Monday, September 28, 2009

Byrne Baby Byrne

George Clinton’s Funkadelic famously sung “Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow”, which was a prescription Talking Heads took to the max with their ability to make the intellectual infectious and danceable. Most music aficionados have long admired Talking Heads for their mixture of cerebral, slightly ambivalent lyrics, complex rhythms, clever arrangements and quirky tunes, but what may surprise listeners is how funky they are, even when the songs tackle the darkest of subjects.

These funk-laced rhythms came to full fruition on “Remain in Light”, which may well be the band’s definitive statement, but “Fear of Music” was the first album to embrace their experimental leanings and give expression to a step in a new direction. “Fear of Music” was their third album after the nervous, smart post-punk of “Talking Heads: 77” and the warm, adventurous “More Songs about Buildings and Food” and represented something of a transitional affair as they moved towards the explicitly ethnic beats of “Remain in Light” and “Speaking in Tongues”.

"The name of this band is ..."

Despite being the band’s most daunting and difficult record to approach, “Fear of Music” was named as the best album of 1979 by the influential NME. Whereas “More Songs” was crisp and outgoing, “Fear of Music” is often brilliantly disorienting. This is a more obscure, enigmatic Talking Heads, whose jittery pop is beginning to turn darker and more exploratory. Front man David Byrne explained, “It wouldn’t please us to make music that’s impossible to listen to, but we don’t want to compromise for the sake of popularity”. Nevertheless, the music was now more compelling and the spiky urgency of before possessed a new sure-footed assurance.

The album opens with “I Zimbra”, which was actually the last track recorded for the album, which makes sense, given that its tribal, conga driven jam is the clearest link to the sound on “Remain in Light”. This may well be one of the first examples of world music appearing on a rock-oriented record. Talking Heads had already toyed with French phrases on the seminal “Psycho Killer”, but here Byrne abandons English altogether, basing the incomprehensible lyrics on a nonsensical poem by Dadaist writer Hugo Ball. However, “I Zimbra” can be viewed as a glorious red herring, a slice of afro-funk that is more like a teaser (or blueprint) for the next album.

"This ain't no Mudd Club or CBGB's"

For this is primarily a collection of anxious, claustrophobic and twisted songs, fueled by the uncomfortable, quivering tension between its repetitive dance beats and Byrne’s overly anxious vocals. From its paranoia-filled lyrics to its tightly-wound arrangements, the aptly titled “Fear of Music” perfectly captures the sound of a complete psychological breakdown. Although Byrne sang about his own private, tortured universe, believing his inner world to be his last refuge, this celebration of paranoia was very much a product of its time, taking its temperature from the Cold War, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Three Mile Island accident.

The ominous feeling of foreboding is reinforced by the black LP sleeve, which is embossed with a corrugated pattern that resembled the appearance and texture of metal flooring. Obviously the album title also fits in with the record’s darker themes, though different interpretations have been considered, including references to the band being under a lot of pressure when making it and even the travails of the music industry as a whole.

"Psycho Killer"

Either way, a sense of manic unease permeates the album throughout as Byrne paints a portrait of all sorts of fears and phobias, his apprehensive ruminations expressing his belief inter alia that animals were laughing at him, his electric guitar could not be trusted and even the air was causing him harm. Some have argued that this could be considered a concept album (Fear of Everything), but Byrne himself said these were, “just songs that were written and recorded within a given period, so they have a kind of thematic or emotional … whatever”. Classic Byrne – smart as a whip, but slightly weird.

Animals” carries the paranoia to hysterical extremes with its sinister litany of frankly hilarious grievances against, yes, animals: “I know the animals/Are laughing at us/They don't even know/What a joke is”. Equally strange is “Electric Guitar”, whose surreal quality makes it unclear whether this is a condemnation of rock music or those who oppose such music. On a deeper level, it could be interpreted as a fear of institutional authority and totalitarianism: “Someone controls electric guitar”. The light, atmospheric (sorry) “Air” worries about the toxins carried by the air: “What is happening to my skin?/Where is that protection that I needed?/Air can hurt you too”.

"The wall of sound"

Looking at the subjects of Byrne’s anxiety, it is clear that a strong sense of humour shines through his trepidation. Although not as overtly funny as the Talking Heads’ earlier songs, there is a childish playfulness at work here among the wreckage. Even when they tackle hard subjects, the lyrics are witty, not laugh-out-loud hilarious, but always droll, so you can never be entirely sure that they are completely serious. The songs are all the better for it, as the world already has more than its fair share of po-faced preachers masquerading as rock stars.

This is not to say that the album does not address important issues, articulating the angst that many of their fans felt at the time. “Cities” speaks about global disaffection, “I'm checking them out/I got it figured out/There's good points and bad points/But it all works out/ I'm a little freaked out/Find a city/Find myself a city to live in”, Byrne spitting out the words with the bug-eyed zeal of a man who is never more disturbed than when confronted with the normal. He delivers the song at a frantic pace as if he’s being chased, arbitrarily dismissing each city, though there are still lines that raise a smile, “Do I smell?/I smell home cooking/It's only the river”.

