Friday, April 29, 2016

funk off and die

As I said at the time of the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey earlier in 2016 (a year which statistically is exceptionally celebrity-death-heavy so far, so it's OK for you to say that), which celebrity's death you feel personally affected by will reflect your past life, upbringing and what sort of cultural stuff you were exposed to or chose to expose yourself to.

So, anyway, what I'm building up to is that Prince's death this week is a much more significant event to me than either of the other two, largely because Prince formed a part of my formative music listening habits in a way that Bowie and the Eagles didn't.

I don't know what's a typical age to start buying records (this of course was back in the days when vinyl "records" were the primary medium of music delivery), but I suspect 13 is probably a bit later than most. I think I may technically have "bought" this John Denver album in Korea back when I was about six, in that I was invited to make the final decision and it was paid for with money that was nominally "mine", but I deem my first "proper" single purchase to be Every Breath You Take by The Police in 1983, swiftly followed by I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John and Gimme All Your Lovin' by ZZ Top. All good songs, and choices which I stand by 30-odd years later, but all very white, very male - very gay in Elton's case, as it happens, but he wasn't quite as up-front about it at the time.

So when Prince really became a big thing in the UK around the time of When Doves Cry there was a fair bit of paradigm-smashing going on - black guy, not really conforming to traditional notions of masculinity but still clearly beating off the ladies with a shitty stick in his offstage life, making music with a funky dance-y edge while still being a brilliant rock guitarist, all that sort of thing.

It's interesting to consider how one's musical tastes evolve - everyone likes to think that they just like what they like, as the end result of a completely objective process of listening to stuff and working out what's good and what isn't, but of course this is nonsense, and every single choice you make is influenced to some extent by prior experiences, who you knew, what they liked, where you first heard things and stuff like that. In the case of Prince, my recollection is that my friend Tom had a copy of the 7" single of Let's Go Crazy, and its organ-backed spoken intro, lyrics suggesting transgressive sexy sexy times and squealy rock guitar finale all seemed pungently exotic and exciting to me at the time. But I should apply a bit of self-awareness and add that Tom was a lot cooler than me, so maybe there was an inclination to give this more of a favourable first listen just because it was him who'd introduced me to it? Who knows. In my defence he was also into The Cult in a big way and (She Sells Sanctuary, which is a cracking tune, aside) I always thought they were a bit shit. I suppose the key thing to say is that this marked a move away from being musically influenced by my parents' record collection to being musically influenced by my contemporaries, sometimes moving into the realms of stuff my parents wouldn't necessarily "get".

So I went and bought the Purple Rain album and played it to death for a year or so, with further transgressive thrills provided by Darling Nikki with its references to female masturbation, something my 14/15-year-old self may very possibly not have even been previously aware was a thing. I had copies of the next two albums, Around The World In A Day and Parade, through the magic of home taping (which turned out not to be killing music after all) before buying the double album Sign O'The Times in 1987. We parted company a bit after that, and I don't think I've purchased a non-compilation Prince album since, but there was, in hindsight, lots of good stuff after that, just spread a bit more thinly. Sign O'The Times is the one if you must have only one; if you also had Purple Rain and a comprehensive singles compilation (this one, for instance, which is the one I have, although it only includes stuff up to 1993) that would be a pretty good start.

