Monday, 26 September 2016


Bill Nunn's signature role was as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. Nunn and Lee were buddies from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and he was regular in Lee's movies. In a way, the brilliance of his Raheem was a curse more than a blessing; it's a nuanced performance combining intelligence, ego, and depth along with anger, rage, and potential violence. Much of Nunn's career would see him cast in roles that reflected only the angry part of the character, almost as if producers thought he were Bill Duke, or a younger version of him.

My favourite of Nunn's parts (though I can't claim to have seen them all) came in the wonderful Fallen Angels series which aired on Showtime in the mid-90s, and intermittently at odd hours in Britain (sometimes with the silly title Perfect Crimes) after that. They were 30 minute adaptations of hard-boiled detective stories, with top-flight writers, directors, DPs, and actors. Nunn played Walter Mosley's character Fearless Jones in an episode called 'Fearless', alongside Giancarlo Espositio and the much under-valued Cynda Williams. You can watch the three of them onstage in that lovely scene from Mo' Better Blues, Nunn on bass, Esposito on piano, giving the spotlight to Wesley Snipes and Denzel, while Cynda sings 'Harlem Blues'.

Fearless was directed by Jim McBride and adapted by Richard Wesley, who also wrote Uptown Saturday Night, and the adaptation of Native Son. Although there's often little difference in Mosley's various leading men, especially on film, Esposito's Paris Minton is very much an Easy, while Nunn's Fearless captures the ironic nature of his name, in an almost classic noirish pairing. Oddly, Nunn also had a part in Always Outnumbered, a TV movie made for HBO three years later, in which Lawrence Fishburne played another Mosley hero, Socrates Fortlow, and Mosley wrote the adaptation. Interestingly, Bill Duke was in that one too.

But one thing you probably didn't know was that Bill Nunn was a ball-boy for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he and Art Rooney, who's now the Steelers' owner, once stole Mean Joe Greene's car. The ball-boy job came about because Nunn's father, Bill Nunn, Jr., was the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier (owned by William Nunn Sr.) which was one of America's leading black newspapers. Bill Nunn Jr knew more about black college football and its players than anyone. Dan Rooney, the son of the then-owner of the Steelers, was curious about why Nunn never came to Steelers' games, and was told it was because the team ignored players from black colleges. Rooney was intrigued, they became friends, and eventually Nunn became a full-time scout for the team. It was Bill Nunn who brought many of the stars to the Steel Curtain Steelers of the 70s, including Greene, so it wasn't surprising his son and Rooney's son would be ball boys together.

Bill Nunn Jr. died in 2014, at just about the same time as Steelers' coach Chuck Noll. I wrote a piece about the two of them for, but the link to the article seems to have expired. So here is that piece; it's a shame that Bill Nunn III has gone so soon after.

In a sense, Chuck Noll's death on June 13th caught us by surprise. He was 82, of course, but we had the image of the rock-hard Noll implanted on the Pittsburgh Steelers' sideline not so long ago. That's because Noll was succeeded by the even more granite-jawed Bill Cowher, and Cowher by the kinder, gentler visage of Mike Tomlin, and as far as the Steelers are concerned, that was it. Dan Snyder goes through more coaches in a decade than Dan Rooney has in 45 years.

But another Steeler great died just a month before Noll. Bill Nunn Jr, their longtime scout, died May 6th, drawing somewhat less attention. But Nunn's role in the transformation of the Steelers from also-rans to dynasty was crucial, and his story and Noll's, and for that matter Dan Rooney's, are tightly entwined, and worth telling here.

I'm not sure where Noll fits in the rankings of top coaches ever, which is just about the first thing everyone asked when he passed away. If you are what your record says you are, then he's certainly among the very elite, and one of the things I'd like to point out is that his career as an assistant gives him extra points in the scoreboard of eliteitude. Lots of people mentioned the innovation Noll and his defensive coordinator Bud Carson brought to the 4-3 by lining up Joe Greene at an angle off the center's shoulder. If you never saw Greene, think of Warren Sapp in the Tampa 2 during the seasons he was in great shape and fully motivated. And realise that for Greene that was every season.

But what was overlooked was that when Noll was the coordinator for Sid Gillman's San Diego Chargers in the AFL, he began to use an offset 4-3 by lining up The Big Cat, Ernie Ladd, directly over center. Ladd was 6-9 315 and as Patriots' center Jon Morris once said, 'when he lined up over you he blocked out the sun.' Those Chargers had the original 'Fearsome Foursome': Ladd, Earl Faison (a great forgotten star), Bill Hudson and Ron Nery, but that was overshadowed by Gillman's innovative offense. Noll was a defensive guy but when he built the Steel Curtain Steelers, he kept Gillman's offensive innovation in mind, and the need for a Lance Alworth-type deep threat receiver.

