Sunday, 22 January 2017

TRAVELING SOUL: THE LIFE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD by TODD MAYFIELD with TRAVIS ATRIA (2017)


Curtis Mayfield sits at the top table of my musical heroes, next to Bob Dylan, basked in heavenly light. Curtis’s carefully considered, softly spoken voice, gentle soul and vast catalogue of cajoling civil rights’ anthems, tender love songs, stirring soundtracks and state of the nation addresses have granted him saintly status.

But what do we really know about Curtis, the man? Written by Todd Mayfield, Curtis’s second-eldest son, with Travis Atria, this new and long overdue biography paints the fullest picture to date: detailing both his genius and sides of his personality hitherto unknown to fans such as I.

The first thing to note is this biography hasn’t been authorized – nor endorsed - by the estate of Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield had ten children and following his death one can only imagine the bunfight over control of his estate. It’s a shame this book isn’t officially recognised – there’s no mention of it on the Curtis Mayfield website – as it’s a respectful, considered, articulate and loving portrait. It’s abundantly apparent how proud Todd is of his father, particularly how his music is indelibly entwined with the civil rights movement. It does however reveal elements of Curtis’s character that smudge his clean reputation. While nothing too extreme, when compared to many other soul superstars, among his considerable strengths he – like anyone – had weaknesses.

Growing up in Chicago, poor, a quiet and solitary child, insecure of his looks, beaten at school, shackled him with the classroom nickname Smut – a dark stain or blot – music offered a chance to be somebody and control his destiny. In music and business, Curtis was a quick learner. In 1958, and at the tender age of 15 he was in the Impressions, with a hit record under his belt, and on stage at the Apollo; by 18, he’d already formed his own publishing company, something relatively unheard of for young black performers bar Sam Cooke, and soon settled on a mantra of “own yourself”. Curtis Mayfield possessed an intense need for control in all areas. He was also shrewd, determined, talented and blessed with both a distinctive voice and unique guitar tuning. Some combination.

Mayfield’s prolific work rate was superhuman. Not only writing and performing for the Impressions throughout the entire 1960s (and to an unfaltering standard, there is no bad Impressions period during that decade, if you can find me any other group to do that, I'm all ears) he was racking up hits for Major Lance, Billy Butler, Gene Chandler and other artists for Okeh Records; for Jerry Butler at Vee-Jay; and providing material for acts such as the Five Stairsteps and the Fascinations on his own Windy C and Mayfield labels. Come the 1970s, he’d left the Impressions yet continued to work with them and in the first seven years of going solo wrote fifteen studio albums for himself and others. That he sustained such high quality-control for so long is nothing short of miraculous.

Beyond the music, Todd Mayfield reveals a man of surprising contradictions. Curtis made a phenomenal amount of records yet scarcely listened to others’ music; he helped soundtrack the civil rights movement and was ‘socially conscious’ yet never voted; wrote songs containing deep spirituality yet wasn’t particularly religious. He was relaxed and easy going with musicians yet a borderline recluse at home, more comfortable locked in his room than socialising with friends and family.

Then there are those weaknesses, and it’s likely the exposure of these have rattled the cage of Mayfield’s estate. Curtis, possibly understandably considering his formative years, never learnt to keep it in his trousers once opportunities presented themselves. There are some drug issues; I wouldn’t expect otherwise. Harder and sadder to read are the temperamental outbursts of violence towards his partners. Todd doesn’t shy away from these issues and credit to him for that although he frequently appears to excuse his father’s less savoury and divided side on him being a Gemini, which is handy to know if you’re born within that star sign.

The final chapter in Curtis’s story is, of course, one of utter tragedy. I had to brace myself simply to read it, so goodness knows what it took to write. At an open-air show in Brooklyn on 13 August 1990, Curtis Mayfield was introduced to the audience. He walked across the stage, guitar strapped across his body, and then “Hell paid him a visit”. It was the last time he walked or felt his guitar. Gusts of wind sent lighting rigs crashing into the back of Curtis’s neck. He was 48 and spent the rest of his life a quadriplegic. The longest living quadriplegic on record survived ten years. Curtis lasted, often in sheer agony, for nine, never succumbing to self-pity or asking – aloud at least – ‘Why me?’

