Friday, 22 September 2017

Dead Poets Society #51

The Message by Jacques Prévert  

The door that someone opened
The door that someone closed
The chair on which someone sat down
The cat that someone petted
The fruit that someone bit into
The letter that someone read
The chair that someone tipped over
The door that someone opened
The road where someone is still running
The woods that someone crossed running
The river in which someone jumped
The hospital where someone died.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Joan Osborne does Bob Dylan...

Joan Osborne's album is out Sept. 1

Joan Osborne boldly takes on 'Songs of Bob Dylan'

Bob Doerschuk
30 August 2017

Unlike almost everything in today’s popular music and in the great standards of years past, the songs of Bob Dylan can be savored in multiple ways. The finest among them are elusive and accessible, puzzling and informative, all at the same time.

None of this intimidates Joan Osborne. In fact, that’s why she dedicates her new album entirely to his works. More than a tribute to his legacy, Songs Of Bob Dylan, releasing Sept. 1, also captures Osborne at her best as a vocal interpreter. Much of this stems from the insight she’s gained into his intentions as a writer.

“One of the great lessons of Dylan’s writing is that his songs are obviously about something or someone very specific to him,” says Osborne, 55. “And yet he uses this poetic language that allows it to be about many other things. This makes them all the more powerful because you want the listener, even more than the singer, to take in that story in a way that means something to them.”

This repertoire has fascinated Osborne since her earliest years. She drew from it onstage in Greenwich Village nightclubs and bars after moving east from her home state of Kentucky. As her reputation spread nationally in the wake of her hit single One of Us, Dylan himself took note. And in 1998, he sent her an unexpected invitation to join him on a duet version of his elegiac Chimes Of Freedom, to be featured on the 1999 NBC mini-series The ‘60s.

“We recorded on the same microphone,” she recalls. “My face was literally inches from his face. We did Chimes Of Freedom three times. Each one was very different from the others. Because Dylan has this very restless intelligence, he can change his approach very quickly from one moment to the next. So I had to really lock onto his phrasing and basically stare at his lips so that I could match what he was doing with my harmony. It was actually a positive thing for me because I had to concentrate fully, so I didn’t have any mental energy left over to be like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m on the microphone with Bob Dylan!’”

The decision to tackle this project stems from Osborne’s two-week residencies in 2016 and 2017 at New York’s Cafe Carlyle, each one featuring Dylan’s songs exclusively. For those engagements, she fashioned many of them into personal statements that honored his spontaneity as well as his writing. Many of these turn up on Songs Of Bob Dylan, including Rainy Day Women #12 & #35 transformed into dreamy shuffle and Ring Them Bells as a cascade of piano chords, tumbling like a carillon sounding the hour.

Just one track, Masters Of War, pushed Osborne to focus on the literal rather than figurative qualities of the lyric. There’s nothing obscure about its scorn for war profiteers, a message that was well understood in the 1960s and relevant to current events as well.

“The thing that connected with me is the line in the first verse: ‘I want you to know I can see through your mask,’ ” she says. “That’s very direct, this concept of speaking truth to power, not just saying it in a general way but addressing it directly to a person. As a mother, the verse about fearing to bring children in the world also resonates with me. This is a frightening time to be alive. And it’s this kind of moment when our great artists and poets are most needed. We need songs like this more than ever to crystallize our passion and to express what we’re feeling.”

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Our man (and woman) in Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik by cable car (taken just before they were arrested for spying)

Lunch at the harbour

Monday, 18 September 2017

Harry Dean Stanton RIP

Image result for harry dean stanton alien

Harry Dean Stanton obituary
The long-time David Lynch collaborator left a legacy of quintessentially American roles that spanned decades and won him an army of admirers

Ronald Bergan
The Guardian
Saturday 16 September 2017

Harry Dean Stanton, who has died aged 91, was a vintage performer, only reaching his full potential in his late 50s.

Billed as Dean Stanton throughout the 1950s and 60s, the narrow-faced, weather-beaten actor with the hangdog expression was probably the busiest actor of his generation. His distinctive features and style proved a godsend for casting directors in search of conmen, misfits, sleazeballs, losers and eccentrics.

In the first half of his career, Stanton made scores of television appearances, mainly westerns, and dozens of films, mostly in brief roles. His face but not his name gained recognition.

That is until he came into more focus in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) as a downtrodden engineer on the doomed spaceship. Then, in 1984, greatness was thrust upon him when he was given two of his rare leading roles, in Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, which were, understandably, his own favourites. A few years later, he was celebrated by Debbie Harry in the 1989 Blondie hit I Want That Man.

Stanton was born in a small town in Kentucky, where his father, Sheridan Harry Stanton, was a tobacco farmer and barber, and his mother, Ersel, a hairdresser and cook. After leaving high school in 1944, he served in the US navy in the second world war, during which he saw action in Okinawa. He then returned to study journalism and radio at the University of Kentucky, where he became seriously interested in acting after playing Alfred Doolittle in a college production of Pygmalion.

