Wandering about at night in the Baixa-Chiado district after having just had my dinner in a well lit salad bar, I find myself walking up a road that leads to the Largo Camões, one of the most picturesque squares in Lisbon with a sloping view right down to the Tagus. It’s a pleasant enough night, warm and breezy, and I want to kill some time before heading back to the hostel; going back too early would be a sure admission of banality and defeat. In the centre of the eponymous Largo there stands a towering statue, in bronze, of the great man himself, Luís Vaz de Camões, a poet revered by the Portuguese in much the same way that the English venerate Shakespeare and the Italians Dante. There he is laurel wreathed and in an appropriately majestic posture, his left forearm crooked forward and the sword held in his other hand dragging the ground behind him so that you can almost hear the screech of steel. Underneath Camões, and surmounted on a series of smaller plinths that are clustered around the main pedestal, are statues of other, marginally less exalted, figures from the annals of the Lusitanian past, but carved in stone instead of metal.

And further down below them in turn and milling around the steps at the base of Camões’ pedestal are a troupe of students — slim, mostly bespectacled youths, in the region of 20 or 21, lads and lasses dressed up in black scholarly cloaks and brandishing musical instruments (an acoustic guitar, tambourines, a flute) preparatory to a street performance. I debate with myself, initially, on whether to stick around and watch or whether just to head off, because to be honest I’ve had enough of wandering about all day and now I’m tired and listless and ready for bed.

Thing is though, the appearance of those six or seven students all kitted out in that dark, sombre regalia of theirs makes such an impression on me that it’s hard to pull myself away. They come across as so earnest, so self-assured and just so fucking aloof — the kind of attitude that seems to have gone out of fashion amongst most young people in the rest of the world and been long since replaced by cynicism, irony, and mumbling insecurity as a more authentic mode of being in the world. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the whole scene feels like a throwback to earlier and less complicated times, back to when being a university student was synonymous with being a scholar, when it served to single you out as a member of a social and intellectual elite. Even in places like Oxford or Cambridge nowadays they’re generally savvy enough to have toned it down a bit — the Bullingdon club and other species of elitist depravity notwithstanding. I walk away from the square during their preparation and when I return just a few minutes later, the performance has already started; their lilting voices lift up to the night sky as they sway together in gentle, mild-hearted unison, singing some kind of old folk song. The girls are lean, petite and flat chested with pointed, delicate looking features and that wispy, frizzy raven black hair that calls to mind the warmer shores of North Africa out across the sea. I stand and listen for a few minutes — not long enough though to feel personally awkward about not throwing down any spare change in the guitar case which they’ve laid down for the purpose — and decide to finally go back to the hostel and try and get some sleep.

The students at Coimbra — the old university town where I was to spend the following two days attending a conference on the materialities of literature — are well known for their custom of flitting about everywhere in black academic robes. I’ve read people say that it’s reminiscent of Harry Potter, although since I’ve never seen the films or read any of the books it’s not really much of a cultural touchstone to me — but that is what everyone says. I got talking to some of the local organisers during the lunch break on the second day of the conference and asked why it was that the students on campus were so fond of wrapping themselves up in those black cloaks and looking so conspicuously like overgrown bats. One of them explained to me that far from being part of some centuries old, unbroken tradition the practice actually dates back to Salazar and Portuguese fascism, to a desire for unity and conformity via homogeneity of dress. Well the fascist part certainly seemed to ring true to me

To save money with my department, I’ve opted to stay in a 10 bed dorm in the Rossio station Youth Hostel. Needless to say I’m not really looking forward to sharing my sleeping quarters with 10 other strangers (in the event though most of the beds that night remain unoccupied). I enter the hostel. There are those same pretty Korean girls lounging around in the atrium in their pyjamas that I’d seen earlier on when I‘d gone out to forage for some food. It seems they’ve been there all evening, chatting and giggling with each other, and tapping away at their phones in their pink childish nightwear. I head up to my room. It looks like there’s already someone in their bunk trying to sleep, covers pulled up over their face; it’s not that late, only about half 10. As I enter the dorm, a thin, weedy male voice, with a European accent that I can’t quite place but which I provisionally put down as French,  emanates from the bunk in question, and tells me that it’s OK he’s not sleeping, I’m not disturbing him and I can go about my business without creeping about. I thank him for his tolerance as I go to change into my pyjamas and clean my teeth in the adjoining bathroom. His voice sounds troubled, I guessing he can’t get to sleep.

