Category Archives: The Net

Just because it can be done…..

From time to time, I’m sure that it dawns on most of us that we take the wonders of the internet for granted.  Whether you want to pay a bill, watch a movie, check out bus timetables in Ontario, find a recipe for chicken cacciatore or read a blog like this – all of these things and many others besides are possible from the cosy surroundings of your own work-station or laptop or cellphone. 

This is something that today’s young hipsters very much take in their stride, but I am old enough to remember how it was back in the days when buying anything ‘mail order’ was a bit of an adventure, requiring faith, luck and a good deal of time.  For that chicken recipe, you either had it in a cookbook or you rang a friend.  Failing that, there was the local library, when it opened.  As for watching movies, you either waited for it to come round on TV or you got yourself off to the local flea-pit.

Another area where the internet has had a massive impact is in travel.  Booking flights and hotels is now ludicrously simple as long as you possess a major credit or debit card and know when and where you want to go.  For independent travellers, I’m sure it is now possible to put together a comprehensive  round-the-world itinerary without breaking sweat.  It’s all laid out before you like a giant smørgåsbord of possibilities, so all that’s really required is the time you spend checking timetables plus a measure of agreement among the participants – and that’s where it can get difficult.

I think that this eternal truth came home to me with considerable force about 2:15  one morning  as I stared at the screen and pondered the monstrous carbon footprint involved in flying 3 people from Izmir to Antalya via Istanbul then out to the UK just a few hours later.  The alternative was a rail and coach journey of up to 8 hours from Izmir via Denizli.   Better karma but a day arguably ‘wasted’.  Decisions, decisions…..

Decisions, decisions…….

In the end , what I was left with was a tightly-structured circular tour of Western Turkey that would take in Cappadocia and Istanbul and Ephesus within a fortnight’s span.  It met the Partner’s timescales and took in those hotspots the Princess wanted to visit.  It took account of the current uproar on the Turkish rail network with Istanbul essentially inaccessible from the Asian side, except by bus or plane.  It allocated enough time in Cappadocia to visit the major sites and it finished on the Aegean coast near Izmir, allowing a day-trip to the Ephesus site and a day on the beach at Altinkum or near Kusadasi.  It also flew in and out of Birmingham.  It was a thing of beauty and it positively gleamed with bureaucratic efficiency.  The only fly in the ointment came in the final 2 days where opting for a cheap but ethically dubious flight back to Antalya via Istanbul would have bought us an extra day on the beach.

Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my brain, the Travel Gnomes mopped their brows after several hours of frantic activity.  Difficulties had been overcome, obstacles had been surmounted, alternatives had been identified.  The decision on how to get from Izmir back to Antalya could wait until the following day.  I fired off emails with the Itinerary attached to Partner & Princess and went to bed.

“What about here?”

To say that I was disappointed with their response would be a major understatement.  Far from being thrilled by the fact that I had located really cheap flights from Kayseri to Istanbul and an interesting-looking hydrofoil & train package from Istanbul to Izmir, their lack of enthusiasm was almost palapable.  Words were spoken.  Lines were drawn in the sand.  Fuelled by the outraged Travel Gnomes in my head, I basically went into a 24 hour sulk and resolved never to try to organise a family holiday again.  Turkey was plucked and my elegant itinerary sent off to the Recycle Bin.

Of course, old habits die hard and 48 hours later I was back at the keyboard looking for something far simpler.  By this point, there had been some more reasoned discussions; the Princess  backed out completely – she has already been to Israel this summer, so is probably wiser in spending her time  trying to find a job than swanning off with her parents.  The Partner wanted  to go in August rather than September as originally planned.  After some discussion we settled on either Venice or Lisbon for a week and after 15 minutes on lastminute.com, I had found a decent package with tolerable flights and what looked like a good hotel in the Chiado district of Lisbon.  Compared to the Turkish expedition, this  Lisbon trip was like falling off a log and I could now see that whilst my Turkish Delight might have been impressively organised, there was no time for it to be a holiday at all.  Just because it can be done doesn’t mean that it should be…….

Even so, there’s no holding those Gnomes;  a few days later as we landed in Lisbon, they were busy reminding me that I had finally made it to Portugal, the only country in mainland Western Europe that I had never visited before.

The World at your fingertips…..

As a, shall we say, ‘seasoned ‘ traveller, I am well aware that leaving the comfort of your living room to explore the highways and byways of Planet Earth can be a double-edged sword. 

As well as the usual accoutrements – passport, camera, doorstop novels, iPod, sunblock  etc – you also need to equip yourself mentally for the hazards of the road – misdirected luggage, seemingly interminable waits in airport departure lounges, the joint-wracking tedium of long-haul flights, nit-picking foreign bureaucracy – and all of that just to get you to the point where you are set to emerge from the belly of the Arrivals whale into a totally new culture, climate and time-zone, where the hard facts in your guidebook suddenly start to look like inspired guesses.

Travel, particularly long-haul travel, requires the assumption of a particular mindset, where you steel yourself for the process and hope to arrive at your destination with your faculties and luggage in reasonably good order.   If you do, then you can take a deep breath before launching yourself  on to the next stage of your travels.