He dropped out of university and headed for California and the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, where he acted alongside Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. Four years later, Stanton, who was also an excellent singer, and played the harmonica, bass and guitar, toured the country with The American Male Chorus. In Cool Hand Luke (1967), Stanton got to sing Just a Closer Walk With Me, accompanying himself on the guitar. He also taught Paul Newman the song he sings, I Don’t Care if it Rains or Freezes, Long as I Got My Plastic Jesus.

After touring with the chorus and working in children’s theatre, Stanton headed back to California where he began to get work in films and TV. One of his earliest features was the western The Proud Rebel (1958), in which he played the first of many villains, in this instance, framing Alan Ladd for starting a brawl.

For most of the 60s, Stanton was a regular in TV horse operas like Laramie, Have Gun, Will Travel, Bonanza and Rawhide. In the cinema, he was noticed as an evil outlaw with an eyepatch in Monte Hellman’s cultish low-budget western Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), written and starring Jack Nicholson. (Stanton was best man at Nicholson’s marriage in 1962, and the pair lived together in Laurel Canyon after Nicholson’s divorce in 1968.)

Stanton’s film career really took off in the 70s, with two more roles for Hellman – Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and The Cockfighter (1974) – and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Stanton recalled that during the latter, he became friends with Bob Dylan. “We hung out quite a bit during the shoot,” he said. “Drove together all the way from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Kansas City together. We jammed together quite a bit.” Stanton sang with Dylan and Joan Baez in the sprawling film Dylan directed, Renaldo and Clara (1978).

He played an FBI man in The Godfather II (1974), supported Marlon Brando and Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks (1976), and was convincing in Straight Time (1978) as an ex-con, bored with his middle-class existence, who, while lying beside his pool, asks Dustin Hoffman, planning a heist, to “Get me out of here!”.

In 1979 came Alien and John Huston’s Wise Blood, with Stanton excellent as a fraudulent blind preacher in the latter. Stanton then proved his versatility in three comedies: as the smooth-talking recruiting sergeant in Private Benjamin (1980), who gets Goldie Hawn to sign up to the “new” army; as the pathetic chain-smoking dognapping vet in The Black Marble (1980), and announcing that “there are over 100 bodily fluids and I have tasted each and every one of them”, as a medic in Young Doctors in Love (1982).

Stanton’s off-kilter performance in Repo Man, passing on his philosophy of life to his protégé (Emilio Estevez), perfectly gelled with the sensibilities of the tale involving punk-rockers and creatures from another planet. In Paris, Texas, in a role written for him by Sam Shepard, he is first seen walking alone in the Texan desert and does not speak for the opening 20 minutes. Stanton’s attraction to eastern philosophy and spirituality may have helped his still, eloquent performance, brilliantly evoking an outsider, a voyeur of life. “I can’t relate to the Judaic-Christian concept at all,” he once claimed. “It’s a fascistic concept. All fear-based. All about there being a boss. Someone in charge. A creator.”

Stanton continued to reveal his more tender side with several gentle performances such as the guardian angel in One Magic Christmas (1985), as Molly Ringwald’s burnt-out father in Pretty in Pink (1986), and as a sweet-natured, but ill-fated, private investigator – “so clever he could find an honest man in Washington” – in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). Also for Lynch, he made a touching cameo appearance in A Straight Story (1999) and in the cryptic Inland Empire (2006), he makes the most of his short role as Jeremy Irons’s debauched and broke assistant.

Television offered him the chance to return to his villainous ways as a satanic church leader of a polygamous group in 39 episodes of Big Love (2006-2010). On the whole, the quality of his films declined, but Stanton could always be relied upon to hold audience’s attention, paradoxically, with his understated portrayals. “Usually, I just play myself,” Stanton explained. “Whatever psychological traumas or conflicts I’m going through at the time I try to put into the role. Sometimes it’s quite a feat to pull off, but sometimes it works.” His final film, Lucky, directed by John Carroll Lynch, is due for release at the end of September.

Apart from his busy film schedule, Stanton had a parallel career as a musician, on guitar and singing in The Harry Dean Stanton Band, which played their own mixture of mariachi and jazz. He lived alone in a house on LA’s Mulholland Drive, where his doormat read, “Welcome UFOs”. In 1996, he happened to be home when burglars struck, tied him up and pistol-whipped him before stealing some expensive electronics and taking off in his car. But they were soon apprehended after the car was traced by a tracking device. Stanton suffered only minor injuries. He rarely talked publicly about his private life but, though he never married, he once said he had “one or two children”.

Harry Dean Stanton, actor; born 14 July 1926; died 15 September 2017

Saturday, 16 September 2017

A Friday Night Boy in Croatia...

Dubrovnik by bus

Roman Ibramovich's superyacht moored in front of the hotel in Cavtat

Friday, 15 September 2017

Dead Poets Society #50

Image result for kenneth h. ashley poet
Out of Work by Kenneth H. Ashley

Alone at the shut of day was I,
With a star or two in a frost-clear sky,
And the byre smell in the air.