The next morning I get a good look at the scrawny owner of that weedy voice. He sports a pair of black skinny jeans and has a straggly birdsnest of a backcombed bouffant that’s just a couple of years out of date — which perversely enough makes it come across as quite rebellious in a devil may care kind of way — pallid skin the luminescence of soggy cottage cheese and goofy, childlike features that he’s probably doing his utmost to wreck through riotous living to get taken more seriously but which given that he’s in his early 20s are still only lightly ravaged; and to set it all off he’s sporting a big bruised black eye. He’s the kind of character I would have been incredibly impressed by 10-15 years ago and which to be honest I’m still kind of impressed by.
We get into conversation. One of the first questions I ask him, rather inevitably, is whether he’s a musician to which he replies that, yes, he’s a singer. He tells me he’s originally from Turin but that of recent he’s been living in London (I wasn’t far off with the French accent then, just a couple of dozen miles across the Alps is all). He says he’s decided to move to Lisbon, which I imagine given the black eye was likely to have been a fairly impromptu decision on his part. Then he tries to sell me the Portuguese SIM card he bought yesterday, which is of zero use to me, and tells me the 18 euros a night the hostel is charge is too much for him and that he needs to find somewhere cheaper to stay. I helpfully suggest AirBnB although at that point, after I’ve rebuffed the offer of the Portuguese SIM, it feels like he’s not even listening to me but talking out loud to himself. I try to talk to him a little in my shaky Italian which seems to endear me to most Italians I meet abroad, but he won’t take the bait and continues speaking flawless English in his stonerish drawl. It looks like I haven’t really made a new friend after all. I pack up my belongings, my pyjamas, my overnight things, into my suitcase and check out.

My Portugal Trip

Mid-Spring and I’m on my way to Portugal for a conference. I have one whole day and a morning in Lisbon, which I’ve visited before, and three days in Coimbra, which I haven’t. My plane takes off from Pisa, Galileo Galilei; I’m flying with Easyjet. I peer down listlessly from my window seat. We cross the Mediterranean and strike out across the eastern flanks of the Iberian peninsula; the landscape starts off mostly dreary and somewhat monotonous — at least as seen from above. The ice-capped Pyrenees stand sentinel at the edge of the horizon and stare down the plain below as if acting both as judge and jury. The guy next to me sprawls far too casually over the top of his plastic pull down table making himself much too much at home. After a while the view starts to get less tiresome and the landscape takes on the visual contours of the backdrop in a spaghetti western — as seen from a great height, obviously — dust, clay brown and marbled ochre, the earth stripped bare like a painted diagram in an old geology text book. The cunt behind keeps shuffling and maneuvering his knees forward into my chair and cannot seem to put himself at ease. “Sir, you do realise that you’re kneeing me in the lower back?”  A greyish turquoise lake that resembles nothing less than a rat-faced-three-limbed spider squatting in the desert hanging back and waiting on its quarry. Then after an interval it gets too heat-hazy and the view is too sparse and nothing much stands out until we begin to hit rolling green hills and are close to the other coast.  I start to speculate about how hot it must get down there in the desert, and how that kind of blasting head-in-a-heated-oven door heat tends to affect the human consciousness: do you have to ration your thoughts down in the desert, and pare your ideas down to the bare essentials? That’s where abrahamic religion came from, the desert.

