Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Marvin Gaye

Etc Etc Amen Part One of a review

 

 

 

 

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 19 2015.

 

http://www.nation.lk/edition/insight/item/40005-airport-novel-with-ideas-above-its-station.html

cover

Howard Male described his first novel as: “An airport novel with ideas above its station. A literary novel that’s having too much fun for its own good.”

 male plus cat

“We have the skeleton of a philosophy but, as you know, it’s primarily a philosophy committed to its lack of commitment to the very ideas it puts forward”.

So says Barney Merrick in Howard Male’s novel Etc Etc Amen. The novel  is stimulating and entertaining on a number of levels. Male says: “It’s a love story, a hate story, a murder mystery, a suicide mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a satire on organised religion, it’s not sci fi, it’s not horror, it’s not a rock novel – despite the fact it has elements of all those genres.”

 

My own interpretation is that the novel’s main thrust is as a satire on religion but it also provides a wry picture of the rock music business. I think I also detect a satire on the parasitic nature of journalism in general as well as rock journalism in particular.

There is a strong element of the page-turning thriller- I received a few surprising jolts as I was reading so I must take care not to emit any spoilers. There is also a vivid evocation of Marrakech, which brought back happy memories for me.

Male’s main creation in the book is rock god Zachary Bekele, who founds a non-religion (which becomes a cult) called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis. The St Paul of KUU is erstwhile rock journalist Paul Coleridge. The novel is structured upon extracts from The KUU Hypothesis, selections from The Life and Death of Zachary B by Paul Coleridge, a narrative written  in London 2005 about the 1970s, and accounts of a visit to Marrakech in February 2007 by a female journalist, August, and a photographer, Damian.  They are investigating a series of deaths of KUU followers and are awaiting an interview with the cult’s Leader Who Is Not a Leader

Zachary’s Story

Rock journalist Paul Coleridge is assigned to interview Zachary Bekele who is a 70s glam rock star.  We piece together Zac’s biography from extracts from Paul Coleridge’s memoir and from the visit of August and Damian to Marrakech. Zac’s father, Girma Bekele, had made a fortune selling stolen icons from Ethiopian monasteries. His dodgy reputation adds further intrigue to Zac’s persona.

Paul gets an early warning about Zac’s character when the star plays table football in an unsportsmanlike manner  and then  reneges on the promised interview. Paul has to work up the Man of Mystery angle to meet his deadline. Paul begins to feel that his articles have played a significant role in promoting Zac’s success. Between 1972 and 1975, he was one of only two journalists to whom Zac would talk.  Zac seeks Paul’s opinion about new tracks, but will not accept anything but praise.

Coleridge recalls Zachary’s early performances in the 70s: “vocally, he was part Scott Walker and part Marvin Gaye”. He was an intellectual as well as a rocker; he told an interviewer, “CS Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis were guiding lights.” He acknowledges his English roots – he was born in Chelmsford and loves the Kinks and the Stones- but his father was from Ethiopia. “We’re about soul music from Saturn. Vibes from Venus”. There is something of Bowie and Bolan about Zachary B.  Memories of seeing Arthur Brown perform as the God of Hell Fire in a blazing helmet came back to me as I was reading.

arthur-brown2

Nick Valentine, Zac’s manager says: “Don’t let all that peace and love bullshit fool you. He needs fame even more than he needs money”. Zac develops delusions of grandeur. As well as the attentions of the usual kind of groupies, he also has a stalker who hoards his cigarette butts like religious relics.

When Punk came along in 1976, or so the received wisdom goes, it was a rebellion against pretentious “progressive” rock. In fact, Johnny Rotten often talks about his respect for artists like my former neighbour Peter Hammill of the “progressive” band Van der Graaf Generator.  As long ago as 1977 Lydon  said: “Peter Hammill’s great. A true original. I’ve just liked him for years. If you listen to him, his solo albums, I’m damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer. The credit he deserves, just has not been given to him. I love all his stuff”.

Bowie

Zac is not ready for punk. Changing musical tastes make him redundant and a spectacular at Trafalgar Square intended to resurrect his career instead finishes it off.  Zac’s solipsism makes him deaf and blind to the discomfort and displeasure of the audience and the other musicians. “Since Trafalgar, in the eyes of the public, he’d come to represent the more farcical, cartoon-like aspects of the rock world: he’d become lumped in with Gary Glitter rather than David Bowie, and it must have hurt like hell”. He succumbs to the degenerate rock lifestyle of groupies and drugs. “During 1975 and 1976, Zac’s coke and cocaine habit gathered further momentum”. Paul and Zac’s wife Jody bond as they both become sidelined.

