Culture Club #1

Books, albums and films that have been shaping my lockdown

One of the ways I’ve been making the last year a little more interesting for myself is keeping a record of every new book I read, film I see, show I watch, album I hear and game I play. (That last one isn’t a long list, my gaming tastes being stuck somewhere around 1999. Just don’t take me on at Crash Team Racing, I promise you it isn’t worth it.)

It’s a fun project. I don’t have an amazing memory, and somehow my aesthetic adventures seem much more solid when I archive them like this. The Buddha might have said I’m attempting to freeze time rather than accept the inherently transitory nature of all things, but what did he know, he didn’t have Google Docs.

I also record every project I’ve undertaken over the year: short stories, proofreading jobs, recording jobs, garden jobs, musical collaborations, spiritual investigations, redecorating, box sorting, it all goes in the list. I fully recommend this kind of documenting for anyone who enjoys list-making and general solipsism as much as I do.

A cool bonus: if you have an inner critic that constantly tells you you’re lazy, waste all your time and don’t achieve anything of any use — I promise I’m not drawing on my own experience at all here — then you get a pleasant shock every time you scroll through your docs. ‘I did all that? How did I find the time between existential crises?’ (Then you feel like the industrious Past You is showing the lazy Present You up, then you realise you’ll be thinking the same thing in a year’s time when you look back on this year, then you realise this is an ingrained pattern of thinking rather than a reflection of reality, then you drop it.)

So why am I telling you all this? Because the other day I was struck by the fact that I combine the compulsion to document and analyse all my experiences with the compulsion to tell strangers what I’ve been thinking about lately. And as the great Lao Tzu tells us, ‘Don’t fight your compulsions, fuse them together. That way it seems like you have fewer of them.’

(Well he might have said it, you never know what gets edited out.)

So in the spirit of doing everything Lao Tzu tells me to, I hereby present the first edition of Wabi Sabi’s Culture Club. It may turn into something more interactive down the line, but for now, if you like the same books, movies and albums as I do you may enjoy nodding your head in agreement as you read, and if you like the same types of things you may discover some cool new avenues to explore. Expect funk, soul, classic rock, 1970s New Hollywood movies, old-school sci-fi and books about Eastern philosophy to make frequent appearances.


BOOKS

I have about five of these on the go and I’m a slow reader, so instead of discussing everything now and having nothing to write about next week I’ll take the books one by one. By the time I’ve got through them all I may have finished one and started something else, giving me something to talk about on Week 6.

A novel first: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. I’m about a fifth of the way through and loving it so far — funny and wise, with well-drawn characters. Apart from the subject matter, which couldn’t be more in my wheelhouse, what draws me in most is the prose style. I’ve never read writing quite like this before.

I’ve just finished Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, and I’m struck by the similarities between his technique and Rushdie’s. There’s that same poetic cadence, where the phrases and clauses flow into each other like a word-river: ‘in the end they agreed that the world was real, what was possible was possible and what was impossible was im-, brief encounter, ships that pass, love in a transit lounge’. But Rushdie has the lighter touch of the two, more sly, whimsical, tongue in cheek — Bradbury would never write ‘what was impossible was im-’.

Maybe the best word for Satanic’s tone is chatty: whenever the characters are telling stories Rushdie peppers the prose with their mannerisms whether he’s directly quoting them or not, sometimes even running words together to convey their breathless energy (‘Believe don’t believe, Babasaheb Mhatre told his charge, but thenandthere I learned my lesson: don’t meddle, Mhatre, in what you do not comprehend’). The subject matter’s often much darker than the tone, making the book feel more like a black comedy than anything else.

So far anyway. I can’t wait to see how things turn out. Grateful that the endings of famous books aren’t as widely known as the endings of famous movies.


ALBUMS

May Erlewine & The Woody Goss Band: Anyway (2020)

Woody Goss is a founding member of Vulfpeck, but his collaboration with May Erlewine couldn’t sound less like that band’s retro funk. Which doesn’t mean things aren’t retro — this is an album from another time, from the stylized cover to the miniscule running time to the warm organic sound (it sounds like the basic tracks were laid down live in the room, and I hope they were). There’s a bit of country, a bit of smooth jazz and a bit of that mellow ’70s singer-songwriter sound, and the result may just be the most relaxing album I’ve heard in my life. Not one unmemorable melody, and Erlewine’s voice is 100% sweet, breezy friendliness, as effortlessly beautiful as a Paul Desmond sax solo. Pure lockdown comfort food.


