Ryan Adams

“I’ve suffered for my art. Now you’re going to.” Anonymous singer-songwriter, old music industry joke.

Last night we went to see Ryan Adams. He is a startlingly prolific songwriter, in the alt-country idiom. (He has nothing to do with Bryan Adams, the leather-lunged Canadian rocker.)

Adams was raised in North Carolina and had what he has admitted was a difficult childhood. His early adult years were not a lot better, and he penned a long series of at times gloomy, miserabilist, even harrowing songs. “Sylvia Plath”, “This House Is Not For Sale”, “Love Is Hell”, “Oh My Sweet Carolina”.

He is one of those songwriters who has the ability to write a tune which you are convinced you have heard before, even when you haven’t. But not by sounding derivative. He is also a consummate performer. I know no one who has heard him and doesn’t like him. His fans are loyal to a fault. Enough praise.

Adams had not had the happiest of lives, with a few personal issues, then. In 2009 he married a singer/actress, appeared to have banished his demons and settled down to a life of happiness and domestic stability. Or so it seemed. Those of us who follow his music at times wonder if that stability has knocked some of the emotional depth off his subsequent work. Put bluntly, songs about happiness can often sound less affecting than songs steeped in abject misery.

Earlier this year, according to his Wikipedia entry, Adams split amicably with the singer/actress.  Last night he seemed cheerful enough. “Here’s a song about dead people…” “Here’s another sad song…”

One would wish him all future happiness. Some of us, though, look forward to his later oeuvre with a little more anticipation than before. Which is probably unfair, even ghoulish…  There is a long history in art of expecting artists to express emotions we do not particularly wish to feel ourselves but would prefer to experience vicariously. And presumably therefore to experience them themselves, on our behalf.

PS: Incidentally, if you like Ryan Adams, try the less well known Jason Isbell, or John Murry’s CD “The Graceless Age”. Two other songwriters who have been through the grinder, and it shows. Murry’s “Little Colored Balloons” describes his temporary “death” from an overdose in San Francisco, his hospitalisation, his alienation from his family… Oh, how we laughed. One of the best songs I have heard in years. Ghoul.


On The Rich, And Death

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” F Scott Fitzgerald, generally misquoted.

Every month a publication from a parallel world lands on my desk. This is Spears, a magazine devoted to people who have more money than they know what to do with, and are plainly distressed by this. Every month it leads them by the hand and takes them to places where they can be painlessly relieved of the burden.

You want this car? That’s, ooh, about half a minute of your annual earnings dealt with. This watch? A few seconds not to have to worry about. Preposterous fashion, expensive hotels, ridiculously expensive hotels, cars, more cars… One ad deals with residences in the Bahamas which “truly redefine luxury living”. In “a leading offshore international banking destination” where you don’t have to pay income, capital gains or inheritance taxes. But only if you are already rich enough.

We know such people exist. We glimpse them occasionally, though the shaded windows of a limousine on a West End street, being handed obsequiously by flunkeys out of an anonymous block in St James’s. Spears prefers to refer to its readers as high net worth individuals, or HNWs, rather than obscenely rich, tax dodging, parasitical jet set trash, which I suppose makes sense editorially.

The magazine has latched onto a new luxury for these people to covet. Your own funeral elegy. I take no interest in arrangements for my funeral, an event I only expect to attend corporeally. The  HNW can hire a composer who will create a piece of music to be played at his or her passing, and which can be heard beforehand, in anticipation.

No indication what it sounds like, but I imagine a fair splash of choral sub-Taverner holy minimalism, some Bach, Faure…

Great men down the ages have used minute amounts of their wealth to sponsor struggling artists, including musicians. This does not exactly make you Ludwig II of Bavaria, sponsor of Wagner, or Emperor Joseph II, ditto Mozart, though. It does, I suppose, serve the aspirations of people who thought for one terrifying moment that they had run out of aspirations to serve.

 But what on earth will our NHWs do when everyone has one?

On Football, And Yobbery

Apparently some Chelsea fans have been filmed racially abusing a black man on the Paris Metro. And attacking him.

This has caused shock and condemnation in the world of football. The word ‘unacceptable’ is being used. ‘Unacceptable’ is one of those verbal signifiers that means, we don’t approve of this but we don’t know what to do about it. So we’ll just say it is unacceptable. That will do.

Most football fans are probably decent enough people. Some are not. I have been to two football matches in my life, which is two too many. One was in about 1967. Chelsea against Newcastle. Dull game, but I was astonished at the verbal abuse from fans. Someone gets hacked down by a Chelsea player. ‘He’s a good bloke, no reason to penalise him.’ Someone gets hacked down by a Newcastle player. ‘Send him off.’