I'd tramped the length and breadth o' the fen;
But never a farmer wanted men;
Naught doing anywhere.

A great calm moon rose back o' the mill,
And I told myself it was God's will
Who went hungry and who went fed.

I tried to whistle, I tried to be brave;
But the new ploughed fields smelt dank as the grave;
And I wished I were dead.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Bob Dylan: Trouble No More at The New York Film Festival

Trouble No More is due to screen during this year's New York Film Festival

Bob Dylan’s new concert film documents his “born again” era

Michael Bonner
29 August 2017

Variety reports that the film Trouble No More, is due to screen during the New York Film Festival.

The Festival has carried a break-down of the film, which is scheduled for Monday, October 2.

The film is directed by Jennifer Lebeau and runs just shy of an hour.

In connected news, Pitchfork notes that there’s a companion book coming, too:Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years – What Really Happened, and you can find some further info about that over on the book’s Amazon page.
Like every other episode in the life of Bob Dylan, the “born again” period that supposedly began with the release of Slow Train Coming (1979) and supposedly ended with Shot of Love(1981) has been endlessly scrutinized in the press. Less attention has been paid to the magnificent music he made. This very special film consists of truly electrifying video footage, much of it thought to have been lost for years and all newly restored, shot at shows in Toronto and Buffalo on the last leg of the ’79-’80 tour (with an amazing band: Muscle Shoals veteran Spooner Oldham and Terry Young on keyboards, Little Feat’s Fred Tackett on guitar, Tim Drummond on bass, the legendary Jim Keltner on drums and Clydie King, Gwen Evans, Mona Lisa Young, Regina McCrary and Mary Elizabeth Bridges on vocals) interspersed with sermons written by Luc Sante and beautifully delivered by Michael Shannon. More than just a record of some concerts, Trouble No More is a total experience.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Laurel and Hardy memorabilia for auction in Newcastle

Image result for laurel and hardy
Laurel and Hardy comedy scripts go under the hammer in Newcastle
A Laurel and Hardy expert is putting 30 lots from his collection on the comedy duo up for auction in Newcastle

Tony Henderson
The Evening Chronicle
11 September 2017

A leading authority on comic genius Stan Laurel has chosen to sell part of his extensive collection on the performer on Tyneside – because of the star’s North East roots.

A. J Marriot has written seven books on Stan and his comedy partner Oliver Hardy and from 2002 until last year was editor of the Laurel and Hardy magazine.
Fred Wyrley-Birch from Anderson and Garland auctioneers in Newcastle with the Laurel and Hardy memorabilia

Stan, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, spent his formative years from age five to 15 living in Dockwray Square in North Shields, where his father managed the local theatre.
A photograph of Stan Laurel from the Marriot collection which is to be auctioned

As he gained worldwide fame, he maintained his connections with North Shields and corresponded with people in the area until his death in 1965.

Because of the links, Barnsley-based Mr Marriot has elected to sell 30 lots from his collection – expected to fetch a total of around £12,000 - on Tuesday at Newcastle auctioneers Anderson and Garland.

The sale includes original Laurel and Hardy comedy sketch scripts, including one for their only British TV appearance in 1953, which itself is estimated at £700 - £1,000.
Laurel and Hardy memorabilia at the auction

The scripts were written, typed and then overwritten by Stan Laurel.

One was performed on Laurel and Hardy’s US Tours, and the others on their three post-war tours of British variety theatres.

There are also files of signed photographs, film posters and a range of theatre programmes from Laurel and Hardy tours, including that for their show at the Newcastle Empire in 1952.
Stan and Ollie with staff at the Grand Hotel, Tynemouth 

After making his name in the United States, Stan Laurel visited North Shields in 1932 where he was given a civic reception.

Mr Marriot’s research shows that in his speech at the reception, Stan said: “I was not born in North Shields, but I feel that I just belong here. I am proud to be amongst you all.”

When he returned to Britain in 1947, he and Oliver Hardy visited Dockwray Square.

Mr Marriot wrote in his Laurel and Hardy “British Tours” book: “They were guests of the Mayor of Tynemouth Francis J. Mavin, who had them chauffeured to Dockwray Square. At his last attempt, in 1932, Stan had been unable to enjoy the visit in solitude owing to the mass of fans but, this time, having the whole week in which to chose his moment, found the square relatively empty.
A photograph of Stan Laurel from the Marriot collection 

“Hardy was to say that Laurel was so excited as he neared his home, ‘he almost jumped out of the car.’”

Mr Marriot’s books have sold in 40 countries and one will be the basis for a film next year.

He started researching for his first book. Laurel and Hardy – The British Tours in 1987, which took six years of fact-finding and the writing of 600 letters to people seeking information and first-hand memories.
The Stan Laurel Statue in North Shields

Other books followed, covering the duo’s US and European tours and Stan Laurel’s solo stage tours plus two volumes on Stan and Ollie’s Life and Times.

