William Crump dines with the Iron Chef
In late 2001 I had just moved back to Mississippi after three and a half years in northern California, where I’d cultivated my gourmandism mostly on the cheap – during trips to the Bay Area, I discovered lamb shawarmas in the Noe Valley, Korean barbecue on Telegraph Avenue, pho in the Tenderloin, and the house-cured gravlax at the Dipsea Cafe in Mill Valley. I spent hours at a time communing with nature, if by “communing with nature” you mean “face-first in a pile of Dungeness crabs and a cooler full of Sierra Nevada.”
This was also the time when the Japanese cooking show Iron Chef hit big in the States, thanks to the Food Network’s repackaging of the Fuji TV series Ryori no Tetsujin. Iron Chef was a Friday night staple for several years – along with Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but that’s another story. By the time I moved back to the South, my tastes had gone global and my appetite was around the bend. I was also moving back within shouting distance of my good friend George Takaeda, part-time sushi chef and two-fisted gourmand. George and I have logged a lot of miles and eaten a lot of merely okay meals in search of transcendent cuisine.
When we heard that “Iron Chef Japanese” Masaharu Morimoto had left Nobu in NYC to start his own restaurant in Philadelphia, we hatched the plan to find cheap airfares and fly up Philly long enough to eat at the table of the Tetsujin. George’s brother Terry worked in Philadelphia at the time, so we would crash at his place; all it would cost would be meals and airfare. A little research, and done: we had e-tickets and a reservation for four — Terry and a coworker of his were up for the trip to Morimoto as well.
They met us at the airport on an unseasonably warm Saturday in March, and we trained for the big event with a cheesesteak at Pat’s (now they tell me: Geno’s, across the street, is apparently much better), a lot of walking around downtown, an hour in Sound of Market Records, and a couple of Yuenglings at the first bar we found. Finally, we went to the restaurant and sat upstairs at the bar, nursing a last drink, checking out the liquid flowing lines of the walls in the dining room, and noting that the lucite table dividers, lit from within, cycled through the visible spectrum roughly every half-hour.
We were seated about 20 minutes later in the packed dining room and immediately descended upon by an army of service staff. Even though it was our first time there, George and I knew we wanted the full balls-out “Chef’s Omakase Dinner,” nine courses of Morimoto’s divising, varying according to one’s spending preference – $80, $100 or $120. Terry went with the Omakase as well, and the co-worker ordered some oysters and a few items from the sushi bar, including a softshell crab roll. The staff also interrogated us about any food allergies, foods we particularly hated, and what we had for lunch that day. We were told that there would be a few courses from the raw bar, a sorbet to reset the palate, a couple of courses from the kitchen, a sushi course, then dessert. There was a nice sense of the dramatic: “Relax…lean back… here it comes…!”
We relaxed and leant back…and there it came.
From the raw bar:
1) Toro (fatty tuna) tartare, textured with tempura-batter bits, surrounded by dashi broth, topped with osetra caviar. Fresh grated wasabi on the side. This was an early declaration of fresh preparation, since the tempura bits were very crunchy – doing them ahead of time would have given them time to go soggy.
2) Steamed hamachi (yellowtail) and steamed Japanese turnip in miso-enriched broth; on the side were three tiny marinated squid with a tangerine-miso sauce. At this point, we remembered that we’d brought a camera with us. To hell with caring that we’d look like tourists – we wanted a visual record of the dishes.
3) A steamed Pacific oyster – huge! – with sea urchin, peppery greens and a generous amount of shaved black truffles in a “foie gras jus.”
4) Seared kampachi (kin to hamachi) with grilled turnip, another kind of greens and bonito shavings. I didn’t catch the description of the sauce, but it helped pull it together.
The palate cleanser:
5) Wasabi sorbet. Each spoonful arrived in three stages: flavor of wasabi, flavor of lime, then flood of heat.
From the kitchen:
6) One-half of a grilled lobster, split side sealed with an eight-spice mixture. Served with citrus creme fraiche and grilled asparagus, broccoli and carrot.
7) Grilled Kobe beef steak topped with a slice of seared foie gras, served with Japanese yam potatoes. Another amazing sauce.
From the sushi bar:
8) The sushi course. From left to right, giant clam, shad, kampachi, hamachi, toro. Only criticism of the meal: painfully large amounts of wasabi under most of the pieces. I would have liked to taste the fish, but I was gulping water.
The dessert course:
9) Actually, three desserts. Japanese mountain-plum sorbet. Rice cake, very similar in texture to cheesecake. A cake I missed the description of (because Morimoto had just come to the table to ask how the meal was and shake hands all around), but which seemed like a pumpkin-spice cake, served with a vanilla custard topped with a sprinkle of something powdered and blisteringly hot.
I’ve eaten some amazing meals in my life, but this made the most haute of the haute cuisine I’ve had seem like a trip to the Burger King drive-through window in comparison. Worth every penny. The final damage for dinner for four, the pre-meal bar tab, beer and sake during the meal, and tip: $600.
