Sunday, 11 November 2018


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The Happy Warrior 

His wild heart beats with painful sobs,
His strain'd hands clench an ice-cold rifle,
His aching jaws grip a hot parch'd tongue,
His wide eyes search unconsciously.

He cannot shriek.

Bloody saliva
Dribbles down his shapeless jacket.

I saw him stab
And stab again
A well-killed Boche.

This is the happy warrior,
This is he…

Herbert Read

They Shall Not Grow Old review – an utterly breathtaking journey into the trenches
Peter Jackson and team’s painstaking restoration of first world war footage is a cinematic triumph that all but brings young British soldiers back to life

Mark Kermode
The Observer
Sun 11 Nov 2018

There’s a familiar mantra that computers have somehow taken the humanity out of cinema. In an age when it’s possible to conjure spectacular action from digital effects, many modern movies have developed a sense of weightlessness – the inconsequentiality of artifice. Along with Avatar director James Cameron, New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson has been at the forefront of the digital revolution, with his twin Tolkien trilogies (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) pushing the boundaries of computer-generated entertainment.

Yet with his latest project, a revivification of the Imperial War Museum’s archive of first world war footage, Jackson has done something quite remarkable: using 21st-century technology to put the humanity back into old movie stock. The result is utterly breathtaking.

Commissioned for the Armistice centenary by IWM and 14-18 NOW in association with the BBC, They Shall Not Grow Old is not a document of the world at war. Rather, it is an arresting snapshot of the lives of British soldiers who went to fight in Europe, many of them having lied about their tender ages to enlist. There are no historians, narrators or political commentators to guide us; the voices we hear are those of veterans, many gathered by the BBC during the making of its 1964 documentary series The Great War.

As we watch a line of soldiers marching through mud towards the front, something extraordinary happens. The film seems almost miraculously to change from silent black-and-white footage to colour film with sound, as though 100 years of film history had been suddenly telescoped into a single moment. Stepping through the looking glass, we find ourselves right there in the trenches, surrounded by young men whose faces are as close and clear as those of people we would pass in the street. I’ve often argued that cinema is a time machine, but rarely has that seemed so true.

The challenges involved in achieving this miracle are manifold. Most obviously, the digital restoration and colourisation of the original films has been painstakingly carried out with meticulous attention to detail, rendering everything from skin tones to scenery in impressively natural hues. (For theatrical presentation, a moderate 3D enhancement has also been applied.)

More complex is the correction of the film’s pace. The century-old footage with which Jackson was working was shot at anything from 10 to 18 frames per second, with the rate often changing within a single reel. We’ve all seen old movies projected at the modern speed of 24fps, creating that skittering, agitated effect that fixes such footage in the dim and distant past. Here, Jackson and his team have used computers to build interstitial frames that recapture the rhythms of real life, tuning into the music of the soldiers’ movements, breathing intimate life into their smallest gestures. The process may sound nerdily technical but the effect is powerfully emotional. It’s as if the technology had somehow pierced the surface of the film, causing (virtual?) memories to come pouring out.

While a rich tapestry of background sound effects transports the viewer from training camps to battlefields, actors provide regionally authentic dialogue based on forensic lip-reading of the silent footage. “Hello Mum!” chirrups one private as he marches past the camera. Later, we see and hear an officer issuing instructions for the forthcoming attack.

Amid such artifice, the true archive voices of soldiers who were “scared that the war would be over before we got out to it” strike a vibrant chord. While the unspeakable horrors of conflict are everywhere in evidence, Jackson’s film still finds unexpected life and laughter in the company of those who walked in the shadow of death. One veteran remembers the trenches as “a sort of outdoor camping holiday with the boys, with a slight spice of danger to make it interesting”. Another recalls the “terrific lot of kindness” at the front, a camaraderie perhaps lacking from life at home.

