dear mother decided to bribe me with a free trip to London for a week,
where I could be her guide and translator, helping her to relive a past
experience, with my brother and sister, many years earlier. Indian food,
a boat trip on the Grand Union Canal between Little Venice and Camden
Locks, some museums, and feeding squirrels in Kensington Gardens was what
she was looking forward to enjoying again, in my company this time. All
of it being pretty much my cup of English tea, I approved and went cheerfully
A total solar eclipse was also one of the festivities planned. The zone
of totality was only at the tip of Cornwall, between Plymouth and Penzance,
meaning five hours away on the none-too-fast British Rail system, so we
decided to stay in London where a hefty 99% eclipse was programmed by
the heavenly engineers. Good enough for us. Especially since all trains
to Cornwall were fully booked, roads were jammed, and Plymouth and environs
had been overrun with countless tourists, star-gazers, gawks, freaks,
neo-druids, retro-hippies, "travelers" and ravers of all types. Even Ken
Kesey was putting his "Furthur" bus and Merry Pranksters back on the road
for another acid-test trip, starting under the black sun on Eclipse day.
In London, we headed for Green Park with our special glasses where, after
checking a mini change of the Guard at Buckingham Palace across the street,
we found for ourselves the only park bench facing south, which we shared
with a back-packing American, half asleep and clueless, who found out
only that morning, reading the paper, that there was to be an eclipse!
So it was sitting in comfort, London throngs standing or laying about
on the wet grass all around us, that we were able to watch the cosmic
show upstairs, awed as a semi-darkness overspread the hemisphere! Nice!!
"Time Out" had a nice teaser blurb for this hip exhibit by unknown to
me young American photographer by the name of FrancescaWoodman. The writer
went to great lengths to write an enticing preview of the exhibit, as
you might expect after all, this being the purpose of that.
It appears Miss Woodman started snapping at the tender age of thirteen,
taking photos described as "strange and enigmatic", photos of herself
and "a friend undo(ing) their dresses and show(ing) off their breasts"
and "smirking like naughty schoolgirls".
Now, you know me, that got my attention!!
At seventeen, she went to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence,
to presumably further her nascent talents, and where "her exploration
continued". There, she remained "the subject of her own pictures" but
she twisted things about so as "to be there and not there at the same
time. The smug adolescent has disappeared; narcissism has been replaced
by a serious investigation of identity -or its absence." Serious profundity
The article was illustrated by two b/w photos, one of the artist spitting
out water (neat effect), looking like P.J. Harvey. The other with three
nymphets showing off their nice young bodies in full frontal nudity against
a white background, hiding their faces behind 8x10 prints of the photographer's
face, for added mystery and, er, artistic effect. Nice enough, but hardly
For some reason I read no further, but made a mental note to try and go
check the exhibit if time and chance allowed.
A few days later, having more or less forgotten about it, and with mom
in tow in the vicinity of Covent Garden, I found myself … in front of
the Photographers' Gallery where our young genius was showing off her
stuff. "Lucky me", I thought. I left mom outside and went in.
Nice big space with a few dozen prints hanging on several pillars and
walls. Of the thirty or so people gaping in rapt attention, twenty five
at least were young women, cool and stylish as London hipsterettes can
be!! Telling myself with some difficulty that the charming visitors were
not the purpose of the exhibit, I assumed the proper concentration and
looked in all due seriousness at the photos on display. And what did I
A collection of exceedingly mundane and nondescript photos of adolescent
girls in various states of toplessness, taken in drab surroundings, in
front of decrepit houses, in sordid empty rooms, as bleak as can be, and
with most haphazard exposures. Doubtlessly a fine display of teenage angst,
I thought, sure to impress schoolchums and set adolescent girls atrembling
and awetting as when their middle finger approaches that danger zone!
