Sunday, 23 October 2016

Alfredo Bini, ospite inatteso

The Cambridge Film Festival is underway. Yesterday I saw the best Italian documentary of the year, Alfredo Bini, an Unexpected Guest. Bini was Pasolini's producer. He stepped in and saved the writer's career in cinema after a bad first week on Accattone, and thereafter created the space and the conditions (and the financing) for all of Pasolini's films through to and including Oedipus Rex. He even rolled up his sleeves and beat off a gang of fascist teenagers when they fought with Pasolini at the Venice Film Festival (we see film of Bini collecting Pasolini's prize and apologising for the absent roughed-up director). Bini deserves our admiration but he is not the star of this film. Bini's name is in the title and his is the name on the lips of the impressive cast, which includes Bertolucci, Claudia Cardinale and Ugo Gregoretti, but the star is an angel in human form called Giuseppe Simonelli, a large, handsome, earthy-poetic man who could be played in a film by Gerard Depardieu. After a declaration by Bernardo Bertolucci that the art of cinema is the art of raising money, the film begins at a multi-storey hotel on a roadside a long way from Rome. The owner of the hotel is Simonelli. He tells of the day he met Alfredo Bini. He didn't know who Bini was. All he knew was that he was an impoverished old man. Bini asked could he stay at the hotel for a couple of days, and asked how much would it cost him to stay? He stayed as Simonelli's guest for ten years. Simonelli built a house for him, and created the space and the conditions (and the financing) for the fallen artist to recover his dignity and to live and die in peace. This is a beautiful and important film. Travel far and wide to see it.

The best account of Bini's life in English is his obituary by John Francis Lane published in The Guardian.

A few years back I published John's autobiography. It tells of him freeing repressed England and growing up (and down and dirty before finding love) in Rome through its great years of cinema. A friend of Fellini and Antonioni, he's in almost all of the masterpieces from that never to be repeated time, and he knew Pasolini of course.

The book is called 'To Each His Own Dolce Vita'.

Monday, 17 October 2016

'Friends' by Gary Numan

With Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this week, there has been a lot of talk about the literary content of song lyrics. Here's some lyrics beyond Dylan's imagination, and an analysis of them from the hardback edition of my book, Understanding Gary Numan. The lyrics are the song Friends, on the Tubeway Army album. I'm not sure if this extract made it into the second paperback edition. It may have done, but if it didn't here it is. And if you like this, buy the book (the paperback version makes a perfect £5 gift).

(lyrics by Gary Numan)

See the strange boy keeping to the shadows
He’s a very good friend of mine
I’ve seen you running from the ladies
Don’t tell me you’re not that kind
I’ve got the time if you’ve got the money
Mister you’ll be pleased you’ll see
We’ll meet by the tubeway as the screamer cries eleven
And you can have your way with me
You’re gonna make me feel so cold

See my one love talking to the pretty boy
I never did like her taste
My skin is rubber on a skeletal body
I’m physically going to waste
Feel my eyes and the tongue of a killer
I’m a humanoid logic machine
Don’t touch me with your painted little fingers
‘Cos I know where they’ve been
You’re not gonna put those scabs on me

I must hide from a thousand grinning faces
All sucking from my crazy mind
Take a ride out in my imagery of ages
And heaven knows what you will find
I’ve not time for the chitter-chatter ladies
I’m so busy trying to break this wall
Hear my words ‘cos emotion now is leaving
You see I’m really not a human at all
And I don’t think I wanna stay

