Archive for Music

Interview with Aletia Upstairs

aletiaupstairsandpatrick

Patrick Harrington with Aletia Upstairs

Interview with Aletia Upstairs who is currently starring in her fringe show ‘A Queer Love of Dix’

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be a performer?

I come from Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve lived in London for the last 12 years. Apparently, I had an hour and a half of singing repertoire at the age of 18 months. My parents met on stage in a school play, so it was my destiny.

Do you hold strong political opinions? How would you describe them?

I come from South Africa….Our country changed a hell of a lot during my first few years at university. I couldn’t really see myself being involved with political cabaret in South Africa because everything had to be so PC. And of course, cabaret SHOULD be political. A Queer Love of Dix is my most political show to date and it is still quite mild, I think.

My political opinion is simply that everyone should be treated equally. I grew up seeing the inequality in South Africa…and I became more and more aware of that as I grew older. My idea of feminism is tied in with this view.

You cover some great songs from the Weimar period in your show, (“Pirate Jenny”, “It’s All a Swindle” and “The Lavender Song” to give a few examples). Do you have a song that you like to listen to more than the others and is that different from one that you really like to perform?

I don’t really listen to my show music when I am performing it, as I would get sick of it, and because I listen to it A LOT when I’m learning it. Recently I was listening to ‘Just a Gigolo’ in German (‘Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo’) the Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester version, on a loop… constantly…on my bicycle, in the tube, in order to learn the German words. This song was composed in 1928 by Leonello Casucci to lyrics written in 1924 by Julius Brammer. I am interested in the history of the songs (maybe because of my Musicology studies) and with that – especially Lavender Song (‘Das Lila Lied’), which was composed by Mischa Spoliansky under the pseudonym Arno Billing.

You describe Weimar as a ‘utopia’. How far do you think our impression of 1924-29 of Weimar in this period is skewed by Berlin’s reputation as a city where “anything went”? Do you think this vision of Berlin has made us forget that it wasn’t typical of the country, traditional attitudes persisting particularly in small-town and rural areas and amongst the older generation?

I think, most of what we are aware of through say the Cabaret movie – as this is the first taste of that world for many, is the decadence and hedonism of the period…but then there is a part in the movie where the people in the countryside sing a folk song and make the Nazi salute. This makes me think a lot about Brexit, since it was mainly the people in the rural areas who voted out. The people in the cities – London, at least, were generally not that positive about Brexit.

Berlin, in the 1920s, was a forward-looking place though. There were many lesbian and gay bars. People had this little taste of freedom just before the worst event in history set in. When you go on a walking tour in Berlin, specifically The Christopher Isherwood’s Neighbourhood walking tour http://www.isherwoods-neighbourhood.com/  you learn a lot about the LGBTQI community at the time, but also about how people were taken away to concentration camps. There are these little plaques at the entrances of certain homes with people’s names and when they were taken, whereto and when and where they died.

During the Weimar Republic, homosexuality was certainly tolerated but it wasn’t legal (The 1871 Code which criminalised it wasn’t repealed until 1994). Also, outside of Berlin, social attitudes were still very conservative. The Eulenburg Scandal in 1907-8 drew attention to the goings-on in the Kaiser’s own circle, where the death in 1908 from a heart attack of the Chief of the Military Cabinet while dancing in the Kaiser’s presence dressed in a ballerina’s tutu added to rumours that the Kaiser was bi-sexual. The point, however, is that it WAS a scandal. The magazine “Simplicissimus”, the “Private Eye” of its day, made sure of that. The Nazis hated Weimar culturally as well as politically. Would you accept that, to a degree, they reflected the opinion of many in this regard?

In the show, I say it was ‘permitted’. Of course, generally, social attitudes were still very conservative, but we always think about the majority being cisgender. Is that really the case though? Was that the case then? Is that the case now? Or are many, many people just going along with societal norms which are based on gender norms dictated by the main religions?
Are you saying that the general public didn’t agree with the liberal lifestyle practiced in the Weimar Republic? I guess not…and that’s one reason for the Nazis rise to power. They had the populist support in combination with the support of those who were fearful of opposing them. Of course, we know that the Weimar Republic was, as I say in the show, ‘an attempt at a perfect democracy’, but it failed because it had some major flaws.