Lisbon can come across as rather dishevelled (but not necessarily squalid or seedy) with its irredeemably dirty cobblestones — the ubiquity of cigarette stubs, spilled beer, urine, various other shades of liquid waste and dogturds, that evidences a vigorous, zestful but ultimately negligent attitude to life among the natives — and, when you look up, its ranks of rotting, mildew stained tenement blocks to gawp at. On my first visit to the city, back in 2008, Lisbon had presented me with a vision of shabby, old-world decay that appealed to my most deep seated aesthetic sensibilities — and which, in terms of the picturesque, only a subsequent visit to Naples a few years later had been really able to improve upon. This time around though the streets are a little bit tidier and the buildings less dilapidated, but the strong odour of rotting food is still everywhere.  I arrive in the centre around midday, and in the vicinity of Rossio station, wheeling my hand luggage over the filthy cobblestones as I try and figure out the whereabouts of my hostel; I’m clutching a sheaf of low resolution google map printouts and my hostel reservation in my other hand for assistance.

It’s pretty quiet out on the street, and it looks like it might be siesta time or whatever the equivalent in Portuguese is. Eventually, after asking a taxi driver with skin the colour of tea-stained mahogany and who was sitting in his car at a nearby taxi rank waiting for clients to turn up, I manage to locate my hostel. It turns out it’s actually inside the Rossio station itself; the key to the puzzle being the fact that the word estação, a prominent part of the address on my booking form printout, means station in Portuguese: stumped by those two nasty diacritical marks, the cedilla and the perispomene, and that first letter ‘e’, the cognateness of the two words had been beyond my linguistic deductive skills. Finally then I’m able to dump my sweaty luggage and go and get something to eat, and because I’m so hungry and I’m tired I try and reign in my usual fastidiousness when it comes to restaurants and find a place as quickly as possible. For lunch then I choose the Bom Jardim restaurant that’s just across the road from the station — and having waited the customary eternity that it takes in Portuguese restaurants for an order to arrive I tuck into a plate of bacalau with a side dish of creamed spinach. I always make a conscious effort to eat as much bacalau as I can whenever I’m in Portugal. This habit is due in large part to a rather memorable conversation that I once had with a Portuguese flatmate of mine, a specialist on the great Basque-born existentialist writer Miguel Unamuno; it took place about three or four years ago back when I was still living in Nottingham. Now, having heard something of the deep love and esteem that the Portuguese nation has towards bacalau from another Portuguese flatmate some months prior and finding myself intrigued and wanting another opinion (since personally speaking salted codfish doesn’t sound all that mouthwatering a proposition) I asked Emanuel, that, if he had to choose between a particularly succulent steak — rare, medium-rare, however he wanted it —  a meal of roast chicken, lovingly prepared and with his stuffing of choice, or, instead, a dish of bacalau, which would be his preference? Without missing a beat and without having to think about it, he straightaway replied “bacalau” and I’m 90% sure he wasn’t just having me on and that the instantaneity of his response bespoke an affection that was deeply ingrained and even largely irrational (if such a thing as taste or affection can be said to be rational or irrational); but still I was very intrigued, and resolved to eat as much of the stuff as I manage the next time I was in Portugal. The bacalau at the Bom Jardin isn’t half bad either, though not so impressive that I finally start to ‘get’ what all the fuss is about. I can only manage a few spoonfuls of the creamed spinach after finishing the cod, it seems that they were very generous with the cream and so it’s much too heavy for me.   

After lunch, I point my feet in the direction of the castle and then start walking;  there’s no need for a map at this point, I have the whole afternoon to spare and intend to get a little lost on the way. African street hawkers promenade their wares, laid out on cardboard box suitcases, all along the cobbled piazza of Largo São Domingo by the Jewish memorial sculpture and across from the city’s number-one ginjinha stall. Ginjinha is a sweet ginja berry liqueur, well-nigh iconic in Lisbon, that’s sometimes served in little thimble sized chocolate cups, though that’s not the case at this stall where it’s served with the minimum of frivolity in shot glasses and the liquor itself is poured from a great glass amphora teeming with whole ginja berries. I polish off a glass of it myself to sweeten my tongue and sweeten my senses before I head off to explore the town.

