(Picture above = Colours from a distance by Paul Klee)
Stream of consciousness with a smattering of structure;
Actually, if you know me, you’ll realise this title is ironic. Cars are not my thing but I found my self singing the song earlier today when I went out for another lockdown run. This was unusual because normally when I go out for a 3,4, or 5k run, my head tends to play back whatever music I last heard.
I wasn’t really up for a run today but I was faring better than expected and aiming for a decent time when I bumped into (at 2 metres distance) P and S whom I have known for years. Our kids were at the same primary school as theirs and they are also regular Park Run runners. I could have pretended I had earphones in and continued running with a polite smile but they are really decent people and the chance of a chat (and a breather) was not unwelcome.
This pause was a good learner too because usually when I run and I see groups of folk chatting at the Covidically correct distance (and therefore blocking both the path and the off-piste grass) I scowl internally and roll my eyes. This time I could experience what it was like to be stationary while the remaining inhabitants of planet Lycra went past and between us.
Squabbles between open space users have become fashionable of late. These are the factions that are moaned about and why:
Runners – Act like they own the place
Walkers – Meander as if they have no purpose except to pick flowers of wild garlic and berries
Cyclists – Who really should be on the roads during this quiet time.
Young Parents with buggies – behave as if they invented children and whose kids on scooters are wayward and probably transmitters of ‘it’
Dog companions – It’s good to let Rex off the leash, he knows his own mind and what he wants to sniff. The owners however, are just too distracted by other dogs to notice the other humans (although I can’t really blame them, the dogs are usually more amusing).
In short, just about everybody!
I am at various points in the week a member of all but the last two of these groups and don’t dislike any of them (except Mountain Bikers who ought to go over rough terrains or a cliff edge to justify owning an All Terrain Bike). It is however, weirdly easy to disassociate from who I am not at the particular moment. If I’m on my bike (a Brompton which Lewis refers to as a tricycle); I’m a cyclist, if I’m walking; I’m a walker. Perhaps each outdoor venture is a search for identity…(hmmm a topic for another day?)
The other thought is that social distancing in parklands is a good model for how we ought to manage ourselves when driving our cars. It has taken time for people to learn how to respect ‘the gap’ yet, by and large, we are learning to be thoughtful, more polite and to thank those who are courteous towards us. Surely, this is progress.
Finally, I’d like to share a tip. It is highly embarrassing when moving towards another person and trying to avoid a collision, you both go the same way and back again. I have found that if you look at their feet rather than the eyes, you’ll get a better idea of where they are heading. Somehow the feet follow the brain’s signals before the eyes do.
This also works when your are about to overtake somebody going in your direction.
Of course, we could all just have a convention to stick to the left, but that’d be too easy.
A feature of having a December birthday is that if you are minded to review the year gone by you can run a parallel between your own and the calendar one. If however you are on the cusp of closing off a decade it is less easy to draw seasonal parallels because the task that daunts is to review several tens of years in one go. I am choosing to not do that.
This blog has in the past discussed rock stars that have influenced me (in particular Bolan, Bowie & Mercury) but one musician I have not so far discussed is Renato Zero.
I came across Renato Zero when I was living in Venice in the summer of ’74. The TV guide described him as the Italian Bowie, yet his look, which not only channelled but also out-camped British Glam Rock was very Freddie. His music was more challenging to get into because it was, and in 2017, still is, not really rock. It generally consists of power ballads played by swirling acoustic orchestras, over which his deep gritty voice (all Italian singers sound like Rod Stewart) rasps in tones of great drama, deep injustice or extrovert melancholia. Subject matter tends to range from dark vice ridden alleys to the bright vice ridden circus and back to the dark alleys again. The Italian public long ago accepted Zero as a national treasure and he still tours and records today. The look has changed, after all 40+ years of success have taken a toll and let’s face it, if you live in Rome and are an economic success there is little point in remaining pale wan and thin when you are surrounded by the best food and wine the planet can offer. Nowadays he wears all-covering black cloaks and ‘professor’ glasses in the style of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka.
There are two reasons why I feel it appropriate to mention Renato Zero in this, the last blog of my 50’s:
He has been with me since I was 16. The same time as my Holy Holy Rock Trinity began, except he is still alive and somehow manages to cast occasional tunes of tragedy and nostalgia over my ageing ear drums.