These days, of course, it’s a damned sight easier than it used to be – in principle anyway.  I noticed this on my recent trip to India.  What had seemed – back in 1989 when I first went there – like a huge adventure, was now just over half a day of tedium between Birmingham and Kochi, enlivened by the excellent service provided by Emirates’ flight crews and spritzed up with a two-hour stopover in the retail Eden of Dubai’s airport.  First time out, I flew with Pan American and lived every long minute from Heathrow to Delhi, this time I flew from my local airport – just a 25-minute cab-ride away – and needed only concern myself with which of 170 movies to watch first as Europe unravelled some 37,000 feet below.

Part of this is obviously down to the fact that I have, over the years, spent an unfeasible amount of time on aeroplanes, whizzing off to far-flung parts of the globe – most recently to Kochi.   It’s sobering to reflect that when there, we were treading in the footsteps of Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese navigator who pioneered the sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope.  His first voyage to what is now the modern Indian state of Kerala took nearly 11 months and we had done the same journey (albeit by a more direct route)  in around 14 hours.

Vasco da Gama: now there was a proper traveller

We all know how it goes; first of all there was exploration, closely followed by adventure.  Once things had calmed down a bit, there was travel, but these days, there’s just tourism.  Even worse, the post-Uni  ‘Gap Yah’ trail staggers off via the Full Moon Beach Parties of Thailand, tubes down the river in Vang Vieng in Laos before collapsing into the fleshpots of Queensland’s Gold Coast. It’s  so heavily frequented these days that they might just as well put up those blue motorway signs (sponsored by Facebook) directing British youth to their next chundering session.  It’s a miracle some of them can remember anything of their travels at all. 

The world has shrunk, it seems,  due in no small part to the internet.  Before we flew to Kochi, I was able to plot our onward journey from this very keyboard.  The flights were booked,  the train timetable from Aluva to Alleppey consulted, the hotel in Alleppey was booked  and a deposit paid in advance, possibilities for other hotels in Fort Cochin later in the trip duly noted.  I was able to look at videos of a kettuvallam houseboat on YouTube, review a selection of possible day-trips we could take once we got to Fort Cochin and read up-to-date reviews of most of Alleppey’s restaurants.  It was almost like being there, except without being there, if you know what I mean.

The ladies at the Poste Restante in Cairo

There’s enough of the romantic buried inside me somewhere to deplore all this.  Inside me, a small and ever-diminishing voice can faintly be heard crying out that this is all wrong and that it was all a lot more fun when you just turned up and invented your itinerary on the fly.  The voice laments the days when news from home meant calling at the Post Office in a new town to see if anyone had written to you c/o Poste Restante.  In Alleppey one evening, I settled down by the hotel pool and rang my Dad, who sounded as though he was sat next to me.  We talked quite calmly for about 5 minutes about the weather and his garden and the cricket as though it was no big thing at all.    Anyone under 40 reading that last sentence will by now probably be thinking “Yeah, so, and your point is?”

On the other hand, the ‘tour organiser’ inside me was actually grateful that I could check so much of this stuff in advance.  When travelling with a couple of India ‘virgins’ like the Princess and her boyfriend, excited to be there, but also crabby and hot after the flight, creating the impression that there is actually some method in your madness is no bad thing.  So, in the end, the pragmatist tends to win out over the romantic, which is sad but probably inevitable.

Hassle-free travel to and through and home from India would have sounded like a Science Fiction concept back in 1989.  We still got around, jumped on and off trains and planes and saw what we wanted to, but it was often problematical and time-consuming.  However, in some respects, there was a degree of serendipity that seemed to come to our aid when we were least expecting it. 

We were in Jaipur, planning on returning to Delhi and then flying up to Kashmir – still accessible to western tourists in those days.  The Partner had got herself embroiled in the usual carpet-buying shenanigans with a local dealer and we had to go to his shop one morning to close the deal.  It was clear from the outset that this wasn’t going to be a quick process, but we had plenty of time until our bus left for Delhi in the afternoon, so what the hell….

For the first hour or more, the guy hardly mentioned carpets at all, particularly once he found out that Kashmir was next on our itinerary.  It just so happened that he had some cousin/brothers up in Srinagar who owned some deluxe houseboats on Nagin Lake and he just happened to have a photo album of said houseboats taken from every conceivable vantage point, both internal and external.  One quick phone call and we were not only booked in but his cousin/brothers were going to meet us from the airport and take us directly to the boat.  The arrangements worked perfectly, the houseboat we stayed on  (the ‘Washington’) was magnificent – everyone was happy.  Part of our pleasure at all of this stemmed from the sheer implausibility of it all.  The seeming chaos of India surely legislated against such happy chances, so when, against all the odds, everything panned out as smooth as silk, we could barely believe our luck.  Surely the Gods of Travel were smiling down on us from on high?

Nagin Lake in Kashmir; every bit as idyllic as it looks….

