At long last: X Marks the Spot, Great God Pan the opera, Eastercon and a belated tribute to Vi Subversa

book_x_marks_the_spot_front_2It’s been a while since my last post, to put it lightly. What can I say? Deadlines, deadlines, day job and all the usual. I should know by now that the best way to blog is to fire off quick items, otherwise you’re faced with the prospect of knitting together disparate events. But that’s life, a series of disparate items.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll have a story in an anthology X Marks the Spot, published by NewCon Press to mark its tenth anniversary in July. It doesn’t seem long since I went to an event to celebrate the publisher’s fifth anniversary.

I previously published with NewCon in the anthology Conflicts. Some time ago at a bar, editor and writer Ian Whates told me he wanted stories for an anthology called Conflicts. Conflicts? You want conflicts, I’ve got conflicts! So I sent him “Harmony in My Head”, a story set around the time of the 2005 7/7 London bombings and the anti-G8 mobilisation in Scotland. Tinnitus and parallel universes were also involved.

It turned out that Conflicts (2010) was primarily a collection of military SF, which my story wasn’t, but Ian published it anyway. At least one reviewer expressed bemusement that the only military hardware in the story was a quick glimpse of a Chinook helicopter in a newspaper photo.

I’m very pleased and proud to have a story published by NewCon again, and be on board to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Easterconeastercon cate and rosanne
I attended Eastercon at the end of March. It’s been my first Eastercon for several years. I felt sentimental about it being in Manchester, site of the first con I ever attended – Eastercon 1998. I went to some good panels, but now that I’m looking back over a few months and my memory is hazy I have to admit that a high point was dinner in the Greek tapas bar over the road in the company of Simon Bestwick, Nina Allen, Cate Gardner and Priya Sharma. And here’s a nice photo of myself (left) and Cate (right), taken by Cate. I’m notoriously camera-shy but I’m glad I gave in to the cajoling for a selfie. A ‘good’ photo of myself is one where I don’t look like a zombie or an axe murderer – so I think this one fits the bill.

Great God Pan – the opera
Those of you who enjoyed Helen’s Story might be interested in a forthcoming opera based on The Great God Pan. While I’ve not been an opera follower myself, I’m taking a great interest in this one. Composed by Ross Crean, the opera sets out with similar aims to give the vilified Helen Vaughan a voice. In her final aria she sings:

We will raise the living dead
Through the power of horned head,
Cloven foot and revelry.
Thus the Lord of Trickery will
Set this mortal coil on fire
With every succulent desire.
Pan is all, and all is Pan,
And we will hence return again!

Here’s a clip with some background information and music. Apparently, the production will be given a steampunk aesthetic. I really hope I have the opportunity to see it some day.

Vi Subversa (Frances Sokolov) 20.06.35–20.02.16
So now we’re going to hark back to earlier in the year… If you recall, my last blog ended with reactions to the deaths of David Bowie and Paul Kantner. Since then, we’ve lost even more creative people, including Prince, Victoria Wood and Vi Subversa.

Several months gone, I still want to say something about Vi – guitarist, singer and songwriter with feminist punk band Poison Girls. She died at the age of 80 last February.

I first went to see Poison Girls in 1980, and went to their gigs many times throughout the decade. Conway Hall, Chat’s Palace, the Cricketers at the Oval, the squatted ambulance station on the Old Kent Road, other venues with names that have long slipped away into the spaces between my brain cells.

I also remember when Vi performed at a picnic in the garden at the occupied South London Women’s Hospital in the summer of 1984. She was accompanied by one guitarist, 17-year-old Debbie Smith. I have a vivid recollection of Vi performing “Under the Doctor”, very appropriate to the hospital setting: “What I’m trying to say… is you’ve got to be strong, so strong/Because nothing takes the pain away for long!” Sadly, the garden  where this took place is now a carpark for the Tesco superstore that replaced part of the hospital.

In December 2015 I went to Brighton to attend what was to be Vi’s final gig, thrilled to see her performing again. Along with her own songs she sang several Brecht & Weill compositions including “Pirate Jenny”. Her voice was perfect for Brecht. Songs such as”Old Tart’s Song” and “I’ve Done it All Before” (just about the only love song I can stomach) acquired even more resonance when sung by an 80-year-old woman. I especially liked the little polyamorous flourish she added at the end: “I’ve done it all before, but not with you… and you… and you.”

I ended up sitting across a table from Vi before she went on stage. She was talking to one of the gig organisers, then to another musician. I wanted to say hello since I interviewed her for radical women’s magazine Bad Attitude in 1995, which marked the release of a retrospective CD and a grand reunion gig at the Astoria. I also went to her 60th birthday party and had the pleasure of getting to know her a little then.

