In praise of Saint Bob

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Eight or nine years ago, while writing artist profiles for the website I worked for at the time, I penned a particularly sycophantic ode to Bob Dylan.

I don’t remember it word for word, but it was enough to provoke laughter in the office then, and mild shame in me now. But I was late to the Dylan appreciation society – after years of casual listening without ever really understanding the appeal, it took a flight from Prague to the UK and a greatest hits compilation to finally ‘get it’.

While the aforementioned piece was mercifully consigned to history and lost to the virtual Shoreditch skip of hopes and dreams long ago, fortunately I was able to gain some atonement and write a more measured article for Clash a couple of years later on one of Dylan’s many masterpieces. 

In honour of his newly anointed Nobel-prize winning status, this is shamelessly reproduced below.

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Classic Album: Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

13 JAN 2010

Bob Dylan’s current purple patch, casting a glorious glow on the twilight of his career, cannot be underestimated. In terms of length, at least, the twelve years that separate ‘Time Out Of Mind’ and ‘Christmas In The Heart’ represent the longest period of near-universal praise for Dylan releases. That may only represent five albums (between 1962 and 1974 he released fourteen) but Bobby is no young buck anymore.

This longevity and ever-increasing body of work makes it easy to disregard his wilderness years – where critics and fans deserted him, he lost interest in performing and (apparently) forgot how write songs for a time. It is from these periods that the die-hards pick at the scraps, clutching their worn copies of ‘Down In The Groove’ with a relish that only obscurity can manifest.

There was a time when these career troughs represented much more than a rich vein of curious gems. After the unmitigated triumph of ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and its glorious predecessors, the period after his 1966 motorcycle accident was an unhappy time, in all areas of his life and career. For the first time, his star was on a downward trajectory, “as a matter of fact, the wheels have stopped” as he would sing on ‘Idiot Wind’.

Hindsight may treat the likes of ‘Planet Waves’ and ‘New Morning’ kindly, but at the time they were viewed as obtuse and inaccessible for the fans and critics who had lauded his every move just a few years before. Add to this the infamously awful ‘Self Portrait’, the label-obligation ‘Dylan’ and a refusal to tour for eight years, and you begin to understand the collective apathy directed towards Bob in the early 1970s.

If that’s not enough, consider the breakdown of Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lowndes, which had borne four children and some of his greatest love songs, and the fact that when it came to recording his fifteenth album he decided to scrap and re-record half of the songs a month before release. From this tumultuous birth, ‘Blood On The Tracks’ has gone down in history as his most personal and harrowing collection of songs, but is the master of mystique really offering an insight into his intimate affairs?

There are shreds of Dylan’s inner torment here, especially in the two tracks that deal most explicitly with the subject of separation, ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. The former may include the plea “I can change I swear” and speak of “a pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew to my heart”, yet its tone is retrospective rather than a contemporaneous plea. The narrator still knows that he can find his girl, but she’ll be “in somebody’s room”. At times, you feel that he prefers it that way.

To casually label this as a ‘break-up’ record is to completely miss its point. Albums of that ilk usually end up dissolving into a pool of self-pity, loathing and bitterness, yet there is so much more at work here. ‘Blood…’ contains its fair share of heartbreak, pleading and snarling vitriol (Bob has rarely sounded angrier than on ‘Idiot Wind’), but there are also heavy helpings of whimsy, humour and optimism. Dylan flits between tenses and perspectives at will, with a cast of characters including transients, young lovers, loose women, criminals, businessmen and fools. Dylan may be none, one or all of these for all we know. If this is an attempt to share his innermost personal emotions, it’s a pretty oblique effort.

Take the flitting viewpoints and tenses of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’, songs that meander through time and characters at will, never truly identifying its subjects or storyteller. Bob is everywhere and nowhere across this album; raconteur, protagonist and casual observer. If he’s the one begging his lover for a second chance, is he also the one working on fishing boats in Delacroix, inheriting a million bucks and struggling through barbed wire? In the literal sense, of course not, but Bob pulls the strings of these various characters – occasionally making a cameo – but mostly hovering imperiously over the storylines.