Anyway, a couple of recent discoveries on the Net have made such chancing of one’s arm in the Dark Incontinent (or elsewhere) something that is unlikely to tax us for too much longer.  As someone who loves travel for its own sake, I consume  travel books by the likes of Paul Theroux with massive enthusiasm.  I am also aware that there are many ‘great journeys’ to be taken – by road, by river, by sea,  by rail and even on foot – and that for a variety of reasons, I am unlikely to take more than a fraction of them in my three-score-and-ten or however long I’ve got.  I know that travelling the Pan- American Highway from Alaska to Ushaia in Patagonia is a journey I would like to do, but probably never will.  I know that people follow the Pilgrim’s Way on foot to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, but I can assure you that I will not be joining them anytime soon. The Great Ocean Road in Victoria looks spectacular in the extreme, but as I have absolutely no desire to visit Australia, this is another trip I am unlikely to take.

However, the Net has now taken us to the juncture where you can take journeys like this without ever stepping out of your door.  Two of the world’s most spectacular and dramatic voyages can now be experienced from your desktop.

The first one I discovered is the so-called ‘Norwegian Coastal Voyage’ from Bergen in Western Norway up the coast and across the Arctic Circle, then ’round the corner’ at North Cape and eastwards along Finnmark’s wild coast to the remote outpost of Kirkenes on the Russian border.  In June of this year, the Norwegian state broadcaster, NRK, presented this trip as a continuous live feed of 134 hours, filmed largely from the bridge of M/S ‘Nordnorge’,  one of the fleet of modern ships that travel this route 365 days a year. 

Screenshot from NRK’s ‘Hurtigruten: minutt for minutt’

The ‘Hurtigruten’ (Express Route) ships used to be the only link to the wider world for many of the more remote communities in Norway’s Arctic north.  They carried livestock, mail, food, vehicles – anything really.  I have even seen a coffin loaded on board at a remote spot in northern Finnmark and just left out on the deck as though it was a bale of hay.  North of Harstad, I have seen sheep offloaded from a flotilla of small rowing boats on to the ship because the island where they had spent their entire lives lacked an anchorage deep enough for the ship to get to the quay.  I have been serenaded by a church choir as the ship came in to dock  at Stamsund in the beautiful Lofoten Islands.  The marketing spiel refers to it as ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage’ and I would find it hard to disagree, providing you get lucky with the weather.

From the 1970’s onwards, with the oil money flowing in Norway, many small communities in the North were funded by the state to build (or expand)  airports to make them capable of handling medium-sized jets.  That had a profound effect on the Hurtigrute’s core business and the diminishing volumes of freight sent north or south on the ships could have seen it scuppered, at least as a twice- daily (one northbound, one southbound) service, but they reinvented themselves for overseas tourists, reasoning with some justification that Norway’s craggy landscape is often best viewed from the sea.  Heading north from Bergen, the ships follow the skipsleia (roughly, shipping lane) that runs along much of Norway’s west coast.  This is a deep-water channel that has been used since Viking times and varies in width from about 50 metres to several miles.  On the ‘landward’ side is the main coastline of Norway.  To the ‘seaward’ side is a constantly shifting network of islands and skerries that shields shipping from the worst of the Atlantic storms.  Only once the ships turn eastwards along the northern coast of Finnmark are they truly exposed to the wrath of the waves and the wind.

A narrow section of the ‘skipsleia’ on Norway’s west coast

Anyway, NRK chose June of this year to broadcast their live feed, mainly because the weather tends to be better then and once you start heading north in midsummer, you’re going to get 24 hour daylight.  The ‘show’ was screened on Norwegian television and though there is only intermittent dialogue with presenters interviewing travellers, crew and onlookers, it was a huge and unexpected success.  There are lengthy sections where the ship moves in a stately fashion through the most glorious landscapes and I have to say that it is totally mesmerising.  Nothing really happens and yet it is just totally engrossing. 

Having been on various Hurtigrute ships quite a few times, I can tell you that nothing can really compete with the experience of actually ‘being there’, but if you are thinking of booking a trip on the Hurtigrute or would like to get a taste of what the journey is actually like, you could do worse than dip into this stuff, which, happily is available on the Net.  The following link will take you to an English-language page on the NRK website, from which point you can explore the 134 hours of archived video.  Happy trails….

http://www.nrk.no/hurtigruten/?lang=en

Even longer than the Hurtigruten stream is one put together by those awfully nice people at Google and the Russian railways.  This covers another ‘iconic’ journey; this time the  5,753 mile Trans-Siberian Rail link between Moscow and Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast.  The journey is presented from a single perspective – the camera points diagonally ahead out of one of the carriage windows, thereby aiming to replicate what you would see were you there yourself.  The filming took place in Summer 2009, with two crews taking 30 days to cover the entire route in daylight. 

A screenshot from Google’s Trans-Siberian marathon

There is no ‘natural’ soundtrack to the film, but you can opt to add in a recording of a train rattling along and passing over points from time to time or you can enhance your Trans-Siberian experience with readings from the greats of Russian literature (in Russian) , sickly balalaika music or contemporary Russian pop.  Hmm….  Personally, I stuck with the train noises, though it is a bit disconcerting when the train pulls into Krasnoyarsk Station in eastern Siberia but the recording of the train noise just rattles relentlessly on.

