Friday, 7 January 2011

Fresh Starts | Music | On why Chaucer is like Gary Barlow, where Middleton is like Robbie Williams

‘You can go your own way,’ hollered Lindsey Buckingham, in between smashing Stevie Nicks and turning himself into a ‘disgusting biohazard’ with the ol’ California Gold – those latter words, by the way, are a highlight of Buckingham’s ex-girlfriend Carol Ann Harris’ gloriously overwritten memoir, Storms: My Life with Lindsey Buckingham. Along with her description of a tanked-up Buckingham’s collection of some Best Album award or other: ‘Looking like a character from a B-Movie who’d been shot . . . his superhuman effort was leading him to the opposite side of the stage.’

Anyway, so sung Buckingham, and two men, Robbie ‘the fat dancer’ Williams and Gary ‘the talent’ Barlow listened. I need not tell you what happened next, as much as it would be a privilege and a joy to discuss Robbie’s mid-noughties nosedive in even the most passing detail, what with its culmination in the purchase of an observatory in the Nevada desert because…

I want to do something. I want to go out there and meet these people. I want to be a part of this. I want to do something other than sit in my bed and watch the news. And it starts with the UFO conference in Laughlin, Nevada, on Thursday. We can hear people’s testimony about being abducted by aliens. There’s an entire family of abductees going to be there, apparently.

Or, indeed, as interesting as it would be to talk about the rather depressing paradox at the heart of Barlow’s Abba-like evil melodic genius – for people only like and buy his songs if it’s not him singing them (see the work he penned for Charlotte Church, Will Young and, hmmm, Shirley Bassey) or if he’s flanked on both sides by bestubbled MEGAHUNKS like Jason Orange and Howard Donald. Remember Barlow’s solo career? Of course you don’t.
I digress. The details of Robbie and Gary going their own way is less important than the thing it illustrates splendidly: the veritable lottery of making the proverbial fresh start and emerging from a successful comfort zone into the cold light of unprotected, unbuttressed, bollocks and all THIS-IS-MEism. It worked for the fat dancer. It didn’t work for the crown prince of British pop music. And no, Barlow’s Coultard-like hack jaw wasn’t the only reason we weren’t interested in his solo records. Although it was a reason.

Gary and Robbie illustrate that fresh starts are governed by a complex knot of circumstances, transcending what would, at first glance, appear to be all-powerful factors – Barlow’s killer songwriting, say, or at the other end of the spectrum, Williams’ disgusting, smug, all-over-hairy, wriggling body, like Stoke-on-Trent’s most irritating caterpillar.

And yet Robbie and Gary simultaneously offer, I think, useful sub-headings for potted summaries of history’s fresh-starters – the former representing a bit of a knob for whom a big risk paid off to an extraordinary extent, the latter a seemingly nice man for whom a much smaller risk frankly fucked him up the arse. And in order to once again argue the case I try to argue every time I write a Music As Reading article for Silkworms, i.e. that in music (even Take fucking That) lie many keys for the unlocking of poems an’ plays an’ books an’ shit, I’m going to test this notion on history’s literatuses. Literatus. Literatuseses. Literati. AHA, litarati. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you LITERATURE’S GARYS, and LITERATURE’S ROBBIES.

The Fourteenth Century
Name: Geoffrey Chaucer
Dates: 1343-1400
Comfort zone left: On the 8th June 1374, Chaucer was made comptroller of the customs of the port of London, a big ol’ job that obviously cleared his head sufficiently for the writing of some of the most important works in the entire English canon: Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde were all composed between 1374 and 1386. Then the silly man thought it’d be a good idea to get promoted.
Fresh start attempted: Beginning a new career in politics whilst simultaneously attempting to compose a text as long as the bible.
Gary or Robbie? As everybody knows, Chaucer didn’t just fail to complete the Canterbury Tales; he didn’t even get close. And The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse suggests his day job didn’t go too swimmingly either. GARY, then – indeed, like Barlow, now making infinities of euros out of reunion tours, Chaucer’s unfinished mess turned out to be pretty good anyway, laughs last laughs longest he who etc. etc.

The Sixteenth/Seventeenth Century
Name: Thomas Middleton
Dates: 1580-1627
Comfort zone left: As the sixteenth century became the seventeenth century, Tom Middleton was forging for himself a reasonable living as a freelance pamphleteer, having bummed out of Oxford. Penniless Parliament of Threadbare Poets even provoked a parliamentary enquiry, more than Silkworms Ink has ever managed.
Fresh start attempted: Three things can be pinpointed as inspiring Middleton to throw himself into the seventeenth century with a new, theatrically-minded literary verve: his marriage, in 1603; the closing of the London theatres due to plague, in 1603; and Ben Jonson being a fucking arsehole, in 1601 and 1602. Incidentally, Middleton didn’t stoop to cursewords like unimaginative me: he shot down Jonson much more effectively, branding him a ‘silenced bricklayer.’ Lad.
Gary or Robbie? Hit followed hit followed hit followed hit, A Mad World, My Masters in 1605 being followed by the Revenger’s Tragedy in 1606 being followed by A Chaste Maid in Cheapside in 1613 being followed by Women Beware Women in 1613 and so on. Then, in the wake of the hugely controversial A Game at Chess, he was either silenced or he dried up. So ROBBIE, then – one could even refer to A Game at Chess as Tom Middleton’s Rudebox.

Okay, I could go on like this, indeed I will when I’ve got a minute and it's not Friday evening. Basically, the boyband-to-attempted-solo-stardom image has got a whole bunch of legs when it comes to defining literary fresh starts: one writer’s comfort zone is a scene, school or movement; another’s is a genre or a form; another’s is a big ol' bottle of gin. All are, essentially, boyband equivalents. But to be honest, all this talk of literary Robbies and literary Garys has got me thinking about literary Little Mark Owens (for, like Little Dorrit, Little Mark Owen’s first name is Little) the little elf who sprinkled stardust over Barlow’s craft…

Truman Capote, perhaps?

Nah mate. The only literary Little Mark Owen is Little Mark Owen himself. Little Mark Owen, the man (manchild) who puts the awwwww in WH Auden…

Sam Kinchin-Smith
(The literary Howard Donald)

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