Lord of the Strings

Lindsey Stirling’s violin medley of music from the soundtrack of the magnificent Lord of the Rings films is simply superb – from the beautiful airs of the songs to the more martial theme of the horse lords that stirs up the blood for a cavalry charge against the Orcish hordes…

And on a non musical note, Lindsey herself is incredibly cute and Elfin.

You’re a creep, Charlie Brown…

This re-edit of clips from the old Peanuts animated cartoon showcases poor old Charlie Brown against the Vega Choir’s beautiful cover version of Radiohead’s fabulous song Creep. It suits it so well, both funny and quite sad at the same time, seems so appropriate for Charlie Brown, one of the nice guys who always seems to get the rough end of the stick be it in baseball or his quest of the little red-haired girl…

Al Fresco album browsing

Ambling through Edinburgh’s Old Town on a Saturday afternoon recently with a friend we noticed a stall set up on Middle Meadow Walk with second hand albums, CDs and DVDs. I used to go to second hand record shops regularly when I first moved here years ago, but prices for CDs and DVDs in places like Fopp or online have dropped so much over the years that the second hand places are often not worth it, although I do find myself still going for wanders through second hand and charity bookstores (and I certainly don’t really need more books, but it doesn’t stop me!).

al fresco album browsing 01

al fresco album browsing 02

It’s funny though, as soon as my fingertips started flicking through the racks, especially the plastic-wrapped albums, it was like the fingers remembered this exercise from many years of browsing and I felt a curious satisfaction, half memories of browsing through old albums with pals in Glasgow or Edinburgh of a weekend in our late teens and 20s. An enjoyable way to spend some time; raking through boxes of second hand comics has a similarly satisfying feeling. And I think the fact you can come away with some purchases but only spend a small amount is kind of nice, especially with things so tight – the feeling of having bought something cool but not having made a hole in the wallet to do it. I think I came away with second hand White Stripes album and a jazz one by Courtney Pine, plus a DVD of The Goonies for the princely sum of about 7 quid. Then we wandered over the road to Sandy Bell’s for a few pints and listen to some live folk music.

folk music in Sandy Bells 02

folk music in Sandy Bells 01

Fuck me, Ray Bradbury

Love this very rude but very funny (and very NSFW) pop video by Rachel Bloom paying rather sexy homage to the great Ray Bradbury and a bit of book humping. Very naughty, but then what do you expect from a song by a huge-chested singer with a title like “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury”? Some good use of Ray’s book titles in the lyrics, bet he never expected them to be used in quite this manner, although I daresay the late Philip Jose Farmer would have loved someone to do this with his books. (via Christopher Cooksey on Facebook):

The Doctor is in…

Brian Rimmer presents a time-travelling musical slide through more than forty years of theme music and opening sequences to the world’s longest running science fiction show, Doctor Who. I confess my favourite remains the Tom Baker era ‘time tunnel opening (the main Who era for me growing up), with the same ‘slit-scan’ technique used in the stargate sequence for 2001, but it’s fun to see them all back to back like this, from the early Hartnell era of 1963 (and the logo that looks like ‘Doctor Oho’ for a second before becoming ‘Who’) through to 2010’s revamped opening and music for Matt Smith’s Doctor. And through it all that immortal, iconic bass line, duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh, that’s been reworked endlessly across the decades by various arrangers for the show and by other musicians like Orbital and Pink Floyd; those bass lines were the signal to generations of kids that it was Saturday, tea-time and that meant marvellous adventures and scary monsters (and jelly babies). How lovely that it still means exactly that to a new generation of kids watching the new show and still loving it. (via BoingBoing)

Sax on the streets

Several times walking home I’ve heard some wonderful saxophone music drifting up from below the bridge that takes Johnstone Terrace (the road which curves up and around the back of Edinburgh Castle) over King’s Stables Road. Each time I think I must go down the steep stairs and get a photo of this player, but usually I am on my way somewhere and don’t have time. Guardian Edinburgh‘s blogger Tom Allan followed those lovely notes – amplified with a lovely tone by the arch of the stone bridge overhead – to shoot some video of Gordon Jones playing his soprano sax.

City notes – Gordon Jones plays Soprano Sax on Kings Stables Road from Tom Allan on Vimeo.

Bugs and Opera

There’s a long and very fine tradition of animation matched to music and some of the best came out of that glorious period in the 1940s and 50s; its not really a coincidence that one artform which requires close attention to timing and rhythm would work so well with another. And back in the day when studios could afford the much more lush, detailed animation (unlike later eras where budget constraints mean much less flowing animation) and the studio would just happen to have an orchestra on staff too they made some of the finest, with one of Hollywood’s greatest ever stars (and a personal role model for me growing up), Mr Bugs Bunny being in not one but two of the best ever made, The Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc?, probably both of which would be my earliest introduction to the world of classica music, not too mention a lifelong appreciation for the skill and imagination of animators.