As for the landscape, well, there were a few surprises.  One is that Siberia – at least those bits close to the railway line – isn’t the empty wilderness of forest and steppe that I had imagined.  There no doubt are huge tracts of virgin forest to be seen out there, but not too many of them are visible from the train.  Obviously, the railway is a bit of a magnet for people in Siberia, so it’s perhaps to be expected that the settlements are more regular and frequent along the line than you might find 100 miles north or south.

The next surprise is how flat Russia is….even the Urals don’t seem terribly imposing and there are few hills of any consequence to be seen from the train. 

 One of the high-spots of the video is the footage shot along the southern shores of Lake Baikal, which I seem to recall is the deepest lake in the world. But there’s the thing, you see.  Baikal is beautiful and they filmed it on a beautiful day, but it is (after all) just a lake.  It’s like a wider version of Norway’s Hardangerfjord or Scotland’s Loch Ness.  Even so, on this journey, it’s a highlight because it’s the only large stretch of open water you see; that is, except for the rivers….  Now they truly are impressive and huge; the train crosses the Amur in eastern Siberia (stupendous), the Volga (at Nizhni Novgorod, just east of Moscow – also impressive) as well as the Yenisei and the Ob.  All of them make English rivers look pretty insignificant.

In the end, probably the most impressive thing about the journey is the sheer scale of Russia itself.  For hour after hour, the train rattles along through a uniform landscape of trees and small settlements, periodically stopping at a larger town or city.  Notable features – like Baikal or the steppes to the east of Novosibirsk – are actually quite rare – that’s what probably makes them seem more remarkable than they actually are when you finally get to see them.

Journey’s end: the magnificent exterior of Vladivostok Station

In truth, the video reveals that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  Years ago, I remember taking a 20-hour train trip from Istanbul to eastern Turkey.  Somewhere beyond Ankara, we began to run into an area where the principal crop was – clearly –  sunflowers.   Field after field of them turned their yellow faces to the train as we passed.  To begin with, we were delighted; this was a crop we never saw at home, but after half an hour of pretty much unbroken sunflowers, we were bored and after another half-hour, we barely noticed them at all.  The Trans-Siberian train video is like that, except to the power of at least 10. 

This was one of those trips that I always thought I’d like to do, but having dipped in and out of the video for about an hour, I’m not so sure.  In his epic 1965 movie ‘Dr Zhivago’, David Lean attempts to show us the vastness of  Russia.  In ‘Zhivago’s’ predecessor, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, he had already used the tactic of placing small figures in huge landscapes and it’s something he uses again here, showing Omar Sharif’s tragic character lost in the heart of Mother Russia as he attempts – unsuccessfully –  to reconcile the conflicts set up by his love for two different women.  Sharif staggers through colossal snowfields and seemingly endless forests in an effort to get home.  Being the master craftsman that he was, Lean manages to invest these massive landscapes with meaning and significance but I think even he might have struggled with the footage shot from the Trans-Siberian Express. 

Back in 2010, Alla Zabrovskaya, who worked on the project for Google Russia, described the Trans-Siberian route as ‘Russia’s unique calling card’.  That may be the case, but I suspect that what will stay with people after the trip is over will be the sheer scale of it all, the vastness of Russia, stretching away into the East.  That is, indeed, impressive, but, to be honest,  the reality of the 6-day trip and the 150 hours of video is of occasional high-points punctuated by hours of tedium.  Anyway, judge for yourself – here’s a link:

http://www.google.ru/intl/ru/landing/transsib/en.html

 

Pls Mr Postman…….

Two big events in the house since I returned from a week in a very hot Andalucia; first of all, news that Hannah, the daughter of my mate Adrian and her ‘young man’, Matt are getting married.  Apparently, he whisked her off to the top of some hill in the Lake District and proposed, so whether it was the altitude or something else, she said ‘Yes!’.  Actually, everyone who knows these two is delighted – they stand out from the usual milling throng of twenty-somethings as a ‘proper’ couple – it was just meant to be really.  Hannah is a delight; beautiful, smart and funny in equal measure, whilst Matt, apart from being a United fan, is a solid, no-nonsense ‘bloke’ who comes from Whitehaven and likes his beer and his football and his music.  They are a very good match.

What has really tickled me about this though, is the way I found out about it.  Hannah’s best mate is the Partner’s niece,  Eddy,  and she has already been asked to be a ‘maid of honour’ (whatever one of those is) at the wedding in 2 years time.  She had been sworn to secrecy about the whole thing, so predictably, she bottled up this huge secret for all of 24 hours before getting on the phone to her favourite Auntie to spill the beans.  The Partner is congenitally incapable of keeping anything secret, so Eddy might just as well have taken out a full page ad in ‘The Guardian’.  I think there may have been a fair bit of this going on because within another 24 hours Hannah had sent out a text message to the inner circle of friends and family announcing the glad news – news that most people probably already knew. 

