Saturday, 20 December 2008

Herman Dune, the Deaf Institute, Saturday December 13

Often, a Herman Dune gig is a rambling event, loosely held together by the magnetic force of front man David Ivar Herman Dune’s slightly oddball personality. Tonight, he’s more subdued, more professional. He’s smartened up his act, wearing a tucked in shirt, tie, trousers and hat rather than the baggy, mismatched, primary colour clothes of old. The rest of the band have caught on to the new look; it’s almost as if there is a band uniform of hats and moustaches.

It's common to leave a Herman Dune gig feeling as if you’ve spent some time inside David Ivar’s sweetly upside down head, participated in his skewed romances and shared in his cartoonish take on life, but this evening's set is more focused, not at the mercy of wherever David Ivar’s easily distracted mind takes it. The only anecdote he has to share with us this time is an outing to Johnny Roadhouse’s musical instruments emporium down the road to buy a ukulele, which is later stroked expressively.

Herman Dune's fragile folk, built round David Ivar’s high, wiry, slightly vulnerable voice, is beefed up by the John Natchez Bourbon Horn Players, who add loud solos to Herman Dune’s quirky songs.

Next Year in Zion, title track of the new album, is a jaunty party tune, horns toot tooting. On a Saturday is one of the loveliest they’ve ever made, rasping horns borrowing heavily from Elvis’ Always on My Mind and backing singers the Baby Skins swooning in the background like fallen angels.

They still retain a sense of melancholy and rootlessness though, wood blocks clip clopping like horses hooves over Herman Dune’s characteristic trotting rhythm on the yearning My Home is Nowhere Without You. Drummer Neman, in a cap and waistcoat, looks like a weary traveller pulling out a saw at the side of the road for the evening's entertainment, hitting it theatrically with a beater for an expressive, rising and falling solo.

Ballad My Baby is Afraid of Sharks and a breakneck rendition of 1, 2, 3, 4 Apple Tree, horns substituted for wispy flutes, show they’re still searching for the perfect love affair.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

ArtYarn knits the Shed Gallery, Levenshulme, a jumper for Christmas

There has been a growing interest in the home made over the past few years, even before the current credit crunch forced people to seek less costly goods and new forms of entertainment. Knitting in particular has enjoyed a revival and, far from being a solitary, spinsterish activity indulged in by lonely old ladies in rocking chairs, it's become more and more common to see groups sat knitting or crocheting in bars and clubs.

Inspired by groups across the world such as Knitta Please from Texas, and the textile artist Elaine Bradford, artists Rachael Elwell and Sarah Hardacre set up the guerilla knitting project ArtYarn six months ago.

Rachel, who is based at Islington Mill, attributes knitting's enduring popularity to the craze for all things “retro-vintage”. She says: “Knitting has made a big comeback in recent years, and people arebuying more handmade goods.”

ArtYarn, however, is separating knitting from its association with misshapen scarves and unwanted jumpers given by relatives who don't know what else to get you for Christmas and turning it into an “artistic medium”.

If you were at the New Islington festival at the end of summer, you probably saw ArtYarn's brightly-coloured 'tree cosies', tree-shaped garments adorning the trunks of trees in Ancoats. The duo also works in street art, 'yarn bombing' various cities, from London and Berlin to New York, by tying small patches of knitting to street furniture as “graffiti knitting”.

ArtYarn was invited to contribute to the Gaia project at this year's Liverpool Biennial, creating 'plastic bag bombs' out of yarn recycled from carrier bags found on the streets of Liverpool. Now, it's embarking on its most ambitious activity yet, knitting a jumper to cover the Shed art gallery - a small gallery run by independent arts organisation Pool Arts - at the Tonbridge Road Allotments in Levenshulme.

The project started with a joky remark that ArtYarn should make the shed a jumper to “keep it warm over the winter when it's closed”, but curator Alison Kershaw liked the idea. Each part of the shed was measured for panels of knitted patches created during public sewing workshops at St Lukes church, Longsight, and donated by the communities of Longsight and Levenshulme. Crocheted squares will tile the roof, pockets below the windows will hold flower boxes, and permanent knitted curtains will be installed.

Rachael likes the“social aspect” of knitting, and estimates there are at least ten knitting clubs in Manchester, including the Levenshulme Knitters and the University of Manchester Knittingsoc as well as groups that meet at the 8th Day Cafe and Odd Bar. She set up the popular Kings

Arms Knitting Club in September 2007, saying: “ I couldn't really knit – I could do the basics but I wanted to learn some new skills such as crochet. After pulling my hair out over knitting books and youtube videos I realised the best way is to learn from other knitters.”

Through word of mouth, the club swelled from being a select gathering of three knitters to attracting ten to fifteen knitters a week. Rachael says: “Some weeks we can't even sit down – it's absolutely packed out with knitters, both male and female, ranging from beginners who have never picked up a pair of knitting needles in their lives to people who have been knitting for 40 odd years.”

Conventional garments and baby clothes are popular, but there are also arts students who knit with videotape and other crafts such as embroidery are encouraged. The most unusual work being created is Mexican wrestling masks.

The club meets in the Snug, a small room off the main bar at the Kings Arms, so it's not closed off from the rest of the building. Regulars, artists from the studios upstairs or people there for plays and gigs can wander in and look at works in progress, such as a spectacular knitted chandelier that's covered with French knitted tubes.

The knitters fund raise for Breast Cancer Care, and ArtYarn has further politicised a craft often seen as sedentary or old-fashioned by creating a blanket from 1,400 knitted squares, donated from all over the North-West, for the Manchester Oxfam Maternal Mortality campaign. Each patch represents one of the women across the world who dies in childbirth each day. The blanket was displayed at Beluga bar during the Labour Party Conference as a “knitted petition”. Rachael says it was effective in drawing attention to the cause as knitting is something “most people can relate to”, whether through knitting themselves or seeing one of their family knitting.

The Kings Arms Knitting Club meets at the Kings Arms, 11 Bloom Street, Salford, M3 6AN, every Monday from 7-9pm.

The Shed jumper project will be launched on Thursday 18 December from 3-7pm with mulled wine, mince pies and knitting demonstrations at Tonbridge Road Allotments, Levenshulme, M19. There is a frequent 192 bus service from Piccadilly to Levenshulme. Get off at The Wheatsheaf on Stockport Road, turn left into Broom Lane, then take the first right into Tonbridge Road.

The jumper can also be viewed from Friday 19 December – Sunday 21 December from noon-3pm

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Reality Hack:Hidden Manchester, Urbis

It’s common knowledge that there’s a secret world underneath the city, a network of tunnels and underground rivers. Not many of us actually get to see it, though, so it’s a continual subject of debate and suggestion. Now, digital photographer Andrew Paul Brooks has turned what goes on below the surface into works of art. His camera acts as our eyes behind closed doors and in forgotten chambers, exposing the mechanics behind familiar facades. The pictures really draw us in, give us a sense of what’s actually like to be there, in the bits of the city that we’re closed off from, sites rotting away whilst everyday life goes on unconcerned.

We get into a pattern of walking the same old streets, past the same buildings and sights, forgetting about the possibility of anything existing on the periphery, outside our immediate range of vision. Brooks captures those “snatched glances into an open grate, through a broken hoarding, behind a door ajar”, that are often no more than that - tantalising at the time, but soon forgotten - with the help of Urban Explorers, a secretive, anonymous community that explores the hidden side of our cities. They put themselves as risk of death, arrest and unseen hazards such as asbestos, but Brooks’ photographs make it easy to see how their clandestine exploration could be addictive.

The space is perfect for the exhibition – the top floor of Urbis, overlooking a skewed window that's built into the sloping white ceiling. You can see the clock tower, grubby brickwork and ornate red metalwork of Victoria Station, with new, high-rise construction going up behind it in glass and steel. Standing on the mezzanine level, we can see all the way down to the bottom, our line of vision bouncing off the angles of the building.

‘Great Abel’ invites us inside the town hall clock tower. Light streams into the tower and our gaze ascends to a dizzying height, past worn wooden beams and warm bricks. Brooks’ photos are more snatches of overlooked memory than complete pictures, black around the edges like an overexposed negative. ‘Great Abel’ is a mere keyhole portrait swimming in a darkened background; stand back and it looks like a scrunched up can someone's crunched in the middle in preparation for throwing out to be recycled.

We look out over the toy-town of Oxford Street from behind the illuminated letters and silhouetted brickwork of the Palace Hotel, hung with glowing red cobwebs, in ‘Quiet Refuge’. We’re elevated to the same level as the stars in an opulent, over-cast sky purple with light pollution. The sight of a Magic Bus, reduced to the size of a collectible car, is almost comical in its triviality. In 'Keeping Time', we’re in the internal decay of the Palace’s clock tower, peeling and mossy. Our view descends the spiral staircase, looking down as if into a well. In another print, the dome of the Palace occupies a round area in the centre. Red-orange, yellow and lime lights fly off the dome haphazardly onto the walls around it, like being inside a Christmas bauble.

'Central Foundations' goes beneath the Great Northern Warehouse into the disused Manchester and Salford Canal Tunnel. Although it’s deserted, the picture makes us feel claustrophobic and crammed in, as it must have been during the war when the tunnels were used to shelter from the Luftwaffe. Similarly, 'Cathedral Steps' shows a tiled public toilets, eerily signposted 'Convenience Closed for Repair' on a shattered pane of glass. We can imagine what it felt like to walk down the crumbling staircases. 'Culvert Report' too descends into the underworld. A ghost figure is barely perceptible against the slimy walls, dripping with moisture. The river looks tepid and unhealthy.

We’re reminded that what goes on beyond our vision is just as important as what goes on in front of us. Things often seen as dry and unimportant are given colour: ‘Hidden Arndale’ is an underground road of red, yellow, blue and white pipes.

Brooks’ camera imbues the everyday or utilitarian with a new patina of magic. An overflow tunnel of the Ashton Canal shines in an ethereal light. It’s luminous in wintry colours: blue, red, green and white like an idyllic fairytale grotto. The picture centres on a fuzzy halo of brilliant light, and we’re drawn in, to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Whereas Brooks’ other pictures focus in on tiny, undervalued snippets of our city, 'Angelic View' reminds us of its magnificence. Perched on a corner of the Town Hall, an angel looks our over the Manchester stretching into the distance like the heavenly creatures that safeguard Berlin’s citizens in Wim Wenders’ wistful film Wings of Desire. The detail of the green, yellow, and brown grandeur of the brickwork, and the patchworks of light that is the Beetham Tower contrasts with the vastness of a sweeping, blurry sky.

'Big Humpty', which is abstract like a painting, with bursts of fiery red and a spurting green river, shows a tiny person in a tunnel of the River Medlock, and reminds us just how small and insignificant we are in relation to the great city.

Perhaps the biggest appeal of these pictures is that they portray places that are undisturbed and underexplored. Looking at them acknowledges our childlike fantasies of escaping the crammed city for somewhere where we are free from scrutiny and can truly be ourselves, and explore unconstrained. Somewhere to get lost.

Friday, 5 December 2008

From Space - Islington Mill Shop

From Space

Where is it?
142 Chapel Street
M3 6AF
Open Wednesday -Saturday 11am-6pm
Late opening Thursday until 8pm

History From Space is the new shop opened to showcase the work of artists and designers based at Islington Mill. Mark Carlin, a former musician, co-runs the Mill with fashion designer Bill Campbell, who bought the building in 2001.

Carlin describes the Mill as an “artists’ led project”, based in James Street just off Chapel Street. Although best known to the outside world as the starting place of the Ting Tings and local music fans as a gig and club night venue, it now hosts over 40 studio spaces, which are full of “all manner of small businesses and artists” and “people who make individual products”. These include ceramicists, clothes-makers, creators of designer furniture and lighting specialists. Carlin explains: “There are lots of people who make stuff at the Mill, but that’s not really what it’s known for.”

