David Bowie - Blackstar

Like many people, I was having breakfast this morning when the news that David Bowie had died flashed up as breaking news on the different digital devices dotted around the flat. I couldn't believe it. How could it happen now? It was only last Tuesday that I'd heard John Wilson talking about the new Bowie album Blackstar on BBC Radio's Front Row. At the time I'd made a mental note to listen to the album when it was released on Friday 8th January to coincide with the singer's 69th birthday. Then, after I'd listened to it, I remember thinking that it needed a closer listen. So early on Saturday morning I lay in bed with headphones on, listening to the whole album. And for the rest of the weekend I had the songs spinning round in my head, especially Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can't Give Everything Away. And now I'm being told that he's dead? It sounds like a hoax. But then the one line news alerts start to get longer and more detailed and it becomes clear that it isn't a hoax - it's real.

I wrote to my friend John Howlett and said how Bowie had always had impeccable timing - leaving an album for his fans and then dying a couple of days later. In one statement I read, Brian Eno, who had worked with Bowie many times over the years, said: "David's death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him." How true.

My friend John replied to my message saying 'You’re the first person who came into my mind when I heard about Bowie.' It's hard to say just how much influence Bowie had on me over the years. I remember being told to listen to Hunky Dory when it first came out in 1971 and loving it. And I can still remember seeing the cover of the Ziggy Stardust album in the shop window of an Edinburgh record shop and thinking this was something totally new and different. I went to the Ziggy Stardust concert in Edinburgh and immediately started writing songs that sounded a bit too much like wannabe Bowie songs.

Another friend asked me today if I'd ever met him. I wish I had. I went to mime classes with Lindsay Kemp and sold tickets for his Turquoise Pantomime on the High Street in Edinburgh. Bowie had studied mime with him. I was introduced to the songs of Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill and fell in love with them as Bowie had done. I read William S. Burroughs and loved the idea of cutting up and re-assembling song lyrics as Bowie often did. And I loved songs that were theatrical. I'm sure we would've found something to talk about.

Bowie also appeared on the pages of iT's for Teachers magazine in various classroom activities and on the cover of one of the final issues coinciding with the 2013 exhibition David Bowie Is at the V&A in London.

Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer wrote today: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."

When a singer dies we usually have old songs going round in our heads. There aren't many artists who can fill your head with new songs just hours before they pass away. 

2001 memories

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey is back in the news with its new digital re-release being shown in London this weekend. The BBC Film Programme dedicated a special edition to the film which you can hear here. As part of the programme, they asked listeners to share their memories of the film. I have several memories that go right back to 1968 when the film was first released.

For some reason I was on a trip to London with my father. I must've been thirteen at the time. I remember sitting in the circle of the Casino Cinerama cinema and Roy Orbison sitting in the row in front of us. The film had a huge impact on me. It wasn't just the visuals which were amazing but also the music. As soon as we got back to Edinburgh I bought the original soundtrack LP. I remember it being in mono and being jealous of a friend who had a stereo copy.

I spent hours listening to Also sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube, imagining journeys into space. I also remember trying to make sense of György Ligeti's pieces which were slightly more challenging at the time. And I think I wrote a space monologue to read over the Gayane Ballet Suite.

When I moved to London a few years later, I ended up sharing a flat on Hampstead Heath which I discovered belonged to Keir Dullea, the main actor in the film. He was living in the States at the time. It was an amazing flat. One afternoon a few people came round and when someone mentioned whose flat it was, one of them turned out to have been an ape in the film.

A few years later I wrote the music for a musical based on the life of James Dean. It was staged at the London Casino (now the Prince Edward Theatre) which had been the cinema where I’d seen 2001 all those years ago. I only discovered recently that Keir Dullea had worked with Sal Mineo (who’d appeared with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause). He was probably working with him while I was living in his Hampstead flat.

I’ve seen the film several times since then. The last time was at the Sitges Film Festival in 2008. It still looked amazing on the big screen and remains my favourite science fiction film and possibly my favourite soundtrack album.

