Grin and ice it

Running in Dublin, 2011.

The 50k days – 2011.

‘Hallux limitus’. It doesn’t sound too sore. In fact, it hardly sounds like an ailment of any sort.

But it is, and those who’ve experienced it know exactly what those words mean – and what they feel like.

The condition is a stiffening of the big toe joint, caused by osteoarthritis. Not only does the joint stiffen and flare up in pain, but a bone spur begins to emerge on top of it.

If you’re a runner this spells trouble (likewise if you want to wear those Italian dress shoes). You can hold it off for a while, by way of inserts and cutting your distances, but once it’s underway it’s unstoppable – without intervention at least.

In my case, I’ve been managing a worsening case of the problem for the past four years. Almost two years ago I wrote that it would, untreated, surely stop me running.

To date, it has not. But I run less. My onetime 50k a week is now a distant memory – anything above 20k causes problems for me at this point. This has meant more time than I ever envisaged, or desired, on an exercise bike in my local gym, and long, long, walks on the weekend.

My hallux (big toe).

My hallux (big toe).

Despite such workarounds, and the availability of cortisone shots, I’m edging closer to the day when I make an appointment with my physician to be referred for surgery.

For now, I’m running in denial – or a form of denial, at least. This is why I occasionally attempt something I used to do regularly – a handy 10k on a Saturday morning, for instance – knowing, but refusing to recognize, that I’ll likely spend the rest of the weekend dealing with the effects.

This mentality, common among pavement pounders I imagine, fascinates me. If any other activity was causing me pain and damaging my body, I’d stop. Who willingly courts pain? And if you do, what does that say about you?

For now, I tell myself that the fitness and endorphin rush payoff trumps the discomfort. But only just. And the scales will, shortly I’m sure, start to tip in the opposite direction.

Until the, and the day I make that physician call, it’s grin and bear it – and ice it immediately.
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‘We know where you live’ – Radiohead in Portland

Radiohead, Portland, April 2017

Radiohead, Portland, April 2017

As I walked out of the RDS on the night of June 21, 1997 little did I realise that it would be 20 years until I saw Radiohead perform again.

Or that it would be in a city on the other side of the world, a few thousand miles from where Thom Yorke once floated down the Liffey.

But Portland, Oregon, where the band played last weekend, has one thing in common with that summer’s night in Dublin – plenty of rain.

My abiding memory of the RDS show is Yorke, arms extended, singing “rain down on me, from a great height“, as the heavens opened over Dublin.

Portland’s Moda Center is an indoor basketball arena, so there were no such apt theatrics last weekend. Instead there occurred a performance far more powerful than the one I’d seen during the band’s purported OK Computer heyday.

In fact, Radiohead appear to have left their most popular album behind; only ‘Airbag’ and ‘No Surprises’ were aired at the Moda Center (the latter was admittedly one of the highlights of the night, not least for the reaction to it’s “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us line“).

Instead, some 20,000 of us were treated to a loud, jittering, two-drummers-and-plenty-of-knob-twisting production that – days after Khan Sheikhun gas attack and shortly before the U.S. dropped the GBU-43/B MOAB bomb – seemed perfectly in tune with the times.

Songs like ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Idioteque’ were full-on sensory attacks, performances whose lyrics (“women and children first, and the children first, and the children“) did little to reassure.

Even when things quieted down, during ‘Lotus Flower’ or ‘You and Whose Army?’, the tension remained, the sense of dread shifting from the public to the personal.

It erupted close to the end, with the performance of ‘Burn The Witch’, a song of round ups, gallows, persecutions, and paranoia, an anthem an the age of ICE arrests.

“Burn the witch, we know where you live,” intoned Yorke.

The Nineties couldn’t have seemed farther away.

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An afternoon with the Timbers Army

Providence Park, Portland

Providence Park, Portland

I blame Kurt Cobain.

More specifically I blame his ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the song that launched a cultural movement and, on a slightly smaller scale, ended my teenage obsession with soccer.

Before I heard that song I was a Liverpool FC-obsessed kid, growing up in the late 1980s and following every move of the double-winning Reds team of that era.