The Mill is also home to film makers and theatre, as well as the 'self-led' Arts Academy. Carlin says the shop is “a bit of an experiment, like everything else”. The shop isn’t in the Mill itself, because “there's not really space” with the art gallery and recording studio. Though also tucked away in Chapel Street, its location is“a little bit closer to town” than the Mill and just a short walk from Deansgate.

Who shops there? Not just art collectors - anyone can own a small piece of the Mill. Carlin says: “Some of what's on sale is quite expensive, but there are items that are only £1. You can get t-shirts for £10, going up to prints for £500 and clothes at £300.”

What does it sell? Carlin sums it up as “a mixture of fine arts and digital arts prints, fashion and books”. The Glasgow based art books publisher Aye-Aye books has a space at the Mill and links to the art academy. The promoter Comfortable on a Tightrope is also selling fanzines and pamphlets.

If you want something to hang on your wall, art ranges from large canvasses to small pastel life drawings and pencil nudes. Joe Barker has made whimsical acetates in blurry black and white, whilst David Williams photographs nature close-up in glowing colour. Andrew Brooks, who has an upcoming exhibition at the Urbis, is selling photographic prints of the Salford skyline. Tragen Design has contributed a shelf and a striking oval mirror with a wooden frame.

Fashion fans will love Andrea Zap's garments made of vintage fabrics combined with new materials and unusual finds, as well as textiles by the wonderfully named company dontbitchstitch.
T-shirts publicise the band Hotpants Romance, and there are CDs on sale by artists on local DJ Andy Woods' record label, Pronoia, which is based at the Mill.
Ceramics are well represented. Liz Scrine has made fantastic, large scale pieces, including a sculpture of two towers, and a large, tree-like candle holder which is accompanied by ceramic rats and cheese and entitled ‘Stop the Rate Race’. She’s also selling leaf tiles and fold-up ceramic screens. Crackpots offers unique, Cubist influenced ‘thoughts bowls' and ‘goodie barrels’ stamped with provocative statements. Beverly Gee makes quirky ceramic pots festooned with twigs.

Why go there?
Carlin hopes people will be attracted by the unusual space itself, and the “rough and ready aesthetics of the building”.The shop is staffed by volunteers from the mill, providing an extra area to work in. Carlin says: “People can come in and see something that is going to be sold, as it’s being made.”

Carlin says “90 per cent of the products aren’t available anywhere else”. He explains: “A lot of the work is practical and useful. It can sit in people’s houses, but it’s not just off the shelf IKEA stuff.”

There's an added, seasonal bonus - mince pies, as well as charming hand-made Christmas cards that are heavy on glitter.

Future Carlin describes From Space as a “temporary store” - the building is owned by neighbouring Britch architects, who have given permission for it to be used for a year before it is redeveloped. He says it’s a “project-led” shop and there will be “things happening in it”.

Artists’ groups, both local and from further afield, will be invited to get involved. Artists will be asked to respond to the space and see what they come up with.

Verdict Far from being run of the mill.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Peace Tax Seven

The great American politician, writer and inventor Benjamin Franklin famously said “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes”, and they're something most of us would like to get out of.

Peace Tax Seven, however, a group of conscientious objectors, is using tax as a political protest by withholding the proportion of their taxes they calculate goes towards war and military activities. To pay tax towards military activities, they believe, is akin to a modern form of conscription, and is “morally equivalent to fighting a war”.

The group ranges from a toy designer and company director to a Welsh Buddhist, accountant, author and film maker. Birgit Völlm, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Manchester until earlier this year, explains: “War costs a lot of money, and my money was supporting that.” She finds it worrying “how easily countries can get involved in war”.

Völlm insists we should “all live according to our own conscience and do what we think is right.” She says: “A lot of people don't really think about what happens to their money, as it's not very noticeable.”

It is thought that 10% of the government's expenditure goes on the military and a third, or £88 billion, of the government's fixed capital assets belong to the Ministry of Defence.

The Peace Tax Seven suggests that money that currently goes towards war should be put into a “ring-fenced” Peace Fund and spent on “alternative ways of making peace, including negotiations and international development”. Völlm explains: “We also need to look at the underlying causes of war like inequality.”

Völlm points out “one hundred years ago people took slavery for granted and thought rights for women wouldn't change. People also had to go to war”. She remains optimistic, though, that “sometime in the future we will have the right not to pay for war”.

The Peace Tax Seven website is full of emotive language – 'rights' are 'violated', paying tax equates to 'paying for the government's killing machine'. It claims that 90 per cent of the casualties of war are civilians. Roy Prockter argues “every bomb and bullet kills twice”, saying there are “indirect victims dying of want while the world's wealth is wasted on weapons”.

As a doctor, paying taxes that go towards war is incompatible with Völlm's professional values: she cannot support something that “takes life away from people”, as the role of a doctor is to “help people and ease suffering”. Both Prockter and Völlm argue that the money would be better spent on fundamentals such as clean water and basic healthcare.

The Peace Tax Seven has the support of Quakers, Buddhists and Anglicans. Völlm became involved through Manchester's Quaker Peace Corps, and helped set up an International Conscientious Objectors Day in Manchester, which happens in May every year.

Manchester has a long radical history, and in 1980 became the world's first nuclear free city, creating the Peace Gardens and sculpture. Earlier this year, it hosted the 12th International Annual Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns, which brought together campaigners from America, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Columbia.

Withholding tax is part of a history of creative protest that goes back to the American author, naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was imprisoned in the 1840s for refusing to pay tax towards the state of Massachusetts, because it advocated slavery. More recently, in America it is estimated there were 20,000 war tax resisters against the Vietnam war by 1970.

If the government didn't take any notice of the estimated two million protesters against the Iraq war, why would it listen to seven individuals withholding tax, rather than sending the bailiffs round?

UK court cases brought by the Peace Tax Seven have failed, but the group is currently raising £50,000 to take their case to Strasbourg, and defend its right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” as set out in the Human Rights Act under the European Convention of Human Rights.

The issue of the right to withhold war tax has been tabled as an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, as well as a number of Private Members Bills, the last one being raised by John McDonnell in 2002. A number of MPs support the seven, including Jim Dobbin, Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton. Völlm is a member of the Green Party, which supports the protesters.

Few of us would go as far as to withhold our taxes, or could afford to, and it's not really an option unless you're self-employed, as it's almost impossible to withhold tax through the PAYE system.
However, the Peace Tax Seven opens debate on an issue it often seems we have little choice in, and puts moral pressure on the government. It also acts as a conscience for the rest of us.

If you want to do something, but don't want to go as far as withholding your taxes, visit and sign the petition, distribute leaflets or write to your MP.
You can also join the organisation Conscience and fill in a 'Peace Tax Return' form which looks like a tax return form and can be sent to the Treasury to declare your objection to paying for war.

Völlm says the group appreciates emails, which can be used to show the government how much public backing there is for the cause. She also encourages members of the public to attend the group's trials to show their support.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Low, Club Academy, Tuesday November 18

I had severe trepidations about going to see Low at Club Academy, a utilitarian, impersonal cafeteria by day, and by far the worst of the Academy venues.

Low’s music is pared down to the point where it almost feels as if you are intruding to listen to it, as it’s based around the softness of Mimi Parker’s voice and the invisible, unspoken kindedness between her and husband Alan Sparhawk. It cries out for closeness, calls for a straining to hear what’s not stated but implied. It needs an intimate setting with no distractions.

This was a Christmas tour though, and no ordinary Low gig. Usually, singer Sparhawk’s level of interaction with the crowd is pitched somewhere between stern and untalkative and downright taciturn. Now though, jolly in a Santa hat, he looks relaxed, and jokes with the crowd, whilst bathed in a warm green light that softens the edges around Low’s sparse, often difficult sound.

The classic three piece is joined by an extra percussionist, a ukulele player and strings. Low have, unexpectedly, become a pop band in between now and their last tour. They cover Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as giving a surprisingly successful rendition of Little Drummer Boy.

Low had always threatened to become a pop band, and more conventional rock album the Great Destroyer is well represented. The band jigs about, enlivening the minimal set up of rudimentary drums, bass and less-is-more guitar, and the static tableau of stillness their songs often evoke.

The expanded sound is effective on Shots & Ladders a dense, watery epic that sounds like you’re listening to it through some great muffler like the sea. The melodies are distorted as if they’re so fragile they had to be wrapped in cotton wool. It comes to you from some other dimension, like reality gradually breaking into a deep dream.

Going to a Low gig can be an intense experience; this is more light-hearted, but the songs still sound like vessels carrying the inner weights of the whole band. Even carefree moments such as Last Snowstorm of the Year (which is, despite the title, Low at their most summery and jingly) have a certain sadness lurking at the back. The sliding, chromatic melodies of seasonal new single Santa’s Coming Over give it an eeriness at odds with the cosy traditional image of Christmas, although If You Were Born Today, Blue Christmas and One Special Gift are gentle and comforting as any carol service. The horrible Coming of Jah, however, tips the early celebration over into absurdity, with its calypso hooks, cod reggae beat and Sparhawk’s accompanying hand movements .

Everything is redeemed, though, when Low close by building up into their apogee, Canada, a propulsive chant of joy.

Friday, 21 November 2008

A Long Exposure: 100 Years of Guardian Photography, the Lowry, Salford Quays

Photography, especially when it's presented in the bold contrast of black and white, offers heightened snapshots of what's around us. It often points out something that's obvious, but we might have missed the significance of somehow.

A retrospective of Guardian photography celebrates the newspaper's staff photographers, who were based at the Guardian's Manchester office. It starts with the Guardian's first staff photographer, Walter Doughty, who was appointed in 1908 and continues through the six staff photographers who came after him, ending with Neil Libbert. A historical aspect is given to the collection, which spans the twentieth century, by the inclusion of vintage photography equipment such as the Muirhead Wire Machine, which enabled photographs to be sent by fax.

Walter Doughty's photographs are strewn with the rubble of the early twentieth century, from memories of the first world war to the paranoia felt at the start of the second, which is encapsulated in a shot of Manchester road signs taken down to confuse the enemy. Doughty's photos encompass major events of the twentieth century including the 1926 general strike and early aviators. 'Irish Civil War Dublin 1922' frames a man's rear profile, stood in darkness, in a murky window pock marked with bullets.

Denis Thorpe, who curated the exhibition, closes in on fleeting facial expressions, from rollerskaters to a bride on her big day. Tiny children are caught unaware learning the violin with the Suzuki method, and mid-yawn whilst eating toast and soup. Thorpe's camera engages with both personal issues, such as the tiredeness of a weary miner, and important events like the 1990 Strangeways siege.

Tom Stuttard keeps an eye on the bigger picture, showing Chamberlain and Churchill in the 1940s, as well as everyday people and their eccentricities. A wonderful portrait depicts 'Mr and Mrs Bromley, Clock Collectors, Derbyshire, 1959' in bed, fenced in by their collection of clocks. An aerial view shows the road from Manchester to Sheffield blocked by snow.

Bob Smithies too represents the political side of photography with his photo of a jaded man in a Manchester DHS office in 1970, as well as documenting confrontations between police and strikers in the 1970s and 1980s, a recurring theme in the exhibition, which is also referenced by Don McPhee and Graham Finlayson.

Don McPhee's political portraits set Enoch Powell and Nelson Mandela out against a black background. Enoch Powell is particularly striking, his hands raised in front of him. 'Boxing Day Cowboys, Salford, 1973', however, is the type of token that can be found in any family album, zooming in on two serious little boys dressed as cowboys in a timeless moment of childhood.