Traveling Soul is essential reading, packed with revelations and puts Mayfield's music in context of the times. Todd’s assessments of his father’s albums are even-handed and his insight into his character illuminating. It contains a mix of thorough research and personal experience. He tells it like it was, sugar coating nothing. It’s real, it feels like the truth, from the heart. Perhaps Todd occasionally overplays Curtis’s influence and legacy but that’s understandable, it’s his dad after all. For me, after reading this, Curtis Mayfield might not have been a saint but his heavenly light shines brighter than ever.

Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield by Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria is published by Chicago Review Press, out now.
Todd and Curtis Mayfield

Monday, 16 January 2017

FOXYGEN - 'FOLLOW THE LEADER' (2016)


Foxygen's new album, Hang, is released this Friday. From the sound of recent single, Follow The Leader, they've come a long way from their Stones/Velvets/Dylan obsessed days of yore. Absolutely love it.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

WELCOME TO THE NEW BEAT GENERATION: JASON DISLEY INTERVIEW


Jason Disley is a poet and writer heavily influenced by the Beat Generation writers of the late 50s and early 60s; an influence he wears proudly on his immaculately tailored sleeve. Although stylistically and spiritually schooled in the old coffee houses and cold water apartments of San Francisco and New York, Disley is planted in the modernist here and now of the UK. His latest collection – Beat, Blues and the Rhythm of Fools – depicts jazz, blues and the escape music provides from the humdrum and horrors of everyday life, switching rhythms and thoughts, experiencing fulfilment and bewilderment. Hitting that middle ground between beatnik and modernist, Disley is a man after my own heart so thought it only right to crack open the Benzedrine inhalers to see if, like Jack Kerouac, he was “mad to talk”. He was.

Hello Jason, how are you? You’ve been described as a beat poet. Beat poets and beatniks have always been subject to ridicule yet you’ve embraced the term. What’s the appeal?
Hi Mark, yes I'm well thank you. The Beats have been a constant source of inspiration since my teens. I read Jack Kerouac's On The Road, and like many a young person trying to find themselves and their own identity, I was taken by this drive and passion for both experience, knowledge and some form of enlightenment. I likened the whole Beat thing with my own generation. Who were disillusioned with Thatcher's Britain and were searching for kicks and escapism. I was reading everything I could find about the Beats; not just the principles - Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs - but their associates, muses and writers that were like minded. Writers such as John Clellon Holmes, Amiri Baraka, Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder. The appeal was that these people were identifiable, and real. Their stories, and poetry may have been full of surreal moments but were somehow grounded, gritty and pulled no punches. Yet at the same time could reveal romantic tapestries that could've been created by Byron and Shelley. Plus there was an almost effortless cool. The lives they lived although hard and tormented at times, experienced the coolness of being at great performances by jazz musicians. They didn't believe in segregation, both racially and sexually. They believed in both experience as well as personal growth. Things that I still admire today.

Tell me about Beat, Blues and the Rhythm of Fools: its themes, the writing process, timescale, publishing etc.
Beat, Blues and the Rhythm of Fools came about from a creative flurry after my Jazz Poetry book came out.  It was also at that period when the nation was leading up to Brexit, and the immediate aftermath. My initial plan, as with the Jazz book was to write a collection associated with Blues music, and also the subject matter of great blues songs. The idea for The Rhythm of Fools was also about the mistakes we both as individuals and collectively make. Again could easily be made into blues songs themselves. The book came together in a matter of weeks. A story in the news, or a song would inspire me and I'd just write.  I think the whole process took about three months, maybe a bit less.  As for publishing. My poetry I publish through Lulu.com a print on demand publisher. It allows me to get my work out there without huge overheads, and is a satisfactory way to self-publish if you haven't got a lot of money. I should think Jack Kerouac and co would've taken full advantage of such a publisher if they had been around in the digital age. I like the whole punk/mod ethos of getting off your backside and doing it yourself.

