Sunday, 31 August 2008

Ring Of Fire

Dear Johnny Cash fans who've been directed here by the obscure digital machinations of a search engine...sorry, but there's no 'Man in Black'-themed content on this page. I have the pernicious (& clichéd) habit of using vaguely 'relevant' song titles for my posts, and since I promised a few weeks back to tell the tale of my (surplus to requirements) wedding ring, well...again, my apologies. Still, you're in good company, since the poor folk who went looking for "Billy Ray Cyrus pro union?" (no idea), "Katie Melua nip slip" (that's what they want to see more of in Odem, Texas, apparently), "bungle valve" (say what now?), "how to make a buscuit [sic] tin banjo" (even less of an idea), and "pre-preparing pasta for a crowd" (the final evidence that Google might be broken) all washed-up on these shores. Poor sods.

Anyway, as I said, it's finally time for "the wedding ring story". Hardly worth the wait, frankly...but hey ho, a promise is a promise...

...which is a notion often overlooked in favour of expediency and/or lust-and-greed-fuelled notions of personal gain in the Volsunga Saga, my favourite version of the myth of Sigurd/Siegfried/"Ziggy....dude!" the dragon-slayer - how he came to possess Andvari's cursed ring, went through fire for Brynhild only to be tricked into marrying the wrong woman, was murdered treacherously by her brothers, and the all-round carnage that ensues for everyone concerned when his widow finally has her revenge...

There. That's saved you having to sit through Wagner's entire "Ring Cycle" (60 deg. C, extremely long wash, followed by several hours in the tumble dryer), that has. And there was you thinking today might be a total loss, eh?

(Just to give an idea of the tone of the piece for anyone who's unfamiliar with it, one of the chapter headings in the German version of the legend, the Nibelungenlied, is "How they threw the corpses from the hall" - yes, it's C13th poetry that makes Chuck Norris look like a pacifist, and brilliant bed-time story material for the littl'uns).

Returning to the more immediate past, my own version of the Andvaranautr had been kicking around the house for far too long, (ever since I was traded-in for a younger model back in November last year, in fact - clearly that ring hadn't done me much good ), but I wasn't entirely sure what to do with it. I knew it wasn't worth much in it's 'slightly battered and tarnished' condition, (just like it's owner), but prices on Ebay were so low as to not make that worth the effort. Eventually, I determined to sell it to a jeweller's in Edinburgh that I remembered dealt in 2nd-hand gold items, because whatever I got for it - £10, £20?? - would be more useful than hanging-on to the damned thing.

Naturally, when I got the opportunity to jump on a train and head southwards over the Forth Bridge, I found that the shop had long since gone - hell, more stuff from my youth in Edinburgh seems to have vanished, changed ownership, or met a flying wrecking ball every time I visit the place - but there were a couple more jewellery shops just down the road, so I went to try them instead. "Nothing ventured...", as the foolishly optimistic might say...

Now, I know I wasn't exactly dressed in top-to-toe Armani, but the initial reaction of the shop assistant to my "hey, I had a gig last night - can you tell?" appearance wasn't promising...and they were very quick to express no interest whatsoever in the ring itself. The second place was a repeat performance, complete with anxious glances (and grimaced smiles) over my shoulder towards the other customers - the poor dears were clearly worried my presence might cause people with actual purchasing power to leave...

Well, there's only so much condescension and dismissiveness I can take in one morning, I'm afraid (c'mon now - I'd showered earlier, my underwear was fresh on - I was clean, dammit! It's not my fault that I have childcare-related-lack-of-sleep haggardness etched onto my face, or that I'd have to shave 3 times a day to avoid hairy chin issues..). Muttering imprecations under my breath, (which probably just served to confirm their opinion of me as some oddball social inadequate trying to sell them a worthless ring he found under a park bench), I strode out of the shop - I say 'strode', but the Medial Collateral ligament in my left knee's damaged, so any 'striding' must have been quite lop-sided...aaand we're right back to "oddball social inadequate"... - in a foul mood, rounded the corner...

