Complicated Game

COMPLICATED-GAME-cover

Complicated Game –
Inside The Songs of XTC
By Andy Partridge & Todd Bernhardt
Jawbone Press – £14.95

     I like accidents. I like to put myself in the way of musical harm. I like being at the wheel of that musical car, and aiming it at the wall. Just to see what shape the car’s going to come out. It might come out an interesting shape that would have taken me forever to decide on otherwise.

                                                                                                            Andy Partridge.

Hmm, had the above been said by someone like Pete Townshend or Kurt Cobain, I’d have felt more inclined to fully embrace it.

This partially explains why great chunks of this book are akin to talking and listening to someone who’s drunk, while you’re not. As such, a lot of what’s being said, or in this case written, is either subject to question or to just not be taken too literally. For sure, all the prescient and sometimes perplexing material on the nitty-gritty aspects of the actual music itself (which perhaps makes up the bulk of these 398 pages, including an Introduction by Todd Bernhardt, a Foreword by Steven Wilson and a chapter entitled ‘Swindon: A Perambulation’ by John Morrish) is as plausible as it is believable.

As it is fundamentally aimed at the uber-prime-initiated, in-house, rather extraordinarily excessive XTC collective; so many of whom, inadvertently yet regularly find themselves kneeling at the alter of the Partridge. And let’s be honest here: wherever there is kneeling involved, there is (excessive) blind faith.

A sparkling pandemonium of high-octane blind faith, which in this particular instance, partially accounts for Complicated Game – Inside The Songs of XTC not entirely coming clean. Nor being on the money. Money of course (or the ardent wish for oodles thereof on behalf of the subject), being the operative/key word here – as the following exchange between interviewee and interviewer (in relation to XTC’s ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’) more than substantiates:

”I’m obviously bitter about not getting the money I thought I ought to deserve or something. I look around, and I see people like Elvis Costello, or other contemporaries, and I think, ‘Jesus, they’re so much richer than I am!’ You know, ‘I wrote songs as good as he did!’ I can say that, not facetiously or boastfully. I think I’ve written songs as good as Elvis.

And from what I’ve read in interviews with him, I think he thinks that, too. He admires your songwriting.

But when I see him on the Sunday Times Rich List…

Oh my. I didn’t realise he was that wealthy.

Oh yeah, I don’t know, I think his last count was something like twenty million. But I never made the money, or a fraction of the money, in this game that I thought I would. And I guess that, even by that age, I was thinking, ‘Grrr, grrr.”’

The fact that Andy Partridge stopped playing music live almost thirty-five years ago, and Elvis Costello continues to tour the world to this very day, might have some bearing on (t)his clearly envious state of affairs – even if only from a promotional perspective. Pristine rocket science it really isn’t, although the trajectory of such self-proclaimed, financial woe, is something of a subliminal undercurrent throughout these thirty chapters in their entirety. It’s always there. Not always in as many words, admittedly, but it’s there nevertheless: ”Oh, we went well over budget on this album. They said, ‘Look, we’re going to pull the plug fellows, we can’t afford for you to finish it off.’ I think we’d run up a bill of a quarter of a million pounds” (‘Chalkhills and Children’).

Moreover, there are assorted, endearing moments of literaral artistry within the book, which, in and of itself, (ought to) say far more about Partridge than even he himself. For instance, when discussing the use of alliteration in (chapter 22), he asserts: […] It just makes it more pungent if you have lots of L’s in a row, or lots of S’s, or sounds that sound similar between one word and the next, and the next, if possible. It becomes it’s own little internal kingdom – it’s lovely to do […]. I love alliteration. It seems to shake hands with itself, and it seems to be like a little infinity loop, perfectly completed. I like that in other people’s work too.”

Suffice to say, this book essentially entails Andy Partridge talking to the American freelance writer and musician, Todd Bernhardt, on the subject of thirty random XTC songs, scattered throughout their entire career in chronological order. Commencing with 1978’s ‘This Is Pop’ and concluding with 2006’s ‘2 Rainbeau Melt,’ the two traverse the relative gambit of ye world according to Mr. Partridge.

An exceedingly safe, charmed, buffered and closeted world, very, very far removed from that of the real world – wherein (it would seem) nothing is ever enough.

