Monday, 30 June 2014

Frank: The Movie

I have no idea how anyone writes songs. I can extemporise instrumental music on the guitar, piano and recorder; I can write plays, have written poems and stories; I have a glimpse at what creative mathematics and philosophy are about; I take reasonable photographs and can put together a meal from whatever’s in the kitchen. But I have NO IDEA how Curt Cobain wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit.

None. Can’t fathom it. (I can pick up a guitar and "just play" something. Improvisation / extemporisation I can do: song-writing? Composing to order? Not a hope.)

The pianist in Frank could be me - except he can do social media better than I can’t at all, and gets to make hay with a girl who looks just like Maggie Gyllenhall. It has the funniest joke I’ve heard all year

“I play keyboards”
“Can you play C, F and G?”
“You’re in”

I rolled in the aisle.

Frank is sold as a comedy, and who knows it may even have been written and performed as one. But inside it is a portrayal of the creative process and people. The key scene, the one that tells you that Frank and his weird band are actually the real thing, is right at the end. (Spoiler alert). Robbed of his papier-mâché head, revealed as the grown-up version of the troubled child that he was, he walks into the dingy bar his band have a gig at - playing to four people who can’t hear them. Frank looks around and picks features of the room and starts to recite them, which turns into a kind of chorus, which the band pick up on and within three choruses are in full flight, at once backing and soloing over Frank’s song. And it’s good, for its genre. Jam and Lewis it ain’t, but if you’re into that stuff, you’ll know it’s good. (it’s not great, but it’s good.) It’s better than I could do.

And in the meantime, our narrator, who fell in with them by accident, promoted them through You Tube and Twitter, and fails to write a single worthwhile bar of music throughout the movie, leaves, having understood that he’s not a creative musician, but at best a guy who knows when to play C, F and G.

The process that the movie shows us is hermetic (the band don’t want to be a success, and two of them only speak French), obsessive (they take nearly a year to prepare an album that never gets released), and quirky (scenes of recording natural noises and other things). That’s one way of creating ideas and music, but it’s not the only one. At the other extreme is what the great jazz musicians did: play all the time, listen to other people when you’re not playing, and keep experimenting with changes. What happens if we do this, or that? What happens when I get three of the greatest improvising musicians in history in a church and give them some chords to work off? (Hint: Kind of Blue. We just didn’t know that Coltrane, Adderley and Evans were that good then.)

Frank suggests that creative people are odd if not actually weird, and that’s a common enough idea, but it’s an excuse. For the audience. Creativity takes knowledge, skill and application, the willingness to experiment and be wrong, and, of course, a lot of familiarity with what others are doing. It’s hard work and requires a certain amount of single-mindedness, or a lot of opportunities to experiment (as in “I thought I’d try putting prunes in the stew this time”). That’s not likely for people whose time fritters away on conference calls, meetings, making up slide decks, BS-ing in the pub, zoning out on the train and “dealing” with other peoples’ insecurities and neediness. But creative people spend more time futzing, going down blind alleys and pursuing impossible pet projects than anyone thinks.

One thing the movie is pretty darn clear about. It’s better to be the band playing doleful versions of cowboys songs in a nowhere bar than it is to be the people drinking at the bar. Or the piano player who brings the band-leader back to join them. And with that, I do not disagree.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Four Days in the Netherlands: A Walk Round Utrecht

Utrecht has a university, where Nobel Prizewinner Gerard t’Hooft is a professor, and a number of parks and canals which make a very pleasant circular walk to pass the middle of Sunday, stopping at the Louis Hartlooper Complex for lunch and returning via the town centre.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Four Days in the Netherlands: The Amsterdam-Rhine Canal

The Netherlands is about canals. These are not cute, narrow English canals with houseboats that used to carry a few tons of china clay, salt or pottery about the place. These are wide and deep and look more like rivers and very large specialised low cargo ships with big engines and the Captain’s 4x4 on the roof and a couple of hundred tons of something bulky, proceeding at a decent clip. These are serious industrial canals for a serious industrial economy.

The top two photographs are of the same freighter. That's how big those things are.

