Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Private Performance

London Bridge

Just now, over a late breakfast, I listened to Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage & Sir Les Patterson) talking on Desert Island Discs.

When he was a young man in Sydney, ages before his Dame Edna persona began to emerge, Humphries did a spell as a 'performance artist' (he also went on to play Estragon is Australia's first ever production of a Beckett play). One of his artworks was the following. He would take a seat among 'the captive audience' on a morning train (he didn't say during the rush hour but I imagine it might have been). He was probably fairly inconspicuous (though again, he didn't say), just a man sitting on a train. At a certain station he would open the window and someone (his accomplice) would hand him a grapefruit. At the following station another person would lean in and hand him some toast; next it would be an egg, cup of coffee etc., until, presumably, all was assembled and he could begin breakfast.

He called this a 'private joke' (between himself and his accomplices). Apparently the audience was captivated. I can believe it. I love the gentle, Charlie Chaplin deliberation, the gradual, unspoken unfurling, the subversive silence. This is what most (if not all) performance art/installations etc. should aim for, the private public performance, the invitation to participate in something that only needs your dawning awareness to make it complete, since it is nine tenths complete already (i.e. its end is clearly in sight, wedded to its beginning). The assembling breakfast beautifully opposes Patrick Kavanagh's idea of Tragedy ('underdeveloped Comedy, not fully born'). Hats off to Humphries.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Seven Songs For Puthwuth

gramophone handle

Puthwuth has 'blogtagged' me to write something about seven songs/pieces of music I am listening at present. Since I don't listen to nearly enough music (no excuses, I just don't seem to get round to it), I have simply selected what I have listened to most recently or last recall listening to or will listen to again in the near future.

The picture above is a closeup of my grandfather's portable gramophone. He died in 1984. Note his last DIY job on the handle; either twine or Sellotape (or both) was his solution to most mending jobs: door knobs, cutlery, tools...

As far as I recall, Grandfather only ever played one record on his gramophone, Phil Harris's 'The Darktown Poker Club', and that is the only record I found inside the lid/holder when I inherited it. Maybe once a year (Christmas?), grandfather would ceremoniously open the little black box, slip the winch into its hole (visible above the handle), wind it swiftly for a few seconds, slip the record out of its brown paper sleeve and lay it on the brown felt turntable, push the little dial to set it spinning at 78 rpm, pluck the steel arm from its cavity and settle that big, tarantula-tooth needle in its groove, immediately encasing the room in a husky hiss I can almost smell, as if the gramophone was, like its owner, a cigar-smoker, our outlines beginning to blue and soften in the layered clouds of that poker club from the 1940s:

"Bill Jackson was a poor old dub,
Who joined the Darktown Poker Club
But cursed the day he told them he would join.
His money used to go like it had wings
If he held Queens, someone had Kings
And each night he would contribute all his coins..."

Fionn Regan's 'Put A Penny In The Slot' (from 'The End of History')
I heard this for the first time on RTE Radio (Tubridy played it as an intro to his programme). I was enjoying the song, but what made my antennae twitch was a reference to 'Naylor's Cove' in Bray (the only reference to it in a song as far as I know: and I now have a poem with that title). When I heard the name Fionn Regan I realised that I recognised it. I don't know Fionn, but I know his mother, A. We hung out together when I lived in Bray in the 1990s, and we both worked in the local Signal Arts Centre (the name was my idea) near the station. A was a designer, and she and I won an ad contract for the Dept. of Health around that time, for their AIDS awareness campaign. The only time I got a foot in the advertising door, which swiftly clicked shut again.

Pink Floyd's 'Great Gig In The Sky' (from 'Dark Side of the Moon')
This was the first album I ever bought, prodded by my friend/cousin Pat. I have started listening to it again and it holds up wonderfully. I love the following track for its gutsy, wordless sensuality.

Bob Dylan's 'Shake Shake Mama' (from 'Together Through Life')
I've only just bought this album (the first new release I've bought by Dylan in decades, maybe the first ever). So far, I love 'Shake Shake Mama', 'It's All Good' and Beyond Here There's Nothin'.

Arthur MacBride by Paul Brady
I have a vivid if somewhat blurred memory of attending a performance by Planxty at UCD in the 1970s, during which Paul Brady sang this version, or one very like it. I have sat with the wean on my lap listening/watching this a few times. He seems to like it, asks questions about the sergeant, drummer etc. A great relief from Thomas The Tank Engine and the excruciating 'Lazy Town' (you don't want to know).

Leonard Cohen's 'Who By Fire' (from 'New Skin For the Old Ceremony')

Yes, I am one of those, a Cohen-Head. Cohen seems to sharply divide people (Listeners of Love and Hate). Paul Muldoon has written in his 'Sleeve Notes' that Cohen's "songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called poems I’ve read.” He elaborated on this (in an interview with Sven Birkerts, published in Ploughshares):

“It does seem a little excessive, I suppose, but I’m going to stick to it. I’d say ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Bird on the Wire’ or ‘Joan of Arc’ are much better constructed, are built to withstand more pressure per square inch, than most poetry we meet in most magazines and, alas, find collected in most slim volumes. . . . Cohen has a fine ear, too, something that’s rare enough even among quite highly respected poets. So, I’d go so far as to say that, despite the fact that they’re involved in a project which is not strictly ‘literary,’ writers like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell or Warren Zevon score an extraordinarily high number of successes. The fact that they are involved in musical enterprises to boot means that they are likely to ‘mean far more,’ if only because one’s more likely to be exposed to them. There’s nothing strange about this, I think. Nothing mysterious. It’s a function of the impact of popular culture, particularly on the second half of the twentieth century, and it’s one of the reasons my comment on Cohen might seem not in the least excessive to many people of my generation.”

On the other hand, some people simply can't stand him, such as my old friend, the piano teacher/poet Anthony Glavin. But then, Anthony probably wouldn't have had time for much of the music I listen to (folk music, for example, got a big thumbs down).

I first heard Cohen's delectable drone when a friend, Dominic, played me 'Songs of Leonard Cohen' on an enviously high-tech hi-fi (with real, proper speakers) sometime in the 1970s. Soon enough, I knew many of the songs by heart and would actually 'sing' them (didn't need to be pissed though it helped) at the slightest non-provocation, sometimes just sitting by myself at the top of a 46A. The one Cohen album I remember actually buying was 'New Skin For The Old Ceremony', partly because I loved the song below, apparently taken from an old Yom Kippur prayer. As far as I can tell, the song simply considers various ways in which we might step off the planet. I am delighted to have a ticket for the next Cohen concert in Dublin (a birthday present from my wonderful wife).

I'll finish with the voice of a certain Louis Prima (as King Louie, the orangutan king of the monkeys in Disney's 'The Jungle Book). Phil Harris is also in there, as Baloo the bear. Again, this is one I often listen to/watch with the wean. Listen out for Baloo/Phil Harris finally surrendering to the beat with "I'm gone man, solid gone..."

Louis Prima and Phil Harris in 'The Jungle Book'

And now I will pass the blog-baton to Paul Perry, The Cat Flap, Andrew J. Shields, Nightwriter, Baroque In Hackney, John C. Falstaff.