Mr Marriot said: “During my research I contacted hundreds of people who were part of the Laurel and Hardy story, plus gathering material from scores of library, newspapers, collectors, auctions and agencies.

“But now, after the fun of gathering the items from all four corners of the globe it is now time to let others have the fun of owning this personalised memorabilia.”

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Don Williams RIP

Image result for don williams
Don Williams, country music's 'Gentle Giant', dies at 78
The country star best known for his song I Believe In You and his laid-back demeanor died on Friday following a short illness at his home in Alabama

Guardian music and agencies
The Guardian
Saturday 9 September 2017 

Don Williams, the country singer and Nashville songwriter best known for his 1981 hit ballad I Believe in You, has died at home in Alabama aged 78.

On Friday his publicist confirmed Williams, who was known as “the Gentle Giant” because of his easygoing temperament, died after a short illness.

Williams had 17 No 1 hits in the US and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010, before he retired in 2016. Williams was known for his rich voice, gentle delivery and storytelling style. He toured sparingly, did few media interviews and spent much of his time on his farm west of Nashville.

His career started as a musician in Portland, a city he moved to from his native Texas, where he was born in 1939. He moved to Nashville in the late 60s and wrote songs for some of country’s biggest names, including “Cowboy” Jack Clement.

“It’s one of those blessings and curses kind of things,” Williams said in an interview with the Associated Press in 1994. “There’s very few things in my life that I’ve done that come anywhere close to making you feel exhilarated and humbled and fulfilled and challenged and all that, all at the same time.”

His hits included I Believe in You, Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good, You’re My Best Friend, Some Broken Hearts Never Mend, and Till the Rivers All Run Dry. Eric Clapton recorded his We’re More Than Friends and Pete Townshend redid his Til the Rivers All Run Dry.

“Don Williams offered calm, beauty, and a sense of wistful peace that is in short supply these days,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame in a statement on Friday. “His music will forever be a balm in troublesome times.”

He missed his induction into the hall of fame in 2010 because of bronchitis. His last studio album came out in 2014 and he was the subject of a tribute album this year that included performances of his hits by Lady Antebellum, Garth Brooks and Chris Stapleton.

A personal favourite:

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Mike Neville RIP

Mike with George House

Mike Neville - the legendary North East news anchorman - has died aged 80
Star TV news presenter left his mark on the North East with a smile and sense of humour

Ian Robson
The Evening Chronicle
6 September 2017

Mike Neville - one of the giants of broadcasting in the North East - has died.

The much-loved presenter, who always had a kind word for everyone, was a huge presence on and off the screen.

His witty banter was as much part of his personality as a professional anchorman with a theatrical touch.

Mike, who was 80, had been retired from television for 11 years but his name was still remembered with affection after stints at both ITV and the BBC .

His death will leave a huge hole in the North East.

Mike’s twin loves were journalism and repertory theatre - and he excelled at both.

He had a variety of jobs before settling on the career path that was to lead him to be a star.

After growing up in Willington Quay, North Tyneside , he recalled how his house with an outside loo, or netty, and said he was the last boy in his school to get long trousers.

His first job was at the Chamber of Trade where he was an office boy followed by a stint as a dogsbody at the Daily Mail in Newcastle.

He spent his two year’s National Service in Cyprus before returning to the North East in a full-time role at the Newcastle Playhouse.

Then came the event that was to change his life and propel him into a lifetime in front of the cameras.

Tyne Tees Television was launched in 1959 and Mike was there almost from the beginning as a continuity announcer and then a newsreader.

His tenure at Tyne Tees - at least the first one - was short and his talent led him to the BBC within a couple of years.

And that’s when things really took off.

He was to front Look North for 32 years when his smile and quick repartee was to earn him the love of the North East.

And he loved us back, refusing to move to London when he had the chance despite some success during occasional duties on the channel’s Nationwide programme, preferring to stay where he was born and raised.

But, despite all the adulation, it was not always a VIP lifestyle for Mike and his wife Pam who had met at a Blyth theatre.

“Pam and I were living in a flat at Cullercoats and I was taking home £25 a week and smoking Senior Service,” he told us once.

“If the public thought I was living it up they were mistaken.”
Mike Neville meets US President Jimmy Carter

During that interview Mike said he has often been asked to go back to Tyne Tees, where the pay was better, but he resisted at the time.

“I like the folk at the BBC and I’m happy here, “ he said. “There’s no bitchiness.

“Tyne Tees have asked me to go back a couple of times but money isn’t everything.

“The Beeb create a sort of two-way feeling of loyalty.”

Mike was known for his humour and, when a BBC official described him as “the most efficient piece of equipment at the BBC” he was quick to make a joke of it.

“I’m the only piece of equipment that isn’t allowed to go on well-oiled,” he quipped.

It was his sense of fun and his lifelong love of theatre that helped him with his collaboration with George House in the classic double-act.