The second was when I was living in Cardiff, a ‘local Derby’ with Swansea. At their stadium. We walked out of the train station, heavily escorted by police, and went through a sort of caged tunnel to the stadium. Why? Because we had come from Cardiff, and otherwise the Swansea supporters would attack us.

I cannot begin to understand why I would be moved to attack, to harm, a fellow human being because he – or she? – supported another football team. I do not get it, this brutal tribal violence.

This is normal. You have to assume that a significant proportion of football fans are violent, racist scum. The game is run by mercenaries, populated by mercenaries, played by mercenaries. People with no allegiance to the clubs they play for, or the communities that those clubs exist in.

Just money, another example of too much money corrupting. (Yes I know, the quote is about the love of money. Do not lecture me about the Bible. It as Ash Wednesday.)

As it happens, some weeks after that Cardiff/Swansea Derby, I was at Twickenham, watching England vs South Africa. Sitting next to a very pleasant South African. We talked. ‘That was a good run by your guy.’ ‘That was a good try.’ Can’t remember who won, and it doesn’t really matter.

I know which game I prefer.

Violent, racist scum. Organised yobbery, driven by obscene amounts of money. The beautiful game.

On 50 Shades…

‘Oh Bondage/Up Yours’ Poly Styrene, largely forgotten 1970s punk rock singer.

I have not read 50 Shades Of Grey. I have no intention of seeing the film. Not my kind of thing.

It is, I believe, hugely significant, culturally. It is the first piece of mainstream erotica, a film couples will willingly go to together, with no other pretensions than being a depiction of sex, albeit of a somewhat less mainstream kind.

Previously, sex in the cinema has either been smuggled in, via art. Last Tango In Paris was by Bertolucci. That’s all right then. Empire Of The Senses was a Japanese art film. With subtitles. That’s all right, then.

Or it was porn, shown late at night at specialist cinemas. Emanuelle. I Am Curious Orange. Deep Throat. Now almost entirely forgotten. Not by any stretch of the imagination date movies. See the scene in Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver, when Travis Bickle takes her to a porn movie, as an example.

The sociology of law tells us that legislation lags behind cultural norms. Homosexuality was becoming acceptable before it was legalised. Drunk driving became socially unacceptable, and the law was then more rigorously enforced. A similar process is now taking place with smoking, which is increasingly unacceptable and will one day be illegal. While certain recreational drugs will in the next ten, twenty, thirty years become legal. In my view.

Let’s get some historical perspective. In Victorian times, the sight of a naked ankle was tabu. (Victorian erotica, if you have ever seen any, is weirdly prudish by our standards. Very big hips, too. Definite lady garden.The idealised female shape has changed.)

By the Twenties, a hint of stocking was no longer shocking. Anything goes. Except it didn’t. The naked female breast was still tabu. It only really went mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. Page Three, Play For Today. Frank Finlay in Casanova. Some will remember…

50 Shades does not feature explicit penetrative sex, which we will call PS from here on, something which occurs in most people’s bedrooms and therefore should not be especially shocking. Except that it is still tabu. It is freely available on the Internet, of course, and at specialist clubs and in some public places.

See that lagging effect. PS is not yet mainstream, but the success of 50 Shades, and PS’s availability elsewhere, suggests that the sociological norm is shifting. In some European cultures, it already is mainstream. See the publications freely available at street booths in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels. Porn is an accepted genre of French cinema.

If I am right, then one day someone will produce a well filmed piece of mainstream PS,, which couples will go to without embarrassment or shame

I am not usually short of a moral compass, as regular readers of this blog will appreciate. But I have no idea if this is a good thing. I know that teenagers now see things which in my youth were literally unseeable. They are aware of PS in every context. The libertarian in me says this is a good thing. Something else in me says the complete opposite. I do not know.

On Property, And Youth

I was talking to someone the other day who has made a great deal of money out of the London property market. The problem with taking a view on London property is that, whenever it seems prices can go no higher, they do anyway. I once likened calling the top of the market to being a greyhound chasing an electronic rabbit – however fast you run, the rabbit stays ahead.

His conclusion, and I see no reason to disagree, was that prices would continue to rise. The drivers behind that – the arrival of money from overseas trying to find a safe haven and a source of income, and sheer demographics and a rising population – are still in place.

He also detected a cultural shift away from buying a home and towards renting among the young. They are more mobile in their jobs, and less keen to tie themselves down in one location. A few years ago, he said, there was a degree of shame, or at least unease, over still renting. Now, as with our Continental counterparts, renting is seen as more socially acceptable.

The figures bear this out. The proportion of the population owning their homes is down to a level last seen when Mrs Thatcher was still PM.

