The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, December 11, 2005
"Chemistry" by Girls Aloud

"She was preserved in freshness. I couldn’t touch her. I couldn’t reach through the ice. She floated in it mildly, she was adrift, far off, in some private place. Surprised, and dreaming, with wide-open eyes. She couldn’t see me. Ice gleamed on her like moonlight.
‘The ice wanted to prevent me. It talked: no no no no."
(Michèle Roberts, Flesh & Blood: Virago Press, 1994; chapter 10)

They stare at us on the cover, icy, as if from under a placid, inescapable sheet; there is a little bewilderment, a hint of indifference, a smouldering hatred, a faint trace of ridicule. The unasked question is: "What are you doing here?" Within their staring lies the germination of the bemused but kindly look which Beatrice would first have given to Benedick. Within their glancing lies also, and simultaneously, the contempt of self-contemptuous singletons, lurking in West London wine bars to give their managers and creditors the slip (towards the record’s climax they will sing of "Chelsea chicks" drinking white wine spritzers). "Do you know me?" will be the central question, closely pursued by the befuddled puzzlement of "Do you love me?" And what sort of love is required or desired? Must we induce premature deaths by never falling below the speed required by the market, or decide to slow down and thus ensure the market’s final irrelevance? What do we really, really want?

The third Girls Aloud album was always expected to be the crowning glory of the unexpected late 2005 renaissance of New Pop Mark II; this generation’s Lexicon Of Love, the Statement which simultaneously sums everything up and then makes everything else redundant. The delicious irony of a group set up by a television programme whose subtextual remit was to delete the last half-century of pop, to take everything back to a cosy, compliant, agreeable 1954 of Dickie Valentine and Alma Cogan, and then turning the tables with the help of the operatives Xenomania whose supratextual remit was to give birth to everything that New Pop had promised a generation previously, such that they snatched sex pop, colour pop, punctumised pop, from the jaws of careful, remains potent. Yet Chemistry exceeds any superficial remit, for it is very consciously Xenomania’s most ambitious work to date – as happened with Stock/Aitken/Waterman and Mel and Kim, Higgins and co. seem to be inspired by GA to pull out all of the extra stops available to them, as well as sneakily tugging at a few unavailable stops. In fact it is the bastard niece of Lexicon Of Love and A Grand Don’t Come For Free; an extended meditation on the uselessness of inverted commas when it comes to "love" (and think about inverted commas around "come" as well) constructed as a concept album with a storyline, complete with alternative endings.

Then again, do we know Girls Aloud as anything other than the collective Girls Aloud, just as Martin Fry and Mike Skinner were the collective ABC and Streets? They appear in the CD booklet on first name terms only, none of them quite smiling at the camera (observe the giveaway Freudian slip in Cheryl Tweedy’s dedication to Xenomania – "an inspiration not only 2 me but I’m sure 2 any aspirin song writers"). Only one track, "It’s Magic," credits GA as contributory composers, and even then, as "Girls Aloud" only. Yet this is not the anticipated scenario of Men telling Women What To Think – Xenomania’s Miranda Cooper has taken particular care to claim sole responsibility for the album’s lyrics, and furthermore, the topics and approaches were only arrived at following detailed and intense discussion with the Girls.

When you hear the opening whispered fusillade of "It’s all about the hell of it/It’s all about the game/Don’t ask me to say my name/Don’t ask me to share my fame" you realise that you’re immediately being pitched into an even less hospitable climate than the previous two GA albums (which weren’t exactly enticing you to come on a-their house, either). But the shocking "Intro" is the album’s shocking denouement; as with the first 30 seconds of Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate or the jitterbugging opening titles of Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, if you miss it you miss the entire record’s point. "You took the bait, now you’re looking like a fool/Don’t ask us to break the rules" is a couplet one would expect from John Lydon – and a listen to "Rabbit Song," the obligatory new track on the latter’s Best Of British £1 Notes compilation, betrays a surprising or unsurprising musical/rhythmic overlap with "Intro." Perhaps the least user-friendly intro to a mainstream pop record likely to be heard for some while (because we expect Eminem to blow our brains out three seconds into any given track one), it quickly squats to a halt. An alarm clock rings (so much more potently, because so much more subtly, than at the end of track one of the current Madonna album), there are some faraway crowd noises and suddenly it’s a Dolly Mixtures 1982 A-side produced by Tony Mansfield.

"Models" is astonishing because, even though you were expecting Girls Aloud and Xenomania to start thinking about resurrecting the ethos of the Mo-Dettes or Girls At Our Best! in 2005, you’re amazed that they actually did something about it and went through with it (though maybe Xenomania have their eye on the Pipettes). Indeed, GA’s monumental monotone FUCK YOU vocals are so captivating that one almost regrets it when individual voices come through more recognisably in the verses (but don’t ask me to say their names). It does set the tone for the album’s story, though, with its uncommitted, too-rich/spoiled boyfriend ("Why don’t you call? You’ve got my number and it’s driving me crazy!") who is soon mocked in a brief mock-Sloaney mid-section ("Darling, we’re a fashion, don’t you know?"). "You get your kicks like flyster shit," complains one GA before observing that his own "kicks" leave her "torpid and cold." The nightmare reverse of this song’s scenario will be (re)visited in track ten.

Then there is "Biology." In an age of instant hits/shit, where The Hook and The Point are by economic necessity thrust upfront immediately afront one’s face to engage their instant attention (and thus is the magic of pop music degraded further to the aesthetic level of a mugger’s flick knife), how utterly refreshing to meet a pop single which takes its time to reveal its ingredients, including the chorus, which does not as such appear until well after two minutes into the song – and indeed the song’s structure mirrors exactly the theme of the girl getting "her head in the shade," for it is about hiding from threats, or meeting and trumping them with unexpectedly greater threats of your own.