It’s quite a different collection to your previous Jazz Poetry – Improvisations In Language which felt like series of love letters to jazz yet there’s a far greater feeling of unrest and bewilderment now. In the introduction and afterword you worry about the degree of maudlin. They didn’t come across to me like that.
I suppose I mention the maudlin aspect because for me at a personal level - things I see around me are somewhat disturbing and sad. Society doesn't seem to have learned a lot from the past. Racism is still rife - innocents are being killed in seemingly pointless wars - there is a return to the whole east versus west with people becoming wary of their neighbours due to what is being spoon fed by the media. Real talent is being pushed underground again - which is in some ways isn't a bad thing as when they are discovered they seem more relevant - but at the same time there isn't enough of a voice from the current generation making itself heard. The period of style and music tribes which I grew up with is becoming less noticeable. I suppose another reason why I like the Beats is because they were considered anti- establishment. For me being anti- establishment you have more freedom of expression, and can be more artistic.

Many pieces in the latest book, to me, sounded quite loud, if that’s makes sense. I instantly imagined them being read/performed out loud in public. Is that how you envisaged them?
Not initially. I have always written in a more natural conversational way - so can see why other people have come to that way of thinking. I initially wrote them just to be read but have often read them out loud in the comfort of my own home. It wasn't until November 5th 2016 that the whole idea of performance and reading out loud to an audience came about. The Vinyl Avengers – Ian and Jade - a pair of local Mod DJ's put on an event called the Big Bang. French Boutik were headlining and it was an event that I was happy to attend as it was raising money for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Ian and Jade invited me on to their online radio show to talk about my books a few days before the event and I was invited to bring my books to the event to sell on the night. It was then on the night that the very lovely and elegant Gabriela Giacoman - the female lead of French Boutik approached me and asked if I would join the band on stage and read one of my poems. Naturally I was both honoured and a little nervous at this opportunity - but took my chance and did as she asked. Taking to the stage a little while later, with Serge Hoffman on guitar, and Zelda Aquil lightly brushing the skins using their tune ‘Hitch A Ride’ I read my poem ‘Fabric’ to an audience of around 150 or so Mods. Gabriela stood to one side nodding her head and clicking her fingers in time on the stage. It was a wonderful personal moment that really made me feel that indeed my poetry is worthy of being performed. From this moment new opportunities are arising, and like some of the original Beats - performance is becoming part of what I do.
Jason Disley with French Boutik, November 2016 (Photo by Kev Walsh)
Some sections felt – particularly some of the rhymes –  they’d been written quickly using Kerouac’s spontaneous prose technique. Kerouac wrote about “first thought, best thought”, would you subscribe to that viewpoint?
Totally!  The spontaneous approach is what I am all about. I do very little in the way of editing when I write. I want it to be raw and real. I don't do much in the way of planning, apart from obviously reading other writers and listening to music - when I sit down to write I just let it come naturally. When I re-read I may swap a stanza round or change a word here and there but on the whole my writing is pretty much as I wrote it the first time. Hence sometimes rhythmically my writing may stutter in flow and go on a tangent like when a jazz musician improvises and takes a tune in a different direction.

Poetry is a hard sell. How should people approach it? What do you look for in poetry and how does is differ from standard prose?
For me poetry has to resonate personally on some level. Once you have written something it becomes its own creature. Like all art its subjective. What it means to you can be something else to someone else. It never ceases to amaze me when someone who has read what you have written and perceives something different from what you thought you intended. It opens your eyes to the way people think, but also as to how you also see things. As for how to approach it? Don't be afraid to have a go. Just do it.  Try not to be held to a particular style. Rhyming poetry can be fun but is often forced. I may use the odd rhyming couplet for rhythm's sake but will often leave that style as my train of thought takes me elsewhere. I will make an observation or statement that takes me away from the obvious. It’s about the thought process and emotions I feel at the time. I often return to themes that mean a lot to me - such as escape, and the feelings that both music and dance convey.