So here's my favourite ten Prince songs, in no particular order, and written down largely off the cuff, so no guarantee of completeness or definitiveness, nor indeed originality, since a lot of these are the big hits. If you want to know what other people, doubtless more knowledgeable about the unexplored nooks and crannies of his vast back catalogue, think, plenty of other opinions are available.
  • I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man - I think this may be my favourite Prince song of all, just because it's such a joyous summery tune, and in its 6½-minute album version gives Prince the chance for a bit of a rock guitar workout, something he usually kept on a tight rein on the albums. Its lyrical theme of man rejecting a woman's offer of a one-night stand because he knows she won't feel good about it afterwards typifies Prince's generally groovy and empowering attitudes to women and female sexuality, not something you could say about many mid-1980s male artists.
  • Little Red Corvette - cars as metaphor for sex, horse-riding as metaphor for sex. It's about sex, basically.
  • Sign O'The Times - atypical in that it's got a socio-political edge to it, but typical in that it typifies Prince's gift for minimal backing arrangements (Kiss being the classic example of this). Also one of the small group of songs to lyrically reference the Challenger shuttle disaster.
  • Dirty Mind - well this is just pure filth, with the pulsing synth groove humping your leg like a randy Yorkshire terrier.
  • Alphabet St. - a bit of jangly funk guitar, a bit more lyrical depiction of non-vanilla sexy sexy times ("I would like").
  • Pope - a track from the 1993 Hits compilation, this previously unreleased song is a pretty silly throwaway tune that was obviously just Prince mucking about in the studio, but is still sharp, funny and ferociously funky.
  • Cream - well, again, it's just (just!) about sex, but it's an irresistible sinuous groove that owes more than a little to Get It On by T.Rex.
  • Sexy MF - extreme funkiness, liberal use of the word "motherfucker" and some bowel-loosening parpy horn stabs.
  • Purple Rain - yeah, I know, but think of it as a sort of mid-1980s Hey Jude; similar tempo, lengthy coda and all. And it's another one from the more rock-guitar-oriented end of his range, which fits my personal prejudices.
  • Raspberry Beret - another glorious summer tune; boy meets funky scantily-clad hipster girl in the corner shop and they head off to a deserted barn on his motorbike to go at it like knives. The Hindu Love Gods' brutish meat-and-potatoes cover version is worth a listen too.
Of course this neglects all the great songs that he wrote for or had covered by other people as well, from I Feel For You to Manic Monday to Nothing Compares 2 U.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

the last book I read

Ragtime by EL Doctorow.

It's New York City (and its environs) in the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century - so if there were ever a time and place where it could be said that Great Things Are Afoot, this would be it. The invention of the motor car, the skyscraper, the movies, all fuelled by a relentless influx of immigrants from all over the world; mainly Europe but plenty of more exotic places as well.

And the people: Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Emma Goldman - all in or around New York at this time doing their various things for the advancement of humanity.

Amid all this momentous stuff there are some actual people living their lives as well. For the purposes of the novel these are: a WASP family living in New Rochelle, just outside the city, an Eastern European immigrant and his young daughter, and a black musician and his fiancée. The WASP family are known, slightly impersonally, as Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother and "the boy". Father goes off on expeditions, including Peary's 1909 North Pole expedition, while Mother's Younger Brother moons around fairly aimlessly in that way young men do until he becomes obsessed with socialite Evelyn Nesbit and the media circus surrounding her and her husband Harry Thaw. Having met Evelyn through the radical Emma Goldman and conducted a brief affair with her, Mother's Younger Brother finds himself open to radical ideas.

As it happens Coalhouse Walker has a radical idea for him - having been victimised by some of the New York fire department and had his car (a Ford Model T) confiscated, Coalhouse embarks on a campaign of terror against the city with an expanding band of sidekicks to get compensation. Coalhouse also has a fiancée, Sarah, and a child, who ends up living with Mother and Father after Sarah dies. Coalhouse ropes Mother's Younger Brother (who has an aptitude for explosives) into his cause, but things inevitably end in tears, and, in Coalhouse's case, a bullet-ridden death at the hands of the New York police. Meanwhile some of the carefree living will have to stop, as World War I is on the verge of breaking out.

I suppose you'd classify Ragtime at least partly as "historical fiction" in that it takes a real, well-documented period of time and some real, well-documented historical figures and weaves a fictional narrative around them. It mucks around with the rules slightly by having some of the "real" people do things they probably didn't actually do, like the rather fanciful whimsical interlude of Freud and Jung riding on the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island. As always there are some shades of grey here - I'm not sure you'd class, for instance, Turbulence as "historical fiction" despite its featuring some real-life events.

The trick with this sort of thing is to ensure that the transitions between real-life stuff which is documented in the history books and the stuff you've made up just to drive the story along aren't too lumpy and jarring. The only place where this doesn't seem seamless is in the character of Coalhouse Walker, his transition into urban terrorist, and his co-opting of Mother's Younger Brother into his band of outlaws. Interestingly this bit of the novel was apparently adapted (or stolen, depending how happy you are with the amount of attribution Doctorow gave for doing it) from an earlier (19th century) novel called Michael Kohlhaas by German author Heinrich von Kleist, itself apparently based on the real-life (16th century) story of Hans Kohlhase and his doomed attempt to get some redress for the mistreatment of his horses.

The distancing device whereby few of the (fictional) central characters have names is a slightly odd one - it doesn't divorce you from caring about individuals in the same way as Last And First Men does, but it does keep you at arm's length in terms of engaging with what happens to them. It also just reinforces the point that the book's main concern is the Great Sweep Of History, rather than the little people who populate it, and if some of the individuals get a bit lost, well, so be it. There might therefore be a sense in which you find it difficult to engage with any of the major characters - apart from the bit where Mother's Younger Brother falls out of a wardrobe while having a furtive wank in Evelyn Nesbit's hotel room. Well, we've all done it.

