Tracks: Tunic (Song for Karen)

Dreaming, dreaming of how it’s supposed to be
But now this tunic’s spinning – around my arms and knees
I feel like I’m disappearing – getting smaller every day
But when I open my mouth to sing – I’m bigger in every way

I’ve mentioned before how huge Sonic Youth are/were for me. Every now and then I still get bummed when I realise that I won’t hear ‘new’ material from them again. That being said it’s not as though there’s a shortage of songs to listen to; 15 studio albums, 9 SYR instalments and a number of post-dissolve releases trickling through.

It’s close-to impossible for me to choose a favourite Sonic Youth album but when it comes to an individual song it’s always Tunic (Song for Karen). I can’t recall my first hearing of it – I have some idea it involved something being smoked – but I know I was instantly hooked.

Yes; it’s a song about Karen Carpenter. Kim Gordon has said ‘I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body. It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager – they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller.’ In the instrumental breakdown in the middle of the song Kim and J. Mascis are singing Carpenters songs  – it’s buried deep in the mix but on the demo version (included in the 2005 Deluxe Edition) you can hear this more clearly.

The music certainly carries a dark edge appropriate to its subject matter but it’s pure hook and driving rhythm pinned down with guitar squeal. The collapse in the mid section, pulled out by the re-start of the drums and rhythm, is heaven to my ears.

 

2015 Between Covers

I’m never able to do these things at the expected time. There’s the whole ‘being busy’ thing (working, writing my own fiction and fitting that around living etc) and the fact that I like to think about these lists a bit. That and whittling it down this year was tough.

I read a lot in 2015. Old, new, fiction and non, printed and, upon occasion, kindle. I bought a lot of books and I was fortunate enough to be sent some wonderful, eye-opening fiction (and non) to review as well.

As such the list includes two non-new titles as they were still among the best books I read last year, they were new to me and, well, it’s my blog.

So, in no particular order; my 10 Best Reads of 2015.

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New

It’s always a good year for literature when Louis de Bernières drops a ‘big’ novel. The The Dust That Falls From Dreams is set in a locale all the more local than his previous such tomes yet contains so much warmth, humour, emotion and dazzling prose as to render its authorship and excellence unquestioned. That this is the start of another trilogy from Louis de Bernières can only be great news.

Not the start of a trilogy but the start of a series, Snowblind is the first Dark Iceland novel to be translated into English and published by Orenda Books. With Nordic-Noir fast becoming a genre of choice for me, this gripping thriller delivered on every page and, as mentioned in my review, is remarkably confident and powerful for a début. A genuine hook of a plot, superbly evoked setting and a real shake-up of the ‘locked-room’ approach.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes may well have been picked up out of amusement at the “He’s back, and he’s Fuhrious” tagline but once I picked it up and glanced over the blurb I was already hooked. Yes, it’s never going to be as 100% funny as it could have been thanks to the ever-lasting horror that the central-figure’s real-life counterpart committed but it does have a lot of genuinely funny moments, realises that the initial joke could become old fast and develops into a biting and dark satire that does leave you wondering just how far-fetched the “it wasn’t all bad” belief actually is. Having met some people since and heard them use just that line in relation to the likes of Mussolini, perhaps not that far after all.

Another book with some well-timed questions this year was The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto. The second novel to feature police investigator Anna Fekete (I still need to read the first), this is a great novel with a real slow-burning plot that builds momentum as its many sub-plots weave together in a masterful manner. Everything about The Defenceless – from its characters and narration and its brilliant reveal – is top-tier stuff but it’s the central story of Sammi, the Pakistani refugee who resorts to increasingly desperate measures to avoid deportation that will linger long after the final page has been turned.

It’s known that I’m a sucker for historical fiction (and even non-fiction) that deals with World War 2. The first of two on this list that deals with such an era is James Ellroy’s Perfidia. Again, lifted off the bookshop table out of curiosity at the cover and promptly taken to the till following the blurb, this was my introduction to Ellroy (I was unaware of his authorship of LA Confidential and the Black Dahlia) and it’s one hell of a place to start. A huge novel in terms of both scope and intricacy and detail. It’s an intense and all-consuming read and I genuinely felt immersed Ellroy’s 1940’s Los Angeles. In theory this is the start of a trilogy, that will link to his previous novels to form a sort of ‘history of America’ and I can’t wait for the next, though I may jump forward and read them in published, rather than intended chronological, order.

