Saturday, June 29, 2019

Fleabag: Heartbreakingly funny

Fleabag, a two season BBC  drama, achieves greatness by subordinating its all too ostentatious brilliance to the core task of story-telling. It is no mean feat, when the show is overflowing with talented actors, scene-stealers all. List of individually dazzling elements is long, snappy lines, great acting, great use of turning to the audience - opening of the fourth wall (deployed with great felicity by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards) and tight editing (all episodes are below 30 min in 6 episode a season series). All these can easily turn into self-serving  clever ploys attracting attention to their elegance and distracting from the inherent story line. Instead, what happens is that those maddening tempo scenes, those fourth wall tricks, those relentlessly funny repartee, compulsive humour trip, overwrought mania, imposition of intimate, flash backs are all breathing and stopping to create the whiplash of the intended impact marked for that point in the story of grieving girl who is trying to make sense of her needs, her guilt and her desires while making a life in London while relating to her family in a uniquely complicated way. Her success and failure is beside the point but it is one hilarious journey of glorious chaos, heartbreaks and shocking poignancy.  In the second season the father, at a particularly taxing dinner, asks the Fleabag (many  characters have not been given names and Amazon subtitles has done a marvellous job of giving nick names like Hot Priest, Arsehole guy, Hot Misogynist etc) "not being naughty",  the banter between the father and the daughter goes breezily and she says "it doesn't matter". In that simple moment we understand the growth, costs and damage that has taken place. The girl who was marked as difficult presence and managed to ruin many a situation without intending to be such a wrecking force, finds herself not giving a damn. The aforementioned elements were serving the story. 

Bad girl stories with shocking vocabulary is dime a dozen but very few rise above mush and pretentious display of some ideological points. Fleabag retains understated intelligence despite being over the top in deploying its arsenal. Fleabag, the heroine is vivacious and intelligent but she never goes for cheap cutesy points. Her issues, her exposition of those issues and her understanding is so deep and so lived in that they are saved from the horrific destiny of eyelash flattering cute crap. She remains gorgeous and real. In one of the many sex scenes where she keeps on talking to us, she tellingly says "stay sexy, always stay sexy". And we understand that she is in sync with the banality of it all. She is worried that she is not a good feminist but that too is used to convey her fierce independence. When she tells the character of Kirstin Scott Thomas that people are shit, Thomas character depicted as successful woman businessman awardee that understands the infantile ghettoizing nature of such awards but still comes to take that, tells her “people are all we have got.” At many levels, wisdom of the show is a joy in itself.

When the first scene of the series involves a "spot of sodomy", it is easy to fall pray to the easy allure of titillating debauchery specially when it comes from gorgeously profane mouth of an attractive girl. The show maintains its relationship with the profane throughout but never allows it to stink and overpower the lilting momentum of the consummate story telling. Sex says not sells here. 

There are some good series or movies involving intelligent men also. Sometimes deliciously debauch and sometimes just debauch Californication comes to mind. Much of Woody Allen starrer  are good example. Though in later appearances Woody Allen suffered from the tendency of being rather too aware of his cleverness. Happens with the best of them. Self-caricature is a difficult boogie to shake off. Fleabag is spot on being clever without taking it too seriously.

The series is a high point of this year's TV offerings. The description of the show on Amazon is to the point " a dry-witted woman, known only as Fleabag, has no filter as she navigates life and love in London while trying to cope with tragedy. The angry, grief-riddled woman tries to heal while rejecting anyone who tries to help her, but Fleabag continues to keep up her bravado through it all. Comic actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars as the titular character on the series, which is based on Waller-Bridge's 2013 one-woman show of the same name." Centrality of Phoebe is well earned and she delivers a stunning performance-layered and brave. However, great performances are commonplace in this superlative show. Apart from the main protagonist, there is  great ensemble cast of solid names of British TV and stage. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Cumberbatch's Sherlock.), Olivia Colman, Bill Paterson, Sian Clifford are all superb as expected. 