But as I sat there at the Brighton venue I was thinking: ‘Better not disturb her before she goes on stage, she might be preparing for her performance and getting into the mood… etc etc… I’ll catch her afterwards.’

But I didn’t manage to find her that night, so that didn’t happen. Perhaps she left just after her performance. And now I know it won’t ever happen.

I deeply regret that I was too stupidly shy to say hello, but I am grateful that I had a chance to see that wonderful gig. Vi Subversa was – and still is – an inspiration to me.

Here are a couple of songs from that gig, “Persons Unknown: and “Old Tart’s Song”. As you might expect, the acoustic version of “Persons Unknown” is quieter than the original, but even more powerful: “Survival in silence isn’t good enough no more…”

And here’s the original “Persons Unknown” for a bit of contrast… I believe this was the first Poison Girls record.

I’ll now share a scan of the article I coauthored in Bad Attitude. The other article on the spread is about an ill-fated UN women’s conference in Beijing, in case you’re wondering. Back in the day I suppose our prevailing aesthetic was: “We’ve got a new font and we’re gonna use it!”

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If you have fond memories of any Poison Girls gigs or want to find out more about Vi and her wonderful music, you might be interested in joining a Tributes to Vi Subversa Facebook page. There you can find personal reflections and links to music videos, interviews, obituaries and tributes.

There may be trouble ahead…
Now I’m just getting up to speed. The events of the past few weeks weigh heavily, but this post is long enough. I’m sure more ranting, writing and serious thinking is called for in the near future. So at the risk of appearing flippant, I’ll close with a certain old Nat King Cole tune…

 

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Book news and reviews, musical memories and memorials

6a00d8345295c269e201bb0898b1c1970dHere’s a belated happy New Year to all my readers, and a kick-off to 2016 with some bits and pieces…

To start things off, the paperback edition of Jews vs Aliens AND Jews vs Zombies is now available in one omnibus volume. So that’s two books for the price of one, comprising 18 stories. This includes my tale “The Matter of Meroz”, which was selected by James Everington for his list of the year’s favourite stories. Nice one, James!

And a few years after the fact, two new reviews of Helen’s Story have recently appeared. Bobby Derie writes in the Innsmouth Free Press:

Helen Vaughan is alive and well in contemporary London, both more and less than the genderbending changeling that Machen had made of her. A century after the events of Machen’s novella, she has set up as an artist in Shoreditch, seeking through her art to make contact once more with her elusive fey companion. The language is sensual, the imagery vivid, the critical eye on the inhabitants of the art scene perceptive and penetrating, creating caricatures from which characters emerge like blooming flowers, Helen Vaughan the busy honey bee spreading the pollen from one to the next, all while reliving the events of “The Great God Pan” (and, skillfully intermixed, elements of Machen’s “The White People”).

Helen'sStory cover_smallHe also pays me a great compliment by comparing my writing to Caitlin R Kiernan’s. Nice one there, too.

Mythogeography, a site dedicated to psychogeography and the art of wandering, also featured a review. Crab Man describes Helen as “a lovely read; an unembarrassed and unembarrassing hymn to pleasure and to an interwoven world of material and metamorphosis”. Thanks be to Mytho!

I’m very pleased that people are still reading and commenting on this book. And it turns out that there are still signed hardback copies left at PS Publishing, which are now on sale for a mere £4. Many more excellent titles are available at knock-down prices in this general clear-out at PS – I have my eye on a few – and there are reductions on postage for multiple orders.

The opening month of 2016 has been cruel one for the loss of musicians. Like many others I was stunned and saddened by the death of David Bowie only days after the release of his new album and his 69th birthday. And hadn’t I been belting out “Rebel Rebel” at a karaoke in the not-too-distant past? It all came back to me.

Much has been written about Bowie since his death and doubtless more will be written. I was stunned and saddened, but this was shared with many people – especially since I’m based in the general Brixton area. When I turned up at the mural off the High Street around 11pm, people were still gathering, playing his songs and remembering ‘our Brixton boy’. Candles are still burning there as I write. There was both collective mourning and celebration of the music he has left behind.

For the record, I’ll mention that my favourite Bowie songs are “Suffragette City” and “Panic in Detroit”. Before there was punk, there was Bowie. You could almost pogo to “Suffragette City”. Here’s a live version from the Hammersmith Palais – sadly, this renowned live music venue is now a gym. As I watch this video, I can see a lot of headshaking and handwaving from the audience… perhaps a few demi-pogos can be detected as well.

Then… A couple of weeks after Bowie’s death, I was stunned again to hear that Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner had died. This hit me even harder. It was only a few months ago that I’d rediscovered his more recent folk-inspired music and its link to the legacy of the Weavers.