Should They Shall Not Grow Old be considered a documentary or a work of art? Debates about authenticity versus invention date back to the 1916 production of The Battle of the Somme, and Jackson’s creative interventions here will doubtless keep such arguments alive. Yet watching a technologically enhanced sequence in which a first world war soldier playfully juggles a beer bottle, then strums it like a guitar, all I could think was how real, how immediate, how profoundly truthful it all felt.

As the titular (mis)quotation from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen suggests, Jackson has attempted to take ageing footage and make it young again – to bring history, and those who lived it, into the present. It is an endeavour in which he has succeeded superbly.

They Shall Not Grow Old is in cinemas today, on BBC Two at 9.30pm this evening and on iPlayer for a week.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Wednesday night's set lists at The Habit, York

Ron Elderly: -
The River
Can't Help Falling In Love

Da Elderly: -
(The Lights Went Out In) Massachusetts

The Elderly Brothers: -
No Reply
You Really Got A Hold On Me
When A Man Loves A Woman
Another Saturday Night
I Saw Her Standing There

Another busy night at The Habit open mic with plenty of players and punters. Taxi driver Chris (pictured) belted out some soulful tunes including Ray Charles' hit Hallelujah I Love Her So. I chipped in with some 'new' oldies from The Young Rascals (1967) and the Bee Gees (1968) and the Elderlys finished off the evening with some Beatles' tunes and a couple of American standards. There was a chorus or two of Happy Birthday too.....thank you all!

Friday, 9 November 2018

Geoff Hattersley - Frank O'Hara Five, Geoffrey Chaucer Nil

Photo taken in Durham when we were there!!!!

Frank O'Hara Five, Geoffrey Chaucer Nil

I think on the whole I would rather read
Frank O'Hara than Geoffrey Chaucer, and
this fine, non-smoking morning could well be
the right time to try out a new (uh hum)

poetic form. It's the funniest thing:
I am here, thirty years of age, having
put booze, and all sorts of, say, 'dubious
substances' behind me, now sweating it

all out in a small, constipated room
with a plump tomato of a woman,
conjugating Middle English verbs. I have
developed a line, a very brief line,

in gestures of friendliness, and in my
trousers an idea is taking shape...

Taken from Don't Worry by Geoff Hattersely, published by Bloodaxe Books (or Dufour Editions, if you're in the USA)

Monday, 5 November 2018

Letters Home 1936-1977 by Philip Larkin - review

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Letters Home 1936-1977 by Philip Larkin, edited by James Booth – review
The poet’s sweetly sad dispatches, mostly addressed to his mother, reek of social history, while revealing a witty, wise and grossly impractical man

Rachel Cooke
The Observer
Sunday 4 November 2018

Sometimes, you have to wonder about the guardians of Philip Larkin’s legacy. Deep inside James Booth’s selection of the letters the poet wrote to his family between 1936 and 1977 can be found what is surely one of the weirdest photographs ever to appear between scholarly hard covers. Comprising three pairs of tatty socks – one lilac, one salmon, one navy blue – this motley selection of hosiery, the caption informs us, was “recovered” from the poet’s house in Hull following the death of his girlfriend, Monica Jones, in 2004 (oh, that word, “recovered”: what derring-do it implies). There then follows, by way of an explanation, a line from a note Larkin sent his mother in 1943. “I darned two pairs last Tuesday with great satisfaction,” it reads. “Only not having any khaki wool I had to darn in grey.”

When it comes to Larkin, however, I begin to wonder about myself, too. The majority of these letters are addressed to the poet’s mother, Larkin having written to her every week since he left home, and at least once a day in the last five years of her life. Their subjects include constipation, draught excluders, and the engagement of Princess Anne, and on the surface of it, they could not be more banal. Does anyone really want to hear of Eva Larkin’s endless struggles with chicken carcasses and dodgy tins? (“Have you got the cheese disposed of yet?” he asks in a letter of 1 January 1955, as if cheese were a substance that demanded the wearing of special protective gear). Do we honestly care about her worries over rain clouds, of which she had a morbid fear?

