Saturday, 23 July 2011

Time for some bass

 For a blog that's supposed to be about life through the eyes of a bass player, there's been little or no mention of basses or bass playing so far.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Number one I'm really busy at the moment getting ready for my wedding so my thoughts are more on what our first dance is going to be and how much ale I need to order so my friends can get absolutely hammered, and number two is that I've had a bit of a bass holiday in the past few weeks. My mate Harry who runs one of the bands has gone to Italy so rehearsals for the new album have been shelved while he's been away. A significant part of the other group I play in - a Russian music band in which I play contra bass, the large triangular three-stringed bass - has been away in Sweden at a balalaika festival and try as I might I couldn't justify spending the money when I have all that ale to pay for. Dave, Harry.. I hope you're reading this.

Anyway, my instrument of choice is a Fender Jazz bass and I'll post a few pictures of it in various poses over the next few weeks. I've been playing bass since about 1982 but I'm not exactly what you'd call a virtuoso.. more of a riff-merchant. I haven't improved much, you might say.

As you'll notice from the headstock, it's an American Jazz, which makes it in my opinion ten times as good as the cheaper Fenders, mostly made in Mexico. I have a rule of thumb: if a bass comes to life in my hands and I feel it connects with my soul, then that's the bass for me. That's what happened with this one. But let me tell you a story first about one that I didn't buy.

I was travelling across Norway with a mate on a red wine and fjords odyssey: see the fjords, then get hammered kind of operation. We were in Bergen with an hour or so to kill to wait for that fantastic coastal steamer the Hurtigruten to leave for Alesund, so we had a look round the town. I was between groups and not playing much - this was about 2003 - but we saw a music shop so went in to have a look. I'm not really one for playing instruments in music shops - that's more for flash w*nkers who like to show off their Nirvana or Chilli Peppers riffs, but I picked up an American Jazz and started to play.. and the thing started bucking round like a fish trying to get back in the water. At least that's how it felt. Really, sometimes these things happen. So anyway, it's not really realistic for me to buy a pretty expensive guitar then lug it all round Norway via bus and boat then back on a plane, so I put it back on its stand and walked out of the shop. But.... I never forgot that black Jazz and what it felt like.

 When I started playing regularly and seriously again about three years later I decided to treat myself and - with the memory of the black Jazz in my mind - I set off round the music shops of Manchester to see if I could find anything that did what the black one had done. And blow me if the first American Jazz I picked up didn't do exactly the same thing!
I put it to one side and went round a few more shops just to try a few more out, but they weren't as good, and no other bass gave me such a connection. Not even a Rickenbacker, and I'd always wanted one of those.
So I made an offer on the sunburst Jazz and as happens in these cases walked out of the shop with it twenty minutes later.
Every time I strap it on, it feels absolutely brilliant. I love playing it. It's a beautiful, resonant, responsive instrument, not just some piece of wood with bits of wire stretched across it.  It's marvellously contoured, smooth and shiny and wonderfully weighted and the tone on it is phenomenal. The fretboard is firm and the neck's long but not too long: the low F and the G growl like guard dogs. Maybe it's because I've had it since new but it feels like it looks after itself.

It's been across Europe and to America and thankfully escaped any type of damage. Once I lent a previous bass to a friend and it came back with a massive chip out of it: he'd dropped it. And he didn't even have it repaired for me. The chunk is still out of it to this day, but I would never, ever lend a guitar to anyone else ever again after that. It's too upsetting when they get damaged.

So I consider myself lucky to have such a terrific relationship with this bass, and to have the opportunity to play it regularly: usually between 7pm and 10pm on Monday nights. I love the big fat bass strings, even though when I first started playing they used to take the skin off my fingers, but they don't now. And when I lift the thing out of its case, it's like a magical moment - and how many people can say that?
I'd have to say that I consider myself pretty lucky to have something like this in my life. It's an other-worldly experience to play a top class instrument, so any budding bass players out there take note: just buy an American Fender Jazz. I guess I'm what you'd call a satisfied customer.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Unlocking My Heart

Along with indigestion, gout and an appreciation of stained glass windows, I seem to be becoming a bit soppy.