Awesome Mix Vol. 1

We went to see Guardians of the Galaxy on Friday. It was a fun movie with a lot of humour, some great visuals, and an amazing soundtrack. In fact, last week the soundtrack album reached number one in the Billboard 200. The album, which is called Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is a compilation of songs from the 1970s that includes Moonage Daydream by David Bowie and I Want You Back by The Jackson 5. At the start of the movie we see the hero Peter Quill as a boy listening to I'm not in Love by 10cc on his cassette player. It's one of the tracks on a cassette compilation that his mother gives him shortly before her death. Peter is then abducted and taken into space, growing up to become an interstellar adventurer also known as 'Star-Lord', still taking his cassette player and his mother's mix tape, labelled 'Awesome Mix Vol. 1', with him wherever he goes. The mix of retro music with a space adventure isn't new but it works so well here.

Depending on your age, you may or may not have made your own awesome cassette mixes in the past. I made a few and was also given a few over the years. We tend to think of cassettes as an inferior audio format but the other day I was amazed to discover that a song which sounded so clear and bright on my iPod was originally from a cassette that I'd transferred to digital. (I went through a phase a few years ago when I transferred all my old vinyl albums and cassettes to digital as well as the old reel-to-reel tapes of my songs.)

The modern equivalent of the cassette mix is the playlist but somehow a digital playlist can't beat the fun and excitement of the other contemporary option - shuffle all. With a choice of around 8,000 tracks on my iPod from the past and present, from a wide range of genres, I'm always amazed at how tracks seemingly selected 'at random' can often fit together so well, creating a totally unique awesome mix. It happens often and is even more satisfying when one of my own songs appears sandwiched between David Bowie and Joni Mitchell! Of course, the shuffle option can get it very wrong at times and totally destroy the atmosphere you'd wanted to create. But that's part of the fun.

The random option fits the times we live in so well when we tend to think in terms of tracks rather than albums even after artists have tried so hard to create 'an album' with the perfect running order of songs.

In spite of having access to so much music online, I do wonder if young people today get to hear as wide a range of music as I did when I was growing up. The shuffle option can only really come into its own when it's shuffling a wide range of music from Mozart through Miles Davis to London Grammar and the theme from Thunderbirds. If it's simply shuffling a single genre then there isn't much scope for discovering how apparent opposites can work so well together.

As for Guardians of the Galaxy, there's an Awesome Mix Vol. 2 cassette compilation to look forward to. Let's hope the  movie sequel will manage to maintain the random feel of the current movie. Shuffle all ...

Only Lovers Left Alive

There's a scene towards the end of Only Lovers Left Alive in which Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton)  stand outside a bar in Tangier, listening to Yasmine Hamdan sing 'Hal'. Eve says she'll be famous one day to which Adam replies: 'She's too good to be famous.' or words to that effect.

I've been waiting to see this Jim Jarmusch film since it was first shown at the Cannes film festival in 2013. It took its time getting to Barcelona. And when we did manage to sit down to watch it at the Floridablanca cinema, the projector decided to pack in. Ticket price returned, we tried again a few days later at the Verdi. Going to the cinema these days can be such a depressing experience when there are only a handful of you there. A couple of weeks ago we went to the Icaria cinema and there were plastic bags over broken seats and no-one noticed that the film had started without any picture. But I can't help it - I love going to the cinema. And watching Only Lovers Left Alive on a big screen in a near-empty session felt very appropriate. A bit like Adam and Eve driving down those desolate Detroit streets.

Anyway, the film took me back to my early days in Barcelona when most of the V.O. films were shown at the Casablanca or Capsa cinemas (both now closed). Jim Jarmusch was so much a part of that period: Stranger Than Paradise (1984); Down by Law (1986); Mystery Train (1989). I think I saw them all at the Casablanca.

I wasn't disappointed by Only Lovers Left Alive. The IMDB summary reads: 'A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance - which has already endured several centuries - is disrupted by the arrival of uncontrollable younger sister.' How could I not love it?

Tilda Swinton was the perfect vampire and Tom Hiddleston was great as the depressed musician. He reminded me of Mike Sheppard, bassist, guitar player, engineer, and third member of Tractorial Base. The egg boxes on the wall of Adam's room, the Revox reel-to-reel tapes turning, and the collection of guitars took me back to Steve's home studio in Shpeherd's Bush where we wrote and recorded most of the Tractorial Base demos.

The egg boxes on the wall, the Revox and the collection of guitars took me back to Steve's home studio in Shpeherd's Bush.

So I've added Welcome to Tractorial Base to the Tractorial Base album. It's really three songs linked together. It lasts more than 8 minutes but it'll give you an idea of how mad and exciting things were back then.

