Monday, February 8, 2010

Layer 240 . . . Superbowl, The Who, Gil Scott-Heron, Joseph Stiglitz, Bankers, Finance, Fairness, Values, the Flood Tablet, and Nick Clegg


Having somehow slept through most of the first half of last night's Superbowl, currently an annual ritual, I woke up right on the stroke of half time, just in time for the entertainment. Last year it was the incredible Bruce and the E Street Band blasting out the best mini-concert ever. Tonight it was the turn of The Who.

Performing on a circular stage, in the centre of the pitch (naturally) they did well. It was quite a spectacle. Radiating out from the stage was what turned out to be a huge circular “screen” - actually a series of radiating spokes of light strips, computer controlled, on which appeared various patterns and shapes synched to the music. It's difficult to describe, but the technology is very impressive (presumably very expensive) and must have been amazing for those within the stadium. Take a look, and have a listen -

I don't currently know who was playing the bass for The Who but if you listen on a good sound system (or headphones) you can tell it was impressive – almost up to John Entwhistle standards. But I still miss The Ox. It's not quite the same seeing just the two old guys, Townshend and  Daltry, taking their bows at the end, arms around one another.   -  acoustic Who  -  Springsteen and the band 2009

In case anyone's interested, the underdogs won – the New Orleans Saints.


Poetry and Politics

Yesterday's Observer Review had three whole pages on Gil Scott-Heron, including its cover and pages 4-5. A man ahead of his time.

Born in Chicago in 1949 Gil earned a writing scholarship to a New York university.

The “great pioneer of socially conscious soul and rap” has a new album out, called 'I'm New Here'.

Weirdly, and to his great credit, the guy who published Obama's two books in this country, Jamie Byng, has also republished Gil Scott-Heron's two books – 'The Vulture' and 'The Nigger Factory'. (See Layer 238)
“I was just taken aback by the voice, the words, the poetry . . . I had been raised on rock but this was just breathtaking. The seasoned voice, the wryness of the delivery, the level of irony and satire in the lyrics – the whole thing just blew me away. Discovering those songs was an epiphanic moment for me.”
Those songs include Winter In America, Lady Day & John Coltrane, Home Is Where The Hatred Is, Pieces Of A Man, The Bottle, Whitey On The Moon and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
“As a teenager, his writing skills earned him a scholarship to the Fieldston School in New York and, from there, he went on to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, chosen, he later said, because it was where his hero, Langston Hughes, had studied. It was there he met Brian Jackson, his musical collaborator on many of the great songs that would follow.

Together throughout the 1970s, Scott-Heron and Jackson made music that reflected the turbulence, uncertainty and increasing pessimism of the times, merging the soul and jazz traditions and drawing on an oral poetry tradition that reached back to the blues and forward to hip-hop. The music sounded by turns angry, defiant and regretful while Scott-Heron's lyrics possessed a satirical edge that set them apart from the militant soul of contemporaries such as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.

"I still can't think of too many performers who have the intellectual range in their songwriting that takes in satire and social commentary apart from the early Bob Dylan and maybe the young Randy Newman," says Jamie Byng. "But there's also a great empathy there. Gil writes about the state of the world, but also about community, family, and the plight of the individual. And, he has never compromised. That's maybe a big part of the reason why his music never really crossed over. What he was saying was too raw, too truthful."

In more ways than one, then, Gil Scott Heron was, and remains, the great outsider, exalted by his devoted faithful, overlooked by the mainstream. His influence, though, is pervasive, though few and far between are the rappers that can make their lyrical gift, or its delivery, seem so effortless. "I work hard at it," he says, "just like I worked hard at getting my masters degree. It's not just something I sit down and do. You have to learn and keep learning."

"He sees himself as a live performer and a story teller," the album's producer Richard Russell told me last week. "Even in the studio, he brings this extraordinary energy with him, this natural, god-given ability to perform, to tell it like it is. The words just seem to flow though him.

He's a genuine artist in a way that most performers aren't anymore. He has no conception of time, no regard for money. He seems utterly free from the normal everyday burdens people carry.”

He's playing the RFH on 20th April.


More On Emotions

Newsnight tonight had a feature on blubbing politicians (see previous Layer). It was pretty incoherent, and though I quite like the female presenter, her comments and questions left you wishing for Paxo to be on the case. He's a hard act to work alongside.

