writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: December 2012

Coming Soon

It’s always great to see my fellow Writers’ Bloc performers getting a good review. This one is a peach, though – see Stuart Kelly’s review of the Seven Wonders of Scotland, which highly praises contributions from Kirsti Wishart and Gavin Inglis both. As Kelly says, Kirsti and Gav are writers “at whom Scottish publishers ought to be waving contracts.” Not just Scottish ones either.

In other news, I hope to have the new Tribute to Venus Carmichael CD in my hands soon. It features all-new versions of five songs:

In the Canyon;

Old School;

Taking Names;

Highway Tonight; and

When Things Go Wrong.

Expect word of CD launches and all that sort of thing soon.

Finally, look out for my Surrealist Year Ahead on this page, probably on New Year’s Day or the day after.


Why Bob Dylan Owes Me a Pint

My recent acquisition of, and listen to, Bob Dylan’s latest album Tempest, had me thinking. How much money has Dylan made out of me over the years? Does he not owe me a pint by now, at the very least?

There’s an interesting article on music royalties which is worth a look, but basically Dylan could expect to receive up to 25% of 75% of the retail price of a CD or piece of vinyl as an established recording artist. There are of course deductions: there’s the 25% right off the bat for packaging, and then the usual list of band members, ex-wives, and, crucially, blood-sucking lawyers.

As a songwriter, apparently, he gets about 8 cents a go as well, which is why it was really worthwhile him working on that golden voice of his. Compare and contrast Carole King, who started out as a songwriter in the Brill Building with other future singer-songwriters like Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond in the Sixties, before decamping to the West Coast and performing her own material. It wasn’t just the Californian sunshine got her doing that – there were sound economic reasons too.

Anyway, I’ve oversimplified the interesting article massively, so let’s just completely oversimplify it, and say Dylan got a pound for every one of his albums I’ve ever bought, in whatever format. Let’s say he got the same for the three times I’ve seen him live, another pound for my sitting through his interminable epic Renaldo and Clara (boy, I must have been dedicated) and another for my purchase of the virtually unreadable Tarantula, which I read. To. The. Last. Page.

That probably means, by the time you add up all the vinyl I bought and then re-bought on CD, the old buzzard’s made about £40 to £50 off me. Not exactly enough to put his kids through college, but all the same, as a formerly dedicated follower, you might think it would be worth him dropping by and saying, Hey Andrew, fancy a swift Deuchar’s down the Fettykil Fox?

That’s probably unlikely, since he doesn’t seem to have ventured north of Kent on his tour this year. Besides, he could quite reasonably argue that I’ve kind of had my money’s worth off him, given that his music has inspired me for a lifetime, encouraged me to teach myself guitar and harmonica, and helped me discover a whole like-minded counter-culture of artists, writers and poets (Kerouac and Ginsberg to name but two) long before I had Amazon to second-guess my future preferences for me.

And, in this imaginary conversation I would have with His Bobness (assuming I wasn’t overawed a wee tad at the reality of swapping banter with one of my heroes over a pint of IPA) I might have to concede the chap had a point with all of that.

But, I might venture in response, there is the problem of your recent albums, isn’t there?

What problem, he might say, supping his Deuchar’s and glancing away for a second to take a sudden interest in the Fettykil’s recent refit (quite nicely done, really) before turning back to me and fixing me with those eyes bluer than robin’s eggs and saying again, defiantly this time, what problem, Andrew (I’m not sure if he’d call me Andrew or Andy  in this scenario, but that’s probably not important right now).

At which point, having perhaps done my own bit of evasive refit-admiring, I hope I would stare him right down and say, the problem of half of all of them being, well, a bit substandard. To say the least, Your Bobness. If you don’t mind me saying so, as a paying punter.

At which point, I’d hope for an interesting discussion on the intricacies of multi-album deals, and the pressure of fitting in recording sessions between instalments of the Never-Ending Tour, rather than a headline in the Glenrothes Gazette along the lines of ‘Major recording artist and local fan thrown out of pub-restaurant for fighting.’ I mean, he’s pretty old now, and he’s only knee high to a grasshopper. It would be kind of embarrassing.