Might it be said that Complicated Game – Inside The Songs of XTC, really would have benefited with having had an outside editor come on board – even if only to do the proof-reading. The amount of times I had to re-read certain sentences, simply because key words were missing! Although Bernhardt’s most horribly glaring error appears at the bottom of page 33: ”When The Beatles were appearing at the Kaiserkeller in Berlin […].” Surely almost every music fan on the planet knows that said infamous Kaiserkeller was in Hamburg?

XTC fans will undoubtedly love it; although in essence, it’s nothing other than a highly cryptic read for the idiosyncratically initiated.

David Marx

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Brother of the Wind

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Brother of the Wind
By Manuel Lourenzo Gonzalez
Small Stations Press 

[…] because now I must live out my existence with the shame of belonging to a civilisation and a country whose political representatives were capable of declaring a war of plunder to be just so they could continue to make the high costs of their  rhythm of life fall on the misery of others.

Equally powerful and poignant, Brother of the Wind is unremittingly charming; as if plucked from a long-forgotten well of all too good intentions. It’s a story of unbelievably, inspired bravery; set within the fraught and uncertain parameters of the initial Gulf War of 1991.

As succinctly regaled by a young teenage boy by the name of Khaled, these 172 pages are a shimmering combination of grit’n’guts and power’n’poetry. Each one follows on from the other in such a way that profound literature was always meant to be – but very rarely is.

As such, within the turning of the pages, one is quintessentially reminded of what was like to have once been young. And innocent. And in love.

And in love…
Now wasn’t that/isn’t that something to truly behold?
The sort of love that simply transcends; whether it’s love for one’s father, love for one’s partner, or indeed, love one’s country. All three of which are wonderfully combined and traversed herein:

Take me to the warmth of my beloved,
take me to my new home in the forest,
where everything can start again,
take me to where the wounds of the past heal
but don’t disappear

A wonderful eye-opener of a book that I absolutely cannot recommend highly enough.

David Marx

Kissinger

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Kissinger -1923-1968: The Idealist
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Books – £16.99

If you want to know who has influenced me the most, I’ll answer with the names of two philosophers: Spinoza and Kant. So it’s curious that you choose to associate me with Machiavelli. People rather associate me with the name of Metternich. Which is actually childish. On Metternich I’ve written only one book, which was to be the beginning of a long series of books on the construction and disintegration of the international order of the nineteenth century. It was a series that was to end with the First World War. That’s all. There can be nothing in common between me and Metternich.

                                                                                                          Henry Kissinger

This too famous, too important, too lucky man, whom they call Superman, Superstar, Superkraut, and who stitches together paradoxical alliances, reaches impossible agreements, keeps the world holding its breath as though the world were his students at Harvard. This incredible, inexplicable, unbearable personage, who meets Mao Tse-tung when he likes, enters the Kremlin when he feels like it, wakens the president of the United States and goes into his bedroom when he thinks it appropriate. This absurd character with horn-rimmed glasses beside whom James Bond becomes a flavourless creation. He does not shoot, nor use his fists, nor leap from speeding auto-mobiles like James Bond, but he advises on wars, ends wars, pretends to change our destiny, and does change it.

                                                                                                          Oriana Fallaci

I really cannot remember the last time I read such an all-engrossing, brilliant biography as Kissinger -1923-1968: The Idealist. According to The Independent’s Marcus Tanner, it’s ”definitive” and ”reveals his subject as nothing like the calculating cold fish of legend.”

To be sure, having read these 878 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Sources, Illustration Credits and Index), he known throughout the planet as Henry Kissinger comes across as many things – although ye ”cold fish of legend” most certainly isn’t one of them.

Might this be the case, because this most absorbing and altogether outstanding book, delves into every crevice of the subject’s life? And I really do mean nigh every nuanced area; which, given the fact that this is Volume I and concludes in 1968 – at the height of what many might consider to be the nadir of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War – is quite something.

Quite something, simply because by this book’s end, we’re only half way through what is among other things, clearly, a worldly and politically, uber-jam-packed life. A life that never once, not even for a micro-second, ever teetered on the precipice of perhaps being a tad dull. There again, Niall Ferguson (whose previous books include Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Ascent of Money and The Great Degeneration among others) has herein written a biography, that in and of itself, alters the occasionally perplexing parameters of biographical literature.