This makes me think of Apartheid South Africa, again, where I know, for a fact, that white people were killed who opposed the government, so, as a result, some people just took the easy way out, ignorant, or oblivious of what they were actually supporting.

Have Brecht, Weill, Isherwood, etc. captured our imagination and distorted our perception of the country and period?

Generally, people are more au fait with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret than with any of them. Based on the movie, I wanted to be Sally Bowles. When I was in my early twenties, I used to write my bio as ‘Aletia Upstairs wants to be Sally Bowles’, but Isherwood’s Sally Bowles is quite different from the Liza Minelli version everyone knows. Naturally, I wanted to explore the period more and more.

None of them paint a purely utopian picture of the Weimar Republic and Berlin of the time, however, I would say that Otto Dix with his New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) style gives us a much more realistic view of the period. This is why I had to combine his work with the music, some of which quite well-known, of Brecht and Weill.

Do you think that our own period in our own country where homosexuality is legal, and discrimination outlawed still struggles with negative social attitudes amongst some?

Absolutely, yes. There are still numerous homophobic attacks taking place. The two lesbians who were attacked on a bus is in London, for example…that happened on May 30th.

What can we do to win hearts and minds and change these attitudes?

Keep preaching…to the non-converted. I’m trying to change some people’s perceptions with this show. I rejoice in the fact that cisgender people can sing along to the words ‘We’re not afraid to be queer and different’. It is educational in a subtle way. And if they didn’t know that we say intersex these days, rather than hermaphrodite, they will when they leave the show. I hope that experiencing the show might open their hearts and minds and make people more accepting of the whole LGBTQI spectrum. I think, in a small way, I am accomplishing that.

What attracts you to the culture of the Weimar period so strongly?

I had that image of Anita Berber, used for the poster, as an inspirational picture for many years before I made the show. Although cabaret did not originate in the Weimar Republic or, more specifically Berlin, it is the kind of cabaret similar to how it was performed in South Africa when I was growing up and the way I was trained in cabaret.

Why do you think that many are fascinated by the Goldene Zwanziger (“Golden Twenties”) of Weimar?

This was a moment in history when, like I say in the show, the outsider could be the insider. It was a time of an explosion in artistic activity and personal freedom. The New Objectivity style, used by Otto Dix, originated during this time. Androgyny was fashionable, as documented by Dix’s painting of Sylvia von Harden. It was the time when women cut their hair in the bob hairstyle. This act, in particular, indicated more freedom for women, in particular.

You feature the work of Otto Dix in your show as a backdrop to your singing. What connects his work to the songs for you?
I see it as his work illustrating the songs. I have never seen Brecht and Weill performed in, as I call it, the world of Otto Dix, but I feel that they were talking about the same things, so I thought it would work well in combination.

Who/what do you blame for Hitler’s rise to power and how might it have been prevented?

As I say in the show, in the Weimar Republic, the left and the right could not come to an agreeable compromise, and meanwhile, nationalism was rising. The Weimar Republic’s democracy was flawed. The people were too passive; they went along with the Nazi party for what it promised them – employment and so on which was necessary following the Depression and the period of hyperinflation. I think a lot of people didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for until it was too late.

How has the audience reaction been to the show? What kind of feedback have you had?

People have said it’s been educational, thought-provoking and enjoyable. That’s my intention…exactly that. I don’t want it to be like a lecture, but I do want people to feel that they’ve learned something from it: maybe take another look at their own attitudes to the Other. Some have said it was unique, which is nice to know.

Have you ever thought of presenting the content of your show in another format – a documentary or book for example?

No, not at all, but on a previous project I collaborated with a documentary writer, so it’s not out of the question. I just have to see what opportunities come my way.

What plans do you have for shows in the future?

I am hoping to tour this show to other parts of Europe. I am in negotiations about taking it to Romania and Germany. I don’t have a plan for another show at the moment. It will come when the time is right.