The song begins almost as a mockery of Marquee blokey blues-rock – a twelve-year-old singing along to her dad’s Bad Company records? – as the singer turns the stock Plant/Rodgers/Marriott mannerisms and dismantles them by the act of merely reversing them. "Why don’t you CLOTHE me FEED me SAY you NEED ME without wicked GAMES? Come on and CALL me HELP me SAY you LOVE ME and not my dirty BRAIN." Not only does that act as a virtual manifesto for courtly love, but we also have to take the possible view that this is Girls Aloud taking the piss out of The Bloke’s pleading. Possibly because they have to – for when the song drifts into more familiar 1980 synthpop territory the voices become multiple and the emotions turn darker. The "closer" section, where the music, the beat, the man – the rape? – are making a seemingly unstoppable advent on the progenitor – is extremely troubling, and this in turn is followed up by the stern chorale of "You give it up…and then they take it away/A girl’s got to zip it up and get her head in the shade." No means no, Zero Tolerance – "We’re gonna call it a prophesy!" – but when the clouds part for the chorus finally to reveal itself, the ambivalence is made explicit. "You can’t mistake our biology!" the lead GA warns as the others chant, "The way that we walk. The way that we talk. It’s there in our thoughts…So easily caught" (which latter immediately raises the spectre of Michael Hordern in the film of Up Pompeii! – "My daughter is chaste." Frankie Howerd: "And so easily caught"). They do not sing it in the frame of an invitation to party. The opening "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" staccato jerk riffing reappears for one final time (think also "Fit But You Know It" as seen from the opposite angle) but the words have vanished.

Sex, if there is to be any, will be strictly on GA’s own terms. Thus "Wild Horses"*

(*one could argue that Chemistry is an extended attempt by Xenomania to de-masculinise pop – all these signifiers of titles, "Whole Lotta History," "No Regrets," "Models," "Wild Horses," "Long Hot Summer," "Swinging London Town," named after buildings long since demolished)

begins with a bizarre roundelay of an intro which sounds as though it’s escaped from the Peter Wyngarde album ("Poor boy Peter [Wyngarde? Andre? Doherty?] didn’t know how to claim his miracle/Lost his way/Cost him dearly like his dad") before making mincemeat of the Stones ("Woo woo!") as they send their inadequate Other packing, again turning his own clichés against him ("Take your lazy dog with you/Your train is running late and overdue") atop a bizarre electro-bluegrass backing over which GA now begin to deliver a rap which isn’t as sprightly as they make it sound. "I was trying to sedate him, trying not to blow/I was trying not to hate him – wouldn’t you know." It does indeed sound like Daphne and Celeste grown up ("The rings on his fingers were as false as the kisses he gave") but again the sung verses take the song into a darker dimension ("Took my time, thought I’d be safe," followed by a terrible, inscrutable, elongated wail of "oh!"). Fucking so bad it feels like rape.

And then there is "See The Day," the first of three occasions on Chemistry when the voice is left alone (relatively speaking) to own up and admit vulnerability. Indeed the lead vocal (Cheryl?) and Xenomania’s arrangement do a far better job of bringing out the song’s troubled compassion than its author, Dee C Lee, did on her original recording in 1985. Back then I was prevented from accessing the song’s real nature by the glutinous Real Soul/Weller/NME/Red Wedge/Proper Music Not Tarzan Boy layers of fat which occluded any kindness. With GA, however, the story is different. "When you look at me," the voice begins alone, "tell me what you see. Do you see no love at all?" It’s a quietly insistent request masquerading as an invitation to a wanted and/or errant lover to let go of his self-constructed restraint, not be afraid of uncertainty, and finally release himself from the past. Although slightly less remonstrative than Eric Matthews’ bitterly gorgeous 1995 song on the same topic, "Faith To Clay" – a song which really builds on the theme of "heartache leads astray"**

**(and isn’t that a record whose time has finally and quietly come, It’s Heavy In Here by Eric Matthews? Listening to it now I hear firm portents of Antony, Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens…)

- its tearful desperation balances its emotional generosity. "When you look away, is it mean to say that she haunts you night and day? And does it hurt your heart when I say let’s start to heal the part that’s been torn?" The Girl is prepared to be slow and patient ("Just watch and learn…/I’ll show you how long it can be"). Meanwhile, behind her, the arrangement seesaws between tubular bell and tympanic explosions and quiet piano, and nudges the cage of genius in the central instrumental section where Higgins brilliantly replaces the Ivor Raymonde wannabe of the original arrangement with eerie Morricone howls and gulfs of desert wind and stray bullets, before abruptly dropping back to the 6/8 piano, which we now see is a direct descendent of Japan’s "Nightporter."

The sex-mad (as in: sex inducing madness) duologue of "Watch Me Go" and "Waiting" marks the point where the album doubles back on itself – for, as with Time (The Revelator), the record’s two halves are symmetrical mirrors. "Watch Me Go" is the sparkiest that Chemistry gets, with a great old skool hip hop meme (Salt N’ Pepa?) giving way to a Fun Boy Three skank over which the Girls sing gleefully – or are they gleeful? – about a Catherine Millet lifestyle of random sexual encounters. "Got the gasoline, pour it on, I’m ready to blow!" they exclaim rather more convincingly than when Gwen Stefani used the same metaphor a year ago. And there’s a great moment at 3:01 when a Girl (Nicola?) purrs "for sure" over a spooky Dammers keyboard line. Spooky is the word, though, for the song’s central refrain of a night (or afternoon?) of sex, counted off in hours as John Lee Hooker (!) once did – "Quarter past two, I was dressed in red, tied up to your bed, begging on my knees/Quarter past three, I was in the shower, almost half an hour, you were at the door/Quarter past four, you came back again, said your name was Ben, then we went for more." Troubling, again, in an Isabella Rossellini/Kyle McLachlan/Blue Velvet kind of a way - I was almost willing the Girls to be saying "Bent you on my knee" rather than "begging on my knees," but with this song and its shadow "Waiting" we have to face the unlikeable but unavoidable possibility that S&M games are being enjoyed here in both S and M ways. Even here, though, Cooper’s lyric devolves into bizarre allegorical surrealism ("I’ll take a little bit of pain, OK, and the beat of the big trombone") which in turn gives way to a cackling schoolgirl chant of "I know what you’re thinking you’ve been thinking about my butt!" to fade. Who’s really cracking the whip here?