"You ain't nothing but a wide boy"

Life During Wartime” is the album’s standout track and has become cultural shorthand for paranoia, insurgency and covert activity. It describes a nightmarish vision of civil insurrection and terrorism that was unfortunately as prophetic as it was apocalyptic, “Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons/Packed up and ready to go”; and “I got three passports, couple of visas/ Don't even know my real name”. Drawing on punk as its main inspiration, it shares a disco beat with “Cities”, though this is a very twisted sort of dance, giving us the catchphrase of the age: “This ain't no party, this ain't no disco/This ain't no fooling around/No time for dancing, or lovey dovey/I ain't got time for that now”. This song could also be played to many of today’s fashionistas as a lesson in how good post-modern, edgy dance music can truly be, “I changed my hairstyle so many times now/don't know what I look like”.

Mind” is equally plaintive, but this time the despair is for a doomed relationship. This is the Heads at their most minimalist, but the message is all the more powerful for the song’s ghostly insistence with the singer becoming more and more frustrated as it progresses, “I try to talk to you, to make things clear/But you're not even listening to me/And it comes directly from my heart to you/I need something to change your mind”. The reverberating bass line draws you in, as it becomes clear that Byrne hasn’t got the “faintest idea” how to resolve his problems.

"But you said it was a fancy dress party"

Having previously dismissed the good ole’ US of A in “The Big Country” (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me”), Byrne extended his scorn to paradise itself in the anthemic “Heaven”, possibly Talking Heads’ first authentic soulful ballad. Although the melodic music offers a pool of calm and serenity amid the insanity, the deceptively relaxed tune gradually reveals layers of frustrated, aching tension beneath the surface that is only hinted at during the wry, bemused chorus, “Heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens”. Maybe alluding to the need to move on musically, Byrne sang, “The band in Heaven they play my favorite song/They play it one more time, they play it all night long”.

The closing track “Drugs” is a scary listen, as the sound is stripped down to the bare essentials, thus bringing to the fore Byrne’s edgy vocals, exploring themes of urban dislocation. Byrne apparently jogged around the block several times before recording the vocals, and you can hear the lack of breath as he struggles to force the words out. It’s as if drugs wipe everything away, “Somebody said there's too much light/Pull down the shade and it's alright/It'll be over in a minute or two”, though there’s a deep uncertainty at the core of the robotic rhythms and mutant funk.

"Take me to the river"

Some consider that this album is nothing more than a detailed exploration of the strains of the creative process, not so much a fear of music, but a fear of no longer being able to make music. David Byrne suffered from writer’s block throughout his career and this is evoked in “Paper”, where he describes having ideas, but not being able to write them down, “Hold the paper up to the light/Some rays pass right through”. Maybe much of the pain and dread suffusing the album is merely a reflection of Byrne’s desperate quest for his artistic muse?

However they got there, the album’s music was rightly praised for its unconventional rhythms and its eclectic blend of disco beats, cinematic soundscapes and new wave guitar hooks. On no other album did Talking Heads so brilliantly walk the fine line between avant garde rock and pop music. The guitars and keyboards never sounded cleaner, while the bass and drums drive the songs forward.

Much of the praise should go to producer Brian Eno, who was instrumental (sic) in shaping the band’s sound. On board for the second time, Eno added another dimension, spinning synthesizers and strange sound effects around their spindly funk. He highlighted the quirkiness of the subject matter and the oddity of Byrne’s breathless vocals and subversive lyrics, so that the songs sparkle with energy and invention. His eerily ambient influence took the band in new directions, such as the spooky “Memories Can’t Wait”, where the mix is as murky as a film noir and Byrne’s vocal is echoed, reverbed, tape-reversed and sped up, while he sings, “There's a party in my mind/And I hope it never stops”.

Although many tracks bore Eno’s mark, it was still Talking Heads’ frantic energy that kept the material aloft. The amalgam of Byrne’s scratchy, punk-oriented guitar, Jerry Harrison's keyboards and one of the all time great rhythm sections, Tina Weymouth on bass and Chris Frantz on drums, was something to behold. Byrne’s vocals add the edginess, sometimes in sync with the other band members, sometimes careering above them in lunatic abandon. His musicians may be an efficient machine, but Byrne maintains the beauty (luxury) of human error.

"The Pink Pussycat - this must be the place"

This was the phase of the band’s career when their creativity was running wild and perhaps Eno’s great skill was to capture this vitality before their chemistry faded. Byrne seemed to believe that the responsibility for the band’s success rested squarely on his shoulders, singing about how “Other people can go home/Other people may just split/I'll be here all the time/I can never quit” in “Memories” and it is true that the other band members became less influential on future albums. In fact, they needed a number of side projects, such as the impressive Tom Tom Club, to fully satisfy their creative urges.

Talking Heads was one of the most innovative bands of the last thirty years and their influence can still be felt today, especially in the likes of Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. I believe that there are also similarities with Radiohead and if you can’t see that, consider that they named themselves after a Talking Heads song – “Radio Head” from “True Stories”.