What about songs? It’s apparent how important music is to you. Do you see any of your work as drafts for songs? Have you been in bands, made music?
I've not been in any bands, my singing voice isn't the most tuneful. Although I've flirted with trumpet, guitar and keyboards - I am far from being an accomplished musician.  A friend of mine once "borrowed" a poem called ‘The Party is Over’ which is the last poem in my book The New Beat Generation and Other Spontaneous Verse. Unbeknownst to me I went to a local bar to see him and his band play. He suddenly introduced halfway through his set a song that was a new song written by a close friend, and then went into a tune that had my lyrics! I was flattered and found it a little bit surreal having my own words being sung to me. As for making music - I will leave that to musicians - lyrics on the other hand - I don't mind having a go - or being approached with regards to some of my poems being turned into songs.

Tell me about ‘The Misfortune of a Buddhist Mod’. That dichotomy between the Buddhist philosophy of craving contributing to suffering (or unhappiness) and the materialistic nature of Mod is something I’ve thought about often so was good to see you try to tackle the question.
I wouldn't say I am particularly religious, but Buddhism - I find very interesting. It’s that whole personal thing of finding yourself and becoming enlightened that fascinates me. Being both a Mod and Buddhist seems a contradiction because of the materialistic nature of being a Mod. Having been interested in the whole Mod thing since my early teens at the same time as reading the Beats - I have often had conflicted emotions. I can be selfish at times, and can feel guilty - then at other times, helpful and selfless. It’s just human nature -  ‘The Misfortune of a Buddhist Mod’ is again a look at my own life and being able to come to terms with the way I am. So although not really a Buddhist, I recognize that my own personal spirituality lends its way to that train of thought. I have my own ying and yang to contend with and will always try to find that harmony that brings about happiness.

Another poem I liked was ‘Cut Up Blues’ where you’d borrowed William Burroughs’s cut-up technique. Tell me about this one. How random was it, as to my mind it’s the most beautiful poem in the book?
Thank you. It’s funny how turning to someone else's words and rearranging them can be satisfying. I love this poem too - just because how random it was. I took lines from various books and in no particular order put them together. My one mistake is that I didn't list the various books I took the lines from. I know there is some Shakespeare, and Shelley juxtaposed with Dashiell Hammett in there. For some reason it works. It tells a story of unrequited love and loss - or at least that is how I see it.

What have you got planned for 2017?
Well 2017 is set to be a very exciting twelve months.  At the end of February I hope to self-publish a new collection called Runaway Soul that initially was going to be related to soul music. But as I have written it - it has become more about escapism and searching for pleasure. Society is again brought into it, and how we live our lives in these seemingly manufactured times. Then in March, on the 24th to be precise - I will be at Blow Up! at the St Moritz Club in London. I will be reading some poetry again with both bands that night: French Boutik and Dr Bird. Then it’s a quick return to Devon to once again grace the stage at Torbay's March of the Mods on the 25th which is being hosted by The Vinyl Avengers at Murphy's in Paignton. In between all this I am also in the process of getting together a spoken word album with someone who used to work for Acid Jazz records. At this point I won't name him until things are a little more concrete. But let's just say this project is very exciting as original music is being written to go with selected poems. Once the music has been written and the final track list is decided - I will be making my debut in a recording studio to record the vocals. So watch this space as that develops. Then the other thing I want to shout from the rooftops is the publication of a novel I have written called Seven Day Fool. It’s a pulp/noir set in Manchester during 1965. This will be published by Jason Brummell's recent venture, Suave Collective Publishing. His publishing company has recently published the fantastic Ready Steady Girls book compiled by Mark Baxter, Ian Snowball and himself. Plus his own novels, which I am a big fan of - All About My Girl and All Or Nothing.  Prior to RSG he also published a book by Pete McKenna - Maradona good, Pele better, George Best. Another very interesting read. So to be associated with these writers is a great honour indeed. Having my first novel published is a dream come true.  So 2017 is going to busy, eventful and will give rise to other amazing opportunities I am sure. For now I am keeping on like I have for the last couple of years. Doing what I love most which is writing.