Often, the most enjoyable photos are chance snaps which elevate everyday life as we know it to a work of art, such as Don McPhee's shot of two farmers at a Yorkshire shire horse sale, clad in tweed, Wellington boots and warm woolen cardigans. Standing facing each other, hands in pockets, the shape between their two protuding, well-fed stomachs resembles an egg timer or the Rubin vase optical illusion.

The exhibition shows how much has changed between 1908 and now, not just in photography – almost all of the photographs on display are in black and white – and the political climate of the country, but Manchester and Salford. Doughty's misty shot of St Ann's Square in 1921 is almost unrecognisable, as are the rundown Salford streets seen through the doorframes of derelict houses.

Taste of Honey, Royal Exchange Theatre, Monday 17 November

Unless you can afford the best seats, an evening at the theatre often involves sitting up in the gods peering down at the tiny players on stage below. A new production of Shelagh Delaney's slice of life play Taste of Honey, however, throws the conventional theatrical experience out onto the cold Salford wind.

DJ Jon Winstanley, who's providing a live soundtrack to the show, plays Northern Soul while we wait for the play to start, so it feels more like going to see a film at the cinema, complete with pre-movie muzak, than a formal trip to the theatre. By the time of the interval, I want to get up and dance.

My 'seat' is a doorstep, an extension of the set. My feet touch the smooth, green-blue slabs of the Salford street below, which are wet with glossy patches of rainwater. Other audience members sit on a sofa, and a dilapidated brick wall on the edge of the stage. I can see the grain of the floorboards, worn smooth at the edges, and the glow of the cellar lights going down into the street. I can make out the patterns of the wallpaper and curtains, as well as the broken banister and the frayed carpet that doesn't quite cover the floor. I'm in the thick of things before the play even starts.

When the players run on to the loud, brash blare of the Ting Tings, carrying their whole material lives in a wheelbarrow, the tenement comes alive, crackling with sexual tension and claustrophobia.

We can taste the weak coffee and feel the coldness of the two room flat. We smell the smoke of the cigars and cigarettes Helen's boyfriend Peter (Paul Popplewell), a shady upstart with an eye-patch, smokes. The dripping ceiling leaks into a bucket like a tinny clock beat of decay, ticking with the regularity of a watery metronome. A lone light bulb flickers. We shiver in solidarity with the characters, feeling the chill of a city where “there are two seasons – winter and winter”.

Sally Lindsay is the curvy, glamorous single mother Helen, a sexually voracious vamp with her blonde hair in rollers. An ageing alcoholic, she provides a contrast to her frumpy 15-year-old daughter, played by Jodie McNee, that would be tragic if it wasn't so humorous. Pinch faced and stick like, the mouthy Jo resembles Quentin Blake's scrawny depiction of Roald Dahl's precocious young girl Matilda.

Helen and Jo are on first name terms, and more like an antagonistic, longsuffering married couple than mother and child. Perpetually chattering Helen barely gives Jo a chance to speak, and they have very few moments of calm in which to really talk.

Taste of Honey is a play about relationships and power. It's almost a play of two bickering married couples; Helen and Jo, and Jo and Geoff. Geoff, a foppish, ginger haired art student played by Adam Gillen, is the play's main source of comedy, but also its main voice of reason. He cares for Jo when she becomes pregnant as the result of a then taboo mixed-race relationship. He steps into the nurturing role Helen should have had in Jo's life.

The play, written when Delaney was 18, may have turned 50 this year, but updating it to include Manchester and Salford pop hits such as the Ting Tings' obnoxious, catchy Shut Up and Let Me Go, demonstrates that teenage attitude and bravado doesn't change over time. Even though Jo's future looks set to recreate Helen's adult life of “work and want”, she's irrepressibly upbeat and boasts “I can do anything when I put my mind to it”.

Nor does the excitement of first love change over the years, providing hope against a backdrop of hardship and poverty. The characters sing and dance out their inner feelings to a cast of Manchester greatest hits that includes Oasis and Inspiral Carpets, Ian Brown, Happy Mondays and Northern Soul. It’s a form of escapist musical soliloquy: the characters can’t talk to each other - they’re too busy to listen. The songs of the Smiths are centre stage, the characters referencing famous lyrics such as 'I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice', and 'If a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die'. It's a nod to the influence the play has had on popular culture, not least Morrissey's lyrics.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Fleet Foxes, Manchester Academy Two, Sunday November 9

Seattle band Fleet Foxes are sunshine personified, harking back to the golden days of West Coast pop and making bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sound fashionable again. They might have sung about snow and winter on White Winter Hymnal, but the crammed academy got even warmer as the harmonies of Quiet Houses enveloped the crowd in shafts of summery warmth.

As four fresh-faced young men plucking harmonies out of the ether, Fleet Foxes don’t really seem of this time and place. A cold, rainy Manchester on a Sunday evening was abandoned for an early morning roll through the countryside. The soft, blissful melodies of Sun It Rises recreated the stillness of daybreak, while the band’s circular rhythm chug-chugged in the background mimicking the wheels of the first train of the day. A 1960s style guitar solo and bucolic banjo rung out of nowhere, like a sun starting to peep from behind hills and trees. A simple sequence of notes repeated, it was like a world tentatively taking its first steps at the start of a new morning. Chiming, silvery guitar caught like dew on spider webs.

Fleet Foxes combine this kind of fragile beauty - crisp one note guitar lines - with solid pop songs and familiar, clattering sixties-esque drum beats. Songs like He Doesn’t Know Why already sound like classics, and Robin Pecknold’s voice is a personality in itself. He’s hairy and sweaty, but classically good looking, angelic even, like he’s stepped out of a portrait from an earlier century.

Pecknold sung an echoing Oliver James by himself. Despite the starkness of the lyrics, the hope inbuilt in Pecknold’s voice, and an overexcited audience stamping along more or less in time, ensured it retained the aura of optimism that characterised the whole gig.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Of Time and the City

SOME films are works of art and others, like Terence Davies' new film Of Time and the City, are literary, almost poetic, works.

Veteran director Terence Davies narrates his new film, which ties in with Liverpool's year as Capital of Culture, in breathless, comforting undertones, like a much loved grandfather who's leaning over you to confidentially tell a bedtime story. While tinged with regret, in many ways Of Time and the City is very humorous.

The highly personal film, documenting Davies' return to Liverpool, his home town, starts by reciting part of Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and recalling Alfred Edward Housman's nostalgic words 'happy highways where I went and cannot come again'. Davies goes on to reference James Joyce, Friedrich Engels and Carl Jung, but never strays away from the ordinary people of Liverpool, for example looking into the lives of women doing laundry. He often focuses on the very young and very old, as those who stand for Liverpool as it was and how it will be in the future.

Twenty years ago, Terence Davies made a bittersweet, autobiographical film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, that was set almost entirely in the redbrick house he grew up in in the 1940s and early 1950s. Of Time and the City is similarly autobiographical, but places Davies' formative years, complete with burgeoning homosexuality and atheism, in a wider context: a Liverpool that was coping with poverty and rationing, and knew the value of 'happiness on a budget', an England that was giving street parties celebrating the lavish coronation of a new Queen and 'fossil monarchy' while the rest of the time it went without, and a world that was heading into the Korean war.

The film, which is set mainly to clips of classical music - from Liszt and Mahler to John Tavener - also serves as a tribute to the golden age of cinema and Hollywood stars, and Davies' love of classical music.

Of Time and the City is a poignant and emotional elegy to a lost Liverpool, one those places that we 'hate to love and love to hate', taking place almost entirely in a smoky black and white. Davies laments 'Where are you, the Liverpool I knew and loved? Where have you gone without me?'. Twenty first century Liverpool is so different that he's an 'alien in my own land.' As the Empire was on the decline, so was the Liverpool of old. Glimpses into house proud women cooking and scrubbing their front steps give way to images of demolition and vandalism.

The Liverpool in Of Time and Only City seems like a faraway land of cobblestones, trams, horses and carts and hire purchase, although in reality what we're seeing took place in the not so distant past. It comes across as a strangely old-fashioned place. Davies juxtaposes an idyllic scene of light rippling on a duckpond with a reminder that homosexuality was illegal until the second half of the twentieth century. Whereas the film jolts into early, ultra-vivid colour footage for the wedding of 'Betty and Phil' and the opening of the Catholic Cathedral (the building of which cuts through the film), the everyday life of most Liverpudlians remained starkly black and white.

Of Time and the City is remarkably coherent for a non-narrative film that is collaged from archive footage, and sweeps from everyday scenes of the docks and crowds watching Liverpool football club to swooping shots of the skyline. It's like we're watching a silent film – the music that accompanies the clips, from choral chanting to Ewan MacColl's 'Dirty Old Town', makes us feel as if we're cut off and peering in on history, outsiders trespassing on tableaux in someone's memory.

The 'paradise' of tower blocks and new towns that were created after the war looks just as remote and detached as the leftover Victorian slum housing that was knocked down to make way for it. Davies uses footage panning over fearsome municipal architecture that shows the 'British genius for creating the dismal'. Whereas before, the crammed streets of terraced houses were alive with children playing in the streets and a sense of community, afterwards the overall impression is of desertion and emptiness, the new city skyline looking like an architect's model or toy town rather than an inhabited urban centre.

I'm not from Liverpool, and I've only been there twice, but I felt strangely moved by the film, which ends up amidst the bars and shops of modern Liverpool. For all its problems, we're left feeling in awe of Liverpool, in all its glamour and majesty, as the camera soars over the Liver Building for the last time.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Sounds of the Other City - the Salford Music Map

SALFORD and Manchester, two cities next to each other but apart. To the rest of the world, Salford and Manchester are indistinguishable. However, in case you didn’t know, Salford is a different city marked out by the River Irwell towards the west of Manchester.

Until the Industrial Revolution, Salford was more powerful than its more famous neighbour. We stole the Industrial Revolution from them, and now, says a new exhibition and map celebrating 50 years of Salford music, we’re taking credit for their music too. “You wouldn’t get Glasgow and Edinburgh mixed up”, says the Salford Music Map’s researcher, David Nolan, so why Manchester and Salford?

Salfordians tend either to try and escape the city or wear their civic pride as a badge of honour. Being from Salford is sometimes seen as a mixed blessing: think of the 'Salford-Cambridge tones of Anthony H Wilson' (as we're reminded of in Mark Garry's BBC commissioned poem St Anthony, which can be listened to in the exhibition).

Nolan, a music author and lecturer at Salford University decided it was time to “address the balance a bit and clear up a few facts” spread by a Manchester Music Map that was created in the 1990s. He says “nearly all the stuff that was on it was actually in Salford.”

Disappointingly, though, the Salford Music Map isn’t really a map but a line of locations - you won’t be able to use it to find your way around Salford or any of the venues.

The ‘map’ is not drawn to scale; it promotes Salford as a tourist destination for visitors from both the UK and abroad, but you’re probably not going to track down all the sites, which are miles apart. Nolan suggests you “invest in a car or a bus ticket”, but admits the Salford Music Map is “more of a thing to put on your wall”.

Smiths fans already have Phil Gatenby’s books, Morrissey’s Manchester and Panic on the Streets, which contain instructions for foot, car and public transport and make for a fun musical tour around Manchester and Salford.

Some of the stories on the map could do with further exploration in the exhibition. Who are the Kersal Massive, and are they really something Salford should be proud of? I was amused to learn that a successful In The City slot at the Kings Arms, probably the nicest venue in the whole of Manchester, let alone Salford, was responsible for letting histrionic glam rockers the Darkness loose on the world, and Mark E Smith could have had a successful career in shipping was it not for The Fall, but both stories are barely referred to in the exhibition. The German singer Nico, who has a section on the map, is virtually unmentioned.

