troubled diva  
 

My freelance writing can now be found at mikeatkinson.wordpress.com.
Recently: VV Brown, Alabama 3, Just Jack, Phantom Band, Frankmusik, Twilight Sad, Slaid Cleaves, Alesha Dixon, Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Dizzee Rascal.

On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Click here to watch, and here to listen.

Friday, November 18, 2005

As part of Stylus magazine's special B-sides week, the UK Singles Jukebox team (of which I was once a member) were asked to cast aside the new releases for once, and to turn their attention instead to a bunch of recent-ish B-sides. More specifically: cover version B-sides.

Having resigned from the team earlier in the year, I was delighted to be asked to re-join it as a Special Guest, for one week only. (This made me rather feel like Farrah Fawcett-Majors re-joining Jaclyn, Kate and "new girl" Cheryl Ladd for a "special episode" of Charlie's Angels.)

Settling down to review all fifteen tracks last night, I was quickly reminded of just what a tough gig it is, producing reviews for such an intimidatingly music-savvy readership. (They're not like you lot. I can't just toss out semi-informed drunken bitchy rants and hope to get away with it. Oh no.) Painful memories re-surfaced, reminding me of just how much blood I used to sweat over those damned singles reviews, perched over the kitchen table for hours at time on Sunday afternoons, snapping whenever the phone rang, or if friends dropped round, or if K had the temerity to walk in on me. ("How dare you try and boil a kettle! I AM CONCENTRATING!")

However, five hours later, and just ten minutes before the submission deadline, I was rather pleased to discover that, for the first time ever, I had managed to bash out reviews for every single track. And this morning, I was absolutely thrilled to discover that, also for the first time ever, Stylus had seen fit to use every last one of them. Ding dong, full house!

(You do need to remove the first "effortlessly" from the Sophie Ellis Bextor review, though. How slapdash.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The times they are a-changin'.

I cannot remember a time when life (inner, outer, same difference) felt so frustrating, and yet also so full of possibility. I could be approaching a crossroads. It is all very... interesting.

I embrace change, I embrace change. Based on past experience: do I heck as like. But keep saying it, and it might start sticking.

Something within me is slowly being unlocked; the rusted mechanism creaking, as the shiny new key turns.

Ooh, DEEP.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Bob Dylan, Nottingham Arena.

Oh dear. As this was the first date of Dylan's UK tour, and as the concert finished less than two hours ago, I might very well be in the awkward position of Scooping The World with this little report. Never have I felt so ill-equipped for the task in hand.

Because, you see (and random Googlers might want to stop reading right here), I've never been what you might call a Dylan fan. Oh, I fully respect his position in the iconography of popular music, and I recognise his vast contribution to blah-di-blah-di-blah... but, well, I've just never been able to form any sort of meaningful emotional connection to his oeuvre. It's the voice, you see. And what I perceive as an unfathomable aloofness. His work kind of intimidates me, what with its Immense Cultural Significance etc etc... and the sheer reverence in which he is held doesn't help much, either.

Maybe it's because I'm a child of Punk, forever kicking over the statues.

Or maybe it's because I'm just too damned shallow. Where's the fun, the wit, the sexiness? By rights, I should stick to being waspish and flippant about the new Madonna album. Hey, I know my place.

Also, I've had a few.

But here goes, anyway. Don't say you weren't warned.

I had primed myself for two possibilities. Based on what I had been told about his past form, either Dylan was going to be electrifying, incandescent, converting me in an instant... or else he was going to be an embarrassing sloppy mess. And I was ready for both. Hey, at least embarrassing and sloppy could be interesting, right? Heroic failures often can be. I've seen enough past-it wrecks in my time to know that.

But what I wasn't prepared for was polite, efficient, bloodless blandness. Bar-room boogie. Pub rock. The sort of stuff that might have been all right down the Hope & Anchor in 1975. Think Eric Clapton. Think Dire Straits. Well, quite.