As a man preparing for imminent nuptials (August 6 if you keep a diary) I have steered a path towards the altar that I hope is relatively free of sickening sentimentality and overblown romantic gestures.

But there's one wedding gesture that I came across recently that I rather like, and that's the tradition of fastening a lock to a bridge to represent a couple's love for one other. I first came across an example of this in the Latvian town of Rezekne, where my intended went to college.

Having grown up in Manchester, I  assumed the solitary lock on the bridge meant someone's bike had been stolen, but once its significance was explained to me, I thought it was a nice symbol.

Imagine my surprise then when a couple of months later I'm crossing the Rhine at Cologne, as mentioned earlier, and discover the bridge is absolutely infested with these locks: not just one or two but literally hundreds. Some big, some small, some with funny captions, others just short and sweet but romantic.

But all those locks declaring undying love? Even the least cynical person in the world might find hard to believe they all lived happily ever after. It left me feeling a little snowblind.

So I laughed out loud when I saw what one wag had done in response: he'd chained a disc cutter to the fence with the words 'Master Key'.

Seeing these pictures reminded me that my bride-to-be and I intended to make a similar gesture after our ceremony, but somewhere a bit more private: maybe somewhere in Riga we can visit in years to come after a little shopping in the excellent Zeppelin markets, possibly in a nice park, somewhere discreet?

Get the handcuffs: The most beautiful woman in the world
If now isn't a good time to run a picture of the woman I intend to spend the rest of my life with, there'll never be a good time. Here she is aged about 18. I think this is the picture she used for her membership card for the Pioneers. Wow. Her hair's a bit shorter but she's still so achingly beautiful.

I think I'm doing the right thing, huh?

Can you hear that lock snapping shut?

Can you?????

(Ladies please note: I grew up with the sociology of Anne Oakley and the politics of the Greenham Women. I spend my life washing up and cooking!)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Stained Glass Windows

Maybe this is a part of life that creeps up on you like indigestion or gout, but as I've got older recently (ie heading toward fifty) I've found myself appreciating stained glass windows. And - perhaps more surprisingly - I don't admitting that. I don't care for the religious themes but that's not the point. The amazing craft, skill and artwork involved is what I find sometimes truly astonishing, especially given the level of technology available at the time. I've always been a fan of the flying buttress as an architectural device, and I'm sure this has prolonged the life of many structures - mostly churches - supported by the vast pressures exerted by them. So admiration too must be extended to the stained glass window artists of the churches.

A trip to Cologne Cathedral will surely inspire anyone with similar feelings about a) architects b) artists or c) anyone working with the technology of the Middle Ages. Cologne Cathedral is MASSIVE: the twin towers can be seen from miles away and the whole structure is eye-wateringly awesome. Imagine approaching that on foot or by horse. We are talking serious landmarks here. Inside the stained glass windows are colossal, and it's only really when I went closer to look at them in detail - like, for instance, having a good look at the brush work or Van Gogh or Mondrian - that I began to appreciate the artistry involved. Have a look at the scene on the left: look at those blues and greens and the various tints involved, and the sophistication of the scene. It's amazing.

Cologne Cathedral is one of the great churches of the world. It's cavernous inside, enormous outside and it's finished to the most
incredible detail. The statues carved into the arches, the lion's head doorknobs, the studded doors.. again, Cologne is one of those places I'd been meaning to go to for 25 years and never found myself there. I was impressed. The cathedral is the first place to head for when you get into town. See it early, get inside and then go back again and again. Its scale is really quite something. It's difficult to fit all of it into pictures and yet it's so distinctive at the same time. Remember too, just to bring the war back into it, that the Allies bombed Cologne flat. The cathedral is a reminder of what a powerhouse Cologne would have been before those unfortunate decades of the 20th century. It's a symbol of solid wealth, solid faith, solid workmanship: of architecture, art and aspiration made real. And the city around it is a treat too. The symphony hall is a wooden-lined splendour; the tram system a marvel of functionality and efficiency and the Rhine is a dividing line between modern and medieval:  business districts of glass and steel and email looking over at wood and stone  and stamps and candlesnuffers on the other.