The grief at Bowie’s death was shared with many around me, and it was tempered by a massive celebration of his music. But my Facebook feed was pretty quiet on the loss of Kantner. I suspect it’s because many of my friends are younger than me. To them, the Airplane was just one of those hippie bands from 1960s/70s. Yeah, the Jefferson Airplane had some good songs like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”. But my younger friends didn’t grow up with those guys. The very first album I bought was Crown of Creation. For many of my friends it might’ve been something by Ian Dury, Madness or the Specials, Alison Moyet, Joan Armatrading or the Slits – or perhaps Bowie.

One friend did post an item that that the Jefferson Airplane’s first female vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson, died on the same day as Paul at the same age of 74. She had left the group when she had a baby, then Grace Slick stepped in. Anyway, here’s an early Airplane song where she duets with Marty Balin.

Back in the day my Airplane-love focused very much on Grace and her magnificent voice, but I later appreciated that it was Paul who brought the political and science fictional themes to the band. I was just starting to read SF and all things weird, and hearing it infuse my favourite rock music was sublime.

I later turned to Twitter for people sharing similar memories, though that first album financed by after-school newspaper routes or carefully accumulated allowances tended to be Surrealistic Pillow rather than Crown of Creation.

I feel as if I already wrote a tribute to the Jefferson Airplane and Kantner in particular in Soliloquy for Pan: It’s Not Just About the Pipes. The story that appeared in Soliloquy, “The Lady in the Yard” was also such a tribute, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time of writing. So I intended to add to these homages by posting a live version of War Movie here, since the album version from Bark already appears in my earlier post.

However, I couldn’t find one on YouTube or anywhere I else. A friend remarked that “War Movie” has been overlooked on all the compilation albums and I gave the matter some thought. I’m just very fond of it, though other tracks from this band may have stood up better to the test of time. Well, specifying a long-departed date for when the revolution takes place may be why! But that’s part of its charm for me, and perhaps it lends the tune a certain poignancy. And like any piece of outdated SF, it shows us more about the era it was written in than the future it envisioned.

I remember hanging out with a few friends in my college dorm in 1976, listening to this song rather glumly since nothing of the sort had happened in ‘nineteen hundred and seventy-five’. Then we put on ‘Volunteers’ followed by ‘Suffragette City’ to cheer ourselves up.

We were well and truly ready for punk.

In that spirit I’ll end with a fast(er) and thumpin’ version of “Volunteers”. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I am a lover of speculative fiction. And I do like to speculate and will do so at any opportunity. So I immediately imagined Paul Kantner jamming on this song with Joe Strummer. What a ‘heavenly’ racket those two powerful rhythm guitarists would make! And Pete Seeger came into this fantasy too. Maybe he’d pull the plug, as he did when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Or perhaps he’d shake his head with a bemused chuckle, then get out his banjo.

 

 

 

Manchester, myth and music

Hey, that guest blog from Simon Bestwick was fun… I’d like to thank him for stopping by. I’d also recommend guest-blogging to those who might feel the urge to hold forth every so often but don’t want to make a commitment to a regular blog just yet. I started off that way with a guest slot at TTA Press, all about Machen, Misogyny and Madwomen in Attics.

Which brings me to my current post, which also as a lot of ‘M’s in it. As mentioned, I went up to Ladyfest Manchester in November and did a reading as part of the launch for the Rebel Dykes film trailer. This included a fragment of a novel that revisited the South London Women’s Hospital and a bit from my recent blog post on Rebel Dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space. The room was packed – the event had the atmosphere of a gig rather than a literary soiree… People even spontaneously sang out to the “Dykes of Brixton”. I was thrilled by the enthusiastic response by younger women, and also aware of how much I stand to learn from them in turn during this process.

So finally, here is the trailer we launched that night…

After the presentation, I got a drink and eventually turned my attention to the musical talent on the main stage. This started a train of thought about music and urban myth. Recently I saw a BBC documentary about indie music, Music for MisfitsSome of it I enjoyed, but I will also agree with Emma Jackson on the programme’s ‘restrospective sexism’ and how it ignored the sizeable input of women musicians. Where were PJ Harvey, the Voodoo Queens, Echobelly, and so many women who made some noise in the 1990s?

I always find it startling to watch historical documentaries about a period that I lived through, a time that had been a ‘now’ for me. While it could be seen as a part of growing older, I imagine this is also what is meant by the ‘making history‘. Myth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I writer I often deal with myths and draw inspiration from them.

But I’m wary when mythologising has the effect of flattening a lived experience and robbing it of ambiguity and nuance, or hiding major parts of that experience from view. A mythologised experience often stands outside the stream of time, as if the branches that extend into the present have been lopped off. It’s like a bug preserved in amber. In the case of the Rebel Dykes project, this is exactly what the film-makers are striving to avoid.