The canal is on the right of the train (going away from Amsterdam) until a few miles outside Utrecht when it turns south towards the Rhine. So that's a canal in the bottom photograph, not an actual river.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Four Days in the Netherlands: Amsterdam

Lunch at the Cafe American on the Liedesplein, then to the Art Unlimited postcard shop on the Liedestraat, just by the bridge over the Prinsengracht, and then I forgot to take pictures. Except the one with the girls in the window. Amsterdam manages to be at once in a time warp and up-to-date and I’m not quote sure how they do it. Possibly by not allowing anyone to build anything new in the Centruum at all. Next time, I’ll know what to look for.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Four Days In The Netherlands: Rijksmuseum

The first time we tried to visit the Rijksmuseum last year, soon after it reopened, the queues were up the stairs and along the block. We passed. This time I had to wait about five minutes to buy a ticket. (I remind my readers that the National and Tate Galleries are free.) There were people taking photographs of the paintings, but you already know what all the Vermeers look like, and the Nightwatch (Rembrandt), and the Meagre Company (Hals) and the Swan and all that other stuff. So I took pictures of anything but the paintings.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Four Days In The Netherlands: A Walk to Utrecht Station

This is what “a walk to the station” looks like on a Saturday morning in Utrecht. The station and its surrounding area are being re-built, and it’s not going to be a few years yet, so this doesn’t end as serenely Dutch as it starts. The flower market is there every Saturday, and the food market is there every day.

Two ordinary residential streets in that part of town: are you going to tell me architecture doesn't make a difference to how we feel? For some reason Die Bakkerswinkel is a girl-only bakery, but I always get cakes there for Sunday afternoon; that's a narrow canal on the right, and a chunk of the University of Utrecht on the left; the tower of Utrecht Cathederal; two shots of the flower market; the Dutch leave bicycles everywhere; three shots of the food market; building works visible from the station: the Netherlands really is made of sand; and yet more bicycles at Utrecht station.

Monday, 9 June 2014

May 2014 Review

Well that wasn’t the month I thought I would have. The bit where I went for the second rep on the bench at 90kgs and lost it, and had the bar bang against my hands (rather than my teeth, or chest, or nose) was not in any plans I made for the month. And it happened the first Sunday morning. By about 10:15 I was in the Soho walking centre, where there were three girls sitting as invisibly as they could because they needed a morning-after pill. The triage nurse pressed and wiggled my hands, and said that since everything was moving and I wasn’t screaming in pain when she pressed or moved anything, I hadn’t broken any bones. She put a loose dressing on it and I carried on with my day.

My fault. Stupidity. The one and only time I’ve been that stupid in many years of hefting weights. No excuses. What with the gym closing for refurbishment, it wasn’t until the second half of the month I could even think about lifting weights. When I tried to heft a 14kg dumbbell off the rack, the tendons in my left hand told me to stop the insanity now. I could only handle 9kg. I could handle 14kg last Sunday. I’m not even thinking about playing the guitar.

Sometime the next week my left hand looked like this…

… while my kitchen mid-month looked like this…

So what with a 60th birthday, damaged hands, and making breakfast in the back bedroom for a week (which was the most irritating thing), I was having an emotional month.

Before going out to the Netherlands, I had a pedicure (really!), a manicure and a trip to the dental hygienist at The Gentle Dentist, where they took photographs of my mouth. Close-ups. You do not want to see those photographs. Nor did I. Teeth, like hands, don’t lie about your age. Still, my teeth sparkled afterwards.

In the Netherlands, I went to Zandvoort and walked along the beach, stopping for a healthy burger lunch at Tijn Akersloot

before wandering around a bit more and making my way to Utrecht. Saturday we walked through the flower market on the way to Utrecht station, went to Amsterdam, visited the Rijksmuseum, had lunch at the American Hotel, raided Art Unlimited for more postcards to make a collage...

and at Concerto I had coffee as a folksinger rehearsed, while my friend looked for DVDs, and we browsed the American Book Centre before making our way back to Utrecht, where we had supper at the Griftpark1. Sunday was a walk round Utrecht, with lunch at the Louis Hartlooper Complex, followed by an afternoon in the garden and supper at Te Koop. Monday was another stroll, lunch and a the journey back to Schipol and so home.

Where the kitchen wasn’t finished Monday evening because (insert unlikely story here), so I went to work Tuesday and took Wednesday off to put my house back in order. I asked the fitter if he could recommend a decorator, and by the time this is posted, he will have come, looked, drawn breath and quoted.

Sis and I had a birthday supper at Merchant’s Tavern in Shoreditch - thank you Sis - and then our regular monthly supper at Tramshed in Shoreditch. That’s our annual trip Out East for this year.

I saw Locke and Fading Gigolo at the Curzon Soho, Pandora’s Promise, Sexy Beast and the Jane Bown documentary through Curzon Home Movies, A Touch of Sin at the Renoir, and Edge of Tomorrow at Cineworld.

I read Black Gold by Anthony Wild, about the history of coffee; Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, about undercover policemen in the UK; Tea, by John Griffiths, a history of the Tea industry; Savage Messiah, by Laura Oldfield Ford, a compilation of her illustrated psycho geography zine from the Oughties; King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Doug Gilette, which is exactly as New Age as it sounds.

My left-hand little finger is still recovering but no longer hurts every time it comes into contact with anything.