Saturdays were spent building up to soccer (Saint and Greavsie) in the morning, watching a game on TV in the afternoon, and then poring over the results on Match of the Day that night.

Then, one afternoon in late 1991, I walked into the old Virgin Megastore on Dublin’s Aston Quay and bought the seven-inch single of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

That was it for the football. The single led to an album which led to more albums. Before I knew it, I was spending my Saturday afternoons trying to decipher Pearl Jam lyrics and saving for a CD player.

Cheers and beers

Cheers and beers

The one nod I made to my former football obsession was a less-than-glamorous one. On Friday nights throughout the early 1990s I would stand on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park in Athlone, usually freezing through the winter soccer season, watching the local Athlone Town FC.

That ended when I left home for college in Dublin. With the exception of the one or two Irish international games, which were more of a social occasion than a sporting one, it’s been a long time since I stood on a terrace shouting at a group of men chasing a ball.

Until last weekend, when I found myself doing precisely that at Providence Park in Portland, in the midst of the Timbers Army, a well-oiled and loud group of Portland Timbers supporters.

Parts of the evening brought me back – the standing on concrete for hours, the shouting, the echoing hum of a few thousand people on a covered terrace.

I was never much of a singer at St Mel’s Park, but someone handed me a sheet with Timbers’ chants. Beer in hand (something else I never encountered back in the Athlone days), I gamely lashed into ‘Rose City, Whoa-oh’. I even chowed down on the plate of steaming tots – not unlike the steaming chips you’d get for IR£1 from a battered van in St Mel’s Park back in the day.

I’m not sure if Kurt Cobain would have approved, though he’d surely have been comfortable with the number of plaid shirts on display. Which led me to think –  watching soccer in the Nirvana frontman’s spiritual heartland of the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps the whole thing’s come full circle.


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Amy Winehouse, a room, and a song

Amy Winehouse. Pic: Fionn Kidney

Amy Winehouse. Pic: Fionn Kidney

“She was the last real individualist around.”

So said Bob Dylan of Amy Winehouse, in an interview published last week to publicize Dylan’s new album.

What Dylan’s attempted to do on his new release, to find “the essence of life” in the torch ballads and pop compositions of the Great American Songbook, was second nature to Winehouse. (One of her strongest latter-day performances was a duet with Tony Bennett on ‘Body and Soul‘.)

Her voice was certainly individualistic – like Dylan’s own, it’s instantly recognizable. It’s hard to think of another 21st century singer whose vocal performances had the same smooth snap and kick.

Or the same intimacy. Like the jazz legend Billie Holiday, who Winehouse is often compared to, the Londoner was never more powerful than when she delivered a love song to a simple accompaniment.

“I had some idea of where they stood, but I hadn’t realized how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition, how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.”

So says Dylan of the 1940s and ’50s standards he sings on his new album. It’s an observation that applies to a number of Winehouse songs too, not least her composition ‘Love Is A Losing Game’.

The ballad is one I’ve listened to a hundred times, but it’s never sounded better than the first time I heard it, a decade ago, on a TV broadcast of the 2007 Mercury Music Prize award ceremony.

Winehouse’s album ‘Rehab’, though nominated, didn’t win that night (the nod went to the Klaxons – reinforcing the advice that no-one should ever pay heed to a music critic). But her three-minute live performance will be what the evening is remembered for.

She took to the stage just a month after an alleged drug overdose, the start of a drugs-and-recovery narrative that would continue until her tragic death, less than four years later.

‘Love Is A Losing Game’ was well-known at the time, having been released a year earlier on Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ album, but the rapt silence and rapturous applause that night gives some indication of what it was like to see it performed in the flesh.

Below, through, and above it all, of course, is her voice. Intimate, declamatory, wistful, surging – not individual but unique.

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Teenage Fanclub and what they did to me

Teenage Fanclub at the Wonder Ballroom, Portland, March 23, 2017

Teenage Fanclub at the Wonder Ballroom, Portland, March 2017

Teenage Fanclub look a bit different now to how they did the first time I saw them.

Back then it was the mid-1990s, the height of Britpop – a genre that never fitted a band with C86 roots. I was 18 and all I knew of Blake, McGinley, and Love was ‘Sparky’s Dream‘, which I’d heard on a compilation tape, and the fact that Kurt Cobain had called them out years earlier as “the best band in the world”.