But I found that I did care in the end. This old, brown world of hissing gas fires, strange smells on the stairs, and filial duty worn like some heavy overcoat: how it hypnotises. When I wasn’t crying with laughter – “you can’t expect to enjoy yourself on holiday as you do at home” is among the more Hilda Ogden-ish advice Larkin dispenses to his ma – I was often close to sobbing at the sweet-sadness of it all. Behind the belly-aching and the penny-pinching, the making-do and the clay-cold depression, there is an immensity of kindness here, and the fact that this was sometimes so effortful on Larkin’s part only makes it the more tender (Eva, so anxious she could not sleep in her own house alone, frequently drove her son halfway round the bend).

Though his personal misery may have been deepening all the while, these letters bring to mind not the “coastal shelf” of his most famous poem, but something far softer, and altogether more benevolent. Here, like it or not, is love. It survives him, a better garland by far than a pile of old socks.

Booth, Larkin’s biographer, has edited these letters superbly well (there are 607 in this volume, a mere sliver of the terrifying total in existence), even if his footnotes are pedantic at times. Neatly tracing the poet’s adult life from Oxford University, through Wellington, Leicester and Belfast, where he worked in various libraries, and finally to Hull, a picture of the man slowly emerges. It’s not new, but perhaps the emphasis is slightly altered. Larkin as we find him here is witty, wise, grossly impractical, and extremely modest, in every sense of the word.

“I’m sorry… if your old friends have found out your new address,” he writes to Eva in 1952, a typical example of the way he wraps his (genuine, but weary) concern for her in a drollery she would not have noticed. It’s going to take me a long time to put from my mind the fact that, for his 50th birthday, he asked his sister, Kitty, for nothing more than a plastic container in which he might keep grapefruit juice. Above all, there is something so painfully contingent about his life: the rented rooms, the various triangles formed by various women, his conviction that (as the librarian of Hull University) he was in the wrong job in the wrong place. What part did Eva play in this suspended animation? (Larkin’s father, Sydney, the city treasurer of Coventry, died in 1948.)

Both Jones and another of his lovers, Maeve Brennan, believed that Eva got in the way of Larkin’s relationship with them, and at one point in these letters, Larkin writes expressly of the fact that he must neglect either Eva or Monica over Christmas, and how impossible this is for him.

But it’s too easy to lay his emotional contortions at his mother’s feet. He was deeply loved by her: a gift, however claustrophobic at times, that should have made relationships easier, not more difficult. “When I am in I want to be out, and when I am out I want to be in,” he writes to Eva from Belfast, of his faltering social life.

Larkin was ever uncertain, that’s all, ambivalence stamped on his character like a postmark – and why bemoan it, when it’s from this that the most magnificent and gently shrewd of his poems grow? (Eva inspired, directly or indirectly, several of them: Reference Back, Faith Healing, The Old Fools and the late, great Aubade, completed in days, after her death in November 1977.)

Is there poetry in these letters? Not often, though several poets shuffle and stride across them, from WH Auden to TS Eliot. The call of a blackbird sounds “like a smooth, polished sound-shape cast up on the beach of the evening”; every day arrives like a “newly cellophaned present”.

But he’s such a good writer that he cannot ever be bad – even when he is only tackling the vexed issue of his mother’s linen basket (how I shrieked at the letter in which he carefully thanks her for having washed a certain basque, a “very worthwhile” garment – though not, perhaps, as loudly as when I read the footnote informing me that said basque “must have been Monica’s”).

And what social history is here. You can almost smell it. This is a realm, now entirely disappeared, in which Louis Armstrong plays Bridlington, every posh dinner begins with celery soup, and little girls still keep their bedclothes in nightdress cases, as Kitty once did. It’s like visiting another planet – a chilly one, where the immersion heater is on only very rarely.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Friday, 2 November 2018

Wednesday night's set lists at The Habit, York

Beware of men bearing gifts, especially if they're wearing a hat like this...

