bruce says that he was “hoping that our tour would be the rebirth and the renewal of our band and of our commitment to serve you. I hope we’ve done that well this year and we´ll continue to try and do so…”

This show does’t end with ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ though. Bruce saved the best for last. For the first time, the band would play ‘Blood Brothers.’ It’s a powerful and moving rendition and Bruce adds a new verse for the occasion and you can hear his voice break with tears. Unrehearsed and impromptu, he calls the band to stand with him and join hands as he sings these new words, in the video that was taken you can see Clarence wasn’t paying attention – he’s caught up in the emotion – and needs to be beckoned, It’s the perfect closer to the tour.

After a twenty-eight song set, packed with much crowd banter and preaching the band leave with a simple “we’ll be seeing ya”. They would be, even if that wasn’t 100% at that point, and would drop many a classic show propelled by great, stadium-ready new songs, but the sheer rediscovery of their power as a band, the promise of that which could lay ahead and the celebration of what they had accomplished make Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 1, 2000 an essential live album for fans and one that I know will be in frequent rotation for a while to come.

 

You don’t know Jack…

So there’s this thing that I’m sure can’t be unique to me and I really hope that someone reading this will confirm but: you know how you can initially be pretty into an artist / group only to lose interest completely then, years later, rediscover and wonder why the hell you dropped out?

One of those artists that fit in this category for me is Jack Johnson. Some time back in 2003/4 someone recommended I check out this dude who plays some pretty chill, cool stuff. Which I did and I quite enjoyed the two albums that Jack had then put out: Brushfire Fairytales and On and On. They had a nice laid back feel and some good acoustic guitar playing pushing some catchy lyrics and nice ideas. Felt like there was a promise of something better to come..

Come album  three, though, everybody and their radio playlist programming brother seemed to catch the Jack Johnson wave and you couldn’t turn the radio dial without hearing “I hope this old train break downs”. Then he went and made a soundtrack album for some film about a cartoon monkey and with my tastes at the time moving toward the heavier… I tuned out.

Cut to later… a decade-plus later in fact, and it turns out that cartoon monkey is a Curious one called George and my young son loves the film and keeps singing the songs from the soundtrack. So, being who I am I download the thing so we can listen to it in the car (it makes a nice change from The Muppets soundtrack ad naseum) and, what do you know, it actually floats my boat too. So I figure it’s time to see what else Jack had been up to since I tuned out. And, bugger; I find a lot that I dig in his last few albums. So much so, in fact, that they’re on quite a bit these days.

There’s no new ground being broken by Mr Johnson; he’s a retired-competitive surfer (he was the youngest surfer invited to the Pipe Masters but a pretty harsh accident a week later split his head open and ko’d his surf career) who still lives in Hawaii so he’s not about to bust out an OK Computer. Something of a renaissance man and very much active in environmentalism especially, appropriately enough, with a focus on the oceans. Jack Johnson delivers predominantly acoustic based tunes though increasingly embellished with electric guitars and organ with what Rolling Stone have summarised as a ‘Zen-master delivery and swaying-palm-tree melodic sense.’

Once upon a time.. yeah: that was not where my tastes were at. Now as I get older and mellower… well I’m digging it. The fact that my son now sings along to the tunes with me too, well that’s just the icing.

Oddly enough, during my recent rediscovery of Mr Johnson I found that I shared this awakening to his music with none other than Mr Vedder: “There was a point about two or three years ago when I was with Ben Harper. I said, ‘Okay, Ben, how about you and me chip in and get Jack a distortion pedal?’ And we had a little bit of a laugh, you know? But I thought about that a lot, and that was my fault that I wasn’t getting it. What he’s doing is real. As opposed to him getting a distortion box or opposed to him trying to be something else, it’s real. There are so many positive things that you get from listening to his records or seeing him live. I didn’t get it for a long time, but now I get it.”

I haven’t met Ben Harper, let alone chatted Mr Johnson with him. But I did talk to the same friend who’d initially recommended him to me and he had a more succinct response to my having tuned out so much enjoyable music for so long: “you bloody knob”.

So, to stop being a knob, here’s Five From Jack Johnson that I’ve been enjoying of late:

F-Stop Blues

Taylor

Constellations

The original of this is pretty strong but I wouldn’t be a Pearl Jam fan if I didn’t prefer this version.

To The Sea

I guess somebody did by him a distortion pedal.

Ones and Zeros