...and dropped the 'cursed' ring into the outstretched hat of an old derelict guy who was sitting, begging, at the foot of a flight of stairs, and looked like he needed whatever paltry sum it might bring a damn sight more than I did.

Almost instantly, the world felt a tiny bit lighter on my shoulders...and who believes in such foolish nonsense as 'curses' these days, anyhow?

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

China In Your Hand

(Aka: "Nine And A Half Guitars II: The Ethics Strike Back")

Thanks to the incredible avalanche of a whole email (cheers, George) I received in response to my original article extolling the many virtues - especially price - of the Freshman FA1ACD electro-acoustic guitar, I felt it appropriate to revisit the subject - partly to double-check whether my original conclusions were valid (of course they bloody were), but also to include the serious questions raised when trying to add an "ethical dimension" to purchasing musical equipment.

Before I get bogged-down in all that far-too-obviously-trying-to-be-topical, Beijing Olympics tie-in business, however, I must first insult Sandi Thom. I know, cheap target, but it won't take long, and anyway, it was George who brought up the subject of her endorsement of Freshman guitars, so it's entirely his fault.

Personally, I would say that I am to "jazz drumming", what Ms. Thom is to the notion of "playing the guitar". I have heard/seen/'held a bass and tried to follow what was going on while stood next to' a fair few jazz drummers in action, and have a more-than-passing familiarity with the musical genre. I have read articles about the role of various styles of rhythm in jazz, and even perused books such as "Buddy Rich's Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments" (I have no life, honestly...) to gain further scraps of enlightenment. So I've got a reasonable appreciation for what's involved...

Never, never, if you have any respect for musicality, should I be allowed to attempt a practical demonstration of any of this theoretical 'knowledge'...and I'm sure you can fill in the rest regarding Sandi Thom's guitar-mangling. There. Right. Done. Onwards to the guitars..

Firstly, was I 'fair and balanced' (or anywhere in the vicinity thereof) in the original post? To test this, I went back to RedDogMusic and Scayles Music in Edinburgh, where both shops' staff were incredibly tolerant in letting me abuse a wide range of acoustics in my quest for the truth...

Well, one thing I discovered was that in order to find something obviously superior in sound quality, you'd have to spend almost twice as much money. Amongst many others, the Takamine EG460sc at £399 was a perfectly good guitar, and the Gitane DG-250M (£560) was very nice to play indeed - although the latter does come with a "you must perform at least 2 pieces of gypsy jazz every half-hour" stipulation that would scupper me. Sticking with Freshman, the FA350D (£399) acoustic was a thing of tonal joy and excellent construction/playability, and for only £499-ish (possibly less if you asked really nicely), you could have it's electrified single-cutaway cousin, the FA350DCE. All of them, though, a good stretch up from the £229 you could have the folk-body, single-cutaway, cedar-topped FA1ACD for, so I stand by my verdict - buy one!

On the other hand, if you have entirely more money than sense, please feel free to chuck it away on a Martin DX1 KeCe (that's what it said on the guitar, but I've struggled to find a link to that exact model online) - a slice of dodgy quality-control, Mexican-built "brand devaluing". A snip at only £639. To be fair, I tried two of these beasts, and one was...perfectly average, but not worth anything like the money. The other was shamefully poor - gaps around the neck joint, and there was a discernible drop in (un-amplified) volume when playing on the top two strings. A limón total, for sure.

Unfortunately, however, for the musician-on-a-budget, many apparent bargains like the Freshman come with an ethically-difficult label attached next to the price tag - "made in China".

Assuming, (and it's asking a lot), that we can ignore human rights issues like Tibet (campaigning for Tibetan freedom, great - but a return to the oppressive Buddhist theocracy that ran the place pre-Chinese occupation, not such a good idea), the way citizens are forcibly 'relocated' to make way for economic developments, the extreme animal cruelty that forms part of their "traditional medicine", the environmental/food supply disaster of creeping desertification caused largely by deforestation...(you can pause for breath now)...