The 3D map on display in the gallery looks like something primary school children would create, with a big, jagged yellow sun peering over it optimistically. A river made of wool winds its way through cut out bits of paper indicating streets and buildings, some of which have already fallen over.

The exhibition is more substantial than the map, however. There are star shaped sunglasses to dress up in, and a stage set up with instruments for future rock stars. There’s a recreation of a record shop complete with posters, fliers and 7”s, as well work by Ray Lowry - Salford-born cartoonist and creator of the iconic cover of London Calling by the Clash - who died recently. You can pick up a telephone and listen to the fuzzy tones of punk poet John Cooper Clarke.

The exhibition is most interesting when it documents the 'development of a dirty northern city', to quote Mike Garry's poem again, and the changing ways we listen to music. Some sites on the map consisted of long-demolished terraced housing, and artefacts include a 1960s reel to reel cassette recorder, jukeboxes, Walkmen and IPODs.

A timeline relates musical occasions to what was going on elsewhere in the world, and there are films of key players for the different decades, as well as a Salford music fan’s Teddy Boy suit.

Bizarrely for an exhibition celebrating Salford, though, there's a big section on the Hacienda, which despite its various locations was never found in Salford. Perhaps because Salford doesn't have a recognisable city centre, Salford bands made a name for themselves playing in Manchester.

It's not just Salford bands Manchester takes credit for, though: it's associated with lots of music that’s not strictly Mancunian. Doves are a Cheshire band, Badly Drawn Boy is from Bolton, Inspiral Carpets are from Oldham. The Charlatans, who the music map claims as Salford’s own, have tenuous claims to being a Manchester band, let alone Salford. Singer Tim Burgess grew up in Cheshire and now lives in LA.

The map aims to find the future sounds of Salford, following the success of the Ting Tings. Bands like the Beep Seals look back to the sixties for their inspiration and are new, but not particularly futuristic. Nor is jaunty, brass heavy ska band The Mekkits.

Salford's annual new music festival Sounds of the Other City is hardly a collection of Salford sounds, either. Fun and commendable as it is, and successful at bringing people into Salford who wouldn't normally go there, bands at this year’s event included the sublime David Thomas Broughton from Leeds, as well as Rozi Plain from Bristol and even a band from New York, Talibam!. For the real 'new' sounds of Greater Manchester in the 21st century, listen to bands like Cats in Paris, Denis Jones or Voice of the Seven Woods, who sometimes even play at venues in Salford like the lovely Sacred Trinity Church.

However, Nolan hopes the exhibition and map will get “people to cross over the river who normally would have just gone to Manchester”.

Quiffs, Riffs and Tiffs will be at Salford Art Gallery, Peel Park Crescent, until 28 October 2009. The Salford Music Map is free and can be ordered from or picked up at the Salford Tourist Information Centre, the Salford Museum and Art Gallery and several of the venues on the map, including The Lowry, The King’s Arms, Salford Lads Club, Islington Mill and Salford University.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Loiterers Resistance Movement - Loitering with Good Intentions

PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY: mention that to most people and they’ll probably look at you blankly. But a Manchester psychogeographic group offers monthly tours as an alternative to official, Blue Badge guides to the city.

The Loiterers Resistance Movement, a collective of urban explorers “loitering with intent to make Manchester wonderful”, is probably Manchester’s only local history and walking group watched over by the Greek goddess of chaos, Eris, and influenced by the flâneur, a dandy-esque Victorian figure who wandered the city as a detached observer.

Founder Morag Rose complains “modern society is so rigid”. Chaos, on the other hand, “can be a creative force”.Morag explains, “chaos is thought of as scary, but it can be beautiful”.

In a manifesto-esque statement of intent on the internet, The LRM lists its likes and dislikes: “plants growing out of the side of buildings” are good, “gentrification” is bad. The LRM celebrates the “colourful and diverse”.

The movement was born late in 2005, out of the Basement on Lever Street, an anarchist meeting place. It has close links with other Manchester groups such as No Borders, which defends the rights of immigrants and refugees.

Although even most psychogeographers can’t agree what it means, psychogeography has its origins in the Situationist Movement, and the Paris Riots of 1968.

The situationists were concerned with how we relate to and interact with the city emotionally, and how we can disrupt it. They encouraged debate about who is included and excluded in a city, and who can change it.

Psychogeography is a world-wide activity - there is an Australian branch of The LRM, and it also has links to Germany and Belgium.

Psychogeographers dispute the ownership of the city: “the city is made up of a million different stories, and the official history is just one of them”, explains Morag. The city is a public space with the potential for public revolution and change. Loitering, therefore, is a form of political protest.

What does this have to do with modern Manchester? Late Manchester music mogul Tony Wilson was influenced by situationism, and hosted a Situationist International conference at the Hacienda in 1996.

Today, psychogeography is a way of making sure that “the spiritual history of the city” and its “mythical undercurrent”, isn’t forgotten.

The LRM is about dark alleyways and going through doors you’re not supposed to. It’s about serendipity: unearthing the hidden treasures beneath the streets and the forgotten ghosts lurking in those dark alleyways you’re too scared to go down. It’s about social history and the way in which the city’s past residents, such as Friedrich Engels and the mathematician and astrologer John Dee, live on, in places like Chetham’s library.

It’s about finding the courage to visit “places never been before but you’ve always really wanted to, or the places you’ve been too scared to go to”.

Mainly, though, The LRM recommends setting off on a walk where you don’t know where you’re going. The best way to find out more about the city, recommends Morag, is to“stop and look at things, talk to people and ask loads of questions” - like many of us, Morag admits that one of her main motivations is that she’s “really nosy”!

The LRM is also to do with community mapping and remapping the city. Morag is fascinated by ‘DIY mapping’. She says, “ask twenty people how they got to the same place and they’ll all say something different.”

Don't be put off by all the theory, though - Morag says, “it’s nice to get people along who haven’t really thought about psychogeography”.

Whereas the Situationists were often “contradictory” and “used words no-one could understand”, the LRM is open to everybody.

Although the LRM took part in the TRIP (Territories Reimagined: International Perspectives) conference at Metropolitan University in June, Morag stresses that the LRM is “community based – not academic”.

The LRM is an antidote to a city which is “becoming more and more commercial and alienating for people”. Modern life, says Morag, is “stopping people being to engage with what’s around them”.

Morag offers the Free Trade Hall as a particular place that alienates people: “it’s an expensive hotel with an oriental theme, when there could be so much heritage to celebrate there”. Morag adds, “We’re really busy - the whole city is rushing around. People go to work in a job they hate. It’s sad that life revolves around commerce and money”.

If people looked around them, and got rid of their preconceptions, they’d realize that “there’s always more to explore and discover - when you’re looking, you see signs”.

Furthermore, Morag thinks “It’s a shame that regeneration policies centre around shopping”. “People should play and have fun, not just go shopping”. The trouble is sometimes, finding a peaceful or quiet space where that’s possible. The LRM aims to restore the balance.

Although Morag acknowledges it’s “good that cities are always changing”, she bemoans the fact that “regeneration often gets rid of the interesting things”. She stresses that the movement isn’t “anti-progress”, however. They don’t want to “go back to some kind of golden age”.
We should just be thinking about what it is that makes Manchester Manchester.

The LRM sets out to reclaim Manchester, whilst having a lot of fun and “giving people a good time” along the way.

As Morag observes, “everyone loves Manchester for a different reason”, and has “their own sense of history and own stories”.

Past dérives have included a pigeon’s eye view of the city that celebrated the oft-maligned creatures, a stroll based around the ‘lost rivers’ of Manchester, and night time walks.

Morag is delighted when people bring stories with them. Old ladies who went along on the tour of fast-changing Ancoats shared anecdotes like memories of the canals turning frothy with soap from laundry, and reminisced about being threatened with the prospect of a monster called Jenny Greenteeth.

Dérives often throw up myths and legends, such as that of the ice maiden in Salford who became pregnant at a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable and killed herself by jumping off a bridge. She got stuck in ice and people went to look at her. Morag says that this story is probably “half-myth, half fact”. The LRM may itself have created a few urban myths during its existence.

Morag also offers intriguing titbits about Lincoln Square, ‘Umbrella Alley’, just off St. Ann’s Square, and antiquated laws relating to the walking of cows to the city from the outskirts.

One walk took in masonic and sacred architecture, looking at some of Manchester’s most famous buildings, such as the seven-tiered town hall. The LRM also educated walkers about how the Royal Exchange theatre, ‘the biggest room in the world’, was built on different religious ideas using Kabalistic and Rosicrucian dimensions. A caduceus walk explored the origins of the serpentine symbol, which used to be the symbol of medicine, and is seen on lots of banks.

September’s wander was based around CCTV cameras, and considered how being under constant surveillance affects our perception of the city - should we perform for the camera?

Walks start in landmarks such as the John Rylands library, and usually end up in pubs like the British Protection, often taking place on historical date such as May Day and the Winter Solstice.

Morag “never comes away without learning something” on one of her walks – “there’s never a wasted day”.

Morag hopes in the future to do a 'Manchester music tour'. She asks, “who decided Manchester music was all about bands like Oasis, lad bands? What about Manchester’s folk tradition?”.

Morag concludes, “look around you and there’s magic”. Even in the Mancunian rain!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Tindersticks, Bridgewater Hall, October 4

They both played as big bands, but strength in numbers was where the similarlities between Tindersticks and support Sara Lowes ended.

Lowes, a Manchester singer-songwriter, conjured retro, slightly sixties songs that were closer to smooth LA pop than the dark musical heritage of her home town. Her pleasant vocals were tinged with the humour of Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger.

Tindersticks, however, are autumn personified, a distillation of that bittersweet end of summer feeling - the realisation that it’s really over and won’t come back. Like all rich things, their music is best enjoyed in moderation, often as a concoction administered at the end of a relationship.

They’re the aural equivalent of getting your coat, scarf and gloves back out, tucking into shepherd’s pie and settling down inside as the nights get longer. Putting Tindesticks on is as comforting as wrapping up in your favourite old jumper.

Fittingly for a band who create film soundtracks, Tindersticks took to the stage one by one like a roll call of characters listed in order of appearance. A sedate tableau emerged from the darkness, with only one vital ingredient missing: Stuart Staples’ extraordinary voice.

Staples was stuck to the microphone as if by magnetism, eyes closed, for most of the set as if he was straining to hear the dramas that were carried out in the whispers of his own voice. He was spotlighted at times, but the extra attention was unnecessary; his voice is its own spotlight that dazzles everything around it.

When Staples, hitherto grey haired and grave in a grey jacket, came back beaming after the encore, it was akin to Gordon Brown getting up and doing a dance in the middle of parliament.

Like the best movies, Tindersticks were engrossing yet offered moments of excitement. An instrumental with a bassline straight out of The Shadows was accompanied by spotlights sweeping across the stage like the start credits to a James Bond film.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Bill Drummond, Manchester Deansgate Waterstones, Wednesday September 17

You never quite know what to expect from Bill Drummond, but probably not the balding, mild-mannered, softly-spoken man who turns up bang on time to talk about his new book, '17'.

The 55-year-old is wearing a loose shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and looks more like a tired father than an art/ noise terrorist.

One half, along with fellow hell-raiser Jimmy Cauty, of the KLF, he's burned a million pounds on a Scottish island, launched a competition to find the worst art in the UK, written a manual on how to have a number one record and dumped a dead sheep at the Brit awards.

Prior that, he formed connections to the Northwest playing in Liverpool band Big in Japan and producing Echo and the Bunnymen.

One of Drummond's previous books, the autobiographical '45', is a classic of its genre, and Drummond is also a convincing speaker.