Tickets for A Queer Love of Dix are available from:https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/queer-love-of-dix

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Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love

Director: Nick Broomfield

Runtime: 1hr 42mins

marianne and leonardNick Broomfield’s documentary opens with a BBC television news report from 2016 of Marianne Ihlen’s death and reports of a last email sent to her by her one-time lover, the Canadian singer Leonard Cohen; who was himself to die some three months later. These are the ‘words of love’ from the film’s title.

Nick Broomfield then tells the story of how Marianne and Leonard met on the paradise Greek island of Hydra when he was a struggling young Canadian poet and she was emerging from an abusive marriage.

Broomfield has crafted this compelling documentary from a lot of archive footage – including some of his own – and he’s made good use of interviews with friends and recorded recollections of Marianne and Leonard themselves.

Both Marianne and Leonard had a whole lot of love to give – in that brief period in the Sixties which was the era of hedonistic ‘free love’ and ‘open marriage’. The effects on the younger generation only emerged later. The Johnston family – who mentored Leonard when he arrived on Hydra – lost their mother and all but one of the children to mental illness and suicide when they left the island and tried to resume normal life back home in Australia.  Marianne’s son – ‘little Axel’ also developed a number of mental issues and had to be admitted into a mental institution in later life.

Both Marianne and Leonard also had to deal with depression. Both sought comfort in the arms of others: Leonard with Janis Joplin, his other muse Suzanne Elrod and others; and Marianne who had brief relationships with Nick Broomfield before remarrying and returning to Norway. It was her encouragement that persuaded Broomfield to make the first of many successful documentaries.

This is a revealing and passionate film. I reckon that two-thirds to three-quarters of the audience in my local cinema were women of a certain age; probably in their mid teens to early twenties around the time of the 1970 Isle of White festival when Cohen first came to prominence in Britain. He never lost that magnetic appeal to many women.

The ‘words of love’ in the title came from the email Leonard sent to Marianne in 2016 after hearing from their mutual friend, Jan Christian Mollestad that she was dying from cancer;

“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

“And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey.

“Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

This story became public shortly after Marianne’s death. Leonard died some three months later. What we didn’t know then was that she was filmed on her deathbed by Mollestad as he read Leonard’s final letter to her. I have never seen anything more moving in my life; what an emotional punch this film packs. The old cliché, ‘not a dry eye in the house’ was no exaggeration this time.

Circumstances and events drew Marianne and Leonard apart and into the arms of others for a while; but despite this, they had a deep bond that never entirely faded away. From her earlier recollections to footage of Marianne singing away to herself the familiar words of ‘her’ song, So Long, Marianne in her front row seat at his Olso concert in 2008, Broomfield faithfully documents their intertwined stories and their complicated lives. It’s powerful stuff.

David Kerr

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Morrissey – California Son

morrissey-california-sonCALIFORNIA SON, Morrissey’s twelfth studio album, is a collection of covers including a few familiar old classics and some maybe lesser known American protest and social justice songs from the 60s and 70s. Morrissey and his band never shy away from imaginative musical arrangements, often seeking out unusual instruments, and there are influences here from New Orleans, the old-time crooners and a touch of Broadway. No doubt this is a nod to his recent sell-out residency at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City (NYC).

The album opens with Morning Starship, the 1973 song by Jobriath. Morrissey has talked about covering this song for many years, and his version does not disappoint. He strips back the glam rock just enough to emphasise his wide range of vocals. It is an uplifting track and was well received when he sang it live on Broadway.

Next up is his version of Joni Mitchell’s Don’t interrupt the Sorrow, a song about women standing up to male dominance from her 1975 The Hissing of Summer Lawns album. Originally a folky song with lots of hand drums it is given the full Morrissey crooner treatment. Now in his 60th year, Morrissey seems to be embracing the role of modern-day crooner and it is a sound that repeats on several tracks throughout this album, not least on the very good Wedding Bell Blues on which Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong adds backing vocals.