Before he got to Pittsburgh, Noll went to the Colts, as defensive coordinator for Don Shula, with whom he had played on Paul Brown's Browns. In 1968, those Colts went 13-1, with a defense built around MLB Mike Curtis, but they lost the Super Bowl to Joe Namath's Jets. Patriots' owner Billy Sullivan displayed his usual talent for understanding football, and hired the Jets offensive coordinator, Clive Rush as their head coach, leaving Noll for the Rooneys.

When Noll arrived in 1969, Nunn was the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper with a national profile, and a part-time scout for the Steelers. His father, Bill Nunn Sr. was the paper's editor; perhaps Dan Rooney recognised something in Nunn, something about the way they worked hard to avoid the tinge of nepotism which always has been a part of the NFL. Bill Nunn Jr was a fine basketball player at Westinghouse High, where is father had been the school's first black football player. Nunn went to West Virginia State, playing with Westinghouse's Chuck Cooper, and with Earl Lloyd. Cooper became the first black player drafted by the NBA, and Lloyd, by virtue of the schedule, would become the first black to actually play in the NBA. Nunn was good enough to get an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters, who in those days had talent worthy of an NBA team, but he went back to Pittsburgh and became his father's sports editor.

Every weekend in football season, Nunn covered a different game played by black colleges, and while he did he built a network which enabled him to in effect scout the entire country. Thus, he began picking the Courier's black college All-American team. There is a famous story of the Giants drafting Roosevelt Brown simply because Wellington Mara had followed his progress in the Courier. Nunn chose Tank Younger to his team in 1948; Younger would star on one of the great offensive teams of all-time, the early 50s Rams, before becoming a scout. It was Nunn who tipped Younger to David Jones, a defensive lineman expelled from South Carolina State for taking part in civil rights marches. Jones was playing for Mississippi Vocational College, and running down wide receivers thirty yards downfield. At the Rams he would be nicknamed Deacon, and you know the rest.

Younger, who played at Grambling, had been the first player in the NFL from an historically black college. The AFL, desperate for talent, was quicker than the NFL to scout those schools, with Lloyd Wells of the Chiefs prominent. One day in 1967, Dan Rooney asked a Courier reporter why Nunn never came to Steelers games, and was told Nunn didn't like the way the Steelers seemed to ignore black colleges. Rooney arranged a meeting and hired Dunn to work for the team part time. When Noll arrived, the two clicked, and Nunn left the Courier and became a full-time scout. In their first draft together, their first pick was Joe Greene, from North Texas State.

The Steelers had no GM, as such. Dan Rooney ran the scouting, and Noll knew the kind of players he wanted, focused on athleticism. Rooney, Noll, Nunn and the other scouts were all on the same page. Nunn looked for the same thing; he often went to campus dances on Saturday nights after games, to watch players he scouted on the dance floor and check out how light-footed they were. Dancing was different in those days.

Of course 1974 was the Steelers' signature draft, and Nunn was crucial to it. He had scouted Johnny Stallworth at Alabama A&M, but word got out. When scouts arrived to time Stallworth, the field was wet, and his 40 time was slow. They left; Nunn stayed and found a dry field somewhere in Huntsville. He also dug up film for Noll to watch (this wasn't an automatic thing as it is today). When Stallworth played at the Senior Bowl, they moved him to cornerback, and he looked like a receiver moved to corner (think of how Richard Sherman he might've been today). So Stallworth was off other teams' radar, but Noll was so enamoured of what he saw on film he wanted to take him in the first round.

Nunn persuaded Noll to wait. The Steelers grabbed Lynn Swann, a bigger name from USC, in round one. In round two, Nunn again talked Noll out of 'reaching' for Stallworth, and they took Jack Lambert from Kent State instead. The Steelers didn't have a third-round pick, and by the time the fourth round came around, they used their earlier pick (acquired from the Cardinals) in the round for Stallworth. Nunn breathed a huge sigh of relief. He hadn't been quite so confident as he had let on that Stallworth would still be there. In round five they added Mike Webster of Wisconsin: four Hall of Famers from their first five picks (the second choice in round four was Jimmy 'Spiderman' Allen, who played on two of the Super Bowl teams). Nunn's influence extended even after the draft's 17 rounds; the Steelers signed Donnie Shell undrafted out of South Carolina State.

