Archipelago of Us: A Tune

A fragmentary tune, this one; slightly less direct that the ‘Open Letter’ below.

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“An Open Letter to My Younger Self”: A Tune

This is something of a ‘singer-songwriter’ style song; the type of which I occasionally write but hardly ever share!

It stems really from the some of the remembrances discussed in ‘listen 7’ of the King of Rock and Roll (see below) of being in a band aged around 16. I really thought (abstractly, now I think of it, and without any game plan whatsoever as to how to action it) that I was going to be, if not a famous rock star, then certainly a musician in that high school band for the foreseeable future; that I would be working within the then utopian and unknown (to me) music industry. This naive dream was curtailed by the following gradual realisations: 

a) I’m not really that good a musician/songwriter

b) I’m not confident/ egotistical enough to want thousands of people to buy/know the songs that I do write

c) The music industry is no place to nurture your dreams; it is not a forgiving and friendly environment

d) I actually hate performing live

e) nobody will ever care as much about my songs as I do

All of these things are probably fairly common among musicians who ‘fail to make it’. I am not bitter about any of them now – I almost feel sorry for this younger version of myself for dreaming such an intangible dream. But, on the other hand, I get the distinct impression that were my younger self able to see the contemporary me, he would be less than impressed that “we” aren’t in a band and making music as a full time occupation.

So this song is something of a letter explaining ‘myself’ to ‘him’. I know its self-indulgent, but I hope it will kick-start some writing I want to do about my experiences of being in a band playing at dodgy pubs, social clubs, town halls and marquees around County Durham.

 

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“Rincorrere il Shitegeist”: Italian Commercial Radio

Aside from the brief fragments of Nicky Campbell’s often acerbic callers (I swear I once caught a disgruntled Brummie voice fighting with Campbell for the airtime to say this: “no, be fair Nicky, the problem with the Chinese is…”) I catch whilst making a morning cup of tea, or the even briefer snippets of ‘blokes’ phoning up to fawn over certified ‘legend’ Robbie Savage on 606 (apparently the greatest compliment one can bestow in this kingdom of, is to ask the legend for his opinion: armies of men eschew their chance to give their opinions, instead using their call to ask Robbie for his opinion! On the scant occasions when someone disagrees with Robbie, the legend’s rebuttal always seems to just be repeating “have you ever been a football player?” over and over again until the caller is disconnected), I never listen to the radio. This has its benefits. I remember Simon Mayo’s ‘confessions’ being driven to first school. Then I used to be subjected to the distilled inanity of first Chris Evans, then Kevin Greening and Zoe Ball, then just Zoe Ball on their respective breakfast shows on the school bus (didn’t Evans once play that song by Texas twice in a row, heralding it as the greatest song ever released?). Then we’d get the ‘treat’ of Steve Wright in the afternoon, and his ‘factoids’ delivered by his gang of obsequious buffoons ,with the bus driver who drove the little minibus. One song which Steve Wright seemed to always play was one I haven’t dared to look up, lest it becomes lodged in my mind forever, is one with the chorus line “Abra, Abracadabra/ I wanna reach out and grab ya/ Abra, Abracadabra/ Abracadabra”. The verses are shitter if anything. Anyway, that pudgy little minibus driver with the furrowed brow used to listen to Steve Wright religiously. That bus driver was the person who informed me about the terrorist attacks of September the 11th 2001. This is how he broke that news, with an air of smug ‘insider’ knowledge: “aye, have yous heard aboot the plane crash in America? Apparently a plane’s crashed into the empire state building”. Arms folded across ample gut. Knowledge delivered. I don’t know it this was just his half-heard/half-interested reinterpretation of events, or whether he had repeated this verbatim from Steve Wright; either way, as I’m pretty sure this man only ever listened to Steve Wright in the afternoon (or was it just that I only ever saw him at this time?), it serves as further evidence for hanging the DJ. I was also subjected to commercial radio once in my life at a particularly bizarre job I had as a student (until I started making my own mixtapes; thus severing myself from even the slightest chance of social interaction). The job was packing model trains. The radio station was “Radio City 96 point 7! Liv Liv Liverpooooool!” as the ubiquitous jingle would keep asserting. That jingle is still a deep furrow into my memory. I doubt it will ever smooth out.

Not ever listening to the radio has its downsides though. Songs, artists, even whole genres can pass me by. I mean, for example, I know who lady Gaga is, of course I do, but, aside from Poker Face, I really could not tell you a single other song by her. Not keeping abreast with the minutiae of popular music really reminds you of the ‘changing same’ ness of popular music. Art once it seems exactly the same: young, sexy, affluent, exorbitant, ‘urban’ is some vaguely defined, nonspecific way. Yet certain nuances make it seem like something is askew. If you’re caught up in the stream, then nothing seems to change, but f you get out of the stream, even for a couple of months, then resubmerge yourself, it’s sometimes hard to work out the back formation of how we got to where we are. It’s like a soap opera. If you don’t watch for a few weeks, then come back to it, the characters, storylines and dramas will all have moved on, sometimes to unrecognisable degrees. But the same sense of hysteria and anguish and hyperrealism will somehow make it feel exactly the same. So on occasions when I catch a music video, or hear a song on Radio 1 – or see a performance of ‘I’m Glad You Came’ by ‘The Wanted’ on ‘Saturday Download’ – I sometimes feel like Red from the Shawshank Redemption; a frightened old man; an anachronism in my own lifetime: “music video editing sure went and got itself in one heck of a hurry”. In the aforementioned performance by ‘The Wanted’, I actually caught myself asking (myself) “is that dancing? Are they doing a dance there, or what?”

So on our recent trip to Italy, it was really interesting to listen to quite a lot of commercial radio; to become reacquainted with this strange medium.

Of course, in many ways, it was like stepping back in time to the early noughties, listening to Radio City whilst packing model trains. The commercials are just as inane and advertise, as far as I can make out, the same raft of useless businesses; the kind of businesses – like garden centres and scrap metal dealers – that, if you know that you need then, then you already know where they are, and if you don’t know where they are, then you’ll never need them. They had the same faux-marriage teams of presenters; a ‘zany’ man and a life-affirmingly jovial woman. No matter what time of day we turned on the radio, it always seemed to be this pair of clowns speaking; maybe they were the only hosts?

But on closer inspection, there were big differences. First and foremost: the tunes. Now I know that there is a significant difference between England and Italy in respect to the pertinence of respective native languages within global popular music, so it is no surprise that the majority of the songs on Italian radio were sung in English (even some songs by Italian artists) – this even though the general infusion of English was nowhere near as high as it was, say, in Germany when we visited in February.

But it wasn’t just English. One of the most repeated songs was a Brazillian tune which was incredibly good; a sort of pop-bossa nova with female vocalist; very good indeed (but, because the song was in Portuguese, and it was introduced in Italian, I have no idea what the song was called, or who it was by; it is destined to remain one of those pop ‘ships in the night’, I suppose). I think there may also have been a couple of Spanish-language tunes as well?

There was the usual glut of shit as well, don’t get me wrong. Particularly worthy of reprimand would be a car crash of a song – which, now having checked on Wikipedia appears as though it may well have already traversed the arc of media hype over here too; see what I mean about being quickly out of the loop – by ‘Superheavy’, a super group consisting of Damian Marley, Dave Stewart, Dross Stone and ole Leather Face himself Mick Jagger, called ‘Miracle Worker’. By God. Dross plies her usual wares of aimless melisma in ‘idiosyncratic’ (read shite) fashion. Jagger sounds like someone doing a fiercely exaggerated and poorly studied drunken parody of Phil Cornwall’s Jagger from Stellar Street (I’ve actually just lost a lot of time rewatching Stellar Street on Youtube! “Ere Keif. ‘Ave you seen the date on vese marshmellows” is one of the funniest things I have heard!). I literally can’t understand any of the words Jagger is saying. God help him on the track on the album in which he sings in Sanskrit (according to Wikipedia)!

