discaholic interview series Brian Morton – nov 2012
Do you consider yourself a discaholic?
- Hi, I’m Brian, and I’m a discaholic. (Hi, Brian!) It has been a week or so since I actually bought any vinyl. (Appreciative applause.) I’m also a pedant, so I find a redundancy like ’binge drinking’ quite annoying – the two words mean exactly the same – but I guess I’m guilty of what you might call binge buying, decent periods of sobriety followed by episodes where I’d sell my organs, those that still work, for a Harold McNair LP.
When did you first realised that you were bitten by the vinyl bug?
- I’d grown up with my father’s 78 collection, which were like heavy black dinner plates in grubby brown-paper sleeves. The first time I saw a modern LPs was on American movies. They seemed to be part of those rooms. Also I saw copies of Playboy – I grew up among Americans in Scotland and their dads took Hefner’s mag the way my father took the Radio Times and Gardener’s Weekly – and these girls all seemed to be flipping discs. I had a peek ahead and I know there’s a question coming about music and sex. There’s the start of it!
Do you get ”help” from other discaholics?
- No, not really. It’s always been a rather solitary vice for me. I’ve been to record fairs, but I don’t quite speak the lingo and there’s just too much stuff there. I either get a buying attack and find myself taking on things I don’t really want, or I blow a fuse and slink away with nothing. When Richard Cook was alive, I used to find odd things for him and he used to find odd things for me. So despite saying it’s a solitary avocation, I liked that comradely side to it as well..
Black or colored vinyl?
- There is no such thing as black, just as white light is a whole spectrum, and just as the darkest African skin is closer to blue. There’s nothing more beautiful than looking down onto clean, freshly incised vinyl, especially somehow if there is a tiny planetary wobble. In 1981 I made a short film called ESP 1002 (if you know what this number is, you’re possibly a discaholic, too) – it may still be lying in the Audio-Visual Centre at the University of East Anglia – which was a continuous vertical shot of an LP side playing; no music audible and no effects except the change in light coming through the window on a stormy day. I thought it was incredibly beautiful. Its only audience thought it was incredibly dull, but they weren’t discaholics.
Glossy or matt?
- Both, I guess. I’ve no preference I’d die in a ditch for.
Stereo or mono?
- Same with this, but I do think an occasional exposure to mono is good for the listening soul. My ears were trained monophonically and in surround at the same time. I’ve always been interested in natural sound (birds, water) as well as music, and I quite like the artificiality and tight focus of a mono recording coming out of a tiny speaker on an old Dansette. I remember the first time I read a line of poetry (I forget if it comes from the Chinese or Japanese, but Archibald MacLeish refers to it in Poetry and Experience) which refers to ’a torrent from the inch-space of the heart’. The first time I heard ’Bailero’ by Canteloube coming out of my father’s little machine, it sounded exactly like that.
Favorite vinyl format?
- I don’t really have a favourite, but I do have a special affection for 10” discs. I sometimes wish that format had won the day.
Why do you collect?
- This is a hard one, not because it’s complex, but because I don’t really think of myself as a collector. It has a faintly pathological connotation for me, like the John Fowles novel about the creepy guy who ’collects’ young women. I deny any urge towards completism, and yet I do get the sweats when I see any gap in a run and I would exchange my grandmother for certain sought-after items. But I swear that the urge is to hear the music, or at least give myself the illusion of possessing that music, rather than completing a ’collection’. It’s certainly not a passive archive, but something I dip into constantly. If it were otherwise, I guess some of them might be in better condition? A few show signs of too much, rather than too little love.
When did it start?
- It started in quite a random way in the small town where I grew up. It’s about thirty miles from the city (Glasgow) but separated by a stretch of water and in effect an island. The American navy (and Polaris missiles) were based there for 30 years, so there were lots of Americans around when I was growing up. I learned to play saxophone and to understand jazz in the (quite inappropriate) company of sailors, though I have to say they were a very strait-laced and conservative bunch of men, who were happy to teach me jazz but horrified by any suggestion I might drink coffee, let alone beer. We found ourselves united and divided by common language and culture.
The town had one small electric shop, a strange Aladdin’s cave of wires, plugs, bulbs, the machines of the time. He had, almost as an afterthought, a small rack of LPs. These were obviously either ordered at random or else they were sent as ’bin ends’ because the music was wildly eclectic. Avant-garde composition (Stockhausen! Vinko Globokar! Mauricio Kagel!) sat alongside bagpipe music and albums of country dance themes. The very first vinyl record I bought was Tony Oxley’s The Baptised Traveller. I sometimes wonder if Stevie Gibson, who ran the shop, thought it was ’traveller’ music, as in gypsy or tinker music. The title appealed to me in a literary way. I remember being delightedly baffled by the music, and I remember my father putting his head round the door, saying nothing, but asking ’What the . . . ?’ with his eyes.