Morrissey is never one to shy away from a song with a powerful message and chose to include the 1964 Bob Dylan song Only A Pawn in their Game, written following the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The message in this song is that the killer was as much a victim or “pawn” of the elites in power as was his victim. The song was sung at the rally where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. It’s an interesting choice, as is his excellent cover of Days of Decision. This is taken from the 1965 Phil Ochs album Ain’t Marching Anymore, with its lyrics: “you can do what’s right or you can do what you are told.” Maybe in these choices, Morrissey is encouraging the listener to look at the lessons of history and to question things a little more?

Buffy Sainte Marie’s Suffer the Little Children is given the full Broadway treatment with big instrumentals and hand clapping. Buffy, in an interview, said she loved it.

There are very good versions of Carly Simon’s When you close your eyes and Dione Warwick’s Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets. Gary Puckett’s Lady Willpower is also very well done. Tim Hardin’s eulogy to his friend Lenny Bruce, Lenny’s Tune is perfect for the melancholic signature sound of Morrissey, and whilst this version is not as haunting as the Nico cover it does justice to the original.

Roy Orbison’s It’s Over stays true to the original and is one of the best tracks on the album. He closes with Melanie Safka’s 1971 Some Say (I got Devil). The vocals here are excellent and the addition of instrumentals on what was originally an acoustic guitar ballad gives the song new depth.

There really is not a bad track here but the real gift of this album is that it brings to a new generation a selection of protest songs about freedom, social justice and liberty that have a message relevant to today. It encourages you to seek out the original recordings and the stories behind them. Morrissey is not afraid to try new genres, or of working with material that others might now find too controversial. It is why his music endures despite the controversy, the bad press, the lack of radio coverage and the constant personal attacks. He has already recorded an album of new material for release later in the year. Retirement does not appear to be on the horizon just yet.

Reviewed by Jacqui Cosgree

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California Sun – Morrissey

CALIFORNIA SON, Morrissey’s twelfth studio album, is a collection of covers including a few familiar old classics and some maybe lesser known American protest and social

morrissey-california-son

justice songs from the 60s and 70s.  Morrissey and his band never shy away from imaginative musical arrangements, often seeking out unusual instruments, and there are influences here from New Orleans, the old time crooners and a touch of Broadway.  No doubt this is a nod 

 

to his recent sell out residency at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City (NYC).  

The album opens with Morning Starship, the 1973 song by Jobriath.  Morrissey has talked about covering this song for many years, and his version does not disappoint.  He strips back the glam rock just enough to emphasise his wide range of vocals.  It is an uplifting track and was well received when he sang it live on Broadway.

Next up is his version of Joni Mitchell’s Don’t interrupt the Sorrow, a song about Women standing up to male dominance from her 1975 The Hissing of Summer Lawns album.  Originally a folky song with lots of hand drums it is given the full Morrissey crooner treatment. Now in his 60th yeapeats on several tracks throughout this album, not least on the very good Wedding Bell Blues on which Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong adds backing vocals.

Morrissey is never one to shy away from a song with a powerful message, and chose to include the 1964 Bob Dylan song Only A Pawn in their Game, written following the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.  The message in this song is that the killer was as much a victim or “pawn” of the elites in power as was his victim.  The song was sung at the rally where Martin Luther King gave his“I have a dream” speech.  It’s an interesting choice, as is his excellent cover of Days of Decision.  This is taken from the 1965 Phil Ochs album Ain’t Marching Anymore, with its lyrics: “you can do what’s right or you can do what you are told.”  Maybe in these choices Morrissey is encouraging the listener to look at the lessons of history and to question things a little more?

Buffy Sainte Marie’s Suffer the Little Children is given the full Broadway treatment with big instrumentals and hand clapping.  Buffy, in an interview, said she loved it.

There are very good versions of Carly Simon’s When you close your eyes and Dione Warwick’s Loneliness Remembers what Happiness Forgets.  Gary Puckett’s Lady Willpower is also very well done.  Tim Hardin’s eulogy to his friend Lenny Bruce, Lenny’sTune is perfect for the melancholic signature sound of Morrissey, and whilst this version is not as haunting as the Nico cover it does justice to the original.