Mel Blount (Southern), LC Greenwood (Arkansas AM&N), Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern) and Frank Lewis (Grambling) are some more of the key members of those Steeler teams Nunn drew from traditionally black colleges. Another was Joe Gilliam, the quarterback from Tennessee State, who certainly had the talent to star in the NFL, but whose career spiralled out of control after Terry Bradshaw took the starting job away from him.

Nunn worked for the Steelers for 46 years, like Noll staying on the team's books right til the end. You might recognise his son, Bill Nunn III, an actor who made his name in his fellow Morehouse College alumnus Spike Lee's early films, most notably as Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing.

Bill Nunn Jr leaves a tremendous legacy, one that fits into the Steelers' story perfectly. He once explained that Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll 'ignored the dots', which were little stickers teams put on their draft board identifying the race of the player. It was an issue then. Men like Noll and Nunn made that an anachronism. Dan Rooney went a step farther with the Rooney rule. When you watch Mike Tomlin on the Steelers sideline, think of Chuck Noll and Bill Nunn, and where the Steelers and the NFL would be without them.
 -Friday Monthly Tight End, May 2014,


In Saturday's Guardian Review, Carlo Rovelli writes an essay on the meaning of Brexit and its philosophy, spinning off from the importance of philosophy to science. He begins:  

       A few months ago, I was asked to give a lecture on the usefulness of philosophy while in the UK. The lecture followed a wave of hostility towards philosophy from well-known physicists...While I was working on my lecture, I came across an astonishing unpublished text. It turned out that this issue had been discussed at length by a young man who was, without doubt, better at it than I could ever be: Aristotle.

This raised two questions. I was curious about exactly in what sense Aristotle's dialogue 'Protrepticus' had been unpublished for 24 centuries before Rovelli came across it. But more importantly, I wondered how Aristotle, in the fourth century BC, could have possibly conceived, much less discussed, the issue of the 'usefulness of philosophy while in the UK', given that the UK would not exist for roughly 2,000 years, more or less. 

Saturday, 24 September 2016


Listening to predictions and reactions from the Labour leadership election, I've been impressed by the many weasel words explaining how British 'democracy' needs an effective opposition. Nowhere in any of those discussions did I hear anyone even mention that the current government, with its Parliamentary majority, commanded the support of 36% of the voters in the last general election, and that the other 64% opposed them.

Look (to borrow a form of address oozing sincerity from the former Labour PM): Bliar won three elections because he could be sure of the Scottish vote and the vote (albeit decreasing in each election) from the Northern Industrial Wasteland (aka Powerhouse), and then he was able to draw away some (again, a decreasing number) of the disaffected voters in the otherwise solidly Tory English south.

Neither Brown nor Miliband could hold that English vote, and lost (Brown) the NIW and ('Red' Ed) the Scots. Labour's first task now, regardless of the leader, has to be to win back their core support from the SNP and UKIP/Tories, not try to become a more serious LDP. There is little middle ground available for them in southern England outside the cities.

They have to do this with policy first, presented in unity, fighting the Tories on areas where they should be vulnerable: offshore wealth, Brexit, the NHS, schools. By time the next fixed election comes (thanks again Nick Clegg for that one), to be fought on newly gerrymandered boundaries, and  without proportional representation (thanks again Nick Clegg for that one) Labour ought to know not only if they are in with a chance, but also who should lead them....


One of the few remaining reasons to buy newspapers is to indulge in reading literate and measured reactions to events of the previous day. This motivation is especially precarious for devotees of sport, who can watch events live, bombarded by replay, analysis, and interview. Of course, listening to the interviewer who, having watched the entire event, and having had time to consider the biggest and most challenging ideas it threw up, and then asks, inevitably, 'how did it/you feel?' 'what was going through your head?' or the existential classic 'can you describe for us your feelings' is, in itself, a reason to increase the number of papers you take.

So imagine my feelings this morning when I turned to Ali Martin's lead story in the Guardian sports section: Middlesex's triumph over Yorkshire in the county cricket championship, and read this:

     Toby Roland-Jones spoke of an unbelievable feeling after his stunning hat-trick completed a rollercoaster final-day victory over Yorkshire that meant Middlesex claimed their first County Championship for 23 years and deny both their opponents and Somerset the crown.

Middlesex won the title, in a thriller, and your lede is 'Toby Roland-Jones spoke'? Middlesex don't get a look-in until after Yorkshire? 'Unbelievable', 'stunning' 'roller-coaster'? Three cliches in the first 14 words? And there's nothing wrong with a paragraph-long lede sentence, but if you're going to essay one, you ought to at least have some awareness of the concept in English of parallel construction: if Middlesex 'claimed' the title they also 'denied', not 'deny' both.