At another level, the show is matter of great satisfaction. We are beginning to sense the deterioration caused by algorithm driven offerings of the streaming services. It is becoming difficult to commit to a series as tropes are too clear, inherent grammar too obvious to veteran viewers. BBC gave three great miniseries recently, taut Bodyguard and Collateral and, now, Fleabag. In last few years the best ‘cinematic’ work has happened on television. The format of TV series has attracted best of the minds (Fargo, 24, Sopranos,  Breaking Bad, Mad Man, True Detective the list is endless)and much of the budget also. It is important that we keep on seeing such satisfying fructification of the effort as this great series.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Eric Clapton: Dazzling with Depth

Photo courtesy

Eric Clapton and his fellow music gods, who are still surviving- Santana, Dylan or Rolling Stones are living affirmation of life giving properties of music. These enduring treasures survived excesses of monumental proportion with luck, talent and above all a rare survival intelligence. Their continued presence on planet Earth can be attributed to divine talent and divine grace in equal measures. There was no reason why they should not have gone the ways of 3 Js Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin – Bruvera Sparks of raw talent which burnt wildly, only to be extuinguished before their 28th birthday in every case. Nostalgic and dark iconography apart, predominant thought is – What a waste !. The sense of loss is more acute when we see the new frontiers explored by their contemporaries like Clapton, Santana or Dylan. They all benefitted with new medium like MTV, Streaming or YouTube. Imagine what Jimi Hendrix would have given us in almost 50 years since his death.

 Eric Clapton too, appeared to be perfect case for fiery early end. Considered to be a ‘God’ when he was hardly 20 years of age, Clapton partook,  with total abandon, all the excesses that his rock god status and his intoxicating times threw at him. He did ‘knock at heaven’s door’ quite a few times with health scares abound. Divine grace came to him in the form of survival epiphany. In the throes of psychedelic delirium and alcoholic haze, he was given, what he termed, ‘grace of despair’. He clearly recognized that he has an addictive, obsessive and restless personality. For him “the best party in town was always down the road”. He wrote in his autobiography about ‘an obsessive enthusiasm that tended to fade as soon as the desired object was in his possession”. He simply couldn't settle, both from the point of view of substance use or musical personality. There was no attainment of cruising altitude of identity, “not with the Yardbirds, who, in effect, sacked him, nor with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, nor with Cream or Blind Faith. Ever restless, he seems a peevish character always in pursuit of the next letdown.” Great thing was that he was aware of this defect and had enough wherewithal and timber in his soul to tackle that to his advantage when the time arrived. This clarity saved him.  His music or his life or his general outlook were formed by dealing with the dynamics of this lacune and clear realization of its mortal implications.This handling of obsession and restlessness is the guiding feature of his musical journey also. Dispassionate acceptance has become his default stance- measured and unruffled, much like his playing.
His ability to stay with an obsession just upto the edge of precipice kept him in the dark zone long enough to reap the benefits of corrosive depths of psychedelic chasm of the addiction or the intricacies of the music that appear in the hieghtened throes of chemically induced chaos. At the same time his ability to retract in time and realize the virtue of sobriety were a sign of absence of arrogance and acceptance of his vulnerability. This melowed, somewhat diffident self-regard, so unlike rock gods of the time, was the reason of his survival. This also enabled the variety and commercial viabilty of his musical output. Despite intial Blues fanaticism, he was not stubborn and was willing to bend his musical purity to the demands of audience and commercial tastes.  When he recorded the album ‘Behind The Sun in Montserrat’ in 1985, the recording lable found it substandard and said this much on his face. His reaction explains much of his personality and his music. "Instead of getting arrogant and outraged, I did the shrewd thing," he said. He agreed to a “new, more middle-of-the-road style that was not to the taste of many of his old blues friends”. He knew what he was doing and was conflicted about it but he was clear about the requirement of the survival. “I felt like I was selling out," he said in an interview. But dividend was rich, not only in terms of record sales but also in expansion of the range. This Blues puritan has a body of work which includes Blues, hard rock, Raggae  (I shot the sheriff), Ballads (Tear in the sky, You look wonderful tonight) and whole lot of middle-of-the-road ‘sell out’ stuff which led to a guilty conscience and phenomenal record sales.
His tribulations with his addictions and obsessions have left him a well-rounded personality. A musical tool devoid of ego, who could easily play sideman to much junior artists, A doyan who would not be averse to be known for his covers of others, a superstar figure who will never be afraid to be a fan boy, a purist in some pursuits who will not consider any music taboo  and above all a seasoned debauch who will be comfortable with his domesticated edginess. It is a mark of a real ‘God’ to relinquish the ‘God’ status and feel relieved. His musical identity is so rich that some critics, bred on recognizable but singular, hooks of titans, found him devoid of identity. A summation of his skills on his 70th birthday explains the process beautifully- "All these different guitarists would have their famous five licks, and Clapton learned them all. He mastered those early blueprints to perfection, so he had a dozen licks, then two dozen, and he would link them all up on the pentatonic blues scale in ways that gave him almost unlimited twists and wiggles, played utterly heroically.” Here is a musical identity that has not been chiesled by limitation but formed by ever growing abundance.