Another risibly dire track that got a lot of airtime in Italy, though I had never even caught a whiff of it before, was ‘The Lazy Song’ by Bruno Mars. Now then. I had heard the name Bruno Mars before. I knew he was, in some capacity, ‘famous’. Hearing this song in Italy, I didn’t even know that this song was by him. I had sketched out a some of the things I wanted to say about this truly hateful song. I had decided that the middle eight lyric – so often the home of phoned-in, arse-achingly bad lyrics – of “I ain’t gonna comb my hair/ cos I ain’t goin’ nowhere/ no no no no no n-no n-no no” might be the shittest lyrics I have ever heard. I was even going to cry ‘bring back Jason Mraz, all is forgiven’. I was going to say that Reggae, maybe more than any other genre, has been misapproprioated and dishevelled and sullied by desperate white men with ‘attitude’ for some thirty years now – and it needs to stop. But then I looked for this song on Youtube and saw that it had, at time of writing, 178,310,802 views. That’s one hundred and seventy eight million, three hundred and ten thousand eight hundred and two views. And I am one of them. Bruno Mars’ ‘The Lazy Song’ (the lazy song Jesus wept. It’s so banal it’s sinister.) has received far too much attention. I provide no link to this song. If, like me you have never heard it, don’t search it out. If you have, God help you.

There was one other saving grace… of sorts. Noel Gallagher’s song ‘the Death of You and Me’. Now I know that the start sounds like Oscillate Wildely by the Smiths, and that it pinches, verbatim, the melody of the end of that little horn part from ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, but it’s quite pleasent, and sometimes that’s OK. It’s better than Beady Eye at any rate. And in the Italian sunshine, that was enough.

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King of Rock and Roll – Prefab Sprout: Ten Times

Click here for the song.

Listen 1

Perhaps the main things this series of ten-listen tracks has taught me is that firstly that there is no secret formula to popular music, or its success. Though there may be elements of homogenisation, there is no infinitely repeated ‘production line’ as Adorno et al imagined. Certainly, even if there is, then it is by no means an exact science. Thus the X Factor ‘stars’, given weeks of televised limelight, more often than not fail to shine, whereas Rebecca Black, coming from obscurity with an absolutely catastrophic song can capture the imagination of millions. In short, pop music, at its best, can be an unconscious art form which attaches itself to parts of your psyche without stopping to ask for conscious approval; what others may call ‘guilty pleasure songs’. I don’t believe you should ever feel guilty for liking a pop song. That is what they are for.

The other thing is that the instances of pop suddenly arresting you, stopping you in your tracks and becoming synecdoche for a moment/a feeling/a place etc are actually not all that uncommon. As I have been compiling this list of pop songs that have, at one time or another, become stuck in my head, I have realised that there have been scores of them; songs which are intense flashes of meaning one moment, then leave, but remain emblazoned into memory. Though I have only gotten around to writing a few, I have a back catalogue of dozens to get through.

Listen 2

But as that squelching synth announces itself for the second time, I think that the phenomenon of a song independently lodging itself into a time/place twice is distinctly more rare. This song has. For I remember it from youth. Maybe it is the first song I ever really formed such an attachment with. I think I must have had it on cassette, though I don’t associate it necessarily with that format (as I do with the ubiquitous cassettes of youth: the Lion King soundtrack, the music from Local Hero, Bat Out of Hell 2: Back into Hell by Meatloaf, and Bob Marley’s Natty Dread. All of these I associate fundamentally with the format, but King of Rock and Roll, I don’t).

But as with all of the above childhood soundtracks (save Local Hero, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has ever been to a Toon game), The King of Rock and Roll had sort of evaporated into that distant hinterland of memory; never quite accessible or present, never fully remembered, but never forgotten. It’s like the sort of taste that you can’t quite work out, a memory that isn’t specific; or maybe a conglomerate memory made up of a compilation of numerous repeated quotidian moments. With the King of Rock and Roll, I get an image of going up Snow’s Green Road in Shotley Bridge in the car; not from any specific time, just from repeated times. Just like with the song ‘3 o’clock road block’ off Natty Dread reminds me of a small fish that was spray painted on a wall just after Winlaton Mill that my dad, my brother and I would drive past on the way to NUFC games, just because we repeatedly listened to that tape on the way to the game, and we would always look out for the ‘colourful fish’. Anyway, that incredible low-pitched, slap-back reverb voice has signalled the end of play two. This might be my favourite ten-time experience yet!

Listen 3

But those more generic memories are an aside to a more pointed, and less pleasant (at the time) memory which I associate with the King of Rock and Roll. I must have been eight years old. Me and my best friend had crossed the county barriers and, instead of going to the local junior school (in County Durham), we had gone to the first school in Northumberland. We were the first pioneers in a great line of diasporic exiles from the land of the Prince Bishops to the salubrious and prestigious schools of Hexham and Corbridge!

Anyway; I’m eight – class four of Corbridge C of E First School. Our class project is to write to a famous person – I think about something like an oil spill or something like that. Most everyone else had picked boring or inane people; Ed the Duck, Yvette Feilding and the Blue Peter team, etc etc. I was at an age when I didn’t really have a conception of what a ‘famous person’ was particularly, and I thought Ed the Duck was a bell end, so I was really lost as to who to address my plaintive letter about oily seabirds to. I had actually (possibly inspired by this letter-writing assignment) just written to Gavin Peacock (former NUFC striker extraordinaire) asking him to come to the school and tell the teachers to let us play on the field in the winter. He’d responded with a signed card (he didn’t come to the school though), and I thought it might be pushing my luck to send another letter to him!

Listen 4

So I didn’t know who to pick, so I picked Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout. I think my choice was heavily influenced by my dad, but the idea grew on me. He was from County Durham. King of Rock and Roll was a mint song. He would, I thought, definitely reply. I came to school that day with a spring in my step. I had the perfect ‘celebrity’ to send my letter to, I had his address, everything.

In the class, the teacher went around each little soul, commanding them to reveal their chosen celeb. Attention fell upon me. “Paddy MacAloon” I ventured.

Now, the response that met this name is certainly coloured by my eight-year-old perception. It would be a good five years later, in an altercation with the rotund PE teacher of celebrated infamy among Corbridge alumni of the mid-90s, that I would realise that teacher’s are not the omniscient super beings I had imagined, they are quite often as full of shit at the pupils.

“Paddy who?” came my teacher’s overly exasperated reply. “I’ve never heard of him”. Now I should point out that she was German, and about 6 foot tall, and she had a booming voice that I had made my life goal to not be on the wrong end of. So to have my choice of celebrity derided, and to be shouted at, AND to have my favourite song ridiculed in such a manner was almost unbearable.

This next bit is a bit hazy – probably because I was so upset – but I think I was made to sit on the carpet (the ‘naughty carpet’) whilst the rest of the class wrote the addresses on their envelopes. I sat fuming and mortified cross-legged on the rough orange/yellow nylon spines of the weft. Eventually, the teacher handed me a discarded name on a piece of paper; a reject from one of the more fastidious pupils; a hand me down celebrity deemed surplus to requirement. I was to address Paddy McAloon’s letter to this famous nobody.

The person was Prince Fucking Charles.    

Listen 5

I got a reply from Prince Charles. A huge letter with faux-fountain pen handwriting and a pack of information about one of his charities. That was deemed a successful response by the teacher – success being measured in the weight of letter received in reply. It was one of the heaviest in the class, usurped only by the girl who wrote to Blue Peter and received a gold Blue Peter badge in return. Bitch.

But I resented my bounty from Prince jug-lugs. I didn’t want a letter from him. I wanted recognition for my celebrity; Paddy McAloon. Maybe it was because I was an ‘outsider’; a Durham boy in Northumberland (parochial I know, but when you’re eight, and going to a school that is absolutely exclusively white, these distinctions matter), maybe that my dad had suggested the name in first place, and that its rejection served as a vicarious slight upon him as well. Either way I was humiliated by that letter from Prince Charles. The fact that he (‘he’; like he actually did anything towards sending that letter; they probably have hundreds of them pre-packed and ready to ship out to any twat who sends them a letter) sent such a copious reply only served to rub salt in the wound.

