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One of the best things about hitting the Roaring Forties is becoming more and more comfortable about the things that I don’t like, or don’t understand, and being completely and utterly open about it.  Whilst I’ll defend to the hilt for these things to exist, I’m no fan of opera, I don’t like traditional country music (Johnny Cash is as far as I can get in that direction, and even then it’s only when he’s covering contemporary songs), and, well, uncooked celery is just plain wrong.  However, one part of the arts that I’ve never liked or understood is dear old William Shakespeare, which is a little problematic for someone who loves putting words together to make sentences and paragraphs, to tell stories in the written form.

Every year or so I take myself to see some Shakespeare production or other, thinking it will be this time that I’ll get it, a light will come on, and, as if I was blind but could now see, I’d get what all the fuss is about.  And there is a heck of a lot of fuss about this bloke – can anyone think of a more revered writer in the English language?  Except, for me, no lights come on; I don’t discover any kind of insight.  Five minutes into the production I’m lost: I can’t follow which character is trying to screw over which other character, and quite frankly I don’t care who’s about to kick the bucket.  And all the supposedly brilliant words rush from the stage as if trying to escape from the actors’ mouths.  I can do nothing but hurriedly retreat to my happy place, which is either sitting on the couch with He Who Also Can’t Stand The Bard and knocking off a bottle of Verdelho, or recalling sepia-toned images of a village in the Blue Mountains that’s so special to me I won’t even share its name.

Not long ago, after yet another disastrous Shakespeare sojourn, a friend emailed me an article titled ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ written by George Orwell in 1947.  Orwell tries to develop an argument against a ‘pamphlet’ (which I’m assuming is some kind of prehistoric blog post) written by Leo Tolstoy in 1903 in which the Russian literary giant quite summarily heaps so much scorn on Shakespeare that it makes for hilarious reading.

Here are some of the tastiest bits.

Tolstoy begins by saying that throughout life Shakespeare has aroused in him ‘an irresistible repulsion and tedium’.  Conscious that the opinion of the civilised world is against him, he has made one attempt after another on Shakespeare’s works, reading and re-reading them in Russian, English and German, but ‘I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’.  Now at the age of seventy-five, he has once again re-read the entire works of Shakespeare, including the historical plays and ‘I have felt with an even greater force, the same feelings – this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits – thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding – is a great evil, as is every untruth.

In case you’re wondering when Tolstoy will actually form an opinion on the matter, Orwell goes on to report, Tolstoy then makes a sort of exposition of the plot of King Lear, finding it at every step to be stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.

Leo Tolstoy: possibly not the most easy-going chap that's ever existed.

Although Orwell tries his hardest to pick a fight with Tolstoy, he does find points of agreement.  For example, Orwell states that Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker, his most serious thoughts are uttered irrelevantly or indirectly, and we do not know to what extent he wrote with ‘a purpose’…It is perfectly possible that he looked on at least half of his plays as mere pot-boilers and hardly bothered about purpose or probability so as he could patch up something, usually from stolen material, which would more or less hang together on stage. Furthermore – and I really like this bit – [Shakespeare] was noticeably cautious, not to say cowardly, in his manner of uttering unpopular opinions.  Almost never does he put a subversive or sceptical remark into the mouth of a character likely to be identified with himself.  Throughout his plays the acute social critics, the people who are not taken in by accepted fallacies, are buffoons, villains, lunatics or persons who are shamming insanity or in a state of violent hysteria.

Orwell, however, still concludes, [The] most striking thing is how little difference it all [meaning Tolstoy’s bloody brilliant tirade] makes.  One cannot answer Tolstoy’s pamphlet, at least on its main counts.  There is no argument by which one can defend a poem.  It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.  And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must by ‘not guilty’.  Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him.  Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least pamphleteer.  He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously.  And with what result?  Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly any has read.

Except, thanks to the internet and a learned friend, Tolstoy’s pamphlet has informed at least this humble little blogger and made him very, very happy indeed.  All I can say is, thank God for Leo Tolstoy, for being the great big literary punk that he is, and for making me feel so damn good about not getting the Old Bard, for not liking what the man wrote, for wanting to run a mile whenever a Shakespeare play starts.

Of course, I say again that I’ll fervently defend the right for anyone to put on a Shakespeare play, but, for me, in terms of actually sitting in the audience, I’d rather spend the evening hacking out my eyeballs with a rusty nail.

Or read The Death of Ivan Ilyich over and over.

A Cataract Gorge postcard, 1906

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case and, let me be frank, a shitload of hope that I’ll write well here (and by ‘well’ I mean, as I’ve noted before, to write by hand).  While the jury’s out on the latter, the minimalist luggage situation has caused one very significant problem: no room for CDs.  In the past when I’ve gone away to write I’ve been able to go in my trusty Barina, meaning more than enough room for a swag of CDs.  But not this trip.

Of course, I have an mp3-player contraption loaded with some much-loved albums, recent gems by Four Tet, Frightened Rabbit and Volcano Choir, amongst others.  There is, however, a need to hear music through the air, music that fills more than the space between my ears.  For that purpose I made room for just one CD from the hundreds (possibly thousands – eek) I have collected over the years, so I chose very, very carefully indeed.  I chose what I know will be in the top three albums of 2010.