As with Under The Volcano, this is a dead cert for just about any list of "great 20th-century novels", and sure enough it pops up in the TIME magazine list of 100 greatest 20th-century novels. It was also made into a film in 1981 which featured James Cagney in his last appearance.

Here's Doctorow's appearance in the Paris Review's Art of Fiction series of long meandering interviews.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

deadlift, snatch or clean and jerk

Here's a curious coincidence: no sooner do I speculate on the relative merits of furious spin-bike training and furious self-abuse than the Daily Mail knock out a lifestyle piece along pretty much the same lines. Compare the respective dates: my blog post appeared on April 13th, the Mail article on April 15th. It's almost as if someone at the Mail, maybe even Paul Dacre himself, is reading this blog for inspiration.

The Mail article plays down the likely calorie-burning benefits of masturbation as compared to something like going for a jog or to the gym. On the other hand with some of those there may be a cost involved, and you have to do tedious administrative things like put some trousers on. Swings and roundabouts, as always.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

I've got a bike you can ride it if you like

It's time to address the sensitive subject of my weight. No, no, don't try to fob me off with all that "weight? are you mad?", "you look fine", "you are like a LITERAL Greek god, you magnificent creature" stuff, we've got to grasp the nettle and face up to it.

Now as utterly delightful and rewarding as parenthood is, and I wouldn't have missed a moment of it, it is true that it does place some constraints on one's leisure time, and that means a reduction in the number of opportunities for getting some healthy exercise, whether that be golf, some sort of after-work racket sports action or just yomping up a hill. Even popping out to the shed for a quick thrash round my home gym is more difficult than it used to be, since it now has to happen between the end of the kids' bath-and-bed routine and dinner time, with the added complication that since cooking dinner is usually my job that also means pushing dinner-time back by half an hour or so.

So I decided something had to be done. I should clarify, I suppose, that this was brought about by a general feeling of not being quite as fit as I used to be, rather than by any sort of crash weight gain necessitating waddling round the house in a muumuu and occasionally losing the TV remote in my neck folds. In fact I weigh almost exactly the same now as I did at the end of 2005 when Hazel and I met. To be fair, that's a good four stone heavier than I was at some points during my university days, but I was painfully skinny back then thanks to only intermittently being able to afford to eat.

Back in the heady days of not having children, Hazel and I had got into a routine of going to an early-morning (7am!) spinning class at the grandly-named Newport International Sports Village, which I used to enjoy greatly despite the earliness of the hour, as you can get a really good sweat up while remaining in the same place. Now you might say, well, just get on an actual bike and go for a bike ride then, but that's actually considerably more complicated as you have to factor in the possibility of adverse weather and mechanical failures, not to mention being sideswiped by a juggernaut and killed. Not insurmountable problems (apart from the being killed bit), but the key here, as with all dieting and exercise regimes, is to realise that Future You is a shiftless feckless lazy fat bastard who will seize the slightest opportunity to weasel out of doing things that involve effort, and that therefore you need to pre-emptively put some structure in place that will thwart Future You from fucking up all your fine intentions. One could also say: I'm a busy man, it's the 21st century and I just want to get to the calorie-burning bit without all the admin, just as I relish being able to switch between songs at a click on iTunes without having to get up and put a different LP on the turntable. Progress, innit.

So I mentioned the possibility to Hazel of purchasing a spin bike for the house, presumably second-hand as a gym-quality one with a proper heavy flywheel typically goes for several hundred quid. Luckily she is a bit of a whiz at eBay and managed to get hold of a very solid Horizon S3+ at a bargain price (I don't know exactly how much as it was a Christmas present). I had to do some engineering work on it to repair the resistance adjusting knob which had a vexing habit of falling off halfway through a workout, but apart from that it was in perfect working order.

The other advantage of going to a spinning class rather than out on the road is that there's an instructor barking orders at you and imposing some structure on the session. Again, you can adhere to some sort of purist view that says: this should not be necessary with a bit of discipline, or you can shrug and say, yeah, but Future You will be on the ale and pies like a shot unless you keep an eye on him, the lazy fucker. At this point you can either hire a personal trainer at exorbitant cost, or you can search out some of the excellent selection of videos available on YouTube, mostly via Global Cycling Network, which seek to give the authentic spin class experience.

