Saturday, 29 June 2013

Jason Isbell - Southeastern

Memorable Landscape

Probably the best album so far of 2013, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern easily compares with obvious other singer/songwriters like Ryan Adams, and you can hear Springsteen and Arlo Guthrie in some songs – just naming company I think this album can keep over time as well.

It is uncomplicated – the songs are beautifully written and performed, all quite simple melodically but with nuances in where a line will go and with the clever but understated arrangements. They are lyrically rich too, storytelling that demands a listen. Two songs illustrate the range, though the acoustic first reflects the norm, Elephant, which is a candid and poignant account of drinking in a bar with a woman dying of cancer, and it is a beautiful song which in this context is hauntingly pretty and emotive. Then there’s the outright rocker Super 8, a foot-stomper, so that’s enough said there.

I had a listen today whilst out walking. Every single song resonated and when that happens, you are closed in and occupy that musical landscape. I didn’t get lost, but I so enjoyed where I had been.

Crushed Stetson - Encore

My preceding post was written in the early hours of this morning, thoughts I felt compelled to write and reflecting one pole of my urge to write for this blog.

Not seeming that much later, I was outside early at just after 8am marking further exam papers in the precious sunshine this summer when I almost immediately came across the following. Considering my views expressed on student responses to Slim’s ‘crushed stetson’, you will see in a moment what a salutatory and chastening experience it was to read – quite clearly a genuinely personal interpretation, perhaps prompted by the general notion I had characterised in my post – but fresh and exploratory and convincing. From other writing in this student’s overall response I can tell she/he is not particularly academic, but she/he is certainly thoughtful and intuitive. This is what I love about this paper and these responses.

Before I present it I will state that such work is confidential and thus I am not naming the individual or the school or indeed the exam Board and thus I feel it is apt to offer as illustration, especially as a celebration:

The image that his ‘stetson hat’ was ‘crushed under his arm’ later on ‘smoothed’ out with his ‘gentle’ hands shows he is capable to renew things, the idea on the hat being under his arm creased and crushed yet with the touch of his ‘large and lean’ hands restored right back to normal sets an image that the other workers are the Stetson hat: ‘crushed’ with no enthusiasm, real men worn down by the great depression that was upon them in the 1930s, however Slim took them and protected them which is the image I thought of as the hat was ‘under his arm’, finally once Slim offered a help in ‘hand’ the men became refreshed and restored and inspired to carry on, such as the hat that Slim recovered with his hands.


Crushed Stetson – Explanation, and Moderate Diatribe

Not exactly crushed, but a little worn and dirty.....

At the time of writing, 13 people would appear to have read my posted poem Crushed Stetson, though this number refers to ‘page views’ so I am not entirely sure it means that number have read the poem, or indeed read the poem with any interest, intended or otherwise. I know two friends have read the poem as they have commented to me directly, which is appreciated.

I know the poem is probably impenetrable to most if not all. This recognition is in itself interesting, I would have thought, because it begs the question about the motivation for writing. Without exploring that too much, I will say that I never intend to be obscure and am not a huge fan of poetry, or the writing of it, which has that as a purpose. I have no problem with writing work that requires thought and working at. As a reader I can be quite content with the sound of and/or the implications in a poem without ever ‘understanding’ it, therefore writing similar is not a problem.

That said, I’m writing this to explain a little further what this poem does mean, for anyone interested, and also – as it has a relevance – because it is another break from my exam marking. This ‘relevance’ is the fact that the poem is about exam responses, in this case GCSE English Literature responses, a paper I am currently assessing.

The context for the poem is crucial: having been an examiner of GCSE English Literature for over 25 years, I have considerable experience. Every year, without fail, I am overwhelmingly impressed with the understanding and expression of this written in exam responses by 16 year olds. This year has been no different. When I expressed a similar feeling last year, or the year before, one reader of the blog, who was also clearly a Daily Mail reader, challenged my view of this consistent quality, but that person was quite simply wrong.

I stress this context because the poem Crushed Stetson is critical of some student responses. It is critical of those alternative but ultimately wayward interpretations one reads, sometimes occasionally, and sometimes quite often because that particular interpretation has been taught by a well-meaning though misguided, or just misguided teacher [so you can get a similar whole school response]. Such interpretations can also get posted on the web either as general revision advice or more specific individual views which get accessed, and then regurgitated by countless students. One such example from the past, though I forget the actual details as it happened many years ago, was large numbers of students knowingly aping the reference to a type of metrical line in a particular poem, a named metrical line that didn’t exist.