"Waiting," which musically joins some dots between "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" (as the Action might have played it in ’65) and Fine Young Cannibals’ "Good Thing," seems to confirm that the Girl has reached the limit of her involuntary adventures away from the inadequate Other. The track itself is fabulously constructed, with the triple penetration of the opening "knock knock knock" echoed throughout (see particularly the ecstatic "Toni-i-ight" at 1:23 and the swooning "sta-a-ars" at 1:34). "Who wants to come in my candy shop?" the Girls enquire, producing the spectre of Barbara Windsor on Stax (not that absurd a chimera: see Diana Dors’ extremely strange 1964 single "So Little Time," most easily obtainable on Morrissey’s Under The Influence compilation). "Throw me to the wolves!" they scream joyfully. "I’ll never get to heaven with my glass half full." But the underlying unrest persists – sardonic asides of "hey there buttercup!" jostle for prominence with lines like "I’ve been hating all this talking baby, black and blue" and "It’s been hard not trying to fight you baby with the things I do." And yet it all seems to come right by the song’s end, as a resolution of sorts is reached – "Wap! Bap! The boy can move!" So sexual "perfection" is achieved; but will it prove enough?

"Whole Lotta History" ostensibly sounds like an offcut from Grease, but it is "See The Day"’s emotional twin, and the Grease analogy is hardly a put-down; think of Olivia’s quiet prayer (Abba writing for Connie Francis in 1958?) of "Hopelessly Devoted To You" amid all the hurly-burly boys’ stuff ("Greased Lightning" et al). Except that in the ‘70s no one could have conceived the solemn Massive Attack string intro, itself in danger of becoming the cliché of musical clichés – but it’s instructive to compare the strangely timeless staccato 6/8 over 4/4 (it’s the same beat as schaffel, actually) with what Cameron McVey achieves from the same starting point with the Sugababes’ "Two Hearts." Though the latter is by some distance the greater song, the importance of "Whole Lotta History" lies in its representation of the Girl’s turning point, her recognition that sex is thrilling for 15 minutes, but that something more substantial is needed in the long term. The musings are distended. "I give myself the blame." "Does she love you like I never could? Would she hurt you, ‘cos I never would?" (and it is urgently important to interpret that last line in both ways, if we’re talking about sex). "I’m falling all around (? With joy?) when you miss me," the Girl continues. "So tell me that you’re not alone." This is distinctly creepy stuff indeed, in the neighbourhood of Elvis Costello’s paean to frustrated S&M "I Want You." A louder and angrier Girl briefly breaks the ice – "I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t!" she roars. "But you cost me so much love" – before the stark confession (on a deserted dancefloor?) of "And it keeps me spinning and controls what happens ‘til Monday/And it might sound crazy but your voice still leaves (and that satiated purr returns again as "still leaves" is extended over four bars at 3:26-3:27) me all funky."

"Long Hot Summer," however, was a single always more likely to carry more weight in winter than in summer. It manages to parallel both "Wild Horses" and "Biology" in lyrical subject and musical construction respectively, and although the joyous major key – with that always irresistible two-chord glacier of ascending guitar to take us from the first to the second half of the chorus, like ice added to the Coke in an August Bank Holiday Brighton – might lead us to think this is the emotional inverse of Bananarama’s "Cruel Summer," its subject matter could almost make it the prequel to "Cruel Summer." "I know you like to wear my dressing gown when I’m not there," the song begins, conjuring up Lynsey de Paul’s "Getting A Drag" – "I guess you like it in my shoes/Just ‘cos you drive a Maserati and the ladies stare/Don’t mean you go as fast as I do." So it’s a complaint about the five-second squirt-it-out/light-a-cigarette approach. "Baby," they exclaim, outraged, "watch the needle when you’re heading south!" The instruction to "Slow it down!" is answered by an ironic swanee whistle before descending into the chorus. "It’s only Sunday morning and I need that Friday feeling again," the Girls muse. "Suddenly I’m freezing and I don’t know why," which is a brave assertion to make on a 2005 top ten single. Sex as work. "When your fingers start to run, it’s no fun," they break free of the rhythm to decry, and then the return to the theme of fighting – "Baby if you fight me/How you gonna like me?/Running down that Old Kent Road (the spectre of the music hall is never too far away from Chemistry’s multilayered surface)…/Why do you fight me?" – after two songs which have seen the progenitors fighting him off.

And then one of the most sinister endings to any recent pop songs as the Girls now turn to their hapless/hopeless Other, and finally to the consumer/camera/us: "A little late to take it slow," they snigger. "Like a cannonball/Got what I wanted/Now I’ve seen it all." But they also realise that they too are victims: "So finally I’ll put the shade around the world" (echoing "Biology"’s "get her head in the shade"). "It’s what I wanted…/But I just can’t lie/Now I’m queasy." Once more, that "I just can’t lie" has to be interpreted in both possible ways.

"Swinging London Town" finds GA on the other side of the "Models" mirror. "I pussyfoot from drink to drink" they snarl. "The Queen Of London Town" they proclaim uneasily as the inevitable "I Feel Love" throb makes its entry. "I’m just a big-time Gucci girl/A first in Retail Therapy/Now the downward slide to rehab" isn’t quite a swipe at Kate Moss (remember "poor boy Peter") but possibly a swipe at themselves, though thankfully not on the crass level of McLaren telling Annabella to sing about being a worthless little puppet in a band called Bow Wow Wow. "I’m starting to drown," they coo as the synths, Killing Joke guitars and beats start to pile up like atonal phenobarbitone, before they pronounce the question "Do you know me? Do you REALLY know me?"

Just as everything’s about to spill over into chaos, however, the clouds break and we drift into a reverie of avant-fluff (nice to know someone else remembers the Gentle People’s Soundtracks For Living, not to mention "Moments In Love" because everyone else will) as a desensitised Girl asks "do you love me?" as though already on transit to the afterlife, spurting out disjointed thoughts on Camparis in Soho, "cocktails with price tags to make you choke on your Sushi," and "Chelsea chicks" driving down the King’s Road in "Daddy’s Bentley" before the original track returns. The Girls continue to drown but there is a residue somewhere in the middle of their voices which betray the likelihood that they are, fundamentally, loving it, swept away in the W1/SW3 social tsunami. Nevertheless, as an exercise in electro-urban angst "Swinging London Town" is easily on a par with the work of neglected late-‘90s operatives like Skinny and Bedlam-A-Go-Go; the emptiness as palpable as breathable damp.

