Monday 31 August 2015

Issue 52 of the Bob Dylan magazine The Bridge - now available

The Bridge Issue 52

Fulla good stuff...


Comrades From The North:

Hello and a very warm welcome to the latest issue of The Bridge. Many of you may have had the opportunity to catch Dylan in his recent round of European shows so we hope that you enjoyed what you saw. This time around multiple concert-goers were treated to a modicum of variety in the song selection including one or two surprises along the way. Having said that, there remained a high degree of rigidity in the set-lists, with 20 songs being utilised in twelve or more of the 19 shows on the itinerary. Whenever Dylan incorporates festival gigs (which are often a tad shorter that normal shows) he tends to vary things – not always but certainly he did again this time around. In fact there were 19 songs which were played only a handful of times – 6 of which were played only the once. Amongst the one-offs were That Lucky Old Sun last played in 1985 but included on the recent Shadows In The Night album and a couple of debut performances namely Sad Songs And Waltzes (a Willie Nelson number)and Where Are You? (also from Shadows In The Night). So, all in all, sounds like promising developments for the European shows to come in the Autumn.

If there is one constant in the Dylan multiverse it is that there is always some rumour in circulation. The most recent one to grab the attention may well turn out to have more than an iota of truth about it. It concerns the next release in the wonderful Bootleg Series. Stories have circulated for some time that the next project could/would be the Blood On The Tracks sessions or the sessions for Blonde On Blonde. Either of those would be most welcome, of course, but this latest rumour suggests that we might get the studio sessions from 1965 and 1966. Given that this would cover what many regard as the most fertile, ground-breaking and influential period of Dylan’s career, this would be a major release should the whisperings prove to have substance. The rumoured format is a 2- CD package, a 6-CD box set and an extensive, multi-CD set, perhaps up to 18 discs, covering the whole period comprehensively. Whilst this latter box might seem somewhat unlikely, it is worth pointing out that it would be odds-on that Sony/Columbia would be releasing Copyright Collection sets at the end of 2015 and 2016 to protect recordings from 1965 and 1966 respectively so why not do it properly and make money out of it at the same time. For goodness’ sake, how much would they be charging for an 18-CD set?!!! If any of this does happen, expect an October 2015 release – in time for the Christmas market no doubt.

The highly respected UK music magazine Mojo produces a (very) occasional side issue entitled Mojo '60s. Issue number 3 hit the shelves in June and features a 20-page special on Dylan in 1965 entitled Revolution In His Head. The piece uses the basic tenet that Dylan invented rock music when he recorded Bringing It All Back Home in January 1965 and it traces what it believes are some of the musical developments prior to this which led up to that seminal work. Not everyone would swallow the claim wholesale, given that one side of the album was practically acoustic and a lot of the first side was not full-blown rock music and some might point to the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited as being the key works, others Newport 1965, others the release of the single Like A Rolling Stone. The magazine also contains a stiff-card promo poster for Don’t Look Back as well as loads of other great features on artistes of the period. Worth seeking out.

And so it remains for us to wish you a pleasant and peaceful summer time or a warm winter for those in the southern hemisphere. Here in the UK we had one week of heat-wave and a pretty soggy time since then. Take care and hope that you enjoy this issue.

May you climb on every rung ..........

Mike & John

By Scott Marshall

By Philip Horne

By Vince Farinaccio

By Rod MacBeath

By Roy Kelly

Jotting Down Notes
Compiled by: John Wraith, Mike Wyvill and Terry Kelly

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Sunday 30 August 2015

Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall manuscript for sale at Sotheby's

Bob Dylan early draft for A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall shows telling changes
Never-before-seen manuscript up for auction at Sotheby’s shows Dylan’s restless revising as song originally had far more insistent ending

Mark Brown
Monday 24 August 2015

Bob Dylan originally contemplated climbing six purple mountains rather than stumbling on the side of 12 misty ones and the ending to one of his greatest songs was far more insistent than it later became.

The fascinating changes he made to his 1962 anti-war anthem A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall can be revealed as Sotheby’s auctions a never-before-seen early manuscript.

The two neatly typed pages represent a remarkable and exciting document, according to Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s books and manuscripts specialist.

It would have been intended as a version to show others. “You can see it was not originally intended as a working draft,” Heaton said. “It was meant to be a final version of the song but when he starts reading it again, he clearly is unhappy with it and starts reworking, starts revising … more ideas start spilling out of his brain.”

The draft being sold reveals that Dylan’s original opening was: “Where have you been, my blue eyed boy/ Where have you been, my darling young son.” In the final version, recorded in December 1962, it became: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son/ And where have you been, my darling young one.”

The next lines were also changed. Instead of “I’ve climbed up six purple mountains/ I’ve crawled on 10 crooked highways”, it later became: “I’ve stumbled on the side of 12 misty mountains/ I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.”
Dylan was only 21 when he wrote A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, in which he warned of the impending apocalypse.

The version being sold comes from the heart of the Greenwich Village folk scene. “It was the kind of place where you could write this crazy poem, show it to someone who would go, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” said Heaton. “It was an environment which fostered this kind of creativity.”

It would have been written in an office – described as “a hide-out room” – above the legendary Gaslight folk club on a typewriter belonging to Dylan’s friend Hugh Romney, or Wavy Gravy as he is better known.

Dylan clearly discarded the draft and it came into the possession of Romney’s then wife, Elizabeth, and has been passed down through the family since then.

Heaton said the manuscript shone a fascinating light on Dylan’s creative processes and restless spirit, on how he was always trying to change, revise and improve. “You can really see him creating here, you can see just how easily these amazing lines seem to have come to him … they just spill out. What a mind!”

The song, described by Rolling Stone magazine as “the greatest protest song by the greatest protest songwriter of his time”, has often been associated with the Cuban missile crisis – an idea helped along by Dylan, who has both claimed it and denied it in subsequent interviews.

The reality is that it was written before the crisis and was first performed at Carnegie Hall in September 1962, a month before the world moved to the brink of nuclear war.

Dylan’s question and answer template for the song was taken from a traditional Scottish folk ballad called Lord Randall, whose repeated lines were: “O where ha you been, Lord Randall my son?/ And where ha you been my handsome young man?”

The manuscript includes memorably evocative lines which Dylan scribbled down as they occurred to him, including “I heard 100 drummers whose hands were all blazing/ I heard 10,000 whispering as no one was listening.”

Interestingly, Dylan decided against the ending he wrote in this early draft, in which the narrator’s prophetic tone takes on a moral imperative. Instead of “gonna”, he wrote more insistently: “And it’s a hard,/ It’s a hard,/ It’s a hard rain must fall.”