All cooked up with a presumably expensive camera in an equally pricey
high-flying Art School kitchen. Here and there were testimonials from
people who knew Francesca, including one from a classmate waxing lyrical
about her great talents and the sense of awe felt by the professors encountering
another Mozart of the SLR. "She was better than them, and they knew it",
raved the mesmerized friend!! If that was the case, and if such "flatitude"
can impress academia thusly, I'm sure glad I wasted my time elsewhere,
and spent this money I didn't have on dope and debauchery, rather than
feeding it into RISDE's cavernous tuition maw!!! But mayhap Francesca
had a scholarship!?!
I've always been amazed at the way "experts", "esthetes", "cognoscenti"
(and let us not forget the professional "Art Critic") tend to see a universe
of complexity and infinities of meanings, all leading conveniently to
some revelatory syncretism, in the most commonplace and tediously humdrum
artifact or vaguely artsy product. Francesca double-exposes herself with
a bedroom wall? Ergo she comments on people's "relations to space", and
by "becoming the wall under the wall-paper", she "contrasts the fragility
and vulnerability of her own body with the strength of the objects around
her". She frames herself or her model near the edge of the print or partly
outside? "Fascinated by limits and boundaries", her " work conjures the
precarious moment between adolescence and adulthood; between existence
and the ultimate disappearance, death". And if it's blurry, it's because
it contains "elements of performance", capturing not " a suspended moment"
but instead showing us "the elusiveness of time". I bet you didn't know
your underexposed and off-centered holiday snapshots could harbor such
mystical transcendence!! And if the lab puts way too much grain on your
picture of uncle Elmo, you can always call yourself pointillist!!
At any rate, I went on from print to sorry print, disillusioned to no
end, when I finally hit jackpot with a biographical text that dotted the
i's and nailed the coffin, if I may put it that way! It appears that Francesca,
by now 22 and a more or less recognized and published New York artist,
had won another scholarship to go to Rome.
So what does she do? The day before her departure, she throws herself
out of her window, ending it all there and then, and leaves this sorry
suicide note where she blabbers about not wanting the beauty-that-was
to turn ugly, and be polluted by the passing of time and its attendant
scars and stigma (not her exact words, but my paraphrase!!). So, OK, I'm
a heartless bastard, insensitive to a fellow human existential anguish
and despondency, for how could I know or understand the gloom pervading
her tortured psyche, blah, blah, blah…
And here we have another fucking Kurt Cobain, unable to deal with some
form of fame, fortune, and recognition, poor dears, choosing death over
the enjoyment of the flush hand they were dealt, when so many others with
many times the talent, and none of the gate-keepers approval bestowed
upon them, must carry on in anonymity and with a far truer sense of loss
and abandonment. I left the exhibit at this point, grumbling and bitching
within at the unfairness of it all, but certainly not in the way poor
Francesca or her London thurifer's had in mind.
Musically speaking, from a broad historical perspective, and compared
with countries like France, Italy, or Germany, England compares very poorly.
I mean, name an English composer of renown and worth from, say, the last
three centuries!? Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is one. One!! Sorry, but Georg
Friedrich Handel was an Italianate German earning a living in London,
and so was Johann Christian Bach. And Nicola Porpora and Giovanni Bononcini
were full-fledged Guidos (it's OK, my name is Polizzi, I'm allowed to
say that!!) who competed with Handel, won financially and lost musically
in XVIIIth century London and its court intrigues. Should I bother with
Thomas Arne? Stephen Storace??! And who remembers about them anyway, not
youse dudes reading this, I'm sure.
Closer to our ravishing era, the likes of Frank Bridge, Arthur Sullivan
(with or without Gilbert), Arnold Bax, William Walton, Ralph Vaughn Williams,
and the maudlin and royal ass-kissing Edward Elgar (yes, his second symphony's
Larghetto, pathos-laden as it is, is quite emotive, but…) come to mind,
and just barely. We'll pass quickly over Percy Grainger (very fine indeed,
but Australian!), to arrive at last to the highly depressing strains of
the king of gloom and misery, Benjamin Britten himself (if you don't believe
me, try his War Requiem, Billy Budd, and Peter Grimes in the same evening,
and keep rope, gun, and barbs out of reach!!).
