It’s Only Schlock’n’Roll

So in a blast of publicity the Rolling Stones have turned 50 and celebrated it with a London concert where tickets ranged from £96 to £1000. Call it nostalgia, call it entertainment if you like. But don’t call it rock’n’roll.

There can still be magic in those three little words. They conjure up excitement, they conjure up youth and above all they conjure up rebellion. As soon as white American teenagers discovered this black music, mostly courtesy of Elvis, it was dangerous. It made them think unclean thoughts and disobey their parents, to slip outside the straitjacket norms of society. It was ungodly an un-American. It was brilliant.

The British bands who fed the music back to America and to the rest of the world were inspired by black music. It touched something in them and acted as a catalyst and for a few heady years they could go exactly where their imaginations took them. The Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, the Pretty Things and, yes, the Stones, made the ‘60s a decade of excitement and musical discovery, and by its end, a long way from the rock that had inspired it. By 1970 it had mostly gone from the gut to the brain, dissected and intellectualised (ironically, the one band that had returned to rock was the Stones). We should perhaps be glad that the Beatles called it quits with such a majestic canon of work. If they hadn’t, their legend would inevitably have become tarnished. By 1972 all those bands had run out of anything relevant to say.

Fast forward to 1976 and punk. Once again it was those kids doing it for themselves, being shocking and contemptuous of society’s mores. And why not? Society had nothing for them, the new boss was pretty much the same as the old boss, and kicking against the pricks is the way life should be for the young. The original musical influences of rock might not have been there, but the spirit certainly was, just as it was in ’88, when the second summer of love brought in dance beats, E and raves, things beyond the ken and acceptance of the establishment. Hip-hop, grime, they all tell the story of the fight – at least until they’re co-opted. In many ways punk died as soon as the clothes appeared in High Street shop windows. At that point it was, quite literally, window dressing.

Our pop icons – and how many have made the grim slide from rock to pop status – have become the establishment, with titles, estates, riches and people more than eager to do their bidding. And in that state, isolated and feted, they lost all relevance. It’s a tale told over and over again. Few avoid it. My generation, the baby boomers (I’m at the tail end) want to keep connected, to stay hip. We listen to new music, we want something to excite us. And while that may be the way we’ve been conditioned it’s probably wrong. What we should be looking for is some new music that climbs up from the streets, out of the underground, that we can’t make sense of that we hate and that our kids absolutely love and want to play. Because only in that will they have their rebellion and their voice, the chance to give us the bird as we gave it to our parents. They deserve that. They need music that speaks to and for them, something not spoon fed on watered-down reality TV shows. Something that makes them want to trash things. Things like us and what we believe in.

The Stones might be a pleasant night out for the well-heeled with large disposable incomes. But it ain’t rock’n’roll. You can say something relevant and interesting as you grow older (Chumbawamba did it for 30 years, although they then stopped and the mighty Mekons keep going) but you can’t be a great rock’n’roll band. For that you have to be hungry, you need something to prove, something to blast and burn down. The best you can be is a well-oiled novelty and nostalgia act, a brand. It’s showbusiness, with the emphasis on the business. Just don’t call it rock’n’roll.

Making That New Character A Woman

For my new Seattle Emerald City series of books, my main character was a male music journalist – something I did myself in that city. I say was quite advisedly: the company that’s publishing the books (simultaneously as ebooks and audiobooks) suggested making the protagonist female. It wasn’t a demand, by any means, and I understood the practical rationale behind it (one of the women behind the company is American and an award-winning ebook narrator and actress – Lorelei King). But it appealed to me. I’m male, think like a man. Now I’m changing the character’s sex and it’s proving to be a wonderful, deep challenge. It affects every dynamic in the book, every interaction with every character, male and female. More than that, I have to get into her head and learn to think, and more especially feel, as a woman. What writer wouldn’t relish? Seattle in the late 1980s was far more feminist than most parts of the US. Gender politics were rife, as were gay politics, which were interlinked. That has to be part of it, and it’s made me think and become more aware of the sexism inherent in everyday life. It was more so then, and quite casual, but it still exists. It was even there in the music scene, not too bad but still there. There were some female music journalists around, but men remained in the majority and they made up most of the musicians. A woman writer said to me that women feel more. That might not always be exactly true, but in general women are more aware of their feelings, and they’ll discuss them, with partners and friends, so that has to becomes part of the equation of character, too. Add to that the fact that I’m inserting this character into a story that’s already written, although there will be some changes and it becomes even more interesting. Am I enjoying it? Absolutely. Will it succeed? I hope so, but you’ll have to read for yourself to decide. That’s your challenge…

Going Digital

As some of you will already know, I’ve just signed a contract for a three-book deal. This is wonderful news, of course, and it’ll give me chance to explore the Seattle music scene from the late 80s up to around 2000. The first book, Emerald City, will hopefully appear later this year. What’s particularly interesting is that the novels that will comprise the series – and yes, they’re all mysteries – will all appear as ebooks. I’ve worked with this publisher before; they put out the digital version of The Broken Token and also my John Martyn biography. But I was in the unbelievable and enviable position of having an offer from another publisher, a small press who would have issued the book in both paper and digital formats. So why choose digital only? In part, because it’s the future. More and more people have ebook readers, and that number is only going to grow. It’s handy, portable, and you can carry a staggering library on one. It’s cheaper for the reader and often more attractive. That’s not to say books will fall by the wayside, by any means. I still read more books than ebooks and it’s likely to continue that way for a while. But I also work as a music journalist and I’ve seen the changes wrought by the mp3. So many labels distribute their music to reviewers in that format. Buying music on mp3 is easy, and for most people any difference in sound quality is hardly noticeable. You can burn a disc of it, play it on your computer, transfer it to your mp3 player – it’s amazingly versatile. Ebooks are still a few years behind the mp3 in acceptance, but the statistics are telling. More ebooks are sold than hardbacks, for example. Giving people the chance to look in the book on a site like Amazon allows people to get a taste of what they might be buying. Granted, most magazines and newspapers don’t review ebooks, but libraries carry them now, and mainstream reviews are only a matter of time (with the exception of self-published). It’s growing, and I’m happy to be a part of it. With production costs spiralling, I think a time when we generally see only paper and ebooks of new titles published is just around the corner. And, no small matter, a writer can earn more from ebook sales than from other methods. That’s important to those of us who are scraping by.