(To top the weekend off, the next morning Terry took us to his favorite cafe for breakfast and I had scrapple for the first time – no more or less exotic than the caviar, baby squid, foie gras, fresh (not powdered) wasabi and Japanese mountain-plum sorbet.)
This is a highly personal story. I’m writing it because I wanted to write something. Because it gives me a way to give myself a purpose outside from merely working again. Because it makes me understand myself better. Because I love music, and probably always will.
“ROCK AND ROLL is the spearhead of our attack because it is so effective and so much fun.”
– John Sinclair, revolutionary and manager of The MC5, November 1968 from the first ‘White Panther Statement’.
No matter how or what you choose to put on the turntable, it should be obvious that music is fun, that pop music is fun, that the Marlene Dietrich or Edith Piaf or Johnny Cash record I’m listening to is fun. See, dying on the back of a beautiful career resurrection, Johnny deserved plaudits – he had fans and influence and all that – and he got his resplendent obituaries, as if they somehow justified his life, his addictions. Sean O’Hagan typed his way round JC’s ‘latent sense of evil’. He nodded appreciatively to the fact that Cash was, apparently, ‘the first existential pop singer’. Maybe: there’s always something beautiful about skirting death and religion in music, about people who can break your heart while rolling in the aisles on Dexedrine and amphetamines.
But there’s also something beautiful about odd rockabilly singing and peculiar anachronisms. There’s something beautiful about how a suburban 21 year old can feel such unmitigated glee when hearing a frail 71 year old intone Depeche Mode songs on CD b-sides. There’s something beautiful about dancing to songs called Ring of Fire and A Boy Named Sue, about listening to pompous albums in which an odd countrified rockabilly singer goes to the Holy Land and recites messed up parables about cutting out your mother’s heart. There’s something amazing about singing songs called Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog and Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart to convicts. There is something amazing about listening to ironic pastiches of an ironic medium, performed and enjoyed first time round with dollops of irony, and playing them to your friends with an ironic smile and an unironic tear creeping across your face.
The closest dictionary definition irony comes to this kind of irony is ‘incongruity between what is and what is expected to be’. Which kinda means listening to records people wouldn’t expect you to listen to is always ironic. Which means, dependent on the particular context of your friends and acquaintances, your whole rack is ironic. It’s all debased beyond recognition. It’s all devoid of any of the things you got into music for. It’s just ain’t right.
No. Irony is just another way of enjoying music. Another way of getting the kind of fun that even those who saw rock as a tool, like John Sinclair and – to a lesser extent – our parents, just had to embrace. Sure, irony’s not necessarily MEANINGFUL and EMOTIONAL and ALL THOSE THINGS WE’RE TOLD GREAT MUSIC MUST BE but it can be, it really can, and, anyway, IS THAT THE POINT? Music is about fun and diversion and imagination and getting a sense of community and all the things you know instinctively the first time you hear any music, let alone the first time you hear music you actually love – even the real POIGNANT stuff, like most of Johnny Cash, is more about fun than MESSAGES. But a record being enjoyed ironically is seen as the ultimate death toll for both the music and the person enjoying it. It probably stems back to the need many felt, and still feel, to defend music against allegations of faddish, depraved twaddlisms. To admit that you’re only enjoying the damn thing, that you were enjoying the enjoyment rather than the music itself, well, it lets prigs and censors inch their way towards ‘your music’ – look at what’s happening with UK garage and gangsta poses and, let’s face it, look at what’s happening with the continuing condescension towards ‘chart pop’. So, rather than being a successor to skiffle, rock and roll is now seen as the illegitimate child of some notional ‘blues’. It makes the whole enterprise seem so much more PROPER, less fly by night and ironic. It stops them painting you as either stupid or corrupted or both. Irony doesn’t kill off ‘meaningful’, really heartbreaking stuff like Johnny Cash and Scott Walker and Dionne Warwicke and whiny old Dylan and 60’s pop and garage music of all types and loads of 80’s electro and the best house and trance and techno. It just means you can like its fractal magnificence in yet another way.
And of course, the ironic enjoyment can be a pose, which can be fine, but it can also be damn annoying. But why stop people enjoying music? Censorious, ignorant and just plain boring if you ask me. It takes the assumption that ‘it’s all about the music’ and clamps your feet and lips tight. It’s never just been about the music, and it’s never just been about the music and the fashion and the tribalism and the art either. It’s always been about taking the piss with friends, pissing people off with friends, pissing friends off with people. Building your beatific lands against the oh-so-elegant sub-strata of music, revelling in and rebelling against genre and boredom and the like. If you ever needed proof that fans should look after music and not musicians, this is it. See, only the ironic will understand that this argument is nonsense, that it doesn’t matter, and it’s only the ironic that will find it fun.