One other contextual feature I want to stress before the explanation, but which constitutes a ‘moderate diatribe’, is that I fully recognise the phenomenal coaching and training given by teachers to prepare students thoroughly for examination at this level. It is quite impressive. Students improve each year it seems to me in terms of being relevant and sustaining this, providing textual reference to support interpretation, genuinely engaging with and understanding quite complex ideas, and demonstrating independence in the articulation and exploration of this [the exam I assess is an H tier paper with a grade range of D to A* so the qualities I mention are obviously relative, but generally impressive - as I am outlining - relative to any point in that range]. However, with the education and examination target culture established over the past two decades, but exacerbated by more recent political strictures, that coaching and training can take on a demonstrative inclination fashioned by the fear and paranoia of failure generated by that target culture. This clearly isn’t the cause of a taught nonsensical interpretation, but I think it can on the one hand fuel the search for ever-increasing alternatives [as familiar texts are taught and examined year on year], and on the other, encourage over-zealous adherence from students to these interpretations, whatever the cause of their existence.

I think it is now time to use references to lines from my poem to further illustrate my concerns. But please [anyone who is still reading this far in!] do not forget the positive context of my overall view on student responses. The criticism I am about to illustrate gains its impetus from wanting to oust what is being criticised from that positive whole.

The title Crushed Stetson refers to the hat carried by Slim in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. In a current exam contextual question, students are asked to respond to Steinbeck’s presentation of Slim. In the extract, Slim is carrying his work hat and it has been crushed, probably by the carrying but also because it is a work hat and he works hard and he’s worked hard with this hat for many years. But for many students, taught this by their teacher, this hat is a metaphor for the ‘crushed’ dreams which are a theme of the novella, and there is no denying that the book’s major theme is the futility of the American Dream. I wouldn’t penalise a student at all for thinking this is what the hat represents [and such penalising isn’t in the spirit of the assessment objectives] but I still think the hat is crushed because Steinbeck visualised, from experience, that’s what a hat would be like when a jerkline skinner wears it every day and then takes it off, still crushed, to carry it. Maybe one of the mules stood on it one day. And then another.

In Of Mice and Men some characters are introduced standing in doorways and as they do they cut off the light behind them and this can, and probably does, represent the blocking of people achieving their dreams. In An Inspector Calls, at the end of the play there is the absolutely conventional stage direction ‘the curtain falls’ which signals the end of the play, in this case having a significant dramatic effect and importance, but nonetheless it is simply the end of the play. For quite a number of students this year, taught so by their teachers, it represents the French guillotine and the cutting off of the heads of the bourgeoisie. In my poem, ‘red flows’ is the imagined blood from these imaginary severed heads, and the ‘lust is layered’ refers back to OM&M where Curley’s Wife is introduced to the reader in varying descriptions of wearing red which symbolises feminine lust and danger [quite a conventional and accurate interpretation, for that time]. The ‘cherry ink’ is my red pen assessing this mix of familiar and unfamiliar and plausible and probably quite unlikely interpretations. Making sense now?

In OM&M, Slim combs his wet hair and it’s probably because it needs combing after being washed clean, but....... The ‘walking and talking’ refers to exactly what it states but for some students taught by teachers who somehow have further corrupted what the literacy strategy [see previous diatribes] corrupted of its own volition, these words are not words but language constructs with grammatical labels that mean much more than what the words themselves quite simply mean, and what the author intended.  And if I read another explanation of how an author uses a ‘list of three’ for the precise purpose of its precise tripling effect I will have to write another obscure poem trying to embrace my anger over this but doing so in what I hope is an appropriate figurative frame [though mentioning ‘frame’ itself smacks of literacy vernacular] that has a sound and feel that shapes genuine meaning.

The ‘fog and fear’ refers to one student’s analysis of an extract from Susan Hill’s Woman in Black where the student’s linguistic analysis of the pathetic fallacy used fails to mention the critical fact that what is being described is ‘fog’! It is the consequence of a teaching and learning that cannot distinguish between woods and trees.

The final paradox is, of course, that students deserve to be taught about figurative intentions and meanings in writing. The concept of Metaphor should for me be at the heart of the entire school curriculum. And I understand only too well the dilemma I have placed in the final three lines of my poem about how teachers must teach but also allow students freedom to learn for themselves. I do think there are a few bonkers teachers out there, and pseudo-teachers who post on the web – always has and always will be – but I also think the target culture mentioned and some aspects of language analysis born out of an erroneous notion of the ‘science’ of English teaching play the largest part in this relatively rare [don’t forget the context] but increasing and annoying development in responses I read.

And my poem says this in 14 lines.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Crosby, Stills & Nash - Bristol, 17th October, 2013

Whilst I've never been to Glastonbury, I have slept under the stars and under sheets of plastic in torrential rain, and this is long before port-a-loos and fine cuisine and wifi/4G were on a festival site - I actually don't recall eating in my Festival days - so here's another sit-down inside concert I am attending in lieu of going alfresco.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Roy Harper - Bristol, 27th October, 2013

OK, I haven't got to Glastonbury, but I do have my ticket for Roy at Bristol, and that's going to be special. Never seen the great man live before.

