Tag Archives: guitars

Doing something mildly amusing for money

As lots of people have been doing something faintly embarrassing in the past 24 hours in aid of Red Nose Day, here is my contribution, a version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah I did on my new Makala ukulele, inspired by George Formby.

This was incidentally something I thought of doing ages ago but it took me this long to (a) buy the uke, (b) teach myself to play it, (c) have the guts to do it, (d) get all the way through a version without cocking it up and (e) get YouTube to play it properly. The first version I uploaded, which was the native .asf file format which my Samsung netbook’s webcam produced, had the audio/video 10 seconds out of sync, making me look like I was miming for a bit and then lipsynching badly for the rest of the ‘performance’. After casting for suggestions on YakYak I was advised to convert the file to a more YouTube-friendly format before uploading. I messed around with MediaCoder for a while but was bamboozled by its myriad settings, and then someone suggested I tried iPodme, which worked a treat.

Another funny thing is that I thought this would be a fairly original thing to do, but when I finally uploaded it to YT and looked at the related videos I found there was a whole Leonard-Cohen-ukulele-covers subculture on there. The other versions of Hallelujah I watched though do mostly take the song quite seriously, so maybe mine is unusual in that respect…

A triumph of faith over reason

The Guardian is running a competition to win the six shortlised titles for the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize. The single question is easy and it closes next Wednesday.


University Challenge tonight was one of a series of shows given over to teams of “professionals”, i.e. not students as such but graduates who have moved on from the festering fridges of their halcyon days and onto better things. A team of lawyers was utterly thrashed by their opponents, four members of Anglican clergy, and Jeremy Paxman was barely able to contain his glee at the result. One of the few questions the lawyers got right was a “starter for ten” in which a snippet of a famous rock song was played and the identity of the band requested. As it was played I had that great feeling I only get occasionally when watching the quiz – I knew the answer! However, one of the lawyers took the words “Derek and the Dominoes” right out of my mouth, leaving me shamefaced. The next three questions were all about bands Eric Clapton has been in, so at least I had a chance to make up for lost ground. Thankfully I managed to get each answer correct – which was more, sadly, than the lawyers were able to do. But, I mean, Eric Clapton in a University Challenge question! As someone who is university challenged, maybe there’s hope for me yet. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to more “professionals” games, especially House of Commons v. Journalists (9th June) and Poets v. Nurses (14th July).

All that jazz

A plank (and a guitar)Spotted while out walking in Richmond today. Click here for more info about the Association of British Jazz’s campaign against Tony Blair’s licensing bill.

It was an appropriate spotting on the day that Mark Lawson wrote an excellent review in the Guardian of The Last Party, a new book by John Harris about the uneasy and short-lived cosying-up between “Britpop” and New Labour when the latter (and the former, come to that) was still trendy. The print version of the review features a cringing photo of Noel Gallagher having a laugh and a glass of champas with Blair back in 1997 – a time when we were all that much more innocent and Tone’s hair was still brown. (NB: Amazon is offering the £15 book at £10.50.)

Talking of Noel, I wonder what Tone’s four-noun autobiography title would be? Suggestions please.

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And talking of Tony, Matthew Parris writes in today’s Times about “the evidence that millions of ordinary people are not amnesiacs, do remember why Mr Blair said Britain must attack [Iraq] and do still care whether that was true.” Along the way, old Tory Parris unnecessarily compares Margaret Thatcher favourably to Blair to back up his argument, but it’s otherwise an excellent piece.

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Also superb in today’s Guardian Review is this essay by E.L. Doctorow about how he started writing, concluding with this interesting thought: “I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something – propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that the work will not be realised without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgivable transgression.”

Degrees of Bacon

Thoughtcat’s Vermont representative points me to the excellent Oracle of Bacon. Enter the name of any actor or actress and the program consults the IMDB and tells you how many degrees they are separated, filmically speaking, from the actor Kevin Bacon, who appears to have been in every film ever made. Most attempts return a factor of 1 (i.e. Bacon was in the same film as the actor in question) or 2 (Bacon wasn’t in the same film as said actor but they’ve both been in another film which featured a common third actor, thus linking the two). Apparently there are only 11 actors in the entire universe who have a maximum Bacon number of 8. But what’s even more fun is Star Links, another program on the same University of Virginia Computer Science site, which allows you to link any two actors to each other. This reports, for example, that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a Harold Pinter number of 2, since Schwarzenegger was in End of Days with Mark Margolis, while Margolis was in The Tailor of Panama with Harold Pinter.