Meanwhile, musical retrospectives can be very seductive. You hear a lot of favourite old tunes,  they provoke a glow of nostalgia. But they often leave me unsatisfied, as if a big chunk of the story is missing. Friends I spoke with at the Ladyfest weekend observed that the Manchester segment of Music for Misfits and similar documentaries give the impression no real music has been made in the city since the days of the Smiths, Happy Mondays and Oasis.

But the music I enjoyed showed that was far from the truth. One of the bands, Factory Acts, also makes an explicit connection to their city’s musical heritage while striking out in its own unique direction. “Factory Acts are a Salford based dark electro, alt-dance duo. We exist at the edge of the analogue-digital divide, sometimes dreaming, always dancing.” I’ll say that I love a band where the bass plays lead…

And let’s have some rock ‘n roll theremin playing! You’ll see some theremin action at this performance from the Pussy Riot Revolution Festival in 2013.

Another brilliant band was ILL, which happens to include Rebel Dykes co-director, Harri Shanahan. ILL plays queercore riot grrrl style, spikey and discordant and wonderful. If I may indulge in some old fogeyness, I’d also say they’re rather like a 21st-century Delta Five. You can check out their Housewives Trilogy EP and listen to their signature song below.

And here’s a live performance, also from 2013’s Pussy Riot Revolution Festival.

I only caught a bit of the Galivantes after our presentation. But I liked what I heard and would like to see them again.

The night finished in storming style with hip-hop band Ajah UK – here are a couple of videos from them – a live performance of “Money Ain’t Your Friend” and a performance of “Don’t Step on My Shoe”.

During the event, further news about the attacks in Lebanon and Paris was just filtering through. Because I was at a gig myself, I felt especially emotional hearing about the attacks at the Bataclan. Many of us were also concerned about how the horror of these attacks will be compounded with racism and attacks on civil liberties, as well as military action by governments that will result in many more deaths.

It seemed very important to keep making music wherever we are and to oppose suppression wherever it descends. Though much has happened, been written about and analysed since mid-November, as an immediate reaction this comment by a French woman living in the UK still nails it: “My heart is with the world, no borders, no hierarchy…”

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Rebel dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space

Feminaxe

“Before there were queer activists, before there were Riot Grrls, there were the Rebel Dykes of London. They were young, they were feminists, they were anarchists, they were punks. They lived together in squats and at Peace Camps. They went to political demos every Saturday, they set up squatted creches and bookshops, feminist newspapers and magazines. They had bands like Poison Girls, Mouth Almighty, The Darlings and Well Oiled Sisters… This documentary film is being made because the history of the London Rebel Dykes of the 1980s is in danger of being forgotten. Rebel dykes created their own world, made their own rules, and refused to be ignored. So we can’t let history tidy them away.”

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On 14 November Ladyfest Manchester will feature meetings, workshops and music AND the launch of the trailer for an exciting new documentary about those hell-raising 1980s Rebel Dykes of London. Unfortunately the day-long Ladyfest event is already sold out, but if you’re already going you might be interested in our presentation at 6.30pm.

Producer Siobhan Fahey will do a presentation with music, images and oral history. I’ll be reading from a story or two about my rebel dyke days, along with fellow writer Maj Ikle. Music on stage includes Lesley Woods (former Au Pairs singer and guitarist) and the film’s co-director Harri Shanahan will be playing with her band ILL. For the full line-up see the Ladyfest Manchester website or click on the schedule on the right.

For those who are interested but haven’t got a ticket to Ladyfest, Siobhan will do a similar presentation in London on 5 December at the Speak Up! Speak Out! queer history conference.

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Ye olde Amstrad

If the queer riot graphic at the top seems familiar to a few of you, I included it in my 2013 post, One Funeral and a Playlist. It’s based on the front page of a ‘zine called Feminaxe, the result of a hectic all-night lay-out session in 1987. We needed to get it to the printer so we’d have the paper for a Clause 28 march in Manchester. We did most of the typesetting on an Amstrad but these were the days before full-on computer design. Quark was only a creamy cheese our homesick German friends talked about, not the ubiquitous graphics application later replaced by InDesign. So lay-out involved cutting stuff up, laboriously scratching at those incendiary headlines in Letraset, spray-mounting and moving pieces of paper about, having a laugh but also getting grumpy with lack of sleep. And despite our greatest efforts, sticky bits of paper would inevitably be left stuck to the floor.

Those Clash-inspired lyrics with a queer twist came from a song by the Sluts From Outer Space, inspired by a fight with the cops on Downing Street during a Clause 28 march in 1987. Afterwards a few of us ended up revising “White Riot” as we made our way home. Another rewrite we perpetrated was “The Dykes of Brixton”: “You can nick us you can evict us but you have to answer to oh oh the Dykes of Brixton”. Well, I really did love the Clash, and still do.