As he reminds us, he's been through art school, and the subject of his book could just as easily be an art project as a musical experiment.

By this reasoning, Drummond’s No Music Day, during which we're urged to ignore all music, and the first of which was held on November 21 last year, would be a pop art happening.

It could just as easily be a political act, like a Go Slow at Work Day.

Indeed, Drummond reads from the first pages of ‘17’ in the manner of a politician reading a manifesto.

Much like punk, The 17 is a way of making music that’s open to anyone, and Drummond commands, "Dispense with all previous forms of music and music-making and start again."
The creators should have “No knowledge of what music should sound like.”

The difference, however, is that once the work has been recorded, there is only one airing before it is deleted forever – unlike the Sex Pistols, no reunions years later or repackaging of the back catalogue.

Despite the often confrontational tone he assumes, though, Drummond is clearly a music lover.

He’s trying to come to terms with the fast-changing world of technology around us, and the sheer, overwhelming availability of modern music; the idea that you can go on Napster and easily download any piece of music from anywhere in the world, at any time, and it's instantly available to you.

He's baffled by the "ubiquity of music", and the way you can listen to an Ipod anywhere you want, anytime.

Drummond enters the debate of 'old music' versus 'new music' by relinquishing the standpoint of many of his generation and remaining optimistic about the power of new music to “open a room in your head you've never been in before”.

Anyone who's ever had an epiphany to music, such as Drummond's childhood discovery of 'Strawberry Fields' by The Beatles, been unable to stop listening to a new record over and over again, or been moved to tears by an album (whether or not it was 'Pet Sounds', the example Drummond cites), will empathise with this book.

Drummond reminds too us that music can arise from anything, in the most unlikely places.

The 17 originates from the sounds of the workings of Drummond's Land Rover, "roaring and swelling", and "harmonising with the wind".

An attempt to record the noises around him with an unlikely contraption of sound equipment and gaffer tape, during the 2 hours and 12 minutes it takes to drive from coast to coast across the north of the county, ended in failure, and instead Drummond decided to recreate the "sonic Vikings" inside his Land Rover with a choir of 17 voices.

The choir uses “No libretto, lyrics or words; no time signatures, rhythm or beats", and has "no knowledge of memory, counterpoint or harmony.”

A 17 performance in Derby this year gathered 1,700 residents of the city, grouped into 17 members of 100 different professions, from doctors to dinner ladies.

Drummond exhorts nineteen, twenty and twenty-one-year-olds in the audience to carry on making music in the hope that it will "change the world".

Maybe it's about time we turn our MP3 players off and start listening to those “internal soundscapes” again.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Massive Attack, Becks Fusion, Castlefield, Saturday September 6

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. An outdoor, end of summer concert at Castlefield Arena, surrounded by the historic railway bridges, converted warehouses and canals of industrial Manchester. In reality, the crowd spent the day cowering under arches trying to escape the downpour that marred most of the festival.

By the time Bristol trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack took the stage, the atmosphere was electric. We'd waited for most of the day in soggy clothes, so the ambience was less dance music rave and stylish young music fans, and more a sea of sensible yellow ponchos, crackly bin-liner meets comedy duck costumes, that were handed out for free by the foresighted organisers.

New York singer Santogold's energetic mix of reggae, disco and hip-hop, and the polished spectacle of dancers and posturing musicians, just about made us forget the deluge, and she wore an eccentric, colourful enough costume, an eighties style jumpsuit, to make us feel less ridiculous.

Massive Attack may have held off the rain, but their set highlighted the real villain of the night: the crowd. Perhaps due to the perils of a free gig, many of the crowd members seemed more interested in talking amongst themselves than watching Massive Attack. They may have started in an unassuming manner, Djs hiding behind a screen and stage lights, but by the end we were shown that Massive Attack aren't just a coffee table, electronic background music band: they rock.

In the front few rows, a young woman chatted up a fellow crowd member by talking nonstop about herself, and the 'life-changing' experiences of her travels. Behind her on screen, Massive Attack mounted a political as well as musical barrage, comprised of quotations from genuinely life changing figures and situations. As a revolving cast of musicians, including Tricky, intoned dramatically into a microphone at the front of the stage, dialogue about torture from Guantanamo Bay inmates was screened across the backdrop and Nelson Mandela's words of wisdom were lit up in lights. Massive Attack even contributed to the US presidential debate by flashing excerpts of Obama and McCain's speeches at us.

A hard core in the centre jumped up and down, but a couple in front of me spent the entire show taking photos of each other on their mobile phones and sending them to friends. Drunk revelers may have turned round briefly to watch Massive Attack's most famous song Teardrop, a decade on eerily realised by an angelic, otherworldy blonde singer clinging to a white Gibson almost as large as her waifish form for dear life, but spent most of the gig turned away from the stage talking and shrieking loudly, plastic cups of Becks beer held aloft. Unfinished Sympathy, though, with its sombre string section, was still as affecting as when it was released almost twenty years ago, and impossible to ignore.

One small mercy was the cobblestones underfoot. They may be difficult to walk on at times, but at least it meant the ground didn't flood and we weren't splashing around in mud, true British festival style.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Letter from America

If you can gain a first impression about a place from its public transport, as I touch down on American soil my ideas of America as a land of patriotism are confirmed.

Flags add colour to small suburban front gardens, fluttering over row after undistinguished row of pastel coloured clapboard houses as we head towards the ground at John F Kennedy airport. They are magnified through the windows of the subsequent train that whizzes me towards New York (later, I discover that even the miniature sailing boats on the Central Park boating lake sport their own tiny red, white and blue emblems on their small sails). A small version of the famous stars and stripes is emblazoned on the outside of each Metro carriage, too, like a marker on a neat silver bullet.

Listen: Take Him Back To New York City - Herman Düne (I don't have an IPOD, but if I did this is what i would listen to, and I advise you to to enhance your reading pleasure)

Inside the train, we’re encouraged to support American peanut vendors, but we’re also constantly reminded in bilingual English and Spanish advertisements of the need for medical insurance. I’m never far away from somebody who’s slipped through the safety net of the American dream.

Americans may seem open and keen to engage with others, smiling at me and at each other, but some seem to be living in a different country entirely. An elderly woman in sparkly silver disco slippers, frizzy brown hair askew as if she’s been dancing all night to the tune of her lost dreams, trying to recapture her youthful expectations of the promise of the big city, shuffles herself and her ‘Fritos’ down next to me. She’s more likely just awoken, alone and unwashed, and tells me I look just like someone she once knew, somewhere, a long time ago. Some of the contents of her crisp packet escape her witchily long, scarlet fingernails, and catch on her mismatched outfit like the unexpected baubles of day to day life.

She’s a member of that transient class that carries their life around in a shopping trolley, ready to be upped from their spot under a park tree or in a disused doorway at any moment and transported somewhere seemingly promising, that has yet to move them on.

I’ve been out of JFK airport for less than half an hour, but already feel like I’m in an Amriki Baraka play. A character with a worker’s cap, grease and paint splattered on his hardwearing looking trousers, accompanied by a clownish sidekick in neon clothes and braces, sits himself and his boom box down next to me, and starts advising me on the sexual prowess of black men in great detail. After deciding that I’m mute, and asking round the carriage, including admiring a young woman with impractically long and pristine fingernails, he watches his fellows countrymen with resignation. Gurning to themselves, whether in pleasure or disapproval, deep in their own private worlds of thought, he concludes that no one wants to talk today. He doesn’t seem to know where he’s going and reluctantly says goodbye, deciding that one station is as good a point to leave and step outside as any.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going either, but Americans seem drawn to anyone with a map and the slightest trace of a lost facial expression as if by magnetism. ‘It’s so hot’, says a suited man, in the effusive, expressive manner of those for whom English is a second language. Attaching himself to me as an impromptu tour guide, he tells me his office is round the block and tries to reassure me that the weather is unseasonably warm for a time of year when the temperature should be in the seventies.

It’s true - the heat is wafting up from the streets and the front page headlines of discarded newspapers, and Manhattanites are riding the subway even for just a few blocks when usually they’d walk, confirming that the heat wave is making our bodies feel like we’re sweltering in the hundred degree range of the Fahrenheit scale.

I can feel my feet frying in my black plimsolls as I walk past a dog shop in the shady side streets of Greenwich Village that is offering $200 dollars off puppies. On display in a double fronted window, crotchety canines fight on one side and snooze in a heap in the other. It’s been another long day in the city that never sleeps.

Listen: New York Counterpoint - Steve Reich

After trying to get my head around the money - tiny dimes turn out to be worth ten cents, despite being smaller than five cent coins, and prices are quoted without tax - I head to the seaside, at the famous Coney Island in Brooklyn.

I breathe in its sweet and sour atmosphere of scattered popcorn and trampled hotdogs, amusement rides and old fashioned attractions that have seen better days. Coney Island has an air of impermanence about it. Like Blackpool pleasure beach, regulars fish for crabs from the pier and blasé teenagers while away their afternoons, but don’t stay.

Listen: Williamsburg Will Oldham Song - Jeffrey Lewis
Coney Island is at end of the line, literally. From the subway window, fragile Ferris wheels tower above the water, their future hanging in the balance and the basis of ‘Save Coney Island’ appeals and burlesque roller-skating benefits.

A man warns us that we’re decadent and damned, espousing his religion into a microphone as he paces back and forth against the backdrop of a beach hut, an improvised altar against the shimmering cut glass of sea and sky.

Another mimes the words in Spanish to a cheesy Latin song, as his friend in lifeguard colours sings along to a ghetto blaster. He clicks his fingers whilst moving from side to side and smiling, gesturing towards a woman sitting on the floor that she is the object of his serenade. She seems unmoved.

Listen: Coney Island Baby - Lou Reed

Larger than life is part of the everyday American experience. It’s in the brash neon signs of Times Square where consumerism and branding is enlarged into something impossible to escape from. It’s in simple things like hot-dog stands on fire. It’s in those who take it on themselves to stand up on a soapbox and become the orators of the street, assuming to speak for the rest of us and our salvation.

It’s even in the work of artists like Claes Oldenburg. His pop art vinyl recreations of fast food, like ‘French Fries and Ketchup’, or his giant BLT, complete with a wooden toothpick stabbed through the slices of tomato, is trash promoted to gallery status at the Museum of Modern Art and recreated in the cartoonish fabric of children’s indoor play areas.

You can see the seams of the vinyl, the grain of the shiny, wipe clean fabric. It’s super size before it even became a global term that ate itself into the consciousness of any outsider’s impressions of America.

Jeff Koons goes a step further and places the creations of convenience America, like vacuum cleaners fresh from their mass produced packaging, in a an air-conditioned gallery setting.Listen: A Love Supreme - John Coltrane
The streets, too, are living, breathing cultural stages. I walk down Charlie Parker street in the Lower East Side, stroll down the Bowery and wander through Chinatown.

I nap in parks such as the East Village outdoor sculpture garden to jazz buskers. I read the free newspapers, full of sex advice and adverts for women, that come from boxes on the street. One publishes the dimensions of all its girls - 48HH - 27 catches my eye - and advertises a ‘Brazilian gang bang’.

I daydream about writing for The Onion or the Village Voice and tell the time by a musical revolving alarm clock in the children’s zoo of Central Park as parents and nannies stop to photograph it.

Holden Caulfield’s beloved skating rink is under a giant funfair for the summer, but I watch red, green and yellow striped turtles stretch orange patterned feet as they bask on rocks in the sun in the park’s manmade lake, and try to persuade a man that my fascination stems from seeing in the wild a creature I’ve only seen in garden ponds and zoos before.

