David Bowie & NIN: Hurt

I remember being very worried that the universe would explode from sheer awesome when this concert took place. Bowie in white – aloof, icily cool and alluring; Trent in black – passionate, sensual, vulnerable and sexy as hell. I never loved them more …

Inception

I’m a little late to the party, sure, but I wanted to make up my own mind on this one.

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve never quite clicked with Christopher Nolan. I thought Memento was good but not great, and Batman and The Dark Knight were fine but not brilliant. Each seemed composed of memorable moments that didn’t quite hang together as a whole. The Prestige had the added frustration of a twist ending immediately guessable by anyone with my particular skill for recognising people.

Nolan has, however, always impressed me with his two things: his striking visual style, and his talent for assembling an impressive cast.

Inception pushes the boat out on the latter – even Leo DiCaprio is on the type of form that reminds us of what a fantastic actor he used to be. Little needs to be said for Ellen Page (Juno), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun), Tom Hardy (Star Trek: Nemesis), Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins), Dileep Rao (Drag Me To Hell) and Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins). That cast isn’t just likeable, it’s bloody adorable!

Inception isn’t just another Matrix-style movie. Inception is everything that was good about The Matrix. It is slick and stylish and grand and breathtaking. It explores new ideas in an easy-to-grasp yet thought-provoking manner and pulls out all the stops with its showy setpieces – yet Inception goes one step further, elevating it above The Matrix and any of Nolan’s other films: it has a genuine emotional core.

I even cried at the end.

Extra kudos to Nolan for giving me a genuine surprise. Sure, the final scene was guessable from the outset, but the ending I’d predicted did not materialise and Inception concluded in a different, unexpected direction.

The simplest way for me to give Inception due praise is just to say that it is every bit as good as everybody says it is.

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New Quest: Find the Next Rock and Roll Star

Chapter 34 in the story of my life. I think this one is going to take a while.

It’s not that I expect to find the next rock ‘n’ roll star in a dusty little pub somewhere and have some sort of hand in their future success. It’s more that, from my living room in a quaint English village, I hope to find footage on the internet of someone who I think belongs on the bedroom walls of the nation’s teenagers. Someone who’ll make them want to be a star themselves when they grow up. Several someones would be ideal.

My success, of course, would largely depend on my definition of “rock ‘n’ roll”. Lazily, I consult Wikipedia. There, in the definition, is Bobby Gillespie.

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It was about half past four on the 21st December 1990. Two decades ago. The first flakes of snow of the year were coming down. I shivered by the bus stop, idly humming Primal Scream’s Come Together. A tall, pale, skinny long-haired boy hurried past, humming Joanna by Scott Walker.

Bobby Gillespie didn’t have a biro on him that day, and neither did I, but it didn’t matter. He strode across North Street and into a newsagent, and bought a felt tipped pen with which he scrawled my name and a greeting across the magazine I’d purchased earlier. The page fell open onto Select‘s article on Creation Records. He signed his name across the part about his band.

A few minutes later I was grinning like an idiot, back by the bus stop, and bobbing up and down from cold and joy.

“I just met Bobby Gillespie,” I explained to the little old lady standing next to me.

“That’s nice dear,” she said. “Is he your boyfriend?”

Fast forward a bit. “You want to listen to this lot. He’s so sexy,” Bobby said matter-of-factly, indicating Scott Asheton on the sleeve of the Stooges record. He wasn’t wrong. It took Gillespie a minute or two to indicate through his thick Glaswegian accent that he was listening to Lou Reed. He figured I should listen to MC5. Again, he wasn’t wrong.

Over the months, I’d occasionally bump into Bobby in the street, or in that indie record store we both frequented. You couldn’t miss him: tight white jeans and a polo-necked sweater, hundred-dollar sunglasses and million-gigawatt charisma. Each time, the clothes would look more expensive, his back a little straighter, his bearing a little more self assured. The last time I saw him – maybe two years after we’d first met – he could have stopped traffic through sheer presence. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a rock and roll star.

