On Age, Empathy and Class – Billy Bragg, in review

As Billy began to approach the chorous of  ‘Scousers Don’t Buy The Sun’, audience members rose to their feet and at the songs end, Bragg showed his trademark compassion by raising a fist of solidarity for those affected by the Hilsborough disaster, “Justice for the ’96!”

Sporadic standing ovations were a footnote of the evening. When Billy Bragg’s name is on the ticket, every utterance gets an enthusiastic response.

Sexuality’ had been repeating on loop in my head ahead of gig day and as fate would have it, it was his opening number. He squeezed in a cheeky “Don’t threaten me with Morrissey” lyric-change to keep things topical and segway into Brexit talk when the time was right.

There’s a distinct lack of social commentary in today’s music so thank Marx he doesn’t rely on his prior success to sell tickets. Once musicians reach super-stardom, they go one of 2 ways: exclusively play new material and only begrudgingly play old hits, or try to incorporate as many fan favourites as possible inbetween the new tunes. Of course, the bard of Barking went the way of the latter. Most of his new set was proceeded by succinct explanations of the recent political motivations behind their inception: King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood came about after recent Climate Change discoveries, and Saffiyah Smiles was inspired by a muslim counter protestor at an EDL rally in 2016.

When he did mention Thatcher it was a clever recontextualisation of the phrase ‘it doesn’t feel like my country anymore’,

“I can understand that sentiment because that’s how I felt in the 1980s when Thatcher got in again, and again, and again.”

The sincerity of his down-to-Earth demeanour is transparent by the pathos of his speaking voice: he hasn’t lost his Essex accent! None of his impassioned words tugged on my cockney heartstrings more than his send-off, “I’m Billy Bragg from Dagenham, Essex. Goodnight”. I grew up a stone’s throw from his hometown so I was most looking forward to basking in the nostalgic comfort of over-pronounced d’s and t’s. And I was by far the youngest face in the crowd. My sister and I guessed the average age would be 46 but we were as misguided as my attempt to locate the toilets after 2 cocktails and a fruity cider.

“At one of the gigs the crew were handing out bottles of water and I thought ‘Hmm. It’s a 2 hour show, and well… my audience…”

He’s genuinely funny. Like any outspoken activist with the audacity to care, he balances self-depreciation with earnest ruminations on the big stuff so as to avoid the inevitable eye roll of the cognitively dissonant. I nodded ferociously as he highlighted how unpopular it is to be empathetic and the absurdity of cloaking yourself in cynicism so you can appear ‘cool’, “the enemy isn’t the Daily Mail or conversativism – it’s cynicism.”

It’s difficult to vocalise these thoughts without facing the obvious backlash of being ‘on your high horse’ from people who would rather protect their insecurities and project their fears. Again, Billy pre-empts such judgement in his re-telling of a forward-thinking environment he played in,

“I was disappointed because it really took away from my moral superiority.”

It’s very clever how our self-serving society has shamed us into complacency but for those few hours we were free to care as much as we wanted about things that matter, yell out ‘there is a power in a union’, and there was no defender of stagnation present to sneeringly say ‘get over yourself’ as if the ‘self’ is the operative point. He also waited until the very end to play ‘A New England’, with a loving inclusion of Kirsty Maccoll’s additional verse to commemorate his friend.

In the words of the middle-aged balding man behind me, “Nice one Billy!”

 

 

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Music videos of my childhood in the 1990s: Bon Jovi – Always

Before we begin, please admit that you’ve mimed the chorus while doing the power ballad air-grab at some point in your life. Once you have stopped living in denial, read on.

Smoulder me good, Jon.

Possibly the quintessential portrayal of (rock) music video melodrama, ‘Always’ incorporates everything: big hair, guitar solos, explosions, long shots of city streets, infidelity, fancy dress parties, and baggy denim. Mini-movies like this take the blame for my idealised view of adult life as a hedonistic whirlwind marked by passion and really, really good-looking people. Speaking of which, we see Jon Bon Jovi at his aesthetically pleasing peak in the band close-up shots, with a hairstyle I would like to see re-appearing on the faces of more men, please and thank you.