Jason's books are available from huge online retailers or, better still, get in touch directly by looking him up on Facebook or Twitter (@disleyrascal)

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

A WORLD TO WIN: POSTERS OF PROTEST AND REVOLUTION at the WILLIAM MORRIS GALLERY, E17


“I went down to the demonstration…” Okay, I didn’t, that was Mick Jagger, I went down to the gallery but it did have an exhibition of protest posters and was the William Morris Gallery. Seeing how Morris was a pioneering late-19th Century socialist who knew a thing or two about design and print it was a most fitting environment, almost like being on the frontline, and had the added benefit of reducing the likelihood of being kettled-in by the pigs for eight hours. With my bladder I can’t take chances like that, comrades.

Displayed in eight sections - Smashing The System, New Dawns, Ongoing Revolutions, All Power To The People, No!, Subvertising, Bearing Witness and Print It Yourself – the posters spanned over a century of protest and campaigning from across the globe. Not only was it difficult to argue against most of the topics (I raised a fist in solidarity, it was the least I could do) but even from a purely aesthetic angle it was interesting to see the differing styles on display.

It’ll surprise no one my eyes were mostly drawn to the 60s and 70s items. There was young Fidel Castro, rest his revolutionary soul, on a poster by artist Rene Mederos commemorating, in 1969, The Tenth Anniversary of the Triumph of the Cuban Rebellion. Look at all their happy cheering faces and bright gay colours. Hurrah! Not quite as celebratory but almost as wordy was To Hell With Their Profits – Stop Forcing Drugging of Psychiatric Inmates (1978) by Rachael Romero from San Francisco, whose style wasn’t dissimilar to Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture who provided the Party with such a strong visual identity including, here, All People To The People, from the early 70s.

Talking of the Black Panthers, just a photograph of Angela Davis, resplendent in huge afro, was a powerful message hung on a wall without the need for any supporting text. Whereas at the other end of the spectrum, Polaris No! (1961) by Robin Fior relied solely on bold text and striking colour to make a point about Britain’s first nuclear submarine based programme, not that it’s obvious to the uninitiated from this distance in time. For what it’s worth this was my favourite.

For those not so keen on subtlety, Fuck The Draft (1968) by Kiyoshi Kuromiya out in Philadelphia does the job and as a bonus was originally advertised for sale via mail order with the added incentive as being ‘the perfect gift for Mothers’ Day’). Here Mum, got you this for the living room. Into the 1980s and an unnamed Class War activist created Lets Kick Out The Tories? Lets Kick Them In. As it currently stands the only thing Class War have kicked out successfully is the use of apostrophes. From small acorns.

All of this activism needs a soundtrack and as a centrepiece (quite literally) Ruth Ewan has created A Jukebox of People Trying to Change The World (2003-2012), a free-to-use jukebox collecting 2000 songs which “pays homage to those who have dared to speak out with a creative voice calling for freedom, social justice and equality”. Over 70 categories and featuring artists and songs famous and obscure it’s the mother of all jukeboxes. Even the Rolling Stones were there with ‘Street Fighting Man’. Young Jagger, as he sang, did get his fair share of abuse when he flounced along to the demonstration but let’s be honest he wasn’t really a street fighting man was he? What was he gonna do; give someone a thick ear with an elongated vowel?

But I digress, this is a stirring and inspiring collection. Go get organised.

A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution is at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, E17 until 15 January 2017, admission free.






Friday, 30 December 2016

DECEMBER PLAYLIST


1.  Little Nicky Soul – ‘I Wanted To Tell You’ (1964)
Handclapping, shuffling, gospel-soul dancer on the obscure and short-lived Shee Records out of New York. Little Nicky was Nichalous Faircorth and the song – with great supporting vocals – was, it’s believed, his only single. If you’re only gonna cut one record, make it a good in.