But really, he should be told. Which brings me back to Tempest.

Musically, the album sticks to Dylan’s formula of the past few years of a pleasing folk/blues/countryish admixture – all hillbilly accordions, vintagey guitars and jumpy drums – using his touring band to produce a tight, flexible sound that showcases the good songs well. Dylan himself (under one of his many pseudonyms, Jack Frost) produces, and really by now he would’ve had to have been asleep, or stoned, through every one of his previous albums not to have worked out how to do that by now.

But inevitably, trailing clouds of glory as he does, it’s Dylan’s songs that have to pass muster. One has to have a bit of sympathy for the old devil here. I mean, how do you follow Hard Rain, Like a Rolling Stone, or Visions of Johanna, to name but three? I mean, credit to him for trying – and let’s not forget he manages it from time to time – vide ‘that Adele song’ Make You Feel My Love (for the best live version imho, see her singing it with Jools Holland on Later…).

It’s also fair to say that it ain’t the Bobster’s fault that music critics, desperate to talk up anything he does in the studio past breaking wind into the microphone, hail each new album as The Great Late Period Work. Honourable exception in this case is Alexis Petridis, whose Guardian review pretty much says it as it is.

Fortunately,Dylan-botherers now have a solution  for the problem of the curate’s egg album. Unless you’re some sort of retro vinyl iconoclast who doesn’t believe in mp3s, through the blessed medium of Amazon (or iTunes, if you must) you can download the tracks that are any good, and leave the rest on the tree.

For which, my recommendations would be: Duquesne Whistle; Soon After Midnight; Narrow Way; Long and Wasted Years; Scarlet Town; and the daftly amusing Early Roman Kings. If you’re a fan of Nick Cave style murder ballads, you could throw in Tin Angel for good measure. Which means actually 60 – 70% of the album’s pretty damn good, really – a much higher hit rate than some other recent efforts, which Dylan pads out by throwing in a 12-bar blues structured bit of inconsequentiality every second song.

Alternatively of course you can just buy the CD and press the skip button once you’ve worked out what the clinkers are, but this blog accepts no responsibility for any motorway pile ups if you’re doing it whilst driving. Besides, you’ll miss all those emails from Amazon saying ‘if you think tracks 5, 9 and 10 of Tempest are a bit shite, I wouldn’t bother buying….’

Anyway. A very happy holidays to everyone, and Bob, if you’re reading this, I’m a bit busy Monday/Tuesday, but if you’re passing any other time, mine’s a Deuchar’s.

Duality Tango at Rio

It’s always a blast choosing material for a gig; especially if it’s in a different town where you haven’t performed before. Tomorrow night (Monday) I will be a stranger in the strange land of Glasgow (actually, my sister’s lived there for 30 years, so I’m practically bilingual).

I plan to do the human jukebox thing for the middle story and let the audience choose from a selection, based only on the title and my unreliable summary of what it’s about, so let’s hope they’re up for participating. I have heard Glasgow audiences are very shy of shouting out. Unlike the rowdy Edinburgh ones.

The process of sifting through the material has also got me started planning my next collection, Duality Tango. This will be mainly prose and some poetry; it occurs to me that a lot of my performance-slanted stuff is about Jekyll and Hyde-stylee preoccupations – and the last story in the collection is definitely going to be Hyde’s Last Words, a piece I did at Illicit Ink last year at the Bongo.

Other contenders will include things like Isabel Allende Goes to the Cowdenbeath Game, Abduction, Postcards from the Radge, and The Slime of Miss Jean Brodie. Anyone that’s seen me in action and has a particular favourite, please feel free to suggest something. I have one possible publisher I’m going to try, and after that I’m going down the self-publish route. I can’t exactly see Faber and Faber going for it…

Hello, Hello Poetry

Craig Duffy has done a fantastic thing this year. Not only has he organised nights of fantastic spoken word entertainment in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Stirling, Dumfries and Aberdeen, he’s videoed it and, even more remarkably, gotten around to editing it all and putting it all up at hellopoetry tours. Now obviously, I’ll want you to look at my bit – I ran into them at Demented Eloquence at  Aberdeen first, and then was honoured to be part of the Hello Poetry all-star finale in Edinburgh in May. Lots of other fine performers to look at though – it’s a great record of a terrific series of shows. Well done, Craig, and yes, I hope to bring you to Fife next year…

Performance Tart

Chris Scott, photographer extraordinary to the Edinburgh literati, is sick of my face. He claims every event he comes to I’m there, with my beard and my ska hat, clogging up the lens.