In “More Songs about Buildings and Food”, Byrne’s character seemed overly obsessed with the trivia of everyday existence, and here it seems to have driven him over the edge, yet somehow, it never stops making sense.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Poll Position

The football season is only a few matches old and we are already subjecting every referee’s decision to detailed forensic examination. While it is true that there have been many utterly inept refereeing displays (take a bow Howard Webb, Mike Dean and Mark Clattenburg), what is annoying me even more is the increasing media exposure of referees after they have hung up their whistles, especially the “thing from Tring”, Mr. Graham Poll.

These days Poll is all over the place like a particularly virulent virus. The BBC often wheel him out as an expert to pronounce on any refereeing controversy, while the Daily Mail have seen fit to give him a weekly column entitled “The Official Line” (geddit?), which may as well be called “Graham Poll Talks Bollocks” (not that he would mind, so long as his name’s in the headlines). As if that’s not bad enough, he also appears on Chappers’ Premier League Podcast, which at least knows the nature of the beast: “he’ll have plenty to talk about … not that that would stop him even if there wasn’t”. The producers also cannot resist pointing out that Graham finished bottom of their Pundits’ Predictions League.

"No, you shut up"

Poll’s shtick is essentially to criticise referees for their dodgy decisions, taking aim at Mike Riley and Andy D’Urso among others. Leaving aside the delicious irony of Graham Poll passing judgment on the quality of somebody else’s refereeing, his comments are a waste of ink and may as well be translated as “Look at me!” On one occasion à propos of the Respect Campaign, he asked how we could respect referees when they continue to make appalling decisions. It is already tiresome enough that the majority of post-match “analysis” consists of little more than pompous pundits and imbecilic ex-pros ridiculing referees’ decisions, their omniscience based upon numerous slow-motion replays from every conceivable angle, without Poll willfully misunderstanding the objective of Respect, which was to reduce ugly scenes of dissent - whether or not the decision was correct.

Even when Poll’s aim is true, such as when he labelled the saviour of English football, Saint Steven of Gerrard, as a diver, the impression was that Poll’s objective was not so much to help clean up the sport, but to ensure that his name was once again in the spotlight. Self-importance just screams through his comments: “It gives me no satisfaction to name and shame him, but I was disappointed by Steven Gerrard last weekend”. Put a sock in it, you pompous prat.

"Three is a magic number"

Of course, this paragon of perfection is best known for his three card trick during the Croatia vs Australia match at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when he failed to send off the Croatian defender Josep Simunic for a second yellow card, before eventually dismissing him after his third yellow at the final whistle. Poll had been tipped, not least in his own mind, as a potential candidate to referee the World Cup Final, but he completely lost the plot in this game with a series of errors ending any hopes of taking charge of the tournament’s showpiece. He also managed to start the game early; blow for full-time just as what would have been Australia’s winner crossed the line; and miss a blatant handball in the penalty area.

If he weren’t so arrogant, you could almost feel sorry for him. Just imagine working your way to the very top of your profession, being given a worldwide stage and you completely cock it up. It was the equivalent of Ant and Dec turning up drunk for the Royal Variety Performance and interrupting their standard Geordie bonhomie by mooning Her Majesty. Former World Cup referee Clive Thomas, not unaccustomed to embarrassing himself at a World Cup, described Poll’s comedy show as “one of the worst performances of a referee I have ever seen in a World Cup. He lost complete control. It was pretty grim”. Former colleague and rival, Jeff Winter, contented himself with, “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy”. Predictably, FIFA sent Graham home after his error-strewn display – Poll Axed!

"Little Graham is this big"

This was not the only blemish on Poll’s record at the 2006 World Cup. He had already caused much amusement in the Togo vs South Korea match, when he sent off a player for a second bookable offence, but accidentally brandished a red card before discovering the second yellow. As the cards multiplied, it was like watching a second-rate magician on Blackpool Pier. It was no great surprise when Premier League fans greeted Poll on his return from Germany with his very own chant, “World Cup – and you fucked it up”, though you can't help thinking that a large part of Poll was probably happy to be the centre of attention.

Poll has a bit of previous from the World Cup, having attracted controversy for his role in the Italy vs Croatia game in 2002, when he incorrectly disallowed two Italian goals, one for offside and one for shirt pulling. Italian striker Christian Vieri resisted the temptation to place a horse’s head in Poll’s bed, but did say, “Those weren’t division one or division two officials – they were village officials”. Poll himself admitted, “I’ve had three major championships (Euro 2000, World Cup 2002 and World Cup 2006) and not one has gone right for me for various reasons”, though it’s not clear whether this reflects a rare moment of self-doubt or if he’s just bemoaning his bad luck.

"Finally we see the back of Poll"

Domestically, there have also been a couple of high profile gaffes. In the dying seconds of the Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool in 2000, Poll blew for time as a clearance was rebounding off Don Hutchison’s back for what would have been a match-winning goal. At the time everyone knew that Poll had found a convenient way of avoiding a difficult decision, though he strenuously denied this until seven years later, when he finally confessed, “I remember when I made a right ricket in the last minute of an Everton-Liverpool derby match and disallowed what was probably a perfectly good goal”.