Reason being, the author has probably delved deeper and researched unto the point that research was no longer possible. Thus, by default, raising the stakes by (perhaps) inadvertently raising the bench mark itself.

An exceedingly good example of this comes in the very first chapter ‘Heimat’ (the German word for homeland), where, apart from researching Kissinger’s family tree, Ferguson also goes some way in researching the Jewish induced history of the subject’s place of birth: ”There had been a Jewish community in Furth since 1528. Thirty years before, Nuremberg had followed the example of many other European cities and states by expelling Jews from its territory. But Furth offered a refuge. Indeed, by the late sixteenth century, Jews were being encouraged to settle there as a way of diverting trade away from Nuremberg. Already by the early 1600s, Furth had its own rabbi, a Talmudic academy, and its first synagogue, built in 1616-17 and modelled on the Pinkas synagogue in Prague.”

With this most informative background in mind, only a few pages later, Ferguson touches on the author, Jakob Wassermann, who, when ”asked by a foreigner, ”what is the reason for the German hatred of the Jews?… What do the Germans want? His reply was striking:

I should have replied: Hate…
I should have answered: They want a scapegoat…””

That these words were published in 1921 – a mere two years before the birth of Henry Kissinger himself – does much to trigger just some of the tonality of what’s to come. The undeniable thread of which is undeniably inter-laced with the idealism of Kissinger’s very own hypotheses of history and philosophy.

Or, an undiluted amalgamation thereof.

To be sure, Kissinger’s wartime mentor, Fritz Kraemer, once described his protege as being: ”musically attuned to history. This is not something you can learn, no matter how intelligent you are. It is a gift from God.”

Suffice to say, the manifestation of what said protege chose to do, and how to implement (t)his ”gift from God,” remains wide open to debate. A debate, that if nothing else, can and will no doubt, be further enhanced (if not exasperated) by what has been exceedingly well written within these twenty-two chapters.

That’s twenty-two chapters of the most readable and realistic, realpolitik. A literal quality, which in the final analysis, accounts for Kissinger – 1923-1968: The Idealist, being a veritable tour-de-force to be reckoned with.

David Marx

Cowboy Song

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Cowboy Song –
The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott
By Graeme Thomson
Constable – £9.99

”A Scottish guy that was drinking too much and Phil shouting at him all the time because he was constantly out of tune – this did not make for a happy session. But Brian added a tremendous amount. It would never have happened, Jailbreak, without Brian Robertson. When he was on, he was great. Unfortunately that came with a price.”

The above is something of a revelatory insight; as having met both Thin Lizzy bad boys – Phil Lynott and Brian Robertson – one really wouldn’t have thought such a tempestuous undercurrent lie beneath the surface of the band’s terrific break-though album Jailbreak.

And what a timely, not to mention superlative piece of work it was and remains: all street-suss-savvy, thundering guitars and bolero-tongue in cheek lyrics. There again, Cowboy Song – The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott, is a most thoroughly well-researched and quintessentially honest of rock’n’roll biographies.

Indeed, simply riddled with much acute, regal revelation, these 348 pages (excluding Acknowledgments, Notes and Index) are on occasion, perhaps a little discomforting to read.

Let alone take-in.

Lest we remind ourselves that the truth is quite often painful to read – of which the following from Part Three’s ‘Sun Goes Down’ perfectly illustrates: ”Depression. Boredom. Disappointment. All that downtime, from Inverness to Bremen. Nature abhors a vacuum. Heroin fills it with cotton wool. Lynott wasn’t the only one suffering. On 7 March 1982, in Porto, Scott Gorham went on stage unable to play and barely able to stand. He was unceremoniously bundled back to Britain the following morning to address his own addictions. Sean O’Connor filled in during his absence, playing out of sight behind the backline equipment to maintain the illusion that Thin Lizzy remained a functioning band.”

As a result of it’s raw and perhaps, rather loaded depiction (”It is a story with an unhappy ending. Lynott did not always behave well, nor did he always make the smartest choices. In later life his addictions and insecurities made him a difficult man to be around, and ultimately they overpowered him”), Graeme Thomson has herein written and compiled a book that is as compelling to read, as it is – in a literary car-crash waiting to happen sort of way – un-put-down-able.

