Big news: it’s Frederic Debreu – the album

Debreu English Chansons CD cover

I’m over the moon – and still a bit gobsmacked – to announce the release of the very first CD of Frederic Debreu’s songs.

That’s eleven selected works from the great master himself, translated into English, performed and produced by the artists behind Jake Thackray’s album of ‘lost songs’. It's fronted by the terrific John Watterson, who recorded the vocals in time out from his never-ending UK tour of festivals and folk clubs.

I penned lyrics for nine of the songs (and very occasionally donned my musician’s hat during the production stage to send helpful email feedback like ‘why don’t you make that first line of the chorus go sort of om-tee-tom-tee-tooo rather than om-pom-diddle-i-pom?’ – I really have no idea how the performers would have managed without my astute musical nous.)

The end result is an imagining of what Debreu might have sounded like in translation, as recorded in the present day and performed by British artists. A concept album based on the book, I suppose? The very first Fictitious French Chansonnier English-Yorkshire-Norfolk Concept Album.

It’s an odd experience, seeing other people take forward a vision of yours. But I’ve been watching in utter delight as things came to fruition. Paul Thompson – the man behind the melodies and guitar playing – is steeped in French Chanson; incredibly knowledgeable about the form, he took the idea, and ran with it. A couple of US book reviewers had previously mentioned that they had to Google to see if Debreu was ‘real’ – I absolutely cherished reading that, and can now answer ‘yes’, in that Fred’s taken on a life independent of me.

And I am as flattered as hell that these proper musicians thought enough of the book to think: ‘aha! We could develop an album based on this, and sell and perform it alongside the Jake Thackray stuff!’ That is quite something to me, and it would be ridiculous and dishonest to pretend to be all cool about it.

Find out about the album here; there's a small YouTube sampler of the music, and the lyrics are on the site if you're interested. An ideal Christmas gift? See what you think.

School visit, or ‘I become a failed bear.’

As an author, school visits help build an audience. They encourage new young readers, they build bridges with parents, they add to the cultural life of the nation. The Society of Authors has pages of guidance on how to conduct a successful author visit: from ideas, to legalities, to the basics of what and how to charge.

Sadly, my visit today is not author-related. I am sat with other parents in a class of six year olds, undertaking practical activities pertaining to the literary work ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears.’

The session is being led by a visiting lady who has dressed as Goldilocks. We have yet to read the book itself. Instead, an initial activity – making and stuffing a small cuddly toy bear – has already stoked the kids into dangerous overexcitement.

The mums file back into the classroom after our mid-session coffees. As usual, I am the lone male parent. I am held back by a tap on the shoulder from Goldilocks.

“Could you help out when we resume?” she asks. “I need someone for the bear role.”

I am chuffed by this. Aside from the fact that a story might calm everybody down, I’ve done quite a few readings etc. recently, and I reckon that my authorly experience will lend weight and gravitas to this key character. Plus I have recently grown a magnificent beard, which will help me emphasise the fierceness of the dialogue.

“Of course,” I say.

“Great,” says Goldilocks. “The next activities will be outside. Join us there. Your costume is in that bag.”

She indicates an enormous bag. I unzip it cautiously. Inside is a life-size bear costume.

I stare at the bear costume, then at the retreating form of Goldilocks, then at the bear costume again.

Nonplussed, I extract the bear costume from the bag. It consists of an all-in-one bear body suit plus a bear head. I look at the bear head. The bear head looks at me. I am on my own in the library, with nobody to whom I can articulate my deep aversion to wearing bear costumes.

With a plummeting heart, I begin to fumble with the bear costume. I have negligible experience in bear costumes, and this one seems both much too small and much too big at the same time. There is a peculiar smell about it, as if it were last washed in the days when actual bears roamed the forests of Britain and that its previous occupant was, indeed, a bear.

“Oh I’m sorry – I didn’t realise you were changing.” A teacher has entered the room and glanced at me as if it were the most natural thing in the world to wander into the school library to find a man sporting half a bear costume and a full expression of dismay.

“Could you just…” I begin, but she has already withdrawn.

The word ‘changing’ exacerbates my alarm. It dawns that I may have been expected to remove my own clothes before putting on the bear costume. I have now struggled fully into the bear suit as best I can. It is excruciatingly hot. Nevertheless there is no way that I am going to fight my way back out in order to remove my clothes. I have collected a reasonable press file over the years; happily no cuttings yet commence with the phrase: ‘A man, naked except for a bear costume…’

Defeated, I put on the bear head.