Despite the contentious inspiration, the occasionally plodding rhythms and the odd banal, clichéd lyric, ‘Blood…’ benefits from its flaws as much as its strengths, and is a ‘complete’ album in the way that ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘The Freewheelin…’ and even ‘Blonde On Blonde’ are not. As he croons on lullaby-like closer ‘Buckets Of Rain’, “You do what you must do, and you do it well”. Dylan has rarely been better, before or since.

Brexit and consequences…

Paul Bernal's Blog

Yesterday morning I tweeted about Brexit (as I’ve done a fair number of times), and it went just a little bit viral. Here’s the tweet:

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It was an off-the-cuff Tweet, and I had no idea that people would RT it so much, nor that it would provoke quite as many reactions as it has. I’ve replied to a few, but, frankly, it’s not possible to reply to all. The responses, however, have been quite revealing in many ways. As usual, people read Tweets in different ways, and of course this particular Tweet is far from unambiguous. I was asked many times what is the ‘this’ that I’m saying is the fault of the ‘Brexit people’. And who I meant by ‘Brexit people’. I was told I was wrong to lump all Brexit people together. And that we should be looking for unity, not stoking the fires of division.

Some thought…

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Dubai – a portrait.

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Welcome to Dubai: a paradise for grown up children. Neverland with air-con, expense accounts and chauffeurs. Disneyland for morons.

From the sands of the United Arab Emirates, a once-humble fishing village has been transformed in the past few decades into a place where people with no imagination spend weekends gawping at ugly steel and glass megaliths, eating in restaurants where outrageous rudeness to serving staff is welcomed (but wine is not) and being careful to do nothing more nefarious than hold their partner’s hand. Showing affection is illegal in the UAE.

The highlights of your visit will include a trip two-thirds up the tallest building in the world. From the observation deck you can enjoy seeing more extremely high buildings, a vast array of construction sites and the roof of one of the world’s largest shopping centre. While there, why not buy a poster or handbag featuring versions of classic artworks, bastardised to include this phallic column. Meanwhile Andy and Vincent roll in their graves, much as Lou Reed must as Walk on the Wild Side soundtracks the half-hourly fountain show at the foot of the building. The irony of this ode to Lou’s transgender friends being played in this place can’t be lost on everyone. Homosexuality is illegal in the UAE.

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Inside the Dubai Mall, thousands of people walk past flagship designer stores, some burdened by their purchases but most empty-handed. For this is not a shopping centre in the usual sense; this is commerce as a spectacle. A veritable zoo of high end fashion, electronics and other objects that favour (questionable) style over substance and procurement over necessity.

It is a temple of greed. A building with 1,200 shops, harsh lighting and headache-inducing air-conditioning. There is an ice-skating rink and an aquarium with water imported from Japan. The cost of everything on sale in this complex must exceed the GDP of several countries, and yet it still requires an annual Shopping Festival to remind you what its purpose is.

And what is the purpose of Dubai as a city? Unsmiling portraits of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum glare at from the moment you arrive in the airport, in bookshops, hotel lobbies and from giant billboards on the highway. Reminders of the power exerted over the citizens of this country. And yet silver-haired expats from London, New York and Marseille live lives that they could never imagined back home.

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So is this a westerner’s playground? Or an ultra-conservative Islamic country? The contradictions abound and, along with questioning the modern slavery exerted on thousands of southern Asians who are the cogs in this dreadful machine, the answers make for awkward discussions. Do not expect to hear these conversations; criticism of the government is illegal in the UAE.

No need to worry about that. You’ve got a nice hotel room, the sun is out and the weather is fine. Everything you want and nothing you need is just a few hundred (or, more likely, thousand) dirhams away. Everyone speaks English, you don’t have to think. Never mind that there is more history in a flake of dust on the Berlin Wall.

Go to the beach. It’s beautiful and comes complete with a view of one of Dubai’s many building sites. It is testament to the delights of this city that I begin to doubt the veracity of the sand on which I sit and the suspiciously perfect seashells placed evenly among it, although even they are outnumbered by discarded cigarette butts. Remixes of long-forgotten Eurodance embarrassments soundtrack the scene.