Will it ever stop?
- Just as I can’t (quite) imagine my own death, I can’t quite imagine ever stopping, or losing an interest in new or rare music. But I sense that it’s fading to a degree, not because my energy and appetite is fading but because the internet has taken a lot of the thrill out of searching. This maybe applies more to rare books than to records, but it does sort of kill the element of pursuit and chase that you can now put a title into a search engine and find out in 1.34 seconds that there are actually 11 copies available at prices ranging from $23 to €220. I sort of regret that. It’s a bit like watching wildlife on television, rather than in the field. So maybe, yes, it might stop. I have pretty much stopped buying antiques (the longer I talk about these things, the more ’collections’ I’m forced to admit to) because nowadays you don’t ever find a rare tool or bit of obscure rural craft lying in the bottom of a box and buy it with spare change. Everyone knows the value of everything, or as Oscar Wilde might say, the price of everything, and that diminishes the passion a bit.
Is it possible to find vinyls as well in remote places like Tromsö and Kintyre? Do vinyls ever float up in those surroundings?
- Having found Tony Oxley in Cowal when I was a teenager, I look forward to turning up a rarity in a charity shop here in Kintyre, but it hasn’t happened so far. I did find some good things when I was teaching in Tromsø years ago, but that was mostly site-specific stuff, obscure Scandinavian electronic music, Sami joiks (this before Garbarek made them popular) and some wonderful spoken word stuff. I do obsessively collect spoken word.
Years ago, when I met the artists Gilbert and George, they showed me a cabinet full of amazing gay porn that they had bought for a song from an old farmer in the West Country of England. This man, who had lived an outwardly respectable life, had spent years collecting all this weird underground stuff. George does a wonderful impression of the moment when they opened the cabinet to see what was there. I think they bought the cabinet as well. G&G are a good example of passionate, loving collectors. They have some wonderful Christopher Dresser stuff, beautifully laid out in that dark, East End house.
Do you collect other things as well?
- I’d be buying Christopher Dresser, too, if I could afford it! I used to buy a lot of ’antiques’ or what are disgustingly now called ’collectables’, mostly quite obscure things. I love wood, or ’treen’ as it’s sometimes called in the trade, and have a lot of old tools and wooden items, boxes with no obvious function, snuff horns, toddy ladels and lifters, quite a bit of glass, though none of it desperately rare. I have a bit of blue-john, a kind of feldspar from Derbyshire, mined and cut by French Napoleonic prisoners. But again, you don’t pick up these things for buttons any more. Everyone knows what they’re ’worth’. Pictures were my downfall, but just as wood is not of much interest to burglars, so woodcuts and drawings (the REAL test of artistic skill) aren’t as likely to be taken off your walls as oils or watercolours.
I prefer to think that what I collect is experience and sensation. I’ve had a memory palace for thirty years, modelled on the building where I sat my exams at the University of Edinburgh. Everything is filed away in there. It’s not something I admit to in public and it has a certain slightly dubious reputation (more Hannibal Lecter and Stephen King than Matteo Ricci and ) but it’s an intriguing mental discipline and it really does work. My only other ’kink’ is an ability to do without sleep, but no sooner do you say that than someone says ’Ah, just like Margaret Thatcher’. Which is VERY double-edged, given that she’s bonkers now.
Would you trade a rare vinyl for a rare poetry book or a rare bottle of single malt?
Or is it only vinyl for vinyl?
- I already owe Mr Gustafsson a bottle of fine malt for a fine spoken word LP. I live a few miles from one of the biggest whisky producing centres in Scotland, a small town that is a complete ’region’ in itself. My firewood is old whisky barrel staves (the most fragrant fuel known to man) which have done their time holding bourbon or madeira, then Springbank malt, then after two refills a genteel retirement. I use half-barrels for growing vegatables and fruit. The busted staves go up the chimney.
My ancestral Ireland is just over the water. St Columba made the journey and helped establish a nation. I have never properly explored Irish whiskey, but did once swap an LP (I genuinely forget what it was) for a bottle of Irish. I found it curiously light and hypersubtle, and it sat awkwardly with the big island malts and Campbeltowns, like a virgin at a barn dance.
We live a ’barter’ lifestyle. I produce food and exchange it for what I can’t grow. Guys locally will do jobs for a bag of potatoes. So trading – and non-cash trading – has a certain cultural value round here that it doesn’t have in other places. At our old house I asked one tradesman what he’d take for a small job. ’Cash’ was the tight-lipped reply. It isn’t like that here.