The newly discovered manuscript is one of three known to exist. One is in the Morgan Library in New York and another, the final handwritten working manuscript, was sold at Sotheby’s New York last year for $400,000 (£254,000).

The manuscript will be sold at Sotheby’s rock and pop sale in London on 29 September.

Friday 28 August 2015

Loudon Wainwright III - Surviving Twin: a father and son collaboration...

Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘Surviving Twin’ Is a Father-Son Collaboration
Loudon Wainwright III: Surviving Twin
Off Off Broadway, Special Event, Musical, Solo Performance
SubCulture, 45 Bleecker St.

Laura Collins-Hughes
15 June 2015

The first song Loudon Wainwright III ever wrote for his son, Rufus, is more than 40 years old by now, an address to his child in utero.

Its giddy playfulness is right there in the title, “Dilated to Meet You,” and when the elder Mr. Wainwright performed it on a ukulele Wednesday night at SubCulture in his new solo show, “Surviving Twin,” the passage of time made its last lines bittersweet: “We really think you’ll like it here. We hope that you like us.”

Every parent’s longing, right? Kind of breaks your heart. But “Surviving Twin” is a sentimentality-free zone, and as soon as the song was done, Mr. Wainwright jumped into an anecdote. “When we told my grandmother that her first great-grandson would be called not Loudon IV but rather Rufus, she said, ‘Rufus? Rufus? That’s a dog’s name!’ ” He paused, just long enough. “She was right, of course.”

It’s a funny moment, but there’s a sting to it, the aggression mixed right in. So it goes in “Surviving Twin,” a bristling, acerbic, ultimately affecting family album of a show, with father-son resentments, hostilities and resemblances laid out for all to see, alongside the love and self-loathing.

Directed by Daniel Stern, it’s billed as “a posthumous collaboration” between Mr. Wainwright, the singer-songwriter, and his father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., the Life magazine columnist, who died in 1988. There’s some masterful writing in those columns, interwoven here with Loudon III’s songs and a batch of Loudon Jr.’s letters from the 1940s, before Loudon III was born.

The trouble with posthumous collaboration, if you happen to be the dead half of the partnership, is that it’s up to the living half to give you your due. At 68, Mr. Wainwright seems to be trying to gain some understanding of his father and himself, but he doesn’t appear to have much sympathy for either of them.

Death hasn’t halted this son’s competition with his father, which may have something to do with the angry yet absent way he performed the early parts of the show Wednesday night. Then again, he may simply have been in a mood. He warmed into the performance, though not before he’d rendered one long, lovely piece of his father’s prose nearly lifeless.

But “Surviving Twin” becomes quite moving, precisely because the relationships it depicts are so far from the anodyne ideal. “If families didn’t break apart, I suppose there’d be no need for art,” Mr. Wainwright sings, and in the moment, that feels absolutely true.

Loudon Wainwright III's new one-man show is called 'Surviving Twin'
Loudon Wainwright III Performs 'Posthumous Collaboration' With His Dad

Thursday 12 June 2014

Loudo talks to NPR's John Schaefer about Surviving Twin and his last album, Haven't Got the Blues (Yet).

"Oddly enough," says Wainwright, "I feel closer to my father now — and he's been dead for over 25 years — than I ever have."

'Surviving Twin': Theater Review
The sardonically humorous singer-songwriter delivers a moving meditation on father/son relationships, combining his own songs with spoken-word excerpts from his famed magazine columnist father's writings.

Frank Scheck
11 June 2015

Loudon Wainwright III has always told stories in his songs, usually of the sardonically humorous and deeply personal variety. He mines both qualities to excellent effect in his one-man show, described as a "posthumous collaboration" with his father, famed Life Magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr., whose "The View From Here" essays ran in the publication from 1963 until his death in 1988. Alternately poignant and bittersweet, Surviving Twin is both a moving homage and a pointed musical meditation on the complexities of familial relationships.

Directed by actor Daniel Stern, the piece is simple in its theatricality. Appearing on a nearly bare stage, the singer performs monologues composed of excerpts from his father's columns, interspersed with thematically related songs from throughout his career, in which he accompanies himself on guitar, banjo ukulele and piano. It also features video projections of decades of family photographs and home movies.

It's clear from the spoken-word segments that Wainwright has inherited his father's literary talent, one that has also been passed down to his own children, singer-songwriters Rufus andMartha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche.

He begins with the title song, from his 2001 album Last Man on Earth, in which he sings about his conflicted, near Oedipal relationship with his father: "But how can you murder someone/In a way that they don't die?/I didn't want to kill him/That would be suicide." That's followed by an excerpt from a column entitled "Life With — and Without Father," in which Wainwright Jr. comments about his relationship with his own father, and then the song "Half Fist," in which the singer reflects on his grandfather, "the first Loudon," who died four years before he was born.

"They say he was an SOB, who liked to smoke and drink/In the photos he looks handsome … trapped is what I think."

Wainwright III, who has no shortage of acting credits, does very well by the monologues, which are not merely recited but performed. One highlight is "Disguising the Man," in which his father describes buying his first tailored, Saville Row suit. The singer also plays the role of the tailor, gently guiding his father through the laborious fitting process, and then dons a sharp three-piece suit before casually revealing that "this is the actual suit that Mr. Perry made for my father … it's 50 years old."

Later, he delivers "Another Sort of Love Story," dating from 1971, in which his father talks about having to have his beloved old dog — half Irish setter and half golden retriever — put to sleep. That's followed by the new song "Man & Dog," a comedic reflection on owning a dog in the city.

Another piece, "Father's Day," about the pleasures and pains of fatherhood, is followed by the hilariously titled number "Dilated to Meet You," addressed by the singer to his then unborn son:

"Even though there's trouble, even though there's fuss/We really think you'll like it here, we hope that you like us."

The piece is not without its flawed aspects: the correlations between the spoken and sung segments are not always resonant; the pacing sometimes drags despite its brief, 80-minute running time; and there is an inevitable air of self-indulgence. But at its best, Surviving Twin displays a moving love and respect, tinged with sharp-edged observations, from one generation for another. And with Father's Day just around the corner, it provides the perfect opportunity for some father/son bonding.

Thursday 27 August 2015

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Da Elderly: -
Laurel Canyon Home
Is It Only The Moonlight?
Human Highway

Ron Elderly: -
Make You Feel My Love
The Way You Look Tonight
I'll See You In My Dreams
Suspicious Minds

The Elderly Brothers: -
All I Have To Do Is Dream
Bring It On Home To Me
Medley: Sweet Caroline/Hi Ho Silver Lining
I Saw Her Standing There

It was a very quiet start to the night, with only 4 players initially and very few punters. About 11pm everything changed and a good crowd appeared, more players too! The highlight was at the conclusion to the open mic, when a scratch band (see picture) attempted San Francisco Bay Blues. This was the nearest thing I've ever heard to a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band pastiche - wonderful stuff, with complete breakdowns and joyful recoveries in spades.