Ron Elderly: -
Always On My Mind
The Air That I Breathe
Dock Of The Bay

Da Elderly: -
I Am A Child
Long May You Run
You're Sixty

The Elderly Brothers: -
When Will I Be Loved
Walk Right Back
All I Have To Do Is Dream
He'll Have To Go
I Saw Her Standing There

On a cold and damp Halloween in York there were many strange beasts and ghouls afoot, some of which turned up at The Habit for the regular Wednesday open mic night! Not that many players though, so we went around for a second time (hence 4 songs above), before The Elderlys finished off the show. The bar was quite full after the open mic and everyone was up for a sing-along unplugged. There was a great atmosphere with everyone joining in and shouting out requests. Crowd-pleasers to the fore in the shape of Old Crow Medicine Show, Simon & Garfunkel, Elvis, The Kinks and The Beatles. Great fun!

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Paul Simon: The Farewell Concert

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Feeling Lost with Paul Simon One Last Time

Amanda Petrusich
The New Yorker
24 September 2018

Paul Simon recorded “The Obvious Child” in 1990, for his eighth solo album, “The Rhythm of the Saints.” He was forty-nine years old at the time of its release. The song is a buoyant meditation on the puzzling and unseemly process of getting older, and the first verse contains what might be the greatest and most precise distillation of aging ever written: “I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more / I don’t expect to sleep through the night.” The gradual accrual of knowledge—it both bolsters and defeats us.

Earlier this year, Simon announced that his present tour, in support of his fourteenth album, “In the Blue Light,” would be his last. He titled the tour “Homeward Bound,” and it finished on Saturday night, at Flushing Meadows Park, near Corona, Queens, a deliberate and appropriately poetic locale. (The stage was just a twenty-minute bike ride from Simon’s childhood home, in nearby Forest Hills.) Though this was an ending, the mood in the crowd wasn’t sombre but celebratory and grateful—the moon was nearly full, the air was mercifully crisp, and it felt nice to spread an old blanket on a patch of grass, open a cold beer, and listen. Simon, who is now seventy-six, wore a red T-shirt and a black jacket. “This is two miles from where I played high-school baseball,” he announced, before tugging on a glove and tossing a ball into the crowd. “Let’s play a little catch.”

Before Simon came onstage, Mayor Bill de Blasio strode out and introduced him as “one of the greatest New York City artists of all time,” which felt like a fair assessment of Simon’s deep and enduring legacy. His discography seems to mirror something about the city’s spirit: chatty and omnivorous, tough and tender, awake to sorrow and beauty. Airplanes en route to or from LaGuardia periodically crisscrossed the sky. “Welcome to New York,” Simon called out to one.

As a lyricist, Simon has always been unusually open to ambiguity and compromise. He believes that there are equal parts justice and injustice in every human interaction; this gives his songs a kind of measured equanimity, which can feel especially precious in our era of audacious overstatement. His voice, boyish and clear, was something of a liability at the start of his career—he neither snarled nor whooped, like many of his peers, which led some critics to believe that his work was less urgent. Now it simply gives these songs an eternal youthfulness.

Simon did not make a big fuss of his homecoming—the only guest to join him onstage was his wife, the singer Edie Brickell, who nailed the whistle solo in “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” a goofy but rightly beloved single from 1972. “Me and Julio” felt particularly poignant, containing, as it does, both the line “Goodbye to Rosie, the Queen of Corona”—the crowd went completely nuts—and a stunning summation of retirement: “I’m on my way / I don’t know where I’m going / I’m taking my time, but I don’t know where.” Simon grinned like a maniac the whole time.