So, this moment made me forget Paddy McAloon, made me forget Prefab Sprout, made me forget The King of Rock and Roll, and in time they faded to this backwater of memory; never gone, but never really recalled.

Listen 6

But then, about six months ago, I saw this video by the rubber bandits in which they dance to a snippet of a song that rang a bell. I admit I couldn’t place it at first, but a quick check through the comments reminded me it was ‘Life of Surprises’ by Prefab Sprout. Immediately I found it on youtube and was blow away. It was sophisticated but immediate, intelligent but somehow hedonistic. The lyrics were great, but delivered with the abandon of a brilliant melody. I listened to this song a lot over the next few days.

Then I was looking through some of my records, and found a signed copy of ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ that Paddy McAloon must have given my dad (not for suggesting him as a potential recipient of an eight year old’s letter about oil spillages… I don’t think!). Track one. King of Rock and Roll.

Now for those of you reading this who know the song, but haven’t listened to it for a while – who, like me, had a vague recollection of it; remembered, but not quite – you will probably remember the line “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque”, and that it was a fairly innocuous, but pretty pleasing pop song, and little else. Well, coupled to the vignette above, this is all I had left of the song really in my mind. I put it on, and was instantly taken aback by the opening line: “all my lazy teenage boasts are now high-precision ghosts and they’re coming round the track around to haunt me.” I actually had to stop the record for a moment to process that lyrics for a moment, before listening to the song over and over and over for about half an hour (I have very little to do these days!)

Listen 7

I’m not sure why, but at that precise moment, that lyric arrested my attention and really affected me. At the time mentioned above, I had no idea that this lyric was there – and even if I did (I did know a lot of lyrics to a lot of songs back then (I still do). For example, I knew all the words to ‘when I’m cleaning windows’, almost all of the London Boys eponymous debut album, and all of the lyrics in every song on Natty Dread. I couldn’t claim to understand many of them – many of the Bob Marley ones were learnt phonetically, such as ‘a patta yuff, but a youd ya nuff, we’re gonna chuck to jah music, we’re chucking’ – not quite!) I wouldn’t have gleaned any significant meaning from them.

But on this re-listen; this re-placing, this re-signification, this opening line really hit me.

I don’t think I particularly made any lazy teenage boasts personally, I wasn’t particularly avaricious in hopes for my future. I did, when I was in a band at the age of sixteen, think I was going to be a famous musician, but then doesn’t everyone? I sent of a mix-tape (embarrassingly anachronistic even then) of demos of the band to Virgin records, and was more amazed than upset when I got a generic letter back saying ‘…at this time, we don’t think…’ etc. I even kept the letter, imagining it would make quite a funny inlay for the first album.

I wasn’t particularly interested in the music industry at all; I didn’t know anything about it, and it is this childish naivety that both spared me from ever actually being in danger of being sucked into that world, and makes me smile about that childish desire now. I would never concern myself with the logistics of ‘being signed’ (a concept I had no idea about the actualities of – if I’m honest, I still don’t), I was just lazily assured that it would happen. Instead I would imagine what I would do when I was signed. Not even the ostentatious trappings of celebrity and money, but just how I would feel when I ‘was signed’.

Now, I don’t play music outside my house. I don’t like playing live. I’m quite happy about that really, though the thought of being in a band – not for the purposes of attempting to ‘make it’, just for the pleasure of making music – does ‘haunt me’ to a certain extent. Maybe I was at a particular peak in this feeling of wanting to be in a band at the time of listening to this tune, and so this lyric hit me. Maybe the prescience of the lyric for the band themselves is what is so arresting – the idea of being the king or rock and roll, even ironically, in the fleeting world of pop success; from Langley Park to Memphis to Shotley Bridge. At least you got the Memphis part.  

Listen 8

I should probably say something of the song itself, as I am on listen eight already. I love it. That much is certain. But I love it in a way that is somehow more than any of the other ten-time songs I have done so far. Yes, it has that ‘pop sensibility’ – a horrid, vacuous phrase used by Paul Gambaccini and his ilk, but what else am I to call it? – it makes all the right moves, all the right sounds, verse, chorus, verse bridge etc etc, it has the hook that so captivated me as a youth – the ‘hot dog, jumping frog’ lyric.

But it has so much being hinted at underneath its surface. It is a profoundly sad sort of euphoria that emerges from the bed of pop sounds. This is obviously deliberate; the forlorn figure of the lyrics dancing on his own, bothered by a past that has failed to come to fruition, a derisory female counterpart laughing. Perhaps a resignation that the dizzy heights strived for will never be achieved. This is a sentiment that I find resounding emotional meaning – even solace – in.

I want to write a very long piece about a musician I used to play gigs with in the aforementioned band. He was a solo guitarist/singer called Mark Shilcock. He worked in Ikea. He sang really incredible songs, not about regret, but about a resignation that this is all there is, and that that is OK. I didn’t ‘get it’ at the time; how could I? I was on the cusp of stardom. Now I totally get it.

I get a similar feeling from this song. It is a gorgeous mix of melancholy and celebration.  

 

Listen 9

It’s actually quite a ‘noisy’ track. I don’t mean it’s too loud or that it is too cluttered or anything. I mean there are a lot of sounds going on. The synths of course. Then the moans of guitar noise (I think) that follow the first breathy female vocal melody – and what a melody; it there was an auditory encyclopaedia with an entry for ‘pop hook’; this would be the example! There’s an off-beat sort of ‘bip bip bip’ – sounds like a voice – chugging away in the verses too. A jet engine rocketing above us brings in the pre-chorus, then a bizarre vocal (does it say ‘a hot dog’) brings in the chorus actual.

The soundscape is very dense. But unlike other heavily-produced pop tracks, there is strangely a feeling of vast space; space enough to let yourself in and explore. Maybe it’s the strangeness of that chorus line. As a lad, it was just something mildly funny; it reminded me a bit of Reeves and Mortimer – Big Night Out was a massive awakening for me in realising the potential of surreal humour – in my child’s mind, “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque” (I didn’t know what the last word meant, but it sounded great) might have been something ‘the man with the stick’ might have had drawn on his paper helmet.

But now, it’s still enigmatic. I have no idea really what the song is about, and this chorus line takes on a baffling hue. Is the deflated protagonist of the song making light of his defeat, and of his own position as the ‘king’, by resorting to nonsense words? I don’t know. I think I could listen to this song a hundred times, and still be none the wiser.  

 

Listen 10

 So this has been one of the shortest ten-time sessions. I have really only scratched the surface. Because this song has been stuck in my head for two only vaguely related reasons twice. It has become attached to more than one point remembrance; it is happy and sad, being told off and being safe in the car with my family, boastful and resentful, a moment of profound pop reasoning, and a one-hit wonder.

I love this song.

And because I didn’t use listen 9 to just listen through the song, I’m going to now.

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“… I Wonder to Myself ‘Could Life Ever be Sane Again?'”

Not to belittle the subject, but there are enough reproductions of bombastic pictures of these riots... so here is a picture from a 60s sci-fi film!

The realm of real-world politics falls outside the intended purview of this blog, but the sight of houses and busses burning on the streets of my former home town has forced me to add a few words into the swirling maelstrom of rolling news, rubber necking helicopter shots, smashed windows and looted shops.

I lived in Peckham for over three years. I loved it there. It felt like home. I also taught in secondary schools in Dulwich, Catford and Bermondsey; three areas with which I also felt some kind of ‘home-like’ affinity. So to see such violence, however overplayed and hyperbolised as the news coverage has made it out to be, on streets with which I am familiar has been shocking, but in a sense, not all that surprising.

Now, of course, the caveat has to be laid down that acts of arson and looting such as those seen in the capital – and now “spreading” to other parts of the country – can never be condoned. I feel a deep sympathy for those who have lost houses/ businesses in all of this; I can imagine how fearful I would be were I still living there.