Sufjan Stevens - Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel The Illinoise


Here’s another quick post, an insert whilst I continue my exam marking. I do often listen to music whist marking, able to both hear and concentrate without any problem, indeed finding the process quite relaxing.

Most recently I have been revisiting Sufjan Stevens, firstly Seven Swans and then yesterday evening Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel The Illinoise. The man has some musical genius about him, producing complex sounds to deliver complex or at least expansive conceptual ideas. Those sounds are so often beautifully harmonised and either as quite conventional acoustic folk or more contemporary electronica. For those who read about my musical preferences here, I lean to the former.

This latter album is Stevens’ second commitment to allegedly record an album for all fifty American States, his first about Michigan, though he has since admitted that this was a ruse. Suffice to say, this is excellent. I tend to respond to the beautiful sound, rather than the lyrics, though there is one clear exception which is the song about the Illinois serial killer John Wayne Gracy, Jnr. The lyrics are quite haunting:
John Wayne Gacy, Jr
His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took off all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

However, what heightens the horror of this reality and this storytelling is the absolute beauty of the song itself. It is one of the most gorgeous melodies I know, and the tension generated from this paradoxical marriage of such prettiness with such painfulness is genuinely affecting. Do have a listen. The euphemisms used in the narrative have their figurative impact accentuated to the most poignant degrees by this juxtaposition of beauty/beast. This is heightened further when the closing lines convert the narrative from third to first person suggesting, as Stevens himself has declared, that we all have the potential for such evil. Not an original concept, but memorably realised on this one song.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Crushed Stetson

Doorways are portals to dreams, but when they close
cut like a guillotine. Red flows, and lust is layered on
the floor as a metaphor – and this cherry ink too
chastises or caresses. There is too much love of these
imaginings, how the combing of wet hair is an
ablution for the ridding of sins, or grooming for an
illicit affair. Someone is walking and talking but they are
really the litotes in a semantic field of verbs, now as
past participles of secret authorial meanings rather than
words. There are times when we need to see beyond that
single sketched line of the hill, see the other landscapes
that hide within the fog and fear, but eyes are for opening
not drawing on.  In a room where someone is preaching
better lessons are taught and learnt when chanced upon.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Willis Jackson - Nothing Butt....

Seriously, But What A Cover....

A little bit lounge, Jackson's playing is about as languid as laying around all day on a long day. Title track Nothing Butt is a little more pert than the rest, even marginally cheeky compared with those others. Penultimate Autumn Leaves has a sax drawl that amazes in its soporific ease.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Favourite Food

In lieu of music review postings [for those who follow I am in summer exam marking mode], and because I have just emailed to a friend for fun, I am filling a gap by posting pictures of three of my favourite American culinary delights, fashioned by these very own hands: 1. Chilli Dog; 2. Jucy Lucy; 3. SOS [Shit On Shingle] -

Music may well be the food of love, but the love of food is this rough stuff!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Eagles, Desperado - 1973 - Top Fifty

Pretty Is As Pretty Was

I’m working my way through the fascinating Eagles documentary History of the Eagles, The Story of an American Band shown recently on the BBC. I’ve just watched the section where it features the recording of their second album Desperado, and this is the album that introduced me to the band, having pretty much missed their first. It did then and does now appeal to everything I love about this country-harmony sound, a style Glen Frey in the documentary refers to disparagingly as ‘Beatles-Country’ as dictated [to a shared degree I think if the band is totally honest] by then producer Glyn Jones. The criticism is made because both Frey and Henley wanted a heavier sound, which they did move on to with their next On The Border where production duties were soon transferred to Bill Szymczyk [and the stylistic dichotomy between Bill and Glyn is an intriguing as well as mildly comic revelation in the programme].

Whilst interesting, these relatively minor schisms in style are meaningless in as much as I am a continuing fan of their oeuvre, but this second album is in my Top Fifty as both introduction to and exemplification of their beautiful harmonising and songwriting. The fact that JD Souther and Jackson Browne also still contribute to that songwriting on this album [well, on Doolin-Dalton] is significant, being a fan of their work too, as platitudinous as that statement and proclivity is. The point is I am with Glyn Jones on thinking this is the sound that defines the Eagles.

The ‘outlaw’ concept with album cover and other photos added an attractive if ultimately tenuous connection with notions of being alternative at the time, but I do recall playing the album over and over, as with their next two, for those glorious vocals. Pretty yes, but pretty damn fine then and now.