Lost John (Lonnie Donegan, 1956)

Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 recording of the traditional song ‘Lost John’ contains more wonderful moments than most artists manage in a whole career. Donegan was a lovably inclusive singer, treating his band and his listeners as part of the gang, as this intro to the song shows: ‘Now this here’s the story about an escaped convict called Long Gone Lost John / It’s got a nice chorus so if anybody wanna join in, here’s the way it goes…’ His band rattle and yelp through the tune and Donegan morphs from a jovial variety performer into a frenzied rock and roller, the recording equipment struggling to capture his rasping shouts.

The song is doubly significant to me. I was introduced to Donegan’s music when I avidly listened to, and recorded, Peel’s Radio 1 show around the millennium. Peel could hardly contain his glee when he contrived to play a Lonnie Donegan recording such as (my own favourite) ‘Ham ‘n’ Eggs’. When the singer was admitted to hospital in 2002 with heart problems, Peel visited him at his bedside, which I suspect was a pilgrimage of sorts for the DJ – Peel once remarked that in his opinion of rock and roll history, ‘Lonnie Donegan pushed the button that started it all’. When Donegan passed away in November of that year, Peel tearfully recounted the visit during one of his shows. He had sat at Donegan’s side and chatted, and together they had sung Peel’s favourite lyrics from ‘Lost John’:

Now Lost John made a pair of shoes of his own
Finest shoes that ever were born
Heels on the front, heels behind
So nobody know which way Lost John g’wine

…which, in fairness, are some of the finest lyrics I can think of too.

In the radio shows immediately following Donegan’s death, Peel could barely hold himself together. During the first show, he didn’t manage to speak in between songs and choked on his words each time he tried to talk about the singer. Even by the following week, Peel only stopped playing Donegan songs because his wife Sheila warned him not to.

When John Peel died in October 2004, the song ‘Lost John’ obviously took on an extra significance, not just because of the titular character, but because of the attachment that Peel himself had to the song and his favourite singer. To me, the song has become a celebration of both Donegan and Peel – two of my musical heroes.

You really must listen to ‘Lost John’ – click here to listen to it on Spotify. In fact, work your way through at least the first CD of Castle Music’s ‘Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology 1955-1967’.

As the man said: ‘If anybody asks you who sung the song / Tell ‘em Lonnie Donegan been here and gone’.

Nicolas Moulin, Blindness and deserted streets

Via BLDGBLOG, I’ve just discovered Nicolas Moulin’s computer-altered images of Paris, with streets emptied of all life and the ground floors of each building sealed with concrete. You can see more of Moulin’s stunning work here.

One commenter on the BLDGBLOG post referenced the opening scenes of Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Days Later’ – but these images are perhaps even more affecting, as all traces of human life has been removed. I spent last night watching Fernando Meirelles faithful adaptation of José Saramago’s novel ‘Blindness’, and was particularly impressed/horrified at the scenes depicting the city, Sao Paulo, after the population has become blind. The streets are strewn with rubbish, but also with families, animals and bodies. While much of this speaks of death, it also shows that the city is resolutely full of life, even after the blindness epidemic has affected everyone.

I find Nicolas Moulin’s images compelling and disturbing precisely because of the lack of life, and because the comprehensive removal of all traces of humanity seems premeditated.

Spotify playlist: 30 Year Old Man (March 2010)

I’m terribly self-indulgent. This summer I’ll turn 30, and as I’m currently feeling more positive about my life than I ever have before, this playlist celebrates all the things that I’m not.

1. 30 century man – Scott Walker
2. Mr suit – Wire
3. You’re getting old on your job – Lonnie Johnson with Clara Smith
4. I’m a worried man – Johnny Cash
5. Look back in anger – Television Personalities
6. Shadows of tomorrow – Madvillian / Lord Quas
7. 50 year old man – The Fall
8. Getting old blues – Johnnie Temple
9. Working for the man – Roy Orbison
10. Dull life – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
11. Headache – Frank Black
12. Funny how time slips away – Elvis Presley & The Jordanaires & The Imperials Quartet
13. Sleepy man blues – Bukka White
14. Jack o’ diamonds – Lonnie Donegan
15. Getting old and gray – Howlin’ Wolf
16. Timothy – Henry Mancini
17. Tomorrow never knows – Jad Fair

And curse you Spotify for the lack of ‘Dignified and Old’ by The Modern Lovers.

Click here to listen to 30 Year Old Man on Spotify.