LONG LIVE JOHNNY CASH, HE CRACKS ME UP.
written by Jim Robinson
If I were a painter I would spill great splashes of yellow and
red over the end of this trip
Because I am quite sure we were all a little mad
And that a raging delirium was bloodying the lifeless faces of
my travelling companions
Blaise Cendrars, La Prose de Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (1913)
rail / pavements that reflect the cyan air and hopeful light. At the local stations no-one knows where you are going: crazy realization that they don’t care, wouldn’t follow if they could. Mid-morning London Bridge: beyond the rush hour, before the coffee aromas are phased out by tired dust-mote sun. Waiting for a train, boarding and loading, scanning passengers, watching silos and oast-houses pass, should not feel as momentous as this. Bat and Ball. Pluckley. I never knew they were there, in a world bereft of adventures.
motor / parallel lines, the plains of the South, early afternoon’s unclouded canopy, settlements fleeting by: across country, Kentish fields, Last Orders, highway strips, someone else’s random indie. (Other people’s indie’s full of corners you’d forgotten.) How the road cuts out and outpaces the kids, on their diligent railway rides: from the capital with bags and badges, disembarking in vast numbers at necessary halfway stations and creating floods of flesh, crisis crowds of coats and hairslides. Trains that cram with captive travellers, standing room on the midday shuttle, wan platform gazes from the noontide faces left behind. I don’t really understand the kids: I’d better try not to say too much about them. They don’t like me anyway.
supplies / the bus stop though where they swelter at three o’clock, in rows too long to be collected by a single vessel: the brats who boarded earlier and think the visitors are freaks to be repelled. The station you stand and take pictures of and can’t remember why, opposite the mart in green and orange whose overpriced affairs look like bargains next to where we’re going. Pylons, streams, gulls, grass. Seaborne skies, roadside stragglers, second guessing. Plans, anticipations, alightings. London is a mere stopover, a waystation in this narrative: demoted for once to a stage from which to bounce the last leagues. Convergence is the big idea, the sudden gathering of family resemblances who’ve come down countless lines that finally funnel into one or two. Within hours the camp is filled with refugees from the rest of the world.
shells / ‘I Fought In A War’, first time in ages, from its quiet opening drama to the revenants of Marvin and McGuinn and the vocals soaring terrifically out of tune with the strings oncoming like a nine-ton truck. Though memory’s a frieze I always think I heard it first in someone else’s chalet, liked it instantly. The chorus seems to dip so eloquently, even as that top note repeats four times. I hear it again on the balmy bright fading evening, with a glass of poor white wine in my hand. Birds twitter; the clouds range deep blue to pink tinge. Those about to post-rock, I salute you. Right now, down there, on the coast, surely, they are –
here / arriving? No, you rock up in the afternoon, ready for the evening, as if the entertainment were worth anyone’s hurry. Plugging in the stereo and spinning the first disc into happiness (call it – the Supremes). Sorting things, unpacking clothes to wardrobes (improbable action, too civilized for what’s really about to happen), shoving suitcases under beds. Stepping into the centre of the chalet, where a couple of others slouch at a table: their language and postures are casual, louche: weird code that says, we’re on holiday, but also, don’t let’s get too excited about this. (How little bodily effervescence: how little leaping into the air and kissing the sky.)
there / Someone puts the TV on. The TV is irrelevant, tremendously so: it speaks from its customary world, its weekly sphere of news battles and robot wars. Speaks to that world as well: to people who have not today escaped routine and habit. Not to us: but we pick it up anyway. Unlikely thrill, to watch it go through motions of the ordinary world, when you think you’re on a trip to the extraordinary one.
Curiosity of watching Top of the Pops here – because this is a supposed other of Top of the Pops, or: because we love pop, you and me, that’s why we’re here: and the BBC is broadcasting pop to us though it doesn’t realize we’re here, in a world of (different) pop. How much more exciting does a mediocre Top of the Pops become, at a pop festival, basted in the ways it does and doesn’t fit.
crockery / loading cans of beans into the cupboards, vegetables into the fridge. Gin and vodka share their own shadowy closet. You see the teapot, cups and saucers, and think: how much has been laid on, though we’re not gonna need it all, are we? Mariah Carey is on TV. Someone turns the sound down, puts something on the stereo beside it: something new, like new music is what one would want to listen to, or like if you come here you ought to listen to new music, or a trip to elsewhere is when you would try to get into it.
lists / the lovely light is fading, the minutes must be passing: it must be time to be out there, doing something. Has anyone got the schedule? The labour of scanning it. It says – every reading aloud of the schedule will include ellipses, will be studded by dots if anyone transcribes it: it says, Threnody Ensemble… no, they’ve already been on… what time is it again? Well, Dianogah have been on for 10 minutes. – Who? – I don’t know… They sound like a dragon out of AD&D. Have a look at the brochure thing. / But we should be doing something, going somewhere. Out on the balcony the clouds scud slowly over flat rooftops. 45 degrees across some other self is leaning out and looking, while somebody talks behind them in diminished chalet light. Below the grass is green in shade and evening sun, some folk are crossing it, they’re going somewhere: you wonder why you aren’t. Other chalets likewise have their TVs on: you see them when you wander up and down the balconies, peering sideways into muted rooms of slumping people, open doors, faint sounds, television light, stunning girls, other planets.
