One of the lovely things about being back in my adoptive hometown of Leeds is finding new places amongst the familiar. The pace of change in a city like this is rapid (and occasionally rapacious), and a couple of years away means whole swathes of waterfront are no longer a building site but a fully-formed, bright and shiny piece of regeneration, a poster child for the city’s renaissance and the newest, hippest place to eat tapas, drink cocktails and people-watch.
Granary Wharf is indeed very lovely. So far, it seems to be doing better than most at shaking off the inevitable feeling of artifice that comes with extensive regeneration and the endless canyons of plate-glass that tend to accompany it, perhaps because the wharf itself, the actual dock, has been left mostly untouched. The stonework is uneven, worn, and rather lovely in the evening sunlight. It stlil looks more like an architect’s drawing than anyone’s home, mind.
You can eat, drink and admire the view in the shadow of Bridgewater Place, better known to taxi drivers, locals and Whovians as The Dalek. I happen to rather like the Dalek. You can see it as you come into the city, rising into the sky like the funnel of a lost ocean liner with its colour-changing lights and saying “Look at me!” It makes for a skyline to be reckoned with.
As I wandered though, I worried. The legacy of Clarence Dock looms large over each new stretch of waterfront regeneration. Another ghost town in waiting? The slums of the future? I think of the city centre as pizza dough in mid-air (bear with me here, people!); you can only tug it so far in every direction before you either run out of dough or tear a hole in the middle. Clarence Dock is too far out, and the city centre can’t stretch that far without cheap, fast transport links that don’t currently exist. Trinity Leeds, on the other hand, will tear a hole somewhere else, because the city just can’t support that much square footage of retail space. Something has to give.
I’m not convinced by the housing either; yet more flats that aspire to be called apartments and will inevitably mean that the older, less attractive, less well-marketed blocks elsewhere will struggle for tenants. The services aren’t there; sure, I’d love to live there now, but at the first sign of a partner/child, I’d be off. I wonder how many people making the kind of money you need to live there actually want to live so close to the station you can hear the announcements, right on top of a tapas bar.
I’ve long thought that we’ve raised a generation to believe that everyone lives in New York. It’s worse than that; we’ve raised a generation that believes everyone lives on sets in the Hollywood hills that look a bit like New York but have six times the square footage and no fourth wall. Thanks a bunch, Friends.
Places are shaped by technology, and America looks the way it does because of the railroad and the car, New York because of the invention of steel-reinforced concrete. I can’t help but think that Leeds (and indeed Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff) are being shaped by TV and the internet, by the unbridled, self-aggrandising confidence of Generation Y and their desire to live like they are extras on How I Met Your Mother.
A few thoughts on the events of ten years ago.
We all remember where we were. I was at school. Rumours flew, a memo went round instructing teachers to turn off televisions, senior management terrified of traumatising kids. By the end of the day, everyone knew something had happened and no-one knew what that thing was. It was a sensation we were unused to; peace had reigned in Northern Ireland for some time, we were a post-Cold War generation with no real idea of what a threat to our way of life would look like. This changed the moment my brother and I walked through the front door to find our father watching BBC News 24.
Television was how most of the world experienced the events of September 11th 2001, and the subsequent events of the decade since that day. I remember watching the live footage of Baghdad the night of “shock and awe”, the fall of the Saddam statue, Col Tim Collins’ speech (both the original and the subsequent dramatisation). I finally saw United 93 this year, which is as shocking because of the chaos and incoherency of the initial response as it is moving because of the bravery of the people on the plane. Both live and after-the-fact with the gloss of Hollywood applied, the pictures were thrust into our living rooms.
And then there were moments when the shockwaves invaded your real life. I watched the 7/7 London bombings unfold on the news, but two weeks later on the 21st was in London, a 17-year-old work experience kid, when a second set of backpack bombs failed to go off but nonetheless brought the city to a standstill. Panicked phone calls, confusion, loved ones not knowing where we were. I had a tiny taste of the chaos wrought on my capital.
There is a scar on the landscape of Manhattan. Your first view of the skyline is a shock, even years later. My joy at crossing the Queensboro Bridge in a yellow cab from Kennedy airport and seeing Manhattan strung out along the night time horizon was tempered by the knowledge that the far southern tip of that string of lights was not how it used to look, how it looked in pictures or on TV. Three days later I made the pilgrimage that every tourist makes now. By this time, October 2009, there was little to see. Construction proceeds apace.
I haven’t really shown these photos to anyone before, simply because they are not of much photographic or artistic merit. Still, they stand as memories, the moment I went and bore witness to the rebuilding.
Asking me to write an objective review of anything by Counting Crows is like asking a child to review a bowl of ice cream. Sure, it might not be quite the right flavour and there’s never enough of it, but you’re unlikely to catch me looking a gift horse in the mouth. Given how rare new material from them is, us Crows fans are prone to fits of rapture when it does appear.
Having duly shot myself in the foot as far as my credibility is concerned, I shall now proceed to tell you that this is a stunning piece of filming, a powerful performance and a restatement of the profound emotional depth of these songs which you should all rush out and buy, immediately.* Don’t believe me? Watch the video.
What we have here is a performance of Counting Crows’ debut August and Everything After. Released in 1993 and an out-of-the-blue success the following year, it went on to sell more than 7 million copies. The original is a fragile, beautiful thing of sparse elegance and staggering, heart-rending power. It frequently crops up in critics’ lists of the best albums of that decade. They never matched it for commercial success or critical acclaim, and to some extent have been living in its shadow ever since. Still, as legacies go, it’s not a bad one to be stuck with.