They played the cavernous Point Depot in Dublin, a docklands warehouse poorly equipped for sound. Nonetheless they pulled off a great show, topping a bill which included the Manic Street Preachers and Beck, and rounding out a long evening of loud music and warm beer.

(My abiding memory of that night, 20 years ago, is of a local grungy long-hair stepping onto the stage from the audience, and banging away on a tambourine as the band encored with ‘The Concept’. Rock on!)

Fast forward two decades and we’re all a little different. Gone is Norman Blake’s floppy hair, while Raymond McGinley looks uncannily like my doctor. Gone too, are the thousands who saw them in Dublin – Portland’s Wonder Ballroom, while boasting a healthy crowd, isn’t quite full.

And, needless to say, I feel a couple of lifetimes away from the teenager who nodded away to ‘The Concept’ in the Point.

What hasn’t changed is the music. In the intervening years, Teenage Fanclub have released album after album of perfectly-pitched guitar pop. The hooks never flagged, the melodies were never second rate.

They also never attained the status heralded by Nirvana’s front man but, if they had, it’s unlikely I’d have seen them up close in Portland this week.

Seeing though? More like hearing. Visuals were never to the fore for Teenage Fanclub. In Portland, just as in the Point and in Whelan’s (the Dublin venue where I caught them with Jad Fair, in 2002), they led with the songs. And what a batch – the 90-minute set covered music from their first album (set closer ‘Everything Flows’), through the middle years (‘Start Again’, ‘About You’ – a snippet of which below) to their 2016 release ‘Here’ (‘I’m In Love’, ‘I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive’).

Also in the mix is, of course, ‘Sparky’s Dream’, the song that started it all for me, and whose lyrics resonate even more now than they did 20 years ago: “That summer feeling is gonna fly – always try and keep the feeling inside”.

Teenage Fanclub? The best band in the world. Again.

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A March morning in St Louis

 

Rust-colored and rust-rimmed,

Bleached by the winter snow and

Moving slow and sleepy,

St Louis shrugged.

 

Tired, tagged towers

Cast shadows of industry,

While the Mississippi, mighty in myth,

Seeped slowly past the Arch,

Its silver dull in the March light.

 

But, as dawn broke,

A row of daffodils blooming in Tower Grove Park,

Brilliant against the brown,

Silently showed me that

Spring is here.
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Lou and Laurie’s rules for life

'Here he comes, all dressed in black.' Lou Reed, 2011. Pic: Man Alive!

Lou Reed, 2011. Pic: Man Alive!

I don’t associate Lou Reed with lifestyle advice. Nor his wife Laurie Anderson. Groundbreaking, avant garde, rule-shredding music – yes. How to maximize your living minutes – not really.

Until I came across, via an Open Culture post, Lou and Laurie’s three rules for living well. Anderson revealed these during her acceptance speech at Reed’s 2015 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

She and Reed developed them because, as she warns, “things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on”.

The rules are short and simple.

  1. Don’t be afraid of anyone
  2. Get a really good bullshit detector
  3. Be really, really tender

And what better to accompany them than Reed’s great song of empathy, his “hand in the darkness so you won’t be afraid”?

There – you’re living better already.

 

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Morning glory – but life’s a different story

NME - August 1995.

NME, August 1995

Is it 25 years since Britpop emerged? Yes, as BBC’s Radio 6 Music has persistently reminded me in recent weeks.

My first, immediate, thought on being reminded of this is: what the hell happened to the last two decades? It seems like only yesterday that I bought a copy of Blur’s “Parklife” as a birthday gift for my sister, and only a couple of months since “Don’t Look Back In Anger” was released.

But no. We’re as far from the heady days of “Animal Nitrate” and Ocean Colour Scene now as we were from The Beatles back then. And to be honest, given the output of some Britpop bands (that’d be Ocean Colour Scene again), 25 years isn’t far enough away.

While I listened to, and liked, some Britpop, it was never truly my thing. For every spin Elastica got, the first Radiohead album probably got three. Damon Albarn’s pubs ‘n’ dogs Essex stories paled in comparison to what I considered to be, at the time, much more important – the po-faced politics and visceral sonic stab of “The Holy Bible“.