slow / drinking in the day, growing sluggish in the sun. Paradox of drinking here: it’s a task to be undertaken seriously, commenced as early as possible; there’s a lot to get through, and an aim in sight, which must be – intoxication? Like that’s how you need to be to get the most from all this. But the route to that goal, trodden across hours of light and shadow, is wearying: it tires you out, all this drinking, makes you slow and sodden, strips the energy you need for – for what? for all the drinking you still have to do. What else?
scape / the grass is lime, the paths are grey, the road is faded black tarmac, the sky’s still passing with the time. We are all fading out all of the time but maybe we fade slower here: or maybe we fade faster but when we get back we’ve faded less than if we’d never come. People are walking both directions: to the centre and away: to the labour of fun, and towards respite. The zones, the monkey, the superhero. The crocodile, whose playground or ride or train I think I’ve never quite located or recognized or grasped. The sandpit, the pub: I think we have to call it a pub, more than a bar, and less, come to think of it, than a boozer. Picnic tables, tarmac, steps, bouncers, straps on wrists, brutality that doesn’t happen. The serenity of the early-evening bouncer, next to the later-night ones barring doors, setting up queues round corners as the temperature drops.
hub / the front door. Scale, scope, breadth: walk through the doors like you mean business (but what business? there is nothing serious to be done here). Gaggles coming and going, across the screen, the radar, the interior vista: left and right, in and out, a purposiveness you don’t have. (Groups, collectives, friends, chatter: maybe you don’t have that either.) The way the stairs lead up to music, the sense of direction and hierarchy – halfway to bogus, for you don’t really want to hear the music; but you’ll have to do it some time. The other corridors: the bogs where surprising tunes play: ‘Time After Time’, was it?, ‘Walk of Life’? Billy Ocean? – and make you think, that’s the best thing I’ve heard all weekend. The way the walls are full of adverts for other people’s eyes, for cabaret or entertainment upstairs, stewards’ doings, gift shops, cocktail nights, things that aren’t for you, but haven’t been removed for you. Alien world, environment of strong and knowing incongruity: none can come here and not feel the wilful lack of fit, the sometimes wild inaptness of their presence. You take it that’s part of the point: which may just show how good at finding ways to fit we are.
contrast / Spring is here, the sun is shining: maybe sweet as dew and blossom, maybe a heavy beating blaze. So where are we? We’re in the dark, in the hangar, in the shadows, straining to make each other out: another sketch in the comedy of incongruity that marks this place. Maybe it could be mapped on to the perversity of the alternative, the sullenness of indie: the people who were afraid of the sun; the kids who wanted to live in the dark. Maybe – especially as this place seems to grow more metallic by the year, more facial hair and infant nihilism. But Camber Sands started as twee, and residue resides; and twee is all about the sunshine and the flowers (and the rain, and the snow). Who owns the sun and the air: indie village greens and recorders, or Rock with its crowded festival fields, longhair leather meadows? Heading into the dark, you are in flight from one or the other.
queen / through the cavern crowds of the second stage and out the other side: the sterilized burger zone (why will you buy one of these, after blowing Budgen’s so much cash?), the bouncers at the door to the Queen Victoria. The way this world is going on without you: the hundreds you don’t know, with their lives of plan and purpose, fun and intent. The ones you do, doing their own thing: surely they’re here for a reason, a better reason than you. (You don’t have a reason: you just came in, remember, and there was no reason given.) The little round tables, the tacky patterned carpet, the pictures on the walls of the elevated corner where tradition bids us gather. Who’s here: xyz; characters abc. Combinations, permute any six from seventeen. The order, the shape they form, the relations they’ve entered: arbitrary, changing, never identical from one entry to this place to the next. Go out, come back in an hour, the pattern will have altered. ATP is flux and flow, tides and waves, come and go. Kaleidoscope. The bar is thronged with young people (how did they get to be so young?): too many maybe to hang around wade through or wait for, but then what else is there to do? It’s 9:36: Shipping News have started upstairs. – What are they like? – I don’t know.- 1 2
And I’d finished this so I sent it to my girlfriend and she called me back and said, “um, err, I don’t, understand.” So after sulking for a bit, obviously upset, I explained. And she understood. I asked her if she could write a short note on why she found it difficult and how she finally came to understand: something which would stand apart from the main article, concept-the-dots. This is what she wrote, it’s brilliant:
“So, here it is, criticism. The problem for me (and I didn’t beat around the bush the first time, either) was that I couldn’t understand. Was it that I couldn’t understand, or was it really a problem with the writing, as I thought after reading it three times over? It begins; yet it doesn’t begin for the reader. ‘Pagan Poetry’ – a difficult link with Lena and Julia, you think, but you deal with that, yet the problem grows as you read on in this first section. Where is Pikefossen? And Maze, and Domremy-la-Pucelle? Your eye is caught and your heart tugged by the tenderness of it all – the blue-sky cadence – but what does this mean? The personal impenetrability of the first section is not in keeping with expectations, nor is any meaning immediately obvious. This was the problem; how did this all connect with Tatu?