It gets worse. Hoping for some drama, some setting, some feeling, I moved on to the second paragraph:

     Set a contrived target of 240 runs to win in 40 overs Yorkshire were bowled out for 178 with just 28 balls of the match remaining, in what was not just a nerve-shredding run chase for both teams involved but Somerset too, who were watching from Taunton in the hope that a draw might deliver a first title in their history.

Where do you start? Obviously, there's none of whatever feeling might have been at Lords, Middlesex's home ground and of course cricket's HQ.  The stating of the target (contrived? how and why?) misses the key point, which we will get to after the next paragraph, but which involves the tension. Why 'balls of the match remaining'? 'Of the match' is redundant, because of what else could the 28 balls remain? 'nerve-shredding'? At least he didn't say 'literally nerve-shredding'. 'A' first title in their history? How about 'the first title'? I doubt there were multiple titles on offer. Sloppy writing also creates a factual error: Somerset were hoping for (not that) a draw which would (not might), deliver the title.  And remember our old friend parallel construction? If the run chase were nerve-shredding for both teams 'involved' (as opposed to both teams), it was for Somerset too. The way the sentence reads, you'd be forgiven for thinking a team called 'Somerset too' were watching from Taunton. More:

    Roland-Jones, whose hat-trick was spread across two overs, ending with No11 Ryan Sidebottom being bowled around his legs, finished with figures of six for 54, with Middlesex going on to spray the champagne for the 13th championship in their history and 11th outright.

Again, it's awkward and laborious, with the final clause larding on a couple of more numbers the writer felt had to be included before any description. But what about the tension? It's hinted at in the previous paragraph, but you have to work out the numbers to see that Roland-Jones' hat-trick began with 31 balls remaining, and Yorkshire's tail-enders chasing 63 runs. Even a Yank like me can figure out not only the tension, but the pressure on the batsmen, and the opening that would create for a bowler. Credit Roland-Jones for taking care of business in the most emphatic style. Credit him somewhere.

There follows in the story paragraph after paragraph of anodyne quotes, from Roland-Jones, from his captain James Franklin, from the Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie. We learn absolutely nothing about the match from any of them, except perhaps that Roland-Jones feared injury when his teammates piled onto him after the win, or that Gillespie, unusually for an Australian, 'hates losing'.

One of the joys of cricket used to be following the game through the prose of writers who gave its expansive setting its full due and more. I don't know if the new generation has no appreciation of such things, or whether their writing skills have been honed on twitter. I don't know if the Guardian had no subs available to rewrite the grammar, nor a sports editor to suggest getting the drama into the lede.

I do feel certain, however, that the format of newspaper sports coverage is changing quickly. The idea of bringing the reader to the match is long buried, the idea of letting the reader 'see' something he might not have seen on television is dying. What is left is the art of recreating for the newspaper reader what he may have already seen on television, or been unlucky enough to miss, in all it's anodyne glory.  Can you tell me how you felt when you got to the end of that article?

Monday, 19 September 2016


I did this interview in the autumn of 2000, in the bar of London's My Hotel, just before the US presidential elections. One version of it appeared in the Daily Telegraph. The editor there, Casper Lewellyn Smith, was most interested in Marcus' thoughts about punk rock, but Marcus' Dadist take was far too academic for the music he (Casper) loved for different rebellious reasons. Unfortunately I'd found Lipstick Traces enigmatic to the point of incomprehension; punk rock not only couldn't take the weight of Dada which Marcus wanted to load onto it, but the bridge he wanted to build between Punk and surrealism never seemed complete. I wrote the piece anyway for Casper, who cut it severly, and then I wrote this, the more complete version, for Headpress, where it ran in 2001. I also reviewed the re-issue of Mystery Train for the Spectator, which is another story, and met my future ex-wife at My Hotel soon afterwards, which is another another story....

Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is a landmark of rock criticism, a look at America myth seen through the magic lens of rock and roll, from Robert Johnson through Elvis to The Band. Its publication turned Marcus, at age 30, into an instant eminence grise for an entire generation. There had been writers, like Ralph J Gleason, who had discussed rock music in terms of the wider world, but no one had attempted so wide a sweep, nor accomplished it so gracefully. With one book, Marcus changed rock writing forever, becoming, in effect, the music’s creative conscience.