When in 2010, Renato reached the big ‘Six Oh’ he produced a music album and a book called ‘Sei Zero’ (Sei is the Italian for 6 and for ‘you are’) and so archly translates as ‘YOU ARE NOTHING’. This was supported by a written reflection based on him being told when he was a child that ZILCH was all he would amount to. When therefore he selected a stage persona, he went for ZERO with a sense of irony and an erect middle finger. All good stuff.
Perhaps it’s quite easy to look back at your detractors and laugh at them if you are sixty and still famous. You have eager record company executives, publishers and a loyal fan base. The inner artistic demons might still be present but if you can create products, the platforms are there. Renato Zero used a mini essay to rebuke his early critics but turned most of his 60th celebration into a positive dedication to the city of Rome and people he lives among.
Over these last 60 years I have learned that if you are not widely known there is little point in digging up ghosts from the past because the humiliation you might wish to inflict will fall on a wasteland and will just make you look foolish. So although there are people who I’d have liked to sneer at (mainly maths teachers and the odd work-place boss) I neither have the platform nor the need and will instead look, like Mr Zero at the good in the places and people around me.
This is a positive position and one that remains staunchly stoic. On the plus side, things are more or less under control and are not so bad but I have to say too that on the disappointing side nothing has really amazed or stunned me. I’ve seen my children born and grow, I’ve seen my football teams win championships and The World Cup and I have been present at death. I have even contemplated various metaphorical navels and earlier this year I embarked on a project whereby I pursued the joys and detailed thinking afforded by SILENCE. (See blog from February 2017) yet like Blue Tack, nothing really stuck for long. I once looked off a mountain top in The Rockies, said ‘wow’ aloud and tried so hard to be awestruck but somehow my inner me checked it off a minor bucket list and gently, without risk, I skied down to safety.
My eldest daughter recently told me she was disappointed in my current mindset because I only seem to engage in comedic entertainments (film, TV, theatre, books) and my desire for documentary and serious deep drama has waned. She is right. I find myself attracted to television programmes from which I can walk away and even if I’m at the 85% mark, I feel no regret when I do so. I avoid so-called Box Sets because I don’t need any more commitment in my life and will still only read a book if it has a maximum of 330 pages. My years are getting longer and my attention span is getting shorter. This is not a fear of my dying before reaching the end but is to do with the fact that I have experienced every kind of denouement and nothing can pleasantly surprise me anymore.
Story tellers and philosophers tell us that the joy is in the journey and not the destination and as I get on, this is ever clearer but I must also add that avoiding pain along the way has become a priority.
As I walked to work this morning I passed the spot, as I do every day, where I had a motorbike accident in 1975 (ok, it was a 50cc moped).
I was young, drunk and considering I flew headlong into the glass window of what is today a bank, lucky to be alive. I learned this the following morning when a nurse strapped up my shoulder and berated me. That moment, when I was 17, was the last big risk I took. It re-shaped me and even if I was a potential risk-taker before the collision, I never was afterwards.
This is not a note of regret, just an observation and it is with this approach that I shall carry on. It’s not as if nothing really matters, because it does but if I have succeeded in one thing it’s to have established a benevolent split persona. My inside remains the frustrated 20th Century Boy with dreams and artistic pretentions, yet the success I seek is no longer that elusive publishing deal (I achieved that one) but simple approval (and payment) from 3rd parties that hire me to mark exam papers and to give the odd lecture on my own philosophies (I quit acting in the 1980’s because I was bored with reciting other peoples’ words and the same applies to delivering seminars and training sessions). My outside is a much better and fortunate place. I am surrounded by a group of females I had never expected. Women were a deep mystery to me as I grew up. I either avoided them or over-killed (myself) with them. Now my wife and three daughters give me a before–the-fall King Lear strength I had never envisaged. As a family we are like an office chair with 5 wheeled feet (4 wheels were deemed unsafe some 20+ years ago). The chair gets shoved around the office yet stays upright. It bangs into desks and chips the paint, but never falls over. Even if any one of the wheels gets sticky or becomes loose the chair remains stable albeit a touch wobbly.
And so, returning to the message of the Stoic, I hereby count my blessings because tomorrow, or tomorrow’s tomorrow something will attack them and by committing the good things to paper, or indeed a blog, their confirmation in the here and now exists forever.
How do you know that you’re right? If you’re not nervous anymore It’s not so bad, it’s not so bad
I feel my vision slipping in and out of focus But I’m pushing on for that horizon I’m pushing on Now I’ve got that blowing wind against my face
Late one Thursday afternoon I was doing my homework while listening to the BBC’s Radio 1. The presenter recommended I spend the evening watching Top Of The Pops as it would be having a royal feel to it and would be hosted by the American DJ Emperor Rosko and was to feature a new English band called Queen. I cannot remember if the group actually spoke on the radio, but I was suitable impressed by the introduction to make a point of watching them perform their intriguingly named track; Seven Seas of Rhye.