So yes, I’d swap apples for oranges, or poetry for vinyl, and vice versa.
a/ When did you get interested in poetry and literature ? or were u born with the interest?
b/ when did you get interested in single malts and related liquids? Or were u born with the interest?
- My father was interested in poetry and fiction. He wrote some published stories in the 50s, which started me off on that, though mercifully my fiction was published under a pseudonym. It isn’t very hard to work out, but no one ever has. I always wrote, as soon as I was able to, and I published my first short story when I was 16, in an Irish newspaper, and got £3 18/- for it. I also saw a woman apparently reading it on a Dublin bus. Her expression never changed.
I’m probably most comfortable writing. It’s the most absorbing thing I do, but I don’t fetishize it. I regard it as a job, but I am equally happy working with my hands. I enjoyed teaching and broadcasting, but I sense my forte probably lies with solitary and family things. I’m not a natural performer and obsessive reading is the mark of the loner.
I’ve tried plenty of other stuff, sometimes to my detriment, but booze is definitely my ’proper poison’. Advocaat to Zoca. to Zinfandel. If it has a specific gravity, I’ll take it. I greatly admirer abstainers, whether they started out like that (Han Bennink) or ended up like that (Peter Brötzmann) and I’ve sworn off the sauce for relatively long periods. But something is missing. I need a drink. Dutch courage. Warmth. An expanded sense of self. Whatever.
I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with whisky. My mother and father were at a concert at the Edinburgh Festival, 1960. I was staying at my grandfather’s big old house in Glasgow. I was feeling sick, or pretending to, because I didn’t like being alone in the dark. I went down and he gave me a HUGE spoonful of whisky to ’settle’ my stomach. I went to bed and fell asleep and dreamed the most intense dream of my life, of being in an orchard with fruit dropping off the trees around me, and these huge soft wasps brushing my face. It was very gentle but very intense. I used to think if I could just get the dosage right I’d have that dream again. I keep trying.
Perhaps this is the perfect balance, when it comes to collecting something that can develop you and also your surroundings? The things that can give you new perspectives and open new doors? Music, poetry and fine alcohol?
I would add Art to those four elements. What about you?
- Definitely. It all adds up. No one likes to be subdivided or pigeonholed. I hated academic life because I was immediately niched. ’Morton’s our American literature man’, ’You really stop around 1947, don’t you?’ I’ve always been quite obsessive about having at least one other job apart from the official one. Sometimes it was playing, sometimes it was working nights in a hospital, mostly it was growing stuff. Nothing like leaving a seminar on Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Agrarians and coming home to dig potatoes in the rain. The problem with most of the people who wrote about the Agrarians was they didn’t even know potatoes grew under the ground!
I regard food as culture and as a great gift. I don’t regard books and music as entertainment but as sustenance. Booze is the plasma that holds it all together, I guess.
Art definitely. I admire those people – and they range from Brotz to Siggi Loch – who make art an integral part of the listening experience. I don’t do anything much else when listening to music, but I do stare at pictures. I’ve had to sell some of the better stuff, just to keep going, but we’ve a few things left, and my wife’s photographs keep me going . . .
What is collecting for you?
Can you see it as a form of therapy for yourself? Or does it feed other needs and deeds?
- It has the same relationship to mere possession and accumulation as travel does to tourism. I LOVE the things I collect. I buy them because I love them. I have very poor sense of cash value, but I have a good ’eye’ for interesting things and almost always manage to turn up something in an antique store, often to find that it costs more than my house. I used to worry that collecting was a kind of self-defence. In my very early teens I knew a boy – I guess you would say now that he was autistic – who surrounded himself with ’stuff’, layers of clothes, wires, lengths of paper, odd little ’dens’ in his room, anything that attached him to but also separated him from a world he found dangerous. I used to read to him and found that he didn’t seem to identify the voice he was hearing as coming from me at all. This hardly answers your question, but I think it’s connected. And I think collecting is also a kind of pledge. These are all the things that I would do if there were time to do them. It’s vicarious, but shouldn’t be condemned for that. If I had another life, I’d love to give a shot to dance or pottery or orchids or glassblowing. But since I don’t and won’t, I collect. So the collections are either experience and sensation of the promise of them, symbols and receptacles.
Did I say this already? It bears repeating, if not. I think there’s an illusion associated with collecting, buying books, whatever, and that is the tendency to confuse ownership with possession of the contents. I bought books obsessively when I was younger, and when time was tight I’d just clutch them, as if mere proximity was enough to get the content into my bloodstream. It’s the same with an instrument. Just owning it doesn’t make you a player. You have to work. Or vitamins. No point buying them and keeping them in the jar.
