Friday, 26 October 2012

The greatest song in the world ever . . . today
Number one: Fats Domino’s The Fat Man

This is the thing. I’m sure you feel the same way, too.

You’re listening to the radio or to your iPod on shuffle and a song comes on, one you already know well but probably haven’t heard for a while, and you think: how wonderful is this, now I remember why I was so driven by it in the first place.

You play it again. And you feel the same again. And again. It’s like love at first sight on repeat mode. Rapturous. Childish wonder. Intimations of immortality, that kind of thing. It is, without doubt, the greatest song in the word ever.

Then you forget it again. Well, I do.

So writing about these moments here is a way of fixing that memory. Some kind of memento of lost todays. From now on, every time I find myself thinking: that is the best song ever, I will post something here. With a link to the song. And picture of the artist. Plus a little information, a story or two and a bit of an attempt to explain why it is the best song in the world ever.

And so to the Fat Man’s The Fat Man.

It was Fats Domino’s first record, cut as long ago as 1949, in New Orleans. Antoine Dominique Domino Jr was then twenty-one and, well, good golly, miss molly, he is still with us. I’ve only seen him play once, in the late 1970s. He seemed ancient — not to mention enormous. But he was only the same age as I am now. (I’m bigger than I was then, too.)

The Fat Man is a song about hanging on a street corner watching the girls go by. Not just any corner either but Rampart and Canal, then the heart of non-white New Orleans.

Non-white? Why didn’t I write black? Because of the kind of girls the fat young man is scoping. These are not just any girls. These are Creole girls. I assume the singer referring to what are now called Creoles of color — ie they have African ancestry. Pre-Civil War, they were classified as neither black nor white. Creoles were a kind of black upper middle class in New Orleans. Fats was a Creole himself — hence the Frenchie Christian name. If you want an idea of the kind of girl he was lusting after, think Beyoncé — she’s another Creole.

There’s another story behind that story, too. While Domino took a credit for writing The Fat Man, it’s really just his cleaned-up take on an earlier New Orleans anthem, Junker’s Blues. That’s the one Dr John played as Junco Partner. It’s possible that, these days, it’s best known as the basis for the Clash’s Wrong ’Em Boyo.

This greatest song in the world ever is all about hitting a piano hard and keeping on hitting it. Even sitting at a desk, you nod your head along. I guess that is its secret. And the whah-whah bit. It was possibly the first rock and roll record to sell a million. I think it was the whah-whah bit that did it.

Sing it, Fats.

‘Whah-whah-whah. Whah-whah. Whah-whah-whah-whah-whah.’
Thanks, Fats.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

 You believe a man can fly

The other day, I saw the most wonderful stage show. The only reason I didn’t post anything before was that the run was so short it would have finished by the time you read my post. As an Arts Council funded thing — research and development only — it was only on for a few days, at Jacksons Lane in Highgate. Maybe, if everyone is lucky, it will be put on again, maybe for longer.


It was Birdy, an adaptation of the William Wharton novel which was the basis of the Nicholas Cage movie. 


The story is, roughly, this: WW2 US paratroop gets shot up, goes to hospital with childhood friend who was with him in unit and also badly injured; ‘hero’ decides he’s a bird; he might be psychotic, he might be pretending, he might really be able to fly, you kind of decide; at the end, he is better; as a viewer, you are happy for him (not to mention relieved) but you are, thankfully, none the wiser as to the ‘reality’ of his ‘illness’ — or flying technique.

This show was what I guess is called physical theatre. The meaning is, more often than not, in the motion rather than the locution. For someone with my background and inclinations, this kind of stuff was a big challenge for a very long time. Why walk when you can talk?

This, though, was something else.

Declaration of interest: the co-director is a friend, Mitch Mitchelson.

Anti-declaration of interest: Mitch is a ‘circus skills’ expert and teacher: my take on the idea of ‘circus skills’ has up to now been to giggle, if quietly and up my sleeve when Mitch was around. (He’s a big bloke. And even bigger on a pair of stilts.)

Simply, reader, I was wrong. In the right hands, ‘circus skills’ and ‘physical theatre’ become something else entirely. As I watched, I felt that thing you rarely feel — childhood wonder. This was something I was seeing for the first time and it was a joyous revelation.

I remember taking my daughter to see a panto for the first time. Her ex-nanny was performing in it, playing a fairy. When the nanny fairy began to fly, my daughter started crying. I had to take her out to the lobby and distract her for the rest of the show while her older brother took it all in his stride. She had, I guess, been foxed by the transgression of reality. Real nannies can’t really fly. But this one had. Logical and emotional certainties had been upended.

Here, in Jacksons Lane, I was also confronted by a someone who could fly. It was extraordinary. There was none of that jumping up and hoping for the best rubbish you normally see with Peter Pan etc — people on wires flapping about, stupidly and boringly. He really convinced that he was learning to fly. We were in the front row and he flew out over us. I was so certain he could fly I wasn’t even worried that he’d crash into us.

There was also trick-cycling and pole-dancing in the show. Nothing like you might see down the Hackney Rd on a late Friday night, though. Not that the girls down there couldn’t have learned a thing or two from the way this (male) pole dancer could walk up it and drop down. Honestly, if it had been a different crowd, he would have quite a few fivers tucked down his shorts. 