"It’s Magic" – which I note closes the non-UK versions of the albums – is perhaps the simplest and most heartfelt of Chemistry songs. It is also the cleverest, as it provides a potted history of ‘80s electropop, with its intro of snarling Leer/Rental Roland bassline minimalism, then gradually building up to Depeche Mode chordality, then gliding into the sublime slow cumulonimbi of the Pet Shop Boys (the Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans of electropop – listen to the latter’s "The Happy Stranger" from 1947 followed by the PSB’s "Do I Have To?" and see for yourself***) and finally settling in late ‘80s Balearic heaven****.

***(The great altoist Lee Konitz, a lifelong collaborator with Gil Evans but also a man who calls a spade a spade, once gave a very simple explanation to how Gil arrived at the slow, patient, impressionist claudications of French horns and tubas which characterised his great early work: "It was music to smoke pot by. Gil was a copious pot smoker. The music moves at the same speed as the mind of the pot smoker.")

****(One of the many advantages of the new Stock/Aitken/Waterman Gold 3CD compilation is that it has found room for the full-length 12-inch glory of Mandy Smith’s "I Just Can’t Wait," the record which invented Balearic beat and maybe SAW’s greatest achievement, fulfilling the dream, as it did, for the "artist" to disappear. And the teenage Smith does, her voice drifting in and out between banks of George Benson guitar lines and sweetly static synthesiser motifs. It remains the nearest that SAW ever came to making "art pop" and if it came out on Warp tomorrow everyone would hail it as the masterpiece it actually has been for the last eighteen years.)

And "It’s Magic" is where the Girls Aloud reverie/adventure ends and they elect to return to reality. "Other side of my world" one sings (immediately echoing the vast canyons of Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller’s immortal "The Other Side Of The World") "and I know that I’m in love with you. And there’s this tugging inside (the Girl nearly sobs on the word "tugging"). We both know I took you for a ride…/and honey, what have I done? Oh believe me I have realised…with you I know that I can be myself. I can call you crying at four in the morning on your naked bed." Again, the tenderness inherent in "See The Day" comes to the fore. "Let your body be free/That innocence/Let me set you free/It’s my chance." And the previous emotions are reversed. "You are in my thoughts (recall "It’s there in our thoughts") all the time/I need some help in shifting this heartache ("Heartache leads astray")."

It’s an extraordinary courageous admission to make on a 2005 pop record, that somehow "pop" and "sex" in themselves are not enough, that immediacy does not lead to happiness. As the couple stroll off benignly into the New Order sunset of "It’s Magic" that couple is unmistakably Beatrice and Benedick, united, with nothing to prove, in bed or otherwise. Rationalism has prevailed, and emotion more hard won, and therefore more valuable and concrete when it emerges, as a result (as Plato pointed out, rationalism and emotion are so necessarily intertwined that the former can only realistically arise after extensive first-hand experience of the latter). A happy ending, of sorts, and it would indeed be very tempting to leave the Girls there, discovering the simpler and better joys of some new kind of bliss.

But, as Oscar Wilde remarked, a happy ending is only possible if you don’t tell the rest of the story.

"The mask of ice that moulded her face blurred at the edges. It melted, and slid off. Her buckler and breastplate of ice turned to slush, to water. Her gauntlets of ice fell from her hands."
(Michèle Roberts, op. cit.)

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the album has two alternate endings. Or perhaps they are two different ways of expressing the same – far from happy – ending. First, "No Regrets," a morose bossa nova over which electronica burbles indistinctly, like the waters of a melted ice cube. Only one Girl appears on this song. Again, disparate memories cloud her mind – "Rainy Sundays, kids’ TV/Fish and chips in NYC" – but she knows that she has chosen to lose, to sever any connection with a workable and habitable world. "So sure the cocktail hour would last for all eternity." Finally, as she prepares to die, she beseeches us: "Just forget those heartfelt pleas/No regrets, no baby…not for me." Or, as another troubled woman once put it, remember me, but forget my fate. The scorpion and the frog…she can’t help it, it’s our nature.

And the final song, "Racy Lacey" describes in unremitting brutality the grisly fate for which she was always intended. Built on the remnants of "Sound Of The Underground" – a memory calling from a distant and now unreachable past – the Girls now assume the role of the audience, surveying what the Girl has now been reduced to. "I know this girl/She’s not too bright/But she’s educated in bed all right…/A PhD with her legs apart." At first we reel in happy disbelief that a lyric which a generation ago would have been sung, unironically, by Whitesnake or Saxon, has now been reclaimed by women…and then we realise that this is nothing to celebrate, the "she’s got undulating, punctulating, grinding hips" motif notwithstanding. "She clicks her fingers, guy comes to heel (or to heal?)/Chewed up, spat out, no big deal." The chorus itself is a music hall relic (musically) over which the Girls sing, "Boudoir beauty, it’s all that she can do…/A bedhead through and through…/She’s got this crazy mind." A sound effects interlude of unsexily boinging bedsprings and banging headboards follows (sounding nothing like seagulls or cricket bats), after which the Girls recite the story of "Watch Me Go" from the third-party perspective: "And so this girl, I’ve heard it said, can spend up to 24 hours in bed. She gets her suitors to wait in line and she’s worn them out by half past nine." This is delivered in terms of rueful ridicule…and it is a suitably grotesque portrait of a shadow of a victim of the market who will never voluntarily break her ropes even if someone comes to untie them. Look, say the Cold Rationalists, this is what free enterprise leaves us as…sex as soap powder, love as a too-expensive/too-much-hard-work luxury, demographic husks of empty. The singer of "No Regrets" says farewell to a world she’s been told she can’t afford, and therefore proceeds to tie herself to her bed for eternity, already dead. Fittingly the song, and therefore the album, cuts off abruptly after the final "she’s got this crazy mind," as if the C90 tape had run out (the playing time of Chemistry is 45:53) or a painful reduction of a life had been humanely severed.

"Now I am drunk on an infallible poison
That my sister Medea brought to Athens.
I feel my pulses pushing it icily
Into my feet, hands and the roots of my hair.
I see the sun’s ball through a mist,
And you, whom my very presence sickens,
I see you in a mist, darkening.
My eyes go dark. Now the sun’s light at last
Can resume its purity unspoiled."
(The closing section of Phèdre’s deathbed speech from Phèdre by Jean Racine, translated by Ted Hughes and staged shortly before his own death in 1998)

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Sunday, December 04, 2005

Live concerts are one thing, and a very important thing at that. The standard jazz maxim used to be that seeing a local player at your local pub would tell you more about the mores and movements of the music than any visiting giant from overseas. But even with musical giants, at least those who do not choose to base their art in what they can produce in the phantasmaphallic environment of a studio, or a bedroom, we can learn different and deeper things about them when we view them in the flesh, struggling with and/or triumphing over the necessary spontaneous graffiti to be scribbled on the minds of the audience with whom they are interacting. Or simply, or complexly, giving us more than they are apt to do within the confines of a record.

Given the vital flesh-and-blood nowness of what can be gained by both artist and audience from a live performance, it is often argued that live albums tend at best to be contract fillers, a pale souvenir of an unrepeatable electricity, a protracted exercise in redundancy. As someone who has appeared (inaudibly and invisibly) on a number of live albums as a member of the audience – the scope ranges from Gil Evans Live At The Royal Festival Hall (1978) to Atari Teenage Riot Live At Brixton Academy (1999 – talk about closing down the millennium with a vengeance!), I’m naturally not so sure. Of course, with jazz, a music where immediacy of response and creation is crucial, in contrast with the inbuilt limitations of having to cram a simulacrum of spontaneity into the confines of a 78 record, its evolution has largely had to be documented via live performances – Jazz At Massey Hall, Ellington At Newport, Mingus At Antibes, Coltrane At The Village Vanguard (’61 and ’66). Soul, too, has revealed its truer colours (and exposed its pertinent gospel roots) onstage – think of Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square Club, turning the glossy ‘50s balladry of "You Send Me" into a bilious, primeval howl of sex in front of a palpable audience, whooping him on into multiple cracked vocal screams a full two years before Pharaoh Sanders became known to the world. But post-Beatles rock can stretch out and breathe in unexpected ways, too. On Live At Leeds, John Martyn, in tandem with Danny Thompson and John Stevens, stretches the after-hours aquacity of Solid Air into particles which seem to span all known and yet to be known horizons of harmolodics and rhythmic disappearance/sublimation. And inevitably there is Judas Dylan at the "Albert Hall," his "Rolling Stone" cracking a salient whip of which the Columbia recording studios of 1965 could only dream.

More recently, though, there has been the less welcome tendency of old music to allow itself to be imprisoned, petrified against the dagger of the dead archive, rekindled not to encourage or challenge those who "loved" it but to reassure, to flatter its audiences by doing it exactly the way "we" remember it, entire albums in sequence, track after track in its Right place, don’t fuck with the formula Brian. In the case of Gang of Four this tendency has been truly pitiful to witness; their re-recording of their "greatest hits" – music with which they once threatened to change the world, as if – now mocking their original incarnations, four wealthy middle-aged businessmen quietly sniggering at their folly-filled youth, such that now capitalism is celebrated rather than cast off, like Tory constituency stalwarts ashamed of their Young Socialist days, such that Entertainment! now only means "Entertainment!" or rather "If you’re 20 and you’re not a socialist you’ve got no heart; if you’re 30 and you’re not a capitalist you’ve got no brain" etc. At least Brian’s SMiLE could be excused on the grounds of no one having heard the album as it had originally been intended, as if anyone could remember exactly what it was supposed to intend in the first place.

There have been two releases this year which point to either end of the above spectrum, but which both subvert the spectrum; 30-year-old music as you have never heard it before, or which pretends you’ve heard it before except that it then detours you down unfamiliar and darker roads.

Firstly there is Theatre Royal Drury Lane: Robert Wyatt & Friends In Concert, Sunday 8th September 1974, a record whose proper release some of us have been awaiting for fully three decades, since, following his paralysis, this was the only live performance which Wyatt gave in his own right before retiring from the stage altogether (and he has not been persuaded back), concomitant with his then new album, Rock Bottom. What is especially thrilling about this performance is not just that all six tracks from Rock Bottom are performed in their entirety, but that the collective personnel for the gig comprises – well, the kind of line-up which I’ve always thought of as the perfect line-up in an ideal world, a world wherein all possible worlds meet, and get on, and a dream personnel which is probably unrepeatable in the more straitened musical world of 2005; a group where radical improvisers and Marxist theorists meet up with multimillion-selling rock stars (rock stars, moreover, responsible for two of the biggest selling albums of that year, worldwide).

But Wyatt’s dream team was no nerdy, schoolboy-daydreaming, Bill Laswell-style sling-‘em-together-and-see-what-sticks academic exercise in fusion; no, these musicians share a deep communal history. Wyatt’s friendship with Nick Mason and Julie Tippetts went back to the Oz/IT days of the mid-‘60s; both Wyatt and Mike Oldfield were intermittent members of Kevin Ayers’ Whole World; and indeed, with the presence of Oldfield, Gong’s Laurie Allan, Hatfield and the North’s Dave Stewart, Henry Cow’s Fred Frith and, for that matter, Ivor Cutler, there was something of a Virgin Records supergroup nature about the whole exercise – but these were the early days of Virgin, a company then still small enough to care about not caring about being different, or out of step, and ready virtually to share their product with their audience; how many ‘80s New Pop celebrities got their kickstart from those 49p copies of The Faust Tapes, and let us not forget that Virgin’s UK release of Escalator Over The Hill was subsidised by the success of Tubular Bells.

And let us also not forget that music as radical as Wyatt’s was in 1974 could be presented to a highly appreciative audience without frills or Trojan horse entryism tropes; thus John Peel saunters on characteristically right at the beginning of the CD to introduce the band (and, as Wyatt himself notes, provides "one of the best solos on the album") and makes you realise, sadly, that really no one could fill his shoes, these having been formed by an unrepeatable accident of history, circumstance and uncanny freedom. Immediately Wyatt launches into the most ostensibly radical performance of the evening, a semi-freeform canter over Hugh Hopper’s "Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening" which lyrically anticipates punk ("Give me the truth, give me the truth" insists Wyatt, sounding nothing like a punk) before swimming in the rueful reverie of Hopper’s "Memories" backed by Fred Frith’s dolorous viola. Then we come to the Rock Bottom material. Long-term Churchgoers will need no reminding of the degree of estimation with which I hold the original album; as with all of my very favourite records – Escalator, Metal Box, you know the rest – it succeeds in creating an absolutely self-sufficient world of its own, an alternate universe in which the listener can bask, apart from and above all of the routine pabulum which otherwise crosses our paths.

At Drury Lane, though, Wyatt takes the Rock Bottom music into a different and less comforting dimension. The obvious comparison here would be with Coltrane’s fetid and ferocious demolition of that family favourite A Love Supreme at the Antibes Jazz Festival of 1965; similarly, there is a distinctly feral (and, let’s face it, far more overtly sexual) aura to what Wyatt does to these songs. They are not quite performed in sequence; here "Alife" with its commendably virulent tenor freakout from Gary Windo (and Oldfield nervously comping behind him on guitar) precedes the quietude of "Alifib" (where Oldfield more or less reproduces the solo which on the original may have been attributable to an uncredited Oldfield, or Wyatt’s strange Italian organ, or a speeded-up Hopper) and "Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road" is not performed until nearly the end of the concert.

And the modes of the music, as I said, are different. "Sea Song" initially proceeds much as it did on record, but the whole-tone keyboard interlude is here extended and reshaped to feature Dave Stewart. Stewart (and yet again I must reluctantly remind readers that the Dave Stewart of Hatfield and the North and future chart-topping Bizarro ‘80s cover version hitmaker with Colin Blunstone and Barbara Gaskin notoriety is not the subsequent Tourist and Eurythmic) is an important contributor here, for on Rock Bottom Wyatt played all of the keyboard parts. However, Stewart’s improvisatory skills make the music more fluid, give the illusion of greater movement. He begins his solo feature on electric piano, its twinkles reminding us of the harmonic debt owed to Joe Zawinul (specifically In A Silent Way), before switching to organ for a more violent sequence of Sun Ra-esque distorted discords (Hopper’s fuzz bass stinging like a Marxist wasp behind him). Then Wyatt returns for the final verse, and again the final mouth music sequence is extended. Indeed, this record may stand (perhaps in tandem with The End Of An Ear) as the best example of Wyatt’s "longer line" style of abstract scat improv vocalese. On "Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road" the interaction between Wyatt’s voice and the great Mongezi Feza’s pocket trumpet is divine. Another live recording of this song from the same period does exist – you can find it on Henry Cow’s Concerts – but whereas on the latter performance, Chris Cutler’s drumming is insistent and squarely accented on the beat, here Laurie Allan lends a kind of shuffle, or swing, to the rhythm which highlights the Feza/Wyatt symbiosis more clearly. This is not necessarily an "easier" performance, though – Wyatt’s delivery of the lyrics is rancid, scornful and underlined by a violent vibrato which actually makes him sound like John Lydon (or vice versa; after all it is neither impossible nor improbable that the eighteen-year-old Lydon would have been among that Drury Lane audience). Nevertheless, it is, as always, both heartening and depressing to hear Mongezi Feza, a disciple of Don Cherry to be sure but ultimately very much his own man and a trumpeter the likes of whom have not been seen since. And to think that at the time of recording he had only some 15 months to live; it’s little wonder that Wyatt cited Feza’s death as the main reason behind his (for the most part) absence from the music scene for five years before quietly, discreetly resurfacing on Rough Trade in 1980, and even less wonder that in recent years he himself has taken up the trumpet, as if to play the notes that his ghost cannot.

Now Julie Tippetts is alone at her keyboard, providing a kind of interlude with her song "Mind Of A Child," or more accurately the emotional string which holds everything else together, for this song – so simple in its lyrical message, so devious in its harmonic paths – was also the centrepiece of Tippetts’ own contemporaneous album, Sunset Glow; a record expressly designed as an "answer record" or "companion record" to Rock Bottom (Wyatt was the dedicatee), and a record which dips its toe in the same peaceful flow of sea to soul – and if this in turn sounds familiar, then remember that this is the same tradition from which the young Kate Bush emerged; the next time you listen to "Nocturn," it is wise to bear in mind its spiritual parents, Rock Bottom and Sunset Glow, who once both stood in the Atlantic in the hope that something new might be born.

We then proceed to a section drawn from the Matching Mole repertoire, which is the most straightforwardly entertaining section of the record; on "Instant Pussy" Tippetts and Wyatt’s abstract voices wind around each other joyfully like wet, abstracted belly buttons. "Signed Curtain," in contrast, could well be a bridge between something and the other; it begins as one of Wyatt’s characteristic deconstructions of The Popular Song ("This is the first verse" etc.), but when Oldfield takes an extended guitar solo it swiftly mutates into a peaceful, non-ironic Tubular Bells variant. And "Calyx" is a torched song from which Antony could pick up a few tips.

But then the mood suddenly switches back to utter blackness, with the climactic "Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road" with Wyatt’s requiem for a drowning, crumbling England soundtracked by Oldfield’s desperate guitar and the furious double-drum attack of Mason and Allan before giving way to Ivor Cutler, who delivers his recitation as though from the bowels of hell, Frith’s viola and Stewart’s musique concrete synths meanwhile scraping and howling some unimaginable pain before it is all cut off. Not that Wyatt would let that stand; everyone mucks in for the closing rendition of his still unexpected hit single "I’m A Believer" which steadily modulates from heady avant-pop to freeform scrum to bizarre, but entirely in keeping, run-through of "The Laughing Policeman." A performance, then, which not only invites us to see familiar material in a startling new light, but which also emphasises the generosity, implacable good humour and genuine adventure at the heart of Robert Wyatt; a man who, like Keith Tippett and Brian Eno at the time and too few others since, saw nothing amiss with, and everything to gain by, getting people from sometimes conflicting musical worlds to work and thrive together.