He may have a point. By the time I cross the No Man’s Land of the Harthill Services and do Last Monday in Rio on the 16th, (The Rio Cafe, Hyndland Street, Glasgow 16th December, 20.00 till 23.00) I’ll have done 16 performances of various kinds this year, whether that be spouting poetry, ranting prose, or trying to remember guitar chords. 16. That’s more than one a month!

That’s a lot of trips over from the Magic Kingdom of Fife. A lot of time spent away from the wife and wean (who generally don’t complain, bless ’em. Mind you, they seem to treat my absence as an excuse to get a carry out). If I haven’t accepted an invite to come to your gig, and see you do your thing, apologies – there’s only so many times I can negotiate those tramworks… The really amazing thing is, apart from the Venus Carmichael music gigs, and the two Bloc shows, other people have actually asked me to turn up and do my thing.

So thank you, kind event organisers. Your efforts often go unsung and unappreciated. I just wanted to say this performance tart has been very happy to oblige.

Why my last story could be my last … and other stories

So Kirsti Wishart has asked me to participate in this Next Big Thing craze that’s sweeping the writerly blogosphere, where you answer a set of standard questions on your blog. You also invite other writers – none of mine have replied so far, but if they do I’ll point you their way. In the meantime, here goes … you did ask, Kirsti!

1. What’s the title of your latest story?

My last story was called Louis and Valentine, and was written for the Writers’ Bloc Halloween show. It could be, for all I know, the last story I ever write.
2. Where did the idea for the story come from?

I basically stole it. I went along to a meeting of the Edinburgh non-fiction writers’ group, Stranger than Fiction, and critted a chapter of a non-fiction book about RLS. The chapter was about Stevenson’s time in Bournemouth, where he wrote Jekyll and Hyde. Although it was biography, it had ‘factional’ passages – which for me were the best bits by far.

Having read at least one RLS biography in my time, I knew about the Stevensons’ French maid, Valentine Roch, but I’d forgotten that people in Bournemouth thought she was Louis’ mistress – basically because she slept on his bedroom floor on occasion (allegedly for the entirely innocent purpose of making sure he was ok in the night, given his health problems).

The chapter I read had a great scene, where Fanny is conveniently taken out of the picture by going on a shopping trip to London with Louis’ parents – an entirely plausible idea, as the parent were frequent visitors in the Bournemouth days. So I stole the idea of the scene, and then took it in the direction I wanted.

To be fair, I didn’t see the rest of the book, so I’ve no idea if my story is similar to what happened next in that. I also did a bit of research on ergotine, which is the drug Stevenson was on at that time for his lung problems. It has some pleasing effects, apparently. If you want to write a classic duality morality tale.
3. What genre does your story fall under?

Idea theft; RLS fanboy fiction; literary bodysnatching.
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?

I think Peter Capaldi would make a great Stevenson. All that nervous energy, and that drawl. I don’t know enough young French actresses to know who would play Valentine, but basically I see Valentine as what the French call jolie laide, which literally translated means ‘pretty ugly.’ It really means someone who’s not conventionally attractive but somehow is.

Fanny would be a tougher casting. She was a remarkable piece of work, but I can’t think of an actress that resembles her physically. It would be quite a difficult role to show all her complexities in the brief part I gave her in the story. Somebody like Juliet Stevenson or Anna Chancellor could pull it off.

I’ll just pop off now and wait by the phone, in case their agents are reading this. Kidding.
5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?

Sexual tension with the maid + ergotine = iconic horror story.
6. Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?

Well, there’s the thing – probably neither.

I’ve been thinking about this whole publishing thing a lot recently, and my motivations for writing in the first place (I think it’s all connected to a recent Big Birthday).