P.S. The Elderly Brothers will be playing at The Habit on Sunday from 4pm, so if you're in York for the Bank Holiday weekend, why not check out the madness!

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Rolling Stone Shitlist: Greatest Songwriters Of All Time - Sponsored by Apple...

The One Real Problem With Rolling Stone's 'Greatest Songwriters Of All Time'

Tom Moon
24 August 2015

Lots of magazines do big lists, but few rely on them as heavily as Rolling Stone does. The magazine cranks out a list for just about every aspect of popular music. All promise authoritative, canonical overviews of various elements of the art; at their best, these offer context and critical insight, helping readers fill gaps in their knowledge.

The lists have become a lucrative part of the Rolling Stone brand. They're also instant controversy magnets. So it is with the latest one — devoted to The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

Right on cue, this list — which was sponsored entirely by Apple Music (raise eyebrow over editorial independence here) — has generated its share of dissonance. In some Internet precincts, howls of outrage can be heard over certain regrettable omissions: No Jim Morrison! No Nick Drake! No Warren Zevon! No Public Enemy! (Curiously, though, The Notorious B.I.G. is represented.) No Pink Floyd! No John Mellencamp! How could they?

Elsewhere, the indignation has to do with the artists who were included: What is R. Kelly (ranked on the list at no. 80) doing on the same list as Holland-Dozier-Holland (15)? Taylor Swift (97)? Really? And Kanye West (84)? Why is James Taylor (69) here when his output amounts to a small handful of enduring originals and tons of covers?

Then there's the inevitable ire over the ranking order: What explains the presence of Bob Marley (11), whose songs use and re-use the same chord sequences and simple melodies, ahead of the architect of the most soaring, creative melodies in pop history, Brian Wilson (12)?

Valid gripes in all directions. Obviously, we could go on all day — in part, that's the nature of these lists. They exist to torture the obsessed, to challenge one's internal ranking system. At the same time, the lists that prove useful help us discover important stuff we might have missed. (Full disclosure: I worked on the magazine's 100 Greatest Guitarists feature years ago, and wrote a book that listed a bunch of places to begin exploring music, 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.) They argue for the underloved and little-known and the forgotten, the artists whose once-influential contributions now exist in the margins.

That's not what Rolling Stone gave us this time.

This list represents another trip through the hagiographic, hermetically sealed rock hall of fame, with the same stars you've been reading about in Rolling Stone since the dinosaur age. Had the magazine titled this survey "The 100 Greatest Songwriters of the Rock Era," there would be minimal griping — it's what readers have come to expect. But Rolling Stone aimed higher, at least in that title. All Time. As in: Encompassing an endeavor since the beginning. Implicit in the title is an inclusionary spirit: Here's an inventory of those who developed and advanced the art of the song, and did it at such a high level that their work is essential to anyone who cares about songwriting today. Regardless of whether the honorees are presently trending on social media.

Yet this list is populated almost exclusively with songwriters from 1950 forward, and weighted heavily toward R&B and rock. It's as though Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook never happened. And jazz never happened. Rolling Stone fixed its arbitrary starting point at "Peggy Sue," give or take a few years, and felt the need to look backward only long enough to acknowledge Robert Johnson (23), the first great auteur of the blues.

There's no context around the list, no justification for the historical limitations — canonical omissions that are more serious than any individual inclusions or exclusions. By putting an arbitrary historical bookend on the endeavor of songwriting, Rolling Stone actually does a disservice to the idea of songwriting. The magazine ignores the pioneers who paved the roads the rockers represented on the list all travel — including people whose works have endured for generations, like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim. That sends the message that the now moment is all that matters, that those historical figures have little to teach the gifted tunesmiths of today.

These composers and others ignored by Rolling Stone understood what came before them — in the exact same way Bob Dylan (1) understood and built upon what Woody Guthrie (28) had done. And then, song by song and year by year, they stretched the commonly used structures and formats. They aimed high, seeking to capture something universal while avoiding, or subverting, convention. They relied on rich, unusual chords and crafted melodies that expressed yearning, lust and heartbreak in ways that made those feelings inescapable — whether you comprehended the words or not. In the space of a couple of verses and a refrain, they conjured highly specific emotional realms that still resonate today, and do so when delivered by the original artist or a snarling postrock trio.

Rolling Stone's list doesn't completely ignore the existence of songwriters who contributed to the Great American Songbook. There is a mention of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the prolific Broadway tandem that gave the world "Where Or When," "My Funny Valentine" and "The Lady Is A Tramp" (all three of those appearing in the 1938 Babes In Arms). A paragraph honoring Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia (36) identifies the Grateful Dead tunesmiths as "the psychedelic Rodgers and Hart."

But there's no hyperlink, no footnote to this reference, no trail for a curious reader to follow. Many, many, many musicologists place Rodgers and Hart on the shortlist of all-time great songwriters, right up there with the transformative figures topping the Rolling Stone leaderboard, like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Rodgers and Hart wrote over 500 clever songs, most of them loaded with earworms and marked by intricate chord sequences and melodies that stretch out far longer than two measures. All they rate is a glib little insider mention?

It can't be that sales figures were the primary metric in the list. Because the overlooked composers all wrote music that met with massive commercial success — Jobim's "The Girl From Ipanema," a song notable for its sly, sleek, mind-burrowing melodic invention, is frequently mentioned with McCartney's "Yesterday" as one of the most often played songs of all time. When the discussion is about the "All Time Greats," in any discipline, the decision has to go beyond sales figures and popularity.Rolling Stone's task was to include a range of writers — geniuses who moved the entire art form forward, as well as professionals who created sturdy genre hits. The choices were clearly difficult to make, but by championing a formula kingpin like Babyface (#90) while excluding a legendarily impactful figure like Duke Ellington, the magazine sends the message that in winnowing the list, considerations like overall contributions to songcraft were not always front and center.

Here's one mark of a great song: It transcends the moment and genre of its creation. A song is a generalized map, not a set of GPS coordinates; its ideas can be adjusted and altered in a zillion different ways. (Just ask Rod Stewart or any of the aging rockers who have had encore-career success by "interpreting" the Great American Songbook.) The wistful surge that is the melody of Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" describes a feeling that prevails no matter what instrumentation surrounds it or drum beat is underneath it. That song might register as a rush of pure beauty, but it's not just a recurring hook and a bunch of words. It's the result of deliberate construction, the kind you'd learn about in any Songwriting 101 class. Its stickiness is directly related to the zillion small choices Gershwin made at every step of the way — about the progression of the harmony, the cadence of the words, the tension embedded in the melody.

