Friday 17 April 2020

The Constant Gardener - John le Carre (2001)

Rating: Admirable

I had high hopes for The Constant Gardener when it was picked as a book club read due to the fact that in recent times I have had an urge to read novels from genres that I am not usually attracted too. John le Carre is famous for his espionage novels such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and although this novel is described as a thriller I was hoping for some intense duplicity and entertaining action sequences. The novel is set in Nairobi and takes in the British diplomatic set, morally compromised doctors and drug researchers, ruthless pharmaceutical companies and Tessa Quayle, a beautiful (of course) lawyer and social activist who stirs the hornets nest of all of the above and pays a grisly price.

The Constant Gardener begins promisingly, with the pompous and narcissistic character of Sandy Woodrow, a British diplomat, leading the way. Unfortunately Woodrow is not the main protagonist of this well written but ultimately flawed novel, rather it is the British horticulture loving Justin Quayle, older husband of the problematic Tessa. Perhaps the greatest flaw is that Justin is a character lacking depth and spark, which somewhat squanders the reader’s inclination to sympathize with his predicament. Ultimately the novel is just too long and has too many lengthy scenes with characters endlessly conversing, in particular there a number tedious police interview scenes, resulting in less than sparkling dialogue. There are also long tracts of official documentation that does not make for enthralling reading. In addition there are too few scenes in which there is a ratcheting up of narrative tension, which the novel sorely needed. Despite the novel's flaws le Carre is obviously a classy writer who boasts a significant reputation, so I’m sure that some of his other novels are much better than The Constant Gardener.

Wednesday 8 April 2020

The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings / 2005-09 - Robert Forster (2009)

Rating: Excellent

For those who do not know who Robert Forster is (shame on you...), he was part of one of Australia's greatest songwriting partnerships with Grant McLennan in The Go-Betweens. As previously mentioned on this blog, Forster can really write, and The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll was a joy to read due to his gentle erudite wit, carefully crafted turn of phrase and in many of these critical pieces, an unexpected generosity even to those subjects who exist on the other-side of the rock and roll spectrum from Forster and his ilk. A good example is his review of a Delta Goodrem album called, imaginatively, Delta (2008), written, as with many of the selections here, for the quality left-wing Australian magazine The Monthly. Forster treats his subject seriously and in the process reveals some interesting insights into how the multi producer approach, pitting each producer against the other in order to result in as many hit singles as possible, has rendered countless albums bereft of "Flow, experimentation and fun..." One of the tests of good writing is if the author can make a subject you have no interest in fascinating, and Forster does this many times throughout this collection.

Although some of the subjects Forster wrote about here were not in my usual field of interest there are plenty that are, such as Bonnie Prince Billy, The Shins and Brian Ferry, but that's not all, the collection also covers books, such as Mark Seymour's Thirteen Tonne Theory (2008) and concerts, with the most interesting being Nana Mouskouri's farewell tour! There's also some short essays, such as The Velvet Underground's influence on The Go-Betweens and the Credence Clearwater Revival song Have You Ever Seen the Rain? The best of Forster's other writings is the two pieces on the passing of McLennan, which cannot help but be poignant, although Forster's quality prose really shines though here. The book ends with a fascinating section entitled - The 10 Bands I Wish I'd Been In, and there's some curious selections, such as Peter Paul and Mary and The Great Society; but also some that are understandable - The Band 1967, The Wailers 1972, Talking Heads 1975 and Bowie and The Hype 1971 (Bowie's pre-Spiders band).

I don't normally quote too much from the books I read, but I'm going to present here Forster's 10 rules of rock and roll, as featured at the beginning of the book, and my comments about each rule. I'll then present my own 10 rules of rock and roll, from the point of view of a music obsessive, rather than that of a musician.

Robert Forster's 10 Rules of Rock and Roll

1. Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as 'dark'.

Fair enough I guess, but why? Are such artists too pretentious or are they against the spirit of rock and roll?

2. The second-last song on every album is the weakest.

Initially I thought that this rule was spurious to say the least, however thinking about it I conceded that Forster could have a point; where would you put the weakest track? You wouldn't put it first, or second (you need that one-two punch to open with), you wouldn't end an LP side with it, and it certainly would not be the last track on the album. You wouldn't open the second side with it either, but it could maybe be the second track on the second side, or the third? However if you do place it second last overall and have a fantastic track to finish with the listener will forget that the second last track is weaker than the rest, instead they'll remember the last track and therefore, as an extension, the album as a whole.

3. Great bands tend to look alike.

In what way? Clothes? Haircuts? Height? Looks? I can think of some examples - The Monkies, The Small Faces,  The Byrds, The maybe Forster has a point.

4. Being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job.

I have no doubt!

5. The band with the most tattoos has the worst songs.

Absolutely correct!

6. No band does anything new on stage after the first 20 minutes.

Quite possibly, but what about Bowie's on stage innovations over the years?

7. The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.

Fair enough, but what about alternate tunings? Twelve string guitars?

8. Every great artist hides behind their manager.

Until they sack them!

9. Great bands don't have members making solo albums.

Whilst their band is fully operational I take it? Makes sense, but Steve Kilbey from The Church is an exception to this rule.

10. The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.

What about The White Stripes?

My 10 Rules of Rock and Roll

1. Any genre that begins with the word Nu is reprehensible.

2. The Velvet Underground are the most influential band in rock and roll.

3. The intersection between the intellect and the primal is where the greatest rock and roll lies - i.e. Iggy Pop/The Stooges.

4. The 1970s was the greatest overall decade of rock and roll and music in general.

5. The four-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression (two guitarists is best).

6. Psychedelia is the most fecund rock and roll genre.

7. To be a truly great rock and roll band a truly great drummer is essential.

8. The greatest bands have an essential chemistry between the members - no band member can be replaced successfully.

9. The Pixies in their heyday were the last truly original rock and roll band.

10. Bowie.