OK, result of all this is one pretty slim and poor musical record (pun!)!!!!
One had to wait for the 1960s and the Beatles/Stones/Who/Kinks/Mayall,
etc,… era for England to break out of its musical funk (no pun!). And
of course, it had to be with styles taken elsewhere, from blues, R&B and
Black America in this case…
If you're wondering why I seem to be spewing so much spite and venom at
our British friends, let me just say that a week spent in London reading
(not listening, mind you, only reading about), and being mercilessly bombarded
with, the latest headline news about this and that UK band, as if it were
about to change the world, you'd feel the same way: I mean, endless paper
and magazine space, advertising billboards, radio and TV time, all wasted
on such raving inconsequentiality, musical insignificance, and trifling
media hype the likes of Oasis (the departure of one "Bonehead", guitaring
type with the dreary combo, getting the media treatment and placement
the death of Paul and the resuscitation of John wish they could get….!!),
Suede, Blur, Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Supergrass, … You may whip
diarrhea into the frothiest "Chantilly", it's still shit!
So it would appear that thirty five years after putting itself on the
(pop) musical map at last, Britain has regressed back to its decades and
centuries past of musical irrelevance. Of course, there is today's media
savvy to counteract the glaringly missing substance. And the younger generation's
(i.e. customers, consumers, sheeps,…) total lack of critical sense and
musicological perspective makes it easy on the Temple's merchants, product
managers, and A&R types of all stripes to sell their wares.
So, is it hopeless, you ask? Are we back to Mr. Acker Bilk, skiffle, Cliff
Richard and Petula Clark???
Well, not quite, for the same thing that has helped the French get on
the map lately, is now helping the Brits stay afloat.
I speak of the DJ thang, that funky trip-hop/drum & bass/technoid turbulence
that has recently gotten enriched with contributions from the Indo-Bengali
musical community. From Talvin Singh to Badmarsh and Shri, Sanj-Sanj to
Bi-Polar, Astralasia, the Asian Dub Foundation and Bally Sagoo, East London
and points Asian churn and burn with activity, groove mixes and remixes,
and a solid ghat and teental flow of "tabla & bass" (yes!). Next time,
after I do my homework, I hope to be able to tell you more.
Fortunately, my London week did include a bright musical spot, albeit
an American one.
Ovum records did notify me by email before I left Paris that Josh Wink
would be spinning at the Velvet Room on Charing Cross Road. I was waiting
by the door when he showed up with… King Britt!!! Much embracing and back
slapping ensued, and I walked in with them, feeling quite Kingly indeed!
The Velvet Room is a nice little club, with a capacity of about 300, which
was reached quickly enough with enthusiastic revelers.
I know some of you don't think of DJs as true, full-fledged musicians,
but when talents of Wink and Britt's caliber are in effect, one can't
help but be impressed. Working the three turntables and 2 CD players with
a virtuosity defying the imagination, the two comperes displayed their
awesome skills to a screaming and raving audience, mixing magnificently
all the dance styles in existence: garage, jungle, drum & bass, techno,
house, deep house, this house, that house, your house, my house, last
house on the left,…all there, all brilliant, the Philly pair working in
unison, one spinning discs, the other working volume, bass and treble
controls, balance, before switching places, back and forth during the
night. Much virtuosity, superb musical choices, great fun!!
And I got to meet, all too briefly, the quite blonde and much curvaceous
Ms. Cat, friend of a Philly friend of King Britt, who danced up the proverbial
storm in front of me for over an hour, only to disappear in the packed
crowd, thusly demonstrating for me the "elusiveness of time" with her
very own "elements of performance" for a mere "suspended moment" that
I wish I'd been able to "capture"!!!