In the 2003 FA Cup Semi-Final, in the build-up to Arsenal’s goal in a 1-0 victory, Poll obstructed a Sheffield United midfielder with the kind of blocking move that an American Footballer would be proud of. Unsurprisingly, Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock was unimpressed, “I shouldn’t really say what I feel, but Poll was their best midfielder. You saw him coning off at half-time and at the end. He was smiling so much, that he obviously enjoyed that performance”.

To be fair, refereeing is a mug’s game. Another former referee, David Elleray perfectly summarised the role, “Bad refereeing performances are remembered, while good performances are forgotten”. Despite what most fans believe, the majority of referees have significantly more good games than bad and over the course of officiating at more than 1,500 matches, Poll must have managed to get the overwhelming majority of decisions right, otherwise his career would not have lasted so long.

"A great ref and Graham Poll"

However, Poll ignored the golden rule of refereeing, which is that officials should be as inconspicuous as possible, enforcing the rules without becoming the story. Like spin doctors, that’s a sign of failure, but Poll never shied away from self-promotion. There’s no doubt that Poll enjoyed his time in the limelight and he never seemed to be content with just being the man in black blowing the whistle. The Football Supporters’ Federation said, “Poll had a tendency towards the theatrical and grandiloquent gesture. It is a difficult job, but sometimes referees need reminding that supporters have paid their money to watch the players, not them”.

Throughout his career, the self-styled (pretty) “Polly” had two personas: the card-happy disciplinarian and the friend-of-the-players showman. In the latter guise, he used to grin at the players in what he probably believed was a reassuringly avuncular manner, but actually looked more like the slightly forced grimace of a sleazy bloke on the bus. Seemingly desperate to bask in football’s reflected glow, he wanted more headlines than the players in order to feed his insatiable ego. His mindset was revealed last season: “Howard Webb found out just this week that he’d got the Cup Final and I think what you do is you think, ‘I’ve got to prove I’m the best referee’ and you look for a big call”. So, instead of just applying the rules, Poll would rather focus on making a name for himself.

Since his retirement, Poll has admitted that Premiership referees treat top players differently, as if we had any doubts. During an interview on Setanta Sports, following John Terry being give a straight red in a match against Everton, Poll suggested that officials could be influenced by the furore arising from sending-off the England captain, resulting in a scathing attack from Arsene Wenger, who momentarily abandoned his customary diplomatic approach to describe Poll as an “embarrassment”.

"You don't know what you're doing"

England’s Brave John Terry and Chelsea have loomed large in Poll’s career. Indeed, Poll claimed that the FA’s unwillingness to back him in his row with Chelsea undermined officials’ authority and drove him to an early retirement. Terry had claimed that Poll changed his mind about the reason for his dismissal against Tottenham, while other Chelsea players alleged that Poll had told them that their discipline was “out of order” and they “needed to be taught a lesson”. Turning the pomposity level up to the max, Poll harrumphed, “It’s not about Graham Poll. It’s about the FA saying we are custodians of the game and we have to show the world of football that if you speak out against a referee, you get punished, and if you lie about a referee, my word, you’re going to get punished”.

In Poll’s very next game, he sent off Everton’s James McFadden for calling him a “fucking cheat”, which in Poll’s egocentric universe he only did, because he thought he could get away with it, as the FA hadn’t charged Chelsea. In his own inimitable manner, Jose Mourinho, then Chelsea manager, applied his own version of the Poll Tax, “Graham Poll is good for games like these, because he makes so many mistakes, the players get angry and motivated”.

Poor old Graham was not even respected by his peers. Commenting on a curious incident when the lovable Robbie Savage was caught short and had to use the officials’ facilities, former colleague Jeff Winter revealed, “the referee in question was not one of my favourite people. In fact, anyone who craps in Graham Poll’s toilet can’t be all bad”. Maybe his lack of popularity was due to an incident that occurred at a pre-season training camp for officials when Poll was suspended for his boozy behaviour, including climbing on car bonnets and screaming “Top of the world!” (OK, I made the last bit up).

"Poll dancing"

More seriously, Poll left a sense of betrayal among referees when he advised commercial agents and journalists of his intention to prematurely retire before he had the courtesy to inform his employers. Most commentators were virtually unanimous in their view that early retirement was one decision Poll got right, especially after his lowly ranking in the referees’ performance table suggested that he had passed his peak. Typically, Poll’s exit involved controversial, publicity grabbing, remarks that referees were “losing the war” against badly behaved managers and players. The self-appointed mouthpiece claimed to be speaking on behalf of the country’s 27,000 referees (“men, women and boys”), but this is clearly a case of egotism poorly disguised as altruism. It is hard to see what positive message Poll quitting early when at the top could possibly send to those climbing the ladder beneath him. Maybe he does care about these people, but the main achievement was to draw yet more attention to Poll himself.

In fact, there are those that believe that Poll turned his final season into a lengthy promotional tour for his future media career. BBC’s Inside Sport lent him a camera to make a documentary that was effectively a video retirement speech to his public. You might feel that his quest for celebrity status should not have been made at the licence payers’ expense, but the resulting film is a classic of its kind. Rarely can a man who claims that he is not interested in himself have been filmed so often going into the paper shop first thing the morning after a game to check how many headlines he had generated. He told the camera that he would hate the last memory in the public mind of Graham Poll to be of his fiasco at the World Cup. Rest assured, after this film, our last memory of Graham Poll is surely of a bloke endlessly referring to himself in the third person.