When I arrived at the Gorge, tired from a day of travelling (two flights, a stack of waiting and reading in between) but also excited about commencing another period of writing in an unfamiliar place, I discovered that the CD case was broken.  I feared the worst – the actual CD could be irreparably damaged.  I needed to play it to make sure it worked.  In the first hour I hunted around the cottage for a CD player, getting increasingly desperate.  Could I really be about to spend the next month – a whole month – without music in the air?

After turning the place upside down (though not really: I am at heart a gentle soul, and this cottage is 120 years old and, apparently, one of the most photographed in Tasmania, so it deserves respect) I realised that there was no magic music machine here.  Immediately, and just a little shamelessly, I emailed the Launceston City Council who manages the Cataract Gorge Artist-in-Residence Program.  No doubt sensing the distress in my words, they offered to bring around a CD player – but they couldn’t do it for a few days.  Could I cope until Thursday? they asked.  No, of course I couldn’t, but I wasn’t about to push my luck any further.  For the next 96 hours there was no sound in the cottage other than that of pen on paper, fingers on laptop keyboard, and, at the end of each day, the sweet relief of white wine being poured into a champagne glass.

Then the glorious moment arrived: two lovely representatives from the Launceston City Council came around and dropped off a brand-spanking new CD player.  ‘We were just waiting for someone to ask,’ they said generously as they lifted the handsome black beast from the box.  An hour later, after a cup of a tea and a chat (we spent most of it talking about blogging, would you believe), they left me to my own devices.  But the stereo stubbornly refused to play my CD – it claimed that there was ‘no CD’ even though I could see such a thing on the spindle.  I pressed every button I could find and swore like a rabid trooper, but still my CD couldn’t be brought to life.

Being at times the most tenacious person you’ve ever met (or not met, as the case may be), I realised that the CD player had a USB port and I had a legal download of the album on my laptop.  Hooray for technology after all!  I put the album onto a memory stick that had once been used as a marketing gimmick, put the stick into the CD player, and…the bastard thing still wouldn’t work.  It quit playing halfway through tracks, and quite steadfastly refused to broadcast whole sections of the album.  I cleared the memory stick and put the album on it a second time, but it was still no good – the same mega-frustrating problem.

In the morning I’d be travelling two and a half hours to the other end of Tasmania to spend a couple of days in Hobart.  I hatched a plan: while in the big smoke I’d buy a damn good memory stick and see if that would fix a matter that was now keeping me up at night.  After spending much of my time holed up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage (poor bloody whales) and giving a workshop on writing about place, I ducked into town to get the much-desired memory stick – despite the fact that I’m running out of money, I didn’t skimp on price – and this morning I jumped on the bus back to Launceston.  Would what I had safe and secure in my laptop bag fix this hurdle to my month-long residency?

It was an interesting bus trip to say the least.  Behind me was a man who, with earphones in his ears, insisted on laughing loudly to himself the whole time as if he was in his own private comedy show.  Even more worrying, in the seats in front of me were two heavily tattooed young men who spent the journey talking loudly and proudly about how they’d both just gotten out of jail.  One of the men ‘couldn’t read or nuffin’’.  The other man had gone to Hobart to see his ‘missus’ before she too was sent to jail, but rather than stay with her he’d spent the night on the streets; this same man wondered if his mate knew that sometimes you can shoot a wombat twelve times and it may not die.  The poor granny beside me did nothing but stare straight ahead, refusing to even blink for fear of being knifed.  I had flash-backs to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Needless to say I clutched onto my newly purchased memory stick very tight, as if it was made of Unobtainium.

But then, thankfully, gratefully, I arrived in Launceston and walked back up to the Gorge.  Would the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage be soon filled with the sounds of an album that I know will be in the top ten of the decade?

As soon as I stepped into the cottage, I downloaded the album onto the new memory stick and then plugged the stick into the stereo.  Oh dear Lord, there it was at last.  Music in the air, good music, great music.  But it’s not just any music.  What I played this morning – and am still playing this evening as I write this post – does everything I expect of great music: it is clever, it is beautiful, it is dark (to the point of grimness); it makes you want to cry one minute and then swing your hips the next, or even do a bit of air-guitar; it is new, thoughtful, sometimes funny, but above all it takes risks.

It’s a clash, a mash-up, a remix and a reimagining.

Interested in hearing This Mortal Coil versus Sigur Ros?  Philip Glass versus Elton John?  REM versus Sia?  Want a listening journey that encompasses David Lynch soundtracks, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Coldplay, Nancy Sinatra, Nina Simone, Nirvana, Bon Iver, and Harry Dean Stanton, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan, just to name a few artists represented in this collection?   Do you have a penchant for melancholia and the more reflective side of eletronica?  If the answer is yes to these questions, you need Introversion by Irish DJ/producer/remixer/mash-up artist Phil Retrospector.  Amazingly it isn’t available commercially, but you can listen to it here.

Can I be so bold as to say that if the Coldplay versus The Beetles versus Joe Anderson mash-up called ‘Jude Will Fix It’ doesn’t make you smile or bring you to tears, or both at the same time, then you may want to check for a pulse – and I’m not even a crazy fan of these bands individually.  So I end this tale with a declaration and a request: if a wild Tasmanian storm comes Launceston’s way (the weather reports are saying that it’s quite possible this week) and I get flushed out of my little cliff-face cottage and washed into the Tamar River and never come up for air, then please have this song playing as you file out of the crematorium.

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case, but now I have music in the air.

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