And then Nabokov: a Russian link, you think, perhaps maybe, something to grab onto and hope it leads you to the connection between Pikefossen and Tatu. But it didn’t. How can this suffice as a bridge between tenderness and analysis? I guess what I’m trying to say is that this article lacks obvious pointers. They were eventually explained to me; but that brought up the obvious question – ‘is it right to have to ask the author for explanation?’ Of course not, I cried, in my frustration; but the flipside of that is, after I got the explanation, it did make sense and the tenderness and analysis didn’t jar quite so much.
We, as readers, arrive at the image of this piece first: the structure, the strange mix of the unexplained and the explained, the seemingly deliberately wilful. But sense can be made if we change our approach. Read the last bit first; this is not the agreed and measured. The upshot of this being, therefore, is neither are t.A.T.u. I was asked to write this as a sort of pointer system – something which the piece immediately lacks – but I guess there’s only one pointer that’s required: although the piece focuses on the non-image side of t.A.T.u., it is t.A.T.u. that shape the image of the piece. The skewed, difficult (yet tender and intelligent) shape of this writing seems to reflect what the writer is saying about t.A.T.u. And not just about the girls themselves, but the effect they have on him, which is surely why the analysis is interspersed with seemingly incongruous pieces of personal insight, creation, memory. It’s not important to necessarily understand the whys and wherefores of the personal sections, rather, they demand concentration on the feelings they evoke. They are a theme rather than an authentic narrative; they don’t matter to the audience in a specific sense, but that is not to say they are not important in a thematic and suggestive sense.
So there it is. I guess in a way this is an archetypal response, in that it is a mix of the personal and the objective, the analytical. Maybe the language and structure are difficult, but it’s not meant to fit together like a jigsaw; it maybe even reveals a perverse pleasure on the part of the author in constructing something that you have to dig away at and still not get all the answers. Even that reveals something fundamental about the nature of t.A.T.u. and the fundamentally different approach taken here, looking at the (however clichéd it may sound) something deeper and more interesting rather than the mostly agreed and measured.
It’s funny, for me, that in retrospect, after the hour or so of vexed chat about this (and numerous re-readings) that I’d only need to look at the title and the last section and it would have all made sense. I suppose that only makes it more perverse and fitting.”
written by Cozen, March 2003
For Melissa Witkowski. It’s all your fault, of sorts.
Because when I want to explain to myself Bjork’s “Pagan Poetry”, I can’t think here, in my world, the song seems too simplistic when measured, the merest cursory glance at any emotion, never mind love. I have to step out, into Glasgow’s absence (the lack of the biggest weight in my world), alone in myself (the second biggest weight in my world); the emptiness of a house or the creases round your eyes as you end a smile, the camp at the Pikefossen, or the pink-eyed girl on the road from Máze, with her perfect broken English. How my whole life stopped on that road, imagining my future selves: newlywed; dying; or taken in by some insurmountable death or regret. Or how in turn I will, like the rest, reduce to my lowest organic ebb: memory. As the place firms where everything I ever owned and loved and thought of as dear is taken in and their names made non-negotiable. All the driftwood, inaccurate maps, caesurae, and silt.
Domrémy-la-Pucelle, August 1998, and I split from the girl I was meant to spend the rest of my life with, the widest blue sky purls out in one vigorous movement of the eye, developing an awareness of us below with nary a trace of aggressive intent. (And I’m thinking of the drowned girl, whose name was wrested from her at the Pikefossen: she’ll wake you with her screams, bloodying the quiet lap of the waters.) How when we’re struggling to understand we look to forms and shapes, the knit of the familiar or simple: there, we must strain and hear the rarer frequencies of love and loss; and revisit the place where our assumptions are still hypotheses: “I luf him, I luf him, I luf him, I luf him (she lufs him, she lufs him, she lufs him, she lufs him)”:
“small rain and that blanched light off the sand
that gives the town its name, in Norwegian,
bleik, meaning ‘ghostly’ or ‘pale’
and not what we thought.”
– ‘Bleik’, John Burnside
Her blue-sky cadence sucking him up into herself, a series of inhalations breathing successive layers of meaning into this notion, this unprovable shadow: love. This simple word with the weight of the world behind it.
October [19XX], Vladimir Nabokov orients his great anaesthetic pen over the genesis of Lolita and writes in [xXx]: “The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris … somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” An impenetrable black object (impenetrable by us, impenetrable by the beast) comes to represent the poor animal and its perception of the world. The natural search party people send out when analysing at the primary, instinctual level looks for the human, the common, the identifiable: we need some ‘controlleds’ to set off against the features alien and weird. Here we stick on the unimaginable bathos of the pure fact of that drawing: an ape who can’t see out, an audience who can’t see in.
(I can’t show Lena & Julia the Jardin des Plantes, not only because it never existed but because I’m just the audience. I’m sorry, I’ve only my ken at my disposal. So I can hope to see Lena & Julia, sitting in the garden, or maybe just their shadows, that that they show us, (when I’m sick of licking the railings of their cage)).