Being a complete Luddite where much of this new technology is concerned, I found this a fairly extraordinary step.  To me the growth and dominant position of the whole texting thing in the lives of today’s youngsters is already something quite remarkable.  It seems somehow to have led to an apparent inability to make firm arrangements; everything is fluid and interim  – ‘I’ll text you when I’ve finished here’ I hear the Princess say to her mates on the phone.  Then they text her back ‘Sorry got held up -txt U later’, so she sits down to watch a movie awaiting the next text, after which it’s usually ‘2 late now – txt U in the morning’  And so it goes on.  Without wishing to get too fogey-ish about this, when I was that age, you arranged to meet someone on the steps of All Saints Church at 1230 and that was it.

Although I’m aware of my Luddite tendencies and try to embrace all this stuff (up to a point), I did find the decision to communicate something as life-changing as a decision to get married via a text message (with all its attendant abbreviations) quite startling.

To render things yet more complex, Matt’s proposal occurred at a time when (purely by chance) Hannah’s parents were on holiday in Greece, so perhaps he texted Adrian in Cephalonia to gain consent – ‘Pls can U give yr consent to Han & I getting hitched?’  The mind boggles…..

Actually, just to show that not everything can be facilitated via social networking sites, there will be a traditional Engagement Party here in Birmingham next weekend, so confused, elderly types like me will be able to make some sense out of it all…..

The second big event of the week came yesterday, with the Princess getting the results of her Finals.  This, too, has become an event mediated via the Web.  The Princess was up and about surprisingly early yesterday morning and trying – unsuccessfully to log on to her Uni website/intranet to get her results…..to no avail, so many of her peers were trying to do just the same that the site was continually crashing.  By mid-morning, levels of anxiety were edging upwards just a fraction, especially when the Princess was fielding some incoming texts from colleagues who had managed to get through to obtain their results.

It was at this moment that the postman arrived and included in his delivery was an official looking envelope for the Princess.  This was, of course, the snail-mail version of her results and for all that I was delighted that she got the 2.1 she was hoping for, I was also predictably and rather smugly amused that for all that she lives in a wired world of tweets and texts and e-mail, it was a far more traditional ‘platform’ that offered her the news that she wanted so badly.

Listening to Jimmie Spheeris

One of the Princess’ favourite bands is Joy Division, a band that ceased to exist fully 10 years before she was born.  Even though I was living in Manchester during their brief but glorious heyday, even though I saw them play at least a dozen times, even though I knew Bernard Sumner well enough to stand at the bar in the Russell Club and have a pint with him, even though I was in the BBC studios on Oxford Road when they recorded that extraordinary version of ‘Transmission‘ for ‘Something Else’ or whatever the show was called…… despite all this, she has told me stuff about Joy Division that I never knew anything about at all.  Somehow, this spooks me just a little.

You would be entitled to ask, of course, what the hell this has got to do with Jimmie Spheeris, a California-based singer-songwriter who died quite tragically back in 1984 and was probably as unaware of Joy Division as they were of him.  The point of course, is the extraordinary power of the internet to act as a focal point for fans; a place where they can gather and post their stories and their concert pictures and bootleg recordings and all the memorabilia of fandom.  This is where the stories – real, imagined,apocryphal – get lodged in the collective psyche and become a narrative and almost mythical subtext to all the ‘official’ versions.   

Joy Division have, of course been pretty well served by such mythical subtexts and by the mechanisms of posthumous marketing.  There have been books -some of them of the doorstop ‘coffee table’ variety, there have been extensive issues and re-issues of existing recordings and previously unreleased recordings, there has been an enduring interest in Peter Savile’s iconic design work, there have been 2 feature length films, one of them Grant Gee’s excellent ‘Joy Division’ documentary, one Anton Corbijn’s fictionalised but equally excellent ‘Control’.  All of this stuff has been sifted and measured and evaluated by the online Joy Divison fanbase; a process that will no doubt continue more or less indefinitely.

For the late Jimmie Spheeris, it’s a similar story in some respects, yet with a radically different set of outcomes.  Born in Oklahoma in 1949,  Jimmie was brother to film-maker Penelope, cousin to musician Chris and was also apparently somehow related through his Greek origins to the movie director Costa-Gavras.  His family background was in the fairground/’carney’ trade and after his father was murdered by a ‘belligerent carnival-goer’, his mother relocated the family to California, eventually settling in Venice, in suburban Los Angeles.   Once grown, Jimmie moved to New York City in the late 1960’s in an attempt to break into the music scene.  At one point he apparently shared an apartment with the late Laura Nyro.

His break came when his friend Richie Havens introduced him to Clive Davis, at that point Head of A&R for Columbia Records.  Davis signed him to a four-album contract and the first of his albums – ‘Isle of View‘ – appeared in 1971.  Recorded in New York and Los Angeles with a band of largely unknown musicians, it got quite a lot of radio play in the States and was even released in the U.K. in 1972, but sank without trace here.  The lyrics were, I suppose, of their time – poetic flights of fancy, filled with images of birds flyin’ free or swooping down, of mountains and trees and rain and the seashore and perhaps more than anything else a set of intensely sensual reflections on love and its ‘many-splendoured things’ – not sure how many Spheeris fans knew at this point that he was openly gay.  Spheeris’ distinctive voice could soar across octaves, as on the standout ‘I am the mercury’, but the overall mood was of hushed intimacy, with acoustic guitar, flute and strings evoking a variety of moods; most of them in harmony with the hippie ethos of the times.

