Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Audio Mobility - Cassette Snapshots #4

Some people don’t listen to music. They don’t need it in their lives. It’s an idea that’s hard to understand if much of your life revolves around music. Nevertheless the people who don’t listen to music seem to get by. I used to know someone who only listened to audiobooks. They had to spend a lot of time driving. And they would play tapes in their car, and all the tapes they played were audiobooks. They found the tapes relaxing. The voices helped them concentrate on the road, and proved to be good company. I rather liked that idea. I actually envied that simplistic approach to listening.
I’ve never actually seen sales or circulation figures for audiobooks in cassette formats. For the blind and partially sighted they must be (or have been) a godsend. I assume tapes have been replaced by CDs or downloads to a large extent. But you do still see a lot of audiobooks on tape around. Charity shops, for example, tend to charge considerably more for an audiobook set of tapes than for a music one. And while the idea of sitting listening to an audiobook appeals, nearly all the tapes I see are Agatha Christie mysteries or comedy classics.
I only have the one audiobook on cassette. Or to be more precise I only have one cassette of an audiobook. It’s parts 3 & 4 of Allen Ginsberg reading Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, recorded in 1991 by Audio Literature. I found it in a charity shop. I have no idea about what happened to the first tape in the set. I have never tried too hard to find the missing half either. I rather like the incompleteness.
I love the one audiobook I have. I think Ginsberg is brilliant at reading Jack’s book aloud. He rattles through it at a rate of knots, but you can tell he’s thoroughly enjoying it. I can listen to this cassette and feel genuinely relaxed. It forms a fantastic background noise. It’s good company to have around you. I have no massive flag to fly for Ginsberg, nor a particular torch to burn for Kerouac. I haven’t read The Dharma Bums for 25-odd years. I don’t know if I’d enjoy it these days if I did. I have just realized, however, I am the same age Jack was when he died.
Listening to Ginsberg romping through The Dharma Bums I recall my reaction when I read the book for the first time. There were certain sentences that leap out and grab you. Ones you remember forever, or have to write down. I guess Morrissey felt the same way when he borrowed the “pretty girls make graves” line. One that sticks in my mind is where Jack is walking through deserted streets of an evening, aware of all the families sitting in their living rooms watching TV, and he sadly acknowledges that at least they’re not doing anyone any harm. Jack was capable of moments of great insight and compassion, and that more than all the holy goof nonsense was why I loved his work as a kid.
Only recently online I came across an Allen Ginsberg Village Voice review of The Dharma Bums from November 1958 where his description of the book goes a long way to explaining why over 30-years on he clearly had such a ball recording it: “Spontaneous Bop Prosody, a nickname one might give to this kind of writing--that is to say, read aloud and notice how the motion of the sentence corresponds to the motion of actual excited talk. It takes enormous art (being a genius and writing a lot) to get to that point in prose. (And trusting God.) Bop because, partly, in listening to the new improvisatory freedoms of progressive musicians, one develops an ear for one's own actual sounds. One does not force them into the old rhythm. Unless one wishes to protect one's old emotions by falsifying the new ones and making them fit the forms of the old...” There is a strong spiritual, specifically Buddhist, core to The Dharma Bums, but it’s a sad book too in many ways. As Ginsberg said back in ’58, Jack was “weary of the world and prose.” You sense that’s why Jack’s summer job as a look-out up on Desolation Peak was so important to him, in terms of the challenge of being so alone for a couple of months. Thankfully I have that part of the book on the tape. As for Ginsberg himself, there are again certain lines that mean a lot. The one where he asks America why are its libraries filled with tears is one of the greatest things ever written. And I willingly acknowledge Ginsberg was there at so many important moments in history. It’s interesting what people choose as a Ginsberg 'pop' moment to identify with. For me, it would be where Tav Falco appends the opening lines of Howl! to his version of Leadbelly’s Bourgeois Blues. Or where Ginsberg adds vocals to The Clash’s Ghetto Defendant.
There is a photo of Ginsberg with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, taken shortly after Ghetto Defendant was recorded. I think it’s an astonishingly beautiful thing.
I guess you could argue The Clash are rather like Kerouac and Ginsberg. They will always polarise opinion. They will always provoke strong emotions for and against. I was reading a piece recently relating indirectly to the Combat Rock-era, where the well-connected writer oh-so-boldly adopts a stance that could be interpreted as: “Oh I don’t like The Clash as they embody the ‘long live rock ‘n’ roll’ last-gang-in-town macho mythology”. But even a casual listen to Combat Rock, and in particular the second side, reveals surely a strange, haunted, vulnerable, adventurous set of songs which defy categorization? It was, after all, merely a couple of years from Combat Rock to The Smiths, which still feels like slipping back into a suffocating rigid orthodoxy.
On Death is a Star, the closing track of Combat Rock, where Joe talks about being gripped by that deadly phantom I am still reminded of Jack Kerouac maybe reading from Dr Sax. I have no idea whether this was the intention or if it was just coincidence. Like Kerouac, The Clash were full of flaws, contradictions and inconsistencies, but I still like that. The fact that The Clash could be as exasperating as they could be exhilarating is appealing, sometimes. Jack, of course, made records of his own, partly thanks to the godlike Bob Thiele, where he read his prose and poetry to a jazz setting. Allen, too, made records, and what immediately springs to mind is his infectiously joyous singing of William Blake’s poetry. Back in 1969 he recorded poems from Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience, sung in his unique way, with musical contributions from some of the greats like Don Cherry, Elvin Jones, and Bob Dorough. And just in case you are not familiar with Ginsberg way of singing, here he is back in 1984 in fascinating company ...

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