After three days I have come to the conclusion that this vile place is simply not for me. More than that I feel uncomfortable, out of place. I feel uncomfortable in a way that not even Las Vegas, the world’s other great fake oasis of adult-orientated delights, makes me. Because in the end, at least part the attraction of Vegas is in the trying. Of turning that last card or putting everything on black and hoping that it will make you richer than you could have ever dreamed.

But Dubai was not created for the have-nots. This is what happens when that craven dream has been realised, and it is as vulgar and reprehensible as I have always expected.

Famous people die too.

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While working as a freelance music critic during in the mid-2000s, I recall reading Pete Doherty’s fully quoted and illustrated obituary, waiting in the files of a major music magazine. A decade on, he still walks among us, but I imagine that interns continue to busy themselves with regularly updating the text and photos.

It is fact perhaps not widely known that major newspapers and magazines write the eulogies of celebrities well in advance of their deaths. How else would the recent glowing tributes to the likes of Lemmy, Bowie, Rickman and Wogan have appeared so soon?

The reason for this somewhat macabre pre-planning is of course quite practical – famous people have a habit of dying, just like we do. They die young and they die old, of untimely accidents and of terminal illnesses and not an insignificant number die as a result of the excesses that fame has afforded them.

On top of the journalistic response, rolling news coverage (primarily of the reaction of other, less dead, famous people) has added to the noisy death of a star. People fall over themselves to show their sympathy while Facebook and Twitter erupt into RIPs, Youtube videos of the recently deceased in their prime and twee anecdotes of how someone you never knew changed your life.

A celebrity death has become a strange event; nothing but great reverence will suffice, and outpourings of public emotion have become commonplace. Much like any death, it is not the right moment to be picking over the individual’s flaws and mistakes in life. How strange then, that such respect is not always shown when the deceased is not a recognisable face, but instead a mass of faceless, ‘normal’ people.

Witness: The Paris Attacks of 13 November 2015. Facebook was quickly awash in a corporate-sanctioned Tricolore of solidarity and grief. The questions asked in the aftermath (mainly, why no such tribute for Beirut/Kenya/Palestine/Ankara/etc?) were reasonable. To suggest that those adding three colours to their Facebook profile pictures are somehow jumping on the grief bandwagon to which they do not belong however, is not. There is a time and place for pointing out the media and public’s bias to a western-centric agenda. That time is not when the bodies of innocent victims are being still being sent to the morgue.

The acidic backlash to Facebook’s French tribute was, in its best form, an attempt to raise awareness. But it also gave many a chance to point a smug and self-righteous finger at a hypocrisy which is very real, while solving no problems and doing nothing to help the victims of any atrocity, anywhere. No lives were saved and beyond the faintest tinge of collective empathy, any positive intention was lost in a tide of negativity. Question Facebook’s motives if you will, but both sides of the debate created a lot of noise for little benefit. If we are judging each other by our pointless gestures, we can at least call this one a draw.

No such vitriol has countered the outpouring of grief for any of the celebrity deaths 2016 has served up so far. Instead, we ask; why have so many beloved household names departed in such a short space of time? There is an answer, and it combines the concept of easy and widespread fame in the modern era, timing and the rather inconvenient fact that the grim reaper does not check your Wikipedia page when it comes to performing his role. Alas there is little time for such analytical thinking when you are contemplating whether the video of Rebel Rebel or Heroes should accompany your RIP notice.

And as more and more people achieve their 15 minutes of fame, it is hard to see how this phenomena will abate any time soon. Personally, the death of Bowie served to highlight the very mournful upcoming years fans of (good) music will have. Neil Young (70), Mick Jagger (72), Paul McCartney & Brian Wilson (73) and Bob Dylan (74) remain and have all outlived the Thin White Duke, but time is nothing if not consistent in its eventual outcome.