Roy Orbison’s It’s Over stays true to the original and is one of the best tracks on the album.  He closes with Melanie Safka’s 1971 Some Say (I got Devil).  The vocals here are excellent and the addition of instrumentals on what was originally an acoustic guitar ballad gives the song new depth.

There really is not a bad track here but the real gift of this album is that it brings to a new generation a selection of protest songs about freedom, social justice and liberty that have a message relevant to today.  It encourages you to seek out the original recordings and the stories behind them.  Morrissey is not afraid to try new genres, or of working with material that others might now find too controversial.  It is why his music endures despite the controversy, the bad press, the lack of radio coverage and the constant personal attacks.  He has already recorded an album of new material for release later in the year.  Retirement does not appear to be on the horizon just yet.

Reviewed by Jacqui Cosgree

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17 Million Fuck Offs

DominicFrisby-Edinburgh-headshot-3-sparkles-A4

17 Million Fuck Offs.  Written and performed by Dominic Frisby.  Music composed and played by Martin Wheatley (based on a traditional Devon folk song).  Video directed by Anon.   Audio mixed and recorded by Wayne McIntyre.  Assistant Director Mark “Yeti” Cribbs.  Available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/17-Million-Fuck-Offs-Explicit/dp/B07PKY39CK/ref=sr_1_3_twi_mus_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1552953132&sr=8-3&keywords=dominic+frisby

INDIVIDUAL TRACK reviews for Counter Culture are like busses – you wait ages for them to arrive and then two come along at once!

Eagle-eyed readers may recall that – towards the end of last month – I reviewed a track called The Dirty Fucking Hippies Were Right!  You can read the review here https://countercultureuk.com/2019/04/25/the-dirty-fucking-hippies-were-right/ and listen to the track here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKEZoY-TMG4 At the time (and to the best of my knowledge) I’d never reviewed an individual music track before.  Little did I know that I’d be at it again so quickly.

As with last months track, I can’t recall where (or when) I first became aware of 17 Million Fuck Offs but I somehow came across it on YouTube.  You can check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiUFPjulTW8

Remarkably, there are several similarities and differences between The Dirty Fucking Hippies Were Right! and 17 Million Fuck Offs.  For instance, both deal with important subject matters.  The first was a track about an entire counter cultural movement – the Hippies – which had its origins in the 60s.  The second track is about a specific event, the EU referendum of 23rd June 2016.

Mystery surrounds those who wrote and performed The Dirty Fucking Hippies Were Right! although it’s been attributed to George Carlin (1937 – 2008) the American stand-up comedian, actor, author, and social critic.  However, there’s no mystery about 17 Million Fuck Offs which is the work of Dominic Frisby.  According to his web-site – https://dominicfrisby.com/ – Frisby is a libertarian and a ‘writer-performer’.  However, this brief description is very modest indeed, for he combines straight stand-up and character comedy with writing books about the economy as well as acting, presenting, voiceovers and public speaking.

So much for the differences between the two singles.  The one obvious similarity is the use of the Anglo-Saxon word, ‘Fuck’, in both titles.  Whilst it’s still considered a reasonably offensive swear word, many people seem to use it – maybe even unconsciously – in everyday speech.  To this extent, the word has become somewhat ‘normalised’.  However, I believe that it’s used on both tracks for description and emphasis.  The hippies were way, way before my time, and I’m far from an expert on them, but I believe that they were sometimes described as ‘dirty fucking hippies’.  That would explain its use on the first track.  On 17 Million Fuck Offs it’s used to great comedic effect – especially as it appears like a bolt out of the blue.  Based on a traditional Devon folk song, Frisby sets the scene at the start of the track and sings in a very authoritative manner:

‘On the 23rd of June, 2016
The people of the United Kingdom – and Gibraltar – went to vote
On an issue that for some had been burning for years
The question in full – and unaltered – was – I quote

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union
or leave the European Union?

It was the greatest democratic turnout in British history, I do not scoff
And when the time came to speak the British said fuck off.
Fuck off.’