Listen: I’m Waiting for the Man - The Velvet Underground

I’m surrounded with Man Ray and Edward Hopper’s empty, evocative visions of New York in the Whitney, whilst the contemporary classical music of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble sends strings scored by John Adams scything through the air around me. It turns out to be a free Friday night gig, and I stay to watch a contemporary Yo La Tengo, Philadelphia’s misnamed A Sunny Day In Glasgow. Female vocals float over shimmering walls of guitar, chiming and bell-like. Sustained arpeggios fight their way through feedback and ring through the spring air.

Listen: On Broadway - Neil Young

At Frank Lloyd Wright’s curved Guggenheim museum, I see New York through the eyes of immigrant artists of the 1940s - Mark Rothko, Rothenberg and Pollock. It’s easy to miss the significance and beauty of their paintings close up, but step away and the blurred outlines take shape. They’re like the city, which seems overwhelming and enveloping at first, but starts to make sense once you’ve moved outside it. Once you’re detached, you have time to reflect.

The streets are also steeped in history. Stonewall, home of the historic gay rights riots of the 1960s, is now memorialised in Greenwich Village. In Harlem I stop at a graffiti gallery and tattoo parlour. I also have a change from a junk food diet of pizza and pretzels, bagels and cream cheese and jelly donuts, cookies and cheeseburgers. I eat a hearty meal of curry goat floating amongst rice, peas, sweet corn and bone marrow on Lennox Avenue, in sight of Malcolm X’s mosque.

Central Park is like an oasis of calm, a refuge from the noise and crowds of 5th, 6th, and 7th avenues - home to the Empire State building, Grand Central Station and the Rockefeller Centre, among others - that approach it. The nearby theatre district may be advertising stereotypically American concepts such as Legally Blonde, the stage version, and somebody mentions Woody Allen’s name in awed tones as I wonder past tree lined, brownstone streets closed off for film sets (the redbrick, cobblestones and zig zag fire escapes of Greenwich Village are already familiar from countless films) but the real entertainers are those all around you.

Listen: The East River - Jeffrey Lewis

Dogs are often driven around, or carried in owners’ pockets, but I sit on a bench next to a more inventive middle aged lady who’s turned her two miniature dogs into a travelling road show in a trolley lined with blankets. Passing children’s parents are asked for permission for their offspring to be the benefit of ‘dog kisses’, that is dogs licking the faces of delighted children. Some lucky children are offered the chance to feed the dog a biscuit, and then are told ‘well done’ and ‘you did brilliantly’.

Even without their casts of freaks, American cities go out of their way to entertain us in the summer months. I arrive at Central Park’s annual Summer Stage to see the local band Vampire Weekend for free, and join in the snaking queue that I’m told formed at 9am. Its members are passing the hot afternoon by trying to outdo each other in how sweaty they feel. T

he festival starts promisingly, as Time Out makes me a button badge, a radio station hands me a free chap stick and I find a seat on some metal bleachers. Then the rain starts. At first it’s refreshing, but as Born Ruffians soldier on it becomes apparent it’s going to rain for hours. And it does.

Andrew WK, best known for the one off novelty tune Party Hard, and its blood stained video, comperes, as over the top as ever. He observes that ‘if you haven’t washed your hair for a couple of weeks, your face will taste strange - that’ll be the hair oil!’.

We’re told to get off the bleachers when the storm starts. My fingers wrinkle like I’ve stayed in the bath too long, and my hands go so white you can see the blue veins through them. I’m soaked through, but then again so is everyone else, and we’re splashing around barefoot on the flooded ground. Those who had the foresight to bring umbrellas are trying to guard their possessions from the rain. Thunder shakes the floor, but every flash of lightning is followed by a huge cheer. The sun tries to break through, and there’s a cheer for that too. Then the cycle begins all over again; as soon as we’ve dried out, it’s time to get wet again.

The female rapper Kid Sister, though, remains upbeat, and Vampire Weekend keep us on our feet with their string led, pop take on world music. I get the Metro home, happy and dripping, after a hotdog vendor asks ‘what happened to you?!’, concerned. He asks where I’m from and I try to explain to him a world in which people stand in Central Park for hours in a thunderstorm and get soaked through to see a concert.

As I step off the Metro I see people are reluctant to go outside and see why: the entrance stairs have turned into a waterfall.

Listen: A - Punk - Vampire Weekend

I also arrive at Bryant Park early to claim my seat for an outdoor film showing of Dr. No. . I’m there more to share in another communal outdoor experience and see how New Yorkers react to the adverse weather that seems likely again, than for the choice of film.

The film is not starting until sunset, but I watch couples with wine and picnics, interrupted by frequent optimistic updates from a loudspeaker voice. I also listen to one of New York’s many cellular phone conversations, most of which are dedicated to friendships in crisis or analysis of relationships. A man sitting next to me updates somebody he is trying to persuade to come on the other end of the phone: ‘the weather just went from bad to apocalyptic’.

Looking at the clouds speeding towards us, like angrily swirling smoke, this doesn’t seem like an overstatement. They’re forming grey patches over clear white sky and gleaming, futuristic glass buildings, one of which is shaped like an inverted ice-cream cone. The bottoms of sun umbrellas over tables start rippling like water, propelled by the wind that’s conspiring with the rain against us seeing the film. As the thunder starts, half an hour before the film is due to begin, I decide to make a run for it, thankful that the excess of scaffolding in the nearby area makes a good waterproof.
Listen: On the Waterfront - Leonard Bernstein
Some of the interesting parts of New York, however, Soho and Tribeca included, are fast becoming gentrified. South Street Seaport is now trapped, as if in a stifling bell jar, under a glass shopping mall. Its charm has been staled by piped music and chain stores, bland restaurants and bars.

Past the Staten Island Ferry, from where it’s possible to catch a free close up view of the Statue of Liberty rising from the spring rain, and a grey-haired man volunteers a brief history lesson on the history of the bridges we pass through his newspapers and headphones, though, is a hidden gem.

Listen: NYC’S Like A Graveyard - Moldy Peaches

An ostentatious lime building with mustard trimming houses an installation by the former Talking Heads singer David Byrne, called ‘Playing the Building’. A vintage wooden church organ is spotlighted against the stained, paint peeling stone floor of a huge, cathedralesque, maritime hall. Through a prism opening in the plaster ceiling loom the clouds, rain, sky and skyscrapers of Wall Street powerhouses. The sun briefly comes out, and it casts a wonky shaft of light through windows in various states of repair over the organ. Eerie flutes and panpipes whistle, far away, through the workings of the building, screeching like the phantoms of its past history cast in a period opera by the avant-garde composer John Cage. I feel something rattle through the ornate pillar I’m sitting against, one of many with gargoyles at the top which must once have been gilded with gold.

When I sit down at the piano stool for my turn, clang, jangle, ting are countered by drag, rub, rumble at the other end of the scale, deep chords splodging and dragging like a large vehicle revving up. I feel as if I’m in a decrepit haunted house decorated with wooden panelling in nuanced shades of brown and grey, black and grime. Far off, mutated strings whine, grind and grate in surround sound. Then I stand up, and silence, like a beast of heavy machinery whose parts are slowly coming to rest.

Listen: Sonata for Prepared Piano I - John Cage

I reluctantly say goodbye to New York by walking past the notorious Chelsea Hotel, round the corner from my rather less characterful hostel, one last time.

Gothic looking, it rises above the launderettes and dry-cleaners, florists and minmarts, palm readers and psychics’ shops that comprise Chelsea. It’s like a rock ‘n’roll wedding cake, stacks of balconies layered on the outside that look as if they could have been built from the layers of popular history that have been made there. Today, all that remains of its colourful past is some rather garish art in the air conditioned foyer.

Listen: The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song - Jeffrey Lewis
A megabus $2 return takes me to Boston, sound tracked by a young man waxing lyrical about the elegance of suspension bridges as we tour New York to get to the highway.

We drive through the green and pleasant states of New York and Connecticut, all lakes and rivers and small settlements of wooden houses among the New England forests, to Boston.

Boston seems altogether more modest than the Big Apple, a mixture of old, historical buildings and modern glass architecture. I arrive on Bunker Hill day, but now the most subversive thing I come across is an innocuous tree hung with printouts on coloured paper that suggest ‘hug the trees’ and ‘an apple a day’ superimposed onto a scanned image of an apple.

The leaves sway in the breeze, and I can only imagine how Boston must look in the fall when its trees carpet the ground to match the warm redbrick of the buildings around it.

Listen: Roadrunner - Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Eccentrics aren’t just on display in New York, though. Accordion players and saxophonists parade the statues and goldfish ponds of Boston Common, which is home to a tented ‘Old School Revival’, where ladies in their best floral dress are seated like ghosts of the old South.

The redbrick, outwardly austere old South Street Church, too offers jazz worship. A voice coming from a sandwich board pacing the ornate fountains and statues rises to a crescendo of ‘REPENT OR PERSISH’, and the flipside ‘JESUS GOOD SHEPHERD’, until even the homeless complain ‘you’re crazy, go away!’.

I start following the historic Freedom Trail uphill through Boston, but it’s full of tourists, locals break dancing for the crowds, and green t-shirted, shamrocked Celtics fans congregating noisily in Irish pubs for the Lakers-Celtics NBA final.

After stopping for gelato in a claustaphobically quaint district, I decide to conserve my energy for the next day’s pilgrimage to Concord, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Listen: Dirty Water - The Standells

Forty minutes through Massachusetts on the bi-hourly commuter train, and home to Sleepy Hollow cemetery, Concord paints the idyllic picture of small town America that so many people over the world have from watching films and TV series. Painted houses with corresponding shutters and columns sit in the sunshine, rocking chairs idling on porches in shade cast by trees.

Walden Pond is a thirty five minute walk along a county track, carpeted by pine needles and bordered by bales of hay bleaching in the sun, but I’m spurred on by the memory of a case of Thoreau memorabilia in New York Public Library that featured John Cage’s setting to music of Thoreau’s famous dictum ‘that government is best which governs not at all…and when we are prepared for it that will be the kind of government that they will have’ and an audio book of Thoreau‘s most celebrated book, Walden, his account of renouncing nineteenth century society to live in the woods.

I asked for directions in an old-fashioned style ice-cream parlour, but stop some teenagers on my way to confirm that the long, winding road is taking me in the right direction. Although I’m on Thoreau Street, they seem barely aware of Walden Pond, saying ‘I haven’t been there since I was, like, five’ and suggest I ask in a nearby high school. After confirming with a trucker resting by the side of the road, I have to cross the highway to Walden Pond State Reservation.
It’s more popular than my brief conversation would suggest. There’s even a beach with a lifeguard hut, a far cry from the solitude Henry Thoreau sought in the 1840s. My first glimpse of Walden Pond comes, unexpectedly turquoise blue, through the thick trees that have grown on the site of Thoreau’s Bean Patch.

When I follow the trail down, it’s a lot larger than I expected. A couple from Cambridge who’ve been going there nearly every day for twenty years, to swim in the summer and skate in the winter when it freezes over, show me the steps down to the best bathing spot, and greet their fellow regular Errol. I’m told the pond has reached 74 degrees Fahrenheit after last week’s heat wave, which made it up to Boston too.

Remarking on the water’s cleanness, I’m informed the pond is filled by rainwater, and ‘the only pollution is the swimmers’. Someone adds that ‘sometimes you can taste the cosmetics in the water, like lacquer hairspray and sunscreen’.

At lunchtime, a shy chipmunk decides it’s safe enough to come and steal my crumbs, as I watch goldfish through the warm, clear water and swimmers in bathing caps lap the lake.

An enthusiast in the Thoreau shop, upon learning that I wrote my dissertation on Thoreau and Kerouac, recommends I find time to visit the old industrial town of Lowell, Kerouac’s birthplace. I begin to wonder whether I should have bought a $28 dollar, suede baseball embroidered with Kerouac’s signature from New York Public Library as a souvenir.

