Monthly Archives: February 2014

West Coast influences

 

 

Hollywood

A view of Hollywood, Los Angeles – with the Hollywood sign almost entirely hidden in the mist, but with the publicity sign for “The Expendables” rather clearer in the foreground!

 

Television and radio afford constant opportunities to look back. Certain channels are full of drama and comedy repeats; news, documentary and arts programmers are continually acknowledging this or that anniversary to sanction the use of archive material.

One such reflective series, Radio 2’s West Coast Johnnie Walker, about the concurrent Californian glory days of FM radio and pop and rock music, prompts two personal memories. First, when I was a regular listener to Walker on Radio 1, for the year or two before he left the station in 1976.  At that time he was one of the few daytime DJs who sought to play more varied stuff on his show and his frustration with scheduling conservatism prompted his departure to the USA.  Ironically, his music preferences which seemed so controversial then have with the passage of time become quite mainstream.

My second memory is of ZigZag, the music monthly  which shared many of the same tastes, as can be seen by this list of readers’ favourite albums.

 

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The Golden Gate Bridge, looking back from Sausalito to San Francisco.

 

One well-known figure from the West Coast scene of the period is Jackson Browne. It was Walker and John Peel who introduced me to Browne through playing his “Fountain of Sorrow”. The song was part of the Late for the Sky album released in 1974 but I only heard it when it was released as a single in the UK about 18 months later – possibly to coincide with concert appearances.

I used to say the song changed the way I listened to popular music. That seems an exaggeration now, but it was much longer than any single that I had heard before, and its melody and arrangement sounded unusually rich and complex coming from a recognisable guitar/piano/drums ensemble. I was easily seduced by literate lyricists in those days, and Browne’s poetic discipline and controlled vocals added to his individuality.   

 

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San Francisco Bay, with Alcatraz in the background.

 

Although the audience for pop and rock music has become older in the past few generations, I feel that it is still primarily the music of younger people, and they are fully entitled, as we did, to over-analyse and over-praise it.  Listening now to “Fountain of Sorrow”,  a lyric about regret and disillusionment but also optimism, it is clear that the narrative and argument of the lyrics are less profound than I thought in my early 20s. The music and playing still sound rather good, though, with the arrangement clean and crisp, in contrast to the heavier and more cluttered sound of Browne’s 1980s albums.

 West Coast Johnnie Walker includes some of the less well remembered artists of the period, like Spirit, It’s a Beautiful Day, Kaleidoscope and the Youngbloods, and less well known tracks from artists like Love, Country Joe and the Fish and the Doobie Brothers. Those 40 year old productions still retain an attractive freshness. If you’ve never heard them before, that must mean they count as more than mere nostalgia, mustn’t it?

 

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A more modern West Coast view, of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

 

 

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A seer, a sage

 

The most famous writer I have ever met in person is the late George Mackay Brown. Visiting my sister and brother-in-law in Orkney, I encountered him fleetingly after Mass once in Stromness, in a tiny congregation where he was a self-effacing although (due to his familiar features)  a highly visible part. 

 

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Reading Mackay Brown’s Collected Poems, it is significant to see how many are full of religious imagery. The original collections bore such titles as Loaves and Fishes, The Wreck of the Archangel and Corpus Christi. Many individual works draw from the Lent and Christmas Christian narratives.  Yuletide examples include “King of Kings”, a prose-poem of the letters which the inn-keeper at Bethlehem writes to one of Herod’s security officials; “Winterfold” and “Stars : a Christmas Patchwork”, dramatic speeches by the various characters of the Nativity story; and shorter pieces like “The Lodging”, “Midnight Words” and “Carol : Kings and Shepherds”.

More striking still, though, is how all his poems are immersed in, and imbued with, the life and history of his native Orkney Islands. Poems full of seasons, weathers, tides, travel, crops, food and drink. Poems full of Orcadian place names, and of characters historical and fictional. Poems of different shapes and sizes and forms, often more like pieces of prose or drama.

 

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To his poems, you could certainly apply the cliché that they have a timeless quality. The way he uses words is reminiscent of Chaucer, classical poetry, medieval poetry, Burns; especially when the subject matter is centuries-old crafts and trades such as crofting and fishing. However, you can certainly also identify his kinship with more recent poets like Eliot, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Manley Hopkins, Hughes and Heaney.

 

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You sense that, as a person, he might have come across as austere and a bit old-fashioned, but in his writing these characteristics are present in the best possible sense. They show someone who understood and appreciated qualities and values from the past and knew how to pass them on: a seer, a sage.

 

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Some of my favourites from Collected Poems are the early “Chorus : Soon Spring Will Come”; “The Stranger”, with its Rashomon- style multiple perspective narrative; the often-anthologised “Hamnavoe”;  “The Sailor the Old Woman and the Girl” , with its hints of Keats and traditional ballads; “New Year Stories”, where the favourite device of an assembly of colourful local characters is adapted towards a wish to bless the forthcoming year; and “The Return of the Women” which is a play really, about the group of women in a tiny community dominated by Saul the Skipper.

 

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More of Mackay Brown’s poems can be sampled here

 

Reference :  Bevan, Archie and Murray, Brian (eds)(2005)    The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown   London : John Murray

 

 

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