Indeed, behind Bertold Brecht spectacles, Marcus resembles a cultural commissar. He’s never considered himself a rock critic. “I ignore the industry, don’t go to the parties,” he says. His essays now appear in such rocking outlets as Artforum, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and Salon. But you can still see the excitement behind his eyes each time an idea clicks into place. A sense of risk-taking danger gives Mystery Train its edge. It’s criticism as creative art.
Marcus was in London to promote the 25th anniversary edition of the book (“presented finally the way I always envisioned it”) alongside simultaneous publication of Double Trouble, a collection of essays dealing with a very different American myth. Double Trouble is subtitled “Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives.” When we meet at his London hotel, Marcus is worried about the upcoming presidential alternatives to America's First Bubba. He’s living temporarily in New York while he teaches at Princeton University, and although he’s registered to vote there, his wife isn’t.
We registered on the subway. New York sends people to wander the cars, signing up voters; they pay them a commission,” he says. “But only my registration went through. So if an absentee ballot hasn’t arrived by the time we get back, Jenny’s going to fly home to San Francisco, just to vote.” Marcus was born in Palo Alto, outside San Francisco, and educated at Berkeley. His lifelong addiction to rock began with a different sort of poll. I was 11 years old, my favourite song was “All Shook Up.” Chuck Berry’s “School Days” was everyone else’s favourite, and threatening to knock “All Shook Up” out of number one in the local charts. So I went and bought the record, in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Chuck Berry from number one.
He became a “self-conscious” fan in the summer of ’64. “I was interning in Washington, and I’d brought the Beatles’ album with “Money” on it with me. One of my flatmates said ‘what’s the big deal?’ and I said, ‘just listen to the instrumental break, the way you hear the whole machinery of industrial society grinding the man down, and he refuses to go under.’ A light bulb went ‘click’ in my head. I knew it was all bullshit, but I also believed it.”

When Rolling Stone magazine appeared, Marcus submitted a review to editor Jann Wenner, a college buddy. “A week or so later it was printed and I got a check for $12. That was it. I’d spent all my time studying at Berkeley, undergrad and grad school, and my professors seemed to have stopped trying to inspire students, and instead were training them for jobs. It was time to leave.” 
Marcus eventually became Rolling Stone’s book critic, and in Mystery Train he brought the devices of literary criticism to bear on rock music. I ask about what I feel is the particular influence of Leslie Fiedler, author of Love And Death In The American Novel, obvious in the way Marcus uses his personal sensibility to interpret wider issues of myth.

That sums it up pretty well. I thought a book might work if I could combine the instinctive reaction of a fan with the bigger ideas that attracted me. I felt that the whole of America was somehow captured in songs like “Mystery Train”, Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway”, The Band’s “Cripple Creek”, Sly Stone’s “Thank You For Talkin To Me Africa”, Randy Newman’s “Sail Away”. If you’re presuming that, the theoretical ideas wouldn’t work without the visceral reaction.
But that book was really motivated by Watergate, by the idea that the country was up for grabs, being fought over daily. It was tremendously thrilling, but also scary, the sense of a battle taken away before it was finished.” 
Mystery Train was published in 1975, by which time many of the artists profiled had already slipped from the creative peaks Marcus chronicled. Soon Bob Dylan would retreat into born-again Christianity, Sly Stone would begin his odyssey through jail and rehab, Elvis would be beyond comebacks. Almost immediately after Mystery Train appeared, The Band would play their “Last Waltz”. 
Coincidentally, on this trip to London, Marcus read an article in Mojo chronicling the bitterness among the Band’s surviving members over song-writing credits. In Invisible Republic, his study of The Band and Dylan’s Basement Tapes (note: now retitled The Old Weird America), Marcus wrote that he still found himself framing questions for Richard Manuel, who hanged himself in 1986, knowing Manuel could not answer them. Marcus won’t go into some of the aspects of the Mojo article, but remembers when Manuel once told him he hadn’t been able to finish a song in two years. “Why not?” asked Marcus. “I haven’t been able to finish a song in two years,” said Manuel. 
I was most interesting in seeing Rick (Danko) say he got a $200,000 cheque for his share of “Wheels on Fire”. This was 25 years ago. There are various stories out there about what went on with song writing credits. For example, there’s one that Garth wrote the early version of “Daniel and the Sacred Harp”, and sold it away, but I won’t say any more about that.”

As America turned to mellow rock and disco in the late 70s, Marcus embraced punk, which led to Lipstick Traces, a study of punk and dada which attempts to deconstruct the entire 20th century. The book left many Marcus fans cold, perhaps because it was more intellectual?