Jimmie Spheeris- early Columbia promo shot

In a way, that was the problem for Jimmie Spheeris and a host of other talented early 70’s American singer-songwriters, all surfing on the coat-tails of the success achieved by the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell or Simon & Garfunkel.  The market was awash with sensitive long-haired minstrels crooning gentle odes to their ‘old ladies’ and a substantial number of ‘old ladies’ returning the compliment.  A lot of this stuff was woeful rubbish, but some of it was really good and there’s little doubt that the music of Jimmie Spheeris had a magic all of its own.  It’s something that each of his first four albums all possess to a greater or lesser extent. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Spheeris worked largely within the parameters of what would usually be described as folk music, without sliding into country-rock or pop clichés.  Spheeris’ best songs tend to be introspective reflections on love and life; when he did step out with some more up-tempo rockers, or novelty numbers like the title track from his second album – ‘The Original Tap-Dancing Kid’, released in 1973 – the results were often a lot less compelling. 

The second album was produced by former Rascals frontman Felix Cavaliere and featured a crew of seasoned Los Angeles sessioneers like Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar and Bobbye Hall.  Whilst it consolidated the achievements of ‘Isle of View’, it didn’t really move things along too much, getting lost among all the other ‘soft-rock’ albums of the day and sold only modestly.  Jimmie Spheeris’ response was to take his music out on the road and he embarked on an 18-month period of touring with a band of close associates, such as bassist Johnny Pierce, guitarist Geoff Levin, drummer Bart Hall and keyboard/reeds player Jim Cowger.  During this era, he would play support to a plethora of different acts – some more ‘sympathetic’ to his music than others.

By the time Spheeris released his third album – ‘The Dragon is Dancing’ – in 1975, his band were a battle-hardened force to be reckoned with.  Jimmie had hooked up with producer Henry Lewy, who had worked extensively with Joni Mitchell and  for ‘Dragon’ Lewy was shrewd enough to retain the core unit of the road band, adding other guests on an ad hoc basis.  One of these guests was Chick Corea, who played synthesiser on the album’s atmospheric title track.  Whilst it might seem a little odd that an A-List jazz fusioneer would crop up on such an album, the reason is probably that by this point, Jimmie Spheeris had begun to flirt with Scientology, of which Corea is a high-profile aficionado.  Corea brought ace bassist Stanley Clarke (another Scientologist and Return to Forever member) along with him for the next Spheeris album  ‘Ports of the Heart’, recorded the following year.  Both ‘Dragon‘ and ‘Ports’ represented a quantum leap from the intimate ‘folky’ style of the first 2 albums.  Strings were again used judiciously, but these were rock albums, pure and simple, often with fantastic, imaginative arrangements and excellent musicianship.  Eighteen months of slog around the States had taught Jimmie and his band how to get the best out of one another.  Add to this a particularly strong batch of songs on ‘Dragon’ and some interesting cover versions on ‘Ports’ and it was clear that Jimmie Spheeris had escaped from the ‘hippie folk ghetto’ and was on the way to somewhere far more interesting……..all of which makes it all the more frustrating that he seemed to have simply moved next door into the ‘cult artist ghetto’ instead.

By 1976, when ‘Ports of the Heart’ was released, there were major changes afoot in the world of rock music.  Whilst the punk revolution was no more than a distant cloud on the hippie horizons of Southern California, things were nonetheless changing.  The Eagles had transformed their open road country-rock into a highly-formalised pop-rock monster and Fleetwood Mac had come back from nowhere to take the airwaves by storm.  What Jimmie Spheeris was doing was somehow too fragile and left-field to break out to a wider audience.  By now Spheeris numbered Jackson Browne among his buddies – Browne sang backup vocals on ‘Ports’ – and whilst their lyrical concerns weren’t a million miles apart, Browne’s lyrics were somehow more rooted in the minutiae of everyday life and the hard compromises now afflicting those who had espoused the hippie dream.  Jimmie Spheeris, meanwhile, still had his head to the skies, was lost in the mystical ‘otherness’ of the universe and his lyrics still reflected this.   In this newer, harsher ‘Hotel California’ world, brute economics took over; Browne went on to stardom, whilst Columbia dropped Jimmie Spheeris from their roster. 

As far as Spheeris’ career as a recording artist was concerned, there’s not much else to tell.  If he did much recording between 1977 and his death in 1984, little has survived except for one final album (‘Spheeris‘), which he finished on the night that he died.  Riding his motorbike home through Santa Monica at 2 am on the morning of 4 July, 1984, Jimmie Spheeris had the misfortune to meet a drunk driving a van travelling in his direction.  He did not survive the collision.  It was to be sixteen years before ‘Spheeris‘ saw the light of day.

During those sixteen years, the world had moved on in many ways; not all of them that positive.  In terms of the record business, we were now listening to small shiny silver discs as opposed to larger black plastic discs.  Punk had been and gone, leaving its claw-marks on the body politic and the thing we’d usually referred to as ‘rock & roll’ had morphed into a huge number of variants, from the frontiers of jazz to the retro stylings of rockabilly – and everything else inbetween.