Unfortunately, there is more to Graham Poll, as can be read in his autobiography, “Seeing Red”. Ignoring the reality that the only time most people want to see a referee put pen to paper is when he is booking someone, Poll could not resist the opportunity to put his side of the story and settle a few old scores, though the sub-text is how great he is. There is one example of surprising self-awareness when he admits that as a child he used to over-compensate for his insecurity by acting completely over-the-top. This need to assert his personality followed him into his refereeing career, ultimately undermining his authority.

Still, Poll’s effort (“I showed three yellow cards to the same player – here’s my book”) is streets ahead of Jeff Winter’s “Who’s the Bastard in the Black?” with its excruciating description of his last match at Anfield: “I played a little bit of extra time, waiting until play was at the Kop end, before sounding the final shrill blast. The fans behind the goal burst into spontaneous applause. It was longer and louder than normal, even for a big home win. Did they know it was my final visit? Was it applause for me? They are such knowledgeable football people, it would not surprise me”. Winter’s tedious account of life in the middle fully justified Steve Bruce’s comment that he had the “personality of a bag of chips”.

Just about the only good thing I can think of to say about Graham Poll is that he single-handedly refutes the moronic argument from the likes of Jamie Redknapp that referees from countries like Norway or Slovakia don’t have enough experience at the top level. I mean a Premier League official like Graham Poll would never make an arse of himself in front of the world’s media, would he? Oh, hang on.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rhapsody In Black And White

The words "romantic comedy" are normally enough to strike fear into any man’s heart, but they say that the exception proves the rule – and Manhattan is surely an exception that the most red-blooded male would appreciate with its shrewd combination of troubled relationships and caustic wit. Manhattan is arguably Woody Allen’s best movie, certainly it’s the film that stands as the best fusion of Allen’s desire to entertain and his melancholy sense of the rhythms and complexities of human relationships.

Allen is one of those rare directors who can seamlessly interweave comedy and drama, humour and tragedy, and Manhattan has plenty of hilarious lines to mitigate the darker subject matter. Not as serious as Crimes and Misdemeanors or Husbands and Wives, not as overtly funny as Sleeper or Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, Manhattan marks the point where Allen fully realized his talent, reducing his reliance on the glib one-liner and spending more time on developing fully rounded characters and the dramatic integrity of the narrative.

"Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3"

Manhattan is often considered to be Allen’s 1979 companion piece to Annie Hall, which he had directed two years earlier. They are both about imperfect, somewhat forced relationships, both star Allen and Diane Keaton (his girlfriend at the time) with Allen essentially playing himself as a neurotic character living in New York. However, the two are completely different in tone: Annie Hall is the blunt, sad realist; while Manhattan is the hopeless romantic. It feels like Allen’s most personal movie, enshrining everything from his morality, his heroes, his humour and (obviously) his home town.

An accusation levelled at Woody Allen is that he always plays the same character in his films, and yes, once again this looks like his typical movie persona: a small, balding, neurotic, middle class Jew, as insecure as he is smart and garrulous: “Years ago I wrote this short story about my mother called The Castrating Zionist". However, his performance here is among the very best he has delivered with a brutally honest look at a man going through a mid-life crisis whose urges and insecurities are founded on a profound immaturity. The emotions feel genuine and he manages to elicit sympathy, even though he’s portraying a self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, whining middle-aged man. Despite his immense ego, he is also very aware of his faults, including the triviality of his work and particularly his disastrous relationships with women, even making jokes about his own parochialism: "Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be ..."

"Fountain of youth"

Allen plays Isaac, a twice-divorced 42-year old television comedy writer, who is besieged with problems, some of his own making. He has become disenchanted with his day job and longs to write a novel, but lacks the courage to give up his monthly pay cheque. His ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) is writing a book about their marriage that will expose his insecurities and sexual failings. He is dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a gorgeous 17-year old high school student, but frets about the age difference. To further complicate his already messy personal life, he then falls in love with Mary (Diane Keaton), the highly strung journalist with whom his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair.

In the past the film has been advertised with the tagline “For anyone who’s been in love”, but love does not fare too well here. In fact, the film is less about love, but more about loss: everyone constantly seeks to retrieve the past, as they feel the pain of realising that they had a beautiful thing and let it go. When forced to make choices, you just know that Isaac will make the wrong ones. Although Tracy is the polar opposite of Isaac, he would do better to focus more on what she has rather than what she lacks. The theme of impermanence can be heard in the soundtrack, “they’re writing songs of love, but not for me”, and Isaac refers to it in his customary humorous manner: “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics”.

"You've done too much, much too young"

In this way, Allen has produced an authentic account of male vanity and foolhardiness, particularly men at a certain stage of their life, including his own unfortunate conviction that he is a plausible romantic lead opposite attractive young women. He somehow manages to successfully project his own self-absorption as a universal human condition:

Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we're just people. We're just human beings, you know? You think you're God.