It is very easy to be deceived by his subdued style. He has sedate demeanour and a musical style that aims to dazzle with depth then with antics. Eric Clapton has played with each and every big names from Handrix, Page, Beck, Beatles, Frank Zappa, BB King, Buddy Guy, Rolling Stones and many collaborations with newer talents. He respected raw talents like Handrix and his band mate Duane Allman. He himself, however, has been less spectacular but deeper talent. His improvisation don’t come from Jazz-like on the toes, inspirations. He bring “that indefinable extra twist of fluidity” by amassing excellence. It is less showy but much deeper as it comes from years of imbibing music rather than from some innate raw spark. He very astutely recognized this. When asked to comment on the John Laughlin’s lament that he (Laughlin) can’t play everything that he can think, Eric Clapton said “I’m probably the opposite of John, in that he can probably think of things he wants to play and can’t, and I can’t think of anything at all! My playing far outreaches my ability to play what I can think. That’s why I could never be a jazz musician, because I can’t hear it in my head. I play from somewhere else, where it simply goes to my hands.” He is a player of massive depth, his innovation come from reiteration and going deeper and farther. The novelity emerges from the piling of the existing. He has succeeded as one, perhaps more accurate assessment, says “Mr. Clapton seems to have an open channel between his guitar and his inner feelings that neither age nor imitation can cut off.” He might not be aiming to dazzale but the reservoire of pure music and collison of myriad influences create startling moments routinely.
It is easy to be duped and think that his music is all technique and artistry and no soul. He has stayed invested in polishing his craft and art as it has been a means of communication and healing. He communicated his sorrow, heartbreak and despair over his crippling addiction through music. Layla, Tear in the Heavan are case in point.  Talking about his trials Eric Clapton said  "I knew intuitively that if I played it would medicate me and calm me. The biggest problem was that I didn’t know what to think or feel and I went into a numb zone, which is the body defending itself because madness beckons in these situations. The only way to keep myself afloat was to play, I had a guitar in my hands all day until I went to sleep." His music saves him, props him and propels him. “When I'm playing well, what is there to fear? In the moment, there is nothing to fear. Music, when you give it that opportunity, hammers that home." This patrician with scholarly looks has an abyss of despair that gave his music a terrifying depth and a bracing poise. This led to a natural affinity with the Blues.