But it's not a schizophrenic place. Cologne wears it well: alongside the vast cathedral the white Inter City Express trains glide to rest after their almost noiseless dash across the German landscape, with those towers looming ever larger. It's a wonderful place to spend a couple of days. Take my advice and check it out.
Get a few beers from a kiosk in the city for the end of your day, but don't ask for dark beer (dunkel beer). Locals may suspect you come from Dusseldorf, a fierce footballing rival a few miles away, and stove your head in. (For those who like dunkel beer, like me, it's available from a kiosk on the Altmarkt, and nowhere else...)
Be careful out there. Apparently this rivalry is real..

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

My Life in Cars

See this? It's an Austin A40. Back in the 1960s all the cars were like this. Me and my two sisters grew up in the back of one of these. It had indicators that stuck out of the side of the car like flags: we had to bang on the inside to get ours to work. You tell kids of today that, and they wouldn't believe you.

This beautiful example of softer-edged days gone by was at a car show in my local park, positioned next to an award-winning Renault 10 (I think the awards were for the Renault's immaculate condition rather than for its abilities as a car).

I must say an A40 does more for me than any Lamborghini or Ferrari, but maybe that's me being a product of post-war parents where 'waste not, want not' was one of the mottos. Not a bad motto, as it goes.
 See this? It's an Austin 1100. That's one of the cars we graduated to (before the utterly unspectacular Daf van mentioned before). I was about 10 or 11 when we had one of these, yet when I looked through this car's side window on Sunday, all the knobs and ashtrays and handbrake and indicators were exactly how I remembered them thirty-five years ago.

There I was back at the Cheshire Show, or waiting in the car park for my mum to come back from the Post Office - the Post Office is long gone. Funny how cars can bring back such memories.

And see this? It's a Volkswagen 1600 fastback, air-cooled with the engine in the back. This was one of the cars my dad drove, along with a Singer Gazelle, Hillman Minx and a Ford Cortina Mk2. The reg of our car was XMB 188J and one day it wouldn't start. Somehow my dad and I got it started but it was running very badly, so I followed him on my bike around the estate when I noticed flames coming out of the back of the car. I cycled up alongside the driver's window and shouted to him to stop, which he did... when he saw the flames he legged it! The car ended up burnt out but after something like that you don't want it back. He got a Triumph Dolomite which I ended up learning to drive in.

Funny that at a small car show there should be three cars with such memories from when I was a kid.

But it was full of cars from the 1960s, and I love those Zephyrs (the original Z-car) and especially the Zodiac. The shot left is like a scene from the car park when I was doing my paper round as a 9 year old kid! That's a Ford Consul on the right, which sadly had rather inappropriate Confederate flag stickers displayed in it. Guys.. that flag means something entirely different and sinister in America.
But anyway, I know you're gagging for a look at the Renault 10, from the days when the Renault factory was a powerhouse of industrial relations in France and also a very significant factor in the 1968 riots. Our next door neighbours had a version of one of these called a Simca. Their dad used to switch the engine off and freewheel down hills to save petrol. So, it's a car in great condition but I'd struggle to call it a great looker... the Renault 10.

Renault 10: not a good looker
These are days gone by, definitely. Imagine having a look at one of these and feeling a longing to have that parked outside your house. Maybe there are generations of French guys my age who remember exactly the smell of the interior of a Renault 10 from spending hours inside one waiting for Maman to wind up at the Toulouse county show.

Who knows? I think amid the MG Midgets and the  - yes, Ferraris and Lamborghinis and Aston Martins - I have a favourite shot of the day, and it's this one of a row of early Zodiacs.. not the exuberant beast of the mid-1960s but this one preceding it. Clearly when it comes to Memory Lane, this particular model is more durable than most.

Muscular: a row of 1960s Ford Zodiacs. If you're not on the list, you ain't coming in

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Riga in the snow

One of the cities I never expected to end up familiar with and actually sometimes yearning to be in is Riga, capital of Latvia, in the Baltics.

Close friends will become familiar with Riga themselves this summer as we're having something of an occasion there a month from now.. my marriage to a wonderful woman who has already given me the gift of love for her country.