For erstwhile Simon fans, there were plenty of opportunities to get a little teary-eyed. (“Graceland” being the first record I ever truly loved, I spent a good chunk of the night wiping my eyes on the dampening hood of my sweatshirt.) Simon opened the show, as he has every date this tour, with “America,” a Simon and Garfunkel song about being young and mixed up in a way that feels irreparable, eternal: “Cathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping / And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” He revisited several of Simon and Garfunkel’s bigger hits, though he introduced “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (which Simon wrote, but Garfunkel sang) as his “lost child,” and never mentioned his old partner by name. (Garfunkel booked his own concert, in Rochester, Minnesota, for the same night, thus confirming that their estrangement rages on.)

The show closed with a moving, elegiac rendition of “The Sounds of Silence,” but it was Simon’s penultimate number that left me the most devastated. “It’s strange times, huh? Don’t give up,” Simon said, before strumming the opening chords of “American Tune,” from 1973. The song’s melody is adapted from the Latin crucifixion hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” which was first translated into English in 1752; Simon wrote the lyrics shortly after Richard Nixon was reĆ«lected, in 1972. In interviews, Simon has always said he eschews overt political statements in his songs, or tries to. But “American Tune” is so plainly a lament for a wounded nation:

And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea

To hear one of the city’s finest poets, at the end of the last show of his farewell tour, in the extraordinary neighborhood that bred and nurtured him, reminding us that our country has endured threats before, and survived them—I don’t know what hits you close. Me, I’d never felt quite so of or in New York before. And, for a few minutes, the city cried together, for everything we’d won and everything we’d lost.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Bob Dylan: More Blood, More Tracks - review

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The raw, painful birth of Blood on the Tracks
Recorded, scrapped, then hastily revised, the mercurial creativity of Bob Dylan’s most personal and honest album is laid bare in a six-CD set, More Blood, More Tracks

Sean O'Hagan
The Observer
Sunday 28 Oct 2018

On 16 September, 1974, Bob Dylan entered A&R recording studios in New York to begin work on his 15th studio album. He was 33 years old, his marriage was on the rocks and, despite a successful comeback tour that same year, his reputation rested solely on the epochal songs he had produced a decade previously. Having so defined the 1960s, Dylan had become an increasingly marginalised figure following his retreat to rural Woodstock at the close of the decade. The domestic normality he found there had precipitated a run of low-key, creatively unfocused albums that stretched from 1969’s Nashville Skyline to 1974’s Planet Waves. All that was about to change.

The making of the masterpiece that is Blood on the Tracks is as tangled a tale as any in Dylan’s long recording career. A version of the album was completed over four days in the studio in New York, the pace of Dylan’s impatient creativity confounding the hastily assembled band that had been recruited to flesh out his darkly reflective songs. Guitarist Eric Weissberg later recalled: “I got the distinct feeling Bob wasn’t concentrating, that he wasn’t interested in perfect takes. He’d been drinking a lot of wine, he was a little sloppy, but he insisted on moving forward, getting on to the next song without correcting obvious mistakes.” For the second day’s session, only one of the six musicians was retained, while two others were drafted in.

The finished album was scheduled for late December release. A record cover was printed, an advertising campaign finalised and test pressings dispatched to selected radio stations. A dissatisfied Dylan spent Christmas with his brother, David Zimmerman, his closest confidant. On hearing the finished record, David told him that it would fail commercially because the songs were too stark and stripped back to appeal to a mass audience. Rattled, Dylan derailed his triumphant return by insisting at the last minute that the album be withdrawn from the schedules.

Five of the 10 songs were then re-recorded in Sound 80 studio in Minneapolis over two days in the week after Christmas with a hastily assembled group of local musicians. The reworked album was rush-released on 20 January, 1975. Out of these messy and fraught circumstances, a masterpiece somehow emerged. Its gestation is mapped out in often revelatory detail on the imminent More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol 14, a 6-CD deluxe box set released this week, in which the 10 original songs are augmented by every single outtake in chronological order from the 1974 recording sessions. A facsimile of one of the famous red notebooks adds to the allure of the expensive deluxe edition, while the less obsessive Dylan fan can make do with a pared-down version on single CD version and double vinyl formats.