Lunar Park and required reading

I’m currently reading ‘Lunar Park’ by Bret Easton Ellis, a book in which the protagonist is a fictionalised version of Ellis himself. I’ve read and watched ‘American Psycho’, and my knowledge of Bret Easton Ellis ends there. Lunar Park appears at first to be autobiographical, but it’s soon apparent that Ellis the narrator is an exaggerated portrayal of Ellis the author. Both Ellises are famous and successful novelists with the same bibliography. Narrator Ellis has extreme drug problems, an illegitimate child, and a self-obsessed and sulky attitude.

Given the caricatured nature of Ellis the narrator, I’ve assumed that there are lots of details in the novel that are also exaggerated or falsified. The narrator is married to Jayne Dennis, a Hollywood superstar actress who has starred in blockbuster films with Keanu Reeves. Now, I’m pretty sure that Dennis is a fictional character, but now I’m wondering about how prepared one should be to read ‘Lunar Park’. Should I read Bret Easton Ellis’ Wikipedia profile to find out whether he did indeed have massive drug problems after the publication of ‘Less Than Zero’? Should I find out who were his celebrity friends? Should I Google Jayne Dennis to determine whether she’s fictional – and if she doesn’t exist, should I try to determine whether the name is an alias for another Hollywood actress? Would my understanding of the novel be lessened if I hadn’t read ‘American Psycho’, and should I have read ‘Less Than Zero’ before starting this book?

Some fiction clearly signals whether there’s required reading. Series or sequels are usually numbered to indicate where to begin. But some novels and films are more difficult to judge. A couple of nights ago I watched Wim Wenders’ ‘The American Friend’, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’s Game’. The book is the third in Highsmith’s series of novels featuring Tom Ripley, and you could certainly argue that the series is richer if read in strict order. But with Wenders’ title change, and the lack of cohesion across the various filmed versions of the novels, the required reading (or watching) for ‘The American Friend’ is far from clear. Without prior knowledge of the character, perhaps it’s possible to get through the whole film without realising that Tom Ripley is a serial killer, given that in this particular story his motives are quite ambiguous.

Should works like ‘Lunar Park’ and ‘The American Friend’ come with a required reading list, or a set of instructions? What’s the correct or default way to approach them?

Talking of instructions for fiction, I’m interested in non-linear fiction, books that require you to determine some kind of unique path through the work. Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ is a good example: a quarter of the book comprises a fictional work called ‘Pale Fire’, a poem in four cantos. The remainder is an essay on the poem, and yet both of these together make up Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’. To read the book you have to decide whether you’ll read first the poem and then the notes in standard linear fashion, or whether you’ll dot between lines of the poem and notes relating to those lines. I’d argue that the latter is the ‘correct’ way to uncover the plot, but it’s up each individual reader to decide. The introduction to Milorad Pavic’s ‘Dictionary of the Khazars’ instructs the reader to refer to dip in and out of the fictionalised encyclopedia entries to piece together the story. Almost every page of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ requires the reader to decide for themselves how to progress through the fragmented text.

Anyway.

I’m not really trying to reach any conclusions, but there does seem to be a lot to be said about non-linear narratives and prerequisites when approaching fiction. As a side note, it strikes me that while there are good examples of books and, more and more, videogames with non-linear narratives, there are no non-linear films that I can think of, apart from perhaps Mike Figgis’ ‘Timecode’, at a pinch. Maybe someone should attempt to create a choose-your-own-adventure film to be ‘read’ via DVD chapter selections. Or has this been tried already?

This too shall pass – RGM version (OK Go, 2010)

This music video is really rather wonderful. Various advertisers and filmmakers have created these Heath Robinson-esque contraptions before now (and I’m a total sucker for all of them), but this one’s especially inventive. I imagine that some people will be upset about what looks like a cut at about the 2:30 mark, but I don’t think it makes a bit of difference to the overall effect.

On top of that, the fact that this video is embeddable in this blog is important. See here for an discussion of OK Go’s struggles against record company EMI to allow them to create and share their own music videos.

Every Plan B magazine ever, for free

In an admirable attempt to secure its status in the history of music journalism, the team behind the now-defunct Plan B magazine are offering every single back issue in pdf format, for free. You can download it here – you’ll first need to get hold of a torrent client though.

Plan B was a pretty bold publication. It had some really fantastic aspects, and I hope it’s not disrespectful to the journalists to say that I thought the often beautiful illustrations were among its best assets. Everett True’s snarky, self-congratulatory editorials often grated with me, and his indulgence often permeated into the rest of the magazine. Having said that, Plan B was a welcome forum for new music in the years following John Peel’s death, and since the magazine closed shop last year I’ve still not found a single source for music recommendations that feels so much like home.

Tim Major – writer & editor

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