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A short interview with Don Delillo in The Times today, in which the author of the epic Underworld says that the Great American Novel is just so yesterday, and what we’re waiting for now is for someone to write the Great Global Novel. Well, it won’t be me – the novel I’m writing is set on the Isle of Skye… who says I set my sights too low?

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Sad to read today of the demise of Noel Redding, the great bass player with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This obituary quotes an interview he gave years ago (for, I believe, the excellent South Bank Show TV documentary on Hendrix) in which he recalled hearing about the great man’s death: “All these women came to my room and wanted to commit suicide, to throw themselves out of the window. I’m not religious but I went with all these women to church. Then we went to a cocktail bar and we got rotten.” Ah, the seventies, eh!

Stuff in the news

The Independent today carries an obituary of Rose Augustine, “champion of the classical guitar”, who was a big fan of Cuban music and was still going to work at the offices of Guitar Review magazine when she was 85.

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I was interested to see a report in the Guardian a few days ago that a 15-year-old Essex schoolgirl who was banned from school after organising an anti-war protest and “not wearing school uniform” has been allowed by the High Court to return to her classes. The judge described her as “very silly”, which sounds a bit Pythonesque to me. Mr Justice Collins also said that Liberty‘s view on the matter, that her original exclusion was in breach of her rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, was “totally the wrong way to look at it”.

So, farewell then, guitar-case lettering (13/07/93 – 01/05/03)…

Thoughtcat with guitar caseYears ago – ten, to be exact – I went to Paris for the first time. I was 22, single, ripe for adventure, and planned to travel for a long time in France, a country for which I’ve always had a deep love. My idea was to live off my savings and, if at all possible, busking. I’d never busked before, but I’d played guitar since I was 14 and had been in a couple of bands, and had this brilliantly romantic notion that I could avoid the world of work by strumming So Long, Marianne and Layla in the Paris metro.

However, when I arrived in the city, all I wanted to do was walk around and explore, and lugging a guitar case everywhere proved to be something of an impediment, so for the first week or so the instrument stayed stashed under my hotel bed. When I finally took it out I found I was much more nervous about losing my busking virginity than I’d anticipated; I wandered around Paris for several hours not busking, not even opening the case, and returned to my hotel room feeling something of a failure.

I then hit on an idea to do something which might help me feel more confident: I should paint on the case my name and my style of music, so that even if I didn’t have the guts to open it and play the instrument, people would at least know I was a guitarist and available for bars, weddings, bar mitzvahs and all the rest of it. It was a kind of advert, but I think it also had deeper psychological roots in terms of my self-image and identity; then again it could also have stemmed from the same kind of rationale that inspires you to build a website before you’re actually famous enough to justify having one.

Anyway, I went into an art shop, explained in broken French what I wanted to do, was sold some white oil paint and a brush, and retired to my hotel room where I whiled away a few very relaxing hours painting the lettering you see in the picture. I thought I’d then go out for a spot of lunch while the paint dried, come back, take the case outside, wander around and maybe even do some busking. However, when I got back to my room – which was on the top floor of an old hotel in the Latin Quarter, accessed by about 100 stairs – the paint was still wet. Three more hours later it was no better. By now I was quite keen to take it out and advertise myself, so I hit on the idea of borrowing a hair-dryer from a neighbouring Australian girl and drying the paint with that. I must have sat there for an hour training that hair-dryer on my case, and not only did it make absolutely no difference to the paint but the appliance overheated and cut out, and I couldn’t get it going again. The next thing I knew I could hear an Australian accent on the landing; the girl was knocking on another door nearby and asking if anybody in there had borrowed her hair-dryer. “No,” came another Australian accent, “but we’ve heard it, though.” I sat tight, buttocks clenched with embarrassment as she knocked on my door. I didn’t make a sound; eventually she went away, and to my relief the hair-dryer cooled down sufficiently to work again. By now it was dinnertime. I gave the girl back her hair-dryer – although what she thought I might have been doing with it for so long I don’t know, as my hair was only about an inch longer than it is now – and went out for something to eat.

