A ball rolls under a chair, the only furniture in a room: “things seem to have some sort of survival instinct.” Trying to quit cigarettes, Nabokov imagines the angels smoking in Heaven like guilty schoolboys. When the archangel passes, they throw their cigarettes away, and “this is what falling stars are.” From Paris, he describes the Métro: “It stinks like between the toes and it’s just as cramped.”
Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris
Jeff Wall, Smaller Pictures. September 9 – December 20, 2015
Ofege, Higher Plane Breeze (1977)
PF Sloan. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
“Last summer I saw PF Sloan,” sang Jimmy Webb. “He was summer burned and winter blown / He turned the corner all alone.” Sloan was not Webb’s equal as a songwriter, but you have to be pretty damn good for one of the greatest writers in pop to write a song about you. You have to be OK for Bob Dylan to mention one of your songs when summing up the state of the world. “There are no more escapes. If you want to find out anything that’s happening now, you have to listen to the music. I don’t mean the words. Though Eve of Destruction will tell you something about it,” Dylan said of the Sloan song that Barry McGuire took to No 1 in the US in 1965.
PF Sloan, who has died at the age of 70 after contracting pancreatic cancer, was the kind of figure the early days of rock music threw up with high frequency, when young minds were being warped by the ferment of change being pumped out across the airwaves. Though a New Yorker by birth, his family moved to West Hollywood in 1957. The following year he got his first guitar and was immediately given a lesson in how to play it from Elvis Presley, who happened to be in the music store. At 14 he recorded his first single, All I Want Is Loving, and by 16 he was a staff songwriter for the LA-based publisher Screen Gems.
He also claimed the credit for the Byrds’ distinctive sound, saying he and producer Terry Melcher came up with it after the group’s initial recordings were underwhelming. “It was our interaction,” he said earlier this year. “Terry didn’t know what was missing. It was a long time ago, but the key to it all was the guitar solo I had done on Melcher’s Summer Means Fun single, recorded under the name of Bruce & Terry. We put so much reverb on it that it brought the guitar to life. I mentioned to him that that was my favorite solo. We listened to it again, and that’s how we arrived at the conclusion that what we needed was that triple reverb.” (Among other claims: he suggested the sitar on Paint It Black ; Elvis sang through his body when he lost his voice before a club show; and he met James Dean – three years after his death. Sloan may not have been a wholly reliable witness.)
But Sloan was a musician, too – he was part of the elite group of LA session players known as the Wrecking Crew – and in 1965 he and Barri formed their own group, the Grass Roots. It was, at least in part, a cynical group – Adler, too, had noticed that folk rock was quite the thing and wanted a group playing it on the Dunhill label. But Sloan and Barri weren’t really looking to be in a band, and having formed it they promptly set about recruiting musicians to take their places (one lineup of the Grass Roots would include Creed Bratton, later to play Creed in the US version of The Office). But the songs he wrote for them were terrific, too – Where Were You When I Needed You could have been a standout on any of the first three Byrds albums. Bear in mind, too, that at the same time as doing this he was able to turn out conventional chart pop such as Secret Agent Man for Johnny Rivers. He was nothing if not versatile.
Then, in the late 60s, Sloan pretty much disappeared – aside from a poorly received solo album in 1972, he was silent until the 90s, hence Webb wondering in song what had happened. He claimed to have been fleeing threats from Dunhill after leaving the label. He fell into drug use. At one point, Brian Wilson’s since-discredited therapist Eugene Landy claimed that he had been Sloan all along.
He returned last decade, a largely forgotten figure trying to claim his dues. But the songs he wrote never died. “I think you know when you’ve written a hit song – I can’t tell you why that is, it’s almost like when a mechanic finds the problem with a carburettor and then the carburettor kicks into action and you kind of know … there’s just a feeling of joy and release, that you’ve done something wonderful,” he said last year. “It thrills you, and you get the feeling that if it thrills you, it will thrill other people as well. And when you hear that in other people’s work … you know that other people have been thrilled by it.”