But there is something in all the ubiquitous coverage of the minutiae of events that worries and angers me. Home Secretary Theresa May described the acts as “sheer criminality”, BBC News 24 (among others, I’m sure) talk about riots ‘spreading’ across the country, as though they were some sort of deadly pathogen. What both these descriptions of evens do is divorce the often terrifying actions of these riots from their actual causes. As when terrorists are described as ‘pure evil’, there is a removal of these events from the comprehensible course of socio-political actions, thus the events themselves are met with incomprehension. “Why are these riots happening?!” we ask, wringing our hands. “Sheer criminality” comes the sagely, but ultimately unsatisfying answer. “Pure evil” is right around the corner waiting to greet any further escalation of violence.

Adam Curtis calls this manner of addressing political events ‘oh dearism’; no succinct narrative of ‘good versus evil’ can be drawn around a certain event, or the actors don’t quite fit into a recognisable story arc – the ‘innocent victims’ turn out to be ‘riotous looters’, so the only response to crisis is… “Oh Dear!”. There is nothing anybody could have done to predict, nor prevent, these riots. They just happened because there are just criminals in this world. Oh dear, oh dear.

Except these riots didn’t ‘just happen’, and they aren’t ‘just spreading’ randomly across the country, as though borne by the wind. No event exists in a vacuum. These riots are a response; initially to the shooting of a man in Tottenham, but then lighting numerous similar powder kegs around London, where groups of people feel marginalised, angry and oppressed. People don’t just decide to riot. It is a desperate measure. Has this genuine and spontaneous outpouring of emotion been hijacked by a few cynical opportunists? Perhaps. But in a cultural environment tacitly demanding a fierce brand of individualism – cutting public spending, removing job opportunities, making schools fend for themselves and not adhering to any curriculum, cutting funding for community centres and spaces – whilst espousing some form of ethereal, intangible sense of a ‘wider community’ as voiced in the jingoistic mantras “The Big Society” and “We’re All in This Together”, is it any wonder? The disjunct between actions and words here further seeks to isolate people from ‘real’ communities, enforces greater individualism upon people and, in part, fuels and exacerbates the underlying cause of these riots; that many groups of people in this country feel unduly persecuted and not listened to by the seats of power in this country.

Like I said, I worked in a couple of secondary schools in the South East of London. The ethnic mix in these schools was, to someone who grew up in an almost exclusively white town in North-East England (where the three great socio-cultural dividing lines seemed to be ‘charvers’, ‘hippies’ and ‘dressers’!), both fascinating and wonderfully rewarding. The school I taught at in Catford had something like thirty-five different first languages among its 1000-or-so pupils. Now, I’m not saying it was always fun – distance and nostalgia are rose-tinted spectacles both – but I did love teaching there.

The reason I bring this up is that I got the quite, but occasionally pronounced, sense of an underlying prejudice towards certain groups of pupils that existed in these institutions. I’m certainly not saying it came from the teachers – well, not all of them anyway – the exact cause is probably to convoluted to ever truly get to the bottom of. But the fact was that, come Friday night’s hour-long detention – which the green-horn NQT’s were on a rota to cover, so I got to do my fair share – the majority of the detainees would be black boys.

Like I said, the reasons for this I think went beyond sheer, overt racism. But there was a ‘suspicion’ that followed a group of these black boys through the school; their miscreant deeds – however slight or commonplace – would always be retold in the staffroom with relish, their punishments always severe.

In my class was one young lad who seemed to be permanently on the cusp of reprimand. He was no angel, he did some naughty shit, no doubt about it. But it was often school hi-jinks; over zealous language on the football field, a lack of interest in particular lessons etc. Yet he was met at every turn with ‘demerits’ (a frankly draconian system of sticker-based reprimand the school adopted that I was reticent to join in with) or detention, letters home or suspensions. It’s not that he was overtly singled out, or that there was a discrete policy of punishment for him and that group of black boys, not that other children went unpunished, nor that this was the whim of any individual teacher, or the policies of the individual schools in question; but he, and many boys like him, always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, always the ones to be made examples of. In short, there was a tacit, but pervading, sense that this group were always ‘up to something’.

This is hardly a revelatory account, much more detailed and accurate accounts of this endemic problem in society at various institutional levels much exist. And as a middle-class, white male, I cannot begin to imagine how this form of institutionalised prejudice really manifests itself to those who have to bear it. But I can only speculate how demeaning and intolerable such a state of affair must be when moving out into the ‘real world’ authority of police. Everybody has in the back of their minds a feeling that school is a jumped-up charade; a game that must be played before getting out into the real world. Though parents, teachers and students never admit to as much, lest the illusion be shattered, as they all have too much invested in it, there is a sense that it is all for show. Yes, you get in trouble, yes the teachers give you too much homework, yes, the kids are all little bastards, yes certain pupils, or teachers, pick on you. But it’s all just part of the game, a game we’ll all just grow up and out of.

But imagine transporting that feeling into society, with no chance of graduation. Where police will stop and search you without seeming just cause. Where job opportunities don’t appear, the infrastructure of your real-world local community is eroded, and prejudice and reprimand stalk you. From this contextualised point of view, the concept of rioting doesn’t seem quite so incomprehensible anymore; it certainly gives a context in which it is more than just “sheer criminality” to be met by the exasperated “Oh dear”.

Maybe it’s just because I have just finished reading it (coincidentally on a bus trip down to, and brief visit to, London), but I am reminded of John Wyndham’s classic sci-fi novel ‘The Day of the Triffids’ (thanks to my wife for pointing out these similarities), and not only in the desperate isolation, the maddened, spontaneous looting of shops, and the motifs of society breaking down irreparably (I don’t, by the way, agree with the ‘Armageddon 2011’ coverage afforded to these riots; a further example of media sensationalism making real-world, and thus comprehensible, events seem somehow unreal and out of our control or understanding). One of the minor revelations in ‘Triffids…’ is the explanation of the supposed ‘meteor storm’ that caused the blindness. The narrator and main character, Bill Masen, hypothesises that was more likely one of the circling satellite weapons, detonated in the atmosphere, that was responsible for the global blindness, rather than the spectacularly eerie green meteor shower. This, coupled with the genetically modified Triffids themselves being of human design, belies the sense of wild confusion at how this disaster could have happened, suddenly making it quite coherent. The same is true of these riots. They are not ‘natural disasters’ or ‘sheer criminality’, but responses to real-world political factors and conditions that we ourselves have orchestrated.

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“Yo Me Paso De La Raya”: Porno Para Prague

{The following is an attempt to review/ analyse the recent(ish) concert Cuban punk band Porno Para Ricardo played in Prague at the United Islands concert. I really should have posted it earlier.}
Gorki stands amid the crowd. The pink cards are a message of protest to Fidel Castro. Apparently.

Man Alone

As the guitarist strike up the first power chords, the bass reverberating through my chest, the cymbals giving off waves of sound, Gorki – wanting to make a dramatic delayed entrance, yet anxious to view the pensive vista he has created for himself – raises his head above the parapet of the ‘backstage’ area. Finally Gorki runs out, to cheers from the crowd. He is wearing tight red trousers with the word ‘Anal-cia’ written down the right leg and an even tighter white shirt with ‘pionero’ neckerchief. His wild, dishevelled perm is tinted with a deep red colour. When I had met him last in Cuba over one year ago, it was peppered with grey hairs. With a grimace of concentration, he picks up his cream coloured Fender Stratocaster emblazoned with Cuban money and a message written in crude green paint: ‘Yo Me Paso De La Raya’ – ‘I Cross the Line’. With legs apart, he leans up into the downturned microphone, small black eyes shining, and launches into the song ‘Porno Para Ricardo’.

*          *          *

The trip to Prague had, until this cathartic moment of performance, been less that celebratory, it seems, for Gorki and band manager Laura García Freyre. Disappointingly, though unsurprisingly, the three band members permanently based in Havana were denied exit visas by the Cuban authorities[1], forcing Gorki, now living in Mexico, to perform with a “Lithuanian ‘Mantracore’ band from Prague” called Alaverdi[2]. Between intensive rehearsals with the band, Gorki has had to endure the usual barrage of interviews and invitations to denounce the political regime in Cuba.