"The captain is permanently impassioned and lacking in self-control, as is expressed in his manner of communication, which tends to consist of curses and turns his exhibited authority into a rant. He can’t write, and when speaking he needs help with his grammar. He claims the right to be more natural, following his instincts, and therefore to have lived a more fulfilled life. She, on the other hand, uses language in a more detached manner, precisely because she doesn’t have a language of her own. She appropriates male language, and uses its effects to her advantage."
(Freida Grafe, from her essay on Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1947 film The Ghost And Mrs Muir, BFI Film Classics: London, 1995; italics are those of the present author)

All those dead boys. All those sacrifices. All those good boys she cannot bring back, no matter how hard she tries. What can she do, then, other than be better than them, achieve what they’re no longer around to achieve? Would she have dared if they had still been alive? I’d like to think so, because here is the great icebreaker of women in rock and roll, the record which had both the cheek and the art to defrost and resuscitate everything down to its most basic filial elements and make it – better. Just as Kate exhorts Elvis to still be living on "King Of The Mountain," so does Patti implore Jim Morrison to escape his petrified bloated bathtub on "Break It Up," a séance which turns into an ascension, Tom Verlaine’s guitar and Smith’s imprecatory "Up UP UP!!" staccato orders rising as surely and gloriously as Sanders and Coltrane a decade earlier.
It’s now the 30th anniversary of quite a lot of attempts to reconstruct rock music, if not de-invent it – not just Horses, but also its spiritual twin Born To Run (for Birdland read Jungleland; "Free Money" is where the two meet, Wendy’s answer song). Neither record is quite what it pretends to be, although they are equally sincere in what they mean to be; Patti sees Blake and Rimbaud (and maybe also Plath and both Parkers, Charlie and Dorothy) as well as Jim and Jimi and sees the opportunity both to worship them and to supersede them; Springsteen thinks of the Dion, the Bruce Channel, the Little Anthony of his semi-innocent youth and constructs a schismatic theme park (Born To Run is an alternative soundtrack for Coppola’s One From The Heart, an encyclopaedically world-weary musical which never once peeks outside the doors of its studio) including, some say, the early deployment of sampling. It is also the 30th anniversary of "Bohemian Rhapsody," but apart from the fact that this eleven-year-old listener had strongly sexual crushes on both Patti Smith and Freddie Mercury (a woman who dressed like a man and a man who looked like a woman – go figure) there is little to bond the two other than (a) Mercury was in part inspired by Marc Bolan, who at one point in the early ‘70s had a thing going with Patti – transatlantic romances, eh? What’s the possibility of that happening now?; and (b) "Bohemian Rhapsody" is the Huysmans to Patti’s Rimbaud; the exquisitely tired, indwelling, inchoate decadent who will try a taste of anything (opera, metal, Novello) but avoid commitment at all cost, including that of his own future ("Nothing really matters, anyone can see").

But Horses continues to be singular, and not simply within the Patti Smith canon; it is simultaneously a depository and a distillery for everything she had learned in the previous quarter-century, everything she wanted pop or free jazz to be but to her ears never quite was. Thus her retooling of "Gloria" is precisely the threat of sex from which the protégé of Van Morrison’s "Madame George" runs away as fast as possible ("This is the train, this is the train…"). Madonna has spent her entire career trying to live up to the declaration of principles in the first verse. Patti dreams of the "sweet young thing" who probably wouldn’t even be allowed into the party where "everything’s allowed" and consequently "I just get bored"; she’s out there, "humping (on) the parking meter," and now Patti dreams of her invading her space, and she invading Gloria ("And her name is…" could so easily be misconstrued as "And the nightmares…") and taking "the big plunge" such that the chimes at midnight finally defeat the need for words ("Ding-dong ding-dong ding-dong ding-dong") and time is frozen; and then you look at that cover with her in the suit and detached tie, and then you look in the 30th anniversary CD reissue booklet in the middle and see Patti, still looking like the future, standing in the middle of what might as well be the Allman Brothers Band roadies, as deliciously out of place as Lindsey Buckingham on the sleeve of Tusk, and at eleven and for a long while thereafter that’s what I wanted Patti to do to me; dreaming of her strolling into my bedroom and making me hers. All of a sudden Suzi Quatro and Lynsey de Paul seemed – almost – Edwardian. The point of orgasm comes as she swallows the final "sins" and purrs with delight, after a pause, "but not mine."

But it is finally a dream, and the first in a long line of ghosts; yet consider the "sweet suicide" of her sister on "Redondo Beach" – she mourns, but sexily (those pellets of "gone gone"); and then the passion is detached from the rock(ist) meme and made to fly, and drag rock with it, on "Kimberly"; the astonishing moment at which Patti takes flight, breaks away from the fluid 6/8 song and howls her mother to Massive Attack’s "Protection" ("The palm trees fall into the sea/It doesn’t matter much to me as long as you’re safe Kimberly") defying the winds and waters of apocalypse, startles as searingly as Coltrane erupting out of the politesse of "Out Of This World" or "Chim Chim Cheree" (talk about "a network of spittle"!) and this is the point where you realise that this is what you want, the rhythmic laterality of Ornette united with the frenzied verbal drift of Kerouac – like Kerouac, Smith stands apart as both tie themselves to traditions as soon as they loosen the bonds. They have much more in common with Stanley Spencer and Virginia Woolf than with Allen Ginsberg or Cindy Sherman.

On the 30th anniversary reissue, the original Horses (plus the equally original "My Generation" with John Cale’s humping wobbleboard bass giving the impression that they’re keeping the Titanic afloat) is paired with the 2005 performance given at the Royal Festival Hall, in track order ("Side 2" Smith sardonically, but amicably, announces after "Free Money"). Lenny Kaye, Tom Verlaine and Jay Dee Daugherty remain from the original personnel (Verlaine only appears, unforgettably, on "Break It Up" on the original album, but here he plays all the way through, and sometimes beyond); Tony Shanahan stands in for the deceased Richard Sohl on keyboards; Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers deps for the not-interested Ivan Kral on celebrity bass. Unlike other Norman Rockwell-style cosy reruns, manfully divorced from the context which made the music so electrifying to begin with, Smith is aware that Horses isn’t going to mean what it meant 30 years ago – too much has happened in the interim, too many more boys have been lost, and that Qur’an quote of "All wisdom can be found between the eyes of a horse" quoted on the sleeve now takes on an even more decisive significance, as indeed does Smith's final, outraged whine on the new "Gloria": "Jesus died for someone's sins - WHY NOT MINE?"

And yet, performing Horses seems to bring her back to life. Her voice has travelled a little further up the nasal passages, as though her inflamed inferior turbinates can barely contain her undimmed passion, and the croak which was always and vulnerably there has intensified; but this works for Patti since as a singer she now sounds more like Carla Bley than she did in ’75 (and therein lay another reason for my original passion; Horses was like the wildness and mischievously profane profundity of Escalator Over The Hill made even more pop) and also, more importantly, helps bring Patti out from the veil behind which she has perhaps grieved longer than is healthy – all those dignified and unimpeachable sarcophagi of albums which she released throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s conveyed a kind of wilful noble untouchability more to do with Queen Victoria than Audrey Hepburn. Or indeed all the compromised records she made after Horses, all with their individual, isolated undying moments, but as with Van Morrison after Astral Weeks, how many of them would you listen to from start to finish as entities (how much better would Radio Ethiopia had been if Ornette had made the sessions, as was originally planned?)?