The elaborately packaged album arrives on the back of the recent announcement by film director Luca Guadagnino that he is to follow up the mainstream success of Call Me By Your Name with an adaptation of Blood on the Tracks, which, he says, will be a “a multiyear story, set in the 70s, drawing on the album’s central themes”. Four decades after its release, Dylan’s most personal record continues to cast a spell.

As is the case for many Dylan devotees, Blood on the Tracks has been part of the soundtrack of my life since its release, as constant a presence as classic albums such as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?and Dylan’s previous masterpiece, 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. In the mid-90s, I came by a CD called Blood on the Tracks: The New York Sessions, an unofficial bootleg which had surfaced soon after the release of the original. It includes early, spartan recordings of songs including If You See Her, Say Hello and Idiot Wind. Over time, I have come to love them even more than the official versions, not least because, in their raw and still unfinished state, they sound even more intimate and revealing.

A case in point is his stark, acoustic reading of Idiot Wind, his most splenetic song since Positively 4th Street, which sounds even more intense than the more elaborate version on the 1975 original release. The contrast between the two reveals Dylan’s mercurial creativity at that time. Now comes news that the deluxe More Blood, More Tracks contains no fewer than nine versions of the song. (You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go unfolds over 12 separate takes.) This is manna from heaven for Dylan completists. For the rest of us, it provides intimate evidence of his often frenetic approach to recording and rewriting, capturing him in full flow at a pivotal moment on his creative journey. Lines, rhymes and even melodies change as Dylan searches for the shape and core meaning of each song in take after take. “It’s like you’re in the room...” elaborates producer Steve Berkowitz in the current issue of Uncut magazine. “It’s living history.”

The wealth of additional material will almost certainly confirm the critical view that Blood on the Tracks is one of the greatest, and most painfully honest, break-up albums of all time, a by turns bitter and beseeching response to the disintegration of his marriage to his wife of nine years, Sara. Dylan has constantly refuted this interpretation, and, in Chronicles, the first and as yet only volume of his memoirs, states that it was “an entire album based on Chekhov short stories. Critics thought it was autobiographical – that was fine”.

The album may well be Chekhovian in its shifting cast of characters and multiple points of view but there is a deep vein of regretful reflection running through songs such as If You See Her, Say Hello and You’re a Big Girl Now. Their tone suggests a man who realises what he has lost and is self-aware enough to acknowledge his destructive role in the mess that his marriage had become – the reclusive Sara would file for divorce soon afterwards, tired of Dylan’s increasingly blatant womanising.

In contrast, the force of Idiot Wind, particularly in its brutally stark acoustic version, still startles. By turns paranoid, derisory and vengeful, it is a dark masterpiece of venomous intent, a great part of its raw power resting in the very discomfort the listener feels as it gathers momentum and the tone becomes ever more bitter. “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,” he seethes. “You’re an idiot, babe/ It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”

Blood on the Tracks may be the most aptly titled of all Dylan’s great albums. Its rush and ragged conception, now chronicled in full for the first time, is testament to WB Yeats’s insistence that the essence of the true artist’s endeavour could best be summed up by the words: “Myself I must remake.”

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Stan and Ollie - review

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Stan & Ollie review: Insightful and endlessly touching

Geoffrey Macnab 
The Independent
22 October 2018

Dir: Jon S Baird; Starring: Steve Coogan, John C Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston. Cert: tbc, 97 mins.

Stan & Ollie is a gently elegiac homage to Laurel and Hardy. It’s never quite as funny as might have been expected, but it tugs at the emotions throughout. With beautiful performances by Steve Coogan (as Stan Laurel) and John C Reilly (as Oliver Hardy), it is a film about friendship and loyalty as much as a comedy.