So why do I write? I mean, I have a day job that pays the bills: why not come in at night and watch the telly? Why lock myself away in the evenings, get up early at weekends, take days off when my wife’s working and my daughter’s at school, just to write?

And why write stories? Over the last thirty or so years  I’ve had thirty or so stories published in magazines and anthologies. Is that why I do it? Doesn’t look like a great strike rate, although I’ve also written three novels (unpublished), one and a half non-fiction books (published), a couple of dozen articles, and had more recently something like thirty to forty poems in print too. So it’s not like I’ve just been slouching around.

Sum total? The day job pays my bills. I reckon I’ve probably made a couple of hundred from the fiction, a few hundred more than that from the non-fiction. So it’s not for the money.

It’s not for the recognition, needless to say. Crowds of literateurs storm right past me to more famous authors in the supermarket, leaving me pinned to the cold meat counter. Although folk on the Edinburgh spoken word circuit know me, and come and talk to me, which is really nice.

There is the satisfaction of seeing your precious creation in print – particularly if, for example, it’s a really good production like Nova Scotia. But after a while that can fade, and there’s the problem of attic storage for all these magazines.

So why? Why bother? Increasingly over the last couple of years, the answer has been to perform them. That’s a tricky one though. It’s all too easy to write a series of interconnected gags, or churn out yet another literary parody – something I feel I’ve been guilty of recently. That probably explains why I wrote something a bit more ‘serious’ in Louis and Valentine. But it doesn’t really fit a market, and possibly wasn’t even what the Bloc show needed in terms of length and seriousness (short, funny and if possible scary usually is the way to go).

Which is why I titled this ever-extending piece ‘why my last story could be my last.’ It probably won’t: I mean, there’ll always be a show I fancy performing at, and although I really like performing poetry, I do think prose is probably my stronger suit.

But it’s not like I’m bursting with story ideas. I can see the fins of two or three circling, but I’m fending them off for now. None of them will have a natural market, and they’ll probably all be too long to perform. Eventually I might let them in to bite me (see below).
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?

I wrote Louis and Valentine over the course of a week, in about three sittings, maybe four. It’s quite a short story, and I tend to work in 500 word bursts more or less. First thing in the morning works for me.
8. What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?

No idea. I don’t read enough modern fiction – particularly in the short form – to be able to reference myself. That’s a real failing on my part; but if you don’t find time to do something, it probably means you’re not prioritising it because you’re not motivated enough to do it.

Let me tell you a story about that. A couple of years ago, when I was still thinking about writing a novel, we went on holiday to Spain in April. That’s when we usually go, to get a bit of sun after the long Scottish winter – although we don’t go to the Costas, we travel around after we’ve got the Madrid flight, taking the train mostly.

We generally stick to the smaller cities – Salamanca, Valladolid, Cordoba – but this time we pushed the boat out and went to an even smaller place called Almagro, which is in La Mancha. Cervantes country: flat plains stretching north to Madrid, and south towards the borders of Andalucia.

There was one train off the main line into Almagro per day, and one train out. It was baking hot the afternoon we arrived, but after that the rains descended. We stayed in this charming hostal , which was run by an equally charming young woman who spoke no English. The place was falling to bits, which gave me all sorts of useful vocabulary to explain how the door knob had fallen off and we couldn’t get into our room, or there was rain coming in through the ceiling and leaking on us as we slept.

Anyway.  I usually take a couple of books to read with me, and this time I took Brick Lane, by Monica Ali, and Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia. I felt I should read both of them (note: when I say modern fiction, I tend to stretch it to ‘stuff written since I was a lad.’)

I got half way through Brick Lane before deciding I couldn’t take any more. I just didn’t care what happened next. Probably to say more would mark me out as an utter philistine.

Buddha of Suburbia, on the other hand, had that key element I needed: humour. It was a coming of age story, and interesting in its detail of a different culture in the same way Brick Lane was. But it was also funny! I cared what happened to the son, and the father!

