Sunday, 25 November 2012

It's The End Of The Word As We Know It (And I Don't Feel Fine)

I miss Word magazine. It was just about the only place where I could find recommended new music that I actually liked, some of it included on the accompanying CD, read meaty pieces on interesting music makers - new and old, find out more about the best TV, the coolest films, the books worth reading and all the other cultural with a small-c Stuff happening that I didn't know about.

Sure, it featured too many bearded men on the covers and the small-font article at the back every month was usually unreadable, but it was unique in content, tone and loveability. It led me to The Go! Team, The Mountain Goats, Cashier No. 9 and a weekend in a teepee that smelled of horses at the Cornbury Festival listening to the witless Scouting For Girls. The men in charge, Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, were a link to the Smash Hits days of my early teens and the Whistle Test days of my later ones. I bumped into Mark at the BBC Folk Music Awards in London a couple of years ago and pestered him for a few minutes about how much I enjoyed his magazine. He was pleasant and polite, told me a racey anecdote about my former Sky colleague Adam Boulton and left me feeling better informed - just like the Word.

When I moaned about its abrupt demise to a trusted friend and cultural commentator he recommended a combination of Uncut, Classic Pop and Mojo. So I spent £4.80 on Uncut's new issue. It should be a good barometer because it includes its favourite 75 albums of the year.

The cover is promising: everyone likes Man Of The Year Springsteen and it comes with a free CD. But check out the editor Allan Jones's letter with his own Best Of The Year selection and the heart sinks: "Bob Dylan's Tempest, John Murry's The Graceless Age, Japandroids' Celebration Rock, Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill, Pond's Beard, Wives, Denim, Beachwood Sparks' The Tarnished Gold, Jack White's Blunderbuss, Allah-Las' Allah-Las, Anaïs Mitchell's Young Man In America, Alabama Shakes' Boys And Girls, Neil Young's Americana, Slow Down, Molasses' Walk Into The Sea, Sharon Van Etten's Tramp, Elephant Mica's Louder Than Thou, Tame Impala's Lonerism, Calexico's Algiers, Dr John's Locked Down, Dexys' One Day I'm Going To Soar, Simone Felice's Simone Felice and Dan Deacon's America."

A quick trip to Spotify confirms that Bob Dylan's Tempest is fiddly-de-dee garbage. Two Neil Young albums - really? I'd prefer one by the former Manchester City striker with the same name. And Dexy?! Bloody hell.

Of the magazine's official top 75 I can live with Cornershop, Lana Del Rey, Springsteen, Jack White and I thought Orbital's Wonky was brilliant. The track Never is one of my most-played in 2012. It was on a Word CD.

So not bad, but if the traditional magazine format is letting me down, where else can I go? Spotify's new releases list occasionally throws up some interesting gems. The Paradise Edition of Del Rey's Born To Die, for example, features a decent cover of Blue Velvet. But I have no interest whatsoever in Rod Stewart's Merry Christmas, Baby or Pink Friday by Nicki Minaj. The desktop version has an app to find similar music to the stuff you like, but it doesn't work on the iPad or Sonos so it's not much use to me.

BBC 6 Music is pretty useful if you can sit through the DJ drivel about tweet-me-the-name-of-the-song-that-most-reminds-me-of-your-college-years drivel. Don't bother, we don't care. This morning, for example, they played a track called Joy from Tracey Thorn's new album, Tinsel and Lights

It's nearly always too early for Christmas songs but another visit to Spotify delivers a fabulous album of covers, including the marvellous In the Cold, Cold Night by The White Stripes. I've always liked Tracey and Everything But The Girl, even though Ben is a Man United fan. I once saw them at the conference centre in Harrogate that's traditionally used for the Lib Dems' annual fiasco. And the album with the kid peeing in the street on the cover reminds me of my college years.

This Is My Jam website is also pretty cool. Recommend one track at a time to your Twitter followers, complete with a link to audio or video, and follow other Jammers to find out what they're listening to. My brother's good at unearthing rocking indie boys with loud guitars - I can turn his recommendations into a playlist and chug it out on Spotify. Connect that baby to the wireless Sonos system and bingo - fill the room with the theme tune from Boardwalk Empire that you never knew was by the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Books are trickier. The Economist has unexpectedly tipped some good novels - Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon was so superb I put in on Facebook. 

Highly recommend this: set today but full of vinyl jazz records, blaxploitation movies, Tarantino films, kung fu, a blimp, Six Million Dollar Man action figures (including Oscar Goldman), classic American cars, eight-track cartridges, San Francisco, imaginary voices of Samuel L Jackson, Marsellus Wallace, Tarantino, Hong Kong Phooey. A book about fathers, sons and friends.