This has been the most significant inter-generational transfer of wealth in living memory, and one of the least noticed. Previous transfers have tended to be downwards, the younger generation being better off than the one before it.  The process has gone into reverse.

Up until 2000, and those trying to get a foot on the ladder today may find this difficult to believe, the state actually funded part of your mortgage, by giving you tax relief on the interest you paid, which in the early years was most of your monthly repayment.

This was abolished by Gordon Brown in 2000 as a “middle class perk”. God forbid we should encourage people to own their own properties, and enter the middle classes. Thatcher is generally reckoned to have sold off the country’s council stock because people who own their homes were seen as more likely to vote Tory. Labour was never averse to a bit of social gerrymandering either, in the other direction.

We have loaded university leavers with tens of thousands of pounds of loans, we have removed tax incentives from owning homes. More recently, the current Government has engaged in a bout of cynical electioneering by issuing bonds offering 4 per cent interest, far better than you get on deposit in the bank, but only to the over-65s who are more likely, again, to vote Tory.

This was entirely unnecessary, because that sort of income is freely available on the stock market. It is also another example of generational wealth transfer, because those bonds offer a higher rate of interest than the Government can borrow at. The public finances, that is, you and me, who are probably not eligible for the bonds, must make up the difference out of taxes.

My impression is that only a few of the young have taken all this on board. They don’t tend to vote as much as us oldies. When they appreciate how they have been robbed by a bunch of already wealthy baby boomers, they have a right to become very angry. There is, as of now, no party they can vote for which offers a platform to put that right. One day there might be. They have one in Greece, after all.

On Free Markets

A website that promotes the free market above all else has been agonising over a recent survey that suggests the majority of the population do not share its views.

Specifically, 62 per cent of those asked want more government. Slightly more than half think financial services should be better regulated, something like that think the same of the provision of food, and a similar proportion agree on energy.

Much hand-wringing over how the free marketeers are failing to get their message over. Not true.  Most people, aside from a few unreconstructed Marxists, the political equivalent of the Flat Earthers, agree that a free market is the best way to regulate the economy, by providing the sort of feedback loop that competition in such a market provides.

Poor providers of service will lose out to those that do a better job. This is undeniably true in areas like retail where there are low barriers of entry and anyone can come into the market. Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s will appreciate the sheer awfulness of trudging from shop to shop only to be told that “there isn’t much call for that sort of thing round here”. Nowadays, if it is economically unviable to sell it on the high street, you get it on the Internet.

Likewise long gone are the days when banks shut at 3.30 and at weekends, and if you got there too late you had no access to your own money.

But most people are aware that an untrammelled free market, without any checks on what corporates can get up too, would be a tyranny as great as anything once found behind the Iron Curtain. The same pro-market website quotes with concern another survey that found seven in ten people did not trust business.

You only have to consider banking over the past few years, or the sort of horrors that have made their way into the food chain, to understand why. People appreciate the benefits of a free market, but they also understand the need for regulation, either over how corporates are allowed to behave to their staff or the environment, or, in the case of monopoly providers, over the provision of services.

Take two thought experiments. Thames Water is owned by a collection of overseas investors only interested in the flow of dividends. If the company’s behaviour was unconstrained by the actions of the industry regulator, on prices charged and standards of service, how much would Londoners be paying for water, and how many broken pipes would get fixed?

If the train companies were not obliged, in return for running overcrowded but hugely profitable services at peak times, to run unprofitable ones at others, how many trains would run between 10.30 am and four in the afternoon?

Once you accept that a free market requires regulation, you are left to argue how far that should extend. The basic principle is settled, just as is the need for a free market in the first place. A subject I have written about again and again here.

Finally, who said:  “Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

Or, more famously: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Adam Smith, the prophet of the free market. Who from the above would have been in that 69 per cent who said they did not trust business.

On Greece, And The Greeks

Many years ago we were sitting in a tavern on one of the Greek islands, enjoying lunch and the view from its terrace over the harbour. There was a long row of boats moored in a line along the jetty.

The one furthest away caught fire. After a while someone noticed. By that time it had spread to the next boat. We watched as people ran around gesticulating and attempting to dowse the flames. The fire kept spreading from boat to boat. They kept gesticulating, and flinging on water. Eventually the fire stopped spreading and went out.

At no stage did it seem to occur to anyone to do the obvious thing, which was to move the nearest couple of boats to the fire that were not already burning, so preventing the flames from progressing any further along the harbour.

I am by no means suggesting the Greeks are stupid. Far from it, as their historical record shows. They did invent civilisation. But the incident does rather imply that organisation and cooperation are not their strong points.