Lying in one of those half-awake, half-asleep states you get sometimes when you’re in a strange bed, in this little village hostal, waiting for the rains to break through the ceiling again, I half-dreamt the story I wanted to write. The title of the novel became Buddha Belly, partly in acknowledgement of a debt I owed to Kureishi for teaching me something about the type of novel I wanted to write.

My novel, by the way, has nothing to do with a young Asian boy growing up in London with a father who becomes an unlikely guru. Just in case you thought I do that all the time. It’s a comic thriller about an utterly disreputable lawyer who calls his penis ‘the python,’ and wakes up to find a client naked and dead in his bath with his toe stuck up the tap.

Buddha Belly is currently going on blind dates with agents.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this story?

Back to Louis and Valentine. Apart from the writer whose story idea I stole (I’m ashamed to say I can’t even remember her name) that merry band of rapscallions, Writers’ Bloc. If I do keep writing stories for performance, it’ll be because Bloc is still getting shows off the ground. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, either, because Bloc is stuffed with talent right now.

Apart from old stagers like me, there’s new talent like Bram Gieben, Mark Harding, Stuart Wallace and Halstead BernardHannu Rajaniemi is looking to have a bit more time right now to chip in. Add into the mix the returning Stefan Pearson and you’ve really got a lot of creative horsepower at your disposal. Which takes the pressure off me to turn something in every time.

The trick will be getting original enough concepts to take things to the next level. Like adding music, for example.
10. What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?

Louis and Valentine might never see the light of day again, so I’m not going to drone on about that. Instead, I’m going to tell you about what’s going to happen in 2013.

Next year, it’ll be 5 years since I first dusted down my guitar and began collaborating with Kelly Brooks on what became known as the Venus Project, documenting and performing the songs of the long lost Arbroath/L.A. singer-songwriter, Venus Carmichael. That’s been a whole lot of fun, and there’s a whole lot more of that to come I hope. And for Venus fans, there will soon be news of a new CD which we’re in the process of recording.

I now have enough poetry for a collection, and my friend and fellow Bloc-er, the wonderful poet Jane McKie, has given me a lot of advice and guidance on putting one together. I might get that published by someone else, or I might just self-publish.

On that whole self-publishing thing.  I’m beginning to break down the mental barriers I’ve always had about it – it’s a form of vanity; it’s only for folk who can’t really write; etc. etc.

Dude, the world has changed! The print publishing industry’s on its knees, begging for the next celebrity misery memoir. Can I compete with Katie Price? Not on any level. As for whether I can write or not, several dozen editors can’t have got it that wrong, can they? I mean, I didn’t have to sleep with all of them!

So. A poetry collection. And/or, possibly, a collection of my poetry and prose performance pieces, provisionally titled Duality Tango. I also plan to self-publish The Edinburgh Icarus, which I co-wrote with a good friend (now sadly deceased) some years ago and never got published. It deals with the Burke and Hare/Doctor Knox story in an original way, and I think it deserves to see the light of day. So I’m going to throw some energy at that.

I will continue to send my novel, Buddha Belly, on blind dates with agents until it reaches the stage it’s just too tragic to have it propping up a bar somewhere, showing a bit of leg to anyone that cares to pass. And at that point, I’ll publish a Kindle edition and be damned.

So far as those circling story ideas are concerned, I have a deal of material in my head about Daphne Du Maurier, her grandfather George (who wrote Trilby) JM Barrie, and ‘dreaming true.’ I’m not quite sure what to do with it. I also have a great story set in 50s Buenos Aires with an ex-Nazi spy as the hero. I might write them, I might not.

Other than that, my Next Big Thing is: music and spoken word. In combination. I’ll probably post some more about this, so I’ll keep it brief for now, but I feel increasingly that, when it comes to telling stories, adding the emotional punch of music can make all the difference. And it doesn’t have to be a song to tell it right.

A rough idea of where I’m going (and I stress rough) is the track I put up on Soundcloud,  Special. I plan to use more specially composed music than that in general, and mix it in performance with live instruments. At the moment, the how  is holding me back a bit, but it won’t for long.

Well done for reading this far down, by the way. This has been an extended bit of navel gazing, so thanks for listening.

As we like to say in Scotland, you’ll be hearing from me…