Boo Boo Bird

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“It is up to you 
whether you read this…
my advice is just 
to ignore it.”

    Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler was the Scottish equivalent of Spike Milligan. He was an eccentric poet, songwriter and humourist. His fans included The Beatles, John Peel, KT Tunstall, John Lydon, Neil Innes and Robert Wyatt. He was the driver of the Magical Mystery Tour bus. He doesn’t need a ticket to ride on the Crotchety Man blog.

Ivor Cutler’s life and work were distinctly (and quite deliberately) bonkers. Matthew Lenton, director of the play The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, put it like this: “he didn’t live by the same rules as everybody else”. As my tribute to Ivor Cutler I give you one of his longer and more tuneful songs, Boo Boo Bird. In the video the song is introduced by Ivor himself; no further commentary is required here.

While constructing this post it occurred to me that the Boo Boo bird is rather like the creature described in the half-nonsense poem, What a Queer Bird the Frog Are, and curiosity took me to this delightful round on YouTube.

I’m sure Ivor Cutler would have appreciated both the poem and the music there. Oh, and if you’re wondering, you can tell the difference between a Boo Boo bird and a frog by their calls. The Boo Boo bird goes “boo, boo”; the frog goes “ribba, ribba”.

Let Them Eat Chaos

Let Them Eat Chaos - Kate

Years ago now Crotchety Man was watching a documentary about old sitcoms on the BBC. The discussion turned to The Good Life, a TV series about a cheap plastic toy designer, Tom Good, who gives up his well-paid but unfulfilling job to turn his suburban house into a small-holding and become entirely self-sufficient. Needless to say this presented quite a few practical difficulties, difficulties that the programme makers exploited with hilarious results.

Tom and his wife, Barbara, were played by Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal and they were the most lovable couple ever invented for the TV. Tom was full of clever ideas that never went according to plan but he pursued them with unquenchable passion and faced every difficulty with unshakeable good humour. Barbara loved him for that, supported him in everything he did and comforted him when things went wrong. Together they navigated life’s ups and downs with warm cuddles and silly jokes. The characters were so real and the acting so natural that it was hard to know whether you were watching Briers and Kendal, the actors, or Tom and Barbara, the characters they were playing.

In the documentary a long-time fan of The Good Life paid tribute to the programme and the actors saying, “I’m still in love with Felicity Kendal”. With that, deep within Crotchety Man, the clapper of a big brass bell swung, metal struck metal and the ring of truth resounded through his being. There are no better words to express the relationship between the young Mr. Crotchety and a warm, fun, desirable, but fictitious and therefore unattainable vision of womanhood on the TV screen. That fan and I had both fallen in love with a beautiful illusion.

Some three weeks ago Crotchety Man fell in love again. This time the object of his affections was the poet, Kate Tempest. Now, I’m not particularly interested in poetry on the whole, especially that of old school poets like Byron, Keats and Tennyson. It’s where song lyrics become poetic that I start to take notice. Artists such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are the poets that stir my bones and tickle my flesh. There are some poets on the fringes of the music business that are interesting, too: Roger McGough, John Cooper Clarke and Ian McMillan spring to mind. Kate Tempest belongs in that hinterland. She is undoubtedly a poet but she often works with musicians and she released her Let Them Eat Chaos album on 7th October.

Let me say straight away that Let Them Eat Chaos is not about the music; it’s all about the words. Well, no, that does a disservice to Kate and her band. While the focus is clearly on the wordplay this is a piece of performance art in which words, music and visual aspects all contribute to the whole. So, uniquely on the Crotchety Man blog, I invite you to watch the video of Kate’s live performance for the BBC. As usual I am assuming that the video on YouTube constitutes a violation of copyright but watch it anyway – it’s an experience not to be missed. (For viewers in the UK it’s legally available on the iPlayer for another week or so.)

Kate Tempest is a poet in the modern style. She writes about the issues of the day: everything from global warming and the banking crisis to employment, drugs and the gentrification of the suburbs. She comes across as the unremarkable girl next door but still manages to tackle these topics with intelligence and wit. Although she is now 30 she looks much younger and her delivery appeals to a young audience. The rhythm of her poetry fully justifies the ‘rap’ label but it’s white girl rap, articulate, insightful and relevant to all of us, not just a badge of honour for black guys.

We are still mythical;
we are still
permanently trapped
somewhere between the heroic and the pitiful.

Let Them Eat Chaos is a portrait of seven people on the same city street. Those seven people and only those seven people are awake at 4:18 in the morning. Each track on the album draws another part of the street or paints another character onto the sonic canvas. There are goalposts painted on that green garage door. Esther has just come home after a night shift as a care worker. Bradley has all the benefits of a good job but doesn’t feel fulfilled and can’t understand why.