I suppose, technically, there’s three books that deal with this era of history…. Part of How To Be Brave by Louise Beech is the story of Colin – lost at sea after his merchant navy ship was sunk by a torpedo. The other ‘part’ deals with the diagnosis of nine-year-old Rose with Type 1 diabetes and how her and her mother come to terms with the changes this will have on their lives while – as Colin fights to stay alive – they fight to save their relationship as mother and daughter. The story lines intertwine in a wonderful and poetic manner, the characters are all genuine and warm and – I’ve said it before and I’ve said it to others since; Louise Beech  vividly evokes the sensations of panic and dread that accompany being a parent when a child falls ill and perfectly captures the feeling of isolation from the rest of the world that occurs at such times, wrapped in an all-consuming love for your child. As a parent of a young child with a voracious appetite for books that already rivals mine, so much of this book stayed with me that it had to round out the new fiction element of the list.

Less-New

I still cannot believe I took so long to get to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (the third WW2 book of the year’s list). Annoyed that I’d missed out on this undeniable classic yet at the same time so glad that I’m now familiar with the hilarity of Yossarian (the moaning epidemic at the briefing before the Avignon mission cost me a mouthful of coffee) and this bitingly funny satirical swipe at the futility and ridiculous bureaucracy of a bloated army-at-war.

Strangely enough the other non-new book that sits in this list ticks the same boxes as above but is set in the First World War. An extremely important and well-regarded (though tragically unfinished) book, The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek is an immense read in terms of both size, scope and enjoyment. Again, mixing both slapstick and satire to deliver both a swipe at the pointless futility of conflict and war, the discipline of the Austrian army and the Austro-Hungarian empire itself. With Josef Švejk, Hašek created an iconic character and I can only wonder – were the book to have reached completion before illness took its author – whether the imbicility of Švejk would’ve reached ever-new heights or be denounced as feigned (though where’s the fun in that). A quick glance at the already cracked and well-read spine of my copy (an inspired birthdaygift from my wife) will show just how devoured The Good Soldier Švejk was at the tail of last year.

Non-Fiction

Given that I touched on it plenty in fiction, I don’t think I touched the Second World War in non-fiction during 2015.

I’ve long been fascinated by Russia. That mysterious country that’s had such an impact on my life via the Cold War (I won’t go into that here) and has delivered some of my favourite writers (nobody can touch The Master and Margarita). I’ve been looking for a way in to understanding more of the country and this year found just that with A Journey Into Russia by Jens Mühling. A compelling account of Mühling’s journey from Moscow into the depths of Siberia in search of the last Old Believer living in reclusion, this book delivers many fascinating explorations of stories that are almost too strange to be true (from the new Jesus preaching to his believers in their private paradise to the priest who still preaches in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone and via the surreal supremacists-as-Slavs encounter)  in its attempt to discover and understand the soul of Russia.

There’s no way that, as a Sonic Youth fan, my list wouldn’t include Kim Gordan’s Girl In A Band. Yes; there are times when the full-disclosure element of the break down of indie’s golden couple makes for unpleasant reading (perhaps even more so as a fan as it makes you start to question the substance of recent songs) but the telling of Kim’s journey from art student to alt-rock pioneer and back to art (not that she ever left) makes for a revealing and fascinating read and the insights into Sonic Youth songs make for essential reading.

As for 2016… there’s already a few contenders and definite entries (keep an eye out for my entry on the Jihadi; A Love Story blogtour)  and when you throw in the fact that Bruce Springsteen has revealed his auto-biography is to be published at the tail-end of the year… it’s been a great start to what’s undoubtedly going to be a good year of reading ahead for sure.

Girl In A Band

IMG_4834When Girl In A Band was released earlier this year I didn’t rush out and buy it. In fact, it was my wife that added this one to the collection and got to it first.

It’s safe to say that going in to this book I had mixed feelings. On the one hand; I love Sonic Youth and was anxious to gobble down more insights into the band, its working process and its body of work. On the other; Kim and Thurston’s split meant not only the end of Sonic Youth but a shift in focus whenever the band or either of them were mentioned in print. As such all press surrounding the release of Girl In A Band – including the excerpts printed in various publications – seemed heavier on that matter than the music.

It’s also safe to say that coming away from this book I have mixed feelings.