Director Jon S Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope are exploring the strange process through which the two comedians, in their private lives and dealings with one another, became well-nigh identical to the characters they played on screen.

The film follows Stan and Ollie on their tour of Britain in 1953, very late in their careers. As they travel from Newcastle to Glasgow, they play half-empty halls and stay in seedy boarding houses and hotels. Their slick, double-dealing promoter Bernie Delfont (Rufus Jones) is far more interested in boosting new client Norman Wisdom than in helping old-timers like Laurel and Hardy.

A short prelude, set in Hollywood in 1937, reminds the audience that, only a few years earlier, Laurel and Hardy were the biggest comedy stars in the world. In a single shot, Baird shows the duo in their bowler hats and braces walking from dressing rooms to sound stages. Everybody loves them. In the course of an epic walk, Ollie grabs a doughnut and places a bet. Stan is greeted with affection by passers-by. When they finally reach the set, they are met by their overbearing producer, Hal Roach (Danny Huston).

Stan, far more business savvy than his partner, is well aware they are paid considerably less than Chaplin and other comedy stars – confusingly, the film makes reference to silent era legends Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, whose careers had foundered by this point. The Englishman is threatening to break with Roach and go it alone, but Ollie is too timid to embrace such a plan.

Some 16 years later, the comedians have come to Britain to try to revive their careers. If their stage shows go well enough, they hope to make another movie.

Reilly and Coogan brilliantly capture the physical mannerisms and verbal tics of their characters without resorting to caricature. The make-up department has done wonders in bulking Reilly up and giving him an enormous double chin. Coogan, meanwhile, has that thin-faced, hapless, head-scratching, little boy lost look that Laurel always showed on screen. They sing “Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia” and dance with a comic grace and panache matching that of the real comic legends.

Stan & Ollie is one of a number of recent movies – including Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, My Week With Marilyn – that follow the downbeat experiences of big-name Hollywood stars in Britain at difficult times in their careers. The film becomes progressively gloomier as Laurel and Hardy are forced to perform publicity stunts – judging a bathing beauty contest, helping kids cross the road – to boost ticket sales. Some of the gags are crude. At one stage, in clear reference to their Oscar winning short The Music Box, we see the comedians trying to drag an enormous trunk up a flight of stairs. Stan is humiliated when the British producer supposedly set to finance their comeback movie won’t even take a meeting with him. One of the comedians is shown looking bewildered beneath a giant poster for a new Abbott and Costello movie.

Midway through the film, the comedians are joined by their wives. Shirley Henderson plays the shrewish but affectionate Mrs Hardy while Nina Arianda is Ida Kitaeva, Stan’s headstrong partner, a former dancer and movie actress who tells everyone she meets the same stories about her once glorious career. Henderson and Arianda are a double-act in their own right, and have their comic moments, but they fade into the background whenever Stan and Ollie are on screen. The only relationship that really matters in this film is the one between the two principals. As in all buddy movies, the old pals have their rocky moments. Stan accuses Ollie of being a “lazy ass” who got lucky because he met a partner who would do all the work for him. Ollie dismisses Stan as emotionally “hollow” and not a real friend at all. The more the two bicker, the more apparent it becomes that they can’t do without each other.

Director Baird, whose previous film was scabrous Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, wrings every last drop of pathos he can from his material. This is very much a case of the tears of the clowns. Laurel and Hardy, two of the best-loved figures in film history, are seen here at their lowest ebb. They’re getting old. They’re no longer bankable as movie stars. However, as the film also shows, the magic between them never dissipates. They can’t be split either. Stan & Ollie won’t ever have you in hysterics, but its account of the comedians in their twilight years is insightful and endlessly touching.