It wasn't just me, either. Everywhere I looked in the Arena, people just seemed to be sitting there, slightly absent half-smiles on faces, occasionally popping out for pints from upstairs. No-one looked engaged, ignited, transported. Even the nostalgia factor wasn't really kicking in. Lukewarm applause, even at the end.

(A predictably bitchy word about the audience, because I can't help myself. Never in the past half decade have I seen so much high-waisted denim gathered together in one place. And I swear that every teacher and social worker within a fifty mile radius was in there tonight. If they had dropped a bomb on the venue, then all Pastoral Care in the East Midlands would have been wiped out in a trice. I know, I know. The comments box is that-away, folks.)

He'd started well enough: a rousing, rocking Maggie's Farm (Thatcher Out! Say No to the Poll Tax! Ah bless, he knows what country he's in!), followed by a stirring The Times They Are A-Changin' - the latter bringing tears to my eyes, as I connected with the collective shared histories in the room, and remembered the song's profound and enduring generational significance.

Oh, but then, but then. Was it just unfamiliarity with the material (quite possible, I fully admit), or did dull album track really follow dull album track, in a stodgy wash of "tasty licks" and snooze-inducing noodling? By the time we got to the interminable "jam session" that was Highway 61 Revisted, my eyelids (and those of my merchandising manager Rob) were drooping.

At which point, admittedly, things did start to pick up, as the band expanded their repertoire to include some more delicately worked country blues, playing around with the basic template at long last. At the same time, there was a discernable intensifying of emotional focus - a shift in the dynamics, which lifted me out of the Land of Nod and even got me vaguely twitching, so far as the unpleasantly cramped seating would allow.

I should do my duty, and furnish you with some specifics. Dylan played the entire set seated sideways on at his keyboard, in a black suit with red trimmings and a wide-brimmed black gaucho hat. He didn't play guitar at all, and I think he only used his harmonica the once (mercifully, I must confess). His five-piece backing band wore matching beige suits, not terribly well fitted, with some of them sporting similar headgear to Bob. The drummer was the weakest link, we thought: too perfunctory, too mild.

Dylan's voice sounded great, though. Never a fan of his 1960s folky whine, I like the cracked quality that age has bestowed; it lends a expressive range (well, comparatively speaking). Diction: good. Not excessively drawled, but surprisingly clearly enunciated, and delivered with a pleasing intensity. Why, I could even make out whole phrases at a time. This helped.

About ninety minutes in, after an unexceptional mid-set filler (I was miles away), the music abruptly stopped. Blackout, silence. Then the lights came back on, revealing Bob and the band lined up at the front of the stage. Huh, that's it? Interval time maybe? (Rightly or wrongly, I had expected a marathon.) Comprehensively wrong-footed, the crowd were slow to cotton on that this was in fact Encore Time.

Encore Time, then. Like A Rolling Stone had us on our feet, but still the atmosphere fell several yards short of Exultant Mass Communion. (Of course, Dylan had long since ceased to sing anything so predictable as the actual melody line, preferring instead to deliver virtually the whole song in the same low-to-high interval, like an obscure Anglican psalm.) Ooh, All Along The Watchtower, MUCH more like it! This was genuinely great. I beamed, I wiggled, I bobbed, in the zone at last.

Blackout, bow, exit, applause, house lights still down, expectations high.

House lights up. Oh well, that's that. Another icon to be ticked off the list. Glad I went, honestly. Because now I know. Dylan's just not for me, never has been, never will be.

OK Googlers, do your worst. "There's something happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Diva?" My shoulders are broad.

Update: Some other reviews of the Nottingham concert:

1. Tim Anderson, a serious Dylan fan, offers up a considered, detailed, respectful song-by-song breakdown. True "Bobheads" should head there immediately.

2. Tony Roe from BBC Nottingham was far from impressed... and the same goes for the bulk of his commenters.

3. Quick, before the article disappears behind pay-per-view: Andy Gill at The Independent thought he was OK. Four stars.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The new Madonna album.