This is a memoir, after all. Says it right there in the title: Girl In A Band: A Memoir. So not an auto-biog in the traditional linear sense nor a “making of the album” type book. Further ‘nor’ is it a My Time In Sonic Youth book. No; it’s Kim Gordon’s memoir and to expect it to be solely on SY would be rude and demeaning as Ms Gordon’s life revolves around a whole lot more.

Gordon writes movingly about her early life and family – the terror inflicted upon her by her older brother and the greater terrors unleashed by his illness – and finding her way in the art world and path into music.

All that being said, though, Sonic Youth is/was a big part of Kim’s life and so does get plenty of page time too. Gordon is remarkably frank about her limited singing abilities – explaining that she asked Kim Deal to sing the harmonies on Little Trouble Girl as she, well, couldn’t – and offers insights into the writing / recording of many of SY’s tunes including my own favourite Tunic (Song for Karen).

There’s also plenty of revelations about life with the band – touring with Neil Young and its pitfalls, Kurt Cobain (a gentle yet tortured and manic soul here) and enough to suggest that Kim Gordon and Courtney Love don’t exchange Christmas Cards.

For all of the above I loved this book and would happily read it again.

Though as it’s a memoir and a recent one at that, the dissolution of Kim and Thurston’s marriage hangs heavy over the book. Hindsight often gets a few words in on recollections of earlier times and then there’s the break-up itself. It’s dealt with in, again, a remarkably frank manner – the discovery of text messages / emails from the Other Woman, attempts at counselling and repairing the marriage and, throughout, Kim’s own devastation.

It’s hard reading. Perhaps, to me, because the two had previously been more private about their relationship. When the announcement of their separation was made it was very quiet and via their label. In a world where celebrity couples can’t walk the dog alone without speculation appearing across the internet that their relationship is on the skids, it was a welcome relief for private matters to remain just that.

But then, as mentioned, this is her memoir and its her right to use the medium to set her version on the record, perhaps so as to never need do so again. It’s a little uncomfortable to read given just how open and forthright the sordid details of Thurston’s betrayal and the abrupt collapse of their marriage are laid bare – as though, perhaps, the disclosure was a little too full.

Nonetheless, Girl In A Band is a compelling read.

For a Youth Probably Now Past

I’ve been remiss in writing here. I’ve not been remiss in listening to music.

A little while ago I heard the stream of the new, self-titled, album by Chelsea Light Moving. I’ve listened to it a couple of times subsequently though I’ve yet to order up the vinyl. Something is stopping me. Tugging at me. Suggesting it might even be treacherous to do so…

Chelsea Light Moving (CLM) is the new band for Thurston Moore. He of Sonic Youth. I do own all of Mr Moore’s previous solo albums – at least the three that are readily available and not of the pure-noise variety. I even have Demolished Thoughts on vinyl – beautiful double coloured vinyl at that. But those were solo albums not ‘new band’ albums. It’s not that CLM is bad. Not at all, really, for a first effort. It bristles with all the energy that you’d expect of Thurston’s thrashier additions to an SY album and makes more noise than he ever does on his own. At least in song-mode.For the problem I have when listening to CLM is that this is as pretty clear indication as you’ll ever get that Sonic Youth should now be referred to in the past tense.sonic youth

Given that the indie-rock world was thrown upside down by the news that Thurston and Kim Gordon recently announced that their marriage was over, it shouldn’t really be a surprise. Given that that they’ve been together and put out more music than any of their contemporaries, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Given that they recently parted ways with their long-term label Geffen (their going Major was one of the things that smoothed the way for Nirvana and many others to do so) and released The Immortal on an indie label as a one-time-only thing, it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s not really a surprise. It is, though, a bloody big shame.

It’s hard to write about Sonic Youth and their music. Whenever I write about music I’m mindful of the quote that likens doing so to ‘dancing about architecture’. With such an analogy writing about Sonic Youth and their music is nigh on impossible. Others have tried, they’ve done so better than I ever could.

To me though, 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 tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Nobody else has been able to make music that’s so chaotic and deconstructive while still in complete control and ridiculously tight. Watching Thurston and Lee Ranaldo playing together was like watching music’s mad scientists create. And playing prepared guitar with a screwdriver? Forget it. Absolutely amazing.

It is a shame, and here’s more than a few reasons why: