Friday, 30 March 2012

Don McCullin, Shaped by War – Imperial War Museum

As part of my birthday we spent yesterday morning at the Imperial War Museum, where we’d bought tickets to see the Don McCullin Photography Exhibition, Shaped by War. It’s a major chronological retrospective covering his social history/poverty and commissioned photography work in the UK and in various war zones around the world.

I have to admit I only knew a little of McCullin’s work (and photography in general) prior to visiting, but I’ve always admired the starkness of human suffering captured in that shutter moment and I always think of the subject and photographer when I see an image which drags out an emotional response. What they were feeling? Whether they survived? Where are they now? Are they happy?

But not knowing much made the experience more forceful, more hard hitting. The first thing to say about McCullin is he’s in his late seventies, he lived through the war years, through poverty and rationing, through evacuation from Finsbury Park, North London. He has felt that hunger in his belly which many of us born in later years will have no concept of.

People from villages and small towns often say that they are proud of the sons and daughters of their region, when they go on to make a success of themselves. Although London is a big city, there still exists some sense of connection and community to an area within it, it may be a nostalgic or romantic vision of it (McCullin himself describes the area as tribal and violent when he was a young adult), but I still cling to some connection and love to where I’m from. Hence, having grown up in the area myself, I felt a sense of pride for Don. Here was a local working class lad who’d contributed so much to photo-journalism and to the world.

It all could have gone wrong for him though, he may have dumped photography, he pawned his camera, but his mother sensibly got it back for him.

In the thirty minute film which is shown as part of the exhibition (see extract below), McCullin comes across as being haunted by the sense of making a living through tragedy. The first tragedy which got him into a career in photography was the murder of a policeman by a north London gang. As he was an associate of a gang himself, he took photos of his friends, he sent them to the Observer and they published them. A window into this (probably) hidden working class world of 1950s urban violence must have fascinated the broadsheet buying public. And that kick started his career.

He doesn’t claim he’s a good guy, and in no way is he a bad guy… there are times when he personally performs great feats of courage or dignity (carrying a wounded G.I in vietnam), there are other times when he says (I paraphrase) he feels repulsed by his feelings towards war, needing it and being enthused by it. It’s an uneasy and unsettling ambivalence, balanced between revulsion and guilt and the absolute conviction of making sure people had a voice in the world, that tragedies would be brought to the public attention.

In addition, he has a deep sense of value for his work, he sheds this peculiar British notion of self effacement, denying or putting down value in your own work. He positively knows his work is excellent, he has invested so much in it, so much skill and feeling, but in no way does it come across as an arrogance, or a blind spot to some hidden weakness. He puts everything into it, he wants us to feel, to become involved. His weakness is one which he is painfully aware of, the guilt he carries for what he has seen and photographed. I suspect he feels this pain every day of his life.

His mistrust of humanity stems from what he has seen. As he states in the interview, he keeps his loved ones close of course, but witnessing such unimaginable horror has made him suspicious to the point of avoiding human contact it seems. In recent, non war related work, he seeks solitude through the photography of landscapes, in what he describes as healing. He wants people to fall in love with these photographs. And in the exhibition, after the harrowing images of war, there are some beautiful landscape images which appear gently at the end, a kind of reflection, a small balm, a little reminder that there is beauty in the world.

But, what one man can inflict on another without any mercy or compassion has forged him. His story of his experience in Vietnam sounds like hell on earth. Being surrounded by corpses, sleeping and waking up finding you’d inadvertently slept beside a corpse, jumping into a hole to hind only to find you are sitting on the belly of another corpse, but still maintaining an ability to take photos. It shook him, drove him to battle fatigue, it would have tipped most people over the edge, whether they were fighting men or not. His image of an American solider, having been badly wounded in both legs is one he describes as reminiscent of one of the most iconic images in the western world. That of Christ being brought down from the cross by his loved ones.

McCullin’s has been quoted as saying : “I am a professed atheist, until I find myself in serious circumstances. Then I quickly fall on my knees, in my mind if not literally, and I say : Please God, save me from this”

And it’s not hard to imagine investing frightened prayers for salvation when faced with such chaos and murder all around.