It’s not the easiest of songs to analyse, because there are discrepancies in what is written on the lyric sheets and what is sung on the recordings. As written, it’s the song of an android prostitute in the form of a teenage boy who has developed growing feelings of shame after falling in love, or else feels suicidal after seeing a woman he loves talking with another boy. I’ll identify the sung-written differences later. In any case, Friends is a most important song in that it collects together ideas and images and a title that will advance into Are ‘Friends’ Electric?. Both are songs about lost love and loneliness in a seedy city landscape, and both feature a male robot prostitute. The main difference is that Friends is written from the point of view of the prostitute, the robot, hence the lack of commas. It’s a gloriously original, rhythmic and image-packed lyric.
In the first stanza, a boy is soliciting for sex from a seedy man he knows is out looking for it. The boy’s use of the adjective ‘strange’ and the clause ‘very good friend’ to describe another boy, a fellow prostitute, are used to put the would-be client at ease. They’re saying, ‘I know what you want and you can trust me’. These sentiments are sophisticated and human and so they add to the drama when it’s revealed that the boy isn’t ‘a human at all’. Human-like androids didn’t become common currency in the public imagination until after the slow rise of Blade Runner released four years later, but which didn’t really enter the general public consciousness until at least a decade after that (the film was dismissed by the critics and largely ignored by the public on its release). I haven’t read enough science-fiction novels to know how common a character is a boy-like robot with sophisticated human feelings who solicits gay sex in an attempt to shake away the hurt of lost love is, but it wasn’t very common in popular music in 1978, i.e. it was absolutely unique and quite beyond the imagination of the critics of the day who, to a man, failed to hail this as a fine work by an original voice. It’s punk poetry that makes John Cooper Clarke seem as cosy and as commonplace as Pam Ayres.
Back to the first stanza. I do like the evocative noun ‘screamer’, which suggests a frightening alarm, probably a siren call that marks the start of a curfew (it’s unlikely to be a call to prayer). This, particularly with the ‘tubeway’ locale, is suggestive of the siren call that marks the very literal end of the day for the humans in arcadia in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and the start of the day for the underground mutants, the Morlocks who harvest them, though Numan’s future shock locale and harvesting are both bolder and more subtle than Wells’.
The three verses all end with a sort-of Shakespearean aside written and sung with a different rhythm, and conveying, in the first stanza, a thought and an emotion that is different to that sung in the rest of the verse. This adds to the drama and the complexity of the protagonist and it tells us that he is putting on an act. That line, You’re gonna make me feel so cold, is telling us that this sex act with a stranger is an attempt to strip away the boy’s ‘warmth’, i.e. his humanity, which is confirmed in the last two lines of the song. On the non-androidal level, i.e. the song’s metaphorical or human level, it could be a call to a welcome suicide. Or, like Dekkard in the first-run finale of the yet-to-be-made Blade Runner, it is simply a running away.
The second stanza is less focused and less impressive than the first but it starts marvellously. In echo of the first verse it begins with the narrator telling us to “See”. He seems to have left the client, because no one would try to pick someone up by telling them they are “physically going to waste”, though he follows that up with a strange complaint ‘Feel my eyes’ (he actually sings ‘See my eyes’ and then he boasts about having the “tongue of a killer”, which sounds grand and poetic but the imagery doesn’t make sense, unless he is attempting to offer up a vision of Gene Simmons-like sex accessory. So he is addressing someone else, probably us, the listeners of the song. He shows us the woman he is in love with. In the first two lines of the verse he sings about her to us. In the final three lines, he sings to her, scoffing at her painted fingers (he actually sings pretty little fingers on the record) unless he is actually breaking down in front of us, in adolescent tantrum, and singing to himself.
His one love is talking to the pretty boy. By announcing, in reference to the pretty boy, that he never did like his woman’s taste in men, he infers that he is bisexual with a preference for more masculine men. By making it clear that the woman has had multiple sex partners, the suggestion is that she too is a prostitute. She may or may not also be a machine. Lines three and four, ‘My skin is rubber on a skeletal body’, are images of ill health most commonly associated with heroin addicts. The reveal that the boy may actually really be a machine comes to the fore a couple of lines later with the reference to himself as a ‘humanoid’. The phrase ‘humanoid logic machine’ is weak and very much of the period. ‘Logic’ being a go-to word in the then thin thesaurus of robot and machine imagery, though it’s use here does take the song into previously uncharted territory as it dawns on the listener that this really is a seedy sex song by and about a teenage robot.
The third and final verse is a metaphysical monologue that impressively expands the scope of the narrative outward and inwards at the same whilst concentrating its focus on the protagonist. The thousand grinning faces are in his head, as is the ‘imagery of ages’. Take a ride out in my imagery of ages is a beautifully evocative and original way of avoiding the cliché peddled by lesser songwriters, ‘a trip down memory lane’. By addressing it to a listener who can look through them, it suggests they are in a sort of computer memory bank, either deposited there at his creation to make him ‘human’, unless this boy robot has been peddling his wares for a long time and lived the horrors and the feelings he is trying to wipe away.