Riga is a wonderfully calm, composed, civilised, respectful place where thankfully an Englishman is a rarity - apart from all those drunk ones puking in Rifleman Square - with a fantastic Old Town and clanking trams that make me laugh whenever I see them because they're just so basic yet so functional .. even in snow this deep. Believe me, this is deep snow: up to your knees, - 6 degrees during the day.

Imagine any form of public transport venturing out in the UK in weather like this, yet the buses, trains, trams .. everything just keeps on running to the minute. I love the warm-up tram that goes round defrosting the rails. The secret on the roads is snow tyres, that's what every Latvian has. They're compulsory from October onwards, when the snow starts to fall. If you've ever got into a car in Latvia in the snow, you'll know that snow tyres are a MUST,

But I had to laugh when I heard stories that opportunistic Latvians were flogging snow tyres this winter to English for up to £450 a set. Good thinking lads! We've no idea what snow tyres are, let alone where to get them.

Having had an introduction to Riga in the summer, I really wanted to see the place in the snow. Walking through the park to the Opera House to see Coppelia was as magical as I'd expected. Jumping the drifts by the side of the road and landing in a puddle a foot deep wasn't quite so, but then I knew the risks: getting out of town and heading into the country was the kind of journey that would have been cancelled had it been say, Manchester to Matlock, but the Riga to Talsi bus just ploughed on past fields with snowdrifts as high as the windows, reuniting me with my loved one, Daiga (below left).

We had to go to Talsi in the snow and sub-zero temperatures of January to book the civic office in town for our wedding but also to produce not only documents stating there was no reason why I as an Englishman couldn't get married there but also  to show ourselves, to fix the date in the book. Which we did, and everyone in Talsi was really nice.

In the summer we'll have our wedding pictures here - see the shot being framed??? - before heading back to the Laumas Dabas Parks for a party.

We chose Talsi honey cake as our wedding cake, having sampled a piece in the cafe across the road.
 It's like layers of pastry shaped into a circle, soaked in honey and then sealed into a tin: you buy it for a function like a wedding not by the slice but by the kilo.
 We're buying quite a few kilos.. Mr RyanAir will see a bit of this passing through his security points on the way home through Ken Dodd International after August 6.
 And for readers in Talsi, here is the cafe where we chose our wedding cake.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A flounder in your fist...

Proximity to the sea must focus the human mind on the basics of existence. In Flensburg they dream of rum and rumpy-pumpy: forty minutes north and across the border in Denmark's harbour town of Sonderborg they have fish on their mind. Fish .. and war.

Strangely - though Schleswig-Holstein has a historical resonance that I'm trying to place.. a treaty at some point - I wouldn't have expected fish and war to come to a crossroads in a town that's part Rockaway Beach in one district and part moody Scandinavian fishing town with long and depressing Ibsen plays showing at the theatre and pale faced locals necking brandy-flavoured moonshine for all their worth and staggering past the local - and only - Thai restaurant. I've done Friday nights in Norway, guys: I can see it in Denmark.

But what's interesting about Sonderborg is that the town where the 1864 war against Germany was so convincingly lost can reinvent itself for the future through one of Germany's most celebrated writers and one of the world's greatest architects.

This sculpture - Der Butt im Griff - is by Gunter Grass: yes, that Gunter Grass... Mr Tin Drum. Yes, the guy who was in the SS. Yes, the guy who became a spokesman for a generation of German lefties - and there were plenty of them, and some good guys too.

Herr Grass loves the nearby city of Lubeck, and lives there to this day. The city of Sonderborg bought this statue - called 'The Flounder in the Fist' - before Grass went on to write his strange novel 'The Flounder'. Sonderborg's also commissioned the world famous American architect Frank Gehry - he of the bendy buildings and Bilbao Guggenheim etc - to give their town a facelift. Now Sonderborg is competing to be the European City of Culture in 2017, with its closest competition coming from nearby Aarhus, also a Danish city.

And here's me thinking the fish in the hand is a fitting symbol of the town's reliance on the fish provided by the sea which has enabled Sonderborg to survive, then flourish, and is the arm of plenty down the ages. Not so, my simple vegetable-eating friend. Everything's so much more complicated nowadays.