As a journalist, I got to interview Philip Lynott shortly after he disbanded Thin Lizzy, and I have to confess, he didn’t appear in the best of health. Charming and chatty, he most definitely was; but I did get the uncomfortably distinct feeling that something was clearly awry. Six months later, he was dead.

As a result, I’ve often wondered how such a tremulous tragedy in waiting, would have and ought to have been approached and written. One of the many reasons being that Lynott’s life, has up until now (well for me at least), remained idiosyncratically inconclusive.

Thanks to Cowboy Song, such is no longer the case. As stated in the Irish Examiner: ”This is no eulogy, but an honest, often painful account of the price of star power.”

David Marx

Surgery On The Shoulders of Giants

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Surgery On The Shoulders of Giants
Letters from a doctor abroad
By Saqib Noor
Kings X Press – £8.99

The term institutionalised corruption suggests that corruption has slowly crept into the psyche of the Pakistani people and into its government institutions like a plague of insects, thoroughly rotting the once noble foundations before taking over the system like money sucking leeches. However this term seems rather mild in describing the current affairs in the country.

                    ‘The Ministry Of Corruption (And Its Associated Buffoonery)’

That Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, recently resigned due to ‘dishonesty’ and corruption charges, would suggest said plague of insects have taken hold over the asylum. Or, in this instance, Pakistan, as if it were simply meant to happen.

I remember visiting the country on a couple of occasions (either side of 9/11) and in both instances, I was told by my host, that should we ever become separated, that under no circumstances was I to approach a policeman for help. Makes you think.

No wonder the country has an ”entire dedicated governmental Ministry of Corruption […] a specialised, well-formed institution with policymakers specifically producing disorganised and illogical thinking.”

Yey, now that’s what ye world needs: yet more policymakers specifically producing disorganised and illogical thinking.

But hey, wait; it’s already happening amid the epicentre of one of the most powerful countries on the planet. That’s right, Trump (who else?) and his co-conspirational cohorts from hell, subscribe to the very sort of illogical chutzpah – each and every one of us endeavour to avoid like cancer – on an almost daily basis. Hourly basis.

Makes the powers that be in Pakistan appear as if Noam Chomsky’s out on ethical manoeuvres, while this absolutely terrific book – the consummate template in what absolutely needs to be told. Right here. Right now.

Indeed, Surgery On The Shoulders of Giants – Letters from a doctor abroad, is, if nothing else, a mighty large humane inspiration.

Other than regaling the most varied and candid of ”human life lessons” from numerous front-line, health crisis constitutions in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Haiti, Cambodia, Pakistan, South Africa; its 197 pages (excluding many pages of black and white photographs) reveal sadness, truth, emotion, hypocrisy and of course, beauty.

Rather like that complex thing we oft refer to as life itself.
Powerful. Poignant. Persuasive.

David Marx

Polarized

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Polarized –
Making Sense Of A Divided America
By James E. Campbell
Princeton University Press – £22.95

You can compromise between good, better, and best, and you can compromise between bad and worse and terrible. But you can’t compromise between good and evil.

                    Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) – ‘One-Sided Party Polarization’

And so say all of us; well, most of us anyway.
At the moment however, there’s surely far more disparity within the realm of American politics, than, erm, well, perhaps anytime in it’s history.
At least within living memory, put it that way – which is where this stark and rather bold book ought to stand loud’n’roud within the current, quasi-blasphemous institution that both tellingly and rather laughingly, refers to the American Constitution, as if it were its own.

As if it were a standing joke – which clearly, Donald Trump, and his vile inner-circle are; although countless gullible innocents the (predominantly western) world over, will continue to believe the United States to be a nation of political moderates.

It absolutely isn’t.

The US is so utterly divided, it’s nigh impossible to distinguish between good, better and best, bad and worse; let alone good and evil. Although within the context of mainstream American ideology, it isn’t long before James E. Campbell writes: ”As rough as our political debates can be, and they can get quite vicious, happily we are not on the precipice of another civil war.”

Oh really?
Seems to me the US is most definitely on the precipice of something.
It might not be out and out civil war, but there’s absolutely no question that one of the most powerful countries one earth, is almost on the verge of self-imploding.
If not falling apart.
If not, along with (the former Great) Britain, very fast becoming the laughing stock of the world. A conundrum, which, in the big scheme of things – primarily that of Trump’s colossal ego – isn’t a particularly good thing.