I’m heading back to New York early the next morning, however, to commence my first real journey by American standards: the 19 hour Amtrak service that links New York to Chicago.

As we wind our way along the Hudson River, the city quickly gives way to small towns with a seaside feel. Boats and fishermen gently ripple the calm water. We pass through Yonkers, the late afternoon sun breaking through the reflection of clouds in golden shafts over the wide river. We pass peaks and power stations, electricity pylons and water-cooling towers. What looks like the ruins of a castle, its own island in the river, is illuminated from behind by the orange sun. Sometimes the train is surrounded by water, as it splits into marsh on the other side of the track.

Listen: Syracuse - Saint Eskimo of the West

Old fashioned conductors Jim, and rotund, small talking Bob, barrel down the aisles as if they’re fresh young recruits ready for a cross country adventure. Jim proclaims we’re at ‘Syracus-ee. Syracuse-ee’ as if he’s seeing it for the first time. Seasoned passengers start trading Amtrak horror stories - taking a train in America is unthinkable to most Americans I’ve met, as they’re notoriously unreliable - but Jim tells us Amtrak is proud of its trains being another great American product, and urges us to tell Amtrak about any suggestions for improvements we may have, so he can keep his job for another twenty years.

We’re allowed out occasionally, for example at Albany, where there’s a vending machine offering seeds and flowers for sale. For a few seconds we’re joined by a deer lolloping alongside the tracks, a brownish orange against the green and blue darkness that is starting to descend.

As night falls we recline our seats, take out our blankets and try to find a comfortable position on the small pillows that have been handed out for us. We glide through town after town, distinguishable only by the gleaming of orange streetlamps in the rain through the silhouettes of trees.

At some point during the night, we travel past some lakes, and I wake up disorientated to a distended, swollen, almost full moon over which hovers a lone star, suspended lopsided above Lake Erie.

Early morning, we hit the flat Midwest, passing through Ohio until we reach the red and orange containers of industrial Chicago. As the train winds down past the famous Sears tower, I get the impression that Chicago is a city of symmetry and flashing lights, tall round buildings and lofty diamond shaped buildings, enveloped by rolling mist one minute and clear the next. The sky is an arena for advertising, planes flying over with banners fluttering in the wind.

Listen: Chicago - Sufjan Stevens

The weather in Chicago is extremely changeable. I think to myself that Chicago should be known as the rainy city rather than the windy city, but a tour of the Loop area (so called because it is encircled by the tracks of Chicago’s elevated trains) informs me that Chicago is famous for being windy because of the hot air of its residents and their pride at rebuilding Chicago after the great Chicago fire, rather than for meteorological reasons.

Whilst the sea at Coney Island provided a pleasant relief from the heat, intensely blue Lake Michigan is the coldest body of water I can ever remember immersing myself in. Usually swimming warms my body up in the cold water, but as I chatter amongst noisy seagulls, geese and fishermen, I remain conscious that my skin feels as if it’s been doused in ice and I want to get out before I get ill. Instead, I sit in pavilions by the lake that come with their own built in stone chess boards.

The view from piers, too, such as Navy Pier with its stained glass museum and Ferris wheel, is immense.

Listen: To Be Alone With You - Sufjan Stevens

The most concentratedely arty city I’ve visited yet, Chicago is full of Alexander Calder sculptures. Unusual interpretations of women by Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso face each other defiantly amongst Mies van de Rö he buildings. A photography exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Centre captures the bemused expressions of viewers of the giant Picasso sculpture when it was first erected against the cityscape in 1967.

The contemporary artist Jaime Piensa has created modern day gargoyles in the lakeside Millennium Park: two fountains against which videos of Chicago citizens are projected, pursing their lips gradually until they spurt water, to the delight and squeals of children in bathing suits.

Anish Kapoor’s shiny, affectionately named ‘bean sculpture’ reflects Frank Gehry’s serpentine bridge, and his playful Pritzker Pavilion, which resembles a crunched up paper chain cast in steel.

Listen: Theme De Yo Yo - Art Ensemble of Chicago

I spend evenings here laying on a lawn to free music. The first night, the Grant Park orchestra plays well known classical pieces: Barber’s Adagio for Strings, music from the Magic Flute, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, a selection by Debussy and a piece from Rossini’s William Tell. A fellow guest in my hostel, a recent high school graduate who’s travelled from Seattle is astounded: he tells me Chicago is the ‘most advanced’ city he’s visited.

My companions, too, are getting the train cross country and share my view that it’s preferable to being stuck on a plane where you can’t see anything. We feel obliged to go to a blues bar, being in Chicago, so watch a harmonica and organ led combo groove to Southern soul food at the House of Blues.

In the daytime, Pitchfork magazine offers lunchtime concerts in an ‘Audible Architecture’ series. Grizzled blues man Gary Higgins harmonises with an another guitarist in the classic, warm American style of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

I saunter to the nearby Freedom Museum before returning for an ‘Audio Picnic’ - a history lesson of Chicago popular music broadcast on the pavilion’s concert standard sound system. Small children whirl to ragtime, jazz and doo wop. Encompassing much of the twentieth century, obscure acts are balanced by famous names such as Sun Ra.

Listen: French Fries w/ Pepper - Morphine
I wander over to a free smooth jazz festival down the road, past a saxophonist busker bobbing up and down as if in accompaniment to the waves of the Chicago river. I blend into a crowd that’s snapping its fingers and clapping in time, singing falsetto and swaying along to a tenor and soprano sax. Over an almost hip-hop beat, a soulful female vocalist invites us to ‘come together’, spreading the vibes of summer and happiness.

A visit to Chicago wouldn’t be complete without trying its deep dish pizza. I accompany a hyperactive girl guide group from Michigan to dinner, and then we spend the evening watching the Buckingham Fountain light show, and trade information on customs such as fireworks night and the upcoming July 4th celebrations (in the event, I spend it in Mervyn’s parking lots in Redwood City, California, surrounded by families with blankets).

I leave with several phone numbers and email addresses and a cordial invitation to stay if I’m ever in the Midwest again.

Once I’ve stocked up on food for the trip - in a supermarket that’s not particularly big, but still manages to overwhelm me by containing a WHOLE AISLE full of the most choices of sliced bread I’ve ever seen - I continue my journey West in the great American tradition.

Floods in Iowa mean that America’s most scenic train, the California Zephyr of which Jack Kerouac wrote enthusiastically, has been cancelled for a week, but I’m allowed a last minute change onto the somewhat less romantically named ‘Southwest Chief’ double-decker train from Chicago to Los Angeles, which is to be the first train allowed through the rain soaked tracks.

Whilst I’m queuing to board, further insult is added to injury by a retro art nouveau style poster proclaiming the view from the California Zephyr to be ‘the best scenery you’ll ever sleep through’.

Listen: California - Low

Orange, red and yellow Union Pacific trains pass in the other direction, huge car carrying trains that seem as endless as the landscape they blend in against - flat golden fields of corn in Kansas, empty apart from the odd farm and manmade metal storage containers that house the crops.

Large, bulbous white towers occur at infrequent intervals, the name painted in bold letters at the top telling us which town we’ve reached the only thing that changes. A red parrot stands out through the window as we move towards the Mississippi, and begin to see the floods: trees up to their necks in water, the top of a slide where there would usually be a children’s playground. Inside our carriages, we can smell the water - an earthy, muddy, natural scent.

Listen: Ramblin' Man - Hank Williams

We slowly and gingerly cross the great river at Fort Madison, next to a boat casino and freighters sailing down the river, and a yard of submerged phantom trains, only their roofs left on display. We briefly make a stop to breathe in the sunset air. Rather than mere air and an abstract sensation, it seems to be something tangible and living, hot, moist and salty, almost touchable. We’re cautioned, though, not to move too far away from the train unless we want to become hitchhikers or wait in the desert for the next train along, in twenty four hours time and risk becoming bait for bears.

As I’m told off by the conductor for moving a few metres away, and previously had to run and scramble back on the train, I resist the temptation to walk over and photograph a petrol station named Love with a heart logo on its sign. The man I’m sitting next to informs me it’s a Southern chain he always makes a point to stop at when possible, and he’d like a t-shirt if they sold them.

We follow the Santa Fe trail and the female conductor tells us to look out for a ghost town in amongst the scrubbed hills. At the highest point of the trail we have to turn the air conditioning off to help us get up the mountain.

Settlements have given way to the occasional ranch braving a rocky terrain of terracotta earth where the only thing hardy enough to grow is flowered cacti. I’m touched by humbles graves in the middle of nowhere, mounds marked only with loose earth and heaped flowers.

There are more horses than humans, and the few people we pass wave to the train. Towns out this way have forbidding and unusual names like Truth or Consequences.

Listen: Whipping the Horse’s Eyes - Calexico

I spend most of the epic trip in a dedicated sightseeing carriage with outward facing seats and large windows. The train is like a hotel on wheels, complete with a café and dining car that takes reservations for tables three times a day. It’s a community on the move, united in heat as we have to make an unplanned stop in the New Mexico desert to allow the engines to cool down, which have given up on us after climbing too many hills en route. We start trading books and magazines.

It’s a family train, as we’re reminded by constant announcements asking us to watch our language and ensure any laptops only show films and games with child friendly content. There’s a high concentration of elderly and middle aged couples with the time to spare, and by the end, fathers are promising their tired, cranky children that they’ll take the train next time they go and visit grandma and grandpa.

The conductor, though, remains upbeat, and chirps ‘it’s been an adventure’ over the tannoy.

Listen: Way Out West - Big Star

I come to know my fellow passengers by sight. I recognise religious families, their teenage boys stiff in tucked in shirts, dress trousers and old fashioned haircuts when the rest of us are crumpling in the heat and shedding clothes. Ladies sport lace and bonnets and demurely put up hair, and arrange cards decorated with Bible verses in front of them. Women coo over my straw hat and tell me to watch out in case they steal it when I go to sleep. A young girl sits down next to me and tries to make friends, asking me if I know any ‘Japanese - Spanish’ and trying to teach me some words in her hybrid language.

As people get on, they bring with them newspapers, like The Pueblo Chieftain, and The New Mexican, which talks of rodeos and tobacco chewing - traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.

It doesn’t seem to matter that we’re currently running seven hours behind schedule. As the light fades, someone takes out a harmonica and starts to wail to the eerie landscape.

We break through the night like a ghost train as lightning flashes past us, and thunder rumbles above. The train is already moving to its own music - the horn is almost always pushed down in a fat chord filling out the bang-clacking drum beat of the train’s metal workings.

The rhythm, and passing through all the different time zones is making me feel lethargic - Central Time, Mountain Time, Mountain Central Time, and then finally Pacific Time.

I pull back the curtains at first light to Arizona. I could have awoken on the moon. Dried out trails where water’s eroded the sand eat into pyramid shaped dunes. A blue-green river is incongruous in the arid surroundings, and there’s a surprising amount of traffic - trucks and cars cutting though the desert.

Listen: Scenic World - Beirut

I’m sitting next to a pin up photographer and writer from Baltimore who’d sold everything to go on a road trip for a couple of months, but no one seems to have told him the predicted journey time is fifty five hours and doesn’t seem to believe the prospect of spending so long in motion at first.

Chase, as he invites me to call him, asked if he could sit next to me rather than risk ending up next to a weird person. He’s wearing aviator shades and is covered in tattoos, from his neck to his ribs to his grafittied feet. One of the first things we talk about is his love for Manchester music, and he proudly shows me a tattoo on his wrist proclaiming ‘Morrissey waz ere’, tracing the lines of a tag the great man himself wrote there after a concert. I smile to myself at a foot tattoo that boasts ‘I love ASS’. He’s been tattooed lived on TV, and wins the admiration of nearby passenger by explaining that he recently won a sum of money on a television programme in New York that sounds like Who Wants to Be A Millionaire played in a cab.