Everything goes dark. After a momentary panic, I discover that some visibility is possible via a strip of mesh concealed in the bear’s mouth, at my eye level. I step forwards and backwards a couple of times, to try to get acclimatised to the situation.

Very little acclimatisation seems possible. Sweating, I edge my way to the door. Then I lumber through the primary school, dressed as a bear.

The sun beats down as I emerge upon the playground. It appears to be deserted, but shouting noises, muffled by the bear head, are reaching me from the playing field. I make my unsteady way in that direction.

I round the corner, to be confronted by the class of six year olds. I stand before them in my bear costume. They stand before me, their little jaws dropping. If I am going to disguise myself as a bear then at least I am determined to make an impressive show of it, although the father within me cautions against scaring the kids too much.

“It’s Mr. Marsh!!!” shrieks one of them. “It’s your dad!!!” cries another. “Hey!!! Mr. Marsh!!!”

A tsunami of six-year old children surges towards me.

“He’s got the bloody costume on the wrong way round,” I hear one of the teaching assistants hiss. “Oh God – look where the tail…”

Her words are lost as I am engulfed. I feel arms grabbing my legs and bodies swarming around my back, attempting to hug the bear. Several pairs of hands are clawing away at the bear head, trying to pull it off. I can dimly hear the teacher appealing for calm, but now every bit of me is being pushed and pulled in some sort of bezerker frenzy. The mums are pointing and hooting away and using their phones to take photographs.

“He’s hungry! The bear is hungry!”

A child starts force-feeding the bear, stuffing leaves and twigs into its mouth. This is where my eye-hole is, so I am now completely blind. A small hand thrusts up inside the bear head itself and gives me a fat lip. Something, presumably a child, is clinging on so hard to my left leg that I am in danger of falling. I can hear Goldilocks and the teacher trying to restore order. But the children are in a bear-baiting world of their own. I make pathetic ‘please be kind to the bear’ noises, but to no avail. They are not giving up. I remove the bear head in defeat, blinking in the sunshine, sweat pouring down my face.

“Yay!!! Mr. Marsh!!!” My act of submission appears to satisfy the children.

When calm finally descends, I put on the bear head once more, in order to take part in the activity. It involves me standing under a tree in a bear costume. In my paws I hold a basket, in which are the ingredients for porridge. The children seem to enjoy their activity, and my role is concluded.

I plod back across the playground and through the school. I change out of the bear costume.

Later, I am given an evaluation form for the session. The first question reads: ‘Please state whether the event met your expectations.’

You can buy my latest book on Amazon (and in all good bookstores). (‘In the grand tradition of British comic novels’)

A summary of events.

I’m not updating this very often at all.

Which was always the plan, in that I kind of retired from blogging. And as a write a little more in other spheres, I’ve tried to find other hobbies that don’t involve sitting at a PC thinking about words.

Thing is, Twitter has revealed that you only really need 140 characters and people can fill the gaps themselves. Everything else is wasted effort in these days of mobile devices and short attention spans. So it seemed sensible just to save everything up and post it in headlines. Here’s my past few months.

I spend an eventful Christmas with Unlucky John.

We shut the chickens away.

I grow a magnificent beard!!!

I search online for a beard-trimmer, to be sent next-day delivery.

The chickens are morose.

I attend an eye-test.

We win a game of snooker!!!

I study the bird flu regulations with sadness.

I collect my fashionable new spectacles!!!

I am struggling to adapt to my new spectacles.

I badly mis-read the settings on the beard-trimmer.

I fall over Short Tony’s front wall.

The chickens are extremely unhappy.

“Perhaps it was the headbanging?” I ask the LTLP.

We bid farewell to Len the Fish.

I suspect the chickens are being radicalised.

On Leonard Cohen, and music before words

This is in danger of becoming a music blog, but if people WILL keep dying and/or enjoying spectacular critical revivals then that’s the way it’ll have to be. The world has lost a genuine great with Leonard Cohen’s death. In some way the situation is very dissimilar to Bowie’s death, in that it had seemed to be not unanticipated in the media. The Canadian’s old age had been repeatedly cited for the past year or so, despite the fact that he wasn’t particularly that old in the big scheme of things. Early eighties, wasn’t it? Too soon.

So given that I’m (again) hardly first off the mark to articulate my thoughts, what can I say about Leonard Cohen that hasn’t already been said a billion times elsewhere?