I cross the Praça da Figueira, after which the ground begins to rise abruptly and the town to stack up on itself. The streets, more like alleys, get narrower and steeper the closer I get to the old town and its castle-nucleus. Calçada do Marquês de Tancos. The weather is breezy, it’s late Spring easing off into Summer.  A couple of German tourists take photographs of a house the narrow facade of which has a clothes line strung across it, mainly baby clothes — because, well, it’s such a picturesque scene of Southern domesticity. And all things considered it is a rather picturesque scene, but taking photographs here feels a little like an invasion of these people’s privacy and in some sense also quite patronising. But then you’re reading this just a few paragraphs after me confessing to the hard on I got from seeing the dilapidation and the mould on Lisbon tenement blocks the first time around? OK I admit to not being entirely rational here. But in retaliation, I start to take photographs of the German tourists taking photographs of the washing line. The Germans are in abundance here, they peer over walls and around corners and brusquely wave away offers from restaurant touts to eat at authentic portuguese dining establishments with authentic fado music playing inside.

I reach the Largo de Santa Luzia, an attractive colonnaded terrace, arrayed in azulejo ceramic tiles and decked out in flower beds, that overlooks the Tagus from the heights of the old town and which thanks to its superb prospects over the river and the rest of the city serves as a popular beauty spot. It’s where Fra and I chose to rest our limbs midway through a similar hike up to the castle, four years ago, and where she took those photos of me, cross legged on the parapet with my long, lank hair plastered to my forehead and the azure river crawling behind me, that always spring to my mind when I think about Lisbon; the photographs ensuring that one set of memories of the city would always be so much more vivid than the rest. I climb back up onto the stone parapet with the long precipitous drop down to the terracotta roof tiles below and where I had posed for the photographs years before. I sit and look over the water and ruminate. And when I get tired enough of gazing down on the river and cogitating I turn to look over at the pergola where the tourists are mingling with the vendors selling tiles and souvenirs.

A few feet away from me I see an African street hawker approach three girls in their early 20s busy taking selfies with each other in a somewhat celebratory mood. He asks them in Italian if they’re Italian, prefiguring the answer somewhat. Yes, they reply, slightly surprised, how did you know? He says he’s overheard them calling each other’s names, names that he instantly recognised as Italian. Maybe it’s that they’re intrigued about being approached in their own language, or maybe they’re just tipsy with the joy of being young and carefree on a warm spring afternoon in Lisbon — but his opening gambit works and instead of shooing him away they get into conversation. The girls are completely at their ease and unselfconsciousness as they chat away with the street hawker; they exude that native warmth and geniality that seems to come so naturally and easily to Italians — and the street pedlar, well it’s whole his trade to charm people into handing over a few euros to purchase things they don’t really need, and so he’s also laying it on thick. And it’s a joyful thing to see such agreeable, amiable folk interacting together: indeed it’s so agreeable that I stay on the parapet a while longer than I had planned to just so that I can sit and watch the charm offensive proceed back and forth. The girls it transpires are from Genova and are just after finishing a semester of Erasmus in Portugal and are about to head back to Italy. He tells them in a voice warm with nostalgia about his time as a ‘vu compra’ in Venice, a city where he lived for years; and he says that he was so popular and so at home there that they used called him the black Venetian. They’re impressed with his language skills and so he tells them with no little pride that along with Italian he is able to speak English, French, Portuguese, and some German. What is a skillset, I think to myself as I sit there eavesdropping. They ask the street vendor to take a photo of the three of them and he obliges. I get off the parapet and continue on my way. I didn’t stick around to see if he managed to sell them anything in the end.

Passing by the doorway of an organic cafe a little further on, I see a pretty girl waving a laminated menu to chase away a downtrodden looking dwarf from the narrow interior of the cafe; the girl is laughing all the while as she does this, presumably because she appreciates how absurd the scene is. If she had been beautiful the scene would have had much more of pathos, but as it is it just seems ridiculous. The harassed dwarf, plastic bag slung over his shoulder, hikes across the road, an exaggerated frown on his Jeremy Clarkson looking face and enters another cafe, to seek a more sympathetic response to his indigent requests for food.

Later on, on my way back from the castle to the hostel, the dusk getting increasingly dim, I wander around the Largo de Santo Estevo and hear snatches of singing from the open window of an apartment on the first floor. The streets are relatively subdued at this point and the singing  punctures the silence of early evening. I make an important realisation after an afternoon spent trekking up and down the steep cobbled alleys of Lisbon, namely, that the cobbles are there to stop you from sliding down the street: to help you get a literal grip. I’m sure this is so obvious it doesn’t even figure as an insight for most other people and that it’s scarcely worth the effort of dwelling upon. But I enjoyed the moment of appreciation for human ingenuity that it provoked.
At a certain point I’ve walked too much, and the trudge back to the hostel feels like a punishment for my foolhardiness. I head out again later when it’s dark in search of food.