Not being inclined, then, to listen to hour-long ‘wish you’d been there documentaries’ on the part of various English journalists and DJs, it recently occurred to me – what’s my one quintessential Britpop song? What single tune summed it up for me?

There could be only one, a release that towered above the rest. It has it all – the middle-class obsession with property, city dwellers who are “successful fellers”, Benny Hill-esque models falling around haystacks, and Damon Albarn’s vocals. The video was even directed by Damien Hirst. What could be more 1995 than all that?

Not to mention the fact, 20 years older and supposedly wiser, I still kind of like Blur’s “Country House”. Even if that “reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac” line gets stuck in my head for days afterwards, every time.

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A four-letter word that woke me up

Clyde Stubblefield. Pic: Paul VanDerWerf

Clyde Stubblefield. Pic: Paul VanDerWerf

Who listens to radio anymore? I mean, really listens? Who has the time to tune in faithfully to a favorite show, to sit down, not distracted by driving or screens or other commitments, and take it all in?

Not me. My radio listening tends to be on my morning commute, a half hour grabbed as I stop-start along the Sunset Highway out of Portland. Along with 45 minutes on the return leg in the evening.

It’s a far cry from my teenage years in Ireland, when I’d tape Dave Fanning’s 2FM evening show, or my 20s when Donal Dineen’s Here Comes The Night was required late evening listening. Dineen, in particular, was a curator non nonpareil – what blossomed into an obsession with Prestige-era Miles Davis recordings developed from his playing “It Never Entered My Mind” on a couple of consecutive summer nights back in 2000.

It’s a while since I’d experienced that sort of inspired broadcasting. Occasionally, back in Dublin, I’d pick up something new from In The Blue of the Night or, if I had time, BBC’s 6 Music, but it was a rare thing.

Then I moved to Oregon and, in the process, discovered KMHD,  a public radio jazz station that broadcasts in the Portland area. Initially I listened as a breather from the increasingly-depressing news cycle; within days I had awoken to the razor-sharp music choices, and was hooked. The morning and evening shows offered a decent cut of those great ’50s Prestige recordings (way beyond Miles, I might add), mixing them up with recordings from local scene artists, modern UK, and European jazz – all sweetened with sizeable dollops of soul and funk.

A case in point – when Clyde Stubblefield died last weekend I knew Derek Smith’s The Morning Session show would celebrate his work. Then, on Tuesday morning, straight after the 8 a.m. news, I duly heard “Funky Drummer”, the James Brown side that features Stubblefield’s legendary drum break.

Now, for the first time in years, I’m coming across new (to me) music and wanting to take note of tracks, artists, and albums. Where once I sat with my finger above the ‘record’ button on my cassette radio now I search KMHD’s website and build Spotify playlists. When I turn on the radio these days, it’s not for a half-hour’s mindless humming, but to source new sounds.

To that end, here’s a short playlist of tracks gleaned from the station’s broadcasts over the past few weeks. The music’s mostly modern, with a couple of classic artists thrown in. It’s a brief, listenable testament to why I’ve fallen in love with radio again.

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No regrets – Raymond Carver and the rain

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Oregon rain. More specifically, about the rain and a folk song it led me back too.

I’d previously written about music and rain. Back in Ireland, one particularly wet December led me to draw up a list of rain songs.

Write what you know, they say. And as an Irishman who now lives in Portland, I know rain – from the anticyclonic squalls that tear over Ireland in the winter to the 1.7 inches that fell on the Rose City in a single day this week.

This morning, as the rain fell on the window and the coffee brewed, I pulled a book from a shelf – a collection of poems by Raymond Carver.

Carver knew rain. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, about 60 miles north of Portland, he spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest. Along with his stories, some well known, and screenplays, he also wrote poetry. Inevitably, as an Oregonian, one of these poems features precipitation.

“Rain” is a short work about risks and the need to make mistakes, about giving over to chance. The weather may just be a framing device but, like an Oregon winter, it’s all around.

In lieu of songs about the weather, then, here’s a poem about it. Let it rain, without regrets.

‘Rain’

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

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