There is a strain in having to do this alone. The collective identity so intricately constructed, and fiercely defended, through the band’s oeuvre is unpicked by this enforced solo concert; it renders ‘the band’ (that is the unified group, the collective) ‘a man’. Perhaps there is method in the seeming capriciousness of the Cuban authorities’ decision to deny the rest of the band whilst the concert continues; they are making an individual out of a group. I had, on hearing that only Gorki would be able to attend the concert, initially been very disappointed (I still am, and would have loved to have seen the full band perform), and believed that the ‘true identity’ of the band would not (and could not) be fully expressed by a single member alone.

However, then I was reminded of another phantom appearance made by Porno Para Ricardo; that in the 2005 film ‘Habana Blues’. Though the rest of the band appear, rehearsing in a cramped garage with corrugated iron roof, surrounded by friends, Gorki is played by Ismael de Diego. Diego wears Gorki’s infamous ‘hammer and sickle logo’ vest, he plays his hollow bodies Russian guitar, and mimes to Gorki’s voice. But Gorki, who was in jail at the time of filming[3], is not there. Or is he?

*          *          *

The gig has stretched past it’s climactic moment, beginning to dissolve into spent emotion. Gorki is instrumentless, but his band continue on. He introduces them. “Edgar[4] es Ciro. Ciro esta en Cuba, luchando por la libertad.” There is a delay in response from the crowd as the Czech translator is called into action, struggles to turn on his microphone, and relays the message to the crowd “Ciro is in Cuba, fighting for freedom”. Gorki repeats the same message for bass player and drummer. The Czech musicians are made manifestations of their Cuban counterparts. The Cuban musicians are invoked as currently fighting, as if they were simultaneously engaged in some performance running concurrently and symbiotically with Gorki’s own. The final chords ring out, the bass plays an improvised riff, and Gorki leaves the stage to be replaced by the Czech MC and several impatient, burly roadies (the gig has inevitably run over by quite some time), who begin rapidly dismantling the drum kit.

*          *          *

The above invocation of members not present was an intriguing part of the concert, one that shed some light on my pre-emptive assumptions about the gig. For I was caught between two positions concerning the potential performance of the band’s identity: could the gig be said to be a demonstration of Porno Para Ricardo in absentia, or would the other band members physical presence be required?

On the one hand, I imagined that the band would be ‘present’ without actually being present; that the gig, the message delivered by Gorki, and the billing as a band – as Porno Para Ricardo – would all serve as symbolic invocations of the band; that it is these symbols create the band; that the band themselves are a symbol. Having been confined for the most part to a liminal position within Cuba’s music scene and society more generally, the band have forged an identity through myriad symbols discussed throughout the body of this work; by symbolically performing gigs through their albums, by symbolically representing the ‘home’ in their soundworld, by entering into an authentication loop with certain physical places within Cuba, symbolically tying themselves to Cuban places. As such, the band’s identity exists as this series of interconnected symbols, and by displaying them, the identity is given over to the audience, is recognisable and intelligible.

Perhaps one could even say that the supporting musicians playing with Gorki were as avatars for the band members in Cuba, who, through their simultaneous ‘struggles for liberty’ were ‘controlling’ them; the musicians on stage incapable of making music without the vicarious (even non-musical) actions of their Cuban counterparts. Gorki’s invocation of the absent members makes them further symbols in the network of identity construction; they too are symbolically represented, and so the message and the identity, though warped, is still intact. Just as the band have had to be resourceful in reconfiguring aspects of their identity (turning ‘the album’ into ‘the gig’ for example) perhaps the lack of actual members on stage is another hurdle to performing their identity that the band have had to jump over, that Ciro, Herbert and Renay have had to be reconfigured symbolically, but that this does not lesser their importance, their ‘presence’ as part of the overall identity, and their impact upon the performed identity.

*          *          *

I hand Gorki the fridge magnet and postcard I have just bought for him from the Communism museum. The museum was little more than a ramshackle array of Soviet paraphernalia from the 50s and 60s, most of which would not look out of place in contemporary Cuba, situated above a McDonalds in Prague’s city centre. The fridge magnet shows a friendly looking Misha bear, mascot of the 1980’s Moscow Olympic Games, holding a Kalashnikov rifle, and the postcard is of a Stalin look-alike in a silk smoking jacket, two scantily dressed women draped over him. Gorki turns to his guitar case, rummages about, and turns back wearing a pair of thick-rimmed tortoise shell reading glasses. He studies the fridge magnet for a moment, then smiles. He examines the postcard. “Ño, qué rico[5]!”

We are sitting in a bar eating soup. Gorki looks exhausted, Laura even more so. Gorki has been recounting some of his anecdotes since last we met; signing albums for lines of geriatric Miami-Cubans (his most numerous ‘fans’ in the US), of meeting Stephen Stills and being told to ‘relax’ (as a command rather than a suggestion) by Jeff Beck’s authoritative security guard. Gorki rubs his face with both hands and takes a sip of Czech beer, and tells us of working in his sister’s restaurant in Xalapa. Though many of these stories are humorous, and Gorki tells them with verve (and plenty of swearing), many begin with “we were tired” or “we had just arrived, carrying all our luggage” and deal with miscommunication, misunderstanding and agitation.

Only when we begin to talk of Cuba does Gorki become truly animated. He swallows the remaining beer and begins to detail the exact specifications of the now completed home recording studio[6]; the vibration-absorbing rubber, the ‘room-within-a-room’ construction, the absolute sound-proofing, the numerous types of wood are all of integral importance to Gorki. He then tells of Ciro’s endeavours to start their proposed record label[7] and of his desire to join him in setting up the label when he returns to Cuba. When I ask him when that may be, he cackles. “Well, that’s a very good question!”

*          *          *

It is clear that having to face the burden of being ‘the band’ on his own weighs heavy upon Gorki. The camaraderie that would turn the above tales of confusion potentially into further examples of ‘us against the world’, as with the band’s derisory treatment of the AHS, is missing in ever increasing instances, as Gorki is forced to represent the band alone in recent trips to the US (promoting ‘El Disco Rojo’) and now in Prague. Though symbolically the identity performed was perhaps ‘complete’ at this gig, I can’t help wondering if there is a danger that the identity of the band is being replaced by, or confused with, the identity of ‘Gorki’; that Gorki is the band for many. Often in interviews, Gorki is the only member of the band asked questions. In the MLC interview quoted throughout this work, his voice is labelled as being ‘PPR’. In the documentary ‘Cuba Rebelión’ (again cited throughout), Gorki is the only member of the band, though all appear to be present, who is given screen time and, apart from the occasional overlapping (brief) interjection from band members, Gorki’s is the only voice heard. This is not an uncommon trait for the lead singer of a band, and even less so with a ‘front man’ as charismatic and outspoken as Gorki. His profile as a former ‘prisoner of conscience[8]’ makes him an easy centrepiece for journalists and fans alike, and with the rest of the band languishing in Havana, unable to travel, he is easily the most prominent member of the band.

The danger of this is in the identity of the group so important to Porno Para Ricardo being replaced by an over-emphasised identity of an individual; a martyr or a dissident, a spokesman or a renegade, but crucially not a band. Politically this is an important distinction because it converts a burgeoning subculture with shared, maybe even ‘naturally occurring’ (or concurrently occurring), ideologies into a manifesto of an individual, to which ‘followers’ ascribe. This is not the case with Porno Para Ricardo, and I think Gorki would be the first to attest to the fact that he is not the ‘leader’ and sole progenitor of this particular brand of ‘anti-Castroism’ (if such an epithet is even applicable) and the thought of being regarded as such would be anathema to him. So to see Gorki presented as Porno Para Ricardo is potentially disconcerting; an embattled, symbolic leader of a struggle, standing defiant alone is, in my opinion, a disingenuous and dangerous portrayal of what the band stand for. I think shades of such a rhetoric was present at this festival performance.