...their reliance on massive coal-fired power stations to run the factories in which they make our shiny electrical toys (if they ever felt the need to reduce their carbon emissions/pollution/reliance on oil, maybe they could take advantage of their enormous - and still largely peasant -population, and organise them into vast, thousands-of-exercise-bikes-pedalling-at-once human generators? Just a thought...), their financial/military support for other oppressive regimes, the use of torture on prison inmates...etc,etc

Then, if we're talking specifically about acoustic guitars, there's (yet) another issue to be addressed. One which doesn't quite grab the media headlines as often or as prominently as those listed above. According to information from sources such as Illegal,,and, China is the biggest single consumer of illegally cut timber in the world - on a scale which I, for one, find hard to comprehend:

"In 2004, more than 1 million cubic meters of timber, about 95% of Burma's total timber exports to China were illegally exported from northern Burma to Yunnan Province. This trade, amounting to a $250 million loss for the Burmese people, every year, takes place with the full knowledge of the Burmese regime, the government in Beijing and the rest of the international community. Chinese companies, local Chinese authorities, regional Tatmadaw and ethnic ceasefire groups are all directly involved.

"On average, one log truck, carrying about 15 tonnes of timber, logged illegally in Burma, crosses an official Chinese checkpoint every seven minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; yet they do nothing." Said Jon Buckrell of Global Witness." (from the Mongabay link above)

Now, Freshman are very keen to emphasise that their timber sourcing is done from their UK base, and thus governed by EU legislation - but what about other Chinese-built brands which are not? (e.g. Blueridge)

Are we most likely to improve their business practices through trade & engagement (but if they get our money, why should they bother changing? And while the majority of their people seem happy as long as they're getting "bread and [5-ring Olympic] circuses", what should their government care?), or by boycotting the products - if we can afford to? (and if our individual actions will have any significance in a global marketplace?)

I don't have an answer to that one, I'm afraid, and I make no sanctimonious claims to ethical 'purity', either. I have never owned a Chinese-built guitar or bass (and don't intend to), but a cursory glance at the back panel of most of my hi-tech gear reveals that a lot of it was made there - especially the small, cheap, stuff - things I've recommended on this blog, like the Hartke Bass Attack, or Behringer D.I. box. The (Ebay bargain) Legacy digital piano in the corner of the sitting-room is 100% Chinese. Even my Ashdown bass amp, for all it was "Manufactured in England", relies on circuit boards of Chinese origin. Oh, and I've completely failed to boycott the Beijing Olympics, because, well, I love sport (I used to waste vast chunks of my life doing it), and the spectacle of so many incredible athletes inflicting so much pain on themselves in a multiplicity of bizarre ways is one I find irresistible. Plus the display of physical achievements is a great encouragement for my boys, of course - except the BBC's coverage of the weightlifting was nothing short of abysmal...

Being serious again, at present it seems that avoiding any of this 'ethical contamination' would take an inordinate amount of time and effort in locating products that were entirely free from taint, and a considerably higher budget than that of your average, often-struggling, musician. Naturally, if you are lucky enough to have both the time and the money to keep all your musical equipment ethically 'clean', then I wish you well, and can only hope to emulate you at some time in the future. I promise I won't mention the carbon footprint involved in importing American-made instruments, etc...

Still, at the very least, if anyone who's made it this far is considering buying any merbau flooring for their house - please, take the time to read this pdf report on China's activities in Papua, Indonesia - and then choose to buy something else instead.

It's not much, but it might help. Maybe.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)

I'd better kick off by reassuring everyone that there's no actual violence depicted anywhere in this blog posting. Some harm may come to the English language, but even that will most probably be of a cartoon-like and highly unrealistic nature. Ok, so, disclaimer over, this week I'm asking "What better place to become completely lost in a crowd than the very heart of Edinburgh during the world's biggest performing arts festival?" (Yeah, I know, I can think of quite a few, too, but my travel budget won't stretch that this'll just have to do for now, ok?).