Of course, rock and roll was always absolutely and unashamedly about sex. Not the act of sex, but its potential. In 1937, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald recorded Rock It for Me, which included the lyric, “It’s true that once upon a time/The opera was the thing/But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme/So won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll”. The “rock” was disturbance, incitement, rapture; the “roll” was sex. Rocking and rolling was secular black slang for either dancing or sex – there wasn’t much to distinguish one from the other – from as far back as Trixie Smith’s My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll in 1922. It was innuendo – nothing too direct or vulgar. A tango, not a lapdance.

Rock and roll wasn’t a sound, it was a spirit. Sure, in the strictest sense there are rules about the accentuated backbeat and use of guitars, but you don’t need guitars to be a rock and roll star. The music has long since faded, mutated and moved on, but up until very recently you could see Elvis and Chuck Berry and Jim Morrison reincarnated in a thousand different faces and a hundred different genres.

“Hail, hail, rock and roll, deliver me from the days of old”, Chuck Berry sang – and it’s the new I seek. The snake-hipped lizard kings I loved as a teenager are in their 40s and 50s by now, and I ask myself: who will replace them?

I learnt everything I needed to know from Bobby Gillespie – mostly from observation. It didn’t matter if you weren’t conventionally good-looking, you just had to project a certain self-assurance that told others they should pay attention. Back then, the rock journalists I unabashedly copied were themselves caricatures – exuberant show-offs with big personalities. They had to be in order not to be overwhelmed by the people they were interviewing. Most of these bands never, ever had any hits – they just had so much of that elusive star quality that they filled any room they were in, even if they were just playing the local dive bar.

Most people could recognise Gillespie, or James Dean Bradfield, or some of the other beautiful eccentrics I met along the way, so there’s little point discussing those. I’m going to take a minute to celebrate the less-sung heroes in my youth – the ones that never got to number one or even number 10 in the charts. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what I’m looking for.

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The Dark Tower: The Waste Lands

I like to set myself quests. The most recent – “find the real Jim Thirlwell” – had a mixed, Lost-style ending full of furrowed brows and head-scratching. Still, it means that at least since the poor chap was kind enough to answer my extremely-bloody-nosy questions, I can move along and follow where next my Pinball Stream of Consciousness takes me. I think that will be Chapter 34: “Find the Next Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, since I’m currently experiencing the same level of exasperation with the state of modern music that Henry Rollins did in the early 90s: “Most of these bands can’t even get their hair off the floor!” he growled, shaking his thick-necked head at the limp indie boys that surrounded him. The world has moved on, as Roland of Gilead would say.

So. Quests. Gives you something to do. Roland the Gunslinger. F***ing stupid name for a hero.

I’ve just finished The Waste Lands, the third in the Dark Tower saga by Stephen King. I have to confess: I’m in love. As always with me, it’s a mixture of fierce, unexpected intelligence and huge puppy dog eyes that does it. Gets me every time.

But, no, it’s not Roland of Gilead that has stolen my heart. It’s Oy the billy-bumbler – a fictitious blend of badger, raccoon and dog – whose voice (bark) lingers in my consciousness, and who I absolutely, desperately want to survive.

I love Stephen King’s style of writing – it’s simple, elegant and unobtrusive. He knows how to write without showing off, and manages to bring scenes vividly and pungently to life. He writes far too much about pus, but I won’t hold that against him.

I’m now halfway through this saga, and increasingly gripped by what is regarded as King’s magnum opus – a blend of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and fantasy, taking in an otherworldly Wild West, the New York of the 70s and 80s, and all manner of strange interdimensional beings. It’s The Road with characters, punctuation and a plot. It’s Lord of the Rings if only Tolkein didn’t f***ing waffle so much. It’s The Magnificent Seven without the stilted acting.

And it has a cute badger thing that parrot-talks. What more could you want?

JG Thirlwell: Hide and Seek (Foetus interview 2010)

JG Thirlwell - still from NYC Foetus

[This article was originally published by Brainwashed.com. I used the name Anna Station as an allusion to the Novation A-Station.]

