Don’t Stare At The Sun to Dynamo

HEY, how you doing? It’s been a while, what you been up to?

Hopefully, the return of this blog is rather more an encounter with someone you have been hoping to catch up with rather than bumping into someone you haven’t seen for ages and quickly remember exactly why.

Like most of those e-mails, phone calls or get-togethers you really have been meaning to do for ages, this blog was never supposed to take this long.

Yes, the plan was supposed to take a bit of a break and come back refreshed with a new look and a few fresh ideas. Just not this long.

That break was started back in January so it has lasted most of 2016 and the observant among you will notice that not that much has changed. Precisely nothing to be exact.

There has been plenty of fiddling around in the background and even a couple of abortive redesigns which were so close to making the grade. Right up to the point when something techie stalled everything or the new look which seemed so attractive one day, suddenly lost its charm at the next log in.

And having spent large chunks of the intervening 11 months involved in redesigning part or all of a couple of newspapers, believe me what looked good one day or in your mind, can look far less effective, eye-catching or user-friendly when you go back to it. For user-friendly, read it creates more work.

There will be a new look. By the time you read this, even by the time it is posted, there may be be a new background picture. By the time you look again (hopefully not that long), it could well have changed again.

Suggest that could be what happens in the next couple of months, trying out a couple of designs and seeing what works.

So what’s happened during almost a year of blog silence? Anything interesting? Has 2016 thrown up anything worth talking about? No, thought not.

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No idea what is about to happen next…

There have been a long list of events since the blog went on a break which have had me sitting at the laptop ready to type or composing articles – rants in a fair amount of cases – on the way to and from work.

In a rough sort of order… David Bowie, Farage, Gloucester’s poor form, Trump, unexpected brilliance from Gloucester, Hereford at Wembley, Boris Johnson, Trump, Muhammad Ali, Farage, Brexit, Farage (getting the rant bit?), being told to stop complaining about Brexit (no, that’s democracy), the Olympics, Gloucester’s poor form (new season, same story), more issues with tenants, the taxman talking rather more about money owed than poetry, Trump (more rants), more out-of-the-blue brilliance from Gloucester (reliable only in their unreliability), Leonard Cohen, Farage again, any number of other dead celebrities who were part of my childhood… all nearly got the keyboard tapping away. We will get there in the coming weeks.

To say nothing of what has been going on nearer to home (including why a lack of time and, frankly, surplus energy has also been a factor for the longer than planned break), music and travel. You know, the subjects which this blog is built around.

There has not been that much in the way of travel. After spending most of 2015 observing a fascinating chunk of the world on the road (well, the dirt tracks for large chunks – if we were lucky), 2016 has been spent largely observing a mystifying world from the comfort of my sofa (now the cheap one bought out of need has been replaced by the one my latest tenants didn’t want).

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The right choice

There was one trip Stateside, introducing my nephew to the delights of Boston and New York – thankfully, he seems to have come down far more on the side of the Red Sox than the Yankees – but travel has mainly been confined to honing the bucket list and planning future trips. More to come on that after a new idea was planted in my brain a couple of weeks ago.

So what of music? After all, this is in the A-Z iPod Challenge section.

It’s not been a bad year, a few new discoveries and some old favourites rediscovered (The Wedding Present live in Bristol tomorrow for the second time this year after a gap of nearly three decades) and enough decent stuff in the last 12 months that a rundown of the best could form an upcoming post.

Which is all good as there has been plenty to listen to with the task of listening to the contents of my iPod from A-Z on a hiatus with the blog – it had to be really or there would have been too much to catch up on.

But when the break was still looking like a short one, there was a fairly lengthy chunk from Don’t Stare At The Sun by Richard Hawley, via Downtown Train by Tom Waits at number 2,700 and the longest track so far – all 27.37 of Driftin’ Back by Neil Young and Crazy Horse – to Dynamo by Johnny Marr, at the time track 2,799, at the end of the Ds.

Along the way were a couple of tracks which would certainly make the long list if Desert Island Discs decided a travelling production journalist was a suitable guest – Driver 8 by REM and the wonderful Dry the Rain by The Beta Band (you know, the one John Cusack tries to sell to unsuspecting punters in High Fidelity).

And there were plenty of other great tracks of varying vintages, topped off with Don’t Talk by 10,000 Maniacs, Don’t You Fall by The Be Good Tanyas (who always bring back memories of sitting on the banks of the Yukon on a lovely summer evening, inevitably being bitten by mosquitoes), The Door by Turin Brakes, Down About It by The Lemonheads, Drunken Butterfly by Sonic Youth, Duel by Propaganda and Duet by Everything Everything, with some Jam, Nirvana, Buffalo Town, Belly and Lloyd Cole thrown in for good measure.

So normal service is resumed – bar a catch-up of the A-D tracks bought in the meantime. More of that next time, once I’ve worked out how to get the photo library plug-in to work again after all this time…

 

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The Boy Done Wrong Again to Broken Household Appliance National Forest

A LATE change of travel plans put me in a sweltering New York for July 4, 2010, having opted to leave the dwindling number of my overland travel companions still in Boston.