Also on the programme was writer and psychologist Susie Orbach, whose work I've always liked and respected, but even she had nothing new or interesting to say about the emotional cracking up we saw or heard about this weekend – Campbell and Brown.

There was some rubbish spoken about whether post-Diana we expect our leaders to 'show some emotion', and a slight suggestion that they can blub to order, as part of their repertoire, which is plainly ridiculous. Sure – Blair can put on a 'sincere' and 'emotional' performance when he thinks fit, but there's a world of difference between his bullshit and what we saw in Campbell's case, where the man had clearly just lost it under less than fierce questioning.

Like The Terminator, though, he'll be back.


Start The Week

Radio 4 this morning gave us a good dose of the great Joseph Stiglitz, who was virtually the only economist to predict our great financial crisis. It's his birthday tomorrow.

His books include Globalization and Its Discontents, Principles of Macroeconomics, Fair Trade for All: How Trade Can Promote Development, The Three Trillion Dollar War,   Whither Socialism ?
 and 2010, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy.

He said we now need a totally different model of capitalism, and a totally different attitude to regulation of banking and finance. Most recent economic growth was due only to the property bubble. Even he didn't imagine the extent of the bankers' arrogance and stupidity when they were gambling insanely with billions in order to make their huge bonuses.

But it's not just their mismanagement of risk he takes issue with. He points out that they clearly don't give a stuff about the morality of taking advantage of the poor and ignorant, or even the rich and ignorant.

He says we still haven't seen enough 'Keynesian' spending on infrastructure, technology and education. More needs to be spent in order to stay out of recession. (NB Cameron and Osborne.)

Incredible amounts of money are being wasted on the military – on weapons that don't work, to fight enemies that don't exist.

He also spoke about the insane level of salaries and bonuses in the financial 'services' sector – how the lure of big money is so great as to be irresistible, with the result that many bright and capable and creative people who could be of benefit to society are drawn into being hired hands in the scummy banking casinos in places like London and New York. They don't have the strength of character to resist the temptations and just do the right thing.

There was also a brief discussion about the 'John Lewis' model of employee-owned businesses and cooperatives.


On the same programme Peter Brook spoke about the role of the theatre (and by implication the creative arts) in enabling us to see through the lies and bullshit into the true nature of our society, and see through to truth and reality.

Interestingly he also mentioned that Blair actually believes every word he says, so can he be called a liar? Obama is very different, so we can still have genuine hope, and not just pursue false hopes.

In terms of developing a culture of non-violence and tolerance – these have to be passionate affirmations of strong belief, and not just 'passive' attitudes.

A passionate criticism of bankers is needed as an affirmation of higher values.


The Flood Tablet

Today's object in the History Through 100 Objects series was the so-called Flood Tablet – a clay writing tablet found in Northern Iraq, dating from 700BC approx.

The message of this ancient story is that we should abandon wealth, spurn property, seek our own survival, help others, and then we will in turn be rewarded. [Very similar to the Buddhist story of Siddharta?]

God brings 'the flood' because the world is full of violence. [Maybe this is what climate change is all about!]

This story marks the changeover from polytheism to monotheism. Belief in a single, rational, creative, spiritual entity.


Radio Clegg

Nick Clegg was also on the radio, talking about many things, including his disgust at the MPs who were 'flippers' and deliberately made stacks of cash out of lying about their 'main residence' and getting wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. He pointed out that there were NO Lib Dem MPs caught up in this, and that Brown and Cameron have taken NO action against their flippers, even though it's quite clear that their capital gains have been property development at OUR expense.

It seems Clegg is keen to reduce the size of classes to 15 at KS1. Seems like a good idea to me – especially in areas where there are high levels of E2L and SEN. Interesting that very few others have paid any attention to this. I've even heard of headteachers who have increased the size of KS1 classes back to 30 on taking over a school – presumably in order to invest more resources in chasing SATs scores at KS2.

Clegg spoke convincingly about what he called shocking levels of inequality in this country, especially in inner cities in places like Sheffield. We should all care about having a fairer society, and working for a fairer country. [See other blogs on The Spirit Level].

He spoke passionately about the need for fairer taxes, and for the rich to pay more in taxes. Also – no-one should pay any tax on the first £10,000 they earn. For Clegg, fairer taxes are the most important policy issue.

Not much to disagree with there. Well to the left of NuLabour, I'd say.

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