Deborah's book club is also worth keeping an eye on. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Jumped Out Of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is magnificent; a contemporary, comic Odyssey through the 20th century's seminal moments with its history makers, framed by an unlikely story about a Swedish centenarian on the run with an elephant from a drugs gang and the the police. It's the Scandinavian antidote to those nasty Girl With The Dragon Tattoo books.

Word was always good at getting under the skin of the best TV shows. A community came together to read about The Wire, Mad Men and other cinematic American imports. Their series-link was always a bit hit and miss but then so is mine: Downton Abbey, Homeland, the hugely underrated Friday Night Lights on Sky Atlantic, Match of the Day, Seinfeld in HD on Atlantic (20 years old and still funny - even to 14-year-old Joe), The Daily Show on the Comedy Channel, Lewis, Quest Means Business, Jeff Randall on Sky News. Admittedly, some of those have more unviewed episodes than others.

It is possible, then, to keep across all the best stuff if you keep surfing, listening and watching but it doesn't half take up a lot of time. What we need is a one-stop shop that features it all and drops through the letter box every month. And I don't think it's called Uncut.

Anyone recommend anything else?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Manhattan On Manchester City Matchday

It's not a perfect day. I'd rather spend it with you. Not such a perfect day.
But hang on, it's a pretty good route around Manhattan if you ever find yourself there for a weekend in late October.

Start: The Hudson Hotel, West 58th Street
Cool hotel. Very dark lobby, white furniture, HD TVs, long wait for the lifts. £299 per night plus taxes.
The view from the Time Warner canteen

1. West Side of Central Park
John Lennon is everywhere in New York. That image of him wearing a New York tee-shirt peers out from every souvenir shop around Times Square.
It takes about ten minutes to walk from the Columbus Circle entrance, through the amber and gold trees, dodging the joggers, the cyclists and multi-dog walkers, to the towers of the Dakota Building where he lived and died. It always reminds me of Tom Brook, the BBC reporter who was first on the scene when Chapman shot Lennon. We spoke regularly when Tom provided regular movie news for Liquid News. Never had a bad word for anybody. His moustache as pristine then as it was on December 8, 1980. I walked straight past Strawberry Fields, past the man selling Beatles badges, and then realised I'd gone too far and double backed. I was just pipped to the entrance to the little graffited memorial garden by a coach load of tourists on their own magical mystery tour. I left them to it and headed out of the park.
A Blurry Mary
The night before I'd been to see Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Lincoln Centre. She's a recent discovery to me and I can't get anyone else interested. I found her current album, Ashes And Roses, on Spotify's new releases and it stuck. The opening track, Transcendental Reunion, sets the tone: a singer-songwriter song about arriving at an airport on your own amid the happy welcomes and tearful hugs and just hoping your suitcase has made it with you. (I almost got Kevin Bishop interested when he was on Olympic duty at Heathrow for BBC news.) The concert was fabulous. And there was one of those weird coincidences: the oddly agitated, silently arguing gay guys who checked into the next door room of The Hudson just before me were there. There they were, fuming their way to the lobby bar while I sat nursing a couple of beers.
There is a tenuous Lennon connection. I was due to see Mary CC in London the previous Monday but had to return the tickets to the South Bank Centre because of this work trip. I found out that I was in New York at the same time as her final tour show and booked a ticket. Last week she played a gig in Liverpool with Shawn Colvin. Colvin tweeted a picture of Penny Lane saying how being in Liverpool always made her cry. Mary re-tweeted it saying, "I know!". I re-tweeted that saying, "Yes. Awful place." Hilarious. I'm from Manchester; it's in my DNA to dislike Liverpool. At Liquid, I persuaded a reluctant Tim Muffet to do an ill-advised mickey-take on Liverpool being made the European City of Culture - full of archive bin strikes and Derek Hatton. A local commercial radio station started an anti-BBC campaign. We ended up having to do a live one-hour apology show from the docks with Ian McCulloch holding court. Boris Johnson was caught out in the same way years later. Josh those jokey Scousers at your peril.

2. Times Square
Head straight on down the 7th Avenue skyscraper canyon past Carnegie Hall (old joke sticks in head: how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice) and soon enough the neon lights and LED video screens welcome you to big brash Times Square. Never at its best in the daylight. Thronged with street performers and people queuing for theatre tickets at the discount booth.
Deborah and I went to see Patrick Stewart in The Tempest off Broadway 17 years ago, his English voice pristine among the American cast. He's from D's home town of Mirfield so we feel an affinity with Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise. We've also seen him a couple of times in London - in a one-man Christmas Carol (brilliant, but I'd done an early shift at GLR and nodded off before the end) and in a Cold War-style Macbeth in 2007 (he can act even when making a ham sandwich).