Really, all the editors of Rolling Stone had to do is talk to the artists they celebrated, people like Brian Wilson and Bruce Springsteen, about the composers they learned from and in some ways emulated. Because these stars understand that songwriting is a continuum, a protracted conversation stretching across generations. Songwriting evolves when present-day creators seek new ways to incorporate the devices of the past. To one degree or another, all of the truly great songwriters of the rock era went to school on the works of All Time Great tunesmiths who are not represented on this list. John Fogerty (40) manufactured humid rock mythology out of the inspiration he got from bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and others. Paul Simon's (8) solo works carry hints of the introspection and urbane sophistication that animates so many songs by Duke Ellington and Cole Porter. Even when it's impossible to draw a solid line of influence between generations, there are times when some distant flyspeck is evident — many hear traces of Jobim in Beatles songs like "And I Love Her."

By not reaching beyond pop and rock for its 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, Rolling Stone missed the opportunity to celebrate these longer arcs and less obvious (yet still critical) influences. The magazine's list might be defensible, but it represents narrow, factionalized, closed-loop thinking that severs vital connections between the towering songwriting geniuses of the prerock era and our current practitioners. No matter what Rolling Stone says, the music of George Gershwin still has plenty to offer anyone who's striving to stir hearts with a song.

Monday 24 August 2015

The Mystery of Velázquez' Las Meninas: Everything is Happening by Michael Jacobs - review

Everything Is Happening: Journey into a Painting by Michael Jacobs – review
Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas may be the first postmodern painting. But what is its secret? Does it have one?

James Hall
Saturday 22 August 2015

Ever since The Da Vinci Code (2003), art pundits and novelists have been queuing up to reveal the “secrets” of painters and paintings. Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting, by the late Michael Jacobs, is one of the more quixotic examples. But Dan Brown didn’t set this particular occult ball rolling, and for at least 200 years art experts and amateurs have been sleuthing around the old masters.

Painting is fertile ground for such speculations. At least since classical antiquity, it has been judged more mysterious (or vacuous) than verbal expression. So in the days when poetry was read aloud or sung, painting was known as “dumb poetry”. A painting can’t introduce itself (“Ciao, mi chiamo Mona Lisa!”) or say what it is thinking (“È finito, Leonardo?”) whereas hundreds of articulate people introduce themselves to Dante in the Divine Comedy. We only know she is Mona Lisa, painted at snail’s pace by Leonardo, from written sources – above all, Vasari’s description. So with pictures, there can be basic levels of enigma and estrangement related to identification, attribution and expression.

After the rise of art academies in the 18th century, other forms of mysteriousness were found; and these mysteries were problems to be solved. Academies had a rationalist approach to art-making, and every artist had to be rigorously trained using a standardised curriculum. The great art of the past had to be repeated; academies couldn’t tolerate the idea that greatness was indefinable and ineffable, its essence explained away by the vague blase term “je ne sais quoi” – as in: “Titian’s skies have a certain je ne sais quoi.”

Academic rationalism gave rise to the belief that the less orthodox old masters must have had a secret ingredient to create those now inimitable effects. In 1795,James Gillray made a satirical cartoon entitled Titianus Redivivus (Titian Resurrected) about the so-called Venetian Secret, a forged manual of Venetian painting whose “secrets” were sold to several Royal Academicians by a miniaturist painter, Ann Jemima Provis. David Hockney’s pharaonic Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001) was following in Provis’s footsteps.

Romantics have countered the rationalists by devising truly inexplicable types of mysteriousness. A classic example is Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” (1845), set in Paris in 1612. The young Nicolas Poussin (future darling of French academic painters), is taken by his teacher to see the old genius Frenhofer. He is a “supernatural” figure who “alone possessed the secret of giving life to his figures”. Frenhofer warns the youngster: “You may know your syntax thoroughly and make no blunders in your grammar, but it takes that and something more to make a great poet.” He has no students, so his “secret” will be lost with him – and Balzac doesn’t let on. Frenhofer has been working for 10 years on a mysterious picture of a beautiful courtesan, which Poussin and his master are privileged to see. Initially, all they can discern is “a dead wall of paint”, but on closer inspection “they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of colour, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living delicate beauty held them spellbound.” But Poussin insists there is nothing on the canvas at all, and drives Frenhofer to despair. He burns his paintings, then dies.

Balzac insists both on the essential unfathomability of great art and artists, and on the rarity and incompleteness of masterpieces: truth and beauty only lie in tantalising fragmentary details, conceived and perceived in a state of mystical rapture. Since Balzac’s day, two art details in particular have held us both spellbound and mystified: the smiling corner of Mona Lisa’s mouth, and the glinting mirror in Velázquez’s great group portrait Las Meninas (1656). The distinguished travel writer Jacobs, in his incomplete and probably incompletable memoir-cum-homage, is “a detective reopening an investigation into an unresolved mystery”. Las Meninas is “less an object than a living entity endowed with the secret of eternal life”. The composition’s “exact mathematics” may “harbour secret codes”, and there is “a hint of wondrous worlds lying beyond the mirror and the open door beside it”. The Hispanophile Jacobs is part mystic, part spy. But we are never party to these “wondrous worlds”: they remain undiscovered countries.
Michael Jacobs, 2012.
Velázquez’s most magnificent court portrait is an unlikely candidate for mega-mystery status. It is far from being “dumb poetry”. We know a vast amount about it from contemporary published sources – the names of all but one of the 11 protagonists, and the actual room in the royal palace in which it is located. The five-year-old Infanta Margaret Theresa and her entourage, including ladies in waiting, dwarves and a big dog, are on a studio visit. The king and queen of Spain are reflected in the mirror on the back wall, so they must presumably be standing in front, the “sitters” for the portrait that Velázquez is painting; perhaps they have just come in. Velázquez and the Infanta look at them. We know that members of court came to watch the painter as he worked on it in 1656, so they may conceivably have gathered like this in his studio. The man in the doorway was chamberlain of the queen’s quarters, required to open doors for the royals, so he’s doing his job. The picture was first displayed in the king’s private office where few were admitted, and each day he could stand before it and see himself reflected in the mirror. Palace inventories have even allowed us to identify the pictures, swathed in shadow, that line the walls – copies of paintings by Rubens of art-related subjects taken from Ovid.

The most fanciful thing about the picture is making the king and queen stand while their portrait is painted. A study for Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Wellington museum, Apsley House, shows that the artist, like most portrait painters, only made quick sketch studies of the head from life. Velázquez also never painted a massive double portrait, of the kind that Van Dyck made for Charles I and Queen Henrietta. Indeed, the sprawling extravaganza of Las Meninas is his most Van Dyckian portrait, and after Velázquez’s death in 1660, Van Dyck’s portrait style would eclipse his own at court.