How Ariel Pink Helped Me Recover My Faith in Rock’n’Roll

I think I may finally have started to get excited about music again in a way that I wasn’t sure was even possible for me anymore. And that’s pretty reassuring because I thought I was past it at age 34, that I was becoming too jaded and too cynical to ever really lose it for a band or an artist again.

A couple of months ago I was pointed in the direction of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti by a personalised recommendation on Spotify’s homepage, the result of the site’s collaborative filtering algorithm that decided that I would probably really like to hear their 2010 album “Before Today”. I remembered AP being name-dropped on some websites that I liked — and finding myself intrigued by all that acclaim I thought, well, why not give this chap a go? (In fact at one point I had Ariel Pink confused with Big Pink and, having transferred Ariel Pink’s remembered praise to the latter band, ended up buying one of their albums from the discount bins of HMV. I ended up liking it, so it was quite a serendipitous purchase.) It took a very few listens before those fantastic melodic hooks of his began to worm their way in earnest into my subconscious– and a few more after that before it finally got through to me that, music-wise I’d finally stumbled onto the real thing here. After years of searching I’d finally discovered an artist that had *it* — and not only did he have *it*, but he also really got it; that is, he completely fucking understood what it is that music is supposed to be doing right now, at this very moment in time. And the reason I knew that he got it was that listening to him helped me  clarify things for myself to the point where I got it too! I can see that some of you are sceptical (for the purposes of this rhetorical device I’m rather optimistically assuming that more than one person is going to read this), so let me take a few paragraphs to elaborate.

The Post-Derivative

The biggest obstacle to being the next Kate Bush or David Bowie or Lou Reed for today’s bright young musical wannabe, driven on by his or her feverish creative urges and a generous dose of inter-generational envy to justify him or herself as an Artiste and to do so by making a *Big Meaningful Statement*, is that nowadays it’s just too difficult not to sound like someone else, maybe even someone who you’ve probably never heard before and whose influence you’ve only caught third or fourth hand. So that in the end you feel yourself creatively hamstrung by the fact that most if not pretty much all of the interesting sonic possibilities that the standard permutations of guitar, drums, bass and vocals have to offer — and a good number of the non-interesting ones too alas — have already been staked out. Let’s face it the thin metallic base of that particular toothpaste tube has been well and truly squeezed to within the last few nano-particles of paste and you either buy a new one or just let your teeth rot.

Well then, why not make a virtue out of necessity: from the fact, by now unavoidable, that whatever you do, whatever radical, uncompromising direction you’re thinking of taking your music into, the authentic and deeply felt expression of your fractured outsider soul, you’re just going to end up sounding like the deeply felt expression of someone else’s soul anyway?  That you’re never ever going to sound *far out* or *extreme* in an age in which Japanese noise groups like Merzbow are used as bywords for hip and edgy music by people who don’t really listen to music anyway — in much the same way the same types of idiots were namedropping metal or hardcore punk groups starting ten years ago and in the process helped to divest them of much of the edginess or danger that they once possessed. So, given the current situation and the artistic constraints that you will necessarily find yourself operating under, why not go all out with it and revel in your second hand status? Why not push the envelope from within the confines of genres and musical styles that sounded dated pretty much as soon as they came out?

And that’s what AP does. He plunders from the past but with such panache and such wild fantastic abandon that playing around with sounds that could so easily be dismissed as stale and irredeemably corny, Ariel Pink instead transforms such unlikely source materials into music that is deeply compelling. And this is a great example of what I in my madness have started to call post-derivative music (it’s called post-derivative as a way of marking the fact that we’ve arrived at a point when to call something ‘derivative’ is no longer just a way of dismissing it nor is that label anything to be ashamed of as it once was).