Back in Boston, my former colleague, housemate and fellow traveller Nick was heading out on an Independence Day pub crawl in the company of a Birmingham City fan he had bumped into at our hostel sporting a vintage Whitesnake T-shirt.

My night ended looking after an emotional Aussie somewhere in Brooklyn in the early hours, way too late considering the time a hire car was due to be collected.

Nick’s night ended with him getting married.

Not immediately. This is not the tale of an Englishman abroad waking up to find he had stumbled drunkenly into an all-night wedding chapel with a girl he had just met.

But four years on, Nick and Sufia – the girl who had serenaded ‘Whitesnake’ the night before, recognised the same T-shirt 24 hours on and struck up a conversation with the English bloke at the bar – tied the knot this month.

The Big Moment
The Big Moment

After plenty of transatlantic comings and goings, red tape and a crash course in visa requirements, they became a married couple in Charleston, South Carolina, which turned up the heat, humidity and enjoyment to the maximum.

Charleston is one of those American cities built on its past with a well-preserved historic region.

Some of those cities seem to seal off such areas hermetically and appear to feel just being old (by US standards) makes them historic without worrying too much about whether anything happened to put them in the history books. Almost like staying in a US history theme park.

But Charleston genuinely does offer history and a striking downtown area, which also manages to come across as a living city – helped by a healthy student population – and provides plenty to see and do before and after dark, without constantly feeling ye olde touriste guide is going to pop up to tell you about somebody born on this spot that nobody outside the state has heard about.

It is also an ideal spot for a select group of transatlantic guests who gradually congregated as the wedding week went on, reaching peak numbers for the ceremony itself.

Headline News
Headline News

And so, for any locals paying attention, a growing number of Brits could be seen sweating their way around town under the blistering sun, making full use of the hotel lobby’s soothing air con and bottomless supply of fruit-infused water, puzzling over a mysterious quacking noise, leaving their bag in a taxi (safely returned), losing their wallet while shopping (not returned), falling asleep in a bar (two of those last three may have been the same person), testing out the best way to eat eggs in a range of breakfast spots (don’t ask for them dippy), convincing barmen to plug their phone’s music into the PA, confirming that all the bars closed at 2am and, for more than one of us, sleeping off the after effects of the rehearsal dinner as the main build-up to the wedding.

There may even have been some salsa dancing at some point, but that’s as blurry as many of the selfies which were taken.

Which all paved the way for the wedding itself, an early evening, outdoor affair in the grounds of the 19th Century William Aiken House, home to the ceremony and the initial celebrations as US and British cultures came together (one seems more comfortable in front of a camera and audience).

The evening moved on – until that seemingly magical 2am Charleston cut-off – at the adjoining American Theater, an old-style converted cinema which hosted a live band which provided the soundtrack to a memorable evening and the backing for the would-be singers to climb on stage, including the bride’s version of Don’t Stop Believing backed by her new husband on drums.

A lovely way to round off a wonderful week before, over the space of the next few days, goodbyes were said and we headed off, either home or to a brief bout of further travelling.

My second week took me down the coast (of which more in a later post) to Savannah, Georgia and, via a figure of eight, up to Wilmington, North Carolina before heading back to a flight home from Charleston via Newark and a rather fortuitous upgrade to business class (again, more to come).

The soundtrack to that second week contained the customary frustrations of US FM radio – no sooner have you found a station worth listening to than it fades out and you have to go searching for something else.

My iPod supplied a welcome break from all that but not with the A-Z challenge, which took a break for the fortnight after reaching 1,200 with Broken Household Appliance National Forest by Grandaddy.

SophtwareIt’s a great track, but it is one of those which somehow sounds so much better when listened to as part of the album which gave birth to it, in this case the excellent Sophtware Slump.

One of the tracks which popped up just before heading up was The Boy With The Thorn In His Side by The Smiths, which also appeared late one night amid a slightly indie 80s playlist which mixed with those mysterious quacking noises on a rooftop bar in Downtown Charleston. Great company, great music, great setting.

The Cure popped up multiple times (both on the rooftop and out on the road), as did Echo and the Bunnymen (rooftop only) and they both appeared on the A-Z with, respectively, Boys Don’t Cry and two airings of Bring On The Dancing Horses.

Belle & Sebastian kicked off this section and reappeared with their classic The Boy With The Arab Strap (now safely reclaimed from ubiquity from its spell as the theme for Teachers), while Paul Simon popped up both solo (The Boy In The Bubble) and alongside Art Garfunkel with Bridge Over Troubled Water also covered by Johnny Cash.

An excellent little run also included three versions of Bring The Noise by Public Enemy, two of Brimful of Asha by Cornershop, Breed by Nirvana, the guilty pleasure which is Brilliant Mind by Furniture and three outings for Brassneck by The Wedding Present.

Which seems fitting.