The Hershey's shop is the quirkiest building just off the Square; decorated with giant retro-wrappers and light bulbs, deliberately Willie Wonkerish. Their chocolate always tastes a bit odd - a bit off - to me but I stocked up anyway on some goodies to take home.

3. Empire State Building
Stroll across 42nd Street (even the street names have been turned into musicals) for a look round the artisan booths of Bryant Park. One specialises in nothing but different varieties of kettle corn. Go straight on through then right onto Madison Avenue. Now that's an evocative name. Reminds me of two things:
1. Kirsty MacColl's track from Electric Landlady. Johnny Marr on guitar. Kirsty was due to appear on Liquid a few days after she was killed in that motor boat accident. I was in the BBC bar when Steven Rogers came down to tell me. Quite shocking. I'd always liked her multi-layered vocal stuff right from There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis and especially her version of Ray Davies's Days.

2. Mad Men. Fabulous show. Who wouldn't want to be Don Draper? No 60s atmosphere now, though. No sign of any ad agencies, curvy Joans or silver-haired Roger Sterlings. Just more skyscrapers. But then at 34th Street look right - and there's the daddy of them all. It may not be the biggest any more but the Empire State Building is still the coolest. So tall it gets misty halfway up. No time to go up now, though. Press on to Third and East 26th.

4. Mad Hatter Saloon Bar

The Manchester City outpost in New York is in a studenty bit of of the East side called Murray Hill. This is the bar where City fans gather on match days in Manhattan. City shirts, plaques and flags fill the gaps on the wall between the big screen TVs showing the Fox Soccer Channel. It's the bar where the man the Daily Mail called the "gaffe-prone" former City chief executive Garry Cook made an infamous trip in 2010. I heard about his visit and sent along a freelance NY cameraman for Sky Sports News. Cook, looking red-eyed and jet-lagged, told the packed bar that City would beat Man United in the League Cup semi-final and go on to win the trophy. Mass cheers. Then mass embarrassment a few days later when Rooney scored another last minute winner and City were out. I met Cook a couple of times and liked his confident can-do style. The last time I saw him he was disastrously inducting Uwe Rosler into the Manchester United hall of fame at a supporters' club bash at the Etihad Stadium. I wish I'd never booked that camera.

Today a dozen or so fans watched City stutter to a 1-0 win over Swansea. Cheers all round at the final whistle and then a bonus: the infectious City anthem Boys in Blue, written by Godley and Creme from 10cc and recorded by the 1972 squad. I left with a couple of $20 souvenir tee-shirts, humming the match-day classic all the way to Madison Square Park.

5. The Flatiron Building

Love that building.

6. Union Square

The weekend before Halloween and there were pumpkins everywhere at the Union Square farmers market. Always reminds me of Charlie Brown cartoons and autumn half-terms in Norfolk; one of those bits of Americana that travelled to England and arrived on the trick or treat doorstep with added menace. The boss in Atlanta had invited us to dinner at his house the previous Wednesday: like every other house in the avenue it was spectacularly decorated with spooks, skeletons and spray-on cobwebs. Looked great. Only royal jubilees seem to prompt that spirit in the UK.

7. Greenwich Village and Soho
Artists selling their images of Manhattan on the low-rise streets, historic colonial-style houses, lots of trees, busy bars around Washington Square, a relaxed and bohemian atmosphere, a film crew near Christopher Street shooting a scene with an actor banging on the bonnet of a yellow cab - easy to see why everyone wants to live round here.

8. The High Line
A disused elevated railway that's been landscaped and converted into a very popular pedestrian walkway.
View from the High Line
Not much to see but a pleasant enough stroll with glimpses of the Hudson river on the left. Like being on a city-centre seaside pier.

9. Madison Square Garden

Venue of legends on the inside. But an ugly oval mintoe on the outside. I sat in a bar next to a Halloween cowgirl and a fairy godmother and watched the college football on TV for half an hour. It was twilight and Times Square had switched itself on when I left.

10. Times Square at Dusk.

That's more like it. Familiar from hundreds of movies and American newscasts. I'd been to meet the guys at the Nasdaq stock exchange the day before to talk about using the venue for more live inserts into Quest Means Business.
They presented me with this simulated screen grab of my projection on the screens of the building. The brutal, 60ft truth; the camera never lies.

A 15-minute walk up Broadway, via a sandwich stop at a deli, and I was back at The Hudson. A Harry Potter film was on TV when I woke up.