You can bet that, waiting in the files of newspapers and magazines across the world, are gloriously written tributes to these icons, ready to publish as soon as the ink on the death certificate is dry. Our collective joint obsession with fame and death has brought on a culture of not just mourning our idols, but being seen to mourn them. And we are all complicit.

“Fame – puts you where things are hollow.”

Bowie and John Lennon have a joint writing credit on this song. Four miles and 36 years separated their respective deaths, but the shock, grief and sense of loss that saw many candles lit and flowers laid were alike. Whereas the concept of fame and celebrity has been greatly cheapened in that time, death still affects us in a way that an inevitable event should not.

But just as ‘people in non-western countries die too’, the rich and famous suffer the same fate as the rest of us. Maybe it is time for us to stop acting like it is such a surprise.

Save Everything!!

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Over the past few months, my inbox, Facebook timeline and Twitter feed has been inundated with passionate cries to save the Buffalo Bar, Madame Jojo’s and London’s iconic Denmark Street.

These three landmarks are threatened (if not already defeated) by development, closure by Westminster Council and Crossrail respectively. Also in the news recently, Fabric, Plastic People and Ministry of Sound have either closed or are also suffered threats. And this is just London; all across the UK, small music venues and underground clubs are being lost. The lurking spectre of profit ruling over all is at the heart of each of these venues’ potential or real demise, but that’s a story for another day.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, we have decided that the best way to ensure that these venues remain available for us is to join a group, retweet a link and click-sign an online petition. Hence many thousands of impassioned digital cries fly through the ether, and we sit back and shake our heads when the windows are boarded up. If a million people marching through London is insufficient to influence government policy, do you believe that a few thousand clicks of a mouse is enough to force a multinational property developer to review their decision to turn your drinking den into prime real estate?

What has struck me about each of these cries to ‘Save the …!’, is the intensely blinkered view that these petitions expose. To rely on lazy clicktivism to keep a venue open is to completely miss the point of what these places are actually for. The petition to Save the Buffalo Bar on Change.org currently has 5,800 signatories. But the sad fact is that, for a venue with a capacity of 150, it was rarely full.

Make no mistake, I say this as someone with great affection for all of these threatened landmarks.

Seeing Klaxons and Metronomy for the first time at White Heat, Madame Jojo’s weekly night of indie debauchery. Wink club nights at the Buffalo Bar and rushing in to New Years Eve 2006 just in time for the countdown to the end of my first, eventful, year of living in London. Jamie T at the 12 Bar Club and buying the Epiphone Les Paul down Denmark Street that pointedly failed to turn me into the troubled genius of a rock star I was never destined to be.

Many of these memories were made in a haze, but they remain and will do until my faculties inevitably give up the ghost. But that is what they must remain; memories. I have not visited any of these venues (apart from a brief stroll down Denmark Street) for many years, and there is an unmistakable hint of forced nostalgia of these calls for retaining these playgrounds of our youth.

The loss of live music venues is a tragic reality over the past decade. For personal reasons, far more sad than the aforementioned losses are the demolition of the Astoria, the mothballing of the Bull & Gate and the fire and subsequent neutering of Nambucca. (This is not to mention the intense branding afflicted upon the Shepherds Bush Empire, Kentish Town Forum, Hammersmith Apollo and Brixton Academy, venues with a grand history now flourishing only under the corporate thumb.) The fact that some have bemoaned the loss of Earls Court, easily one of the worst places to see live music in London, shows the extent of this desire to retain what we have, regardless of the quality.

Most of these venues are responsible for some of the best memories, friendships and gig experiences I will ever have. And these remain, despite the buildings being razed to the ground or the doors being sealed up and the lights having gone out for the last time. I am fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time to enjoy these venues, as I was to visit Tacheles, the Foundry, Turnmills, Hammersmith Palais, the Luminaire and CBGBs before they suffered the same fate. As sad as I am to see them go it’s time to move on.

It is a particular sense of entitlement that lends itself to believing that the landmarks of your experience are especially worthy of salvation and protection. And the fact that you had a great time at a bar in 2005 does not necessarily mean it must remain in place for you to return to once every three years to reminisce.