Or,to put it another way, where better to feel a sense of total disconnection and dislocation from teeming hordes of your fellow human beings?

(Quick apology for the intensely musically-minded: I was originally going to bang on about mediocre acoustic guitars, yet again, but something made me think about Saturday nights in general, then 2 Saturdays ago in particular - probably having to queue in a packed Asda while trying to keep the kids from destroying everything within their collective grasp).

Now, I'll admit that this lack of late-night (it was after 11pm - oooh, the hedonism) joie-de-vivre on my part can partially be explained by the absence of any alcohol in my bloodstream, something which definitely set me apart from the bulk of my fellow wanderers. That, and my dismal failure to achieve the objective I had set myself. Well, the primary objective, at any rate. The secondary objective* was never going to happen, although I did actually succeed at one point in making a very attractive lady I'd never met before laugh in a loud and immoderate manner, (which is supposedly a good start**). Not, I must confess, through the sheer charm and brilliance of my debonair wit and repartee, but by walking (stupidly and painfully) into a temporary road sign - and not with the slapstick genius of Buster Keaton, alas, but rather the lackwitted clumsiness of the execrable Mr. Bean. Ho hum.

No, what I'd set out to smother myself in that Saturday was a bracingly nostalgic dash of "true spirit of the Fringe" body-lotion...those slightly 'downmarket' (aka "cheap"), 'experimental' ("The Life And Death of Salvador Allende", in mime, set to a soundtrack of tree frog mating calls), 'minimalist' ("We couldn't afford a set. Or props. Or costumes. But we do have a wig.") productions that used to be stuck on in tiny halfway-down-the-pee-stained-close*** venues at bizarre times of day and night. And why the hell not? I was free from child-related responsibilities, was master of my own fortune, and had bugger-all money with which to pay to see a semi-decent show.

Sadly, my search was entirely in vain. Rents, competition for spaces, the price of getting even a single-line entry in the Fringe Guide (£289 - £385, for those too lazy to follow the link - which does contain a fascinating breakdown of all the costs involved), and my not-having consulted a copy of that guide beforehand (apparently there was quite a lot of free stuff going-on in various pubs - but by that hour almost all 'comedy', not quite the "wonderfully-terrible" drama I had in mind, but still...) meant that I was condemned to wander the streets, surrounded by a strange combination of meandering tourists, festival goers striding between the comedy behemoths at the Pleasance, Assembly Rooms and Gilded Buffoon (sic), and the usual weekend drink-yer-face-aff Edinburgh pub-and-clubberati.

One of the latter I really out to thank, as it happens, since her sudden appearance (rounding the corner of West College Street, this barely-legal, tiny party-pink-outfit and over-used tanning-bed-glow princess carried on a high-pitched argument with some altogether invisible disputants, while remaining completely oblivious to physical obstacles of any nature), sparked off some strange song-writing notions buried deep in my head, and by the time I'd skirted the immense queues of people waiting in the spitting rain to get into... anywhere, frankly, and was heading back over Bruntsfield Links to my designated sofa-bed, I'd got about 90% of a song swirling around in my head.

Which is most unusual, because I'm one of those people who can't - absolutely can't - write songs. Oh, bits of music, sure - riffs, chord sequences, odd snatches of tunes - they come and go pretty much as they please from time to time. Whether they're any 'good' or not, well, that's another issue entirely. When it comes to lyrics, however, I've never been able to write anything that hasn't made me cringe almost immediately, and recoil from the page in a fit of abject literary worthlessness. Now, some cruel folk might go so far as to suggest that the world would be a far better place if only certain famous recording artists had had the same reaction towards their own efforts, (I was so sorely tempted to include a vast list of obvious offenders at this point, but for the sake of brevity...Oasis), but then if I ever get round to recording this rare beast, I'm sure that it'll offend a great many people's linguistic sensibilities, so I couldn't possibly comment.

Ah well. So much for Saturday night. One or two of you might have expected the "wedding ring" story from last week to be revealed, but that happened on the next Monday morning, so including it here just wouldn't be appropriate. And that would never do.