It didn’t feel different to me, but it is more intellectual in the sense that I started with a question I wanted to answer, ‘why is “Anarchy in the UK” so powerful?’ which is a different approach than Mystery Train, where I started with an instinctive understanding. But I found the lack of understanding no less thrilling. Lipstick Traces was very much a Reagan book; in the same sense that Mystery Train sprang from Watergate. It was written at a time when I literally couldn’t bear to think about America. So intellectually, I left for Europe.
It was a burning desire to get to the heart of something I knew I wasn’t going to get to the heart of. I do think I got close to figuring out what made Dada a thorn in the side of the 20th Century. After I’d finished my research and before I wrote the book, I actually wrote a play combining all its characters in a night club. I spent a month writing footnotes to the play, but it never got into the book itself.
Recently a theatre company in Austin, Texas adapted Lipstick Traces as a play. My only involvement was to see the finished product, which they did as a comedy. I said, ‘you’ve staged the book I wanted to write!'

A quarter of a century after Mystery Train, Marcus says America is once again up for grabs. Again, he’s following instinct, because the parallels between Bill Clinton and Elvis go further than their white-trash upbringings in the hinterlands of Memphis. Clinton auditioned for his job by playing America’s First Elvis on the Arsenio Hall show, donning shades and blowing the sax. 
When President Bubba’s activities below the waist began exciting America’s right-wing would-be moralists, he literally forced Elvis off the front pages of the scandal sheets. What was Kenneth Starr, after all, but another Ed Sullivan telling Clinton to keep his hips out of camera shot? In Double Trouble, Marcus quotes Jonathan Alter saying “(Clinton) may be a hound dog, but he’s our hound dog”.

From the moment Clinton was elected, the right has tried to deprive him of his legitimacy,” he explains. “His temerity was believing in himself, just like Elvis. Elvis could’ve been accepted, if he’d dropped his Memphis buddies, took the right drugs, slept with the right celebrities. Instead he stayed in Memphis, where local society treated him with contempt. Clinton went to Washington and met similar contempt from a similar high society. He didn’t do what Reagan did, invite them all to the White House, where they’d say, ‘what class!”. Clinton didn’t schmooze them. He and Elvis are fundamentally outsiders, hicks who see no reason to become sophisticated. 
And if he had invited them, they’d feel this deep sexual terror, a nightmare of waking up in the White House hungover with Clinton snoring next to them. Elvis communicated a sense that life is easier than you’ve been told it is. The people who hated him, who hate Clinton, are the ones telling you it’s not."

During the London Film Festival I watched Elvis: The Way It Is, Rick Schmidlin’s magnificent re-edit of Dennis Sanders’ 1970 Las Vegas documentary. The new film captures Elvis’ ability to draw something from an audience. It struck me I hadn’t seen a performance like that since Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention in August.

Exactly,” Marcus smiles. His eyes light up again and I feel like a student being given a A. “Think about it, from the time Elvis was 19 or 20, he was a citizen of a nation divided. Half the country wanted to BE him, and the other half wanted him removed! Clinton divided the country in the same sort of way. People thought: ‘if they can do that to the President, what can they do to me if I step out line? And they keep redrawing the line!’ They look at Clinton and they’d simply like to feel as good as he does in his element.”

We also agree on the film’s defining moment, when Elvis flirts with one of his backup singers. “Yes, here’s the woman who is black, she could feel ‘oh, he’s stolen our music’, but then he spins around to her and turns it on, and she’s jelly.” 

Marcus misses that sense of joy in music today. Does he believe, as he writes in Double Trouble, that rock music “no longer seems to speak in unknown tongues“? 

Well, so much is subject to commodification. John Langford, of the Mekons, plays in the Waco Brothers, and he began one show I saw by saying ‘we do not play no alt country.' Someone wrote that Britney Spears is 18, and she looks like a 35 year old 1950s housewife at the same time she’s an ingenue. Like she’s used up her capacity to have new experience.” 
In an essay “The Summer of Love Generation Reaches the White House, and So Do Their Kids”, Marcus quoted Margaret Drabble’s 1977 observation that people are “more ironic, more cynical, more amused by more things, and less touched by anything.” 
It’s more true than ever now,” he says. “But people are still moved by what they hear. Polly Harvey and Coren Tucker of Slater Kinney are infinitely more alive—it isn’t age—they will be touchstones in the next 20 years. They’re younger than other people and of course now they’re younger than I am. The last music to come out of nowhere and change my expectations was the last three Dylan albums, the two acoustic and “Time Out Of Mind”. They tell a single story, it’s a great detective story, as good as The Big Sleep
Most music today is a different story, but it’s a continuing one. The groups I revile, like Rage Against the Machine, Limp Biskit, Christina Aguilera, well they were created so I wouldn’t like them. Dock Boggs, the banjo-playing white bluesman said it best when he was older, “I don’t really like rock and roll, but then, I’m not supposed to like it.”