Isaac: I ... I gotta model myself after someone.

Both Isaac and best friend Yale have to live with the consequences of their lack of self control with Yale’s handling of his relationships with wife and mistress every bit as clumsy and cowardly as Isaac’s.

The film is actually a highly self-critical examination of Isaac’s romantic immaturity and his child-like need to be in a relationship. Despite a string of unsuccessful attachments in the past, he never stops trying to find affection, if not romance, and it is true that Isaac and Tracy share some very tender moments, establishing a realistic chemistry despite their many differences: "You know what you are? You're God's answer to Job, y'know? You would have ended all argument between them. I mean, He would have pointed to you and said, y'know, 'I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these.' You know? And then Job would have said, 'Eh. Yeah, well, you win'."

"Young and the restless"

In her first substantial role, Mariel Hemingway achieves the difficult feat of being both child-like and mature. She comes across as strong-willed and appears to be the only individual in touch with her own feelings. She gives a wonderful performance that is so direct, so without affectation that it is not only at the heart of the film, but provides its heart as well. She symbolises the energy and excitement that Isaac had forgotten existed within Manhattan and it is easy to see why Isaac falls for her. What she sees in him is up for debate, as he spends half the film trying to break up with her (“you’ll think of me as a fond memory”), finally ending the affair at a soda fountain: “Now I don’t feel so good”, Tracy then says in a way that is both simple and heartbreaking.

Given the subsequent revelations about Allen’s private life, where he married his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, even though she was 35 years younger than him, the non-judgmental attitude towards the relationship between an old man and a high school student raises a number of moral issues. Whether this is a case of life imitating art or vice versa, it’s slightly uncomfortable viewing, so when Isaac jokes, “Can you believe it? I’m dating a girl who does homework”, it is difficult to tell if he is mocking himself or boasting. If you can overlook the film’s Freudian implications, then you can appreciate Hemingway’s performance. In many ways, she has the most difficult role with everyone else getting the good lines, but she acquits herself brilliantly and it was no surprise when she was nominated for best Supporting Actress.

"They call it Metallica"

The attractive, but intellectually combative Mary, appropriately played by Diane Keaton, Allen’s then off-screen girlfriend, is apparently the better match for Isaac, being of a similar age and tastes. Despite (or perhaps because of) being self-absorbed and flagrantly neurotic, she is clearly Isaac’s soulmate:

Mary: I'm honest, whaddya want? I say what's on my mind and, if you can't take it, well then fuck off!

Isaac: And I like the way you express yourself too, y'know, it's pithy yet degenerate. You get many dates?

Keaton plays Mary as a slightly sour, jaded riff on Annie Hall. Her scenes crackle with intelligence and intensity, particularly when she almost drives Isaac to violence in a hilarious exchange by summarily tearing apart every writer, film-maker and artist he holds dear. Even though she’s a strong willed woman, it’s evident that she uses her cleverness as a shield against loneliness and she’s just as screwed up as the men in the movie, providing this psychodrama with both the psycho and the drama:

Mary: All right, so he's unorthodox. He's a highly qualified doctor.

Isaac: He's done a great job on you, y'know. Your self esteem is like a notch below Kafka's.

In this movie, few can deal with emotional truths, hiding behind smart wordplay. These sophisticated friends are so busy trying to impress others that they forget to be themselves. All the characters, save the innocent Tracy, are in therapy and/or writing a book, but all their literary superiority and glib sophistication cannot save them from their true feelings when they arrive: “I feel like we're in a Noel Coward play. Someone should be making martinis”. Like Marcello Mastroianni discovering the empty morality and intellectual bankruptcy of the Roman elite in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Isaac finally appreciates that innocence and faith can be more effective than maturity and so-called wisdom. Sometimes you have to act, rather than over-analyse things: ”Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point”.

"Not my idea of foreplay"

Ultimately, the point is that the cynicism and superficiality of the modern mating dance can be trumped by simply going with the flow and enjoying the time spent with the person with whom you have a real connection. The message is that you should just be yourself, rather than who others expect you to be. On this point, Allen himself said that the film deals with the problem of people trying to live a decent existence in an essential junk-obsessed contemporary culture without selling out.

At the same time the movie is clearly Woody Allen’s love letter to New York, the city he calls home, gloriously celebrating the soaring landmarks and famous locations. Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, a carriage ride though Central Park, rowing boats in the lagoon, the Empire State Building – it’s like paying homage to an anthology of Manhattan shrines. However, this is a fictionalised, idealistic version of New York, cut from the same cloth as Amelie’s Paris. During the extraordinary opening sequence montage of city vistas, accompanied by the stirring strains of Gershwin’s sublime “Rhapsody in Blue”, Allen intones, “He adored New York. He romanticised it out of all proportion”, which speaks volumes about the director’s love of the metropolis – and every wistful frame of Manhattan emphasises that. In 1979, New York was in crisis, still reeling from the financial default and black-out, so Allen imagined an improved version as romantic as Casablanca or an Astaire and Rogers musical.