From a musical perspective, damage is potentially done also. For my representing the band as a single person, the musical aspects of the band’s identity can be forgotten, glossed over, or relegated to a secondary position behind their (perceived) political messages. The band become a band of political dissidents, not musicians, or worse; a political dissident. Reading the United Islands promotional pamphlet, though accompanied by a picture of the four members of the band, Gorki is the only member referenced by name as ‘the founder’ of the band. The short paragraph on the band goes on to describe the band as “endowed [by Gorki himself]… with rebelliousness, political and sexual provocation” (United Islands, 2011:7) before describing the band’s “radicalization” on Gorki’s return from prison (his sentence being described in more detail than any aspect of the band’s sound) (ibid.).

Though it is perhaps unrealistic to expect such a brief blurb to contain intricate details of the musical output of the band, I was struck by the fact that there were almost no references the music at all. Whilst the band are described as ‘punk’, and one could suggest the word ‘rebelliousness’ invokes some tenuous musical associations, no other aural description are offered. Contrast this with the (much shorter) paragraph on the previous page for headline artists ‘Audio Bullies’, which contains words such as “electronica and dance”, “ecclecticism”, “…not afraid to spice their house style with hip-hop, punk, or funky” (ibid.:6) as well as offering information ‘Audio Bullies’ band members and albums. Similarly, the following description of ‘Russkaja’ is full of musical language, their sound being described as “far from the lonesome Russian ballads with the balalaika”, referencing “ska lovers”, “mixture of.. East-European folk music, heavy-metal riffs, jazz precision, and Zappa-esque rock improvisations”, further likening the band to “Gogol Bordello… Pink Floyd and Boney M” (ibid.:10). Such descriptions may lead one to moot that perhaps the quality of Porno Para Ricardo’s music was not the predominant factor in booking the band for the festival organisers. Similarly, though the festival made a great deal of the fact that the other members of the band were denied visas to attend, the consternation was almost exclusively with the Cuban government, not with the effect on the gig; there was seemingly no problem with hiring a backing band to fill in in the minds of the organisers[9]

Yo me paso de la raya
Pinga is not a bad word

What Others Daren’t

 “Abajo el permiso de salida[10]!”. A pause. A translation. A cheer from the audience. A laugh from Gorki.

“Abajo Fidel Castro[11]!”. A pause. A translation. A cheer from the audience. A laugh from Gorki.

“Qué rico la libertad[12]!” A pause. A translation. A cheer from the audience. Gorki accidentally swings the neck of his guitar into the microphone stand and it crashes to the floor.

“Turn up the mic, so the communists back in Cuba can hear!” Gorki shouts both to audience and sound man at the side of the stage. The bass player walks over to the man behind the mixing desk and relays the message.

 “To the communists and socialists and leftists around the world [pause] Capitalism is much better!” A young man who has been pogoing quite voraciously next to me since the start of the gig suddenly stops, his face crestfallen. He shakes his head, then with all the vigour of his previous pogo, he climbs on the metal barrier and beings to bellow something towards Gorki. I catch only the word ‘capitalist’.  

*          *          *

Gorki’s onstage persona is nothing if not confident. He is a showman. His svelte frame darting across the stage; words, aided by vigorous actions, transcending the language barrier between artist and audience. A message of some significance is being relayed to the audience; and a distinct sense of some meaningful happening descends upon the crowd. This is more than just an ageing punk rocker, more than just a political band, more than a vaguely exotic musical juxtaposition – Cuban plus punk – more than just a festival performance. It is identity that is being performed.

But whose identity? Gorki’s? Porno Para Ricardo’s? Cuban rockers’? Cuba’s? The audience’s own as ‘survivors’ of communism? Perhaps all of these.

Held within the notion of ‘performing an identity’ is the need of an audience; someone to perform that identity to. As such the performance, in some sense, becomes a mirror, reflecting to each viewer aspects of identity that they each wish to find. To the middle-aged Czech man carrying his young daughter on his shoulders, perhaps it is an anti-communist identity. To the smattering of ‘exiled’ Cubans in this Prague audience, maybe it is an Anti-Castro identity. To the Czech students waiving home-made banners at the front, perhaps an anti-repression identity. To my wife, ceaselessly photographing the event beside me, perhaps it is a representation of her youth. To me?

The final snippet of on-stage conversation (and subsequent crowd reaction) presented above demonstrates the disappointment that can occur when the identity reflection given to one by the performer is warped irreconcilably away from the desired image. Like a fun-house mirror, we are suddenly left unable to recognise the reflection of ourselves we are present with; or else we are given a cruel and grotesque rendering. Like the man in the audience, all we can do is shake our heads and leave, to find a new mirror in which we might find an image of ourselves.

I suggested in the introduction of this work that Porno Para Ricardo may be seen as an Aleph (using Jorge Luis Borges’ literary device) for a Cuban identity. I repeat here Borges’ definition of the Aleph:

What eternity is to time, the Aleph is to space. In eternity, all time – past, present and future – coexists simultaneously. In the Aleph, the sum total of the spatial universe is to be found in a tiny shining sphere barely over an inch across. (Borges, 1971:189)

Perhaps when I suggest that Porno Para Ricardo are an Aleph of Cubanness; a site in which (or through which) the myriad facets of Cuban identity are expressed, what I mean is that they construct a space which ‘emits’ (performs) an identity that can take on (almost) any characteristics; thus can be all identities, because it requires a viewer to interpret and view the performance through his or her own lens, imbue it with their own significances, ideals and personality. The performed identity becomes a reflection of our own identity.

The question becomes not ‘whose identity is being performed’, but rather ‘who is finding themselves in the performance’?

*          *          *

Walking through the airport in Miami, begins another of Gorki’s anecdotes, he is accosted by a Miami Cuban with sharply defined facial features, and sizable gut. “Gorki, Gorki, you have to come to my place for lunch” the man intimates as Gorki lugs his baggage through another airport. Gorki doesn’t know this new generous assailant. But he’s jet-lagged; maybe he does? Gorki is not committal, trying to brush the request (made as a demand) off in as polite a manner as he can, but the man is insistent. “You have to come to my place” he leans in closer “I have a plan”. The emphasis on this final word draws Gorki nearer, not so much in a desire to collude, but to plumb the depths of this new character’s audaciousness. “what kind of plan?” asks Gorki tiredly. The man, silently draws a thumb across his own neck, then strokes an imaginary beard. The colloquial sign language is understood; a plan to kill Castro. Gorki walks away, another tale of hysteria collected.

*          *          *

That this Miami Cuban would feel compelled to divulge such an intimate plan to a person he had never met speaks quite potently of the ‘type’ of Cubanness that is often thrust upon Porno Para Ricardo – and particularly upon Gorki – by those with a vested interest in authenticating, or legitimising their own radical political position. In the polemicised world of Cuban politics, to have a vocal critic of Castro present upon the island is a useful soundboard for many in the US, and I wonder if the band, irrespective of the value placed in their actual musical endeavours, are used almost as a poster child for the growing dissent towards the ‘crumbling regime’ that is sprouting on the island. The anti-Castro factions in Miami want vitriol, bile, a venomous castigation of all things Revolutionary, and I wonder if this is an identity that is in a sense thrust upon the band from without; that it is accentuated in accounts of the band – and once again particularly of Gorki – as a purely political activist; someone who can justify this diasporic group’s decision to leave their homes, to ‘report back’ of the failings and brutality of the regime, to strengthen and legitimise their ongoing endeavour to ‘kill Castro’, either literally or politically.

Perhaps for Cubans themselves ‘exiled’ from the island, Porno Para Ricardo become an emblem of veracity in the (often unseen) assumption that the Socialist experiment in Cuba irredeemably   moribund? If the band truly are a symbol of some form of contemporary Cuban identity, perhaps those Cubans living outside the island have interpreted that symbol as a justification of their hatred of the governance of their homeland, as a denouncement of all (or many) of the ‘traditional’ signposts of Cuban identity as illegitimate, thus freeing the path to forge a new Cuban identity; to reclaim the Cubanness of their own identity whilst divorced from the physical location.   