Garyglitter

Glam Rock

This novel deals, in part, with the early pre-punk 1970s that gave birth to a strange phenomenon known as Glam Rock. I lived through that era and survived to tell the tale. Glam Rock did not appeal to me but I can appreciate Male’s respect for the more talented practitioners, such as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Roxy Music and their rougher US equivalents, the New York Dolls. Even the better acts toyed  with androgyny and sexual ambiguity – “gods dressed as goddesses”. Lower class versions hit the charts with other people’s songs but were mainly ludicrous bandwagon jumpers – “mutton dressed as lamb Second Division”.  Zac describes them as “builders dressed as princesses with their stubble and acne-pocked jaw lines making a mockery of their meticulously glossed lips”.

sweet

Rock and Religion

I recall seeing live performances by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Brown wore outlandish costumes (although he sometimes stripped naked) and a flaming helmet as he declaimed: “I am the god of hell fire!” The record was produced by Kit Lambert and Pete Townshend and issued by The Who’s Track Records label. It sold over a million. Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was in Brown’s band when I saw them. Brown was also notable for the extreme make-up he wore onstage, which would later be reflected in the stage acts of Alice Cooper, (there is a character in Male’s novel called Alice Cooper- she is female) and Kiss. Brown’s behaviour was so outrageous he was even  kicked off a Jimi Hendrix tour. Brown is still performing 50 years later.

Townshend himself has had spiritual moments. Since the late-’60s, Townshend has been a disciple of Indian mystic Meher Baba “I heard the voice of God. In an instant, in a very ordinary place at an unexceptional time, I yearned for some connection with a higher power. This was a singular, momentous epiphany – a call to the heart. “Jimmy Page spoke about: “that fusion of magick and music… alchemical process.” Dylan flirted with born-again Christianity and then explored his Jewishness. Later he said: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music”. Alice Cooper himself (Vincent Furnier) says: “It doesn’t matter how many drugs I take, I’m not fulfilled. This isn’t satisfying. There’s a spiritual hunger going on. Everybody feels it. If you don’t feel it now, you will. Trust me. You will…Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s the real rebellion.”  Male mentions John Lennon’s notorious comments: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right, and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

More on KUU theology next week.

 

Plucky Little Belgium

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Belgium is a strange concept, more of a vague idea than a real country. There is a joke that there is just one real Belgian, and he is the king, (currently King Philippe, who is married to a speech therapist). Everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon. General de Gaulle described Belgium as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French. The dominant powers in the 19th Century constructed a neutral state to prevent an invasion of England from Antwerp harbour.

For rich French people, including Gerard Depardieu, the idea of Belgium is as a tax haven. The village of Nechin – which has a street known as Millionaire’s Row – is less than two minutes drive from the French town of Roubaix.

There is a tired old joke about the only famous Belgians being fictional characters like Tin Tin and Hercules Poirot. Let us not forget Plastic Bertrand, born in Brussels of a French father and Ukrainian mother. There are major real Belgian talents such as Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and painters like James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Jonathan Meades observed that when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist.

Magritte often painted enigmatic men holding umbrellas. In his recent novel, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, (the title of one of Ensor’s paintings) Dimitri Verhulst wrote: “the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella”. In the novel, Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited.

Centre of the EU Enterprise

One hundred years ago it was thought of as “plucky little Belgium”, a small powerless nation bullied by German military might. The country is about the same size as Maryland, with a population of 10,839,905 people on January 1, 2010. Today, it is the epitome of what EU haters hate about the EU. For Eurosceptics the name of the Belgian capital, “Brussels”, is shorthand for oppressive, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dictatorship.

Belgium was an early adopter in the European project. It was one of the six founder members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; in 1957, it was among the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community. Today Brussels is the home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.

As well as 20,000 EU civil servants, Brussels attracts a large population of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals. The EU has brought an estimated 115,000 extra people to live in Brussels. These people tend to have few or no Belgian friends. There may be some resentment among Bruxellois because of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large tax-exempt EU salaries. People who had lived in Brussels for years suddenly discovered that the best idea to earn is to rent their apartments to the officials and leave the city.