A Glorious Dawn

I see that this fab remix of the late and much missed Carl Sagan’s word from Cosmos that has proved popular on YouTube is getting a release as a traditional 7 inch vinyl. Funnily enough a friend sent me some music tracks he came across recently, from Cosmos, which we both remembered watching; it was instant nostalgia for me. As a boy I adored the series; I was already fascinated by astronomy and the exploration of space and this fueled it, as well as introducing me for the first time to Sagan. Years later I’d admire him for speaking out for the importance of scientific research for the sake of research and not simply for commerce, for the value of knowledge over susperstition and the need to take care of our own remarkable world, so different from the other planets we were exploring – he even publicly berated Margaret Thatcher once when she was Prime Minister, scolding her for her lack of support for pure research and environmental awareness, telling her it was shocking that someone who actually had proper scientific training could be so foolish.

Apparently the B side of the single looks like the cover of the famous gold record disc which was placed in the Voyager spacecraft, so that long after they had completed their mission of exploration (which they did so magnificently) and headed out of our solar system and into the deep, cold depths of interstellar space, should they by some remote chance be found by another civilisation they could play them and hear sounds from Planet Earth – greetings in many languages, poetry and snatches of music, which Sagan helped oversee. Carl’s been gone a while now, sadly, but that gold disc is now travelling still, further than any man made object in the entire history of the world has ever travelled, waiting for the day when someone – something,perhaps – finds it and plays it. (via Third Man Records)


And while we’re at it, here’s a short video, the Pale Blue Dot, by Carl. As the aging Voyager reached towards the edge of our solar system he argued for NASA to turn it to face back towards us – no easy task when the vast distance meant even radio signal commands travelling at the speed of light would take some time to reach the craft, then longer for returns, assuming it even worked. But he argued and they did it and the result was ‘the family portrait’, a view of the worlds of our solar system as no-one else in the history of our species had ever seen it, a shot taken from the edge of what we know from a little machine about to cross that boundary, a parting gift from one of the great missions of exploration. And in that picture a tiny dot, a blue dot taking up even less than one pixel. That dot being the Earth. Everything we’ve ever known, every person who has ever loved and lived, every cat, every dog, every Triceratops, every dolphin, every fern, every bush, every fish, every work of art, all contained inside that tiny, tiny dot… Sagan had that wonderful gift of enthusiasm and the ability to communicate the sense of wonder to all, a great spokesman for science.

"Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…"

Cash: I See a Darkness

Reinhard Kleist

Self Made Hero

Cash I See a Darkness Reinhard Kleist

If you wanna save your soul from hell, cowboy, then change your ways today. Or you’ll ride with us through these endless skies, forever on the hunt for the Devil’s herd...” Ghost Riders in the Sky

To say award-winning German comics creator Reinhard Kleist’s graphic biography of the late, great Johnny Cash arrived with a fair weight of expectation – mixed with anticipation – on my part is an understatement. Those of you who’ve been reading the blog for a good while may recall that we first talked about this work nearly two years ago when the original made a big splash in Germany. In fact it sold out its original print run from Carlsen and among the awards it picked up was the prestigious Max und Moritz, before going on to be picked up and translated into other languages by publishers like Dargaud in France and an English language version was apparently on the cards from Dark Horse. Since many of us were eager to read it in English we were pretty happy at this, but then it went quiet and seemed to vanish off the radar until Blighty’s Self Made Hero stepped forward. Home of the Manga Shakespeare and some fine literary adaptations we’ve been very much enjoying this seemed like quite a departure for them. Was it worth the wait? Was it worth the effort? Oh yeah. It was.

Kleist Cash I See a Darkness cotton farming

(The Cash family, including young Johnny, singing in the cotton fields)

Anyone who’s listened to Cash’s music over the years knows his songs came out of his life; the darkness and the light were both there, he lived through them, he pretty much lived his songs. And that’s part of the point Kleist makes here, how so many people (including people like me who’d normally run a mile from anything remotely labelled C&W) bought into Cash because his singing is honest; you feel the raw emotion in his voice, in the early work and even in the final years (his cover of Hurt is immensely raw and powerful, for example, it could have been made for him to sing at that age in his life).