"You old goat"

For the first (and maybe last) time, Allen’s visual rhetoric was equal to his writing with the city magnificently rendered by Gordon Willis, who also shot the Godfather trilogy. The beautiful black and white cinematography reflects a sweet, nostalgic sadness in keeping with Isaac’s gloom, but also turns New York City into one of the principal characters of the film. It helps convey melancholy romance in almost every scene and gives the movie a timeless quality. Willis’ lighting superbly underlines many scenes, such as Isaac and Mary exploring the possibilities of a relationship in the Planetarium: it first appears as if they are strolling among the stars, then they disappear into darkness as the conversation falters, before a sliver of side-lighting finds them (as they find each other).

Of course, Allen is better known for the dazzling brilliance of his scripts rather than the images and Manhattan’s flowing dialogue does not disappoint, filled with the one-liners and savage witticisms that have made him a favourite of cinema aficionados:

You look so beautiful I can hardly keep my eye on the meter.

Plus I'll probably have to give my parents less money. It'll kill my father. He's not gonna be able to get as good a seat in the synagogue. He'll be in the back, away from God, far from the action.

Isaac: I got a divorce because my ex-wife left me for another woman.

Mary: Really? God, that must have been really demoralising.

Isaac: Well, I dunno, I thought I took it rather well under the circumstances. I tried to run them both over with a car.

"The Bridge of Sighs"

Traditional romantic comedies conclude with the two principals confessing their love for one another, but Allen’s masterstroke is to end with a heartrending final scene – a veritable symphony of missed chances. Isaac finally realises that he has casually tossed aside the person he really wants, when he includes her in his list of what makes life worth living:

Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Willie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face...

Although Isaac pleads with Tracy not to leave on the plane, he manages to convey the tortured tone of a man who still desires her, yet knows that she is doing the right thing. She had idolised him, but he lost her through his own foolishness and now he knows that their time has passed. Ironically, Tracy is now presented as the mature one: “Six months isn't so long ... not everyone gets corrupted ... you have to have a little faith in people”.

This hugely inventive film managed to be simultaneously funny, poignant and sad with its painfully realistic examination of personal confusion and human relationships. Woody Allen’s subsequent attempts to recapture New York have often been embarrassing, but at least we’ll always have Manhattan.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

September's Here Again

As the first crisp days of autumn draw ever nearer, my thoughts drift to David Sylvian’s melancholy “September”, which perfectly captures that moment when leaves start turning brown and your thoughts are tinged with a slight sense of regret, “We say that we're in love/While secretly wishing for rain/Sipping coke and playing games/September's here again”. This song is the shortest of ballads, barely a minute long, but the haunting piano and Sylvian’s poignant lyrics portray the mood of encroaching autumn quite beautifully.

“September” is the opening track of 1987’s “Secrets of the Beehive”, which for most critics remains David Sylvian’s best album. It’s certainly the one where his songwriting skills are most to the fore and is far more accessible than much of his work like the experimental doodlings of “Alchemy” and the muted ambience of “Gone to Earth”. Although “Brilliant Trees” is arguably more accessible, “Secrets” is Sylvian’s most cohesive record where his vision is most fully realized, though still nothing like as straightforward as the pop music he became famous for when fronting Japan, one of the more sophisticated New Romantic bands of the early 80s.

"Who's a pretty boy then?"

Japan’s mix of electronics and androgyny was absolutely right for the time and a string of hit singles ensued like “Quiet Life” and “Gentlemen Take Polaroids”. Lead singer David Sylvian had a striking appearance: a waif in Mao fatigues, styled bottle-blonde hair and a face slapped in foundation, he looked every inch a star and was dubbed “the most beautiful man in the world”. Younger bands like Duran Duran looked up to them, but Sylvian was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the artifice, the flouncy outfits and the make up that, er, made up Japan. Instead, he wanted to open up his material to a greater emotional intensity and vulnerability, leading to “Ghosts”, a searching and suggestive single where spare rhythms and fleeting electronic sounds provided a creepy background to Sylvian’s smoldering vocals. Although this was their biggest hit, it sounded the death knell for Japan, acting as a signpost to Sylvian’s solo career.

Compared to the nervous, distant figure he cut with Japan, Sylvian has appeared a great deal more relaxed, though decidedly idiosyncratic, since he left the protection of the group. Although his contemplative music is unlikely to fill a dance floor, Sylvian has become the master of conjuring a mood and atmosphere that is so memorably evocative it paints pictures that linger long after the music has faded.

"Power in the Darkness"

In this way, “Secrets of the Beehive” is all about mood, where Sylvian’s music creates an unforgettable atmosphere of melancholy and longing. The overall ambience is quiet, sensual and dimly lit with the fragile music often off-set by disconsolate lyrics, such as when the metronomic pulse in “The Devil’s Own” perfectly matches the despondent verse, “The ticking of the clock/Inexorably goes on”. This is dark, brooding stuff, but not as downbeat as the near total despair described in “Waterfront”, which is a suitably forlorn end to the album: “On the waterfront the rain/Is pouring in my heart/Here the memories come in waves/Raking in the lost and found of years/And though I'd like to laugh/At all the things that led me on/Somehow the stigma still remains”.