How do you sort your vinyl collection, alphabetical or by genre?
Any plans to change that order?
- Um. Some parts are artist led, everything irrespective of label. Some are labels. Some are generic, but that one always breaks down on me, so I resist it. At one time, the vinyl was precisely in the order I acquired it. If you have an eidetic memory, or what some people mistakenly call a photographic memory, you can always find anything. I change it all the time, certainly every time I have call to clear the room or get through it to somewhere else. There’s no ideal arrangement, no card index, no particular sense . . .
How do you rank the following, by importance?
Smell, feel, visual, music, rarity, obscurity, weight, text/ liner notes, weirdness, ideological / political idea/content ?
- I sometimes feel faintly disappointed when something I believe was rare and obscure turns out to be quite well known, but I guess everyone has a measure of that snobbery and elitism. I had a friend at university who used to ’discover’ something every week: Herman Melville, Charlie Parker, Stravinsky, Mark Rothko – and she always spoke of it as if no one else had ever heard of these guys. Some of our friends mocked her naivety. I thought it was delightful. How great to come across John Coltrane and believe for a moment that no one else had ever really got this guy before. And how generous to want to share that feeling with someone else.
I think the music has to come first. The whole physical presentation of the album is important, though. I’ve things that still carry a whiff of places I’ve been, and the stuff from Tromsø has a marine oiliness inside the sleeve that I associate with the town in 1979: seal oil? something like that. Liner notes have become an issue lately. I never used to write any and always ducked out of requests to do so as inimical to my ’role’ as a reviewer/critic. But attitudes change and I now think a great deal about what liner notes are for, what makes an ideal one, how little or how much you say about the music. And I’m going back and reading liner notes on records I’ve had for years and treasured for years, but I’ve never read the notes till now!
What is your take on programmatic music? Is it ok to deliver a message of political or/ and ideological content straight up ( no ice…) – or do you prefer people to find out about ”contents” by themself?
- Call a piece ’Opus #2’ and you might get one set of reactions. Call it ’Canadian Sunset’ and you’ll get others. Call it ’Free the Guantanamo Prisoners’ and you get still more, pro and anti. What you do definitely get with the third, and to some degree with the second, is some nudge from the musician as to what this music is ’about’ and what the composer/performer wants you to feel and think. But these things never work in a literal way, or shouldn’t, and while I have an absolute conviction that music ’means’ something, and sometimes quite specific things, it’s harder to say what that meaning consists of. Not its content, but, if you don’t mind me citing a once-influential book, the ’meaning of meaning’?
Is it possible to fight the stupidity back with the help of vinyl releases ?
- I take a pretty existential, but also almost quantitative view of good and evil, stupidity and intelligence. If as my old friend Norman Mailer professed to believe, God and the Devil are at war for the universe, then every act of brave, good, creative thinking contributes to the side of intelligence and every sloppy, cynical performance increases the Devil’s forces. I believe this in a fairly literal way, but I think I put the emphasis less on ’goodness’ versus ’badness’ and more on intelligence versus stupidity. So, yes, great music pushes back the salients of dumbed-up, fucked-over non-thought that assail us every day. And there is something about the duration above all about vinyl. It’s long enough to be substantial. It’s short enough to be bracing and energising. I more often want to get up and do something worthwhile when I’ve been listening to LPs than when I’ve slumped comatose through 79.50 of somebody’s padded-out ramblings on a CD.
What record is closest to sex?
- The one that’s on at the time? The literalist answer would be The Necks doing ’Sex’. The current ’improv is sexy’ debate in The Wire doesn’t quite pull me in, partly because it has always seemed to me a non-problem. I find a lot of jazz and improv very visceral and earthy and lot of ’raunchy’ pop very antiseptic. Same way as I like to think I detect beauty and veins of passion in relatively quiet and serious women. It doesn’t always need Zeppelin breasts and mile-long legs, though I wouldn’t want to go on record as objecting to either. I think there is a lot to be said for Eliot’s point about the dissociation of sensibility. The old Elizabethans, he thought, experienced a thought as a sensation, and thought very hard about what sensation was. The split between sex and mind hasn’t done us any favours.
But I haven’t really answered the question. Some things by Marion Brown (strangely, perhaps) but nothing at all by Stan Getz. Much by Marilyn Crispell, who has done more than anyone, I think, to restore the piano as an essentially female instrument, though not in a Jane Austenish way. (Marilyn may not thank me for this.) Miles Davis in certain modes: ’It Never Entered My Mind’, maybe. Tony Williams’ drumming.