Sunday, 18 September 2016


The success of the movie Drive has brought new attention to James Sallis' writing, which is a good thing, because as good as the pulpy Fifties-style narrative drive of Drive was, Sallis is a versatile writer whose strongest talent may be his subtlety, the way he can build a narrative through a circling oblique approach which reveals more on each circle, opening up ideas and observations which have been planted at earlier stages.

Willnot does exactly that, and it's so skillfully done the reader might forget that this is, in genre terms still a crime novel, though it's never really obvious what the actual crime might be. Lamar Hale is a doctor in the small town of Willnot, an oasis for eccentrics, as most small towns are when you look closely enough. It seems to be somewhere we you live among 'the squirrel eaters' but you're never quite sure where, and as the story begins, a pile of bodies are uncovered in a gravel pit outside of town.

Soon the FBI is on the scene, but not interested in the bodies as much as in the whereabouts of Bobby Lowndes, a troubled boy Lamar had tried to help, and who is AWOL from his job as a sniper in the military. Clever readers might suspect the stories are related, but that's not necessarily so, and events proceed in a small-town pace that intersects repeatedly with the activity of small town life, which, as a doctor, puts Lamar right in the centre.

Really, however, this is a story about belonging, and about aging. Lamar was first brought to Willnot by his father, a peripatetic pulp science fiction writer--which gives Sallis an opportunity to inject little stories about the greats from the Fifties and Sixties, Theodore Stugeon, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm and the like, and their perceptions of our reality in a time when reality seemed to be changing quickly. Lamar also spent a year in a coma when he was a child, out of which he awoke to see, in some cloudy ways, the future: bits of life presented as if through the imagination of an sf writer. The book is about aging, and the passage of time, but it's also, like sf, about the way the past and the future are really just parts of our present, because our present is what we have, and our present will not (so to speak) escape the memories and anticipations we bring to it.

Lamar is also living with his male partner, another bit of small town life which makes little difference one way or the other, except that Richard is a committed teacher, struggling to tread water under the tidal wave of modern education. Like Lamar's medical practice, it is something that puts him into the middle of small town life, leaving him opportunity to influence at least of his neighbours on their way. Not all of whom are snipers returned to their own pasts to escape their own futures.

This is a richly quilted collage of quiet writing which deftly puts you into Lamar's slow-paced point of view, and reminds you gently to take his history into account as you are contemplating the scene. It ends much as it began, in a moment of violence or its aftermath, and picks up its vision and it's purpose from there. It's a wonderfully understated piece of writing, one where every word seems to count, in an almost offhandedly casual way. Wonderful.

Willnot by James Sallis
No Exit Press, £7.99, ISBN 9781843446699

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Sunday, 11 September 2016


Yesterday was Ruby Bridges' 62nd birthday. In 1960, when she was six years old, Ruby Bridges, escorted by US Marshals to protect her from angry and violent crowds of protesters, integrated her local elementary school in New Orleans. Her courage, and that of her parents, and their desire to get her a better education, the education she deserved, not the second-rate 'separate but equal' variety, stands still as an abject lesson to us all. And don't forget when this took place it was already six years after the US Supreme Court's decision in 'Brown vs Board of Education, Topeka Kansas' had made segregation officially a violation of the US Constitution.

There was a very nice article about Bridges on the facebook page A Mighty Girl (you can link to it here) which told the story well, and provided numerous links for more information, as it is designed as an educational tool for young people. Following just a few of those links would provide a real lesson for anyone who doesn't know of or indeed remember those events of almost 60 years ago. And it sheds some harsh light on the present day, and our lingering inability to inhabit a world of equality.

But I was struck by the fact that there was no mention in the Mighty Girl piece of Norman Rockwell's painting, titled 'The Problem We All Live With', which was done as a centerfold for Look Magazine in 1964, almost four years after Bridges' first day at school. I can't think of why there wasn't, because the painting conveys visually some important truths about that moment, a moment powerful enough to shock and shame an older white artist, considered to be the essence of middle American sensibility, up there in western Massachusetts. Look gave Rockwell certain freedoms he didn't have at the Saturday Evening Post; I remember noticing that at a retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery a few years ago, and Rockwell used that freedom.