Everyone of a certain age will remember the Larn Yersel’ Geordie broadcasts where, often with a glint in the eye, the pair mocked standard English and had fun speaking how real people in the region spoke.

It started as a one-off sketch on Look North inspired by humorist Scott Dobson but grew to include regular items, record and CD releases, and books.

Mike and George bigged up the North East and our dialect, telling tall tales about the region’s contribution to the world.

Amazingly, Mike was once accused of putting on a posh accent on the BBC.

As the fan letters rolled in - and Mike always tried to reply to them on a battered old typewriter - there was one which accused him of saying “Newcarstle” instead of Newcastle.

He took it in good spirits but did not let it affect his approach to his job.

Mike also told us what he would want his epitaph to be.

“He was a good laugh, wasn’t he,” he told us.

But he also said his greatest ambition was not to have an epitaph at all.

He also said he wished he hadn’t packed in acting for a television career but there is only so much someone can do in a busy life.

You guess, though, that he would have been just as successful if his career had taken a different route.

In 1990  Mike was given a MBE for services to broadcasting.

At about the same time the musician Jez Lowe wrote and recorded the song “Mike Neville Said It (So It Must Be True).

But life at the BBC was about to come to an end as Mike finally went back to Tyne Tees in 1996.

He had his own show with his name in it - North East Tonight With Mike Neville - and anyone who saw the programme would realise he still had what it takes.

This time his stint would last for ten years during which the programme won awards - including the World Service Medal in New York for “Best News Magazine Programme” - and Mike himself was given a “Unique Achievement” award from the Royal Television Society recognition of 40 years as a daily television presenter.

He decided to retire in 2006, a year after an operation to remove a blood clot from his leg, and spent his last years at his home in Whickham.

The Guardian covered his retirement questioning if it was the end of an era for regional television.

It is now.

As much a part of my television youth as Gerry Anderson!

It's probably difficult to appreciate just how many light years ahead Look North was compared with its creaking Tyne Tees counterpart at the time, but Neville and friends were more engaging and more professional (though sometimes in a rambunctious way).

When I went to university in or visited friends on the west coast and in Scotland, I couldn't believe how flat and stale their local BBC news/magazine programmes were compared to Look North - although I seem to remember Eric Idle succinctly nailing that kind of amateur night presentation on Rutland Weekend Television.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Dead Poets Society #49

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Bird's Eye View of the Tool and Die Co. by John Ashbery

For a long time I used to get up early.
20-30 vision, hemorrhoids intact, he checks into the
Enclosure of time familiarizing dreams
For better or worse. The edges rub off,
The slant gets lost. Whatever the villagers
Are celebrating with less conviction is
The less you. Index of own organ-music playing,
Machinations over the architecture (too
Light to make much of a dent) against meditated
Gang-wars, ice cream, loss, palm terrain.

Under and around the quick background
Surface is improvisation. The force of
Living hopelessly backward into a past of striped
Conversations. As long as none of them ends this side
Of the mirrored desert in terrorist chorales.
The finest car is as the simplest home off the coast
Of all small cliffs too short to be haze. You turn
To speak to someone beside the dock and the lighthouse
Shines like garnets. It has become a stricture.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Da Elderly: -
Out Of The Blue
Give Me Strength

Ron Elderly: -
Make You Feel My Love
The River

The Elderly Brothers: -
You Really Got A Hold On Me
Baby It's You
Mailman Bring Me No More Blues
You're Going To Lose That Girl
Every Little Thing
Walk Right Back
I Saw Her Standing There

The evening started quietly with players making up most of the audience, but things improved as the night wore on; we had an almost full bar for the final hour. A female duo wowed us with Nina Simone's Ain't Got No, I Got Life and KT Tunstall's Black Horse and The Cherry Tree. Nonagenarian Don sang Anthony Newley's What Kind Of Fool Am I? Yours truly introduced Neil Young's 1976 Give Me Strength which will finally be released this week. The Elderly's ended off the open mic with a bit of a Beatles-fest, both originals and covers. The one Everly Brothers hit resulted from a request to respect the band name! The after-show acoustic set followed on as usual with several players joining in for a fine jam session.

There will be no set lists posting next week as I shall be staying in the Toon, making last-minute preparations for the Men of the Tyne shows at The Customs House, South Shields on the Thursday (14 Sept). Tickets are still available at - there is a matinee performance at 2:30pm and the evening show is at 7:30pm. 

Songs from the show can be found on YouTube

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

John Ashbery RIP

John Ashbery obituary
One of the most influential American poets of his generation admired for his unorthodox use of language

Mark Ford
The Guardian
Monday 4 September 2017

John Ashbery, who has died aged 90, was widely considered the most innovative and influential American poet of his generation. The critic Harold Bloom, who played an important role in establishing Ashbery’s reputation in the mid-1970s, declared: “No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time.” Yet Ashbery’s work also frequently aroused controversy; his early volume The Tennis Court Oath (1962) was dismissed by one critic as “garbage”; and even after his 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer prize for poetry, the National Book Critics Circle award and the National Book award, catapulting him to stardom, he was not without doubters and detractors.