Only three of this band actually appear on August as members of Counting Crows: Duritz, keyboard player Charlie Gillingham and guitarist Dave Bryson. David Immergluck has the unusual status of having played on the album as a session player before eventually joining the band full-time in 1999, whilst Dan Vickrey joined the band shortly after they finished August in time for the 16-month tour that accompanied it. Two drummers and one bass player have come and gone since then, but the incumbents are more than worthy. Jim Bogios in particular is a potent addition, matching the drama and dynamic range of the songs with effortless competence.
Given there are three times as many guitars as there were on the record, it is both impressive and near-miraculous that the trio manage to add to the songs without treading on each others’ notes. If you’ll excuse a moment’s wild rock-journalist-hyperbole, I have been known to compare the arrival of Immergluck in Counting Crows to the introduction of Don Felder to the Eagles. Both arrived first on “difficult” third albums and brought a more natural, instinctive rock voice to their respective bands, liberating the other guitarists to do more interesting things in the process. Immergluck also plays mandolin and pedal steel, broadening the palette further. If you’ve pressed play on the video at the bottom already, you are by now experiencing Immy’s pedal steel abuse; I’m fairly sure that doesn’t appear in whatever the pedal steel equivalent of A Tune A Day is. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing and that all pedal steel players are mutants from the planet Zog, so little sense does that miraculous instrument make to the rest of us.
Vickrey is a charming country-rock guitarist, but he also has a wonderful, underappreciated voice; he nails the backing vocal on Time and Time Again, a beautiful echo of the lead. (Those of you who’ve seen Crows live know he also sings the good stuff on Goodnight Elisabeth and A Long December, and has a nice line in hats.)
Headgear notwithstanding, Bryson is without a doubt the coolest. Les Paul Juniors, Gretsch hollowbodies and a distinct lack of histrionics, Dave is just getting on with it. He has so many of the crucial little shapes and figures that make these songs, some of them no doubt dating back to when these songs were nothing more than him and AD at an open mic somewhere.
August opens with Round Here. Less a song than a creed to Crows fans (I have actually seen people, admittedly in the States, entering a state that closely resembles rapture in the middle of performances of Round Here…). It’s such a powerful song, such a sprawling musical object, that the album, and thus the show, runs the risk of struggling to follow it up. In this form, with Raining in Baltimore shoehorned into the middle, it runs to almost 12 minutes. There’s not much I can do to describe what they do to this song live, but seeing as you’ve already gone to the bottom of this post and pressed play on the YouTube video, I don’t need to. Ah, the wonders of modern technology… (more…)
SPOILERS: If you haven’t read Less Than Zero, American Psycho, Imperial Bedrooms or Bright Lights, Big City and would like to do so in the future, it’s probably not a great idea to read this. BLBC in particular has an ending quite capable of being spoiled by the heavy quoting that follows.
Like, it seems, many of the critics, I was distinctly unsure what to make of Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel in 5 years and sequel to his scorching, iridescent debut Less Than Zero (both, incidentally, are named after Elvis Costello albums) . In the end it took not a rereading of Less Than Zero, or indeed an evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the company of Ellis and hundreds of his fans, but an encounter with another work of the 1980s “literary brat pack” before I could truly bring it into focus.
Last night I finished Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. I only picked it up because it was £2 in FOPP, and I nearly didn’t do that, only spotting the stack behind the counter once I had picked up a few other thing and gone to pay for them. “Oh, chuck in a copy of that,” I said, gesturing toward the pile of yellow paperbacks behind the cashier. All things considered I’m rather glad I did. I walked a few doors up to my favourite cafe in Nottingham and started to read. (more…)
Like everyone who passes through and falls in love with the place, I feel a strange pull today, a desire to be there, to stand beside New Yorkers and remember. To stand once again on the perimeter of the chasm left in downtown that they called Ground Zero. To stand beside those who will rally today in support of the Islamic Cultural Centre and all that its construction represents, in the knowledge that tolerance and mutual understanding is the only way out of these dark days.
The experience was instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever had a track break on an electric trainset, except that in the real world trains are heavy and have significant momentum. Thus, deprived of current they don’t skid to a sudden, plasticky halt but rather slide on for half a mile, slowly but inevitably losing speed. Everything bar the fire escape signs suddenly and simultaneously went out, and slowly, deliberately, the whine of the engine dipped and eventually ceased. After an ominous silence, the first of a succession of interruptions began. The hilarious announcements from the man on the tannoy (who probably had a ridiculous job title, but it’s slipped my mind) who seemed to know remarkably little about the man who was apparently trying to “recycle” the engine, let alone whether such a process was wise or likely to succeed. The banter between the passengers was fascinating, and delightfully American in its world-weary but essentially optimistic humour. The English train traveller would have been swearing under his breath at some unseen authority figure responsible for all such disasters, whereas the Americans started sharing anecdotes and advice, calling ahead to their relatives or cracking jokes. At one point we seemed destined to be shunted onto another train in what sounded like a spectacularly dangerous line-up-the-trains-and-jump-across manoeuvre, but then, miraculously, it sprang to life again and we were off, our 45-minute stay in that particular stretch of Rhode Island over with. (more…)
Back in NYC on a whim
Returning to New York was impulsive. Having checked out of my Baltimore B&B, I spent the morning wandering the city, trying and failing to find any internet access; I still had in my mind the idea that I wanted to go to Boston, but in all my searching I had found nowhere to stay. In the end, I gave up and fled back to New York. Nominally, this was because I knew where there was an affordable hotel and plentiful internet, but it was a flight back to familiarity on other levels as well.
I boarded a train in Baltimore, bound for Penn Station, New York, NY; does anyone ever get used to that? The immensity of that destination? Can anywhere, except perhaps Grand Central, be so storied, so laden with myth? Even in its current subterranean concrete-bound incarnation, it comes with excitement and anticipation as standard. (more…)