Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Futile Activities – the incomplete jigsaw

Assembling these incomplete jigsaws called for some exhaustive mental effort. The individual pieces were found scattered through a box of miscellaneous clutter – there were no pictures. Each piece was double-sided and progress was very slow until it dawned on me that there were two different double-sided jigsaws that were not easily separated. In the knowledge that the rewards of this task would never measure up to the effort involved I pressed on and these fragmentary assemblages are the results. Not every jigsaw in my possession is incomplete as the latter images show although even here a sharp eye will detect the occasional lacuna. And for every one of these I must have acquired at least four that were nowhere near complete.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Fats Domino (1928-2017)

There’s always been a special place in my affections for Fats Domino whose music never fails to lift the spirits. It’s especially sad that his death has been announced today – tonight’s movie will be “The Girl Can’t Help It”. In my early teenage years the price of an LP was well outside my spending power but an EP (Extended Play) with 4 tracks playable at 45 rpm was just about affordable. The first EP I ever bought, some 50 years ago, was Be My Guest by Fats Domino.  This was my introduction to New Orleans Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and a voyage of discovery that would lead to Professor Longhair, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner, the Meters, the Showmen and Dr John over the next few years.  The Domino method of dancing your blues away was an unusual strategy to find favour with one whose dancing days gave rise to rather more mirth than admiration. Two qualities stand out. First, the irresistible rhythms unique to New Orleans and second, the joyous sound of massed horns, for which credit must go to the arranger, Dave Bartholomew (who will celebrate his 99th. birthday on Christmas Eve). Both features became essential parts of the musical vocabulary of Jamaican Ska. Domino was raised in the Roman Catholic church and thus was never exposed to the visceral power of the gospel traditions.  Musicologists argue that African musical traditions survived more strongly in Southern Louisiana than anywhere else in America.  The rhythms and vocal styles were closer to African originals than elsewhere.

The process whereby African-American music was neutralised and cleansed for a white audience was described to perfection by Chip Taylor in his 1971 recording, (I Want) The Real Thing. The UK music business was very active in this process churning out a succession of records in which the passion and spirit of the original recording was systematically eliminated by a mediocre and enfeebled performer.  Domino’s recordings escaped this treatment for the simple reason that their appeal depended entirely upon a quality of delivery and personality that could not be replicated. It was impossible to dilute something so intense and be left with anything remotely worth listening to.  The few attempts to cover Domino hits in the UK sank without trace. In the US there’s a role of infamy headed by Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and Teresa Brewer all of whom profited from hi-jacking Domino material and draining it of vitality.

In New Orleans there was no place for the dark and down-home, hard times, lyin’, cheatin’ and dyin’ crapshootin’ blues from the Delta.  There was no great audience for the smooth toned supper club and coffee lounge blues styling of the likes of Nat King Cole.  There was a positive, optimistic, up-beat and life-affirming defiance in the air that found expression in a refusal to submit to the iniquity of racial segregation and a denial of the subservience that the white establishment attempted to impose.

Rick Coleman’s biography, Blue Monday, is a fascinating account of the way that Domino’s concerts in the 1950s became the focus of a long sequence of riots and civil disturbance.  There was nothing in Domino’s performances to incite the crowds other than the music. The principle provocation came from the police whose heavy handed attempts to enforce racial segregation were calculated to incite resistance.  Alcohol fuelled aggression and inter-racial conflict also played a part. The irony of this is that the Domino songbook was exclusively dedicated to good-time music with not a trace of insurrection or subversion.

Domino became one of the great survivors of his generation of R & B performers.  Despite the excessive consumption of alcohol and an addiction to gambling Fats continued at the top of his game while his band members and close associates perished in their numbers from drug and alcohol related illnesses.  His touring days ended in 1995 enabling him to retire his infamous hot-plate and cooking pot in which he brewed up decades worth of pigs’ feet in creole sauce with which to feed himself and his band. Famously he survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005 at the age of 77 when a rescue boat plucked him and his family from the second floor of his home in the Lower Ninth Ward.  He went on to perform at Tipitina’s in New Orleans in May 2007.  He retained a reputation for geniality and modesty despite occasional episodes of seriously grumpy behaviour, marital infidelities and a chronic failure to turn up for scheduled appearances.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Children of the Fatherland

It would seem that growing up in the Weimar Republic was an unusually hazardous experience – danger lurked around every corner and only the most alert and agile escaped unscathed. These trade cards were issued by the makers of Echte-Wagner margarine with the worthy object of raising awareness of the perils of childhood. Multiple threats to life and limb are described here – a world of icy streets with out-of-control horses and a place where a juvenile kite-flyer is electrocuted. Equally improbably a small boy exits a train at speed when the carriage door spontaneously swings open – the consternation of the bourgeois gent with his newspaper is balanced by the indifference of his wife. For the illustrator involved it was not their finest hour – unconvincing clumsily drawn figures frozen in immobility. Nowhere more apparent than the spine-chilling tableau of target-shooting gone badly wrong. A dart has missed its mark and struck a hapless bystander in the eye – her inscrutable assailant makes no effort to help while his companion prepares to shoot as if nothing has happened. Somehow the ineptitude of the artist has inadvertently intensified the horror of the event we are witnessing.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Great Railway Stations Number 12: Tokyo

In 1880 the 26 year old Tatsuno Kingo was working as a student in the architectural practice of William Burges, master of the Gothic Revival. Returning to Japan after Burges’s death in 1881, he established himself as an educationalist and architect in the Western style. Banks and institutions formed the majority of his clients. Later he was appointed architect of Tokyo Station on which work began in 1908. Completion was in 1914 – it opened for business on December 20th. The original 4 platforms have expanded to more than 20 today. A three-storey extended red brick façade with two ribbed domes was designed to impress. A massive steel frame enabled the building to survive earthquake damage in 1923 but US bombing in 1945 greatly diminished it – post-war repairs saw the station reduced to two-storeys while the ruined domes were replaced by simplified angular structures as shown in the last two cards below. A threatened demolition was resisted by the public and a five-year renovation completed in 2012 restored the station to its 1914 splendour. With the singular difference that the present building must compete for attention with the enormous office blocks that tower over it.

Monday, 2 October 2017

City Buses on Postcards

The development of motor vehicles happened in the era of the vintage picture postcard. Horse-drawn omnibuses gave way to petrol powered vehicles and major cities rapidly built up extensive networks of routes. Each of these portraits from Europe and North America seem to reflect the national characteristics of their homelands. Parisian buses came furnished with a fussy Gallic scalloped fringe to the protective roof canopy as well as some fashionably fancy coachwork. At the other extreme is the utilitarian no-frills Detroit bus where the passengers are exposed to the elements via the unglazed windows. The sole grace note being the provision of highly polished brass light fittings. The Berlin bus has the feel and solidity of well-made furniture while the London bus is conceived as a mobile display of public information. Appropriately for a city famous for criminality, the Chicago bus is built like a military vehicle – it’s easy to imagine armed guards on every other seat. In comparison the Manhattan bus appears slender and restrained.