Ashbery’s highly distinctive style has been widely imitated, and his elusive but compelling poems explored in numerous critical books, academic articles and PhD theses (of which I wrote one myself). From his very earliest experiments, such as Some Trees and The Painter, both written when he was only 21, to his prolific later years, Ashbery’s work presents a restless, supremely sophisticated imagination meditating self-reflexively on experience, creating in the process a “flow chart”, to borrow the title of his longest work, of the vagaries of memory and the fluctuations of consciousness.

One of his most radical innovations was the fluidity with which he allowed pronouns to operate, a rhetorical habit best illustrated by his friend Kenneth Koch’s parody of a typical Ashbery line: “It wants to go to bed with us.” When asked to comment on this aspect of his work, Ashbery compared his pronouns to “variables in an equation”: “‘You’ can be myself or it can be another person, someone whom I’m addressing, and so can ‘he’ and ‘she’ and for that matter ‘we’.”

The indeterminacy that resulted allowed Ashbery’s poetry to capture the interactions of the many dictions that surround us with a new fullness and complexity; a poem such as Daffy Duck in Hollywood mixes up references to Disney cartoons, Paradise Lost, newspaper comic strips, the symbolist drama of Maeterlinck, new brutalism and Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula, in a dizzying, exhilarating melange.

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, son of Chester, a farmer, and his wife, Helen, a biology teacher. A younger brother, Richard, died in childhood of leukaemia. He described his father as prone to outbursts of violent temper, which made life on the fruit farm in upstate New York where he grew up feel like “living on the edge of a live volcano”. The happiest periods of his childhood were those he spent with his maternal grandparents in Rochester, and at their summer cottage in the lakeside town of Pultneyville.

He attended schools in Rochester and Sodus, but at the age of 16 was sent as a boarder to Deerfield academy, a private school in Massachusetts. There he began writing poetry in earnest, inspired principally by WH Auden and Octavio Paz. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, he majored in English, and was on the editorial board of its literary magazine the Advocate. During his time at Harvard he was introduced to Auden, who would select Ashbery’s first collection, Some Trees, for publication in the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series in 1956. He also met the poets Koch and Frank O’Hara; both would become lifelong friends and would be grouped with Ashbery, along with James Schuyler, as original members of what came to be known as the New York School.

Ashbery moved to New York in 1949, studying for an MA at Columbia University (awarded in 1951), and then working in publishing for four years. In 1955 he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to France; this took him initially to Montpellier, but he soon found himself spending much of his time in Paris, particularly after he met the Paris Match staff writer, and novelist and poet, Pierre Martory, with whom he began living, and to whom The Tennis Court Oath was dedicated.

It was while he was resident in Paris that Ashbery’s poetry took its most radical turn: he began experimenting with cut-up techniques to create disjunctive linguistic collages that defy paraphrase or explication: “The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness,” enigmatically opens Leaving the Atocha Station. Ashbery later questioned the effectiveness of some of these poems, but they would in time prove extremely influential on various poets associated with the movement known as Language Writing.

Ashbery earned his living in Paris by writing art reviews, mainly for the international edition of the New York Herald Tribune. In 1964 his father died, and he returned to the US to look after his mother. He took up the post of executive editor of ArtNews, and settled in New York. His third collection, Rivers and Mountains (1966), was nominated for the National Book award. Over half of this volume’s pages are occupied by The Skaters, the first of his many attempts at an extended Song of Myself-style poem; with its trailing, Whitmanesque lines, its goofy humour and its surrealist turns of phrase (“The day was gloves”), its expansive, self-conscious passages of meditation on its own coming-into-being, The Skaters established the essential template for the Ashberian long poem. It is, to my mind, one of his finest and most moving achievements.

Ashbery’s next five volumes propelled him from well-kept secret to, if not exactly household name, occupant of a pretty elevated pedestal in the pantheon of American poets. The age of Lowell gave way to the age of Ashbery. A reviewer of his fourth collection, The Double Dream of Spring (1970, the title is borrowed from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico), made even greater claims for him, suggesting that “the chances are very good that John Ashbery will come to dominate the last third of the century as Yeats dominated the first”.

Though in 1970 this must have struck many as far-fetched, by the end of the decade that saw the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Days (1977), the “tribe of John”, as his followers were dubbed, seemed everywhere. “Since the death of Robert Lowell,” observed Helen McNeil in a Times Literary Supplement review of As We Know (1979), “the title of most important American poet has been on offer to John Ashbery.”

In 1982, Ashbery suffered an almost fatal spinal infection that necessitated an 11-hour operation. His partner, and later husband, David Kermani, was informed that if Ashbery survived it, he would probably be quadriplegic. In fact, he made an almost complete recovery, and was soon busy again at his typewriter. In all, he published 28 collections of verse, and was the first living poet to have his work collected in the Library of America’s editions of classic American writers.