Eric Clapton defines Blues as “true music of the soul, without the intellect.” He pioneered the British interest in the Southern American music of black plantation workers. He got initiated into music by the work of Muddy Waters and his ilk. To a loner teenager with a complicated family life (illegitimate son of a teenage mother, raised by grandparents thinking his mother to be his sister for a long time) Blues gave a solace. A tormented soul that recognized the sadness in the music. The Blues is a dialogue of “of redemption, of suffering and joy”. It will help to quote at length from a Guardian article on his 70th birthday that talks of his early journey and how accumulation of knowledge, art and influences creates a unique style. The Clapton tells the writer "in England we were bombarded with pop more than anything else, You had to consciously steer a path towards black soul or blues. Most of the players in the rock framework were coming from a rockabilly stance. Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck grew up listening to white guitar players like Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup. I was obsessed with black blues guitar players, and for me the ultimate problem was trying to shift that style into a Chuck Berry rock format." Clapton continues "Blues is a language you have to learn, like learning French. It’s not about a feeling, it’s an action. There’s a lot to learn and it means going to the library and listening to just about everything that was ever done and trying to learn from that.”  The coming lines explain the magic of innovation by accumulation. “And then something happens. If you do your work and do your best to carry the burden of the past and the fellowship of the blues, so you know you’ve done all your research and you’ve studied everything you can, I think if you really love the music you’ll start to express it your own way. It’s almost impossible not to." At another place he has written that he finds his stability in the blues, the music that he first loved and that he continues to regard as a kind of beacon. “There’s a matter-of-factness, a sense of acceptance about the blues”. Eric Clapton’s 1994 ‘From the Cradle’ is the bestselling traditional blues recording in history.
His personality, style and mood that have been framed over a long period, have served him well in his late years. His post MTV unplugged (1992) journey is a saga of relentless creativity. In the new millennium he brought out good music in Albums (Riding with the King, Me and Mr. Johnson, Back Home, The Road to Escondido, The Breeze), tours and various events like Crossroads a festival dedicated to guitar, tribute to George Harrison and many more. In 2019, Eric Clapton is a beacon and a servant of music. He has adroitly avoided prima donna title of elder statesman of music and stays relevant. He found relevence lies in staying student forever rather than being a monument. He is playing with a depth of life, which many say, wasn’t there in 1966. He is active, learning and at peace with himself.
Eric Clapton provides a very cogent summation of his musical journey in his autobiography. “My musical identity has taken my entire life to develop,now I can sing in a band, play backup, lead, sing a duet — there doesn’t have to be a label on it anymore. The most important thing is that I enjoy listening to music, and I still do.” He continues “acceptance is a great state of being. It steps aside of hysteria, drama, extreme emotions.” It is this side-stepping of extreme emotions by living them and leaving them Clapton has created an eduring excellence of poised and unblinking sensibility.

 -Dhiraj Singh

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Carlos Santana: Sensual Spirituality of a Monk

Image Courtesy BBC
Carlos Santana understands the utility of a little bit of sin in life. He had the opportunity to experience sacred and profane early in his life. He was initiated in music via violin, which he played in the church. Later, when he shifted to guitar, he was playing in strip clubs of Mexican border town of Tijuana. His spirituality has rightly been called his muse and the supreme achievement of his spirituality has been to harness the sensual to the service of music. Music for him is something that changes people’s molecular structure. One note and it changes the way people feel.

Coming back to the sacred and profane, he once told Rolling Stone that in church you play the music in a certain way, “people just fold their hands and go wherever they go; when you work in a strip joint, you play music in a certain way, and it’s like watching a black panther when it’s in heat.” For him “the halo and the horns are the same thing… it is ok to be spiritually horny – that is what creative genius is really about”. He says “I’m curious about how to penetrate inside the note. I want to utilize sound, resonance, vibration bring people closer to their own heart”. Obviously, we are dealing with a flower child of 60’s, out to transform fear on this planet into light and love. In him, for a change we find a person, a musician who has learnt to utilize the excesses of his era and profession to enhance his creativity. He endures, as he knows how to “upgrade his software into something more illuminating.” Above all he learnt the difference between getting loaded and getting high well in time when his contemporaries were self-destructing themselves all around him on drugs. He may have looked like a relic in early 90’s but his forte spirituality and sensuality never went out of style and he stays popular across generations.

Invitation to have good time

Rock as a music form, had energy, anguish and a level of beautiful noise that has sustained it over the ages. Blues tradition brought in a soul and Jazz a whimsy that became a rollicking lilting element in somewhat harsh landscape of rock. There were attempts to bring in rhythmic vitality of African, Latin and Indian music. As those were the time when giants decided to descend on planet earth in bunches, many good attempts were made. Leading lights like Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, Laughlin of Mahavishnu and Bob Marley did a fairly good job of bringing these sounds from far away lands and joyous sensibilities that pulsated in these music traditions. However, somehow, all that never came together in a sustained and sustainable manner. These efforts never could shed their exotic feel. It was left to Carlos Santana to close the loop through his cosmopolitan sensibilities rooted in exuberant Latin rhythm.