Some two hours later, the TV picture went green, smoky and black, Brian May’s guitar and the Mercury piano boomed in like a stallion stampede and Freddie’s dark painted eyes, black (self-trimmed?) fringe and sallow cheeks glared as if he were Hecate, the lead witch from Macbeth.
By early 1974 it felt like the world had been in a two year eternity of multi coloured clothes, spectrum hair hues and platform boots. Queen broke into view but also remained hidden in the midnight sky. They were dressed in black and white that was so stark it drew an intake of breath. Not only did Queen look sharp, but their sound was too. Even in this, their first broadly cast song the polar contrasts between a thumping rock background and the crystalline voices and sheer searing guitar stood out. Everything about Queen was shiny, clean and fresh. It appealed greatly and was enhanced by the fact that Mercury’s impact was rather scary too.
I became transfixed by Freddie in a very different way from how I had with Marc Bolan and Bowie and a major inspiration was that Queen did not become universally or immediately popular. It’s hard to grasp this idea in 2016 when nearly every TV ad-break features yet another Queen track (currently Flash for floor cleaner and It’s a Kind of Magic for naff furniture) but in the mid 70’s they were portrayed as aloof, rude and pretentious. The Black/White thing clearly marked them as different from other acts and coupled with their look, the music press just couldn’t pin them down or pigeon-hole them. Queen were elusive and this alienated them from journalists and many others. This delighted me. I was getting into a band ahead of the curve and I ‘got’ what others didn’t.
Some three years later at a Queen concert Freddie told me (and the rest of the intruders butting into my private meeting with Queen at Wembley Arena) ‘you may have read about us splitting up, but I can tell you that the music press are talking from here’ … as he pointed at his rear end.
This was in the pre-Punk era yet to my mind Freddie began as and remained the truest maverick. He had mystery and talent and an exotic ‘otherness’ which made me, as a half Italian in England begin to feel that I too could also bring some cultural capital to the table and that it had value. I loved the way he’d tell critics to hang themselves and then rammed home the point by prancing around like My Little Pony in shiny black spray-on slacks. His irony and masks were beautiful and nobody could tell what was what with him.
My other (rock) heroes, including artists from other fields, taught me that individuality is an asset and that it’s good to stand out from the crowd, but it was Mercury who showed that if you follow your instincts you can also develop a thicker skin. Queen’s rise to fame was the first that I could not just witness but contribute to too and as a nailed-on Queen fan I was honoured to be recipient of bile from detractors and critics who took offence at the band. Weirdly this inspired me. I loved their music, I loved the infamy and realised that being connected to something that divides opinion helped me to increase my self-belief and self-esteem.
As for Freddie and the band, their journey has been well documented. I guess the higher you raise your head above the parapet, the more of your torso can aimed at but even though they had real ups and downs by the early 1980’s they had built a legacy. Full torso or top of the scalp, it didn’t matter where the missiles landed the their point was proven.
Another tremendous lesson that Freddie taught us was that if you want to prove yourself as a creative person, attention to detail and minutiae are key. In an interview (you can find it on YouTube) Freddie talked about the hours and days it took to produce the backing vocals for Queen’s 1976 song Somebody To Love. He described how the other group members would get bored from constantly repeating short vocal bursts that were being knitted into a highly complex arrangement yet he’d give them a biscuit or some other distraction when they complained too much.
I am convinced that it is detail that sets very successful people apart from the rest. Even if the resulting song, equation, sculpture, tunnel or blog looks simple and refined, it is likely that much detail and deep testing was used on the way. One of the reasons why Queen’s music is so enduring is that they invested so much time on small things that even now if you listen to a song such as The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke from Queen II there are tiny chimes and bells that seem new even after 45 years.
It is now 25 years since Freddie died and it’s taken me this long to be able to obtain a perspective on somebody I never met and whose lifestyle, values and talents were so different to my own. The connection was purely one way; he created it and I bought it. But I also feel there is a more ethereal contact and this is where he was so good, because so many people around the world feel the same as me. They also connect to Fred because they feel different from their peers and know that the man whose professional career was invested in entertaining millions was also invested in hiding his real self.
Top performers in most spheres encounter negative criticism and those of us who don’t have a public profile should be grateful for our zero-pain anonymity.