Sluts From Outer Space 1988ish 1

Three out of seven or eight Sluts. Briefly we were called Rebel Sleaze but that name never stuck

Rampage

At Gay Pride 1988 in Jubilee Gardens

Beyond the parodies, our own songs included the (anti)bicentennial in Australia, more stuff about Clause 28, Restart interviews (forerunner to the benefit sanctions regime). And sex of course, with our finale number “Wild, Hot and Wet”.

Our biggest gig took place at East London Polytechnic in Stratford, where we supported punky-reggae band Culture Shock As I watched them, I was very impressed that the bass player played with three fingers. Oh yes, did I forget to mention that I played bass?

I recently saw that Culture Shock has been gigging again. Not so for the Sluts, I’m afraid. We split sometime in 1989 due to the proverbial personal and musical differences, or perhaps it was because some of us moved out of London. Whatever… We did have a brief reunion for a couple of numbers at a 1990 gig by Latin/Spanish band Los Lasses, which involved our drummer Jill.

There are no YouTube videos of the Sluts, and our recordings are just on cassette – I have one from a very chaotic rehearsal. It is currently being digitised but I expect to shudder when I hear it again! But I do have a photo of us performing in front of the wonderful banner we used for marches and gigs.

Unfortunately, the banner no longer exists. It was cut in half when someone at the squat where Feminaxe had an ‘office’ (an empty housing benefit office next to what is now the Hootenanny pub) used it for a curtain when she ran a rave. If I recall (and I could be wrong so many years after) it was a paid event. I regarded this as our own countercultural version of the backlash and creeping conservatism of the 1990s – OK now to use communal space in squats to make money, was it? So we had our disagreements; it wasn’t all sisterhood and sweetness. But maybe we’re getting out of the time period covered in the film…

Now, a word about my writing. Though I was reading a lot of speculative fiction, most of my own work at the time was non-fiction, polemic and straight-up realism. But in retrospect, I believe that the name of our band hinted at the more fantastical turn that my writing would take in the future…

Soliloquy for Pan: it’s not just about the pipes

Pan 1Pan 2I’m letting you all know that Soliloquy for Pan, which includes my story “The Lady in the Yard”, was released at the end of June by Egaeus Press (yes, deadlines + day job have put my bloggage behind once again). Like anything produced by Egaeus, Soliloquy is a spectacularly beautiful book – as you can see here.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to buy it now. According to Egaeus, the edition has sold out entirely during pre-ordering. Editor Mark Beech however has hinted at the strong possibility of another printing in the autumn, so you can add yourself to the Egaeus email list to keep informed.

In “The Lady in the Yard”, Pan takes on female form and visits the yard of a Bronx apartment block in the early 60s. In my last post Musical Interlude 3: Farewell Ronnie Gilbert I suggested a connection between this story and the recently deceased Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers. So here it is… “The Lady in the Yard” began as a follow-up to “She Lives in the Deep”, which appeared in The Monster Book for Girls in 2012. The Weavers are present in the narrative and provide a musical motif throughout the piece.

In “She Lives in the Deep” I wrote about Suzy, a little girl trying to lure a green and blue parakeet into her hand on a snowy day so she could take it back to her apartment and look after it. Nothing supernatural happened, and I literally left my character dangling. But in the follow-up story, the Lady in the Yard has appeared, saving Suzy’s life but not all of her toes, which she loses as a result of frostbite.

The 1960s Suzy brings a record into school by the Weavers, a lefty folk group popular in New York at the time. But teacher disapproves, saying this is a bunch of Communists. Suzy however loves the Weavers and she’s especially impressed with Ronnie Gilbert: “But all four Weavers look very friendly on that record cover, especially the fat guy. The lady wears a shiny sleeveless black dress. Her head is thrown back and her mouth is wide open to let the song out. Suzy leans her head back like the lady from the Weavers as she sings…” 

With “The Lady in the Yard”, Suzy reappears in the 1970s as a pot-puffing flute-playing teenager who fervently wishes to meet the Lady in the Yard again. She’s an outcast in her high school, and escapes through reading mythology and science fiction, plus furtive late-night radio sessions listening to the likes of WBAI’s Bob Fass and Alison Steele ‘the Nightbird’ on WNEW-FM. She creates a world of her own in an abandoned swimming pool surrounded by underbrush, where she plays the flute and records on her reel-to-reel.

Perhaps the Soliloquy book resembles the old edition of Bullfinch’s Mythology that Suzy treasures. It looks like the kind of book Suzy would read it in bed while listening to her favourite late night DJs.