Carlos Santana is the central force of his band called, well, Santana. Bill Graham was an early promoter who mentored the young band. He has the best explanation about why Santana succeeded as opposed to somewhat vapid and ghettoised earlier efforts. I will quote at length. Bill Graham says “What impressed me is that it was an attempt at fusing rock and Afro and Latino and getting a rhythmic sensuous sound into rock, which I’ve always thought it lacked in many cases.” Graham goes on to lay down the sensuality of early Santana which holds real even today. “What it is, is an earthy street thing when it really gets up-tempo. You want to move and it’s physical. I like dancing together. And Latin music — part of Latin music for me always — was I would hold a woman, and I would touch her body, and we would sweat, and it’s all of that … very sensual, very sensuous.” Santana has evolved and got enriched by collaboration with varied and younger sounds. This exuberant sensuality remains.

Black Magic Woman, an early hit, starts with a gripping cord on key board and soon Carlos takes over with his silken guitar licks and takes the music to a different level. Percussions create a trance and very soon the song becomes voodoo dance of seduction and abandon of love. The number can rouse a stadium even today after more than forty years. A truly timeless classic.

Carlos Santana echoes Bill Graham when he talks about the ‘Smooth’ perhaps his most famous Latin single. Santana explained in an interview, “When people hear ‘Smooth,’ it’s boogie,” Santana says. “It’s an invitation to have a good time. Like Little Richard used to say: It’s Friday night, I got a little bit of money, I did my homework, and it’s OK to rub closely with Sally or Sue; she gave me that look like it’s OK. I brushed my teeth, and I got deodorant. I got her going. It’s cool. Certain songs – ‘Smooth,’ ‘Oye Como Va,’ ‘Guantanamera,’ ‘La Bamba,’ the ‘Macarena,’ ‘Louie Louie’ – that’s what these songs are for.”

 Image courtesy YouTube
Santana as an elderly statesman of   Woodstock generation, retains a bracing forthrightness harking back to the times when giving good time to a woman was not considered so politically sensitive. At fourteen he was playing in strip clubs of Tijuana and was learning to play guitar in a way, as he accepted later, with a serene equanimity, so that women’s nipples would go hard. This feat apart, Carlos has displayed an old fashioned respect for women, a respect that, on a deeper analysis, is far more meaningful than the politically correct platitudes.  Women are not only a source of his creativity but also a touchstone of his creative output. In an interview Santana said, “women are really supremely important for musicians. We all learn from how they walk, how they talk. It’s not politically correct today, but in the old days, in the Sixties, if somebody was an incredible musician, you’d say, ‘He’s a bitch,’ and if he was an incredible musician but he has a lot of class and style, then you’d say, ‘Oh, he’s a lady.'” One needs to cut him some slack on PC front and understand from where the sentiment is coming. Apart from the appreciation of women, he is really elated when his music gets feminine validation. He explains his impact “when I move around in the music, is to make sure that the bass, drums and keyboards are on the one. That creates the trance, the spell. And it makes women go absolutely wild.” His friend, sometime Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden, made Santana write a guajira (a style of Cuban music, song or dance). That’s how he explained the form in the presence of the guitar maestro. “Guajira is the most effective way to, excuse the expression, penetrate a woman’s heart and then they remember the whole glory of being a female and start dancing a certain way, It’s the most tried, true and tested frequency that makes women open up like a flower.”  Basically, for Santana, music needs to celebrate womanhood. Some sentences may appear tasteless to the ear in 2019 but no doubt, the explanations are coming from a place of respect, appreciation and love. 

School of Hard Knocks

Born in 1947 in born in Jalisco, Mexico, Carlos Santana had a musical upbringing as his father was a mariachi violinist. Young Carlos joined his father in the street playing for small change. His first instrument was violin. This beginning is often seen as the cause of his sustained long notes. He played violin in the church choir also. Very soon he shifted to guitar. He told in an interview that even in those early days “I had my ear on Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, on B.B. King and T-Bone Walker. There was nothing plastic about those guys. They went deep, and each note carried something important. I knew, from a long time ago, the difference between notes and life. I’d rather play life than notes.” Another early school was the rough-and-tumble of Tijuana. There, an adolescent Carlos starting getting work in shady night clubs playing from four in the afternoon until six in the morning, one hour on, then one hour off, while the strippers stripped. This was a tough life but the young musician was content. He resisted his mother’s determined efforts to migrate to the USA. Finally, the family moved to San Francisco's Spanish-speaking Mission district in 1961.