I still haven’t come out with an actual record, except the Miles . . .
Which one is no sex at all?
- I’m tempted to say: anything with Brahms on it. I think the symphonies could have solved the over-population problem,or the question of contraception for the Catholic Church, a century ago. Anything by Stan Getz. Great player, but there’s something gratingly narcissistic, too, isn’t there?
How do you find your records?
- Chance and an inbuilt truffle hound. I used to think I could walk by shops and tell if there was anything interesting inside. In the sense of anything interesting to me. I sort of feel when there’s something out there and I’ll keep hunting till I find it. Doesn’t have any connection to how much money I have in my pocket.
Are you as active hunting for vinyls today as 30 years ago?
- In all honesty, no. I don’t have so much money in my pocket, for a start. I’ve also found a lot of the things I wanted and I’m maybe losing a bit of my appetite for more. But as I say, it’s a binge thing. A month from now, I may hear a singer or trumpeter for the first time – it still happens, even with old music – and I’ll go out loaded for bear.
There are quite a few records that still only exists on vinyl in the jazzidiom, that was never re released on CD, unknown forgotten or misinterpretated.
Would the world be a better place to live, if someone published the ”Discaholics guide to Jazz”?
- If that’s a commission, I’d happily take it on. I once said to Ricard C (and this again anticipates your next question) that it was easy to think that everything, absolutely everything we’d valued on vinyl would eventuall sneak out in CD form. But the CD era hasn’t really been long enough to do that. Our sense of elapsed musical history is always faulty. There are always cracks and interstices. The logic of the Penguin Guide was that it covered all that was at least notionally available. In a strange way, it would have been more interesting to cover what wasn’t . . .
In ”The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings”, you worked closely to Richard Cook (1957 – 2007). Did you always agree on the quality and importance of the music? Or how did you work on this excellent door opener?
- I’ve always said that we neither agreed nor disagreed, nor agreed to disagree. We were very different guys, from very different backgrounds, but we did have certain experiences in common. A parent’s record collection, then a grounding in classic jazz on record at the same time as we began to dabble in live British ’experimental’ music, fusion, improv, etc, then a sense of filling in the ground in between. I’m always startled how long it took me to get to, say, Ben Webster. I knew more about Frankie Trumbauer and Evan Parker. There was a tacit understanding with Richard that if one of us admired an artist and the other was sceptical/hostile, we gave it to the enthusiast. Not a universal rule, but mostly so. I found some of his enthusiasms baffling, he found some of mine extraordinary. We sometimes didn’t agree on which records by a particular artist were recommendable. We did often, though, have moments of absolutely shared and common enthusiasm (or disgust) and those became benchmarks. It was inevitably difficult after Richard died (apart from the emotional fallout) to try to maintain his voice in the book, but I did try to review certain people from his perspective and I think in some cases the mere act of doing that, rather artificially, made me rethink. I can’t give a single obvious example . . .
What records do I wanna steal from your collection?
- You’ll have to get past me first.
What records do you wanna steal from the Discaholic corners´s archive?
- I’m trying to work out ways of picking your locks.
What rare Scottish jazz vinyl dont we know about ?
- I don’t know. I guess ’rare’ sometimes just means ’something I don’t (yet) have’. I cherish LPs by the group Head, one called Red Dwarf which came out of music done for the BBC, I think, and one called Blackpool Cool. The group won the Dunkerque Jazz Festival competition around 1970/1971 and they were probably the most interesting band around at the time, except in those days ’around’ meant having to go to London to find work. The group’s saxophonist Gordon Cruickshank is no longer with us, sadly, but drummer Bill Kyle does a huge amount for jazz in Scotland. There’s some early Sandy Brown and Al Fairweather stuff, in a more traditional vein.
What is the most spectacular vinyl find you have ever done?
- I was looking through boxes of LPs in a second-hand shop in Cumbernauld (and if you aren’t Scottish, you can’t understand the shudder that comes with that name) and there were two older guys – hard eyes, razor scars, L O V E and H A T E on their knuckles – going through the box next to me, and I was kind of watching both sides. My heart nearly stopped when one of them pulled out a record and then a second. I was transfixed by the name on the cover. They seemed pleased. I felt flattened. Then one of them said ’Naw, this isnae Charlie McNair. It’s some other c***’ and put the records back. I swapped places with them, counted to ten and then eased out two rare records by Harold McNair, which I got for £1 each! Richard Cook (who had to have Cumbernauld explained to him, too) was incensed. He told me what they went for at record fairs.