In “The Lady in the Yard”, I drew image57on the early versions of the myth that concerned me in Helen’s Story – Pan as a shapeshifter and gender-shifter as well. Though this is the older Arcadian myth that didn’t quite find its way into the familiar classical mythology, there are still some representations of female Pan figures in Greek and Roman art. The most well-known one was found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, where a female Pan figure suckles a young goat while a male Pan figure plays an instrument.

Once again, Suzy doesn’t fare well when she shares her literary and musical interests. At school she gives a ‘book report’ on the post-nuclear apocalyptic classic, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. She identifies with Sophie, a friend of the protagonist who has six toes. Sophie has to hide her extra toes so she isn’t seen as a mutated Chrysalids_first_edition_1955abomination, while Suzy must hide her missing toes. After she explains the themes of this favourite book to her classmates, she is derided as ‘Mutant Sue’.

The Chrysalids (or Re-Birth in the US) had certainly been a cherished book when I was in my teens. I gather it is now part of the school curriculum in the UK, but in those days it was one of the books I had to hide under my desk during lessons. I must’ve read it at least five times. My reading pleasure was heightened by the thrill of recognition when I came upon this dialogue towards the end: “Life is change, that is how it differs from the rocks… you are the crown of creation and you’ve got no place to go.” Wow! I was reading the lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation”.

Now, Crown of Creation was the first album I ever bought. Through my pre-teen and teenage years the Airplane was one of my top bands. Later I’d be blasting out songs like Volunteers, and listening to the likes of Sunfighter, Blows Against the Empire and Bark. Even the Airplane’s sillier songs like Have You Seen the Saucers (I did have an interest in UFOs at the time, and my favourite band singing a song about them was especially exciting) found their way onto my reel-to-reel.

So while the Weavers provided a soundtrack to “She Lives in the Deep” – along with the theme song from Diver Dan – “The Lady in the Yard” is definitely propelled by the Jefferson Airplane. And imagine my amazement when I uncovered links between these two musical inspirations: it was just like discovering the lyrics to “Crown of Creation” in a beloved book.

As I cruised about YouTube at some ridiculous hour in the night, I came across a 2008 incarnation of the Jefferson Starship singing “Drinking Gourd”, an underground railway song popularised by the Weavers in the 1950s. I found this was part of an album called Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. 

So here’s the Starship doing “Drinking Gourd” at a festival in Bedford. You might also want to check out the studio version, which has an infectious boogie woogie roll to it (However, I thought the picture of the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson appearing alongside a song about the underground railroad a bit dubious, though it is the album cover.)

Much of this album is a tribute to the Weavers, covering songs like “Wasn’t that a Time”, “Drinking Gourd” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” along with music from Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and recent compositions. The current band has a lovely way of rewriting the old songs, adapting them while keeping the spirit of the original. Starship singer Cathy Richardson ably fills the formidable shoes of Ronnie Gilbert and Grace Slick, while putting her own soulful stamp on the tunes. I stopped listening to the Starship long ago when they blanded-out with numbers like “We Built This City”, so this was a surprise and a revelation.

I found this interview with singer, guitarist and band founder Paul Kantner, where he talks about the influence of the Weavers.

“I was primarily and greatly inspired and energized by the Weavers, a folk music group from the forties and fifties that was one of Pete Seeger’s early bands. In so many ways The Weavers taught me “how to be a band”. There was a combination of beautiful three-part harmony singing and the rich folk music as well; there was also the connection to social responsibility that led to a mentality that drove our own band to the act of supporting and doing benefits for any number of people and causes in need, and then there was just the overall joy of life that shown forth from The Weavers. I treasure The Weavers still. It was for me… a memorable beginning.”

He also bigs up the Weavers in this article from Craig Morrison:

“The Weavers were my prime teachers. I sit at the feet of the Weavers, still. They were all very different people. Probably all together they make up one perfect human being, sort of like our band, Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship. The Weavers and Pete Seeger particularly. What got me into music was Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo book. I was a banjo player, played in college, still play banjo, love banjo. Ronnie Gilbert was the reason I wanted to work with a woman singer, just because she so obviously added a great unknown quantity that takes you far beyond even the expectations of a known. I never saw the Weavers perform, that was my one great loss, only Pete, and he was good on his own. I really wish I had seen the Weavers because they were so invigorating to my songwriting approach, to life, and to what you’re supposed to do as a band, whether you are a rock and roll band, a folk band as they were, or whatever. It’s just sort of an overall Grecian equivalent of everything you are supposed to do : good, bad, indifferent, drunken party boys to severe ascetic, almost Amish kind of Pete-Seeger-dedication to the cause.”

