Saturday, 20 July 2013

Whitstable - Stephen Volk (Spectral Press, 2013)

You like Peter Cushing, don't you?  Of course you do.  Only a fool wouldn't.  From Winston Smith in Orwell's '1984' in 1952 through Star Wars and Doctor Who, Hammer and Amicus, Shakespeare and Space 1999 there can't be many people in the western world who don't have a favourite Cushing role. By all accounts he was a lovely man too; a perfect gentleman of the old school, with impeccable manners and a never-ending fund of kindness.

Stephen Volk highlights every part of Cushing in this all too brief novella (all too brief because I could have read Volk's Cushing for another 100 pages with pleasure, not because the author misses anything out or leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied - far from it!).  The well known facts - that Cushing attempted suicide on the night of his wife's death by running up and down stairs in hopes of bringing on a heart attack - mix with the lesser known (to me at least) - that he invariably wore a single white glove when smoking, say, in order not to stain his fingers for film roles.

But it's not as a bare recital of quirks and idiosyncrasies that 'Whitstable' excels.  It's the way that every word uttered by Cushing resonates in the head in Cushing's voice, and feels completely right. It's not a cheery read - this, after all, is a faux memoir of the actor immediately after the death of his beloved Helen when, in his own words,
the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be reunited again some day. To join Helen is my only ambition
But it's not a depressing read either.  There's a plot in there too, a wholly fictional one I assume though the voice of Cushing is so spot-on that every action feels like something the man would have done in real life.  If the ending is just a smidgin too pat and convenient, well, what sort of celebration would it be which ended with Van Helsing defeated and the vampire triumphant?

As moving and intelligent a portrayal of a much loved actor as anyone could have hoped for, this is a book which anyone who loves Peter Cushing should read, in this the centenary of his birth.

Amazon: ISBN : 978-0957392724

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Great Albums 36: The Magnolia Electric Co (Songs: Ohia, 2003)
Should you ever (for perfectly valid reasons of your own, no doubt) have cause to enquire of friends and colleagues who the greatest recording star of the 1970s was, you should be aware that any answer which is not either 'David Bowie' or 'Neil Young' marks your friend or colleague (whichever it might be) as a fool, a drunk or - only marginally less appallingly - a punk rocker.   Certainly, any other reply brands the respondent as a man (or woman) of questionable taste, as much as if they had expressed a fondness for lamb chops over pork, or avocados over cherries (I missed breakfast this morning, so may be a little food obsessed right now).


I mention this because...well mainly because I am very tired right now, and more than a tiny bit jet-lagged and, as a result, am finding the direct approach more difficult than usual.  Circuitous is about the only path I can tread today, between us.  And because Neil Young turned rubbish virtually overnight as the seventies limped to a close (far more than Bowie who, truth be told, recorded great stuff throughout the 80s), which was a real shame.  Where he had been the only popular artist capable of bringing the house down in flames in the same set in which he sang the most melodic and poetic of ballads, Young wandered through the next few decades, trying his hand at most genre, but sounding a bit dull most of the time.

Now what's this to do with Songs:Ohia then (I'm pretty sure I hear you ask in boredom)?  They sound - on this album in particular - very like Young should have sounded, had he not embraced every passing fancy as the Next Big Thing and spend 30 years staggering from one ill conceived project to the next.

I say 'they' but it's not really a them, it's a 'him'.  Jason Molina had been recording albums for six years by the time this came out, gaining a lot of credit and acclaim and being compared most prominently to Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy.  I don't think that Molina sounds the same as Oldham though - there's hints of the lo-fi swampy, murky country/blues of Oldham's Palace Brothers releases on some Songs: Ohia tracks, but on this - the LP which should have been Molina's breakthrough - he sounds much more like a Neil Young for the 21st century.

Every song on this album is exquisite, but the best way to listen to it is to pick up the US version, which contains a second disc of demos of each song (particularly interesting on 'Old Black Hen' and 'Peoria Lunch Box Blues', which feature guest lead vocals on the album proper).  I did that last week driving across Texas and Oklahoma, listening to first the demos then the final versions as the countryside rolled by.  We crossed the Red River just as Molina began to sing 'Hold on Magnolia' and it was a prefect American moment for me.

I seem to have spent more time wittering nonsense at the start of this than actually talking about the album but, like I said, jet lag and tiredness and all that.

Just to be completely perverse, here's the Scout Niblett version of 'Peoria River Blues' - it is lovely, isn't it?