The weird thing was that there was nothing else, nada, zip, in those boxes that anyone would have bought for any other purpose than place mats at a chimpanzees’ dinner party. It was all Scottish traditional stuff. So in that respect it was very like Stevie Gibson’s shop in Dunoon, mostly crap, but with random gems. I guess that’s how diamonds are found. I did also get a mint and sealed copy of the Deutsche Grammophon Free Jazz box for pennies at a jumble sale, and a copy of Mauricio Kagel’s Exotica for less than a quid. Bengt Frippe Nordstrom? Maybe not all that rare, but I’d never heard of him when I bought that.
I also got a batch of American poets reading on white label LPs, some of which had lost even the white labels. I had to do some work to find out who the poet was. I think these were probably made by some university (I was teaching for a time at UEA in Norwich, doing American literature and I know they didn’t come from there) which then either chucked them out or had them digitised.
I do also have some Charlie McNair, some early skiffle things on the Beltona label. ’Hiawatha Rag’ springs to mind. Someone told me it’s on You Tube now. I’ve had a certain passion – again, an enthusiasm shared with R D Cook – for obscure female singers and beat groups of the 60s and remember being quite excited to find a Candy Sparling single in virgin condition. There is a joke somewhere in there about Candy Sparling and virgin condition, but I can’t be bothered . . .
What is the least spectacular vinyl find you have ever done?
- I did once buy a very early FMP (I honestly forget which one) and bought it without checking the condition, something I’m guilty of doing because I know I’ll either be put right off or agonise about the tiniest blip or tick on the surface. When I got it home, I found there was a pop record by Mud inside. Either this was an honest mistake or else an elaborate joke. I wasn’t amused.
What records are you still looking for? Do you have a ”wantlist”, or is everything in your head and heart?
- The honest answer is that I’m now only really looking for records I haven’t heard about yet. I think most of the things I ever really wanted I’ve now found or else have consigned to some mythical realm where they both do and don’t exist.
Is looking for vinyls with fellow discaholics the most fun you can do with your clothes on?
- Absolutely not. I prefer to go vinyl-hunting nude and alone. This is risky in Scotland. One doesn’t have the ’Scandinavian defence’ of pretending you’ve just stepped out of a sauna, or that you’re a card-carrying naturist. Scotland is currently in a lather about a nude hitch-hiker, who patrols quiet roads in the Highlands, frightening Japanese tourists and parties of schoolgirls. We’re not a race that ’does’ nakedness with any confidence. I quite like the camaraderie of record fairs and conventions, but I can’t say I feel part of it. Possibly if I got dressed next time . . .
What is the first section you hit, while arriving to a vinyl shop, where you have never been before?
The section where you would never look in?
- I’m enough of an omnivore and certainly enough of a disorganised psychopath not to discriminate. I am intrigued, though, by how some guys arrange their stuff. There is a shop in Glasgow that goes to extraordinary lengths to subdivide genres in both LP and CD. I think he spends his days like a medieval scholastic reassessing obscure music and moving it from one place in the empyrean to another. He does, however, have one bin marked ’Wire music’, by which he means the magazine, rather than the band. I originally thought this must be music featured in The Wire, but it turns out simply to be music he can’t describe in any other way. Spoken word stuff probably gets my attention first, but that can be disappointing. When you’ve found one John Cooper Clarke record, you’ve found every John Cooper Clarke record. As the medieval scholastics used to say.
Are you aware of the expression “Hit the Wall”? From a discaholic´s perspective…
- No, but that Mud LP masquerading as an FMP classic? That hit the fucking wall.
What is your favorite record shop in the world?
- It’s gone. It was about two hundred yards down Lauriston Place in Edinburgh from the Royal Infirmary and directly opposite a nurses’ home. Tiny, cramped, smelt of sweat, patchouli, the fried food the guy always seemed to be eating, cigarette smoke, occasional whiff of dope. I guess the nurses weren’t allowed to smoke in their place, so they came over the road. Nurses, LPs, smoke. What more could you want. He had good ears, the guy who ran it, and a line into someone who was getting review copies, lots of early white label things and run-off obscurities. The only obstacle was the usual hippy one – I should have guessed that a real ’head’ wouldn’t eat smoked sausage and chips with brown sauce on top (it’s vinegar in Glasgow, brown sauce in Edinburgh – remember that, and you’re never completely lost in the universe, even if struck blind) – of money. He wanted a lot of it, and it took time to get him to understand the principle of negotiation. I bet those guys in Cumbernauld could have got some discount of him. I won my spurs when I started reviewing music for the papers and got a head start on review copies.