This. Forget Cohen the poet. Cast aside your critical analysis of those words, and appreciate the fact that this most literary of intellectuals from Montreal created some of the greatest popular music records ever made.

I was privileged to have a short chat with singer and musician Pete Atkin a couple of weeks ago (he has a book out which I’ve heard is utterly great). Pete wrote the music for, and performed, Clive James’s lyrics, and one of the topics we discussed was the fact that music criticism focuses 99 per cent on the words; possibly 99.9 per cent for certain genres. Because, of course, it’s easier and more natural to write about words.

Whereas, of course, music doesn’t work like that. I wrote a while back about how I loved Georges Brassens, despite the fact that my comprehension of French is diabolical.

So yes. Listen to the records. Listen to them.

To rewind, it became firmly established, after his initial burst of hipster popularity, that Leonard Cohen was miserable; that his was music to slit your wrists to; the Godfather of Gloom; that he couldn’t sing, yadda yadda yadda. In one sense, Cohen had become one of those jokes that people did, not too far removed from ‘in the dark, you can only see their eyes and teeth’: not witty, nor funny, nor original, nor intelligent in any sense; just a punchline that remained a punchline because somebody, somewhere had decided that it was one. That was the seventies for you.

Perhaps at that point his most analysed songs tended to be the ‘growers’. ‘Chelsea Hotel’ for instance – it’s lovely, but not the most accessible production in his catalogue. And the masterpiece album that launched his decade, ‘Songs of Love and Hate,’ opened with the ferocious and doomy intensity of ‘Avalanche’ – a magnificent piece of music unlikely to convert a sceptic. Leonard Cohen’s own – ummm – mixed feelings about his collaboration with Phil Spector possibly coloured the reception of his most conventionally ‘pop’ album.

But that might be over-analysing things. I think people had just made their minds up.

Sonically, Cohen’s seventies albums are astonishing. His stock approach was to take a few chords on a nylon-stringed guitar, mix his own voice with a couple of great female singers having instructed them to sound ‘beautiful’, then augment where necessary with pared-back instrumentation. In this, he created a body of work that was the easiest of easy listening, in the truest possible sense. One should be able to say that without howls of outrage from pseuds; it doesn’t diminish from the songs’ weight. Works like ‘Why Don’t You Try’; ‘Joan of Arc’; ‘The Window’; ‘The Guests’ – these should have been Radio 2 staples; in a different world he could have been performing them as the musical interlude on The Two Ronnies. *Adopts posh Scots voice* “Ladies and Gentlemen – Mr. Leonard Cohen.”

Then you hear snatches of his live performance, or the studio recordings where he lets that bellow really rip. And again, if you’ve not been listening, it’s a revelation. Post-Cohen-revival, we’re kind of used to the concept of Leonard Cohen as a showman, but when ‘Sing Another Song Boys’ hits the coda, there’s a moment of open-mouthed: ‘bloody hell – this guy can *rock*’ And no words to be heard – just la-la-laaahs, blasting out at the Isle of Wight festival audience. ‘Live Songs’ may as well be the Rolling Stones in its spirit. ‘Is This What you Wanted?’ is barely-reined-back thunder.

So: Phil Spector. When I was a little boy, ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’ was the only tape we had in the car. Being puritans at heart, and a tape player in the car being unimaginable luxury and indulgence not really for the likes of us, we didn’t listen to this tape that often. Like a cassette-based front room, it was reserved for ‘best’, this being the long drive to our annual fortnight in the West Country. I’ll therefore never be able to disassociate the simple ‘ting!’ that opens the album with the utter joy that the outset of this journey represented. ‘As the misssttt…’ they sing, above the Wall of Sound – it’s anything but misty, but I am misty-eyed recalling it. ‘Death…’ is the Cohen album for people who don’t like Cohen, but side A and most of side B of that tape surely can’t be described as anything other than one of the most utterly fucking exciting twenty or so minutes of music of 1977 – it hits you between the eyes with its major sevenths and spoken vocals and however many hundreds of drummers that Spector multi-tracked for the fill that leads to the climax of that sax solo.

But I can’t possibly get that across. Because the words are much easier to write about.

So just forget them for a bit, and forget the novels and poetry awards and zen-calm and magnetism and humanity and general Leonard Cohen-ness. Go listen to his stuff as you would any other pop group, and see what you think.