The internet was already muscling in on the hegemony of the big record companies; bootleg tapes and CDR’s were being openly traded and the moguls of yesteryear were starting to lose their grip on what and who we listened to – a process that has only accelerated in the intervening 11 years.

Fans were starting to use the internet to share their enthusiasms for this or that band – fan websites were being set up and blogs were just around the corner.  Jimmie Spheeris fans were still out there and starting to pester Sony (Columbia/Epic’s new owners) to give CD re-releases to the Jimmie Spheeris albums in their vaults as their treasured vinyl copies became ever more battered and scratched.  No dice.  Spheeris just wasn’t a hot enough proposition in economic terms.  On the internet,  Spheeris fan Andy Markley started up a Memorial Gallery and  ‘Anybody remember Jimmie Spheeris?’ site and was amazed by the response he got.  One person who broke cover at this point was Jimmie’s former bassist Johnny Pierce and together with some finance and the efforts of numerous enthusiasts, Rain Records was set up as a Sony Special Projects enterprise with Pierce as CEO.  Its remit was to function solely as an outlet for existing and ‘new’ Spheeris recordings.  An examination of the 4 sets of master tapes in the Sony vaults revealed that if the Spheeris albums were to be rescued and released on CD, something would have to be done at once as the tapes were de-oxidising at a rate of knots. 

Sony drove a hard bargain.  Rain Records had to pay them upfront for the manufacture of the CD’s at Sony’s own plants.  Pierce took out a second mortgage on his house to cover this and many other costs.  However, by 1998, all four of the original Columbia/Epic releases were out on CD and it was my good fortune to visit New York City the following year, where I was able to snaffle up copies at Virgin’s shop on Union Square.  Even better, Rain had finally put out the ‘Spheeris’ album from 1984 and had put together a double CD entitled ‘An Evening with Jimmie Spheeris’ recorded at a club in Connecticut in 1976. 

Jimmie Spheeris on stage in 1977

The ‘Spheeris‘ album is – frankly – a bit of a curate’s egg.  There are a couple of good tracks – ‘Three in Venice’ and ‘Jungle Sweep’, for example – but by and large, it just doesn’t measure up to its predecessors.  The live album, however, is terrific, despite the ubiquitous hooting and ‘wooooooooo – ing’ that is probably the worst feature of American audiences.  Sometimes the delicacy of Spheeris’ songs gets lost in all the drunken ballyhoo of a smallish club gig, but enough of the real stuff gets through to make ‘An Evening with’ an invaluable addition to a painfully small catalogue.

‘Labour of Love’ is an overused phrase, but it’s one that’s definitely applicable to what Johnny Pierce and Andy Markley called ‘The Preservation Project’.  Together with a number of dedicated activists, they had managed to bring the music of Jimmie Spheeris to a new generation whilst making thousands of existing fans very happy.  It should have been an enduring monument to fan power; sadly, it wasn’t to last.

In the USA, the Rain CD’s were distributed by K-Tel, a name that will inspire mixed feelings among British readers of a certain age.  In the early 1970’s, K-Tel were active here in releasing a series of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’-type packages of hits on vinyl in gaudy covers and with little discernible quality control.  In 3 words, they were cheap, re-packaged crap.

With such a reputation, what happened with K-Tel in the States  shouldn’t come as a surprise.  On 19 March, 2001, K-Tel International filed for bankruptcy.  They did so owing Rain a substantial sum of money and holding all but a handful of the inventory of Rain’s Spheeris CD’s in their warehouses.   This stock was, of course, immediately ‘impounded’ by whoever it is that deals with such matters….the Brain Police, the Mysterons…who the hell knows?

As a consequence of the K-Tel bankruptcy, Sony were quick to jump on the bandwagon.  From 7 April, 2001, Rain were prohibited from distributing the Spheeris CD’s that they had paid for upfront and the licencing agreement they had with Sony was cancelled.

So, to sum up, Rain were now prohibited from manufacturing and selling Jimmie Spheeris CD’s, even though they had paid for the existing stock upfront.  However, this was moot, as the K-Tel bankruptcy meant that said stock was now in the hands of the lawyers.  Not a happy story and I am unable to tell you that either the remaining stock or the funds owing ever found their way back to Messrs Markley and Pierce.  To make matters worse, Johnny Pierce died from cancer in 2005.

Since then, rather bizarrely, a ‘twofer’ CD that brings together ‘Isle of View’ and ‘The Original Tap-Dancing Kid’ seems to have emerged on British re-issue label BGO. Most recently – and this was what inspired this elongated post – Texas band Midlake have included a track from ‘Isle of View’ on their recent ‘Late Night Tales’  compilation.  Midlaker Tim Smith has described ‘Isle of View’ as his all-time favourite album.

For all this, it’s unlikely, I would guess, that Jimmie Spheeris is going to acquire the same kind of posthumous reputation accorded to – for example – Nick Drake.  Even so, the fans of Jimmie Spheeris, and, in particular Andy Markley and Johnny Pierce deserve enormous credit for what they did manage to achieve.  By comparison, being a Joy Division ‘internet archaeologist’ is a stroll down Easy Street.