“On the other side is us. And they [the others] can’t understand,” Lena Katina told Bang! (and Heat) about their video to ‘All the Things She Said’. The video shows the girls railing against a great hulking fence as a baying, curious public look in disbelief and disgust and awe and wonder. On one level it’s a very simplistic metaphor of ‘difference’ (“us/them”), on another it is the most ‘do you SEE?’ moment in this year’s pop history: the audio-visual embodiment of Nabokov’s jokey little paragraph.
“Nabokov’s jokey little paragraph.” Lena Katina cries at the end of “Can You See?”, in her shuttlecocks-on-fire voice “open up your eyes and see me now”. Most reviewers latch onto their image alone and then start throwing arrows-on-fire at the girls: “the lively atoms have found the tongue, ‘interpreter of the mind’, and disconnected it,” they’ll say. Always with the Lucretius: “The raw materials of utterance are drawn from deep inside the body; impelled towards the mouth where, first, they’re cut and nimbly crafted by the tongue, then given final shape by the contours of the lips; after which, as words, they’re imparted to the air.” Now if only the cynics had Luca’s third eye, maybe then they’d see, maybe then they’d even, y’know, look. The complaint is that they are automatons, singers without hearts or eyes, mere conduits for Trevor Horn and his band of merry songwriters. What they don’t realise is that we’re all just conduits of some kind. So there are more degrees of separation at work here? That’s what makes t.A.T.u. so interesting: that everyone fails to see this question of degree: the crazy masking effect of their all-encompassing image.
(What has upset me most in all the things that I’ve read about t.A.T.u is everyone going on (and on) about the equation “t.A.T.u = Image”. I’m not saying the image is not important; but remember there are two girls hiding under it, and its when their music pierces this veil, or when you can’t dissociate the one from the other, or when the image fluoresces and blinds you that there are some really interesting effects. Wow.)
“And they went out and named all around them, left camp on a mission to settle their world in the seat of identification. But they got some of the names wrong, failed to perceive the subject properly; and us in the morning we couldn’t understand the objects so-called, primed in the names Adam & Eve had chosen (“haha, we can call it slug and the others will say ‘What is slug? That is slug?'”). Some were too simple, others inaccurate… Yes, ok, what we know is the agreed and measured but WHAT WE ARE IS SOMETHING MORE.”
A group so rapt with and worried by their own invisibility that they set up a system of oppositions to aid their definition in the world. From the go: “200 Km/H in the Wrong Lane”? I mean everyone knows in the UK its M/h, right? “They’re not gonna get us”: us/them. The frankly quite creepy phone-whispers about ‘immigration’ at the beginning of the third track. (Is it still true that Britain’s primary contact with Eastern Europeans is through the prism of immigration?) So worried they’ll be separated from all they know and love, given different names.
The first single is brilliant pop-dance flutter then Daniel Bedingfield is tagged-in: “this is NOT ENOUGH”. What do you mean, what’s not enough? All the things said, all the things incorporeal: GOD!, let us kiss, leave. us. alone!, let me be me. When they sing ‘this is not enough’, they’re answering the cynics: lee-sten (© Navi)! Danny’s famous for his weird-scary emotional overloading the most direct lyrical example of which comes when he shouts “I’m gonna make music till my/brain is fried/because you can’t see the/man inside/it AIN’T ENOUGH NOW”. So? We have to read the letters sent from behind the lines to even have a chance of telling what it’s like in there. Beyond that all we have are grainy black & white satellite approximations and our own blundering assumptions.
Some people have bemoaned the incongruity of t.A.T.u. (“t.A.T.u.! Can you believe it?”) covering the Smiths’ homily to shyness, “How Soon Is Now?”, Morrisey’s heartbreaking soul swallowing itself whole call-for-help. A gay man who feels trapped by his own inherited (bequeathed by his own past actions, agreed) ‘vulgar’ image calls to the outside world and who ultimately has to plead, HAS TO STATE, that he is human, even giving it a capital to aid his case (“Human”, if you’re wondering what that looks like). It would have been crass for t.A.T.u. to cover any song but this. The perfect nervous waveryness of Marr’s original guitar line so prosodic against Morrisey’s self-doubt (“WHEN exactly doyouMEAN?”). This is replaced in t.A.T.u.’s version: we don’t get a slow broil of self-doubt from t.A.T.u., no, we get a pounding autonomous affirmation: crunchy power-chords: the direct equivalent of t.A.T.u.’s defiance. And it’s brilliant.
“We are like Marilyn Manson, for sure [laughs]” – Julia Volkova, elfish tomboy, responds to Nitsuh Abebe’s spot-on quip about the similarities between Linkin Park and the girls. Now, this means I have to root out the only Marilyn Manson track I own and listen to it and maybe then try and twist it a bit so it will fit into the Linkin Park shaped wardrobe that’s just opened up. Except when I eventually find “Q 1998: Best” (!!!) and listen to the track, “The Dope Show” (the roots of that vein of nu-metal obsessed with androgynous futurism, or Linkin Park?), it’s clear I don’t need to twist it. The vocal similarities are easy to caste: there’s that slight glide (think Chester’s part, the chorus, on “In The End”), which is actually more noticeable when the effect’s eventually removed (the brilliant we’re-there-in-the-studio revelation of naked Chester on “En Th End”). This (the glide, not the nakedness, well) is all over the t.A.T.u. album, but I suspect theirs is the result of their natural pitching (“shuttlecocks-on-fire”) rather than ‘effect’.