After two verses in which he told us to look, he ends with telling us to listen, and he shows us the image of himself trying to break down a (mental) wall. (Pink Floyd will write a great double album on that theme at about this time, the image was clearly in the air in 1978). He tells us that his emotion now is leaving. This disconnected way of speaking, the dropped pronoun and the impersonal third person is a Numan hall- mark. It’s suggestive of a man-machine and a man outside of himself talking about himself. His confession that he is really not a human at all is prefaced with a plaintive, You see, which, depending on how the song is sung, could be a warmly human appeal for sympathy, as it is in the masterpiece that grew from these images and phrases. In Are ‘Friends’ Electric?, he will sing in his most ordinarily human voice: “You see, this means everything to me... and now I’ve no one to love”.
The two Friends songs have the same finale except that the protagonist in the more famous song isn’t fleeing the city or ending his life. He’s trapped in an eternity of loneliness. On the Tubeway Army album, Gary Numan performs Friends in an up-tempo full-scowling guitar screeching thrash metal- ish punk style that conveys the loneliness and hurt, albeit filtered through a cold confident personality that doesn’t really chime with the lyric, because it loses all the pathos. On the album it is a chugga-chugga punk song to pogo too, not to listen to. There was an earlier recording of the song, a demo version released later on the album, The Plan. The demo version has a different title - Do Your Best - and, in the published lyrics, one line has been changed. The change comes in the aside at the end of the second verse and now reads ‘You’re gonna give your love to me’. These two changes make a big difference to the narrative and to the character of the narrator. They remove the ambiguity as to who the second verse is addressed, the boy is still speaking to the ‘Mister’ he’s trying to pull. The last line of both verses now starts with the word ‘You’ so we know that they are addressed to the same person. The painted fingers (though back then he still sang ‘pretty little fingers’) now belong not to the ‘one love’ woman but to ‘Mister’ (soon to be portrayed by Numan in imagery for Replicas).
The assertive, positive, demand from the boy to this man ‘You’re gonna give your love to me’, replaces the teenage whining rant that ‘she’s not going to touch me because she’s touched him and he and/or she is diseased’. And that completely alters the tone of the song and fits better with the assertive way that it is sung.
In fact, there are three more changes to the lyric in that second verse, all of them important. He sings: “Her skin is rubber ... You’ll be physically going to waste ... See the eyes of a killer.” These are all now clearly descriptions of the woman and are not descriptions of himself. And actually, I think that’s also what he sings on the Tubeway Army version.
From these changes emerges the subtext of a boy being dropped by his girlfriends and rejected by his friends, i.e. it is another in the line of protest songs about Mean Street, the band who dropped him. In street talk, the phrase, ‘Do Your Best’, is another way of saying ‘Do Your Worst’, i.e. I don’t give a fuck what you do. I have no thoughts about you, you stir no human emotions in me at all.’ The demo version has one more change in the lyric. The last word of the first verse is not “cold” as printed. Numan sings: “You’re going to make me feel so old”. i.e. it’s a loss of gay virginity song, doubtless inspired by the shock of St. Joy’s advances. So, in effect, it’s a song about a boy soliciting a man to fuck him to prove to his ex-girlfriend and his ex-friends that he doesn’t care about them at all (I’m of the queasy old-fashioned generation that sees that as a lose-lose).
Numan didn’t play Friends in concert under his own name until his November 1994 concerts, during which he dropped the Shakespearean asides at the end of the first two verses. Three years later, he revived Friends again for his November tour (he tends to tour cold Britain in cold weather), dropping the final aside and completely transforming the song in a way that we hadn’t seen since the Touring Principle re-writing of Bombers. He’d performed the rewriting first on the first night of Channel 5 television, and gave long notice that a whole new transformation of sound was afoot. Numan slowed the song by more than fifty percent, added a completely different rhythm section and rhythmic style, one that sounded like an electronic fusion of African jungle drumming and Brazilian samba and, over the top of that, in a high synth string sound that used to be his forté, he played a slow repeating ringing, lilting seven note air. Three more years later (he is a man of habit), that seven-note air became the vocal line for the stunning title track of Pure, the album which reestablished him as an ongoing music force. Thus from one chugga-chugga punk song, albeit one with extraordinary lyrics, was born two full cornerstones of Gary Numan Art.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Understanding Gary Numan (The Expanded Hardback Edition)

I'm very pleased to be able to say that the revised hardback edition of my book 'Understanding Gary Numan' is now available.
In the section at the back of the new edition I now write about seventeen Gary Numan songs, from That's Too Bad to This Wreckage.
The book is orderable through bookshops everywhere (or at least it will be by the end of the week), and it is in stock at Amazon (despite what they say).
The first edition of the paperback sold out and is no more. The second edition of the paperback is now on sale. I don't intend to do any more revisions. The new editions of the book are not limited.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Gary Numan, A Machine Quartet Scrapbook

I'm adding the final touches to the lovely big illustrated book about Gary Numan that will be published very soon. It's an annotated scrapbook, full of fine things from England, America, Japan, Italy, France and Germany. Here's a double-page as a preview, feel free to share:

From the book, Gary Numan, A Machine Quartet Scrapbook