 Image courtesy Biography
Carlos got a fertile environment in 60s Bay Area. Psychedelic underground and anti-Vietnam war protest on the social political front and new trends in the field of music were the suitable diet for the raw talent that was Carlos Santana. With organist Gregg Rolie he assemble the first Santana band. They were lucky to catch the eye of Bill Graham, helped their appearance at many important venues, most notably, Fillmore West concert hall and 1969 Woodstock. Graham ensured that they figured in the film and the album made on the iconic Woodstock event arguably the condensed crystallization of the spirit of 60s.

Guardian writes, “Carlos's earliest musical idols had been bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, but he began to listen to a more diverse palette of sounds. To the basic rock and blues base, Santana added Latin rhythms and the freer shapes of modern jazz, absorbed from records like John Coltrane's My Favourite Things and Miles Davis's rock-jazz fusion, Bitches Brew. Santana's first albums - up to and including the fourth, the complex, jazz-inflected Caravanserai of 1972 - were some of the most original and powerful of their time.”  A consistent performer, in a career spanning half a century, , Santana has sold more than 100 million records and has carved a unique niche for himself. As  2014 release of Corazón, was received success, Santana surpassed the Rolling Stones and is one of only two music acts in Billboard history to score at least one Top Ten album for six consecutive decades from the 1960s on.

Rhythm Divine

Even in his early Interviews, Santana Showed signs of deep spirituality. However with success, his spirituality blossomed. It is very easy to be dismissive of his spiritual jargons. However, as you know more about the person, a feeling grows that in Carlos Santana we are dealing with a person who has cracked it. His exotic sounding spiritual paraphernalia is helping him tremendously in staying creative and rooted. Introducing him as one the greatest guitarist of all times, Rolling Stone magazine has summed up saying “Santana has remained a compelling musician with a devotional spirituality fueling his muse.”  In early seventies he and his first wife became follower of the Indian Guru Shri Chinmoy. He was very close to similarly spiritual jazz musicians, including John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. He is deeply grateful for the those years of spiritual guidance when he went by the name ‘Devadip’ the divine  lamp/light, turned vegan and followed monkish discipline. He developed spiritually, however, by 1981, he started outgrowing his guru and embarked on a journey of finding his own way.

Chris Heath did the last cover story of the Rolling Stone Magazine on Carlos Santana. He saw his ‘church’ and talked about his interaction with ‘angles’. He concluded, “I am, by nature, probably more cynical than most, but all I can tell you is that when he talks about this stuff, it doesn’t seem kooky or unhinged or even that spacey. Likewise, in all the time I spend with Carlos Santana, I see no signs that he is unaware of life’s mundane realities.” With his music, his success, his longevity and his serene visage the entire spiritual edifice feels credible. He is acutely aware that people may get uneasy when he goes on spiritual tangent. He is also clear that this unease doesn’t bother him.  He told Heath “My reality is that God speaks to you every day. It is just an inner voice, and you trust it. That voice will never take you to the desert.” He shares that the angles tell him to be gracious, grateful and patient. He lives by what he thinks is his realty and that has held him in good stead. It is pointless to question the physical veracity of his notions. One thing is certain that he is positive, joyful and totally devoid of deceit about his beliefs. That should do.

Carlos Santana is one of the last greats standing and thriving from the creative ferment of a very exciting times. He gives us chance to touch the heady sixties and presents a least destructive but explosively powerful facet of the flower-power days. He cobbled, perhaps, a more illustrious second innings than the original one. His music is based on his raw talent and capability of bringing a delicious chaos together in accessible music. A music that begets joy or, as he says, connects molecules to light. We, mortals, will be best served by being grateful and open to the miracle that is Carlos Santana.

Dhiraj Singh