He was the recipient of numerous honours, awards and prizes, including two Guggenheim fellowships, a MacArthur fellowship, the chancellorship of the Academy of American Poets, the Robert Frost medal, the Feltrinelli prize, the International Griffin poetry prize, and a National Humanities medal, awarded by President Barack Obama in 2012. His work has been translated into dozens of languages. As well as poetry, he published a volume of art criticism (Reported Sightings, 1989), two volumes of literary criticism (Other Traditions, 2000, and Selected Prose, 2004), and numerous translations of French writers, collected in two volumes published in 2014.

From 1979 onwards, Ashbery divided his time between an apartment in Manhattan and an imposing 19th-century mansion in Hudson, New York state, that he purchased partly because it reminded him of the happy times he spent as a child in his grandparents’ house in Rochester. This housed paintings by such as Fairfield Porter and Joe Brainard, and collections of all sorts of Americana snapped up by the magpie-like poet. Gracious, witty, surprising, his conversation ranged from avant-garde composers to advertising jingles. He had an extraordinary memory for dates and events – and quotations, particularly from Ronald Firbank.

In 2014 I gave a reading with him in New York, at the 92nd St Y, and was touched almost to tears by the lines of people queuing to pay their respects to him afterwards. “John, your work has meant so much to me,” was the gist of what they had to say, though one or two went still further: “John, your poetry has changed my life.”

He is survived by David.

• John Lawrence Ashbery, poet, born 28 July 1927; died 3 September 2017

Monday, 4 September 2017

Walter Becker RIP

A post I wasn't looking forward to...

Walter Becker, Co-Founder of Steely Dan, Dies at 67

Jon Pareles
The New York Times
3 September 2017

Walter Becker, left, and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan in 2008 at a cancer benefit concert in New York.CreditEvan Agostini/Associated Press

Walter Becker, the guitarist and songwriter who made suavely subversive pop hits out of slippery jazz harmonies and verbal enigmas in Steely Dan, his partnership with Donald Fagen, died on Sunday. He was 67.

His death was announced on his official website, which gave no other details. He lived in Maui, Hawaii.

Mr. Becker was unable to perform with Steely Dan this summer at Classic West and Classic East in Los Angeles and New York City, two stadium-size festivals of 1970s bands. Last month, Mr. Fagen told Billboard, “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.”

As Steely Dan, Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen changed the vocabulary of pop in the 1970s with songs like “Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Peg.” Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen were close collaborators on every element of a song: words, music, arrangement. “We think very much the same musically. I can start songs and Walter can finish them,” Mr. Fagen said in a 1977 interview.

Steely Dan’s musical surfaces were sleek and understated, smooth enough to almost be mistaken for easy-listening pop, and polished through countless takes that earned Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen a daunting reputation as studio perfectionists.

Their songs were catchy and insinuating enough to infiltrate pop radio in the 1970s. “That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins,” Mr. Becker told Time Out New York in 2011. “Find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation.”

Steely Dan’s lyrics were far from straightforward, depicting cryptic situations and sketching characters like addicts, suicidal fugitives and dirty old men. “You can infer certain things about the lives of people who would write these songs. This we cannot and do not deny,” Mr. Becker deadpanned in an online interview with the BBC in 2000.

Meanwhile, the music used richly ambiguous harmonies rooted in Debussy, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, giving the songs a sophisticated core that would be widely influential across jazz and pop.

Although Steely Dan arrived as a full band on its 1972 debut album, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” it soon recast itself as the Becker-Fagen songwriting team, backed by select session musicians. In its 1970s hitmaking heyday, Steely Dan rarely toured, preferring to work in the studio.

Steely Dan — named after a dildo in the William Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch” — dissolved after its 1980 album, “Gaucho,” though Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen stayed in contact.

In 1993, Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen re-emerged as Steely Dan, leading a band that would tour frequently well into 2017. Steely Dan’s songwriting and recording process remained painstaking; it released only two more studio albums, “Two Against Nature” in 2000 (which won the Grammy as Album of the Year) and “Everything Must Go” in 2003. But unlike its 1970s incarnation, Steely Dan thrived onstage.

In a statement released Sunday, Mr. Fagen wrote that Mr. Becker “was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art.”

Walter Becker was born in Forest Hills, Queens, on Feb. 20, 1950, and studied saxophone and guitar in his teens. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

He met Mr. Fagen in 1967 when they were students at Bard College, a place they would sardonically recall in Steely Dan’s “My Old School.

“We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a moldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm,” Mr. Fagen wrote. With Mr. Fagen on keyboards and Mr. Becker on guitar or bass, they formed bands there and began to write songs together.