I owe a huge debt to my friend Thom Atkinson (incidentally one of the very best writers around today) for pointing me in the direction of the TV series Justified. Set in Kentucky – pretty much bouncing between Lexington and Harlan, it features characters created by the masterful Elmore Leonard in his short story Fire in The Hole and in a couple more novels.
Raylan Givens is a deputy US Marshal transferred back to his home state after shooting a criminal in Florida. But in spite of gunplay here and there, it’s anything but macho. He gets his ass kicked with regularity – usually after a few drinks. But when he’s one his game, which is most of the time, he’s smart and savvy, and very intuitive.
So far we’re partway through season two – a year behind the US – and it all becomes more and more delightful. Wonderfully written, directed and acted, it has the easy, wry flow that typifies Leonard (who didn’t work on any of the scripts). The speech captures the Eastern Kentucky rhythms and vocabulary, and the way life is life there. Or if it doesn’t quite, it’s convincing enough that you believe it.
More than Givens himself, it’s two other characters that are among the great television creations. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is a man who likes to blow shit up, someone who finds God and starts preaching when in jail. But is his change for real? Played with a subtle intensity, he’s a character to leave the viewer guessing and wrong-footed, capable of sudden great violence, at times Biblical in his speech and always quietly menacing.
Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) is head of the Bennett clan, who farm much of the eastern part of the state with marijuana. She’s a powerful woman but down home with the general store. She also delivers the very best speech I’ve heard – possibly up there with anything written and performed in serious theatre – when she gives Walt McCready some of her apple pie moonshine. It’s so perfectly done that you want to hit rewind and play it over and over.
But it’s a series full of wonderful moments, with powerful story arcs, great humour and moments of violence. There’s drama, laughter, tears. It’s everything great television ought to be.

Some Thoughts About Leeds

Two nights ago I thoroughly enjoyed the official launch of my new novel, The Constant Lovers, at Leeds Central Library. After from the cock-up – the booksellers actually only had two copies of the book for sale – it was a great event, and as close as I’ve come (geographically at least) to appearing on the stage at Leeds Town Hall.

It made me think about my relationship with my hometown. I haven’t lived there since 1976, and I’ve actually spent more time in another place (Seattle). But Leeds has a claim on me, and exerts a hold, that no other place can ever match. In part it might be genetic. My family’s been there since the end of the 18th century. The place is in my DNA. My father grew up in Hunslet, and spent his summers in the relative countryside of Sheepscar, where a relative ran the Victoria – much bigger in the 1920s that it became later, and with a huge garden and supposedly renowned rhubarb garden. For him, above all, it had a piano he could play. My mother’s family was decidedly more middle-class, out in Alwoodley, with a maid and a chauffeur.

Each time I return to Leeds, which is several times a year now, it renews me. Yet, curiously, I see a place that isn’t that. Several places that aren’t there, really. In my mind I see the place from my books, the jail at the top of Kirkgate, the Moot Hall in the middle of Briggate, close to where Harvey Nick’s is (and I know which I’d prefer), Garroway’s Coffee House on the Headrow. In truth, there’s very little of those days left; about the only private residence of that time is now Nash’s, just off New Briggate.

I also see the Leeds of my childhood. The magical toy shop that was the Doll’s Hospital in the County Arcade, Fuller’s where my other and I would meet my grandmother for tea every week, and the department store Marshall’s, which had a uniformed doorman, and where I, a very innocent four-year-old in 1959, saw my first black person in 1959 and asked my mother why the woman was made from chocolate. My mother apologised to the woman, but I truly had never seen a person of colour before. It was a very, very different time, and not a better one. Then there was the music shop at the corner of County Arcade and Cross Arcade where I went with my father when I was seven. Ostensibly we went in to buy a harmonica for me and came out with a baby grand piano, which appeared a few days later in our front room. And I did get my harmonica.

And then I see the Leeds of my youth, the great bookshop opposite Leeds Poly, sorry, Leeds Met, where I discovered Hamsun, the small, two-storey Virgin shop on King Edward Street (I believe), the head shops close buy, the discos at the Poly, gigs at the Town Hall and the 100 Club not far away where I saw Taste and the Nice. On Saturday mornings I’d go into town (before I had a Saturday job), get off at the ABC, cross the street and go down to the basement coffee bar for a frothy coffee before spending the morning mooching around, and maybe buying a record at Virgin or Vallance’s.

Before this descends into mawkish reminiscence, let me say this is simply a small sampling of memories that tie me irrevocably to Leeds. The city formed me much more than I was willing to admit for many years. It took a long time, and many miles, for me to really understand that, and give me the desire to start studying the city’s history.

Out of that have come my books. Apart from being mysteries with (hopefully) good characters, they stand as love letters to Leeds. The city of the 1730s that I describe might not be a beautiful place. The people, many of them, anyway, a degradingly poor, the place stinks. But it’s mine as much as it’s Richard Nottingham’s, and I love it then as I love it now.