Let’s Talk about the War.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg used to be the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area covered by Belgium today was a prosperous commercial centre. It was also a battleground between European powers. The British ‘invented’ Belgium as a neutral state, a buffer zone against the French. Britain intervened to defend Belgian neutrality when German troops invaded in 1914. Before the war, Belgium had one of the world’s most successful economies. The war displaced a third of the population and in the first months of the war, as many as a million Belgians faced starvation because of German requisitions. Around 6,000 Belgians were executed, there were as many as 60,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, 25,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.

Belgium as Oppressor

Belgium is a young country that grew rich suddenly during the industrial revolution, thanks to coal and steel. It also acquired wealth from looting the Congo. Plucky little Belgium was particularly vicious in Africa. Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo and ran it as a personal fiefdom and business venture. Labourers were not paid but they were beaten, mutilated and murdered.

The province of Katanga seceded after Congolese independence from Belgium in June 1960. Belgium-based mining interests engineered the rebellion so that they could continue mineral extraction. Belgian settlers and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw and, when they refused, Lumumba expelled Belgian diplomats. On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs sent a cable that stated clearly that Belgian policy was the “definitive elimination” of Lumumba. Lumumba was, indeed, assassinated. A case has been presented that the Belgian government also had a hand in the killing of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

Rwanda was also part of Plucky Little Belgium’s empire. In 1933, the Belgian authorities issued identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them. The ethnic cleansing and genocide of twenty years ago were horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s under the Belgians.

Economy

Belgium was the world’s 15th largest trading nation in 2007. There is still a highly productive work force, high GNP and high exports per capita. Belgium’s main imports are raw materials, machinery and equipment, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and oil products. Its main exports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, finished diamonds, metals and metal products, and foodstuffs.

Poverty

Belgian Premier Elio di Rupo has questioned the EC’s commitment to austerity and has raised concerns about the best way for Belgium to balance growth and austerity. Political tensions have prevented him doing anything about this in practice. Between 1990 and 2009, the poorest 30 per cent of Belgians saw their share in net taxable incomes fall (from 11.2 to 8.3 per cent), while the richest ten per cent saw their share increase (from 27.3 to 31.9 per cent).

According to the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, 15.3 per cent of Belgium’s population in 2011 was at risk of falling into poverty. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, the wealthiest region in Belgium, this was 9.8 per cent, whereas in Wallonia, a poor French-speaking region, this was 19.2 per cent.

In 2012, nearly one in seven Belgians had a monthly income that was lower than the official poverty threshold (€1,000 for a single person or €2,101 for a couple with two children).Twenty-one per cent of the Belgian population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to the new European poverty indicators.

An Experiment in No Government

During 2007-11, cultural and linguistic tensions resulted in the state being without a government for 589 days. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo became Belgium’s first French-speaking premier; He is of Italian origin and he is gay and socialist. Despite reforms, tensions remain; the formation of a coalition government took 18 months following the June 2010 federal election. However, the hiatus did show that the country could function with just a caretaker government and the civil service.

Federalism

Verhulst sees Belgium a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its inhabitants. Belgium is a federal state divided into three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south and Brussels, the bilingual capital, where the French and Dutch languages share official status. There is an ongoing political crisis, which may lead to the country splitting, as did Czechoslovakia. It is ironic that the country seen by eurosceptics as the seat of a federalist plot, may itself fall apart. This would provide encouragement to separatist groups throughout Europe. Wallonia is the poorer segment of federal Belgium. How will it survive without the efforts of the industrious Flems? Wallonia will probably need EU subsidies.

Conclusion

A persistent note in visitors’ accounts is that Belgians are discontented and rude. Some might feel guilt at the barbarity of the Belgian colonial project. some feel uncomfortable about the presence in their midst of migrants from that empire.

 

To end on one positive thing about Belgium – it was Belgium that helped soul genius Marvin Gaye to recuperate, if only for a little while. A sojourn in Ostend gave Gaye the breathing space to reach one of his greatest achievements, Sexual Healing.

Plucky little Belgium is in dire need of some kind of healing. One wonders whether this will be possible given Belgium’s central role in the EU project. The EU project itself seems to be increasing the natural disgruntlement of its people.

On 28 July 2010, Plastic Bertrand finally revealed that he was not the singer of any of the songs in the first four albums released beginning in 1977 under the name Plastic Bertrand.

Julie MacLusky

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