2.  Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles – ‘All Or Nothing’ (1965)
Newly signed to Atlantic Records and Patti, Cindy Birdsong, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash rewarded the label with a number 68 pop hit. By rights it should have climbed higher as not only was it their best release to date it’s everything you’d want from a sultry and dramatic girl group 45.

3.  The Sweet Three – ‘That’s The Way It Is (When A Girl’s In Love)’ (1966)
Another girl group beauty, this one written and produced by still-to-come Philadelphian legend Leon Huff. Nice flugelhorn intro and a gorgeous record from beginning to end.

4.  Pharoah Sanders – ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ (1969)
Judging by the squawking terror that occupies a chunk of this sprawling 33-minute epic from Karma not everything went as smoothly as the Master may have wished.

5.  Eldridge Holmes – ‘Pop, Popcorn Children’ (1969)
The fourth volume of Soul Jazz Records’ New Orleans Funk shows no sign of dwindling returns. There’s enough in the opening track to keep an old-school hip-hopper in breaks and samples for a month.

6.  Jimmy Smith – ‘Recession or Depression’ (1971)
A vocal track with sweeping strings from the Hammond maestro, sounding for all the world like he’s written the soundtrack to a Blaxploitation movie before such a thing was even in vogue: recession, depression, unemployment, inflation, rich getting richer, poor getting poorer, trying to make ends meet. An unexpected moment in Smith’s catalogue.

7.  Senseless Things – ‘Everybody’s Gone’ (1991)
Twickenham’s Pop Kids have reunited for what’s billed as a one-off show next March in Shepherd’s Bush. Saw them many times in the early 90s and revisiting their stuff now I’m reminded why. Great live band with short, fast, pogoing-punk belters with an ear for a good melody. Now all we need are for The Revs to be added to the bill.

8.  The Prime Movers – ‘Don’t Want You Now’ (1991)
Much, I’m sure, to Graham Day’s irritation his time in The Prisoners will always overshadow his other work. Listening back to the second Prime Movers album, Earth Church, it must rank alongside the best things he’s done and ‘Don’t Want You Now’ encapsulates the mean, rock and roll fuck-offness of the Mr Day we know and love.

9.  Peter Doherty – ‘She Is Far’ (2016)
It’s a pity there’s so much baggage with Doherty as it’s possible to produce some quality records out of him. New album Hamburg Demonstrations hits a high percentage of satisfying tracks. ‘Flags of The Old Regime’ is stunning and if Dexys had cut the evocative ‘She Is Far’ you’d never hear the end of it. 

10.  RW Hedges – ‘Wild Eskimo Kiss’ (2016)
They don’t make records like this anymore. Only they do. A magical, almost Orbisonesque, seasonal offering from RW Hedges ahead of a new album next year. Lovely. Listen here.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

MAVIS STAPLES: KENNEDY CENTER LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT HONOR


The exceptional Mavis Staples was the recipient this month of a lifetime achievement award at the Kennedy Center Honors gala at the White House.

"The Kennedy Center Honors celebrates the spectacular talents of artists whose brilliance has left a lasting impact on our society," according to Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein.

"Reflecting on the powerful commitments these artists have made to their crafts as well as the cultural contributions they have made over the course of their illustrious careers is a humbling experience," added Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter.

Look at this speech given by President Barack Obama; everything about it is wonderful. Brings a lump to the throat. Fully deserved Mavis. Congratulations.


Wednesday, 28 December 2016

2016 ALBUMS OF THE YEAR


I don’t usually go in for end of year lists but here, in no order other than the one they appear above (which was arranged with the design in mind rather than anything else), are my nine favourite albums of 2016.

William Bell – This Is Where I Live
French Boutik – French Pop
The Lucid Dream – Compulsion Songs
The Monkees – Good Times
Daniel Romano – Mosey
The Senior Service – The Girl In The Glass Case
The See No Evils – Inner Voices
The Junipers – Red Bouquet Fair
Teenage Fanclub - Here