The music feels heavily influenced by the East, which is hardly surprising after Japan’s earlier flirtation with the Orient (“Visions of China”, “Cantonese Boy”), but is obviously given an additional emphasis here by the contributions from long-time collaborator Riyuchi Sakamoto. I first heard this album when I was coincidentally reading Timothy Mo’s “An Insular Possession”, about the foundation of Hong Kong, so the Eastern influences were even further accentuated for me, as Sylvian elaborated on the atmospherics and pushed the rhythmic element further back.

"When Smokey sings"

The minimalist arrangements are timeless, stripping songs down to the bare essentials, but making judicious use of chiming guitars, swirling strings and delicate piano to bring them to life and give each song a unique quality. Slow and soothing, the music reveals itself gradually, weaving a nebulous world, subtly nuanced by the meticulous musicianship. Sylvian allows his associates to colour and shape his work without letting his own voice be overwhelmed. In “Orpheus”, there’s an astonishing moment when you think that the track has ended as the strings and synth effects steadily fade away until impeccably judged piano gently rolls back in to re-launch the song. The album features many moments with this kind of space and poise.

There’s a story being told here in a series of beautiful vignettes that add layers and richness to the whole. Each song wanders between hope and despair, the twin pillars of our existence, resulting in an album varied in texture, but unified in mood. It’s like poetry set to music – and not just any poetry, but the sensitive, bookish, romantic kind. Every word is carefully chosen, heartfelt yet insightful, such as, “Sunlight falls, my wings open wide/There's a beauty here I cannot deny” in the Cocteau-inspired “Orpheus”. It may be poetic, but it’s never whimsical, so “Mother and Child” retains a dark message: “Secret signs/Brought the crime/Right to your door/An innocent/Guilty as hell”.

"Big in Japan"

The breathtaking lyrics render just enough detail to invite you into the singer’s world, but leave you enough space to fill with your own dreams and memories. The words have an intellectual feel with much depth and complexity, but Sylvian delivers them with such stark honesty that the emotional impact is never lessened. His work in the 80s was characterised by themes of detachment and grandeur, but paradoxically was also deeply personal. Somehow he mastered the ability to write about everyday issues while appearing ethereal and other-worldly.

This is greatly helped by his distinctive, mesmerizing voice. His aching, brooding baritone is one moment soaringly powerful, the next gossamer delicate, as he half sings, half whispers the lyrics. Although Julie Burchill once memorably dismissed Sylvian as a “man with a belly ache, so we all have to hear about it”, for me his singing is a thing of beauty, cool and expressive. Reminiscent of Scott Walker’s voice with Bryan Ferry’s phrasing, Sylvian never sounded better than on this record. Rich and beguiling, even on the almost funereal “Maria”, which has echoes of “Ghosts” with its eerie sounds and haunting backdrop, he rasps, “Maria, your every thought's my heartbeat/Maria, save a thought for me”.

"Full of Eastern promise"

There is a strong cinematic quality to much of Sylvain’s music with its variety of musical textures, most obviously heard/seen in “Forbidden Colours”, the bonus track that was also the theme tune for the film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”, brilliantly depicting the clashes between different cultures and the underlying homoerotic tension between the Japanese captain and British prisoner of war: “I'll go walking in circles/While doubting the very ground beneath me/Trying to show unquestioning faith in everything”. However, all the songs are highly visual, so when listening to “Let the Happiness In” I guarantee that the dreamy foghorn brass will make you think of docks and gulls even before the lyrics mention them.

Harrowing and menacing are two adjectives rarely applied to David Sylvian, but this album features a couple of unsettling tracks. “When Poets Dreamed of Angels” recounts a chilling tale of domestic violence, “She rises early from bed/Runs to the mirror/The bruises inflicted in moments of fury/He kneels beside her once more/Whispers a promise/Next time I'll break every bone in your body". The jaunty Spanish-influenced music of “The Boy with the Gun” belies the isolationist, thought provoking image of the lonely soul with violent tendencies (serial killer? mercenary?): “He carves out the victim's names/In the wooden butt of the gun/ He leans well back against the tree/He knows his Kingdom's come/He'll breath a sigh self satisfied/The work is in good hands/He shoots the coins into the air/And follows where the money lands”.

"Where's your Red Guitar?"

Despite being largely a downbeat affair, this album is about more than just gloom and despair. The music itself possesses a quiet, determined strength, while intense shafts of redemptive sunlight occasionally punctuate the darkness, such as “Orpheus” expressing hope and longing: “Tell me, I've still a lot to learn/Understand, these fires never stop/Believe me, when this joke is tired of laughing/I will hear the promise of my Orpheus sing”. Even when the music is at its saddest, there is a sense that Sylvian is describing a journey through lonely days, hoping to “Let the Happiness In” and move on to better times: “Listen to the waves against the rocks/I don't know where they've been/I'm waiting for the agony to stop/Oh, let the happiness in”.

“Secrets of the Beehive” is a record of stunning beauty. It takes you to a very special place, admittedly not full of laughter and light, but a place where you feel comforted by the rich embrace of David Sylvian’s voice – like a glass of particularly exquisite cognac. His music might not invite easy access, but this album is the perfect introduction to an exceptional talent. Go on, treat yourself.

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