If you genuinely want your favourite music venue, cinema or pub to stay open for your continued enjoyment, then visit it. Don’t sign a petition. Drag yourself along to see that new local band you haven’t heard of. Try the local beer and go see the film instead of waiting for it to be on Netflix. Recommend it to your friends. Support it.

And if you really want to campaign, call for extensions to the Live Music Act 2012. Promote your favourite band’s tour through social media. Buy a ticket; do something positive, rather than reacting to the negatives. Be passionate about what you like when it is there for your enjoyment, don’t just squeal with self-righteous indignation when someone threatens to take it away.

Thirty years, thirty things.

Welcome.

This debut blog post comes as the sun sets on the ragtag collection of years that will forever be known as my twenties.

This seems a good time to compile the most important life lessons that should make my thirties a comparative breeze.

I make no apologies for much of the below sounding slightly pensive or suspiciously like stating the bleeding obvious. At this age you’re entitled to be a bit reflective. And anyway, I have learned these lessons so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

So without further ado, I present:

The 30 most important things I have learned before turning 30

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1. Bill Hicks was (mostly) right when he compared life to a ride in an amusement park.

2. Never be afraid to be different, whether through some alternative lifestyle choice or simply not owning a television. The world was never made more interesting by those who just fell in line.

3. Yes, the hangovers do get worse with age. This does not necessarily mean you will do your best to avoid them.

4. Don’t try to be everyone’s friend. You cannot control how other people feel about you, and a few won’t like you regardless of how hard you try. Some people don’t like Bob Marley. Some people loved Thatcher. People are weird.

5. There will be times when you feel like you are just ‘getting away with it’. Don’t worry; this affects everyone at some stage. Some feel it constantly.

6. The longer you spend in the job/relationship/town you are unhappy in, the more it normalises that thrumming undertone of resentment. Don’t be afraid to shake things up.

7. I will never be good at taking my own advice.

8. Whatever the subject, it’s OK not to know or to not have an opinion – and you should never pretend to have knowledge you lack. At best, you’ll come across as slightly foolish. At worst, you’ll find yourself out of your depth when it’s too late.

9. Life does not need to be an endless succession of achievements. Sometimes you have to accept what you have, but… (see 11)

10. Stop seeking the perfect partner, they probably don’t exist in the way you want them to, but… (see 11)

11. …never just ‘settle’ for anything. Choosing a lifestyle/career/partner/etc because it makes you happy is not the same as doing so because you don’t want to put the effort into having what you want.

12. Time is valuable and finite. Enjoy it. Don’t waste it waiting for something to happen.

13. Life is too short to shave every day.

14. You don’t need to see your true friends that often, but these are the people you should make an effort for.

15. It’s not who you know or what you know, but how much you are willing to exploit these resources.

16. People with something to say speak quietly and less often.

17. Despite listening to a vast amount of music, I will never hear a better album The Velvet Underground and Nico, or a better song than Love Will Tear Us Apart.

18. Turning a hobby into a profession is not necessarily a one way road to happiness.

19. Relationships are never easy, but if you are shuffling along with the minimal effort then you’re on the right track.

20. Regret is poisonous…

21. …but learn from those mistakes. Spending the rest of your life wishing that you had done that one thing is different from knowing that, given the chance again, you wouldn’t hesitate.

22. A closed mind is empty.

23. Respect authority, but challenge and question anything you don’t believe in. Blind acceptance never started a revolution or earned a promotion.

24. The odd cigarette won’t kill you.

25. For different reasons and to different degrees, you will lose most of the people close to you. It doesn’t get easier.

26. Embrace your roots, but don’t be tied down by them.

27. Confidence can get you a hell of a long way. If you’ve got nothing else to back it up, you’ll soon be brought back down to earth.

28. At the same time: “shyness is nice, but shyness will stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.”

29. The cliché that we all become more right wing as we get older is nonsense. Your principles need not recede with your hairline.

30. Thirty isn’t nearly as old as it seemed when I turned 20.