Post-derivative is essentially a way of describing music that sounds dated and obsolete (and indeed purposefully so) and yet is at the same time manifestly contemporary and therefore exciting and relevant. More than that: it’s music that sounds familiar, and even intimately so because of the deep seated memories that it evokes, and yet that jars with you in ways you can’t quite put your finger on —  like a bad, unsettling dream that you’re not really sure if it’s a dream or not. It’s that uneasy feeling that the Germans call Das Unheimliche, the uncanny, that you get when you start to experience what had previously seemed commonplace with a sense of puzzlement and steadily creeping nausea. Now that can be a hard trick to pull off, making Das Unheimliche-y retro-contemporary music, but the Brian Jonestown Massacre managed to do it very well for a time; taking their musical cues from the dirty, druggy, drone-y sound that the Stones and the Jesus and Mary Chain unleashed onto the world decades before, they had the knack of making it all sound seedier and far more deranged than ever before.

To recap and to expand on the definition of the post derivative: you take a familiar sound with all its attendant socio-cultural signifiers (audio-signifiers? audiofiers?) — the varying degrees of rebellion and druggy/sexual undertone that were there from the beginning and that were inherited to some extent from the blues and from jazz — its associations with a youth culture that in its infancy was still mostly about carefree teenage fun (and that in fact invented the teenager) and the tantalising prospect of endless leisure time (though in the end that prospect could only be lived vicariously via the closely documented lifestyles of the rich and famous) — and then, and this is the fun part, you drag it through the muck and the squalor of the intervening decades, during which all those early hopes and aspirations were crushed definitively, once and for all, and the extent of the corporate cynicism and the physical-sexual-substance abuse that had been fuelling the whole industry of dreams from the start could no longer be overlooked.

If you’re going to do this post-derivative thing well, then you want to do more than just smugly embrace the cultural detritus of the past with feigned nostalgia and the fulsome mockery of previous generations’ bad hairstyle, drug and wardrobe decisions. It can’t be a total put on and it can’t just be all ironical. Instead your aim is to create a dialogue with the past, or even better, a confrontation, a therapeutic process that serves to overcome the disappointment and the sense of being cheated that the popular culture of the post war period left behind like a poisonous residue or a tragic hangover. Kitsch is an essential ingredient here too, since you’re essentially referencing the more ephemeral and generic aspects of the music of the past rather than any kind of genuine and “timeless” emotive core, and so you will of necessity tend to exaggerate somewhat and pick out those things that are perceived as vulgar.

OK then, you say. What you’re talking about isn’t anything new, it’s all been done before, so why the fuck are you getting so excited? And in truth there’s no end of examples of similar kinds (similar on a first approximation that is) of re-visioning and re-contextualising of past sounds in the popular music of the past few decades; indeed that sort of thing’s been pretty much ubiquitous since sampling really began to take a hold in the early 1980s.  But I would argue that there’s something quite different going on here or at least a very profound shift of emphasis with artists like Ariel Pink and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. And how could it be otherwise given how utterly, mind-numbingly different the current musical and cultural milieu is to anything that came before? All in all there’s a real cultural urgency to coming to terms with popular music’s past right now — with the hefty burden that rock’s (and soul and pop and funk, etc) myriad cultural triumphs would seem to place on our shoulders — to figuring out how to go about countering the “anxiety of influence”. That urgency has never been as insistent as it is now. These days we’re so afflicted by this disenchanted attitude of, ‘look everything’s been done before and what’s more it’s all been done to death, so what’s the point?’, that it’s genuinely robbing this generation of the sense of a distinctive voice of its own and the motivation to go about looking for one. And this slightly perverse trick of sounding like the past — but uncannily so, with a level of attention to detail that can only have been borne of love and obsession — while still managing to sound completely modern at the same time is, as it turns out, one very effective way of challenging this current climate of musical lethargy.