Each track is a poem complete in itself. And each poem is stitched onto a flowing, rhythmic sheet of sound to form a larger work. Synthesisers and drums march us forward while keyboard motifs add light and colour. Sometimes we pause and take stock. Then the beat rouses us again and propels us on down the street. Another door, another sleepless character.

Three weeks ago, as I watched Performance Live: Kate Tempest, I fell in love with the young poet for the same reason I loved Felicity Kendal playing Barbara Good. Kate is intelligent, warm and talented. But above all she has the confidence to be herself. Kate Tempest doesn’t hide behind an invented persona; the performance poet on stage is the same girl you might meet on the street. Of course, I’ve never met her but I admire her honesty and her talent. Life will always be Good while there are artists like Kate Tempest around.

Live in Dublin

One of the albums on my wish list for last Christmas was Leonard Cohen’s Live in Dublin. It wasn’t in my stocking then but I did get a generous helping of iTunes vouchers for my birthday at the end of January so I bought it as a download.
Leonard Cohen
It’s a live album recorded in September 2013 when Leonard was 79 and coming to the end of a world tour. I don’t usually like live albums – the sound is often poor and the audience noise detracts from the music – but this one is an exception. It manages to capture the atmosphere of a live performance without sacrificing sound quality or letting background noise become intrusive. And the whole band puts in a superb performance. From Leonard’s deep gravelly voice, to the guitars, keyboards and violin, the bass, drums and backing vocals, each musician is outstanding. This is a studio quality production with a live performance feel.

Leonard Cohen’s songs are poems set to music; each one has something to say about love, passion, religion or politics. I find his words far more evocative than any of the well-known poets that our English teachers used to enthuse about. His words have a bite and a wit that is, sometimes, astonishing. Democracy, for example, starts with a reference to Tiananmen Square. It doesn’t mention the massacre of the protesters but it seems to say that things will be all right in the end because democracy is coming. Then it turns the world upside down by saying

Democracy is coming…

… to the U.S.A.

The voice of reason in my head says, “That’s ridiculous! The U.S. is already a democracy.” And then the irony detector goes off and reminds me that, perhaps, the U.S. isn’t really the perfect embodiment of the democratic process that Americans like to think it is.

Live in Dublin is roughly three hours of music (3 CDs) and is good value at £14.99 for the download. It contains some of Leonard’s classic songs of the ’60s (Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Bird on a Wire) as well as material from the four decades since. Some of the early songs feel a little stale to me – perhaps that’s understandable, if you’ve been singing the same song for more than 40 years it must be difficult to keep it sounding fresh. Or I may be listening through rose-tinted spectacles (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor). Either way, I’m offering Live in Dublin as my album of the month for February 2015.

Incidentally, if you buy it you’ll find that democracy isn’t coming yet; that’s one song that’s not on the album.

Magic Is Afoot

One morning earlier in the week there was a knock on the door. I was up but not yet dressed. Opening the door I was greeted by a woman carrying a bundle of small, glossy brochures. It was cold outside and a stiff breeze ruffled my dressing gown. I feared I was about to be embroiled in a protracted conversation – the kind of conversation that starts with, “I’m not selling anything…” and ends with some unfortunate double glazing sales executive going away with a red hot flea in her ear.

But I was wrong. The opening gambit was something about local churches. God is very much alive in York and it was no surprise to find a mild-mannered evangelist on the doorstep. A cold-calling salesperson gets very short shrift at our house but I have more sympathy with well-meaning Christians even if I don’t agree with them. In fact, I quite enjoy arguing about whether God exists or  discussing some moral dilemma with them. It gives me an opportunity to put forward the other side of the argument without invading the privacy of strangers or boring to death those who are just not interested.

Not wanting to freeze, I invited the woman in. It soon transpired that she was a Jehovah’s Witness. Like all well-trained salesmen she insisted that she wasn’t trying to convert me but, nevertheless, did her best to show that my belief in science was just too ridiculous for words. Now, I welcome reasoned argument but the Witness’s approach is very different; it’s what the popular press calls ‘spin’. They carefully research the subject, preferentially select facts that support their view or challenge the opposing view, and appeal to your emotions rather than your intellect. This is cheating and it annoys me intensely.
The outcome was inevitable. She stayed calm; I got quite angry. Neither of us changed our opinions one jot. I remained angry for a long time after she had gone. Now that I’ve calmed down that encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness reminds me of a piece by Leonard Cohen put to music by Buffy Sainte-Marie. It’s an extract from Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers, and it’s called God is Alive, Magic is Afoot.

I’m choosing this as my track-of-the-week. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it throws any light on the big philosophical questions of life.