The Starship also has a page on its website devoted to the Weavers, and there’s more about the Weavers and their influence on the Jefferson Airplane hereKantner does add somewhere that the Weavers themselves would’ve been horrified by the drug-taking and excesses of their late-1960s psychedelic musical descendants! But listen to the harmonies, and the way a strong female voice holds the centre in both bands. I loved the Airplane because I loved the Weavers as a child. So there you have it – Pan, the Lady in the Yard, the Weavers and the Jefferson Airplane. Have you seen the saucers? 🙂

Meanwhile, Des Lewis has written a real-time review of Soliloquy for Pan, and he says this about “The Lady in the Yard”:

‘A satisfying leisurely story… [involving] a singing wisteria, cannabis joints, flutes, Peter Pan, Panisca as the female Pan, listening to late night radio, a Lady with mutable wings, cavorting with mixed-sex naiads, Wyndham’s Chrysalids…”

I’ll end with another song from the Jefferson Airplane. Call it hippie shit, call it what you will, but I did really like this one when I were a lass. All together now!

“In nineteen hundred and seventy-five / all the people rose from the countryside / locked together hand in hand / all through this unsteady land / to move against you, government man / do you understand?” 

Musical interlude #3: Farewell Ronnie Gilbert

The_Weavers_at_Carnegie_HallThis musical interlude will be a short tribute to Ronnie Gilbert, who sadly passed away on 6 June just over a year since the death of her fellow ex-Weaver Pete Seeger. Like Pete, she’d lived a long life and got to sing a lot of songs before her death at 88. I find myself imagining the duet she could be singing with Pete somewhere. And Joe Strummer could join in a chorus or two… OK, better stop now before I add all my favourite deceased musicians to this fictitious band. And given that Pete Seeger is the guy who pulled the plug on Bob Dylan the first time he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, he and Joe might not see eye-to-eye musically.

Anyway, back to the Weavers. My parents were big fans. Though politically conservative in many ways, they did appreciate the lefty culture of the 50s and earlier 60s. So for us it was Paul Robeson, Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya, the Weavers and Pete Seeger. We also had the Red Army Chorus and Band, along with jokes about how the comrades made that tenor hit the high notes.

But the Weavers topped the list. We had several of their albums, though our favourite was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.  I only learned recently – from a family-oriented Facebook thread inspired by Ronnie’s death – that my parents had attended the Weavers’ famous gig at Carnegie Hall in 1955. They were sitting at the front and apparently Pete Seeger didn’t take his eyes off my mum!

From that album I’ve selected “Venga Jaleo”, a Spanish Civil War song. Even when I was too young to know what the song was about, I found Ronnie’s singing in this very stirring. It still raises goose bumps.

Here’s another Weavers song I loved, their rendition of “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. This song dates back to the underground railroad and contains coded directions for slaves escaping to the north. Though Pete sings solo in this, just listen to Ronnie’s intro and all the power and warmth she adds to the chorus. The Weavers’ style centred on harmonies and singing as a group, and Ronnie’s ringing contralto was central to it.

As I read more about the Ronnie Gilbert and the Weavers and wandered about YouTube, I realised that they influenced my writing more than I thought. So I promise that it really isn’t an abrupt change of subject to end with some publication news: Soliloquy for Pan is up for pre-order at Egaeus Press. This anthology contains my story “The Lady in the Yard”, where Pan takes a female form and appears in the Bronx. My next bout of bloggage will say some more about the story and why it is not far from the content of this post at all!

Meat, motion and light

The-Outsiders-2014-703x1024My story “Meat, motion and light” has been released in The Outsiders, a shared-world Lovecraftian anthology edited by Joe Mynhardt at Crystal Lake Publishing. This is my first venture into shared worlds as well as Lovecraftian fiction, and I enjoyed the process of brainstorming ideas with the editor and the other contributors. I was also pleased to see that co-contributor James Everington also set out to tackle the same “shoggoth in the room” that shambles around any Lovecraft-oriented conversation…

When Joe invited me to contribute to this anthology, I knew straight away I wanted to write about racism, given the issues around HP Lovecraft’s racist and anti-Semitic attitudes – he has described black people as ‘gorilla-like’ and among the world’s ‘many ugly things’ – and how they manifest in his writing. Some critics have suggested that Lovecraft is not simply a ‘man of his time’ expressing mild prejudice, but a virulent racist whose hatred of the ‘other’ is intrinsic to his work. Much has been written about this, which I won’t try to reproduce here.

A quick google for ‘Lovecraft’ and ‘racism’ will result in a plethora of links and discussions. Much of this was sparked by a move to replace the bust of Lovecraft awarded to winners of the World Fantasy gong, supported by writers including 2011 winner Nnedi Okorafor. Some writers and fans suggested a bust of Octavia Butler as suitable for an inclusive award. Personally, I would favour replacing Lovecraft with a more abstract trophy, one that represents the breadth of fantastical fiction and not merely one author or sub-genre within it.