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The Bell to Birds Flew Backwards

“And now I know how Joan of Arc felt…”

THAT is if Joan of Arc had a week crammed with Glastonbury (from the safety of my sofa), football, the ongoing saga of my house and bemoaning the non-working electric windows in my car. Doubt it somehow, but we both got a bit hot.

Having repeatedly fallen out of love with over-hyped, over-commercialised, over-scrutinised Premier League football, it has been refreshing to sit down, watch the World Cup and remember the drama, thrilling moments and unpredictability which made so much of the globe fall in love with it in the first place.

We'll get there, just read on...
We’ll get there, just read on…

The latest chapter in the story of my house was supposed to be the last one – it being taken off the market with three new tenants due to be moving in yesterday and taking delivery of  a new bed for the middle bedroom.

Instead, with a reference form still unreturned to the agents, the move-in date is in danger of being moved back – again – and it needed a hurried dash from the osteopath’s table in Cheltenham to Cardiff to await the bed.

And while it provided a chance to cover a fair amount of ground through the B section of my iPod – mainly through the songs beginning Big, Bill and Bird – it was another chance to regret not getting the non-opening electric windows fixed.

My car has become something of a miracle – bereft of any noticeable care for years, it has just kept going. Four years ago, it looked like it had reached its natural end, having been kept on the road up to the point just long enough to be left behind in favour of other transport around the globe.

But on my return, it spluttered back into life – eventually – and with more travels always just over the horizon, it never seemed worthwhile replacing it with a newer version destined to sit unmoving for months on end.

And while my car has kept on going as travelling plans got shunted back, it has developed a few eccentricities. There is a strange knocking noise from, seemingly, inside the glove compartment, the locks require an expert touch and brute force to open, the radio does not work (thanks to someone nicking the aerial) and the windows won’t open (major design flaw not to have a manual option).

Keep going, we're getting there...
Keep going, we’re getting there…

While that’s fine for much of the year, in the height of summer and combined with a temperamental air con system, it can make journeys a tad uncomfortable (to say nothing of the difficulties paying at toll booths or car parks).

But at least there was a good soundtrack.

This latest section has taken us from The Bell by The Villagers to Birds Flew Backwards by Doves and thrown up a few anomalies – three tracks from Patterson Hood in five entries (all from the sole album of his on my iPod) and REM’s Überlin confusing Apple’s finest engineering and appearing among the Bs.

And it also brought back memories of some long-standing pub arguments.

Once upon a time, The City Arms in Cardiff was the gathering spot for a group of journalists and friends, usually with no or little prior arrangement – we knew that from 6pm-ish on a Saturday, after the old Sports Echo had gone to press, whoever was on duty would wander round from the office to the pub and we would gradually gather, feed the jukebox, mull over the day’s results and put the world  to rights.

Faces changed, venues shifted, Fridays became the new Saturday – regardless of the fact several of us had to be up for a 12-hour plus shift on Wales on Sunday the next day – but a core group (now spread across the country, but several will gather in Edinburgh this weekend for a stag do) remained in place and, even with some truly awful smelling toilets, The City Arms was (and always will be) our spiritual home.

Some of what was discussed became a regular element in my Sports Echo column, although most of it has been long forgotten (probably for the best), but the ongoing discussions between two of us included debating the best Smiths and Radiohead albums – while he went for Meat Is Murder and OK Computer, my argument was always in favour of The Queen Is Dead and The Bends.

Nothing against his choices, both excellent albums. But both The Queen Is Dead and The Bends work, almost flawlessly, as complete works from start to finish and belong to that elite group of albums which should always be listened in that manner and never (repeat, never) shuffled.

From time to time, those arguments are rekindled via social media and, chances are, when we finally get round to reconvening in The City Arms, they will spark up again.

The Bends and Bigmouth Strikes Again popped up among the highlights of this latest section, but they were far from the only ones from artists who soundtracked the same section of my life.

Billy BraggAlong with Billy Bragg (Between The Wars), The Wedding Present (three versions of Bewitched) and The Lemonheads (Big Gay Heart), who we have stumbled across a few times, there was also Big Decision by That Petrol Emotion, an excellent track they never really got round to repeating (not that the O’Neill’s songwriting talent hadn’t flourished elsewhere).

There were also a couple of excellent newer entries from Sun Kil Moon (Ben Is My Friend) and Palma Violets (Best of Friends), while we careered through 800 with Beware Your Only Friend by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

The Prince was partly behind one of the finest overheard chat-up lines when the person responsible for him being in my collection once asked a girl “Do you want to come back to mine and listen to some miserable music?”. Remarkably, think it actually worked.

While the Big songs we have mentioned soundtracked the journey to Cardiff, the sweltering return was dominated by variations on Bill – pick of them Bill Hicks by Hamell on Trial (a bit of a discovery), Billie Holiday by Warpaint and Billy by Prefab Sprout – and Bird, most notably Birdbrain by Buffalo Tom and Birdhouse In Your Soul by They Might Be Giants.

Off to open a window…

 

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