Musically, there are the drums and that but in short I think the comparison comes down to dynamics. Which is a really difficult word to pin down: it’s a composite of the drums, momentums, synth lines, breaks and rushes. The play and pull of all these aspects, the structure of the songs and the interactions between its parts. There is a deep rock element to t.A.T.u.’s songs, equal to its euro-pop mores. (I suspect Julia also meant what Lena said a couple of minutes later: “The wrong lane, exactly the wrong lane… We are running away from the whole world… We just want to be together… This is exactly the meaning of our album.”)
The first thing I ever wrote about t.A.T.u. started “I fancy Nadine McBay”. And the last review I ever wrote of t.A.T.u. also contained that line. So I must think it’s important. As starting sentences go, it’s probably less impenetrable than the one up the page: “Big wow, dude’s got a boner.” So why scrap it? (Maybe I’m worried her man might see it.) I’m no longer sure. To show how I’ve based crushes on reading just one piece of a girl’s writing. That sense in which the ‘something deeper and more interesting’ overpowered any need for any image whatsoever: a ridiculous judgement from the other end of the scale.
“Though what we know is mostly the agreed
and measured, what we are is something more.”
– ‘Kith’, John Burnside
The first section of this article is up to its elbows in hock to John Burnside’s “By Kautokeino”. Also: thanks and orchids for Martin Skidmore.
written by Cozen, March 2003
The Ultimate Fop-Pop Explosion
When I hit the astroturf I knew it was serious. By the time I got to Battersea the next morning, my ankle resembled the Graf Zeppelin and each gear change felt like an angle grinder slicing through my leg. Only another 400 or so miles to Paris. I left A’s Beetle in a side street, hopped to a bus stop and headed straight for casualty, where a brusque Indian doctor told me what I already knew – no weight on it for two weeks, chew these and collect a pair of crutches from reception.
I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread- Yeats, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’
This shouldn’t take long.
Records of the Year, that would be one frame. I’ve had this track for nigh on twelve months now, since the last days of 2001, and still I walk back into its beguilements over and over. I’d like to try to write down why. But strictly, this is a belated response to a request, a generous commission I knew I could only fulfil by straying from the beaten track. Possibly some precious few folk would genuinely like to know more about Eva Marie Saint and the price of medicine. I sure would. What follows won’t help on those scores.
I’ve written enough about him before – a few thousand narrative words, years ago in spring, trying to connect my sense of his world to my sense of mine; then so many public gauntlets laid down on his behalf, when he’d never make such claims for himself save, surely, in his own head. (Hard to believe he never spends laborious minutes measuring himself against his own canon, Dylan, Simon, Cohen, Reed – but perhaps I underestimate the humility of middle age. Still, this is a man – and the mind reels with affectionate disbelief as I type – who once told Simon Reynolds – Simon Reynolds! – that his major contribution to the history of songwriting was the adjectival use of the proper name. ‘Beat-up’? ‘Grace Kelly’. Admiration is compelled for a man who says such a thing to such an interlocutor.)
Parentheses aside, the point is that I may have little left to say about him – which thought if true might make me pause at how the fires of language can consume what we love. Yet here at least is something unsaid: one aural image, one brief stretch of sound that lingers on thinking of him. It has escaped summation: it’s part of no capacious biography, nor of the slack second-hand notions that most memories hold of the man. It’s on the edge: outside ‘songwriting’, beyond words; past the limits, so closely drawn, of most people’s interest in him; heteronomous to the received idea. But it’s him all right, and it moves me and calls me back as much as any ‘new’ music in these last years.
I guess he’s always liked keyboards, as some of the flourishes of the 1980s could show; still this one is an unexpected, eerie way to start a ‘primarily acoustic’ track. It’s insolvent as epic beginnings should be, melting into the track proper. And it’s a way of waiting: of pacing up and down for a few seconds, making us anticipate the delayed clarity that the guitars bring. Loosely picked and strummed, that casual fashion that holds a song, keeps it going, but still offers detail. We are in the world of roots: of that sprawling sense that takes in memories of country (twang, attitude) and folk (technique, earnestness), however little you really know those modes.
Technique: because you hear him play this, you know it’s him, building up those layers of guitar, plotting their trellis of interaction, and thus showing, deliberately or not, what he can do. He’s not bad these days, you have to say. There’s a pop idea: shy demonstrations of talent, rather than proud prances of worthlessness. Attitude: because seconds in, with no words to guide us, we must be responding somehow, reading this track, looking for bearings: and I think I hear an attitude, of quiet defiance – no, that’s too aggressive: of lonesomeness, cowboy dreams, riverside hikes; survival, above all, but survival alone (one man, presumably, is playing all those guitars). I’m still here, the music says: but it’s tough these days. (That sounds a mere pose, but at some level, beyond the record, I guess it’s real.) What this record has to burn, or to drown, is melancholy. High as the interesting skies and their carpets of skimming cloud patterns; low as the ground, the forest floor, the pine needles, the lake’s dark depths.