With the opening of the Prado in 1819, and the looting and sale of paintings during and after the Napoleonic wars, Spanish art would become all the rage in Europe and America. The previously unknown Velázquez was lionised by artists such as Courbet, Manet and Whistler. Ruskin called him “the most accurate portrait painter of Spain”. The feminising title, Las Meninas, was first used in the Prado catalogue of 1843, and it was hailed as a masterpiece of backstairs realism. It was compared to that new invention photography, and the splotchy technique was later seen as a forerunner of impressionism. There was magic in Velázquez’s methods – but there was also magic in photography. A mesmerised Théophile Gautier asked: “Where, then, is the picture?”

It was in the 20th century, when Las Meninas was displayed in a special room in the Prado with a flanking mirror so visitors could see themselves and the picture, that it suddenly became as haunted and labyrinthine as any expressionist film set (and it even had dwarves). Another defining moment came when Michel Foucault discussed the picture in the opening chapter of The Order of Things(1966). Although he described it in pedantic “realist” detail, he effectively saw it as the first postmodern picture. Whereas all earlier art was an art of representation of the material world, Las Meninas was a representation of a representation: its main royal protagonists were simultaneously present and absent, only glimpsed blurrily – and in miniature – in the mirror. Foucault clearly saw Velázquez as a precursor of Magritte, about whom he wrote in 1968. Carlos Fuentes’s general study of Hispanic culture, The Buried Mirror (1992), argued that the mirror embodied the spirit of Spain – a “reflection of reality and a projection of the imagination”.

Jacobs’s book was left half- finished at his death. His journalist friend and amanuensis Ed Vulliamy has provided a succinct introduction to the painting, and an obituary-style afterword. One suspects that had Jacobs lived, it would have always remained a Frenhofer-style work-in-progress, with shards of insight emerging from a colourful autobiographical fog. His narrative begins with the unexpected arrival through the post of a jigsaw puzzle of the picture, which encourages him to head deeper “into an ever-expanding labyrinth”. This encompasses restless detours into the “sunless” world of research libraries; meditations on the spying scandal that engulfed his art history teacher Anthony Blunt; and the picture’s hair-raising peregrinations during the Spanish civil war (which prompts thoughts about whether saving art is more important than saving people). At times, Jacobs’s speculations owe less to Professor Blunt than to Professor Robert Langdon: “Simultaneously I scribbled down random observations of possible bearing on the case: my sharing of a birthday with Foucault, Foucault’s death at the same age that Velázquez had begun the painting, the realisation that the word ‘meaning’ was nearly an anagram of Meninas.” Another near anagram is “insane”.

So just what is the famous mirror up to? We know that Velázquez owned 10 mirrors, many measuring instruments, as well as treatises on perspective and optics. So he was fascinated by art theory and by reflections and illusions. Here, he presents himself as a master of perspective and lighting effects, but also as a witty entertainer who aligns himself with court dwarves and jesters (jesters turned the world upside down; Velázquez shows it back to front). It’s a portrait of the Infanta (the only surviving royal child), but also a manifesto of the illusionistic miracles that painting can achieve. In ancient Rome, mirrors’ plates were sometimes made from polished silver, and it’s quite possible that this mirror – with its glinting silvery edge – is made from solid South American silver, which had flooded into Spain from its colonies. Its blurriness is similar to that of the mirror held up by Cupid in Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus: just as we only see God “through a glass, darkly”, rather than “face to face”, Velázquez only gives us a tantalising hazy glimpse of these mortal gods and goddesses. Early on in his study, Jacobs quotes and demurs from the saying: “The greatest secret is that there is no secret.” In Velázquez’s case, there are no real secrets, just sublime reticence and suggestiveness.

Michael Jacobs, Velázquez and me
When the writer Michael Jacobs found he was dying, he asked his friend Ed Vulliamy to complete his last book, a personal meditation on Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas. Ed Vulliamy kept his promise. Here he recalls his friend’s humour, passion and indomitable spirit as they worked on it together

Ed Vulliamy
Sunday 26 July 2015

In the winter months of early 2014, Jackie Rae – widow of a man I had come to know for a painfully brief period of time – sent me the manuscript of a book on which her husband – the wonderful Michael Jacobs, Hispanist, travel writer and art historian – had been working when he died.

It was to have been Michael’s magnum opus: an attempt to unlock the secrets of the painting he considered the greatest work of the artist he esteemed above all others: Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. It was also to be a reflection on the study and fruitful enjoyment of painting. Michael was a writer who defied genre: at the Courtauld Institute he had been a star student of its director, the art historian and keeper of the Queen’s pictures Anthony Blunt (to whom Michael remained fiercely loyal after Blunt was exposed in 1979 as a spy for Soviet intelligence). Michael’s book was to have been about that too.

Michael was at work on the manuscript when he went, in late September 2013, for examination of what he thought was lumbago. He was instead diagnosed with aggressive renal cancer. The initial prognosis of three to five years to live led Michael to believe he would be able to complete the volume. In the event, the cancer corroded his body with merciless speed and Michael was dead within three and a half months, passing away at St Bartholomew’s hospital, London, on 11 January 2014.

So what Jackie sent to me that winter was the masterpiece Michael left unfinished, and which – as death assailed him – he had asked me to complete. This I tried to do on the basis of conversations with a dying friend, right up until 36 hours before his end.

The circumstances were surreal. I had lost another, very precious friend a few days before Michael and, following an accident, I had undergone a sixth operation on my leg that had led to infection and the need for further corrective surgery. So, obliged to lie with an elevated leg for 55 minutes each hour, either in pain or brimful of morphine, I read what Michael had written. What I remember best is the contrast between relentless rain beyond the window, incessant on the Somerset levels, and – in stark counterpoint – Michael’s dazzling intelligence on the page; his eyes twinkling through his glasses, in what remained of my imagination.

At first glance, Las Meninas appears to be what in Britain would be called a “conversation piece”, yet there is no conversation. Quite the reverse: there is a powerful mood in the room and it is silent – silence is the quintessence of the painting.

Here is Velázquez, in a family room at the royal palace, at work before a canvas, in the company of the king’s daughter and her entourage. But the first thing we notice is that most of the figures are frozen, their attention caught by, and focused on, some presence outside the frame. The gaze of those aware of this presence is in our direction, and apparently that of Velázquez’s sitter or subject. And that, one can presume from the reflection in the mirror on the back wall, is likely be King Philip IV and Queen Mariana, whose faded reflections we see, spectral, in the glass.