I’ve shown the YouTube video to a few people and they’ve always reacted with a great big belly laugh when they first hear the words ‘fuck off’.  Have a listen to it yourself and you’ll know what I mean.

Dominic Frisby spends most of his time on the track ridiculing the warnings that the establishment made in the run up to the EU referendum.  Known as ‘Project Fear’ the electorate were warned, if they voted for Brexit, that ‘you’ll lose your job’, ‘you’ll lose yourhome’ and that there would be all manner of food shortages, no medicines, grounded planes and the stock market would collapse. However, most terrifying of all, there’d be ‘an outbreak of super gonorrhea. They seriously said that’. 

He also calls out various members of the establishment who promoted ‘Project Fear’.  They include politicians like David Cameron, Theresa May, George Osborne and Tony Blair – who, in my honest opinion, should be doing serious bird for war crimes – right the way through to ‘celebrities’ like Gary Lineker, JK Rowling and the deliberately (yet delightfully) misnamed Benedict Cumbertwat.  At the end of the list comes Labour’s Lord Adonis.  Frisby proves that he’s truly a great iconoclast when he asks the question on everyone’s lips:‘Who the fuck’s he anyway?’

Listening to the track, it struck me that this was the first time I’d heard a pro-Brexit comedy song.  Indeed, 17 Million Fuck Offs was only song in support of Brexit that I’d come across, no matter what genre it hailed from.

This is odd – to say the very least!  Brexit should’ve provided plenty of material for various mainstream artists & comedians to work with.  For instance, for three years now we’ve been in the ridiculous position of having those MPs who ‘represent’ their constituents in the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ trying to overturn the democratic will of those very same constituents.  It’s absolute comedy gold!  So where are all of the mainstream artists and comedians – shouldn’t they be calling out these MPs on their failure to carry out the express will of the people?  After all, we live in a democracy, don’t we?

Despite the reluctance of many ‘household names’ to point out the obvious – that representative democracy is no longer representative or democratic – Dominic Frisby has managed to do so using both gentle humour and biting satire.  This makes 17 Million Fuck Offsvery important as it reminds us why the electorate voted for Brexit and why the public is so frustrated with the current political stalemate.  To do so using music must be a nightmare for Remainers – that’s because music is universal and can cross so many barriers.  Indeed, music has the ability to touch everyone, no matter who they are.

Have a listen to both the original track – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiUFPjulTW8– or the Ramona Ricketts Mix –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oD-Sz8S7bA0– which has a slight Irish lilt to it.  And don’t forget to let Counter Culture know what you think of  Dominic Frisby’s highly original work – both in terms of musical comedy and the message it conveys.

Reviewed by John Field.

• LOOK OUT for Dominic Frisby’s Libertarian Love Songs later this year at the Edinburgh Fringe.

 

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The Romantic Rocker – Some Thoughts on Phil Lynott

phillynottWhat made Phil an ‘outsider’? Well, was this rowdy rocker and party goer, really an outsider? I think so. Of course just the hue of his skin in Dublin at the time would have ‘marked him out’. A black Irishman in the 50s and 60s – there was a novelty. Either he had to live up to that difference  or retreat from it – Phil, ostensibly, lived up to it. In fact he had been born at West Bromich in the West Midlands of England close to where I grew up. But Phil was sent to Dublin to live with and be brought up by his grandmother and family. He pays tribute to her in one of his songs titled ‘Sarah’. He wrote another ‘Sarah’ for his first born.

Phil was ‘black’, living apart from his mother, with an estranged father. He was brought up in Catholic Ireland – so different at the time, say, from ‘Swinging London’ and more generally the ‘swinging sixties’ – the decade when he first began to play music. Phil was tall, very leggy and eventually grew an impressive ‘Afro’ hair cut. There was no mistaking him. But there was always a dichotomy about his nature. I met and talked with him a few times (I’m lucky to be able to say) even got to play drums along with him once! With his doleful eyes, lush Dublin brogue and gentle demeanour OFF-stage (I never witnessed his wild side) – this was contrasted with the posing rocker, ‘eye-for-a-lady’, ‘jack-the-lad’, ‘twinkle in the eye’ hard rocker ON stage. Thin Lizzy were a SUPERB live act. They made their reputation and career from their live performances. And they had (to quote a song and album title) a ‘bad reputation’.