Pic I took of McCullin’s camera which copped a bullet for him. And it still works!

I have to say, going to this exhibition, you cannot be anything other than emotionally involved with the suffering and sadness he has captured. Not just because of images of fighting, but because of images of the victims of war. The hollow shell of the fragile oprhan albino boy from Biafra, not only starving, but shunned because of his condition, dressed in rags.

Or, the picture of the abandoned child in Bangladesh in 1971. This child would be about the same age as me. I haven’t stopped thinking about him or her since looking at this photograph.

(photo of this photo from

Finally, the final part of the film “The Darkness in Me” where Don McCullin talks of his later years and finding peace. It contains some disturbing, but also beautiful images as he talks about overcoming or at least controlling the darkness in him. The other three parts are also on youtube.

Shaped by War is on until the 15th April.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mark Lanegan, Shepherds Bush, Tuesday 13th March 2012

I have to say I was very excited to hear Mark Lanegan had recorded a new album and was touring. And not just a new album, but a Mark Lanegan Band album, his own compositions. We’d waited eight long years between 2004’s Bubblegum and this years Blues Funeral. In between Mark busied himself with collaborating, his growl added to the work of Isobel Campbell, The Gutter Twins and Soulsavers. It was like this work kept him in touch with the musical world, on a low intensity, whilst he hibernated like a ruminative bear incubating his own songs.

And after this long hiatus, the new album, it’s when he has his own voice that his songwriting, his under appreciated poetry, his music and his vocals really come to the fore.

Blues Funeral is great, full of the expected dark gospel and gothic blues as well as big rumbling rock numbers. But scattered throughout that mix are some uplifting lyrics. There were always references to religion in his lyrics, an evocative hook many singer songwriters latched onto, whether they were religious or not. Lanegan’s past (although he doesn’t dwell or want to discuss it) is one which looks to be scattered with regrets and tragedies, addictions, jail and poverty, this comes through in his songs, so when he roars the following on the powerfully raucous “Quiver syndrome” it does verge on the Christian Rock (and I don’t say this in any derogatory way, as it’s a brilliant tune, but when I catch myself singing along to it I do smile at the thought of the arch-agnostic getting right into it!).

“Will the lord hold me down, because I’m wicked? Will the lord hold me down, to my shame? Will your love it get into me jesus? Now I heard you calling out my name.”

And the almost Goldfrapp like “Ode to Sad Disco” is another one, an uplifting song with a synth groove running through it, has lyrics relating to seeing the light and being on your knees.

But of course, there are also classically dark songs, like the opening track of both the album and the gig. “The Gravedigger’s Song”. The video draws on so much of the horror genre, it should have an 18 certificate :)

So, onto the gig. I met up with the Bossman and we got to the venue early enough to catch the last couple of tracks of the first support act Duke Garwood. With perseverance, his disembodied blues with almost unintelligible lyrics was compelling. The already large crowd (it was a sell out) watched respectfully as he occasionally plucked or strung out a lyric whilst his equally hirsute percussionist trudged away in the background.

After Duke Garwood, the Creature With the Atom Brain, a psychedelic stoner rock band from Belgium. They were brilliantly tight. Really enjoyed them. Here is a pic. I particularly liked the bassist as he looked like a Greek priest with his hair in a bun and his big beard :)

And then to Mark Lanegan himself.

He is a man of few words, he doesn’t have much to say beyond the songs themselves. But some people in the audience want to hear some stand up it seems. “Give us a smile!” someone shouted. Lanegan didn’t flinch or react. Just enjoy the music dudes! He stood in his familiar pose, one hand fixed high on the mike stand, his crucifix tattoo visible on his fist, the other hand gripping it lower down, like he was clasping to it for dear life.

Songs of death, regret, attempted suicide, drinking, depression, addiction, love, lost love, cruelty, despair. His lyrics are moving and powerful. When he did speak, it was just to mumble the occasional thankyou. When he introduced his band, he seemed crippled by shyness and self doubt. For someone who bares their soul through their lyrics, just genial engagement with an audience tests him. I’ve no problem with that. In fact, it’s endearing. We all have our doubts and challenges. The fact he came out to sign stuff for the audience after the gig must have been difficult for him too.