Thus in "Birdland," "the boy" is now not quite Peter Reich or Huey Smith, but Patti herself, arising from the ashes of her own multiple bereavements (for the last decade Patti’s head has essentially been placed "in the crux of (her) arm"), the shamanic healing, Poe’s raven (so much more concisely and brilliantly articulated than Lou Reed’s idea of Poe’s raven; if there’s a crucial ingredient which Reed’s The Raven lacks, it’s helium), all bringing herself back to life ("I WON’T GIVE UP, WON’T GIVE UP, DON’T LET ME GIVE UP" – so "Birdland" is the "little farm in New England" where The Church Of Me had been hibernating, Lenny Kaye’s scratching – almost Bailey-like! – guitar commentary is my community, commenting and encouraging from the sidelines, and my particular "helium raven" knows exactly who she is).

And then there is "Land"; nine-and-a-half minutes on the original album, seventeen-and-a-half minutes long at the Royal Festival Hall. Listen to the opening scrapes of escaping stray water from the faucet reacting to Smith’s recitative, how it slowly and patiently forms into something bigger, and it’s easy to think that you’re listening to the first music ever made, to music actually being invented, and the bridge of "horses horses horses horses," spanning 200 years from Blake, cutting right through the centre of Jim Morrison, leads us to the world (not to mention setting the stage for the Guinness advert of the ‘90s with the sea of horses and Leftfield’s "Phat Planet") and into the Northern Soul clubs of "Land Of A Thousand Dances" and now we’re discovering the other sex for the first time ("Dip into the sea, the sea of possibilities/It started hardening, It started hardening in my hand/And I felt the arrows of desire" – then go and listen again to the title track of Kate Bush’s The Sensual World, then, and only then, listen to Siobhan McKenna’s recitative of Molly Bloom) and finally they end up becoming panoramic, standing in the Atlantic, or is it the Red Sea, are they waiting for Moses to part them, is "Johnny" Coltrane or Rotten, and then the boy is left on his own, by the sea, his only realistic option that of drowning himself for good (see the death and transfiguration of Duncan Thaw in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, another blog before its time) because now, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2005, Smith starts ranting about the world of "CELLPHONES! and FAX MACHINES!" and war and blood and implies that it might be better for him to drown but she can’t allow the boy to lose himself and so she leaves him an escape hatch, a ticket out of there, a ticket on the beach, a ticket to the party, and he commutes through the other end of the "black tube" and suddenly he’s at this party and he sees this sweet young thing humping (on) the parking meter but IN THE SHEETS THERE WAS A MAN and EVERYTHING AROUND HIM is UNRAVELING LIKE SOME LONG FENDER WHINE DANCING AROUND TO THE SIMPLE ROCK AND ROLL SONG and it is not "Summer (The First Time)" or maybe it is and you realise that Patti is this boy and you are she and she is Gloria and Praise Be To All Good And Useful Things if you know your Blake and Gray (the resurrection of Aitken Drummond! New Jersey on the horizon of Peckham Rye!) and after 30 years of hurt they can now complete the circle and make "Gloria" GLORIOUS again and sometimes you have to wait years for the ending to make itself apparent

But there is an epilogue – "Elegie," originally written by Patti and her then partner, Blue Öyster Cult guitarist Allen Lanier, in explicit tribute ("Trumpets, violins, I hear them in the distance") to Hendrix. For a moment you wonder whether she’ll want to perform it at the Royal Festival Hall, because the list of lost boys is now much longer. She sings the song, plaintively, but it has now become a requiem roll call. She announces them solemnly: "Jim Morrison. Jimi Hendrix. Robert Mapplethorpe. Todd Smith. Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. Richard Sohl." The crowd cheer, a little confused, as though expecting a ghost band to materialise onstage. There is, somewhere within her semi-veiled dignity, a rage which will not go away; maybe the same rage which seemed to dwell within Elvis in the ’68 TV special when he leaves Scotty, DJ and the boys behind for the last time, to sing "Memories" against a pre-recorded orchestral backing track, as if to say THAT IS WHAT I WANT TO DO YOU CANNOT DRAG ME BACK TO THIS AND KILL ME but he was too polite and dumb to say it out loud, with the inevitable consequences.

And it explodes, for she then does "My Generation," and apart from Flea’s rather too linear bass playing (yes he’s an RHCP and a crowd-puller but Cale surely should have been brought in for this?) it detonates with even more ferocity than it did in the 1975 of "Summertime City" and "Rhinestone Cowboy" – but this is, again, now a requiem rather than a cocky, youthful threat. "We" might have "invented it" and indeed "took it over" – but to what ends? At 4:09 Smith starts to rage. "My generation! We had dreams! We had DREAMS, man! And we created Fucking George Bush!" as Kaye, Verlaine, Shanahan and Daugherty’s instruments scream behind her. She gives her dying wish. "New generation! Rise UP! Take the STREETS! Make CHANGE! The world is YOURS! Change it! CHANGE IT!" DON’T END UP LIKE US! DON’T TURN INTO YOUR FUCKING PARENTS! – even though she knows, in her saddest of hearts, that they have already realised their designated role in life, namely to make exactly the same mistakes.


The Kerouac and Ghost And Mrs Muir references were not accidental, for I am of course aware – how could I not be? – that tomorrow she would have been 41. And yet, the grief which I continue to feel can no longer be said to be unalloyed. There are changes happening in my world; after four years crawling down my own black tube it would seem that I have now emerged at the sea, and may indeed be looking forward to crossing it. Events over the last couple of months continue to leave me in what can adequately be described as a state of dazed amazement, in some disbelief that what is happening actually is happening. Of course I have imagined myself being at this point several times in the recent past, and it’s always proved to be a mirage. But this feels different.

So it is not a case of saying goodbye to a previous life, but more an impetus to finally let the past go. "The Sweetest Girl." Scritti Politti. You know how the words run.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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