*          *          *

*          *          *

“This song is called ‘do you know how to fuck a communist?’”. Gorki waits for the translator, laughing at the delayed reaction of the crowd; a hearty cheer goes up. “Well, I don’t need to tell you. The Czechs are experts in fucking communists!” Another delay. An even louder cheer.

*          *          *

Gorki and translator

*          *          *

In the context of a post-soviet city such as Prague, where much violence, repression and hardship was visited upon the citizens by the crumbling Soviet Regime through the Velvet Revolution, I wonder if there is a similar transference of anti-Communist rhetoric onto the band. Did the organisers, I keep wondering, select Porno Para Ricardo to play exclusively on their musical merits, on their already established notoriety and popularity within the Czech Republic, or because of their (anticipated) political message? Were the organisers hoping for a total denouncement of communism, even when ‘chosen’ by the Cuban people as opposed to being enforced upon them[13], thus serving as evidence of the total ineptitude of a political philosophy which had left a large residual scar on the nation? Are they hoping, as with the lines of old Miami Cubans who queue to get their Porno Para Ricardo CDs signed, for a collective justification from the exterior of the city’s fight against communism and their subsequent embrace of tourism, consumerism, western fashion and culture.

Gorki’s words to the audience might have been a way to foster a connection between performer and audience. It may have been a justification of his own position as headline artist, a way of introducing himself in terms that the audience could relate to. It may have been an acquiescence to this tacit desire for mutual validation of political paths chosen and of identities now chosen. The defiant citizen against a brutal repressive regime and a reflection of a desire for a nation free of communism; performances of a national and an individual identity the Prague audience would relate favourably to.

*          *          *

The four of us – Gorki, Laura, my wife and I – are sitting outside a small tourist bar, watching the trams trundle down the centre of another spectacular archaic avenue in Prague. Gorki has just finished another interview with a Cuban journalist (“self appointed and untrained”) in which the same litany of questions has been rehearsed. We’re each drinking espressos, and I’m supposed to be interviewing Gorki, but by the look on his face it’s clear it’s the last thing he wants to do, with only a few hours to go before the gig.

I tell him I don’t need an interview, that we can just chat, and he looks relieved. He was up until 4am doing interviews yesterday, and has come from a gruelling series of events in the US, which didn’t even contain the succouring respite of playing music.

I ask casually when the band last played together and the black eyes glint again, through sips of coffee. Gorki recounts a story of a hastily arranged guerrilla concert the band attempted to play at a friend’s house in Havana. They kept it secret until a couple of hours before the gig, then went to Park G to hand out flyers to select ‘frikis’. However, on the way to the house, the van in which the four band members were travelling (with all their equipment) was flanked by police cars and forced to the side of the road (“the police in Cuba have all been watching CSI and American police shows, and they think that is the way to deal with situations now”, jokes Gorki with a tinge of bitterness). A secret agent Gorki knows well (he has been present at the last attempted arrest and Gorki’s recent harassment both attempting to enter and leave Cuba), steps out of one of the police vehicles, separates Gorki from the other band members and seizes their equipment. After a long delay, having ensured that the band can no longer play the intended gig, the tension slowly evaporates, and the band are ‘allowed’ to go… this time. Gorki concludes the story with the recalcitrant maxim that could end many of the stories of heavy-handed treatment at the hands of the Cuban authorities: “it just goes to show that the system must be really insecure if they cause such a fuss over four skinny lads trying to play some rock music at a friend’s house!”

*          *          *

Certainly the band are outspoken critics of the Cuban government. They deliberately and dramatically highlight failings and inequalities in the socialist system, they rally against the bureaucracy and censorship visited upon many of Cuba’s artists, and they parody and ridicule many of Cuba’s ‘sacred cows’; both persons and slogans held in quasi-sacrosanctity. Yet often the band do this in very personal ways; they address the inequalities and hardship experienced personally (and undoubtedly there is a wealth of material to draw upon). Yet this often very personal (individualised even) voice is often contrasted with the notion that the band ‘speak for the people’. In numerous interviews[14] Gorki reasserts the motivation of the band as saying for ordinary Cubans that which they are too afraid to say for themselves. The band position themselves almost as martyrs, perhaps; performing a role where they say the unsayable, voice the taboo on behalf of others. However, the counterweight to such a position is that ‘on behalf of…’ can become ‘at the behest of…’. Perhaps in a sense the band are not performing some kind of holistic defiant Cuban identity, but have myriad oppositional points of view tagged onto them as symbols of opposition by numerous individuals. They become the opposition to whatever the audience wants them to be opposed to. So for the audience in Prague, they are opposed to all forms of communism, and particularly the spectre of the Soviet Union. However, as mentioned in chapter one, the Soviet Union plays something of a recurring role in the band’s songs, and it is not always as the villain. Similarly, for the fat man in Miami airport, Gorki is so vehemently opposed to the erstwhile ‘comandante’ that he would be prepared to collude in murder! To what extent either of these oppositional identities could be said to be indicative of the band’s ‘true’ or personal identity is questionable. Perhaps that is the point of symbolic performance; that it opens itself up to interpretation; that individuals can hang their own significances upon the hooks. Porno Para Ricardo say for others what they dare not say for themselves by saying that they say for other what they daren’t say for themselves. In other words, by opening their own identity out to personal interpretation; the listener is allowed to colour the identity performed with their own ideals and values; the opposition, and thus the ‘self’ is individually defined in a band whose identity, I think above any finite political stance, is an identity of opposition; of existing ‘between’ the trenches of ideology that has forged a political and geographical schism through the notion of Cuban identity; a recalcitrant presence; the other to all others.

*          *          *  

Gorki and I are standing on an island in the middle of the Moldava river, looking out at a Soviet tank painted bright pink with a large middle finger sprouting from its roof floating in the centre of the river. A group of tourists on pedalos clamber onto the tank’s floating island and begin taking pictures. We turn our attention back to the stage, bathed in a warm afternoon sunshine, on which Gorki will be appearing in less than one hour.

Suddenly Gorki appears to stiffen, and keeps glancing surreptitiously over his shoulder. Over the next ten minutes or so, he tries to shake off this visible disturbance, yet seems incapable of resisting the compulsion to keep glancing behind him. Eventually, clearly agitated, Gorki suggests to our small group that we look at another part of the island on which the festival is taking place.

Standing on the other side of the narrow island, Gorki makes apparent the subject of his agitation. “see that man over there” he points through the flowing crowd and dappled foliage at an innocuous, though admittedly uncomfortable, looking middle-aged man who was standing stock still near where we had been. I hadn’t noticed him. There was nothing to notice. He was balding, with wisps of blonde-grey hair around his temples. He wore an uncomfortably tight denim jacket and jean. “I think he might be a chivatón; a spy. He fits the type”. Gorki more than anyone would ‘know the type’. When I visited him at his home in Cuba last year, we sat for a moment on the balcony. With the same wistful point, he picked out two men sitting in the park opposite his flat, wearing short sleeved shirts and reading the Granma newspaper. “see those two?” he said with a slight air of resignation infused with the usual defiant mirth “they’re secret police. They follow me everywhere”.

Here in Prague, the three of us try to reassure Gorki “why would they send someone all the way here?” “look, he’s talking to that woman” “he’s wearing one of the official passes”. But Gorki – either made paranoid by nerves about the impending gig, or well-versed in the duplicitous and extensive lengths the Cuban government will go to – has an answer for every reassurance. “they often bring their wives” “anyone could have got one of those passes” “he just looks like the type”.

*          *          *

But to present oneself in this light is not only dangerous, but tiresome. The martyrdom of being the ‘voice of the voiceless’ is clearly weighing heavy on Gorki, and not just because of the incessant repression. Have the lack of opportunities to perform their identity as a band led to a less precisely defined identity for the band themselves?