Give us a list of your 5 favorite:
- Poetry & Jazz records
- Not poetry and jazz, but documents of readings/interview by William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Hugh MacDiarmid, Cecil Collins (painting and speaking, with music – me! – in the background), Kenneth Patchen, Derek Bailey did a couple of interesting things with poets as well.
- Improvised music records
Ric Colbeck (with Mike Osborne, J-F Jenny-Clark, Selwyn Lissack) – Sun Is Coming Up
Peter Kowald Quintet – same (FMP)
Rudiger Carl – King Alcohol (FMP)
Ray Russell – June 11 1971: Live at the ICA (RCA)
Schlippenbach Trio – Pakistani Pomade (FMP)
(that’s today – it’ll be a different five tomorrow . . .)
- Best listening while drinking an Islay single malt?
Talisker – Dreaming of Glenisla – wrong island, but definitely the right vibe
- Best listening while drinking old Rhum?
Definitely Harold McNair
Best listening while eating Haggis?
Definitely Charlie McNair
- Best designed jazz vinyl records
- It’s a pretty mainstream choice. I loved Impulse! Sleeves but I tended to like very minimal, no picture covers with strong, functional typeface and minimal detail. I still have one record – trumpet, bass, drums, odd other sounds – from about 1975 (which is when I bought it, so it can’t be more recent) that has nothing whatever on the cover or the label. It’s just a greyish sleeve and 1 and 2 on the inside – no titles. It’s nice to play it now and again, with no knowledge of who it is. I’m guessing Polish or Czech, for musical reasons rather than because of where I found it, which was in Giessen, but it could be German guys.
- Jazz writers on record sleeves i.e. liner notes
- This is a glass house and I shouldn’t throw stones. I sometimes think liner notes are a waste of space, but I’m also committed to the notion that they’re also part of some improvisatory, rather than explicatory, process. As with ’programme’ music, it matters somewhat what label you put on things and what you say on the sleeve. To say it doesn’t change the music, only the way someone listens to it is, I think, missing the point by some distance. I remember reading Ralph J Gleason’s weird notes for Miles – ’Mahls . . . MILES!!!!! . . . My-uhls’ or whatever it was – and thinking ’what the fuck?’ but then I detest the kind of liner note that says ’listen to the way the bass comes back in at 3:18 on track 4’. I do like the kind of note you get with CIMP stuff that talks about the way the guys gathered, what they ate, how the bridge of the bass broke, how there was an argument about when to proceed. I think that kind of thing does sometimes illuminate. If nothing else, it gives a sense of real people, alive and at work doing something they love . . .
Can discaholism be cured?
- My name is Brian and I’m a discaholic. (Hi, Brian!) Yeah, possibly. Not sure what the twelve steps ought to be. Maybe:
- 1. Admit you are powerless over vinyl. That it’s all become unmanageable.
- 2. Come to believe that a superior power – CD or downloads – could restore you to sanity.
- 3. Turn yourself over to the Recording Angel, who’ll help put your records in sensible order and nice neat boxes.
- 4. Make a searching and fearless inventory.
- 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the that you actually bought a Mud LP by ‘mistake’.
- 6. Ask God to forgive you.
- 7. Humbly asked Him to raise your credit limit.
- 8. Return all the vinyls we’ve ‘borrowed’ and forgotten to give back.
- 9. Buy the injured owner some decent whisky by way of apology.
10. Keep sorting those fucking records. You’ll find the perfect system one day.
11. Honi soit qui mal y pense.
12. The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.
How many hours per day do you spend listening to music?
- Varies. I almost never do anything else while I’m listening to music. The only exception to that is cooking in the evening, when I spin whatever takes my fancy. But I’m either listening or I’m doing something else. Been like that since I was a student. I used to be amazed to see friends writing an essay with their heads in amongst the speakers, ’listening’ to Tubular Bells or Dark Side of the Moon. To be honest, I was just as astonished to find that they’d actually gone out and bought those records. I once walked round a student residence one evening and out of every second or third room you’d hear one of those things. Couldn’t decide if this was the ’Zeitgeist’ or a sign that youth was being led by the nose. My neighbour, a splendid man called Gerry Toshney, used to play Glenn Miller and went out in the evening to do proper dancing with a proper girl in proper 1940s clothes and make-up. I played Derek Bailey through the wall. We were a bit . . . different.
How many hours do you spend now per day sorting/ categorizing your records?
20 years ago?
- I just moved house, having vowed I never would again, but our idiot landlord lost his last £12 million quid (which he could more usefully have spent on vinyl rather than yachts and divorces) and had to sell the land we were living on. (Note to non-Scots: this actually happens, even now. As John McLean said 7% of the population still own 84% of the wealth, and the proportion is probably even more out of whack when it comes to land.) So I’ve spent the last year sorting more than usual, and trying to work out how this house, which seemed plenty big enough when we bought it, now looks really cramped.