A picturesque red light district...

To change the mood a little, how about a look at this picturesque street full of quaint buildings? In fact it's the red light district of Flensburg, a port town in northern Germany near the border with Denmark which in the last days of the war became the operational centre of the Third Reich after Hitler's suicide.. (no, no: that's enough German history - Ed).

There wasn't much going on when I took a walk along this street of shame in the rain but it's hardly buzzing, is it? Despite that bloke in front of me looking like he might generate a bit of excitement...
no, not a peep.

That's enough Germany - Ed

For a blog about bass playing, Manchester City and the idiots vegetarians have to deal with on a daily basis, I've talked an awful lot about Germany.
Well, there's a lot to say: a lot's happened involving Germany and it's an important place. But maybe we need to switch subjects for a while and come back to 'the German agony' and "Name your child Waldi" in the coming weeks.
Before I suspend German operations though, can I recommend without hesitation a book I read by chance and one which at first I wasn't going to start.

'Alone in Berlin' by Hans Fallada is a masterpiece. It's tense, vivid and engrossing: it deals with the alienation of characters surviving in one way or another in the Berlin of the early war years - the victory in France. But everything changes when the soldier son of one of the characters dies in France and he starts to  leave postcards around the city questioning the Fuhrer's leadership. It's uncomfortable, awful and written by a man who would have known.  It's a book that needs to be read.

Secrets of the Stasi

My trip round Germany took me briefly to Leipzig, another of those places I'd like to have been to before but it's not been possible until now. I stopped off briefly on the way back from nearby Halle where I'd been to meet the East German double Olympic marathon gold medallist Waldemar Cierpinski (at this point all East Germans in the room shout: "Name your children Waldi!" as the TV commentator did when Cierpinski won his second straight gold in Moscow).

Leipzig is a lovely place on a sunny afternoon, full of upmarket shops and great buildings, but it's significant in German history because it was here that the revolution began which led to the collapse of the DDR, the East German communist state. This building (left) is called the Runde Ecke, and not too long ago you might disappear into here never to emerge again.
It's where the Stasi, the East German secret police were based, and this was the focus of the demonstrations in the 1990s as East Germans demanded their freedom from the restrictions, surveillance and misery of life dictated by Comrade Honecker and his goons.

Nowadays it's a museum, and though the exhibits are labelled mainly in German, it's not hard to get the message. Much of the Runde Ecke has been left as it was when the public of Leipzig stormed it.

For example, files - the Stasi's lifeblood: files on citizens, being followed, having their phones tapped, being watched, taped, denounced by snitches.

According to Anna Funder, whose book Stasiland tells of her journey investigating stories of victims of this profoundly weird and unfair society (and is sold in the Runde Ecke) there were more files held on German citizens in the 40 years of the Deutsche Democratik Republic than were generated since the Middle Ages.

One of Anna's stories is about a girl who tried to flee East Germany aged 16 after pasting posters calling for freedom in her home town, then she's held in cells and followed everywhere, then her boyfriend winds up dead after being pulled in by the Stasi, and she can't get the truth about how he died, and so on.. a modern day Kafka-esque nightmare.

The older I get, the more impatient I get about things like this. What right do these people have to behave with such contempt for their fellow human? And why does it keep happening?

And what annoys me even more is the fact that the Stasi's methods seem so .. amateurish. Sure, they were an all-powerful terror organisation with the power of life and death over vast swathes of society but when you see how they operated at first hand it's almost laughable .. for example, the disguises they would adopt to carry out their snooping. Look at this picture (right): I mean, who's he fooling? He'd fit straight in at a demo, wouldn't he?

Anna Funder makes a chilling if ironic point. She says the pro-democracy protestors of 1990 had been so profoundly infiltrated by Stasi stooges that when they had a meeting to vote on whether to scrap the Stasi if their revolution was successful, the secret agents were forced to vote for their own abolition or risk being exposed. I bet the true freedom-seekers had a long hard laugh about that down the pub later, when they'd given these donkeys the slip.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

I Dream of Trabants..

So.. Germany then. What a country, and what a past to deal with. Before long we'll hear mention of 'the German agony'.. that's the sound of loads of Germans working out what to think about everything that's gone on in the past century.