If you’ve listened to music in the past 30 years, or even turned on your television, you’ve heard JG Thirlwell. He’s released over 40 records under 19 different identities. He’s the Venture Bros guy. The MTV Sports voiceover man. The remix king. Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, Clint Ruin, Wiseblood, Baby Zizanie and DJ Otefsu. From no-wave to neoclassical, minimalism to math rock; JG Thirlwell makes noise sound like pop and classical sound like punk. From sound-sculpting with Nurse with Wound to remixing Pantera; from making a video with Karen O and Spike Jonze to writing symphonies for robots, Thirlwell has been around.

The gorgeous, pouting redhead swigging wine from the bottle in 1996 was not JG Thirlwell. It looked like him, sure, but this guy was all swaggering excess and seductive charm; the real JG Thirlwell is shy, cultured and softly-spoken. He’d made the switch several years before, but now the impostor had taken over. Fuelled by acid and alcohol, he had blistered his way across the various scenes of the ’80s and ’90s until almost destroyed by his own myth. JG Thirlwell is back now, and has spent the past decade making better music than ever. With a new album, HIDE, out next month, Thirlwell has agreed to tell all: about the man I met, about the man he is, and about the extraordinary music they’ve made between them.

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James George Thirlwell was born on 29 January, 1960 in Melbourne. He’s often called “Jim” but goes by “JG.” He spent 12 years at an all-boys Baptist school and hated it so much that he excelled for fear of being held back. He became withdrawn and antisocial – describing himself once as “a s***head” – and sought comfort in books, art and music.

When was the first time you remember really enjoying music?

JGT: My first musical memory is singing Viva Las Vegas to a little girl called Viva in kindergarten. I must have been three years old.

Who do you still love listening to now who you enjoyed hearing as a child?

JGT: I used to love The Monkees, particularly Mickey Dolenz’s smokin’ big band number Goin’ Down. The Monkees was the first group I ever saw, in Melbourne in about 1968.

JG’s Scottish mother took him to the UK from time to time, and he felt more at home here than Australia, where he felt culturally isolated. At 16, he graduated and spent two years at Art College where he found himself training as a teacher instead of the course in graphic design he had intended to take. Frustrated and unhappy, he amused himself with low-level mischief before fleeing to London, where his mother had once studied music. He’d packed a couple of bags, told his parents he was taking a vacation, and didn’t return.

JGT: I haven’t been there in over 30 years and I don’t miss that country. I will no doubt visit one day. I’ve never actually been invited to perform there but Kronos Quartet played the first piece I wrote for them there last year.

It was 1978 when JG arrived in London and found work as a buyer for Virgin Records. Through this he was able to keep a close eye on all new releases, as well as obtaining sound files and soundtracks on vinyl for use in samples. Example: he put a voice clip of Vincent Price on two tape loops to play back in and out of phase, Steve Reich style. He began chopping up tape clips and making charts of what pitch they’d form if he played them back at different speeds; a DIY primitive sampler.

Minimalist experimental acts like Reich, John Cage and Phillip Glass were his main inspiration, along with the post-punk acts of the day – but Thirlwell’s heart seems to be in classical music (particularly Bartok and Penderecki). He’s always claimed he “can’t really play anything well,” but he seems to compose well enough these days: he writes the music electronically and then sometimes works with an arranger to generate the score for each instrument.

On the documentary NYC Foetus (part of the LIMB release), it’s suggested that you like the impersonality of classical music. What made you decide to make (for want of a better term) rock music instead?

JGT: I never said I think classical music is impersonal, I think [sound engineer] Martin Bisi said that. I don’t think classical music is impersonal at all; I think it can be highly emotional. Just listen to the closing of Stravinsky’s Firebird – there won’t be a dry eye in the house! I don’t just make one style of music.

JG was particularly excited about post-punk experimentalism. He was inspired by the DIY ethic of the time – the tools to make your own music were available and anyone could do it if they had the ideas. He regularly went to see bands such as Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, Wire, Scritti Politti, and Nick Cave’s group, The Birthday Party. At first he played with PragVEC and Nurse With Wound, but then sought to create his own music.