Where is your preferred listening experience, at home, in the car, at a live concert, in the bathroom?
- Definitely at home or in a club. I’m a bit bored with music in strange places: pumping stations, mortuaries, water tanks. I quite like a chair, red and white tablecloth and a drink, or a decent seat that tilts back a bit for listening to classical stuff.
Is this interview too long?
- That’s like saying ’Is Live In Seattle too long? Of course it is! But we wouldn’t have it any other way. And I think it’s me that’s making it too long.
Will we ever find out who the trumpet player is with Lester Young on that recording I sent you ? What is your best guess ? we have a fellow discaholic in Stockholm, Harald Hult, that is going crazy about this…
- I seem to remember the quiddity is ’Jesse Drakes or Fats Navarro?’ I’d have said I’d recognise Fats from a couple of measures, but I’m not sure about this one. It’s definitely not the same guy as the rest of the session. My honest preference is that it’s some local kid who got up that night and put down his thing and was pretty much forgotten about except by the people who loved him. Which is ok. I quite like the possibility of anonymity, as should be obvious by now.
Did Ken Burns capture the history of jazz well, in his serie? Or should he have focused more on making films about boxers, such as that excellent Jack Johnson film? Or Architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright?
- I’ve argued the toss about this one over the years. I don’t belong to the ’Lynch Ken Burns’ gang at all. He gave jazz a prominence it doesn’t often get in the mainstream media and if it was the wrong prominence, that’s a pity. My instinct is that he isn’t really a jazz guy at bottom, that it comes to him through other cultural filters. There’s a lot wrong with that series, but there are some things that are right about it, and I think his heart was in the right place.
What Film has best captured the essence, the soul of jazz?
- I have a lasting affection for Sven Klangs Kvintett and I love the way Cassavetes’ movies used jazz as a reflection of their own improvisatory structure. I’ve never seen a completely satisfactory biopic of a jazz musician. The old Hollywood swing ones were always too sanitised to be really useful. I never got on with Tavernier’s Round Midnight, even though Dexter was magnificent in his slow-lidded way. There are some great docs out there, of course, and I have high hopes for a new one by Antoine Prun on British improv, which I think is due in the new year.
What Book has best captured the essence, the soul of jazz?
- It’s a very unlikely choice, but I loved J. P. Smith’s Body and Soul. He handed me a copy at a gig in London. It was either Cecil Taylor or Alice Coltrane with Ravi and Omar (or was that the same night?) and I never got a chance to thank him properly. I like Leopold Tyrmand’s novel as well, though it isn’t strictly ’about’ jazz. It does catch something of the spirit of the music at a specific time. And Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter has a blower’s instincts running through it.
Why is the vinyl, as phenomena, returning now? What is it in vinyl pleasure that attracts people so much?
- It’s beautiful, where CD is merely functional. The sound has a demonstrable depth and warmth. I obsess about duration and LP durations represent a ’natural’ attention span. I know music nowadays is supposed to be interrogatory, immersive, transgressive, counter-chronological, and assaultive, but there is something about the 17 to 25 minute span that just feels right. I know the advantages of having whole symphonies on a single disc or Ascension without a split in the middle, but those of us who grew up with it sort of need that break. Also, I think there was an art to programming an LP. It isn’t just an accumulation of tracks. The balance of material over two sides was critical and part of the aesthetics lost when labels started to add bonuses and ’alts’, or doubled up discs on one CD. And the covers are cherishable. And the LP is a perfect size to carry and announce your allegiances.
What unreleased session of music ( known or unknown) would you most of all like to see released on vinyl?
- I’ve a couple of things of my own. Twenty minutes with Mal Waldron. And some surviving tapes of The Golden Horde (the mysterious European improvisers – Colin Smith, Yolanda Pasquale, Clyde Kazebee, Jose Llorens, BM- not the American garage band), a tape of Gentle Fire at an Edinburgh University recital room in (?) 1973. Selfishly, it would have to be The Golden Horde Live in Berlin 1973: heavy vinyl, limited edition, grainy b&w shot on the cover.
Which record can save the world?
Which record will not save the world?
- Ascension in both cases. Machine Gun in both cases.
How many vinyls per day keeps the doctor away?
- My doctor talks to me a lot about my ’intake’, and the number of ’units’ I can safely have per day. I’m told the current recommendation in Scotland is that we should all have one or two ’vinyl-free’ days per week. What?