This came from a bunch called Cthullhu Punx. Their Facebook page is here

This came from a bunch called Cthulhu Punx. Check out their (Polish) Facebook page

I found this post by Noah Berlansky interesting. While taking a critical view, he also adds: “At the same time, focusing on race in Lovecraft can also lead to a greater appreciation of his work, and a better understanding of its horror.” Fellow contributor James Everington wrote at Crystal Lake’s link for the book: “I don’t think Lovecraft shouldn’t be read or enjoyed because of his views on race… but I do think they matter.”

I did read a lot of Lovecraft in my early teens, which I hoovered up along with anything that was strange and mysterious. I’m not entirely sure whether I picked up on racism in his writing at the time; I just thought some of it was old-fashioned and florid and it just went by me. However, I do remember feeling uncomfortable when reading “The Horror at Red Hook” and this wasn’t caused by eldritch entities either.

In terms of classic weird fiction, it really was Machen who first cast that special spell with The White People – I discuss this in my post Writing Helen’s Story. While I appreciated Lovecraft’s atmospherics and I was wowed by the wild gibberings amid non-Euclidean angles, the final melodramatic deluge of ichor often let me down. At the same time, I did find his less ichorous tales like “The Music of Erich Zann” haunting and compelling.

A cat... a cat! Always there's a cat! Don't remember if there are any cats featured in Lovecraft stories. Poe was the go-to guy for cats if I recall

I have not yet had a cat in this blog, so that oversight must be corrected. So here’s a cat. Don’t remember if cats featured in any Lovecraft stories. Poe was the go-to guy for dodgy cats if I recall… Pic also from Cthulhu Punx.

I often regale Facebook friends with selections from Shoggoth on the Roof and inflict “It’s Beginning to Look Like Fishmen” at the appropriate season, yet the old Mythos still exerts a certain fascination amid all the piss-taking. Why? Perhaps it’s the idea – also found in Machen with works like The Great God Pan and in Robert W Chambers’ The King in Yellow – there are words, sounds, structures and beings that are so alien to us that our minds would break under their weight. Well, I just love those books of hidden lore that put your sanity and life in peril if you read them. Maybe that’s why I turned out the way I am… 🙂

I also enjoy contemporary Lovecraft-inspired writers such as Livia Llewellyn and Caitlin Kiernan, who distill the brooding, mysterious quality of Lovecraft while transmuting it into tales that would have HPL himself spinning with rotary precision in his grave. Perhaps these authors write more from the perspective of the outcasts, the loathsome lower orders and “infesting worms” that horrified Lovecraft so much. I tend to think they transmute Lovecraft’s dread of the alien into an encounter with what is unknowable within ourselves and the hostile world we struggle to make our lives in. Writing my own story has led me to appreciate how Lovecraftian themes can be used in a challenging, potentially subversive way – and I have definite plans to try more of this.

And this brings us to the exclusive gated and cult-like community of Priory, setting for The Outsiders. I imagined that the exclusive Priory population would share Lovecraft’s prejudices, so how would a black family end up in such a restrictive place? And what would it be like to grow up there?

Meanwhile, I’d been listening to the music found under the broad umbrella of Afropunk. So Claudia, the protagonist of “Meat, Motion and Light”, morphed into an Afropunk enthusiast. In fact, she sings in a band. After some years at university she’s returning to Priory, which would definitely not be rock ‘n’ roll friendly. I also imagined cracks in the cohesiveness and control of Priory. The recession has made an impact even in this enclave; factions have formed.

As I wrote the story, I drew on my experience of returning to places where I grew up as an outsider, the ‘home town’ that was never home – many people go through this. Add to this some scattershot googling that took in deep-sea bioluminescence and the mating habits of the giant squid…

Music has always been a big influence in my writing, so I’ll share some of the music behind my story. One of Claudia’s favourite songs is Tamar Kali’s “Fire with Fire”, where the Brooklyn-based “hard-core soul” musician covers Gossip:

Afropunk has been known as a US-based movement, with an annual Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn that attracts thousands of people. But there are also burgeoning punk scenes in parts of Africa, as well as in Asia and Latin America. In Europe, Paris recently held its own Afropunk Fest Paris. And there are groups here in the UK like Big Joanie, a black feminist punk band based in London. In addition to the video below, you can find out a little more about Big Joannie on this Vimeo link.

The late Poly Styrene has been a major inspiration for Claudia (as for many women and punks of colour), who puts up a photo of Poly in her room at Priory. Here’s a 1978 performance of the X-Ray Spex classic “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, prefaced by a poem.

I’ll now finish off with an even older song, which happened to give my story its title. I remember listening to it as a teenager and giggling. It might have been the period when I’d been reading lots of Lovecraft, but I never imagined that this song could inhabit the same stream of thought, let alone the same story and blog post.