In 1980, he set up his own Self Immolation label and eventually forged a manufacturing and distribution deal with the fledgling Rough Trade to put out his records – each released under a variant of “Foetus” (Foetus Under Glass, You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, etc.) – a word he loved for its baffling taboo status and weird spelling, as well as its connotations of potential. Around this time he began working with Einstürzende Neubauten, financing and helping to assemble Stratagien Gegen Arkitekturen Volume 1. As his own manager, agent and publicist (as well as performing all the instruments and designing the sleeve art), he created the aliases to make the idea of selling his music more palatable. As he told in NYC Foetus, he didn’t want to be touting his music to people saying, “Please will you play my record?”

On the press releases he wrote, he pretended Foetus was Frank Want, Phillip Toss and two Brazilian statistics collectors; he claimed Scraping Foetus off the Wheel was Frank Want and Clint Ruin. Frank Want is credited on releases by Orange Juice and The The. (Matt Johnson’s one of his closest friends: he’s performed with The The playing synthesizer, guitar and even the kitchen sink.) These characters were inspired by the mythology The Residents built up surrounding their releases, and his early press releases advised “the Foetus family prefers to retain a degree of anonymity so the observer can have no preconceptions about the music via the appearance of the perpetrator, the artefact must be judged on merit alone…”

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The Vampire Diaries: Lynch mob

Self-pitying whining doesn’t really work for me. Luckily my pinball stream of consciousness doesn’t allow me to maintain any mood for more than a few minutes, let alone a bad one. Eleven hours’ sleep and I’m right as rain. Which is more than can be said for Jeremy Gilbert.

He’s the only Vampire Diaries character to exist in an unending quagmire of angst, but then again, he is a teenager. The rest of the inhabitants of Mystic Falls are refreshingly flippant about the rising body counts and supernatural weirdness that surrounds their town. It’s what makes the show such compelling television – that point-blank refusal to wallow and indulge in overwrought tearful recriminations – and I was pleased that the first season ended as well as it did. Can’t wait for more.

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Sorting out my old VHS tapes following the move, I found old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I had previously thought was the progenitor of this type of programme, but then realised we have to look further back to find its real sire: The Vampire Diaries owes much more to Twin Peaks. Even though David Lynch’s surreal series has aged very badly, the rustic charm of the inhabitants is unforgettable, as is their unfazed reaction to the weirdness that surrounds them. Yes, Sunnydale has its share of likeable oddballs, but it’s too rooted in teen drama and comedy. Like Twin Peaks, while the teens take the spotlight in TVD, the town itself is the star.

It’s certainly less self-consciously quirky and doesn’t have that edge of the surreal – closer in tone to Sam Raimi’s American Gothic – which itself would not have existed without Twin Peaks. What American Gothic, Twin Peaks and The Vampire Diaries certainly share is that the plot is almost incidental to the developing relationships between the characters. Yes, it has soapy components and high (supernatural) drama, but all these events serve simply to bring out and consolidate aspects of the very well-rounded personalities of the people in the town. They feel real in a way that makes other shows look choc-full of cardboard cutouts. Don’t let the just-another-vamp-show setup put you off: I’ll be buying this one on DVD.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows first trailer

Well, I’m stuck without internet access (don’t ask!) so I can’t actually watch this trailer – so you’ll have to tell me whether it’s any good and I’ll have to pick up any feedback on my mobile phone.

The buzz so far is positive, which makes me hopeful. I thought the first Potter film was a good family movie; the second an abomination and a travesty; the third OK; the fourth a fine illustration that didn’t really work as a movie; and the fifth and sixth films finally f***ing getting it right. I mean, seriously, how hard is it to make a decent Harry Potter movie? Just make it roughly 50% X-Men and 50% Spider-Man and cast Dickens’ David Copperfield in a tale by CS Lewis.

They’ve got it bang on twice so far – unfortunately alienating anyone who hasn’t read the books in the process – so I very much hope they can continue this winning streak.

Here’s the clip …