There was though, more to this rocker than one would expect. Yes he could write heavy songs with swagger such as ‘The Rocker’: I am your main man if you’re looking for trouble but also some of the most beautiful ballads, such as ‘Still in Love With You’: Think I’ll just fall to pieces/if I don’t find something else to do/ this sadness it never ceases/ I’m still in love with you. Or there were the songs of yearning, ‘Wild One’ being an example with its lines: How can we carry on, now you are gone, my wild one. There were many songs imbued with Irish legend of myth and adventure and with more contemporary reference such as, ‘Freedom Song’: I believe in the freedom song/Long live liberty/I believe in the freedom song/Doesn’t matter what you do to me.

But there was also his religious/spiritual side. I’m writing these words now because the following lines often pop into my head, from the song ‘Dear Lord’: Dear Lord, this is a prayer, just let me know if you’re really there/Dear Lord, come gain control, oh Lord, come save my soul/Give me dignity, restore my sanity, oh Lord, come rescue me/
Dear Lord, my vanity, oh Lord, it’s killin’ me, it’s killin’ me.

Phil had a sense of the Divine… a sense of the world beyond…I even think he had a sense of his impending mortality. This mix of rocker and romantic gave his songs a quality so often lacking from his contemporaries. Thin Lizzy’s songs had this mixture of Rock; Romance; Celtic History; Religion/Spirituality.

Phil was an outsider by nature not by choice. He was ‘Johnny’ the character popping up in many of his songs – he was ‘The Cowboy’, his childhood reflecting children’s awe then of the Wild West and he bringing these romantic adventures to life in the raw 1970s: I am just a cowboy, lonesome on the trail…

Well if you don’t know, Phil succumbed to the effects of drugs and their long-term use in the mid-80s. Perhaps that was always going to be his destiny. Never to grow old. Always remembered as the rocker, the gypsy with his dangling, hooped earring. His playfulness and talent. But it’s still a damn shame he’s gone.  These words reflect just a slight insight into the man and his songs. If you don’t know him and Thin Lizzy check out their back catalogue. ‘Vagabonds of the Western World’ is a raw, solid, Irish, romantic flavoured album from the band as a three-piece; ‘Nightlife’ is a soulful peculiarity (and my favourite album); Jailbreak is the ‘Classic Line-up’ at its height, containing their most famous hit song, ‘The Boys are Back in Town’.

If you don’t know Thin Lizzy and you like your rock delivered with feeling and intensity and yet with some beautiful slow ballads and thought-provoking lyrics – you will be highly delighted when you do. If you already know them – you’ll understand everything I have written. Phil’s life was a romantic-tragedy – with all the paradox that those two words combining bring. I’ll leave you with this stanza from his song, ‘Spirit Slips Away’. Written when he and the band were on the cusp of real stardom.

And when the music that makes you blue
Unfolds its secrets, the mysteries are told to you
May the angels sing rejoice to you
That fateful day when your spirit slips away

By Tim Bragg

Phil Lynott (20 August 1949 – 4 January 1986) was best known as the singer, frontman and bassist with Thin Lizzy

Tim Bragg is author of ‘Lyrics to Live by: Keys to Self-Help; Notes for a Better Life: https://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07FW1BC5D/thirdway0c

 

 

 

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 Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Freddie_Mercury_performing_in_New_Haven,_CT,_November_1977

Freddie Mercury:  a skilled performer with flair

PG-13 | 2h 14min | 2 November 2018 (USA)
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Anthony McCarten (story by), Peter Morgan (story by) | 1 more credit »
Stars: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee

Wow! I loved this film. It transported me back to the 80s and reminded me what a great group Queen were and of the power of Rock music. 