Michael recalls that it had been a book by French philosopher Michel Foucault,The Order of Things, written in 1966, that led him to look again at Las Meninas. Foucault wrote about the “corporeal gaze” of Velázquez himself, which creates “a condition of pure reciprocity” between painting and viewer. He added: “As soon as they place the spectator in the field of their gaze, the painter’s eyes seize hold of him, force him to enter the picture, assign him a place at once privileged and inescapable.” This idea of the “corporeal gaze” sent Michael back to Madrid to see the painting, whereupon he resolved to write the book.

Michael Jacobs came into my life too late, and even later in his. We were an unlikely combination – an aesthete bon vivant and a messed-up war correspondent – but our friendship was intense and immediate. We were introduced by a mutual friend: the three of us shared a passion for the south – Latin America, Italy, Spain – with all that means: the south as way of life as well as light; passion and profanity. So that in grim, soggy England we formed a triad of yearning for land where the olive grows, the bougainvillea and the vine.

After I met him, I devoured Michael’s writing on mythological painting, Andalucía and the Andes; the story of his grandfather building a railway across Bolivia. We met further, at literary festivals in Hay-on-Wye and Xalapa, Mexico – where I got to see the all-night Michael trying whatever drinks were on offer, speaking in waterfalls of Spanish and dancing in his way.

Finally I visited Michael and Jackie’s house, where I saw magnificent paintings by an artist whose work I greatly admired, Estella Solomons, an Irish republican who turned out to be Michael’s great-aunt. I was – still am – in the process of reviewing a collection of letters written to my great-aunt Gladys Hynes by Desmond Fitzgerald Snr when he was minister for propaganda in the revolutionary Provisional Dáil in Ireland just after the Easter Rising of 1916. The two ladies would almost certainly have known one another – Fitzgerald’s letters illustrate how republican and artistic circles overlapped in those days, and Michael and I loved to wonder where and how.

But our real bond was painting. Michael came to visit me at home after my accident; I was housebound and fitted with an Ilizarov frame from which pins penetrated a badly broken leg in order to stretch bone – in the manner of the Spanish Inquisition, as Michael eagerly pointed out.
November 1979: 87-year-old Anthony Blunt two days after being exposed by Margaret Thatcher as a former Soviet spy.
Michael and I had already discussed his book on Velázquez briefly, and talked about his admiration for his PhD supervisor Anthony Blunt, and Michael’s loyalty to Blunt after his espionage was exposed.

But I think he was surprised to find a wall of my home lined with books about painting and I was gratified by his compliments on the collection. So now came our first real conversation about art, which concerned what we called “the dark renaissance” – Caravaggio and Giorgione, whose extraordinary Tempest had been an early obsession for both of us. I was bowled over: aged 59, I’d found my first soulmate beyond family in these matters, interested in both the mysteries of the paintings and existential depths they threatened to contain.

That conversation occurred in mid-September 2013. Michael, with his wanderlust, was sympathetic towards my enforced immobility – his idea of hell was to be parked off the road – and mentioned with passing irritation that he had to go to the doctor too. Ten days later, reports reached me that Michael had “between three and five years to live”.

My new friend – probably the most effervescent person I had ever encountered – was about to die. For some time, however, Michael insisted: “Of course, it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through, Ed.” Once, I dared to correct him: “Michael, there’s one big difference. My body wants me to get better, yours is out to get you.” “Quite so,” he agreed, and changed the subject.

Not long afterwards, Michael talked about how the book onLas Meninas should proceed, and how I might undertake some role towards that end; he accepted that he and I might need to work together in some way.

There was one unforgettable afternoon: I arrived at his house in Hackney, and we headed out for lunch at Michael’s favourite Italian trattoria, Ombra – which means shadow. I was barely able to walk; Michael was starting to hurt badly too – he had an orthopaedic chair installed at home. We made it about 500 yards on foot, then both decided that we really ought to take the bus, and rode one stop – my first bus journey since the accident, probably among Michael’s last. We were appalled at the notion that neither of us was able to enjoy a glass of wine with lunch, drugged as we were on morphine. The cook and waitresses were playing Fabrizio de André’s searing account of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row translated as Via della Povertà, and with that devastating song drifting on the air, Michael and I began to discuss Las Meninas, and his book, in earnest.

The plan was for Michael to dictate his ideas on a regular basis; I would take notes and write them up for Michael to edit. Our second conversation was before a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, for which we met early in the Barbican bar for discussion over more soft drinks. Michael was almost amused by the sight of us both hobbling, decrepit, to our seats, and joked at what a “psychedelic experience” it was to hear that particular piece, with its opium reveries and frantic, satanic passages, on a heavy dose of class A medication.

The third session – a long one – was back at Hackney, and the fourth at the corner of the table during what must have been one of Michael’s last big outings for dinner – at Patio, an excellent Polish bistro in Shepherd’s Bush. Even reluctantly sober and in pain, Michael was the life and soul of the table; he and I stole a while to ourselves during which he burst forth on Petrarch’s theories on composition, and said he was ready to start dictation.

He said the same a month later.

The problem, I think, was that embarking on this modus operandi signified an admission that he would die – and that was something he outwardly refused to do, almost until the last days. I think he felt that even to show me what he had already written was “bad voodoo”, and would hasten his end.

The plan was further interrupted by Michael’s determination to visit his real home at Frailes, in Andalucía, for Christmas and what he must have known would be a last goodbye to his dog, Chumberry, his people there and the landscape he loved.

For these reasons, I never actually sat down with him, notebook in hand, shorthand at the ready. What we did do, though, was to discuss Las Meninasduring what time we could steal while I took surreptitious notes, which I then wrote up each night after our meetings.

The last conversation was on Thursday 10 January, the day before Michael died, when a mutual friend Jon Lee Anderson and I visited St Bartholomew’s, either side of lunch at an Italian trattoria in Smithfield, wishing Michael was with us. A few nights later, Jon Lee, his wife, Erica, and I were sharing a cab from Michael’s funeral back to the West Country, swigging from a bottle of mezcal I had bought while with Michael in Mexico, but which had lasted longer than he did.

We’ll never actually know whether Michael found some key to definitively unlock the secrets of the painting, which has obsessed and defied many, including Courbet, Manet, Sargent, Whistler and Picasso, and which to Michael represented not only an allegory of life, but also “life itself”, as he put it. Michael’s point of departure is indeed “the confusion in Velázquez between painting and life itself”, but we’ll never know whether he breached this captivated bafflement or whether he, literally, died trying.

But we do know from the book he left unfinished that Michael’s text serves as a map and inspiration indispensable to the lover of painting – scholar or passionate amateur – who stares in wonder at Las Meninas or any painting which grapples with the enigma of representation. In Michael’s brilliant half-book, beyond a fragment, we have not only a typically Jacobs-esque narrative of his life with Velázquez – one of chance encounters, aperitifs, friendships, musings and restless autobiography – but the story of the picture’s own adventures, and this passionate manifesto for the liberation of how we look at painting, with our emotions and responses to it.