Later, before I went to bed, I thought maybe a night spent in the open air would dry the paint, so I got some string, tied one end around the handle of the guitar case and the other around the leg of the desk in my room, and suspended the case out of my window to give it a proper airing. I barely slept that night worrying that the string would snap, sending the case clattering seven floors to the ground, waking up the entire hotel and getting me booted out in the middle of the night. But, as with so many things in life, it didn’t happen, and I was almost disappointed to wake up and find the case still dangling out the window. I hauled it in like a kite, touched the paint… and found it was still as wet as it had been the day before.

I was at my wits’ end; by now all I wanted to do was busk. (I suppose if nothing else, being forced to wait had at least made me more keen.) I couldn’t risk wandering about the city with the paint still wet; I pictured myself on a packed metro, the case pressed up against some innocent Parisian whose suit would end up printed with a backwards version of my name and repertoire. I reasoned that maybe what I needed was some kind of fixative; I was about to go back to the art shop when I remembered I had some spray-on Brut aftershave in my suitcase, and wondered if that might do the job. To my relief, it worked, and although the case now stank to high heaven I was then able to brave the world of buskology complete with a free advert of my services. I was still nervous, but once I’d started to play a bit it became easier. One hour and about 16 centimes later, I was an old hand. The next day I made ten francs in half an hour, and went off to buy my lunch with it, flush with the feeling that I’d hit the big time.

However, that represented the height of my earnings, and within a couple of weeks I’d sent the instrument and the case back home so I could continue my journey around France unimpeded. When I eventually came back to the UK, I faced the problem of having to walk around with this “decorated” guitar case, and realised it wasn’t really me at all: it seemed OK in Paris when you were 22 but back home when you were a bit older it was just naff. Plus, people would inevitably ask why the lettering was in French or why I’d painted the case at all, and after you’ve told a story like this once or twice it becomes a bit tiresome (“Hear hear!” – the web-surfing public). It was ironic that the very thing that had helped me get through the nervousness of busking was now an impediment in itself. But I also thought that getting rid of the lettering would be bad luck somehow: painting the case was something I’d done to feel better about myself, to boost my confidence, to make myself seem more – real, somehow. So for the next ten years I’d hardly ever take the guitar outside again, too superstitious to paint over my naff lettering, too embarrassed to flaunt the case and too much of a tightwad to reach a compromise and just buy a new one.

Anyway, when the other day a musician friend suggested I come over at the weekend for a jam, the whole story came back to me with all its related dilemmas and worries and superstitions. In the end though, I decided enough was enough; I’m 32 now, I’m an artist, I’m a married man and I will not walk around with my name on my guitar case. I went to my local art shop, explained the situation in broken English, was recommended to try enamel or gouache, bought both, came back and spent a very relaxing half hour painting out all those old indecisions, insecurities and psychological cul-de-sacs once and for all. And I felt much better about it; finally I’d closed a door that had been jammed open, or opened one that had been jammed shut, or whatever, for a whole decade. And to boot, I also found out not only that gouache dries a hell of a lot quicker than oil paint, but, according to the little tin of enamel paint (which I didn’t use), the French for “enamel” is email

Sliding into chaos

According to a story on the BBC’s website today, Ry Cooder, the brilliant US slide guitarist and musicologist who assembled the legendary Cuban musicians for the Buena Vista Social Club record a few years ago, has been fined $100,000 by the US government under the – wait for it – “Trading With the Enemy” act. There has of course long been an embargo on US citizens having dealings with the Cubans, but this was temporarily lifted in Cooder’s case by Bill Clinton, who if he did nothing else at least recognised good music when he heard it. How totally impoverished must the soul of the current US administration be to fine Cooder at all, let alone under this law, at a time like this?

Elsewhere, Ananova reports that the politicians of Pennsylvania are wrangling over the “official state biscuit”. “The state Senate favours the chocolate chip cookie, but the House of Representatives wants the Nazareth sugar cookie,” reads the report. As a long-standing biscuit lover I deplore this abuse of biscuits in the so-called name of democracy. Only in America, as they say.