Elliott Smith: Either/Or (1997)

I’m generally allergic to anything approaching sad indie, which prevented me from giving this guy a chance until a few days ago. My mistake, obviously. It’s not that Smith doesn’t sound like sad indie, but his songs are so tasteful and well-written that I’ve fallen in love anyway (no such thing as a bad genre, just derivative artists that give it a bad name!). Like so many great albums, this one plunders the past and predicts the future at the same time — I hear so much of the 2000s and 2010s in Either/Or, but so much ’60s pop and ’70s acoustic folk too. (No such thing as an important artist who can be easily pigeonholed!) I also hear dark, unpredictable chord changes — Nirvana’s definitely an influence — impressive fingerpicking, and instantly appealing melodies. Gorgeous.


Jethro Tull: Stand Up, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick (1969–72)

But gentle evening music does not a full quarantine listening experience make, and my rock band of the hour is Jethro Tull. I’ve only branched out into their “classic period” over the last year or so (the seriously underrated Songs from the Wood was my introduction to the band), and I’m enjoying Stand Up and Thick as a Brick more every time I play them.

Like Yes’ album from the same year — the two groups developed pretty much neck and neck in the early days — 1969’s Stand Up is an utterly charming evocation of a time in music when anything seemed possible but the rules of full-on “prog” weren’t defined yet. And ‘72’s Thick as a Brick is astonishing. I’m sure the lyrics are saturated in all kinds of irony and erudition, but I’m just in it for the music, which is fiendishly clever and viscerally exciting at the same time: what other band combines prog with hard rock, pop melodies, blues, Renaissance music, English folk and demented flute playing?

I’ve only just heard Aqualung. First observations: (1) so far I don’t like it as much as the others (bitterness overload maybe?) but then they also took a while to get in on me; (2) the acoustic interludes are beautiful and too short, especially “Wond’ring Aloud”; (3) man, amp up the distortion and alter the feel slightly and a lot of this would be straight-up metal. Why do people always give the Most Precious Genre of All Time award to prog and not, say, sad indie? When they want to Tull, Yes and Zappa get my adrenaline going just as much as Mudhoney.


FILMS AND TV

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

One of the things I love about ’70s New Hollywood films is the way they just point their camera at stuff and let it happen. No extreme closeups, no music tugging at the heartstrings, no quick cutting when the action’s heating up, just interesting people saying and doing interesting things in interesting places. Nice to be treated like an adult, eh? There’s a great bank robbery scene here that’s tense because of all the things that don’t happen: no-one screams, no-one sobs, nothing in the filmmaking tells you ‘It’s time to be on edge!’ You just are on edge, because you’re watching someone opening a safe painfully slowly while a bunch of masked men train guns on him. Bonus points for the movie’s acclaimed realism — it doesn’t glamorise crime even a little bit, focusing exclusively on small-timers in grubby environments who aren’t as clever as they think they are. Bleakly moving.


Straight Time (1978)

More neo-noir about hardened criminals. What can I tell you, I like what I like. This one has a fantastic lead performance from Dustin Hoffman: apparently he got some flak for attempting a role that would normally go to a De Niro or Keitel, but to me what makes the character is that trademark desperation and vulnerability in among the selfishness and violence. Again, no-one here is particularly cool or smart; actually, these are the most incompetent movie villains I’ve seen in a long time. And again, the movie treats you like an adult, refusing to spell out whether Max Dembo is a charming sociopath, someone who genuinely wants to turn his life around but doesn’t quite have it in him, or something in between. Either way he and his friends, from the secret junkie to the guy who spends his days playing guitar by his outdoor pool, have a fundamental itch in them that says conventional life isn’t worth living. A lot of us feel a more contained version of the same itch, and that’s why we keep watching these movies.


Fleabag (2016–9)

Another case of OK fine I’ll give this a chance oh wait it’s amazing how have I been sleeping on it all this time. Like BoJack Horseman it didn’t make me laugh very often, which is why the clips people showed me over the years never tempted me to try it before. But like BoJack the show’s a drama at heart, and a damn good one: raw, unpredictable, fearless, honest, insightful. The supporting characters are excellent, particularly the it’s-all-in-what-he-doesn’t-say dad, the permanently-stressed-out-but-fundamentally-decent sister and of course that priest. And Fleabag herself is a masterpiece of a creation, never at ease in her environment but not conventionally “awkward” either, impulsive but not obnoxious, always joking, deflecting, provoking, full of nameless pains that she doesn’t know what to do with. The second series is some of the best TV I’ve ever seen.