And we know something else, from what Michael confided during the weeks he had to entrust the book to someone: that our view of painting – and his view of this painting – changes as we approach death.

One unforgettable conversation concerned valedictory paintings. Michael chose – oddly, I thought at first – Manet’s final masterwork, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. A barmaid stands before a mirror in which the action is reflected – at an angle which is either impossible or the result of an optical trick by the artist, as is the case with the mirror in Las Meninas.

Sixteen months after Michael’s death, I was at the Inventing Impressionism exhibition at the National Gallery where another Folies-Bergère by Manet from a private collection was on show – different barmaid, possibly the same mirror. I was with my 16-year-old daughter, Claudia, and told her about Michael and his choice. “Well, it’s the Doppelgänger, isn’t it, Dad?” she said coolly. “You see yourself and you know you’re about to die.” I have no idea whether this had occurred to Michael, but it hadn’t occurred to me; it isn’t in the book, and should be.

Michael and I thus tiptoed towards another idea: the valedictory painting in the beholder’s eye; the way in which painting can change and reveal its meaning as one approaches death. Las Meninas was not Velázquez’s last painting but nearly, made four years before the painter’s death, as sudden as Michael’s, and at the same age.

Michael’s attention became progressively focused on the one person in Las Meninas who looks across the entire length of the room, as we do but from the back; the one figure who cannot see the mirror from where he stands, at the entrance to a brightly lit zone behind it. If Michael had a conclusion it concerned this mysterious figure, who appears to be looking back as he leaves through a door to a staircase. Or perhaps he has just arrived on the scene, but had a second thought, upon beholding the scene of family intimacy in the private royal quarters. In fact, this figure seems to be arriving and leaving at the same time, which, Michael thought, placed him outside time, and so making him a portrait of time in some way.

Early on in the book, Michael enthuses about “the possibility that the composition’s exact mathematics should harbour secret codes. The hint of wondrous worlds lying beyond the mirror and the open door beside it.” And as he grew ill, he calculated that although there are too many vanishing points in the painting for the perspective lines to converge at any single point, they do all run through that open door, to dissipate in the light beyond it.

A lot of ink has been spent on how Las Meninas represents life, but none on how it represents death. “He’s moving over to the other side,” said Michael one day. “That’s what the picture is about, Ed,” he said, “life itself and life’s decay until we reach the other side. And that’s where our vanishing points come to rest – through that door, up those stairs, to the other side of the doorway he’s standing in.”

Michael believed that in Las Meninas Velázquez admits us “behind his eye”. But what was behind Michael’s eye? The place behind Michael’s eye was in turn behind the open door at the back; wherever the mysterious figure is heading, urging us to follow with his gaze and the swing of his cloak. Beyond the open door, which Michael now called “the other side”, lay the obliteration he faced. This haunting figure had become to Michael a mutation of Charon crossing the Styx, looking back at him, head cocked as if to beckon, already two steps up the stairs beyond the panelled wooden door, towards the vanishing point bathed in light, into which Michael himself was vanishing.

Everything Is Happening: Journey into a Painting by Michael Jacobs, with an introduction and coda by Ed Vulliamy, is published by Granta Books, £15.99.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Tom Kelly's Geordie the Musical previews at The Customs House, South Shields

Geordie The Musical opens for previews at the Customs House, South Shields

Sam Wonfor
23 August 2015

Geordie The Musical opens at the Customs House this weekend (Aug 21) and runs until September 5

The curtain came up Geordie The Musical at the weekend.

A new musical which is marinated in the traditions of the region is set to pack the crowds in on South Tyneside.

Geordie the Musical promises to be a “heart-warming story of North East life” in the 19th century and features a score of traditional Geordie songs.
Tom Kelly
Tom Kelly

Previews of the production kicked off on Friday night at the Customs House in South Shields, featuring a nine-strong cast, who include recognisable names and faces from the stage and screen. We’re reliably told they have been working their socks off to make the show, penned by award-winning playwright Tom Kelly as good as it can be.

Director Jamie Brown says: “I’m excited. Staging a brand new piece of theatre on this scale poses many challenges, but fortunately, we’ve managed to assemble a group of actors and creatives who not only have the skills to meet these challenges head on, but are also a joy to share a rehearsal space with.

“I can’t wait to see the final product on opening night.”
Geordie The Musical opens at the Customs House this weekend (Aug 21) and runs until September 5

Geordie The Musical, will star actors Eleanor Chaganis, Micky Cochrane, Phil Corbitt, Adam Donaldson, James Hedley, Viktoria Kay, Luke Maddison, Donald McBride and Shaun Prendergast.

Mike Turnbull is the musical director, set has been produced by Kate Urwin, James Henshaw is the lighting designer, and the costumes have been created by Lou Duffy.

The production was the brainchild of ex-pat Andy Bogle, who has lived in the United States for the last 30 years. A Geordie through-and-through Andy treasures his accent and was disappointed to hear some of the familiar sounds of his childhood were disappearing from the region.

He set about working with The Customs House and Tom to come up with a way to celebrate the North East language and Geordie The Musical was born.

Set in the 1890s in a pub on the banks of the River Tyne, the plot centres on pub landlords Bella and James and their daughter Maggie in a changing time for the North East.

Assistant director Viktoria Kay, who is also playing Bella, adds: “It’s no mean feat putting together a brand new musical but with such a hard-working, dedicated and talented cast it seems effortless.

“It’s beautiful to be able to celebrate the region and all we stand for here. I’m really proud to be part of a production, which at the heart of it lies the spirit of the North East. The driving force for the team has been to create a production that North East audiences will be proud to call their own.

“The rehearsal process has been a real bonding experience. As actors, we’re often here, there and everywhere and scattered all over the country for long periods of time, not only has this production brought us all together but it has enabled us to share our love of the North East – our home.”

Geordie The Musical is dedicated to director Jackie Fielding who passed away earlier this year and was due to direct the show. It runs at The Customs House until September 5. Tickets are available box office on 0191 454 1234 or online at

Friday 21 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn hits Newcastle...

But wait... who's the face in the crowd?

Paging Mr Zapruder...

Thursday 20 August 2015

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
House Of The Rising Sun
I'll See You In My Dreams
Need Your Love So Bad
No Expectations

Da Elderly: -
I Don't Want It All
Sleepy Time
Love Letters In The Sand
I Believe In You

The Elderly Brothers: -
Walk Right Back
When Will I Be Loved
I'm Into Something Good
Bring Me Sunshine

It was the first day of York's Ebor Meet, so the city was awash with folk going to watch the gee-gees. Luckily not too many of them made their way to The Habit come evening time and those who did were as expected somewhat over-refreshed. Despite these distractions the place filled up early-on with attentive punters and plenty of players. By the close most people were rather well served and after a small pause for breath, the after-show jam got under way. Mass sing-alongs were the order of the day on such crowd pleasers as I Saw Her Standing There, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion and There Stands The Glass!