Throw those veggies at ’em! I’m with ya.

To veer away from my shallow appreciation, the song is sentimentality in a 6 minute punch. Nowadays, hit songs rarely invoke contemplation on what it would be like to care indelibly for somebody who isn’t yourself, and definitely not to this extent: “if you told me to die for you, I would.” Dramatic declarations are too late to save the couple on screen however, as the Mick Jagger-mouthed protagonist cheats on his beautiful, fun-loving girlfriend with her flatmate in a decision nobody has ever understood. I can remember watching the video on VH1/MTV as a young whippersnapper when my brother relayed to me the thought process behind the man who stared a regrettable action in the face and said “yeah, I’ll do that!” It was basically akin to a 2 year old seeing a forbidden sweetie and grabbing it, only this was a grown man who should know better. As you can tell, I have never forgiven Jagger-mouth for his wrongdoing.

He ruined his shot at redemption when he enacted an arson attack on an unsuspecting artist who lived down the street. In what can only be described as the most glamorous one night stand of all time, a beatnik man in a black turtle neck jumper painted a portrait of the lovelorn lady while they inbibed white wine and listened to Bon Jovi, probably. Our protagonist felt entitled to rage upon this incident as he has no control of his emotional impulses, and admittedly, this fits the song perfectly. The storyline fits, entices and enthrals you… Link below!

Bon Jovi – Always

Life After Beth: Netflix Reviews

I think I enjoyed Life After Beth. It has no discernible genre; it’s an amalgamation of comedy, horror, drama and rom com that misses the mark on each one. A lot of independent films encounter the same identity crisis, but perhaps there’s little need for a definitive label when the plot centres on relationship exploration and the audience came prepared to meander through a slow-paced story. Sometimes we need a break from formulaic blockbusters to indulge in films demanding our patience unites with our stylistic appreciation for a 90 minute spell, and when Aubrey Plaza stars in a film you’re guaranteed deadpan delivery alongside believable characterisation.

We are introduced to Beth as recently deceased, and soon thereafter she’s reacquainted with Zachery; her boyfriend, in apparent zombie form, although she’s forgotten all about the time she clawed her way out of her own grave. When Joss Whedon dealt Buffy the same fate, he acknowledged the emotional trauma of resurrection by having her endure severe depression until an impromptu singalong eased her despondency. No such emotional intensity is reached in Life After Beth as the frequent tone changes interrupt the poignancy of mourning – for example, the poorly executed joke about Zach ‘fucking’ his dead girlfriend’s scarf. While I admire the brief foray into showing the unorthodox behaviour we might exhibit in our solitude, our voyeurism is soon interrupted by Zach’s pedestrian brother, Kyle, in what attempts to be a comedic moment. The trailer advertised a largely comedic tone but sadly a lot of the jokes are too obvious to invoke a reaction. There are a few subtle laughs to be had, but most of the comedy originates from characters such as Beth’s parents: Geenie and Maury Slocum, who are played by actors with vast improv’ experience (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly). The only conventionally funny line arrives near the climax of the film: a character says ‘goodbye’ before intending harm and the other replies ‘where are you going?’ in a classic case of misunderstanding.

The dialogue is neither fantastic nor terrible, so the high-calibre cast reconcile the banal script. Matthew Gray Gubler is fascinating to watch in the role of gun-obsessed security officer Kyle, due to his earnest demeanour and excessively masculine mannerisms. Mid-way through, Aubrey Plaza’s real-life best friend Anna Kendrick shows up as childhood friend – film code for ‘potential love interest’ – Erica, to add another light-hearted dimension to the slightly tedious dynamic of Beth and Zach’s love affair; the cast get it right.