Maybe even an Adam Smith* or two. (Oh, apparently, it’s not called pole-dancing but Chinese pole. It’s still pole-dancing, though.)



I’ve seen all this kind of stuff before, in old-fashioned circuses and the Cirque du Soleil etc. I was always impressed by the physical wonders of what they were doing, but left empty with a kind of: so what? This was something else, though. Here, the movement had meaning and emotion. It was like watching quality dance — Matthew Bourne, for example — or Pina Bausch on her day.


The movements were not just wondrous in themselves but they were invested with thought and possibilities. It was circus skills used to express meaning. It was theatre in a new — to me, anyway — language. Not English or French or ancient Greek but fluent Circus-ish.

* The great economist’s profile is on £20 notes.

Next The fatman sings (having put heroin and prison behind him)

Monday, 22 October 2012

What the British ambassador really said . . .
Last week, there was a brief and minor fuss about a tweet by the British ambassador in Buenos Aires. Reports seemed to indicate that he had repeated a Chilean football fans’ anti-Argentinian chant which referred, disparagingly, to the Falklands war.

Actually he didn’t. He merely referred to it, extremely obliquely — and wittily. The joke was that, by going to see the Argentina vs Chile international in Buenos Aries, he would find out something new about the reasons behind Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands.

Even the chant itself wasn’t well reported in the press. It was always printed in its English translation: 'Argentines, you faggots, you lost the Malvinas for being dumb assholes'.

Which doesn’t sound much like an effective football chant, does it? For one thing, it has no rhythm. For another, it has no rhyme.

The original, though, has both of course. ‘Argentinos, maricones, les quitaron las Malvinas por huevones’. The rhythm, I guess, not having actually heard it, is the same one as something like: together, united, we shall never be defeated.

How does it actually translate? I asked my friend/colleague Damian in Buenos Aires. Though he has no interest in football, he became used to these kind of questions when I was writing my book Filthy English.

The first problematic word is ‘maricones’. Superficially, it is easy to translate. It’s the standard hispanic world word for homosexuals — hence the American faggots in the newspapers. But, Damian pointed out, to me, it overwhelmingly refers to cowardice. That’s just not there in any English words I can think of for homosexual. Poof, poofter, woofter, shirt-lifter, uphill gardener etc etc . . . Lots of sneering but no intimations of cowardliness.

Interesting, then, that hispanic homosexuals are cowards while anglo ones aren’t. It says, I guess, more about hispanic and anglo heterosexuals than it does about homosexuals. So, given that it’s likely that racial and group slurs represent not a true image of the denigrated group but rather an externalisation of an internal piece of something, what does that say about hispanic heterosexual men? That they are placing some cowardly part of themselves on homosexuals?

Certainly, there could be something of that kind going on in the Chilean anti-Argentinian chant. Argentinians are a bolshie  bunch and Chileans quite probably resent them in this way or that. (I’ve no idea if that’s true. But if, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you can’t believe one evidently false thing before lunch, where is the fun in life?)

The other problematic word is ‘huevones’. Dumb assholes is a terrible translation of that. Obviously, it has nothing to do with bums but everything to do with eggs. As in that breakfast dish ‘huevos rancheros’. But eggs? It’s the Chilean slang for testicles. It’s a common equation. Hebrew uses the same metaphor. Not Argentinian Spanish, though. There, the reference is the same as in English, to balls: boludo.

So how to translate huevones? In this context, it clearly refers to stupidity — which asshole doesn’t. So I favour the Irish bollix. As in: you complete bollix. A cousin, of course, of the English: he/she/they bollocksed that right up. (NB the interpolation of the qualifier ‘right’ highlights the importance of rhythm and redundancy in quality swearing.)

But there’s more. Bollix also implies a level of friendship — and so does huevon, which can also be translated as mate or pal. As can boludo, which is a common form of address to a friend. As huevon is huevo plus the emphasis-suffix of -on, an even better (though non-swearing) English equivalent might be matey.

So, what the British ambassador really referring to? I can’t get any rhythm or rhyme to it but a more accurate, if completely unevocative (and therefore meaning-lite) translation would be: 'Argentinians, you cowards, you lost the Falklands because you are complete and utter bollix'.

One more thing.
Don’t think the Argentinians are likely to have been that intimidated by the Chilean chant. As anyone who has seen that extraordinary scene in Secrets In Their Eyes will know, Buenos Aires football crowds are, well, let’s say lively. Also, Argentinians certainly can turn it on when swearing and are no slouches at cross-border insults.

I quote myself, from my book, Filthy English.

Length, detail and specificity are all notable features of Argentinian swearing. An example from a popular film. ‘Negro de mierda y la concha de tu puta madre boliviana, parte de una generación sometida por los blancos; hijo de la guasca rejuntada de la zanja de un quilombo de travestis paraguayos. Sabes porque éste ispa está así? Por los negros, cabezas negras, analfabetos, peronistas y engominados como vos.’

This translates as ‘Nigger of shit and cunt of your Bolivian whore of a mother – one of a generation subjugated by whites; son of semen collected from the ditch outside a Paraguayan transvestites’ brothel. Do you know why this country is like it is? Because of the niggers, blackheads, illiterates, Peronistas and men like you who use too much hair gel.’

Gomina? It’s what old-fashioned Argentinian men put on their hair. Buenos Aires waiters, for example.

If you want to know what this fantastic swearfest sounds like, it’s here . . .