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Odysseus Returns...

After his seemingly endless journey, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca and ponders the eternal question: do I go home to see the wife and that bloody dog or do I have another beer?

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Brian Wilson - I Just Wasn't Made For These Times documentary revisited...

20 Years Ago: Brian Wilson Revisits His Songbook with ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’

Jeff Giles
Ultimate Classic Rock
15 August 15, 2015 

Brian Wilson‘s 1988 solo debut was supposed to herald a new, healthier chapter in the Beach Boys legend’s infamously tumultuous recording career, but between personal and legal entanglements with his therapist and former bandmates — and his label’s rejection of the intended follow-up, 1991′s still-unreleased Sweet Insanity — he seemed stuck at another unhappy crossroads by the mid-’90s.

But while many listeners and industry insiders were content to continue painting Wilson as a reclusive genius whose often eccentric behavior made him an untenable business risk, producer Don Was — formerly one-half of the ’80s outsider funk duo Was (Not Was) — hit upon an idea that could revive Wilson’s solo career while reminding people of the timeless appeal of songs he originally recorded with the Beach Boys. Titled I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, after a particularly plaintive track from the band’s classic Pet Sounds LP, the project would combine new recordings of old favorites with a documentary film looking back on Wilson’s life and his lingering impact on modern pop.

“I don’t think that anyone really knows where I’m at now. It’s funny,” Wilson told the Los Angeles Times. “People look at me I think as somebody who used to write songs for the Beach Boys, and is sort of inactive.”

“I just thought, ‘Wow, there’s so many wrong ideas about what kind of shape he’s in,’” added Was. “You sit and spend a lot of time with him and the conversation comes from pretty deep philosophical things,” Was said. “It wasn’t the guy I expected to find.”

As Was told the Philadelphia Inquirer, Doug Fieger of the Knack gave him a bootleg copy of the Beach Boys’ then-unreleased legendary Smile album after Was and Wilson met at a 1989 benefit show. Listening to the tapes, Was found himself floored.

“It was mind-blowing,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe that it had never been released, because it was the most monumental departure in the history of rock and roll. That led me back to Pet Sounds. I realized how innovative he was … he defied every rule of conventional pop songwriting, and wrote these incredibly complex and sophisticated songs with this sugar coating on top that almost masks the artistry. He made it seem effortless and simple.”

Seized with the urge to work with Wilson, Was set about convincing him that he should revisit some of his classic songs before attempting to release a new album. “The publicity he had was so negative that his musical contributions had been forgotten,” he explained. “It was not a healthy environment to release a record into. It’s hard enough when a guy is 52 years old. It’s like when you order sushi, they bring you ginger to cleanse your palate between courses. You have to cleanse the public palate if you want them to think about your music with an open mind. … That’s what convinced him to do it.”

“At first, I thought ‘This is gonna be contrived,’” admitted Wilson. “The songs were all old hat. But then I understood the context of it all, so I felt free to talk without worrying about what I was saying. I got a sense of my self — a sense of worth.”

“Great artists never want to go back,” echoed Was. “And he was writing new songs. But I wanted him to see that making people understand about the old stuff would give them a greater understanding and appreciation of the new stuff.”

To that end, Was set about rounding up a band of studio session vets who could get inside Wilson’s often complex arrangements without fussing them up, and put together a small combo that included Benmont Tench, drummer Jim Keltner, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and a group of background singers that boasted Was (Not Was) vets Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson as well as Andrew Gold. The resulting record was lush without being overly produced — a sort of “Brian Wilson Unplugged” album that cast Wilson’s music in a new light while keeping the focus squarely on his brilliant gift for melody and harmony.

Unlike many “songbook” projects, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times focused mainly on deeper cuts. Although the album made room for a handful of singles, including the Beach Boys hit “Do It Again” as well as the Pet Sounds classic “Caroline, No” and the moderate Brian Wilson hit “Love and Mercy,” it was mainly devoted to lesser-heard tracks like “Wonderful,” “Melt Away,” and “‘Til I Die” — songs that highlighted the mournful, fragile beauty of his best and most meaningful work. The track listing also tucked in “Still I Dream of It,” a ragged 1976 home demo that exposed a lost and vulnerable Wilson in the midst of his hazy “bedroom years” period.

Coming after years in which Wilson and the Beach Boys had been mainly pitched as purveyors of aggressively cheerful California pop — and particularly after recent efforts like Brian Wilson and 1985′s Beach Boys LP submerged the songs in layers of studio gloss — I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times served as a brilliantly refreshing reminder that Wilson’s songs didn’t need extra help to stand on their own; in fact, they’re often more powerful when they’re brought to life with little more than a few instruments and a handful of voices.

That lesson was further driven home by the documentary film, which Was directed and paid for by putting up the $400,000 budget out of his own pocket. Shot in stark black and white, it presents its subject as a man facing the future while capably shouldering the burden of his past — both the turbulent family life that haunted him as well as the towering musical legacy that threatened to overshadow his continued creative vitality. Between conversations with Wilson and performance footage (including a moving scene showing Wilson and his brother Carl performing “God Only Knows” at the piano while their mother sits on the bench next to Brian), Times sprinkles in interviews with some of the many musicians who knew, and have been inspired by, him.

It’s on that last count that I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times might be most valuable. Where many rock biopics tend to verge on well-meaning hagiography, Times has the advantage of being filmed by a musician who was talking to other musicians about a songwriter they all admired, and as a result, the conversations incorporate discussions of musical theory — but framed in a way that’s very accessible even to non-songwriters. Although the movie doesn’t ignore the image of Wilson as a cracked legend (Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton relates a particularly funny story about Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop being weirded out by Wilson’s behavior in the ’70s), its heart lies in the patient deconstruction of songs related by peers like David Crosby, Graham Nash, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt, and Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore.

Frustratingly, the many plans that seemed to churn after Was and Wilson collaborated for I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times — including a new studio album and a Beach Boys reunion — seemed to fizzle fairly quickly, and when Wilson returned with his next solo effort in 1998, Was had moved on to other projects, taking this album’s appealing stripped-down aesthetic with him. But being a Brian Wilson fan has always meant tolerating occasionally inscrutable behavior, and sifting through the dross to savor the gems. “Hey, I don’t know the answer to life,” Wilson shrugged in a 1990 interview. “I just know that when enough voices combine with the right melody, you’ve got the sound of heaven.”