The film tells us the story of Farrokh Bulsara (played superbly by Rami Malek) as he becomes Freddie Mercury. Bulsara is the son of immigrants from Zanzibar (now in Tanzania) who were Parsees, Zoroastrians who fled to India from Muslim persecution in Persia during the 7th–8th centuries. His family had moved to Zanzibar so that his father could continue his job as a cashier at the British Colonial Office. At the age of 17, Mercury and his family fled from Zanzibar because of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution, in which thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed. To the credit of the film this is made clear (though not explained or emphasised).

I was intrigued by his family relationships. His father Bomi Bulsara (Ace Bhatti) was a conservative figure who had a portrait of our Queen on his wall and emphasised the three commandments preached by Zoroaster: good thoughts, good words and good actions repeatedly and sometimes critically to Freddie! His relationship with his Father, thankfully, improved over time. It can’t have been easy for either of them given their different natures. Brian May noted in 2016, “It’s probably true to say that Freddie’s father, strongly committed to the Parsee faith, didn’t find it easy that Freddie took the path he did, as a rock musician, and a fairly irreverent one, at that. Nevertheless the support was always there.”It’s one of the joys of this film that we see their understanding and acceptance of each other develop. His mother Jer Bulsara (Meneka Das) was more directly supportive.

We also see a young Freddie working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and experiencing the casual racism that was sadly the norm for many back then, there and on the street. Music was another side to his life. He was writing songs and watching local bands at small clubs. We see how Freddie first meets Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Bohemian Rhapsody leads us through the history from the origins of Queen right up to Freddie’s tragic death (he died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991).

There is so much of interest in Bohemian Rhapsody that it is only possible to mention some of it in any review. I loved to see Freddie’s relationship with his cats, his love of opera and his interest in fashion. His personal relationships with Kenny Everett and his manager (a devil figure in the film) and record companies are worthy of separate consideration. The effects of addiction to alcohol and drugs on his health and music and personal relationships are a darker theme.

The film doesn’t shy away from looking at Freddie’s sexuality. Freddie married Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). In one scene Freddie tells Mary “I think I’m bisexual.” She says: “No, Freddie. You’re gay.”

Some have called the film out on this. Billboard said: “For many out there, this particular moment almost rang too true to real life. Bisexual people face the reality of bi-erasure on a near-daily basis, being told that they’re either “too gay” or “not gay enough,” with little to no attention paid to their actual sexual identity. So it’s natural that many critics and Twitter users would call Bohemian Rhapsody out for attempting to erase Mercury’s bisexuality in this scene, especially in a film meant to celebrate him.”

I’m not sure about that. Freddie wanted his private life to be private. He wanted his fans and the press to focus on his music. He never publicly identified his sexuality. Should he have had to? Should anyone have to define their sexuality publicly? At the time Freddie was pressured by the media to do so, now some LGBT people take the view that he somehow let the side down. Freddie saw himself first and foremost as a performer who was there to entertain the public with great shows and music. That was his choice.

There is a harrowing press conference in the film where we see the gutter press try to pressure him to answer questions on his sexuality in the style of a baying mob.

This wasn’t a case of exaggeration the press had no shame. In December 1974, the New Musical Express asked him, “So how about being bent?”. Even his illness was seen as ‘fair play’ by the irresponsible media. In October 1986, the British press reported that Mercury had his blood tested for HIV/AIDS at a Harley Street clinic. A reporter for The Sun, Hugh Whittow, questioned him intrusively about this. Anyone whoever read the late and unlamented News of the World will know full well how the gutter press hypocrites tried to trash people. Yet who now remembers the low-lives of the British gutter press? Yet Freddie Mercury left a legacy of great shows and music behind him. His music continues to uplift people.

Bohemian Rhapsody ends with Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985. I remember watching this at the time. To be frank to that point Live Aid wasn’t matching the hype. The performance from Queen changed that. It was electric. It’s given an incredible poignancy in the film by the knowledge that Freddie is doomed. Bittersweet and emotionally moving. Freddie knew how to deliver to his audience. He went out on a high note with a strutting, high energy and also nuanced performance as he was determined to do. True to his art and his fans to the very end.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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