The new Madonna album is, essentially, and provided you edit out all the usual aren't-I-just-so-uniquely-fascinating fame-is-such-a-headf**k me-me-me-ness of the lyrics, one great big, non-stop-segued, spangly-disco-balled, glad-rags-on, hands-in-the-air, yo-DJ-pump-this-party, we're-all-in-this-crazy-ship-together, ooh-these-are-good-ones, Christ-he's-smiling-back-have-I-pulled-or-what, sod-the-attitude-let's-SCREAM, (well-OK-just-a-little-bit-of-attitude-then), most entrancingly transiently transcendentally meltingly beltingly everything-just-SO, sometimes-life-is-just-like-the-movies, move-over-losers-Miss-THING-has-come-to-town Saturday Night Out of the year.

(Meanwhile, my partner K finds it all a little bit "full-on". Quod erat demonstrandum.)

It immediately makes me want to doll myself up, squeeze myself into something irresistible, and go out on the razz. Preferably in 1994, if that could be arranged. I used to be a Great Beauty! My dance card was permanently marked! Gentlemen used to queue up outside my door!

(Or else my Oh What A Lovely Midlife Crisis! nostalgia glands are being expertly manipulated by one of popular culture's most adept operators, who has recognised that now is the time to quit with the f**ed-if-I-care experimentalism, and explicitly target her core demographic of slightly past-it party boys d'un certain age. But hey, I'm cool with that.)

If I have a criticism - and, really, it ain't much - it's that the opening four tracks are just so deliriously, mega-tastically TISH-TISH SWOOSH, CHUG-CHUG THUD, UNHHH-UNHHH, WALLOP-WALLOP WHEEEE, that what follows must inevitably suffer by comparison. But it's only a slight sag. The plateau after the rush, or something. I feel no need of further elaboration.

A prediction. At around 8pm this coming Saturday, every unattached, urban-based gay man in Western Europe and Northern America between the ages of 25 and 40 with Plans For Later On will be playing this as they get ready to go out, hula-dancing as they towel-dry, jiggling their tushes as they whip an iron over their disco tops.

Go on, ring round on the night, see if I'm wrong.

Post of the Week #3

Disaster averted! With Pam's votes having mysteriously gone astray over the weekend, a last minute plea for a substitute was kindly answered by Ann Pixeldiva. Having pooled her votes with mine and Clair's, I can now reveal that the new Post Of The Week is...

Coming up after the break.

But first, let's look back at last week's other nominees.

We visited karaoke bars in North Korea and Saharan vomitoria (not to mention damp sand-pits) in Tokyo.

We learnt about gold carving in Guyana, and acts of altruism in Jordan, over cups of coffee in Washington DC.

We left answering machine messages in New York, swapped broken German with Swedish chefs, and inadvertantly flashed our bits at VIPs.

There were meditations on peace, angry rants at Texan voters (more background here), and - following directly on from last week's winning post - an intensely moving personal testimony of the hurt that families can mete out over the decades.

In the midst of so much internationalism, this week's winning post comes from closer to home. From North London, to be exact - where a survivor of the 7/7 tube bombings voices her opposition to the recent attempts to detain terrorist suspects without charge for up to 90 days, and lays into the idea that the Blair government were somehow acting in her name. As one of the judges put it:
...saying something that really really needed to be said, and saying it a way that will hopefully make people pay attention.
The second Post of the Week therefore goes to:

Rachel from north London: 90 days and 90 nights.

Please leave this week's nominations in the comments box below, by Saturday morning at the latest. Rules of engagement are here.