The script may lack originality, but the concept doesn’t. Plus, it’s a good first attempt from Jeff Beana at writing and directing independently. The film relaxes and hooks you to a certain extent, provided you don’t analyse the absurdity of sudden plot acceleration or watch with friends; it’s definitely a film best enjoyed alone. Hardly high praise, I know, but if you enjoy films that are a little imperfect and require some scouting for the hidden gem within, it could be worth your time. 

Erratically paced and tonally imbalanced, watch Life After Beth if you’re a fan of Aubrey Plaza, study films professionally or need to zone out for an hour or so.

Netflix Recommendation: Jen Kirkman – I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)

As the flippant title of her stand-up show suggests, Jen Kirkman isn’t afraid to get real with you. She speaks candidly about topics such as sexuality, married life, divorce, age, masturbation etc. with a clear foundation of autobiography. Anecdotes in comedy can border on boring when a comedian doesn’t know which bits to cut, but Kirkman’s delivery is concise and acerbic with frequent pay-offs. Plus, there’s nothing affected about her persona.

I confess to becoming aware of her through this special, possibly because she isn’t as famous in the UK yet. Only some sections of the hour-long set are observational, allowing her cynicism to sidestep any sense of superiority.  While watching, I kept imagining her as a sarcastic work friend whose dry wit spares you from small talk. It’s frequently said of performers that ‘you want to be friends with them’ and this was the likely capacity in which I pictured our interaction. This may be due to her insightful perception of the everyday and her sharp analysis – she’s matter-of-fact without being crass and her viewpoint is especially accessible to deep-thinkers and realists.

An inexplicably flattering shot from this angle, kudos to her cheekbones.

Before we see the main show, there’s a naturalistic short depicting show preparation whereby she sits with a friend. The comedic tone is subtle and the audience experiences the first slice of her ‘show, don’t tell’ style. The same goes for the final 3 minutes of faux ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage, verifying our impression of her comedy as exploratory and nuanced. I also recently discovered her Twitter and Instagram pages are worth following if you want more truth-telling interspersed with silly jokes.

Music videos of my childhood in the 1990s: Aerosmith – Crazy

Aerosmith: Crazy

My view of this mini-movie has evolved since childhood: somehow, the sleaziness of wanting your 17 year old daughter to star in a puerile fetishization of lesbianism only became apparent to me over time. (Here’s looking at you, Steven Tyler). As a child, I missed the implied lust in this 6 minute jaunt-around-town. Little me chose to just see ‘Aerosmith chick’ Alicia Silverstone breaking free from the oppressive school regime alongside her fun-loving pal, and longed to be a part of their world.

I just figured it got really warm in America land.

First stop on the mini road trip? Steal numerous sunglasses from a petrol station while an indifferent shop worker aids your thievery. 1993/4 was a renaissance period for Aerosmith, enabling the Toxic Twins: Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, to rake in dollars like it was still Ye Olden Days. However time is cruel and this era could now be considered retro, while viewers wonder why the pair would steal in front of CCTV so brazenly. Sike! Not every shop had CCTV cameras in the 20th century; the only lens they were performing for was the male gaze. *Mic drop*

Rad: suited-up Silverstone rebelling with her exhibitionist friend

But whatever, it still looks like a party to me! A photobooth, androgyny on Silverstone’s part, and the expert pranking of a semi-naked farmer; a portrait of reckless youth. When I was a young’un, music videos were only shown at random on the TV, and therefore my emotional attachment to this tale of two runaways grew stronger for every hour I sat in waiting. Other entertaining events unfold, including a pole-dancing Liv Tyler mimicking the Aerosmith front man perfectly because he is literally her dad. There’s also some skinny-dipping in a lake – shedding our protagonists of all that 90s denim. After the fun is had, ‘Crazy’ is furrowed into a field by farmer boy’s driver-less tractor as the girls ignore a hitchhiker in pursuit of more adventure. Badasses’ with top banter, before anyone used that word in earnest. Oh, what happy days they were. Proceed to the video link below:

Aerosmith – Crazy. (1994)