But let's start with the simple stuff. How about the Trabant? The two-stroke workhorse - if you could get one - of the DDR. I once drove into West Berlin in 1986 past that T-34 on the transit route surrounded by Trabis heading East. I'd never seen more than one of them in the same place at the same time in real life before but I'd seen Wartburgs and my mum had a DAF van, so they were like a DAF with a totally underpowered two-stroke engine... and er.. no belt drive. That DAF belt drive really was shit, all you DAF engineers out there. Anyway, nostalgia being such a big thing now, visitors to Berlin can hire a Trabant and drive round recreating the days of the DDR, along with eating the food and being spied upon (see: DDR Museum). Wild and crazy stuff, including the safari Trabi and versions in leopard print and rude luscious pink.

No fancy paintjob however can make up for the dismalness of the Trabant's performance (0-60 in perhaps fifty years.. by the time you get up to that kind of speed someone's put a wall across the road) so this is clearly a ride for the over-nostalgic with too much money and absolutely no sense of irony.

Instead I would recommend a real-life 'of-the-time' Eastern European film which shows guys with the bonnet up on one of these things trying to get it to start with two feet of snow on the ground. Imagine racing to make the ferry in one of these? Oh yeah.. that's not what people in the DDR did, is it...

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Crossing the Elbe

This year is turning out to be a year of achieving long-harboured ambitions to discover places I've mused about going to for several decades. Dallas for example isn't the kind of place you'd be straight on the phone to a travel agent about, but I wouldn't mind passing through it on the way to somewhere with a bit more to hold the interest.. like perhaps the French Quarter of New Orleans. So it'd been with Dresden. Since I was a teenager and first read Slaughterhouse Five I've wondered what Dresden was like: the firestorm, the scale of the destruction, the central and symbolic role in the rebuilding of the city played by the Frauenkirche church (left).

Life has taken me to a good many places since that first reading of Vonnegut, and none of them have been Dresden: of course the years in the East didn't make things any easier but it's not been exactly easy to get to or a must-see place like Berlin or Munich. But with a week's work around Germany earlier this year, I lay up for the weekend in Dresden and started to read up a bit on the city's history.

Obviously the bombing of February 1945 is a big theme, even now. The place was hammered. Dresden looked like it'd been hit with a nuclear bomb. The shelves of books in every shop about the attack cover the raid and the rebuilding in great detail. Entering the church at the centre of the city that was almost destroyed - the Frauenkirche - is a strange experience. While I'm not particularly religious, I haven't experienced what the people of Dresden went through - the bombing, the death, the suffering - so perhaps I can't fully understand what that church means to them as a symbol of them rebuilding their lives and restoring a treasure. So it was with a strange sense of apology that I marvelled at the wonders of the altar and the story of the tin tears cried by the figure of Jesus when the roof melted in the inferno and dripped molten metal onto his face.

 The inside of the Frauenkirche really is a work of art, and in my view the restoration of that church is a worthy and righteous symbol of the power of reconciliation. The war with Germany is a long time ago and the world is well rid of the Nazis and their evil but the loss of culture and beauty that went with their removal is a shame that is still not entirely restored. All power to the rebuilders of the Frauenkirche, people of all nations including the UK. And yes, I apologised for the actions of the RAF in the intense carpetbombing of Dresden, a city full of refugees at the time, thousands of whom were incinerated in the firestorm. I took a tram out of the centre and it was a fifteen minute ride before the buildings started to look like they were pre-war (ie weren't Soviet-style concrete flats.) Sure, I understand the arguments about it being militarily necessary to pulverise cities so war leaders understand the message, but I operate on a human basis as well.
If you're passing through that part of Germany, take a diversion to Dresden. Stay at the Inter City Hotel just by the station and enjoy the views from the top of the Frauenkirche and the stroll along the side of the Elbe, known as the balcony. Dresden's known as the Florence of the Elbe.. here you can see why.

Visiting on a cold February Saturday may not be the ideal time to go .. the wind whips in from that river but it's a picturesque city full of architectural splendour. Just give thanks that Dresden's almost back the way it was.