All in all, including the encore, the band played twenty tracks, new tracks and some classic old ones, such as “One Way Street” from my favourite Lanegan album Field Songs. Bubblegum was also well represented, another great album, often cited as his best. It was a mammoth performance, he poured his heart into it. Lanegan sweated like a beast, sweat poured down through his beard, onto his shirt and the floor. His big leonine head occasionally rocked, his face grimaced as the storm raged around him. Some lyrics seemed painful for him to sing.

When it came to the first encore track “When Your Number isn’t up” a song about loneliness and a botched suicide attempt (I don’t know whether it was his own) he sounded particularly vulnerable. It was moving hearing this song live.

When your number isn’t up (Mark Lanegan)

Did you call for the night porter?
You smell the blood running warm
I stay close to this frozen border, so close I can hit it with a stone
Now something crawls right up my spine
That I always got to follow
Turn out the lights
Don't see me drawn and hollow
Just blood running warm
No one needs to tell you that
There's no use for ya here anymore
And where are your friends?
They've gone away
It's a different world, they left you to this
To janitor
The emptiness
So let's get it on
When the sun is finally going down, and you're overdue to follow
But you're still above the ground
What ya got comin' is hard to swallow
Like blood running warm
Did they call for the night porter
And smell the blood, blood running warm
Well I've been waitin at this frozen border, so close you could hit it with a stone

It was swiftly followed by Pendulum, a song about Jesus, his sacrifice, loneliness (again), drifting and homelessness. Then Harbourview Hospital, from the new album, about redemption and personal demons and finally the massive Metamphetamine Blues. People saved their moshing for the last track of the evening.

It seemed apt the last words he sung were “I don’t want to leave this heaven so soon”.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Adam Cohen, Union Chapel, Feb 29th 2012

For our Christmas present, my lovely niece Dod got me and Deb tickets to go and see Adam Cohen, as in son of the legendary Leonard and not just that, but at the aesthetically beautiful Union Chapel in Islington. Six of us went, a collective noun of Greeks. A gaggle (Deb is honorary Greek now).

We’ve seen Cohen senior twice, one time was at the Royal Albert Hall where we lucked out on front row stalls tickets, which was utterly brilliant. A magical occasion where his humility moved the audience. The first time was in Dublin and I wrote about it in this post. I would wax lyrical about the genius that is Leonard, but this blog isn’t about him, it’s about his son and much as I will try to avoid comparisons, sometimes they are unavoidable.

After the support act, who incidentally I liked, Scott McFarnon, a sincere, easy going singer songwriter, Adam strode onstage in a formal jacket, his jeans looked perhaps one size too small for him, a white shirt, with a perfectly folded cravatte tied in a triangle round his neck. Why is all this detail important? Well, because it seemed important to him. There was something vaudeville about him, the way he lounged out, holding a tumbler of tequila. As Christina said, he looked like he was doing an impression of Al Murray as the pub landlord. I thought he was more like the Fonz at times, always on the verge of sticking both thumbs up and saying “eyyyyy Mrs Cunningham”. His band consisted of two other members and together they were flawlessly tight.

So what were we in for? His songs contained hallmarks of his fathers genius. The syrupy depth of his voice, the poetry of lost love and layers of perfect vocal harmonies. Some of his songs were beautiful too. His first few songs cited the names of various ex-girlfriends. This got a bit grating as it seemed he was exultant in the power and content of his tightly packed trousers as much as the despair of losing these various beautiful former loves.

But beyond the showman was a great performer. He warmed up and he warmed us up. The times he did honour his father with a cover version or a snippet of a cover version, I struggled, but eventually gave in (So Long Marianne, Tower of Song for instance). He wasn’t the toddler trying to stand in his dads immense shoes, it felt more like him respecting his dad. And why not, they are his inheritance and something for him to be rightly proud of.