When I lived in Paris in the early 1960s the Bataclan was a cinema. It had been converted into one in 1926. (Incidentally, bataclan means junk; ‘tout le bataclan’ is slang for the whole ball of wax, or all that jazz.) I don’t recall going to it: there were so many other cinemas. It was built in 1864 as a site for café concerts. You could have your dinner and listen to an act. From the outside the building looked like a Chinese pagoda: chinoiserie was the mode. Buffalo Bill and Maurice Chevalier were among those who performed. In 1969 the cinema closed and the building was transformed again into a theatre. On a later visit I once saw Jacques Brel there. The Bataclan’s website still has listings of upcoming shows. At the end of November there are supposed to be three performances by Christelle Chollet, a singer and comedian known for her somewhat off-colour appearances. She does a wonderful pastiche of Amy Winehouse singing ‘Rehab’. If I were in Paris I’d book a ticket.
Telehor: The International Review New Vision (Mezinárodní časopis pro visuální kulturu / Internationale Zeitschrift für visuelle Kultur / Revue internationale pour la culture visuelle) was a magazine edited and published by František Kalivoda as one double-issue in Brno in 1936. The issue is devoted to the work of László Moholy-Nagy, and contains sections in four languages, English, Czech, German, and French.
Bach’s biographer Forkel explains the Quodlibet by invoking a custom observed at Bach family reunions (Bach’s relatives were almost all musicians):
As soon as they were assembled a chorale was first struck up. From this devout beginning they proceeded to jokes which were frequently in strong contrast. That is, they then sang popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment. … This kind of improvised harmonizing they called a Quodlibet, and not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.
Forkel’s anecdote (which is likely to be true, given that he was able to interview Bach’s sons), suggests fairly clearly that Bach meant the Quodlibet to be a joke.
This quodlibet is based on multiple German folk songs, two of which are Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her (“I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”). The others have been forgotten. The Kraut und Rüben theme, under the title of La Capricciosa, had previously been used by Dieterich Buxtehude for his thirty-two partite in G major, BuxWV 250.
Names for the [London] fog evolved during the 19th century. ‘Pea-souper’ is sometimes attributed to Melville, who wrote in 1850 of encountering ‘the old-fashioned pea soup London fog – of a gamboge colour’. This suggests that the expression was already well-worn. (Corton, given to rather engaging fits of pedantry, here goes off into a disquisition about dried pea varieties, soup preparation and the diet of the Victorian poor. She also points out that thick yellow fog had a distinct taste, and that some Londoners and visitors, impressed by the gamboge-coloured pease pudding, played with the idea that fog might actually be nourishing.) ‘London Ivy’ was another term. The word ‘smog’ was invented in 1904 to describe fog by the ‘Smoke Abatement’ campaigner Henry des Voeux, and transferred only later to chemical air pollution by powered traffic. ‘London Particular’, on the other hand, had a much longer history. Charles Dickens is supposed to have thought it up for an 1851 article about conditions in Spitalfields, quoting a weaver who complained of a ‘black London genuine particular’ which stained clothes. He repeated the phrase famously in Bleak House. Corton, however, finds it in the caption to an 1827 cartoon by Michael Egerton (her selection of London fog illustrators, from Cruikshank to David Langdon, adds entertainment and insight all through the book.)
Corton salutes Dickens’s mastery of ‘the use of fog as extended metaphor’. And of course no fog in literature approaches that introduction to Bleak House with ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows, fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollution of a great (and dirty) city …’ Fog, ultimately, swaddling the High Court of Chancery, ‘most pestilent of hoary sinners’. To say that Dickens multi-tasks his metaphor is a hopeless understatement. To choose a few allusions from those pages, fog stands for the end of the world, for cruel poverty, for undeserved sickness, for reversion to an age of dinosaurs, for the unnaturalness of cities and industries, for impenetrable arrogance and stupidity.
A specially lurid use, picked out by Corton, is fog as rapist and murderer. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens placed ‘a sobbing gaslight in the counting-house window and a burglarious stream of fog creeping in to strangle it through the keyhole of the main door’. Dickens used fog as a vehicle for revenge, as the dissolution of the individual, as a general indeterminacy in which transformations happen. There seems to be nothing the man couldn’t do with this stuff which, as Guppy in Bleak House complains, ‘smears, like black fat’.