20,000 hits……

Much preening here this morning as LTSN cruises past the 20,000 hit mark.  Thanks to all regulars….you know who you are…..

Kind of Blue……

It’s been quite a week here in sleepy ol’ England, what with an inconclusive General Election, the Premier League title resolved and this blog registering colossal numbers of visitors as it closes in on 20,000 hits.

On Thursday, three generations of this family were glued to the Election results in one way or another.  My Dad, an archetypal working-class-turned-middle-class Tory was up all night watching the map turn Tory blue; not bad for an 85-year old.  The Princess was up in Manchester, having blagged her way into the Town Hall count as the alleged girlfriend of some Labour councillor.  Not a great night for her because although Manchester stayed largely a Labour stronghold, she had been working hard -and unsuccessfully as it turned out – in the Withington constituency as the Labour candidate Lucy Powell attempted to unseat the running dog lackey Lib Dem incumbent.  Oh well.

My involvement was a bit more direct as I was working on the count for this constituency (Birmingham Hall Green) and for the Kings Heath & Moseley ward in the simultaneous council election.  The counts for 7 or 8 Birmingham seats took place at the National Indoor Arena, a total barn of  a place where I’d last been in attendance to see Robert Plant and Alison Krauss about 18 months ago.  That was more fun, frankly.

We were seated at one of a long row of trestle tables under the benevolent eye of a young solicitor who was our Table Supervisor and  then grouped into fours.  First we got some postal votes to count just to warm us up before the real ballot boxes started arriving.  We ended up having to recount that first batch twice as we couldn’t get a tally with what was supposed to be there.  Not really a problem though as the KH/Moseley ballot boxes were taking an eternity to arrive, probably due to the chaos that ensued when the world and his wife turned up at about 9:45 pm expecting to vote, only to be turned away when the polls closed at 10:00 pm.  Oh dear.  Then it somehow took 90 minutes for said boxes to crawl the 4 miles to the NIA and reach us.  It was shaping up to be a late night.

Across from us groups of scrutineers from all the parties prowled up and down marking the ballot papers as we processed them.  The Tories stood out like sore thumbs in this process; all suited and booted, young boys who looked like they had barely started shaving setting their first foot on the political ladder, most of them looking like proto-Wiliam Hagues with carefully sculpted hairdos and suits that were clearly fresh from Burton’s.

There was some drama, of course, as Labour managed to hang on to Edgbaston with the popular Gisela Stewart getting back in, whilst here in Hall Green the dubious Labour  incumbent, Roger Godsiff, who was severely mired in the Expenses Scandal,  managed to hold off strong challenges from both Respect and the Lib Dems.  At council level, the Lib Dem incumbent also managed to cling on though only by about 200 votes.  On the whole though, it was clearly a night where no-one really got a clear mandate which I would see as being a real slap in the face for the Tories as New Labour have been doing their best to hand the Election to them on a plate.  Seems that people are (rightly) no more impressed with Cameron than they are with Brown and now both of them are trying to play footsy with the Lib Dems to form a coalition.  I have a feeling that we could be doing it all again within a few months.

‘He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not……’

Matters in the Premier League reached a far more predictable conclusion as Chelsea hammered hapless Wigan by 8-0 to secure their first title for 4 years.  Cue much gloating from the loathsome John Terry and his wretched crew , the Cole Sisters; Joe and Ashley, the Teutonic Temper Tantrum, Michael Ballack  and sulky Didier Drogba who didn’t want to play any more when they wouldn’t let him take a first half penalty.  The Dad of the Year and his sidekicks; not since the Scouse Spice Boys of the late 90’s has there been such a nasty bunch.  Fair play to Ancelotti and Wilkins, though and also to Malouda and Anelka who have all contributed to a deserved victory for Abramovich’s playthings.

The Cole Sisters…..the kind of girls my Dad told me to avoid…

And finally, I just have to pass comment on the absolute blizzard of hits this site has been getting, most seemingly targetted at my tale of online Hawaiian TV and the saga of the Tsunami that wasn’t (see Feb 28th).  It would be nice to think that the blog readers of the world are simply entranced by my tale of Honolulu bracing itself for a mega-wave that would sweep everything away into the Pacific.  Unfortunately, I think the truth is that most people have been logging on to check out the hot photo of ‘Avatar’ actress Michelle Rodriguez that I jokingly inserted as a spurious aside to my tale.

Such are the vagaries of the Net…type ‘Michelle Rodriguez’ into Google images and this blog  and that photo are the first in line.  Oh well, if only one visitor in 10 bothered to read the article or maybe trawl through the other stuff on here then I guess it will have served some purpose.  Anyway, the end result is that I’m fast closing on 20,000 hits, which is something I didn’t expect to achieve until late summer.  And it’s all thanks to Michelle…..maybe she’ll let me return the favour one day….well, I live in hope….

Post # 200….

Another milestone along this Boulevard of Broken Dreams…..

Or is it just the Slip Road of Slow Punctures?

I won’t say I thought I’d never get here because I know better than most what an opinionated git I can be at times.

However, 200 posts in marginally over 6 months has come as a surprise….

Here’s to many hundreds more…..