The Internet and its Overall Promotion of Degeneracy and Squalor

What you have to really take into account however, if you want to understand the necessity for artists like Ariel Pink and the profound pop cultural savvy that they can bring to the table, is the hugely distorting influence that the internet has had on culture as a whole and on music in particular over the last 15 years or so: both on how we listen to it and the overall value that we place on it, spiritual and economic. We’ve reached a point now where — thanks in very large part to the internet, the effect of online forums like 4chan and the wide availability of, and easy access to, pornography regardless of how niche and regardless of how improbable the sick perversion that it caters to — it seems that there are very few real cultural taboos left and that pretty much everything is up for discussion and public appraisal. I’m constantly struck by our readiness as a society to openly discuss topics that were until very recently completely off-limits in any sort of public forum and that could only be broadly, vaguely alluded to — topics like incest, paedophilia and fringe sexual practices — as well as the forthrightness with which we now treat sexuality and refuse to be ashamed about enjoying masturbation or oral or anal sex. Nowadays you can show your Grandmother a pornographic clip of two Brazilian girls eating human excrement from a glass chalice, film her reaction — which will very understandably be on the perturbed side — and rather than being accused of abusive inter-generational exploitation and the desecration of sacred familial bonds  you might actually end up with a very popular youtube video out of the whole thing. We live in a era where Mexican drug gangs and Babylonian goddess initialed Islamic terrorists continue to release footage of men being beheaded or skinned alive over the internet at a prodigious rate so that it’s just stopped being news now; an era when putting out a sex tape is no longer the positive career boost that it used to be for aspiring starlets but only because it ‘s very rapidly become passe and not because of any censorious moral backlash, and a former adolescent idol like Miley Cyrus can make the transition to a voracious cunt fingering sex kitten in the blink of an eye and have run out of shocking things to do outside of a drug overdose in a matter of months. Even Hollywood movies have finally started to treat female sexuality and homosexuality in an unabashed and upfront way that would have been pretty much impossible even ten years ago.

It’s obvious that if popular music is still to approach anything like the world-rattling levels of artistic and cultural relevance that it managed to sustain over the course of four whole decades  —  and which it held on to until very recently — then there can be no complacency. I mean, it’s not like our best musicians and artists/aesthetes can just sit back and voyeuristically take stock of the new social developments, this new uber-sexualized zeitgeist or blandly participate in proceedings the same way any other civilian would — they absolutely need to be at the swollen and tumescent vanguard of this thing and offering themselves up as vessels of higher knowledge — you remember what Blake said about the road of excess, right? Because otherwise popular music, rock and roll, or whatever you want to call it risks becoming as obsolete and irrelevant in what were formerly its most forward thinking and creative manifestations (the heirs of David Bowie, Nick Cave,the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, etc) as poetry and modern art have become for most people, both of which are now the reserves of small, mutually back-slapping cliques and over privileged wankers. And yes if that were to transpire then it would be profoundly ironic given that the influence of popular music from rock and roll to disco, punk and hip hop has been instrumental in helping us to get to where we are now in terms of our current cultural broadmindedness and levels of tolerance. But like I said resting on laurels is no kind of option here: look at how rapidly Jazz went out of fashion back in the day after having made almost as deep an impact on 20th century occidental cultural mores as rock or pop did a generation later (why do you think they called it the Jazz age?), and it’s never ever managed to claw its way back again.

Why I Love Ariel Pink

Nowadays we live in a kitsch-worshipping culture that wholeheartedly embraces the aesthetic of the Charity store/thrift shop and not just because of the whole nostalgia thing, the fact that everything comes across as so obviously second hand, but also because of the low-price/thrift aspect: the cheapening of music, film, TV as economic commodities that inevitably followed on from the success of online file-sharing in the late 90s. Music has arguably become too easily available, too accessible, not to have been drained of a good deal of its former mystique, and to be regarded as far more disposable than ever it was in the age of vinyl, the cassette or even the CD. And one effective aesthetic strategy for acknowledging this next stage in our collective relationship with popular music, in which we’re all forced into confronting the fact of its essential transience, is to hark back to the kind of throwaway trashy music we all  used to think was “worthless”, that seemed to have its own version of “in built obsolence” written into its DNA, things like jingles, or daft europop, the kind of cheesy pop/guilty pleasures type stuff that serious rock fans would sneer at once upon a time, but then afterwards pretended to like, as long as it was understood they were doing so ironically.