Friday, 26 October 2018

More Blood, More Tracks - now streaming

First Listen: Bob Dylan, 'More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14'
Stream a 10-track sampler from the 'Blood On the Tracks' sessions

Tom Moon
25 October 20185

When can a song be considered "finished"? When, if ever, can a song written by Bob Dylan be considered finished? And what to make of tracks that were greenlit for release and then discarded – after the auteur decided they somehow didn't quite capture the totality of what he was trying to express?

These are among the questions that hover over the multiple versions of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" and really everything on More Blood, More Tracks – a massive trove of outtakes that documents, in chronological order, every utterance from the New York sessions that led to Dylan's 1975 opus Blood On the Tracks.

"You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome" is a tender, straight-up declaration of anticipatory loneliness, and when Dylan begins working on it, during the second of four days of tracking, he envisions it with full band support. He and the studio veterans of the Deliverance band settle into an easygoing, L.A. country-rock pulse, and over the course of a brief rehearsal and multiple tries, they develop a working understanding about what the song needs, when to surge forward and when to leave space for Dylan's vocal flourishes. There are slight variations in tempo and arrangement, and unlike some early renditions of a few of Dylan's other new tunes – notably the howlingly raw New York recording of "Idiot Wind" that was replaced by a version (with a different band) from a late-December session in Minneapolis – these renderings are solid, professional, respectable.

Something apparently still troubles Dylan, however. He revisits "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome" the next day, initially with just his guitar, piano and bass. Then, at the end of the session, he records two versions using only guitar and bass. The second of those, which has a slightly looser feel and some wild-eyed singing, is the one we know by heart. (It's unknown if Dylan made further attempts at the song in Minneapolis; the box set's producers were only able to locate master tapes for the five tunes from the session that appeared, with the musicians uncredited, on the original Blood On the Tracks. They are identified on this release.)

Dylan's pursuit of the singular "truth" of this song across so many takes is not about studio perfection. He's chasing a particular balance between narrative and background accompaniment; when there's too much musical information flying around, the spell is broken. His holy grail isn't to simply document the arc of a love affair: Dylan's searching for a specific tone and temperament to enhance the scenes he'd written – scenes set in the messy aftermath of all-consuming romance, when all that's left of a noble love is empty-room echoes and not-entirely-trustworthy memories. The six-disc box (and a single-disc sampler) shows how virtually everything that ended up on Blood On the Tracks underwent similar transformation. From typical songwriterly confession to austere, harrowing expression.

Dissected by generations of songwriters for their metric precision and structural concision, these songs had to be rendered cleanly, with little ornamentation, so that listeners couldn't escape the nuance – or, conversely, the brute force – of the delusions and deceptions and dissolutions Dylan describes.

One protagonist confides he only knows of careless love; another follows a cold trail in vain hope of reconnecting with the woman who made things make sense. Several songs share what happens when the angry words of a former lover reach into the psyche at the cellular level, coiling around the valves of the heart until they change a man's perspective, his sense of identity. One song is bitter and astringent; others are wistful, tender, nostalgic. Heard front to back, these pieces form an inquiry into the shifting dynamics of relationship that has no parallel anywhere in the history of popular song.

What's more, everything on the final Blood On the Tracks – five songs cut in New York, five in Minneapolis – share one singular animating trait: This almost haunting visceral energy. These songs vibrate at an emotional pitch that's hard to reach, let alone sustain; More Blood, More Tracks underscores this feat. The multiple takes show Dylan framing and interpreting the words to shade or alter their meanings. He conjures the corkscrew to the heart, then finds ways to turn it further.

Wound up and sometimes bursting with fury, Dylan sings with such immersion that he renders the eternal speculation about the origins of this work – "is it autobiographical?" – pretty much meaningless, at least secondary to the achievement of the art. Unspooling his detail-rich narratives differently each time, Dylan brings the abstract into focus, conjuring the taste of a sudden rejection, the chill of the wind blowing through the buttons of a coat. Each image works a particular magic that has eluded so many poets and songwriters: He's translating the messy and mysterious into music with universal resonance.

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