In a sense, I detect something of a contempt for many aspects of Cuban life; the acquiescence of the ‘rock scene’ with the bureaucracy of the state, the timorousness of many in the face of political repression, the overbearing and simplistic rhetoric emanating from Miami.

Are the band ‘angry’ at Cuba? Are they presenting themselves as Cuban, or is the epithet bound to attach itself to them is they flout ‘conventional’ descriptions of their nation’s cultural identity?   

*          *          *

On stage, bravado – fuelled by adrenaline – has kicked in, and Gorki is his defiant, outspoken self. “Hands up if you’re Cuban” he shouts to the audience. He doesn’t wait for the translator this time; he’s speaking to a fraction of the audience who understands. “Nobody understands? Come on, put your hands up if you’re Cuban” a few shouts of ‘aqui’ ring out weakly from the crowd. “A few then” smiles Gorki, ready for the punch line. “So keep your hand up if you’re a chivatón, because I think there are a few chivatones cubanos here today”. He looks around half smiling, half menacing. “aquí, aquí” he mocks in high-pitch squeal.

*          *          *

Maybe the notion of a Cuba identity, either reclaimed or recontextualised is a misnomer for Porno Para Ricardo. Certainly their professed hatred of nationalism; of the notion of superior, autochthonous Cuban culture would tend to suggest that the idea of ‘representing Cuba’ is not something on the band’s agenda?

Yet the paradox is that Gorki, though the authorities have endeavoured to dissuade him from returning, is adamant that he will return to Cuba and continue to live there. I think despite the outright anger at many of the islands less than perfect aspects, ‘Cuba’ is an omnipotent and omniscient force in the band’s work, and will continue to be so for as long as they continue to make music.

Do they conform to Arturo Arango’s depiction of the ‘Cuban artist’ for whom the nation is a “near-pathological obsession” (1997:123), or is the nation an unavoidable foundation upon which their individual identities are build, combined and played out? Certainly they do not ‘perform’ Cubanness in quite the same deliberate and contrived way as, for example, the Buena Vista Social Club may have (see Barker and Taylor, 2007); as a set of predetermined (and possibly externally set) conventions. But Cubanness is an integral ingredient to Porno Para Ricardo’s collective identity; it is the stage on which the performance is set, the context which helps make it intelligible.

Do the band ‘love’ Cuba? No. But it is integral to their existence.

*          *          *

The band play their final song, Gorki jumps from the stage and begins hugging a group of exuberant fans (who have brought their own banners with Porno Para Ricardo lyrics) at the front. He is accosted by the young man who had taken such offence to the previous extolment of capitalism. The young man continued bellowing, wagging a finger at Gorki. Again, I catch the word ‘capitalist’. Suddenly, in a gesture that is half aggressive, half passionate, Gorki grabs the man, slapping both hands around the man’s cheeks and back of neck, cradling his head. Gorki’s eyes are glinting, his face a masked contortion of fear (maybe), resentment (possibly), confusion (certainly; the young man is speaking Czech), and elation (absolutely; the cacophonous cheers are still ringing around the audience, long after the show is over). Gorki draws in near. For a moment, I think he is going to headbutt the young bellowing man. Instead, he plants a firm kiss upon the man’s forehead, and releases him theatrically from his double-handed grasp. The young man walks disconsolately away, plaintively shaking his head again.

With that, Gorki is carried atop a hulking roadie’s shoulders through the crowd towards a scaffolding erected at the back of the crowd, where a photographer is waiting. The whole audience turn their back on the stage and hold aloft the pink cards handed out before the gig. Just in case, the MC on stage throws handfuls more of the pink rectangles over the audience, and the elevated photographer does the same. The photo is impressive (see appendix), and is apparently to be sent to Fidel Castro as a political message.    

Cubanness Performed and Destroyed in an “Amorous Act”  

Gorki is returned to the stage on the shoulders of the roadie. He bathes in applause for a moment, before picking up a new guitar. Slaking towards the microphone, he tells the crowd “this guitar signifies the tyranny [pause for translation] and I’m going to perform an amorous act with her”. The band launch into a rock version of ‘Chan Chan’, the ubiquitous Buena Vista Social Club song; the definition of Cuban music. Gorki manages only one half of a chorus, before adlibbing “ay ay ay, detesto la tyranía” and ripping the guitar off. With a mischievous smile to the audience he bangs the now howling guitar off his crotch before hurling it up in the air. He picks it up and throws the guitar, almost playfully, up once more. The act thus far has an air of joviality about it – of play. Suddenly, on the guitar’s third return to earth, the relationship between guitarist and guitar turns acrimonious. With urgency, Gorki snatches the guitar from the floor and runs to the stage edge. With a mighty swing he smashed the guitar’s body off the corner of the stage. The noise of splintering wood is deep and profound, with overtones of swirling feedback. A rapid second blow, even harder, severs the guitar cable clean and the squeals cut out dead. Another blow. Gorki runs to the other side of the stage and repeats the act; the blows now becoming industrial, workmanlike, bereft of knowing glances to audience, entirely and exclusively engaged in this violent act. On the second blow at this new location, the guitar finally yields and explodes into pieces. Gorki brings the fragmented remains, still clinging together by the guitar strings, into the centre of the stage, the bastardised chords of ‘Chan Chan’ still being repeated over and over my the band. With bear hands he rips the electronics from the body of the guitar, and pummels the remains once more into the floor. A hollow, dead crash rings out, greeted by cheers from the audience. The body of the guitar splinters into mere shards, the neck split sheer in two, wires hang in confused clumps to remaining islands of wood.

Gorki takes this handful of detritus; the remains of an act of total destruction, and holds them out over the audience. A forest of clamouring hands sprouts, eager to subsume these scant remains. Gorki tosses the destroyed guitar carefully into the crowd. A tussle ensues – the guitar’s fractured carcass is even more entirely devoured – and the tumultuous crowd is stilled. Gorki, egged on by this, rushes to the back of the stage, produces a t-shirt with the words “Yo Odio Los Castros[15]” on. He holds it aloft to the audience. The forest of hands re-emerges as Gorki balls up the shirt and hurls it into the crowd. Again, another localised bout of movement where the t-shirt lands, before it is dragged to the depths and claimed by the strongest, most forceful hands. Gorki repeats the act with CDs, with another t-shirt, with anything he can find to throw. ‘Chan Chan’ loops over and over.

*          *          *

“this song is for the frikis back in Cuba!”


[1] See United Islands festival news letter.

[2] Description taken from the band’s facebook page.

[3] Apparently, the film’s director contacted the Cuban government to allow Gorki’s temporary release from prison to appear in the film. The request was denied.

[4] The recording I mad is not precisely clear at this moment, but I think he says ‘Edgar’, or at least references the name of Alaverdi guitarist Edgaras Vasilias.

[5] A distinctly Cuban phrase, difficult to translate exactly, meaning “Wow. Fantastic!”

[6] When I visited Gorki in May 2010, he was overseeing the delivery of timber to refurbish the studio, a process he felt sure would attract the attention of, and eventually reprimands from, the ever-watchful authorities.

[7] Again, this was a proposed idea back in May 2010 (see interview).

[8] Accurately speaking, he was incarcerated for drug possession, but many believe this to be a spurious charge, and the punishment politically motivated.

[9] I recognise that there was very little the event organisers could have done. With all promotional material promoting Porno Para Ricardo, replacing the band outright seems to have been impossible, and the use of a backing band was a conciliatory measure.

[10] “Down with the exit permit!”

[11] “Down with Fidel Castro!”

[12] “How fantastic, this freedom!”

[13] I refer here to Ernest Betancourt’s distinction (1991) between “Cuba join[ing] the Soviet Bloc of its own volition” as opposed to “conquer[ed] Eastern Eurpoe”. http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/cb/cuba/asce/cuba1/panel.html   

[14] See MLC, Cuba Rebelion, Maza

[15] “I hate the Castros”

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It’s What Joni Would Want…

I almost want to find out what the nine “ugly mistakes” are.

Wonderful brand awareness.

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