Coming back to the ostensible subject of this long rambling article, or rather to the core inspiration behind it all: yes I got that all that, all the preceeding, from listening to two or three Ariel Pink records — pom pom in particular — after years and years of the latest hyped up records passing me by and leaving me cold. It’s via Pink that I came to understand how it is that an artist can create music that sounds vital and cutting edge even today, as part of a music scene that I had all but written off. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the man can write a cracking fucking tune.

Look, the age of the outsider musician is not over, the wellspring of creativity hasn’t dried up even if they’ve co-opted much of what once considered edgy and outre and sanitized it to fuck; but it needs a singular talent, because although the age of the outsider musician is  not yet over, artistically speaking there’s very little low lying fruit left, and only the equivalent of a Bowie or a Beefheart will do. Ariel Pink may well be that man.

I left a message on my facebook page this morning saying that the main reason I was pro-choice was because I knew plenty of people who it would have been better for the world had they been aborted at birth. As usual like everything I write on facebook or twitter it went totally ignored — I don’t even know why I bother — but this nasty little quip had its basis in the very real anger I felt as a result of contemplating the actions of the happily now-departed former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and from thinking about sociopaths in general. If you’ve ever dealt with a sociopath in real life you know just how psychically draining they can be and how personally debilitating it can be to deal with them day after day.

Throughout human history however there have been certain roles or professions or whole societies in which only those of a geniunely sociopathic disposition were able to prosper — or at least those who, if not quite “innately” sociopathic, were at least able to expunge all traces of humanity or compassion from their souls; something it’s much easier to do if you hadn’t any in the first place. Maybe in Macchiavelli’s time, say, you might have been able to make a good case that being somewhat of a sociopath gave you a strong edge and enabled you to be a more effective leader: that it gave you a firm psychic foundation from which to navigate the chaotic and unpredictable nature of those times.

What gets me is that nowadays, in today’s modern and “enlightened” society, the sociopaths have started once again to become almost like role models: indeed, rather than being shunned and stigmatised, more and more of these bona fide sociopaths are achieving notable successes and at the highest levels. I’ve noticed that as people are starting to get just that little bit more desperate with the inevitable unravelling of this global financial crisis, and consequently begin to face greater levels of uncertainty about the future, they’ve also started gravitate towards or cultivate the acquaintance of the sociopaths and the pathologically selfish, whether it’s in the work place or in personal relationships. Somehow those who are purely guided by self-interest and have complete disregard for all others are seen as far better placed to survive the coming catastrophe. Maybe they are.


I along with a great number of other British people, and probably the vast majority of Scots, have been celebrating the timely death — although to be honest it could have come a lot sooner — of that vile satanic hag Margaret Thatcher. Having been born in 1981 I lived out the first decade or so of my life under the shadow of her government’s utterly destructive policies, in Glasgow a place where she was always particularly despised, so that personally speaking today has been quite a memorable and happy one. It’s hard to over emphasise the extent to which Thatcher “the milk snatcher” represented English Tory viciousness and intransigence, the extne to which she became a figure of hate north of the border.

For me, as for so many others, she encapsulated so much of what went wrong with modern Britain, by laying the foundations for what would become Blairism, the triumph of Casino Capitalism and Zombie Banker — and giving us David Cameron and Gideon Osborne, both of whom are eagerly helping to compete the work of desolation she so successfully initiated.

Thatcher stood for greed and the sort of individualism that consistently put immediate selfish interests ahead of long or even medium term planning and investment. With her it was always about the triumph of the quick buck. She was against society — indeed, she famously said that there was no such thing — she was against the rights of the worker, and in fact anything that stood in the way of corporate profit . Thatcher wreaked terrible havoc over vast stretches of Britain: all over Scotland and the North of England: she might be dead but the catastrophic after effects of her policies will live on for generations.

There are some who reckon her a great female role model, in that she achieved so much in spite of all the many obstacles that stood in her way as a woman. Thatcher did indeed show great skill and fortitude in making it all the way to the top and in many ways she was a pioneer, not least in the fact that she was Britain’s first female Premier. But she was also absolutely ruthless and her whole political career was based on exploiting the worst aspects of human nature — and this should never be forgotten.