Ghosts of London

Derek Jacobi enters the Trafalgar Studio auditorium and takes his place in one of the house seats. I assume they're the house seats. Back in the days when I worked in the box office at the Shaw Theatre and Sadlers Wells, we always kept a group of seats for VIPs, friends of cast members, or customers who needed to be re-seated at the last moment. These were called 'house seats' and they were the best seats in the house.

We're at the theatre now to see Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts which was first performed back in 1882. It's still a powerful play today and I'd read in one review that the final five minutes of Richard Eyre's production were hard to watch. When I told this to my mother, she told me that she'd first been to see the play many years ago. She went with the musician Ivor Keys who she was going out with at the time. According to my mother, he'd fainted at the end of the play during those final minutes.

Curiously, we almost didn't get to see the play because we both hadn't been feeling well beforehand. Maybe it was just the nerves, wondering how we'd react to those final few minutes. Inevitably the end couldn't live up to such expectations. It was odd to watch the actors taking their curtain call, unable to smile after performing such a bleak play (for the second time that day).

There were more ghosts back at the hotel. I'd booked a room at the Pullman Hotel on Euston Road. This was long before I met up with the old friend I used to work with there when it was still the Shaw Theatre and St Pancras library (see An adventure in space and time below). When I checked in, the concierge asked me if I'd stayed there before, I wanted to say 'Well, yes, actually. I worked right where you're standing now long before you were born'. I spent many happy days there learning how to 'build a house' by placing audience members in the right seats on large seating plans. And never selling the house seats, of course.

The Shaw Theatre seating plan as it is today.

An Adventure in Space and Time

Time travel continues to be the theme this week. The day after Kennedy was shot (see last post), a new science fiction series started on BBC called Doctor Who. I remember watching the first episode twice. They repeated it the following week because (I mistakenly thought at the time) it had been so successful. It turns out that the repeat was due to Kennedy's death dominating the news. I leant this from An Adventure in Space and Time, a TV drama that told the story of how the series started. It was part of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary celebrations. I didn't watch the special anniversary episode. Although I was a huge fan of Doctor Who and still possess some daleks (hiding somewhere in the same chest as the Kennedy file), I'm not one of those people who follows the new generation (or regeneration) of Doctors. For me, the series belongs in the past and should stay there.

This week I had my own adventure in space and time. A friend I used to work with in the 1970s, and who I haven't seen since then, came to Barcelona for a few days. By coincidence, I'd revisited the place where we used to work this summer when I attended a breakfast meeting at the Pullman Hotel on Euston Road. The building used to be St Pancras library and included the Shaw Theatre. We both worked in the theatre's box office which is now the hotel reception (see photo). It was a happy reunion so I guess not everything from the past should stay there.

The hotel reception on the left where the Shaw Theatre box office used to be.

The hotel reception on the left where the Shaw Theatre box office used to be.

Lou Reed played here

There was a nice piece by Suzanne Vega in today's Times about Lou Reed and how he'd changed her life. She mentions the Berlin album and how she'd been listening to it on the Sunday afternoon in August 1984 when she wrote the song Luka.

I've been thinking a lot about the Berlin album over the past few days. It came out in 1973 when I was an eighteen-year-old would-be rock star living in a flat in Belsize Park. The album had a huge impact on me and is probably the reason I wrote so many depressing songs over the next few years. (Listen to On the Other Side of Town and you'll see what I mean.)

1973 was an amazing year. Look at the albums that came out that year and ended up in my record collection: Foreigner (Cat Stevens), Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player  (Elton John), Pin Ups and Aladdin Sane (David Bowie), Band on the Run (Paul McCartney & Wings), There Goes Rhymin' Simon (Paul Simon), and Berlin, of course.

But it was an amazing year for other reasons. I wrote the music for my first show, The National Youth Theatre production of The Children's Crusade. Written by Paul Thompson and directed by Ron Daniels (and featuring one Dan Day-Lewis in the cast) it was a life-changing experience. Soon after I met Stephen Lipson who had such an influence on my music. He turned up on my doorstep after answering an ad in Melody Maker for someone to help me perform some songs I'd written for Jonathan Marshall's A Wet Winter Night's Dream which was the Christmas show at the Bush Theatre that year. We also performed it at Brixton Prison but that's another story...

A few months ago I attended my uncle's funeral in London and by chance stayed at a hotel in Belsize Park. I couldn't resist walking down Lambolle Place past the flat where so much happened in such a short space of time in 1973. 'It was very nice'.

The flat in Lambolle Place.

The flat in Lambolle Place.