*"The secondary objective"
- I'm a reasonably average male, not entirely dead (yet), and have been enduring involuntary singularity since the end of last October. Work it out...

**"supposedly a good start" - When you have such an ideal face for radio as myself, amusing the ladies is, so I have been informed by many a "women's interest" magazine left in doctors' and dentists' waiting rooms (that's my story, and you can't prove otherwise), a good way to install yourself in their affections. I am, unfortunately, utterly without flirting skills, (as many of my friends will confirm with amusing anecdotes of my ineptitude in that department), so am serially incapable of progressing from that stage to the mythical goal that many of the great historical chroniclers describe as "closing the deal". How I ever got married is still one of the great unsolved mysteries of modern science. ('Why' I got married, and why it took 9 years to fall apart are different - yet equally mysterious - questions altogether.)

***"close" - a 'close' is an Edinburgh term for an alleyway, most of which run north or south from the old High Street - the historic spine of the city that drops steadily from the castle promontory at its western end, down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (just past the crass expression of architectural ineptitude that is the Scottish Parliament building) to the east. Some of the 'closes' are over 400 years old, and seem to provide excellent outdoor toilet facilities (primarily for males, it must be said, although on occasion...!) late at night - especially during large public events. A bit too public for pursuing "the secondary objective" for most, not that that deters some people - who shall, for the purposes of libel suits, remain nameless...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar Some More

Ok, well, this is going to be something of a rarity for me - a relatively short blog posting. Let's face it, my sporadic, feature-length rambles through almost-coherent verbiage just don't fit with the low-attention-span, channel-flipping, "see it, want it, need it, buy it, love it, begin to realise it's not going to replace the mercilessly festering hole at the centre of your existence and move on swiftly to the next bright shiny toy" modern lifestyle. So here I am, attempting to adapt. A bit. Grudgingly. Clinging ridiculously to my adjectival addiction and 'tangential sub-clause' dependency. But still, it's a start. And it might make this blog more of a regular occurrence, too - wouldn't that be such a thrill for the world?

To maintain the general "rarity" theme, on Sunday I actually escaped from my "mundane domestic crises" duties long enough to wrap my fingers round a bass guitar in public for the first time very long while. (Either that, or the Alzheimer's has kicked-in damned early. Oh, fair enough, not that early, not exactly New England Journal of Medicine 'research paper of the month' early, I grant you...but c'mon, give a man who's otherwise abiding on life's scrapheap a break, huh?).

It was, admittedly, what could be safely termed a "low-key" gig, (any "lower" and - insert a topical-political-satire comparison of your own choosing here - if I add one, then by the time anyone reads this whoever I've had a go at will be more popular than - insert name of local bland-but-successful entertainer with a bad toupé), and trying to play songs I knew rather less than perfectly (!) on a fretless instrument without any monitoring made for some "interesting" note choices at inconvenient moments (aka: "I've wandered inadvisedly above the 14th fret and I'm at least a quarter-tone sharp, but a quick slide down to somewhere in the general vicinity of the pitch I was originally aiming for and the audience'll be none the wiser") added to the sweatiness of an already-sticky Edinburgh night.

Still, it was indeed an excellent laugh. Playing some of my mate Martin Lennon's "nothing like as miserable as you first might think (or they might sound)" songs was most enjoyable, as well as pounding out an energetic rendition of that old WildGeese wedding favourite, "Psycho Killer".

In fact it would have been worth turning up just to hear main attraction Hannah O'Reilly's great songs, brilliant singing, and determinedly difficult-to-follow-at-a-glance, created-mostly-out-of-naive-cunning chord voicings. Go listen. She's bloody good!

Quite apart from that event, the weekend yielded a few sadly "unexpectedly poor and badly over-priced" guitars and basses, some very pleasant food that I didn't have to cook, and a slightly unusual fate for a wedding ring.

Oh, and that rarest of all things happened - I wrote a song! (Not saying it's any bloody good, mind...)

But that's all best kept for another day...