We discuss mods, teddy boys and culture. I tell him my ambition is to visit the South, and Chase says that the scenery flying past us reminds him of the south. I note he’s reading Tortilla Flat, and tell I’m excited to be heading into John Steinbeck’s state.

Discreetly drinking from his battered Pierre Cardin luggage throughout the journey, Chase is less than delighted when his own supply’s gone and the onboard shop runs out of liquor. My new neighbour raves about Dexy’s Midnight Runners and invites me to listen to his ipod while he’s asleep. When I’m attempting to sleep, he does his best to distract me with hilarious impersonations of stereotypically ‘British’ accents; the Cockney, the Mancunian lad.

Having made it through the first night, he gives me a ‘hi-five, roommate’.

Southern California is bland and flat in comparison. We rattle through vines and orchards, succulent with plums and peaches. We drive past Route 66, and road signs inviting us to ‘Adopt A Highway’. We pass scrap yards and the occasional trailer park.

I end up having to transfer in Bakersfield, as my train is running too late to make the connection to Northern California. My new friend films me as he accompanies me to the end of the platform and gives me a hug goodbye. We exchange contact details.

A coach ride and further train later, the bay area approaches, presided over by a pink sun reflected in a tranquil sea. Whereas the stations, like Albuquerque, we stopped at in the night and morning were warm, Northern California is COLD. I’m told it’s because forest fires have blocked the sun and turned it its strange colour. Unfortunately, the fires rule out a long hoped for visit to the spectacular coastal scenery of Big Sur and Monterey, setting of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

I don’t feel as if I can possibly sit down any longer, but on reaching Berkely I’m whisked off to see a bay area punk film from the 1980s, ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’, at the Pacific Film Archives where my hostess works.

Seated amongst old punks, surrounded by the smell of creaky leather jackets and boozy breath mingled with cigarettes, it’s a fight not to fall asleep. While I’m there, it’s also screening a Buster Keaton silent movie, Steamboat Bill, Jr. , set on the Mississippi, to a live pianist, and the original Howard Hawks Scarface.

Berkeley Art Museum is showing photographs by the filmmaker Bruce Connor, who died shortly after I arrived home, documenting the area’s 1970s and ‘80s punks.

Berkeley is also home to a Shakespeare and Company bookstore, sister shop to the famous old Beat bookshop in Paris, just one among many used book stores and vintage shops.

The town is overhung with a pine and eucalyptus smell, and dominated by the grassy campus of Cal university. Vestiges of the political activism it’s famous for remain: tree sitters have lights shone on them all night by police constantly on guard.

The town is a lot larger than I expected, and full of streets occupied with frats and sororities, their mansions distinguished by giant, alien Greek letters pinned on to the facades. We lunch in Café Mediterraneum, a sixties literary hangout.

San Francisco, too, is cold, windy and misty. Weirdos on the Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit), who I take to be amongst Berkeley’s drugs casualties, entertain us with talk of audio books. An assertive liberal tries to defend a passenger’s right to have a seat given up for her. A hairy man wearing two hats with feathers sticking out, combat trousers and an ‘I’m a HERO I gave blood’ badge carries a container in a pocket with what looks like an unappetising mixture of mud and milk. A fellow traveller asks what’s in it, and the man replies that it contains all his nutrients. A metal tree house peers at us from a scrap yard, and an otherwise nondescript man enters carrying a silver spacesuit under one arm. He holds a tub of glitter and silver paint on his arm, and a trail of glitz remains once he’s left the train.

On arriving at touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, we’re greeted by the fishy smell of sea lions, and watch them bask and flop over each other. Amongst stalls selling clam chowder from bowl shaped bread, we hire Blazin’ Saddles to bike the haunted city of decorative old Victorian villas, despite the wind (and hills!).

We take refreshments in the Japanese Tea Garden in the massive and green Golden Gate Park, with its coi carp, tiny trees and water features, and pose in the sculpture garden of the De Young Gallery by a giant Claes Oldenburg safety pin and oversize apples.

The famous, three story City Lights bookstore in North Beach is still populated by bearding men discussing literature. I’m taken with colourful posters on the wall proclaiming ‘Viva Zapata!’, and ‘Printers’ Ink is the Greater Explosive’, as well as a section entitled ‘Muckraking’. There is a large fanzines section, where a zine entitled ‘Slept in Beds’ features photographs of slept in beds, the stories behind them and samples of fabric from said beds. Upstairs in the poetry room, I leaf through Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the founder’s, best known book, Coney Island of the Mind.

We pant our bikes up Lombard Street, the world’s crookedest street, and find it’s almost as difficult to get them down some streets, as it feels like they’re going to run away down the slope with us.

Listen: Shake Some Action - Flamin’ Groovies

Nearby, is Kerouac Adler, an alley named after the most famous Beat. A ticket to the Beat Museum announces ‘the mission of the Beat Museum is to spread the values of the Beat Generation - Tolerance, inclusiveness, and having the courage to live your own individual truth’. Two loud, oddly dressed hippies in the video room grill me on my favourite beats. Luckily, my preference for the poetry of Denise Lebertov as well as the more obvious choice of the writing of Allen Ginsburg, John Clellon Holmes and Kerouac, seems to meet with their approval.

They add their own commentary and laughter to the film, criticising ‘Which war? Good one. Who says the war ever even finished’ when the film makes an unsuspecting mention of the post-war climate in which the Beats were writing.

Listen: 7 and 7 Is - Love

We go for dinner in a restaurant dedicated to all things garlic, named appropriately The Stinking Rose. It’s hung with corks everywhere of all the bottles of wine ever popped there.

Night has fallen, and the street lamps seem to follow the tramlines down crooked streets, becoming light condensed into wire form.

Haight-Ashbury is touristy these days, and apart from vintage stores it’s full of shops selling sixties hippy memorabilia like tie dye baby grows. I enjoy a blues harmonica busker under a sign post, however, and pose for the obligatory photo where the streets Haight and Ashbury cross.

Listen: White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane

My visit also coincides with gay pride weekend. Naked hula hoopers on the top of buildings and men proudly showcasing their bottoms from upstairs windows point the way to the Castro district, where we dance in the street to techno at a huge party amongst pink angels and faeries in fluffy dressing gowns and heels.

By the end of the night, feathers, boas and tinsel of all colours are trampled underfoot in amongst party food like corndogs, funnel cake and sourdough bread.

Homeless people with shopping trolleys dart through the sea of legs to claim rubbish - cans and bottles - to sell for recycling. On the drive back, however, an aggressive tramp throws a rock at our car.

California boasts spectacular, bleached scenery, golden and pimpled with trees but it’s also very urban. Houses have colourful front gardens of wild flowers, and even the freeways have flower beds down the middle.

We soar over the Golden Gate bridge on a day when there’s enough fog over the red-orange metalwork to give it atmosphere, but not enough to obscure the bay and the small islands beneath.

We go on scenic drives on windy, hilly roads past remote farms selling strawberries, signs for drag races and miles and miles of cliff top fields broken by strange yards selling large animals made out of rusty metal. Reaching an angry ocean, we stop on a remote beach of grey sand.

Another destination is the Mystery Spot, an attraction where one can sample the rules of gravity in reverse. It’s just outside Santa Cruz, a university town with a seaside amusement park, and we stop in a giant redwood forest and step inside hollowed out trees, where the bark inside takes the texture of wooden leopard skin.

We pass through the cottages of La Honda, hidden amongst sun and pines. It was once home to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and setting of his notorious novel The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

At sunset, we reach a lookout spot and park in a row of cars admiring the view out over Berkeley, before returning home to make popcorn slathered in condensed milk and sugar. I feel like I’m a typical young American, watching South Park and an animated TV comedy American children grew up on: Ren and Stimpy.

Another outing takes us to wine country, cheese tasting and a historic Mission opposite an art deco cinema with worn paint in the small town of Sonoma. Nearby, a park is dedicated to the author, socialist and tramp Jack London.

The woods around us hum with wildlife, as we trample past signs warning us to beware of rattlesnakes and poison oak, to London’s houses and cottage. Lizards dart about to both sides of us, and we stop to watch one with a long, electric blue tail. I’m fascinated by banana slugs, large, slimy mustard coloured creatures.

Later, we explore Jack London square next to Oakland marina, visit a Chinese bakery in Chinatown and eat a dinner of tibs and honey wine in an Ethiopian restaurant with our hands.

Listen: Crazy In Love - Beyonce

By night, houses in Oakland are taken over for hip-hop parties. Another house hosts an impromptu punk gig in the front yard. Most houses in this area have threatening looking fences with metal spikes, but three punk bands play within a picket fence, with a wheelchair attached to it by a coat hanger, before the police turn up. A woozy Latino family arrive in their dressing gowns and stand in the street gazing in curiously at the odd view of a chess set, two sailing boats atop a barbecue, a child and Rottweiler dogs and puppies running around and an angular punk band whose drum kit sports the motif ‘A Friendly Neighbour Is My Shotgun’.

Over in San Francisco, pale faced, long haired metal fans dressed in black get a much needed dose of sun at a free outdoor concert in the Jerry Garcia Auditorium. A small dog has been dressed up in the customary regalia too, in a denim jacket decorated with band patches.

Listen: I Just Can’t Seem to Make You Mine - Nuggets Boxset

I’m told I have to sample American fast food chains, so we drive through Taco Bell, Americanised Mexican food, and In and Out, a Christian, California only burger chain where the fries and drinks come with a discreet Bible quotation on the packaging. Unlike the UK, these really are cheap - a dollar something for a cheese burger.

During my last week, I’m taken to an old style diner playing sentimental sixties pop music. My companions’ omelettes, and my pancakes, come with a sole strawberry as a cute finishing touch, and the ketchup dispenser puts a freak heart shaped blob of ketchup onto the top of the serving in my friend’s cup.

I think that American style pancakes with the unlikely combination of melted butter and syrup is the most delicious food I have ever tasted, but still feel obliged to try a slice of real American. pie. I deliberate at length, considering pecan, but finally settle on classic, wholesome apple pie and steal a bite of my friend’s pumpkin pie.

I’m also taken to a Peruvian baby shower my friend’s baby is holding, in one of the distinctive Latin areas in Californian towns and sample Peruvian food - chicken with spicy sauce and rice.

I decide to leave the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Frida Kahlo exhibition until my last day, but it’s closed so I wander the independent galleries nearby, from those offering collectors Picasso and Miro sketches to small galleries championing new artists.

I’m transfixed by the colourful, luminous skin tones of Californian painter Serena Rosenfeld. The gallery assistant, confident she can make a sale, sits me down in a private room to view the painting in a different light, and amongst other works by the artist. She quizzes me on the size of my bedroom at home and asks if I can envisage a place for it in my home. I have a hard time convincing her I can’t part with $6400 dollars, even if they will ship it for me. As a consequence, I don’t linger too long on the children’s book paintings of Peruvian artist Rosemary Vavende.

Having walked around galleries for hours, I rest in Union Square to a Bolivian guitarist named Oscar Reynolds.

Listen: You’re Gonna Miss Me - 13th Floor Elevators

I’m worried that if I stay in California any longer, I might start to talk in the strange language of Northern Californians, and begin to pepper my sentences with the word ‘hella’ that seems to precede every adjective.

I have a thirteen hour plane journey to look forward to, however, twice the time it took me to reach New York. My last journey in America, though, is a good one, past the magnificent dinosaur shaped cranes of the port of Oakland that tower over the bay and can be seen through the windows of the SFS airport bound train.