But since Cash’s songs often deal with loss and the struggles against the forces that can all too easily grind us all down in everyday life, living those songs means he himself never had an easy life and Kleist selects segments of Johnny’s life, from the childhood days on their New Deal sponsored cotton farm, struggling to fight their way out of the Depression, singing to keep up their spirits during back-breaking labour, marrying too young, his self destructive, amphetamine and booze fuelled behaviour touring on the road as his success grew, the love between Johnny and June Carter, the famous music gig at Folsom Prison.

Johnny Cash Folsom Prison

(Folsom Prison; no fancy sets or theatre, just Johnny, June and the boys in the band in front of hundreds of hardened prison inmates; a gig that’s passed into musical legend)

Its a long work as comics go, over 200 pages, but even so there is no way it can pack in as much in depth detail as a prose biography and Kleist wisely avoids the temptation to simply jam in as much of Johnny’s life as he can. Instead he opts for a roughly chronological approach which takes in elements of the life that shaped Cash and his music, interspersed with comics interpretations of of some of his songs. In fact the book itself opens with one of these songs being acted out – almost the equivalent of the dream sequence in a movie, where the protagonist drives a car with number plates reading ‘HELL’ through the streets of a gambling city where he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” While some of the song sequences have a slightly different style about them Kleist keeps the differences in style mostly small so on a first reading it isn’t always obvious you’re in a song/dream segment and not an actual ‘proper’ biographical chapter, until the penny drops and you realise this is based on one of Cash’s songs.

At first I thought this was a bit of a failing on the artist’s part, not more clearly differentiating between biographical and song-based chapters. But as I was drawn further and further into the book I changed my mind and decided that this was actually a good decision on Kleist’s part; as I said earlier you can’t really separate the man and his music; he sang life as he saw it and lived it, they were part of him and he’s in each of them, so although the song chapters are a sort of fantasy they are also, in their own fashion, biographical.

The art through most of the book, both the biographical and the interpretations of the songs, is mostly in a suitably moody black and white with some gray tones for effect, although occasionally for the songs Kleist uses a more cartoony style (such as he uses for ‘A Boy Name Sue’). There are a couple of distinctive exceptions to this, however, a section where June and his mother try to help Johnny kick his dependence on drugs that’s leading him down a dark highway, executed in negative: white lines on a black background, an eerie sight of a human nervous system arced in pain, a glowing ball emerging from within, darkness and light, black and white, drugs dependency and love all warring within his body in a couple of wordless but very powerful pages. A song segment for The Ballad of Ira Hayes is again in a totally different style, much more symbolic and cartoony but equally powerful and, given the contrast they make with the principally more regular style through the rest of the book their impact is much stronger.

Johnny Cash Ballad Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

There they battled up Iwo Jima’s hill,
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived to walk back down again

And when the fight was over
And when Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes
” (the Ballad of Ira Hayes)

The music itself is normally presented in long, winding strips, reminiscent of the stretched out, long, narrow proto-speech bubble you see on say, 19th century cartoons, before the more common, modern speech bubble developed. Here Kleist uses speech bubbles for, well, speech, the long, thin ribbons for the songs. Its simple but very effective, giving the reader something of the feel of music, the way it doesn’t always seem to come from one source but moves through the air, reflecting, echoing, drifting, carried on the wind, almost an elemental force. It also allows Kleist to visually display something of the power of music; for me he achieves this most powerfully in the chapter on Folsom Prison, as the music drifts out seemingly on the wind, across the echoing, depressing halls, through the bars, the razor wire and out into the trees beyond. Its hard not to think of the opera scene in The Shawshank Redemption and like that remarkable scene of modern film this too has a simple, elegant power to it about the ability of art to touch lives and reach through barriers.

Johnny Cash Bob Dylan

(Cash and Dylan jamming in a studio; how much would you love to have been in that room??)

Its a wonderful read; in fact I found after I’d finish I had to go back and re-read it more slowly and enjoyed it even more on the second reading and I know its going to be one of those special books that I go back to every so often and read once more. Its a story of a 20th century icon, a man who bestrode pretty much all normal boundaries of genre to appeal to a far wider audience and a remarkable life. Its a story where the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are just supporting characters (let me say that again: Lewis, Elvis, Dylan – I mean come on! Great flawed gods of music). But mostly its about a man, the darkness he sees around him that almost swallows him and the lights that lead him back out the edge of the darkness (although he’d never be completely free of it), the love of his mother, his lost brother, June. This will be going on my books of the year list.

Reinhard Kleist will be one of the guests at the excellent Comica festival in London this year; He will be in conversation with (appropriately enough) someone well known to Brit comics and music fans, Charles Shaar Murray on November 22nd; details here.