Landscape? That’s an illusion, but it shows what nine letters can do. ‘Prufrock’ drew that scatter of words into a field of force, an apparent character; the title here summons the five chords, the three or four guitars and background noises, into a shape. Or several, associated ideas, scapes that feel analogous in the corner of the mind’s eye, and needn’t be looked at too closely. The trees, stretching ahead like the giant redwoods on Endor. The towns of slow lives, cars on icy roads, Carver fishermen. The failure that makes a man retreat to these margins: upstate, out of the city; off the highway; for the people don’t buy my records like they did, and that was a long time ago. Now I’m up here, waiting, knitting this thing together, thinking of building a cabin yonder, waiting for the thaw.
He plays it twice: or maybe the two takes are stitched from one, the guitars lacing in different orders each time. There’s an arpeggio of exquisite simplicity or complexity, which patterns the same notes and different notes together in a cycle that goes round and round; but it’s not just circular like some four-chord doowop hit, for each time through the phrase, a different chord is leading the way, and you have to play the same sequence of open notes over and over before the underlying structure has cycled back to where you started. He must have been proud of that; I couldn’t have come up with it.
Then there’s the third (third?) guitar: louder, sharper than the others, doubling the phrasing of the second, but sweeping through it with the assurance of a riff proper, sliding down one string and up another rather than hanging everything in a tangle of simultaneously sounding strings. It comes to override the rest, to take its place in the centre and sound a sadness on a scale the others can’t reach, allowed to resonate further than anything else here. Phrases like this – four notes will do – feel eloquent: you want to find a way to say they’re talking. But that doesn’t really describe it: voiceless, beyond words. That’s more to the point. Maybe eloquence is just another echo, from the one word we’re given.
He started amid the glow of that strange light in a clearing, like Yeats’ purple noon in ‘Innisfree’ (that poem, come to think of it, might be as good an analogy as any for this track); both times, naturally, he fades out, the guitars catching on each other like cotton or cagouls on brambles. Fades out, depending which path you pick, to the rest of what he has to say, to clear a ground for words; or to real silence at last. Best leave it here, where the map runs out and we can’t hear the song for the fade of those open chords, wise and weary yet wide awake. Best to know when more words are the last thing we need.
must’ve been five years old in the passenger seat, mid-dusk, on the barren highway drive to grandma’s house, the sky a navy swath, faraway lights from radio towers, signposts, airplanes, whatever, piercing through cobwebs of branches like sets of searing eyes, aliens perched among us that we never see or touch. terrifying, this haunt of presence, worse yet: the fear that I will fear and never know.
in the forests speeding by our car live something unknown, something so bleak and black and true that my heart swells with a tangerine joy that burns until it chars, then wrings tightly back into a twig, bleak and black and true. it’s bigger than my smallest brain can say. the rush is self-sustaining for as long as i can bear to scare, deeper every time, with every step a fresh piece of clothing left discarded in my wake. i imagine vacating the passenger seat of this 4-door 1981 v6 mustang and wading into those woods, tickling fingers with the spirits at the centre, making pals with the knotted pines and being birthed into a new grove, that holy secret grafted, gifted to my brain.
paralyzed by the uneasy nerviness of collective earnestness and all its implications, we deftly spun sam mendes’ plastic bag into so much gristle for more self-parody, the attendant relief an irony; we had a full stomach but we ate anyway. what worse fate, we said, than that of an aesthete?
candor and intensity now discarded, my only hope is wordlessness, back through that first door opened, five years old.
theorists make pastoralism a binary thing; the latent farmer in us all finally coming home to roost, jolted from urban sprawl. but the only thing that swirls my head that way anymore is music has the right to children, twoism and maybe geogaddi. not the swarming tease of childhood but the connection that ensues. through the things i know of my corporeal, five-year old life (faceless friends, timetable charts and hopeless, cock-eyed attempts to get underneath the weight and meaning of “i love you”), i find a glorious way in!
picture: a godless universe (not absent, just no need), sun-dipped beauty wafting off the trees, nirvana found in nothing save the worldliness of world, then finally each other. direct connect, no intermediaries, that twisted fear erased in an orgasm of understanding thanks to a brain no longer too young to comprehend. dimensions in new colors, sounds and numbers, the tantalizing lurch of sixtyten, seared into my head and left there lingering like a gauzy sound, an empty memory or better yet: a clue.
Lift To Experience – The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads
I don’t want to begin with a trope and have to carry through its execution. I don’t want an introduction giving me some context to work around; to seep into and out of. Now I am half way to the thing I don’t want; so, start: I found it difficult to write this. I am finding it difficult to write this album into a corner. My favourite album of last year, there should be lots of words spilling.