Once Mr. Fagen graduated in 1969, Mr. Becker dropped out and both moved to New York City, where they were noticed by Kenny Vance of the Top 40 band Jay and the Americans. They played in the touring band for Jay and the Americans and wrote the soundtrack for a 1971 Richard Pryor movie, “You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It.” The producer Gary Katz got them jobs as staff songwriters for ABC Records, and Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen moved to Los Angeles in 1971. Barbra Streisand recorded one of their songs, “I Mean to Shine.”

They assembled Steely Dan in Los Angeles with Mr. Fagen on keyboards and lead vocals, Mr. Becker on bass, Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums and a second vocalist, David Palmer. “Do It Again” from Steely Dan’s 1972 debut album, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” reached the Top 10.
Listen to Walter Becker

The group quickly recorded two more albums, “Countdown to Ecstasy” in 1973 and “Pretzel Logic” in 1974, which included its biggest Top 10 hit, “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.” In mid-1974, Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen decided that they no longer wanted to tour. “It seemed like the more complex the music we were playing, the less able we were to guarantee its consistency,” Mr. Becker recalled in a 1996 interview with The Toronto Star.

Steely Dan reached its pinnacle as a studio duo. Its lyrics took on ambitious themes: a stock-market crash in “Black Friday,” Puerto Rican immigration in “The Royal Scam,” the jazz life in “Deacon Blues.” And its music grew both more subtle and more magisterial, with intricate horn arrangements and pristine sound.

On its 1977 album, “Aja,” Steely Dan brought in celebrated jazz musicians including Wayne Shorter, who plays on the title track, along with studio musicians like the guitarist Larry Carlton, the drummer Steve Gadd and the keyboardist Victor Feldman. “Aja” became Steely Dan’s first certified million-seller in the United States and its best-selling album.

But the recording of its successor, “Gaucho,” was plagued by problems. Mr. Becker had become a heroin user. The master tape of an entire nearly finished song, “The Second Arrangement,” was accidentally erased. Early in 1980, Mr. Becker’s girlfriend died of a drug overdose in his apartment. Weeks later, Mr. Becker was hit by a taxi, fracturing his leg. “We were quantum criminals,” Mr. Becker told The Independent in 1994. “The car and I were attempting to occupy the same place at the same time.”

In 1981, Steely Dan quietly disbanded. According to Mr. Fagen’s statement, Mr. Becker’s “habits got the better of him by the end of the ’70s, and we lost touch for a while.” Mr. Becker moved to Maui, where he detoxed and became an avocado farmer.

In the second half of the 1980s he returned to music. He was a producer, and was credited as a band member, on “Flaunt the Imperfection” by the Scottish band China Crisis in 1985, and he went on to produce Rickie Lee Jones’s 1989 album, “Flying Cowboys.”

In 1991, Mr. Becker began sitting in with Mr. Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue. The duo also produced solo albums for each other: Mr. Fagen’s 1993 album, “Kamakiriad,” and Mr. Becker’s 1994 album, “11 Tracks of Whack” (which had 12 tracks). And in 1993, Steely Dan decisively re-emerged as a touring band.

Songwriting and recording remained a painstaking process for Steely Dan; it didn’t release another studio album, “Two Against Nature,” until 2000, 20 years after “Gaucho.” But “Two Against Nature” sold a million copies in the United States and won the Grammy Award as Album of the Year; Steely Dan was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Its final album, “Everything Must Go,” was released in 2003; for the first time on a Steely Dan studio album, Mr. Becker sang lead vocals, on “Slang of Ages.” Mr. Becker released a second solo album, “Circus Money,” in 2008.

Steely Dan toured regularly until well into 2017, settling in for long residencies at places like the Beacon Theater in New York City and performing entire albums from its catalog.

The band that once shunned touring had grown to enjoy it. “We’ve been lucky,” Mr. Becker said in 2011. “We’ve stretched our audience’s indulgence and fondness for us to the point that it can still be fun for us.”

Donald Fagen pays tribute to Walter Becker

Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967. We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a mouldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm.

We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues.

Walter had a very rough childhood - I’ll spare you the details. Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art. He used to write letters (never meant to be sent) in my wife Libby’s singular voice that made the three of us collapse with laughter.

His habits got the best of him by the end of the seventies, and we lost touch for a while. In the eighties, when I was putting together the NY Rock and Soul Review with Libby, we hooked up again, revived the Steely Dan concept and developed another terrific band.

I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.

Donald Fagen
September 3 2017

For Walter
(posted by Donald and Libby Fagen)

a song by mark oliver everett

standing in the dark outside the house
breathing in the cold and sterile air
well i was thinking how it must feel
to see that little light
and watch it as it disappears
and fades into
and fades into the night

so i know you're going pretty soon
radiation sore throat got your tongue
magic markers tattoo you
and show it where to aim
and strangers break their promises
you won't feel any
you won't feel any pain

and the streets are jammed with cars
rockin' their horns
to race to the wire
of the unfinished line

thought that i'd forget all about the past
but it doesn't let me run too fast
and i just wanna stand outside
and know that this is right
and this is true
and i will not
fade into
fade into the night
standing here in the dark