The nine chapters of Polarized – Making Sense Of A Divided America pretty much contends as much throughout.

Hence my earlier description of these 246 pages (excluding Acknowledgments, Appendix, Notes, References and Index) being somewhat stark and outwardly bold: ”Some contend that party polarization has grown particularly severe in recent years as political leaders and activists sought ideological purity within their parties, particularly within the Republican Party. The ultra-polarization of American politics, as the claim goes, has been largely a one-sided or asymmetric affair. Republicans became a far-right ideological party while Democrats remained a fairly moderate and pragmatic centre-left party. This claim of one-sided party polarization was made most strongly by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their provocatively titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Mann boldly claimed that ”Republicans have become a radical insurgency – ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition” (‘One-Sided Party Polarization – Republicans Gone Wild’).

You can say that again (and again).
One need only refer to the Trump’s out and out, inflammatory dismissal of The Paris Agreement, to wholeheartedly agree, if not endeavour to come to terms with the above.
And a whole lot more.

Polarized – Making Sense Of A Divided America goes some way in deciphering the current shambles that is American politics; but I’m sure even Campbell must be somewhat surprised at the dire depths to which American politics has unfortunately sunk.

David Marx

Agrarian Crossings

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Agrarian Crossings –
Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside
By Tore C. Olsson
Princeton University Press – £27.95

At first glance, Tom Watson and Emiliano Zapata appear to have inhabited impossibly distant worlds. The former was a white country lawyer from rural Georgia, born in 1856; the latter a mesitzo horse trainer and small landowner, twenty-three years Watson’s junior, from central Mexico. The political vocabulary and cultural milieu of one would undoubtedly have been foreign to the other. Yet unpredictably, in the heady decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, both young men would champion daring revolts of country people against the entrenched powers that dispossessed and impoverished them.

               (‘Parallel Agrarian Societies – The US South and Mexico, 1870s-1920s’)

Fast forward to the 1930s and the 1940s, rural reformers in the United States and Mexico waged further unprecedented campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice along with agricultural productivity. This book regales that story. Of how these campaigns were conducted in dialogue with one another, as reformers in each nation came to exchange future plans, models and strategies with their counterparts across the border.

Could you imagine such co-operation between the US and Mexico happening today?
Amid Donald Trump’s overtly tremulous White House?
Wherein a revolving door policy of abhorrent, right-wing fundamentalism has taken hold?

Methinks very much not, which just goes to show the degree to which dialogue betwixt the two countries has almost broken down. And if it hasn’t already broken down in its entirety, it is definitely no longer taken (remotely) seriously as a form of statesman-like-currency.

Might this constitute where Agrarian Crossings – Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside fundamentally takes hold?
If not makes its mark?

In shining a quintessential, organic light upon a truly hideous, current political stalemate of a situation, Tore C. Olsson herein brings farming history right up to date. As Chris Boyer, of the University of Illinois in Chicago makes clear: ”Agrarian Crossings is a path-breaking history of the American and Mexican reformers who reinvented farming in the shadow of World War II. This impressive and scrupulously researched book is required reading for historians of agriculture, technocratic interchange, and the invention of development in the Americas, as well as for anyone interested in the surprisingly entangled origins of the green revolution.”

That, it most definitely is, and a whole lot more besides. The focus on the US-Mexican border in particular: ”Borders matter. Borders regulate the flow of people, the movement of commodities and capital. And the exchange of ideas. Borders separate citizens from aliens, the familiar from the foreign, and those belonging from those unwanted. And perhaps no border in recent history is more iconic in its power of partition than the line bisecting the United States and Mexico.”

Suffice to say, one could contend this argument with the mere word, Israel, but perhaps this is another, highly contentious issue altogether.

Moreover: ”In the century and a half since it was mapped onto the desert and water, the US-Mexico border has become a powerful visual representation of the strikingly unequal relationship between the two nations it anchors.”

Too right, one can without any shadow of a doubt, say that again.
The rampant inequality between these two great nations is as inexorably striking; as is the fact that it is surely only a matter of time before he who promotes the preposterous idea of a wall between them, is impeached.

Impeached beyond redemption might I add!

Here’s hoping this most rich and transnational of books will only accelerate its coming to fruition.

David Marx