This week's esteemed judges are JonnyB and Zinnia Cyclamen.
1. The Marvelous Garden: THE ART OF SEDUCTION: A Short True Story.
(nominated by Sarsparilla)

Beside me, an elderly woman gave new meaning to the term "stationary", as she flipped noisily through the pages of Glamour, grunting and snorting despite her obvious lack of movement. Occasionally, she spun the pedals around for effect, so no one would think she hadn't dressed up in gym clothes and slung a towel over her shoulders in order to carry on a loud argument with the editors of Glamour.
2. Acerbia: Burger Me.
(nominated by mike)

"See? Albino tomato. Probably the runt of the litter. Struggled and fought to be like its brothers and sister and finally acheived its dream of being a ketchup dispenser despite its rough upbringing and a world full of superficial values."
3. infinity: de-tox.
(nominated by Clair)

This journey, this relationship has been wonderful because it has forced me to look at my life. Review my priorities and strip away the things that I don't really see as success. Too often I have taken on other people's ideas of success. People look at bits of my life, the bits they see and project from there to how successful they think I am. People think I am successful. But what if I have a different set of values? What if I don't count success the same way?
4. frizzyLogic: Baby Bear.
(nominated by mike and Hg: don't forget to play the movie)

Obviously the risk of losing BB was too terrible to contemplate. So early on we bought an understudy. This unfortunate creature has spent all his life so far in the back of my wardrobe since he's never been called upon to take centre stage.

Despite living entirely in the dark he has not become pale and etiolated. Quite the opposite. He has retained an enviable youthful vibrancy and vigour. So much so that, were he called upon to make an entrance, he would give a very unconvincing performance.
5. Geese Aplenty: No no.
(nominated by Pam)

Okay, hold. Stop right there. Does that sound like a recipe for a good novel? When’s the last time you saw a cover blurb that read “Shortlisted for the Booker Prize because of its seat-of-the-pants writing style”? Try “A slapdash exercise in verbal logorrhea that made me physically sick.”
6. Neeka's Backlog: Monday, November 14, 2005.
(nominated by looby)

As I was taking yet another picture of something ugly, a man called out to me from behind a broken-down fence; he looked like someone who rides around in an ambulance all day. At first, I didn't hear all that he said. But I thought I heard the word 'morgue.' The building behind him, which I had just photographed, could've been a morgue, I thought. He repeated: "Devushka [miss, girl], is that a hobby of yours to take pictures of morgues?"
7. Speaking as a parent: Give My Compliments To The Cashier.
(nominated by mike)

It's a very English thing, not complaining. I'm sure if I had been on the Titanic and a steward from the White Star Line had rowed alongside our lifeboat and asked "How’s everything for you, then?" I would have replied "Fine, thanks" and left it at that. Mel would have undoubtedly muttered something about sending a stiff letter to someone, a letter that would have hit a snag somewhere in the planning stages and never darkened a letter box, let alone anyone's desk.
8. Pete Ashton's Weblog: Going Deaf For A Fortnight.
(nominated by Ben)

...a 14 day series of posts... in which I go to a gig in a small venue in Birmingham every night to see bands I mostly have never heard of before and then write about them here. By the end of it I expect to have attained a good overview of the Birmingham small gigs scene, to hopefully have discovered some good tune-smiths and to probably have descended into a nightmarish Gonzo-style meltdown. We shall see.
9. 360 Degrees of Sky: Termites.
(nominated by guyana-gyal)
IE users beware: DON'T click on any pop-ups or ActiveX windows - it's fastusersonline trying to get you to install a porn toolbar.

The torrent of water makes me want to pee, but when I look up from my page my exit is blocked. A wall of termites is between me and the door. Well, actually between me and everything else. But I need to pee.
10. Mimi In New York: The Slap.
(nominated by mike)

The rot spreads, mould covering the sheen of life, dragging it down with cloying, asphyxiating stealth. Little Sasha, blonde and beautiful, six years old, laughing as Daddy heaves her onto his shoulders. Sasha, eighteen, sweet and clean, moving to New York to be a model and actress, excited, overwhelmed by the Big Apple. Sasha, 30, pawed by managers, sucking dick for approval, seeking out compliments like an eager puppy, but waiting, just waiting, always waiting, for the slap.
11. Glitter For Brains: The Gayest Cake Disaster Imaginable.
(nominated by Pam)

And remember - baking goods also respond well to music. So if you're baking The Gayest Cake Imaginable, why not start off with the new Madonna album? Oh, you can taste the glitter in the air!