In the picture, Ruby is the only person whose face you see, she looks resolute and innocent, and is walking naturally, as a child would walk to school. The four marshals are walking stiffly, with determination and in step with each other. But they are out of step with Ruby, and it is her stride which defines the painting, not theirs. On the wall behind her is scrawled 'nigger': perhaps this is why Mighty Girl avoided the painting, but it's important to see that because it puts the horrific context of that day's events, and the world from which they grew, into its chilling context. There is also a stain on the wall from a tomato thrown at Ruby; the stain partially obliterates the letters KKK on the wall.

The writing on the wall, indeed the tomato, are most likely Rockwell's creations. He also makes a couple of changes: adding a fourth marshal, probably for the symmetry, and changing the school satchel which Ruby was holding with such a natural, off to school attitude into a more old-fashioned notebook and ruler, which emphasizes her preparation for learning, and seems to make simpler the whole idea of heading to school, like a one-room school house rather than a big school where parents refused to let their children sit in the same classes with Ruby.

It's a painting that looks awkward on the surface, but I believe that is deliberate, because Rockwell is trying to emphasize the awkwardness, the unnaturalness, of the situation: that US marshals should have to be there to allow a young girl to do what should be the most natural part of any young girl's life: going to school in her community and being educated for the best the world has to offer. It's a brilliant piece of art, worthy of the exceptional bravery of a six-year old girl in Louisiana, 1960.


Last night I went to sleep listening to Cannonball Adderly’s Somethin' Else, one of my favourite records, and it reminded me that I hadn’t written about the death of Rudy Van Gelder, the sound engineer on that and so many other great jazz records, most notably for Blue Note, but for most of the specialist jazz labels in the glorious era of hard bop, when between the artists and jazzmen and poets and novelists New York really was the centre of the world.

When I first heard he died I had put Hank Mobley’s Soul Station on, and listened while I read obituaries, and was unable to sell one myself to British papers. There's a nice sidebar by my friend August Kleinzahler, who grew up not far from the Van Gelder ‘studio’ in New Jersey, over at the London Review of Books blog here.  I noticed many of them had quotes from other audio engineers disparaging Van Gelder’s amateurish efforts; another friend, Michael Goldfarb, posted a comment along those lines from the facebook page of one of his engineers from his NPR days: as I recalled the pure sterility of the NPR sound, like voices speaking in a vacuum chamber, this made a certain sense.

There were some musicians, Charles Mingus most prominent among them, who wouldn't record at Van Gelder. Mingus felt what came out on the record was not the sound he was hearing when he made it, and this was more than just an engineer's perfection, it was a composer's sense of what the sound should be.

But Soul Station reminded me of why the Van Gelder sound worked for the listener: it gave you the feeling you were listening to improvisation as it took place, as if  you were in a club environment, hearing the instruments both working with and also trying to better each other. 

Last night as I listened to Somethin' Else, when Cannonball comes in for his solo on the opening cut, 'Autumn Leaves', I realised something could hear quite clearly the open space of the famous cathedral ceiling in the Van Gelder house. It created the tone you might associate with a sacred setting. Not like Jan Garbarek, for example, playing in a literal cathedral, with the Hillard Ensemble or his band, and creating a sound of almost religious nordic meditation. This was like the isolation of inspiration, a moment close to the quiet ideal of an NPR studio after all, but fitting seamlessly into the context of the group energy around him. More important perhaps, it was still music the way you really would hear it in a club, coming and going, the sound not always perfect, but reaching you as it was able to reach you wherever you were sitting. I find Something Else every bit as contemplative as Garbarek, but with a dynamic difference.

Cannonball’s 1958 bop is a way of bringing energy and drive to a staid world that seemed disinclined toward inner vision or peace. Garbarek’s work of the past few decades has been more about bringing some sort of reflective peace to a world of increasing chaos. They blend together well in my mind, and in the end there is not quite as much difference in Manfred Eicher's ECM engineering, which on first thought I would have placed way over toward the NPR end of the spectrum, and the Van Gelder sound, unlikely as that seems.

I hadn’t realised that Van Gelder, after the jazz labels were subsumed into bigger companies, moved on to CTI, Creed Taylor’s ‘mellow’ jazz, which probably should be seen as the forerunner to today’s ‘smooth jazz’ and Kenny G. I remember picking up a Freddie Hubbard CTI record sometime in the 60s, not liking it, and ignoring the label. Now I’m a little curious about how Van Gelder’s techniques worked with the string overlays and lush sound of CTI. But not that curious...

Rudy Van Gelder is probably most important as much as an image of that jazz world, the unlikely optometrist recording the greatest artists of the past century in a makeshift studio in his parents’ house in New Jersey. It’s the essence of what that world was about to its fans, and to a large extent, as an almost cult world today, still is. RIP RVG.