The second of our downstairs rooms (I believe "reception rooms" is the accepted estate-agent-ese) is set up as Hazel's photography client meeting room, and therefore, as luck would have it, contains a projector for facilitating viewing of wedding album designs, portraits, etc. So if I hook up my laptop to the projector and fire up a GCN YouTube video, hey presto, a real spinning class in my own home.

This one here is the one I normally use, since it's a good brisk 20-minute interval-training workout (i.e. periods of normal pedalling interspersed with sprints) which, if you commit to it fully, should give you that authentic sweat-dripping-on-the-floor effect by the end. Really this just provides a structure; the intensity level is up to you. As a general rule of thumb I like to try to keep to about 75rpm for the regular sections and crank it up to about 100rpm for the sprints - obviously how high you wind up the resistance is a factor too.

You may, if you wish, speculate about the possible other reasons why I use this particular video, like for instance its all-female class and the woman nearest the camera on the far right with the spectacular breasts in particular. I wouldn't like to comment, but the ladies do appear to be wearing a bit more make-up than would be normal for a spin class (in my experience at least, though of course I may just have chosen the wrong spin class to attend) and some of the sweat in the latter stages does look a bit artfully sprayed-on, particularly in the gratuitous bum-angle shots. But, you know, whatever keeps you interested and gets you through the 20 minutes. Some of the on-screen captioning is a bit (presumably knowingly) fnarr-fnarr as well.

All of which begs the question, and I'm sure you're way ahead of me here: how does the calorie-burning effect of a 20-minute spin bike workout compare with simply using the same video to facilitate masturbating furiously for 20 minutes?

There are various resources regarding the calorie-burning properties of stationary cycling, most of which suggest that a 20-minute workout at reasonable intensity will burn about 200 calories. Information, let alone reliable information, regarding wanking is a bit harder to come by (ooer), but most estimates seem to suggest a 20-minute workout of this kind will burn somewhere between 20 and 100 calories; this may vary depending how closely you adhere to the relax-SPRINT-relax-SPRINT pattern, and of course whether you can hold out for the full 20 minutes. Other considerations include whether you'd prefer to end up with muscular thighs or a massive right arm. So you might decide that it's worth splashing out (ooer, again) on a bike after all.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

sithlebrity lookeylikey of the day

It was Nia's birthday today, so we went to Bristol Zoo for a day out. All good fun and Nia had a fine time including getting her face painted. She chose a ladybird design, which made for an arresting effect which I found faintly sinister for reasons I couldn't quite put my finger on, until I realised that it was because it made her look a bit like Darth Maul from Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace.

Fortunately we managed to get out and back on the Park & Ride bus without her getting sliced in half by any passing Jedi knights, which was nice. Those of you with long memories will recall that this is Nia's second appearance in this list.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

headlines of the day

The day in question being yesterday, actually, but I'm a busy man and I can't always leap into blogging action at the drop of a dangling modifier. Anyway, here's a couple from the Daily Mail.

Firstly, this one illustrating the importance of keeping track of which pronoun refers to whom - in the normal course of sentence construction the "she" and the "her" in the last clause would typically refer to the same person. Not so here, unless there's some sort of My Big Fat Scottish Zombie Wedding thing going on.

Secondly, this mind-bogglingly inconsequential piece about Victoria Beckham taking a selfie: the hack who wrote the original headline evidently gave it the care and attention its importance merited and left in two obvious errors (they seem to have now been corrected). The first one just mangles the (already lame) attempted reference to Bend It Like Beckham; the second just raises the question: what the hell is a "ballot pose"? Is it like a ballot box? i.e. something shiny, angular and sharp-cornered with a generous slot in the middle accessible by right to anyone who's on the electoral register? Well, as they say, good luck with that.

Obviously I do know it's meant to say "ballet", really. It's still not quite as funny as the claim about Stella Artois 4 being "a good pallet cleanser", though. Fascinatingly, although the link in that old 2009 blog post is now dead, the Wayback Machine has a couple of archives of it, one roughly contemporary with the post and one from a couple of years later. Here they are, in chronological order.

The sharp-eyed among you will notice that they've had a go at correcting the original error, but have, amusingly, still managed to cock it up, unless there really has been a refinement of the recipe to reposition the product from being suitable for cleaning heavy-duty wooden stacking platforms to being more suitable for cleaning artists' equipment. I assume not, and that the word they were groping unsuccessfully for each time was "palate". But it's Stella, so you never know.