Guns’n’Gladioli

Front cover of A Light That Never Goes Out by Tony FletcherA Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths, Tony Fletcher (Windmill Books 2013)

Coke, booze, earsplitting volume. Not a combination you associate with the Smiths. But it was there, as you’ll learn from this book. Towards the end, they were almost turning into Guns’n’Gladioli. Morrissey, of course, was the odd one out: he wasn’t battering his brain-cells with drink and drugs on their final American tour. But back home his Lichtmusik was also lout-music: the Smiths didn’t just appeal to bedsit miserabilists in rain-hammered humdrum towns. No, they appealed to some football hooligans too, including a Chelsea fan who didn’t mind being asked, “You still wanking off over that miserable northern poof?” as he travelled north by train to do battle with Manchester United and Manchester City, who also supplied hoolifans to the Smiths (pp. 509-10). So did football clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Smiths are easy to caricature, but the caricatures don’t capture their complexity.

Tony Fletcher does capture it: the band, their music, their fans, friends, producers, studio-engineers and record-labels. He’s definitely a Guardianista, but his prose is plodding rather than painful and he does a good job of putting the poof and his partners into context. The 1980s is one important part of that context. So are Irish Catholicism and Manchester. When you look at pictures of the Smiths, you can see two clear divisions. One of them separates the singer, guitarist and drummer from the bassist: the dark-haired, bushy-browed, strong-faced Morrissey, Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke clearly belong to one race and the light-haired, lesser-browed, milder-faced Mike Joyce to another. They’re Irish and he’s English: the British Isles are rich in language and rich in biology too. But Morrissey’s height and handsomeness also separate him from Marr, Rourke and Joyce, like his polysyllabic name. Both must be related to his intelligence, his creativity and his ability to turn himself into the Pope of Mope and become much more famous than any of the other three. Fletcher doesn’t talk about this biology – as I said, he’s a Guardianista – but it’s implicit in his descriptions of Irish settlement in Manchester and of Morrissey’s genius.

Mozza with some flora and fauna

Mozza with some flora and fauna

Is that too strong a word? Maybe. Morrissey is certainly the interesting and original one in this book and it ends with his story only just beginning. You can feel the tug of his later career throughout the book: it’s not discussed, but you know it’s there. But Fletcher isn’t concentrating on Morrissey and doesn’t seem very interested in Carry On and Brit-film in the 1960s, so he’s less good on what might be called the Smythos: the world created by Morrissey in his lyrics and interviews. Morrissey’s influences are better explained in Simon Goddard’s Mozipedia (2009), which isn’t just about the New York Dolls, the Cockney Rejects and vegetarianism. It has also entries for everyone from Hawtrey and Housman to Williams and Wilde by way of Sandy Shaw, Shelagh Delaney and Jobriath. No-one will ever devote an encyclopaedia to Marr like that: music doesn’t have as much meaning and metaphor in it. It has emotion and beauty instead and Fletcher is good at describing how Marr created a lot of both on albums like Meat Is Murder and Strangeways Here We Come.

Front cover of Mozipedia by Simon Goddard

Front cover of Mozipedia by Simon Goddard

I’ve never liked him much, though. I like what he did with the guitar and in the studio, but I don’t like what he did to his body and mind. Or what he put on his body: he didn’t have Mozza’s way with weeds either. In the photos, you can clearly see Morrissey’s narcissism and Marr’s weediness. It’s no surprise that Marr smoked a lot of marijuana, preferred working at night and didn’t eat properly. But he’s weedy in more ways than the physical: there’s also a photo of him with Billy Bragg, the committed socialist behind Red Wedge. This was a collective of musicians and bands who wanted to make the world a better place by fighting Fatcher, fascism and free speech with their fantastic music. Morrissey had his lefty opinions too, but he didn’t like collectives and he didn’t scorn just Margaret Thatcher and the Queen: Bob Geldof and Live Aid got the sharp side of his tongue too. Which is good. Mozza is worshipped by Guardianistas, but he’s not a Guardianista himself.

Or not wholly. The hive-mind hasn’t been able to hum him fully into line, unlike Marr and Bragg. As for Rourke and Joyce: their politics don’t matter and the most interesting thing one of them does in this book is get stung by a sting-ray (pp. 539-40). They were competent musicians, but they weren’t essential to the Smiths. Joyce is most important for causing trouble, not for strumming his bass: first there was the heroin addiction, then the 21st-century court-case in which he sued for more money and earnt Morrissey’s undying enmity. Fletcher barely mentions the court-case and ends the book in the 1980s, with the Smiths exhausted, antagonistic and unfulfilled. They never achieved their full potential and though few bands do, few bands have had more to offer than the Smiths. The Beatles were one and managed to offer it from the nearby northern city of Liverpool. They were Irish Catholic too. But, like the Smiths, they achieved success in England, not Ireland. That’s important and the younger band captured it in their name. “Smiths” is an Anglo-Saxon word with ancient roots and difficult phonetics. It seems simple, but it isn’t. Rather like light.

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Think Ink

Front cover of 50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know by Joanne Baker50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know, Joanne Baker (Quercus 2013)

A very good introduction to a very difficult subject. A very superficial introduction too, because it doesn’t use proper mathematics. If it did, I’d be lost: like most people’s, my maths is far too weak for me to understand quantum physics. Here’s one of the side-quotes that help make this book such an interesting read: “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.”

That’s by the Jewish-Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962). It applies to quantum physics in general. Without the full maths, you’re peering through a frost-covered window into a sweetshop, you’re not inside sampling the wares. But even without the full maths, the concepts and ideas in this book are still difficult and challenging, from the early puzzles thrown up by the ultra-violet catastrophe to the ingenious experiments that have proved particle-wave duality and action at a distance.

But there’s a paradox here.

Continue reading: Think Ink

Paradigm Lost

Genius schmenius — genetics is sooooo 1950s:

But Paul Martin, a sociologist at the University of Sheffield, UK, is surprised that geneticists are still pursuing this line of research. “I think most people would say that’s the wrong paradigm, when most educational research suggests that social factors are incredibly important,” he says. “Strategically, this seems like something of a throwback.”

Chinese project probes the genetics of genius

See? Sense and decency. That’s because sociology is a proper science. Nearly as proper as psychoanalysis or astrology, in fact.

Flesh and Binary

It’s odd that probability theory is so counter-intuitive to human beings and so late-flowering in mathematics. Men have been gambling for thousands of years, but didn’t develop a good understanding of what happens when dice are rolled or coins are tossed until a few centuries ago. And an intuitive grasp of probability would have been useful long before gambling was invented. Our genes automatically equip us to speak, to walk and to throw, but they don’t equip us to understand by instinct why five-tails-in-a-row makes heads no more likely on the sixth coin-toss than it was on the first.

Dice from ancient Rome

Dice and gambling tokens from ancient Rome

Or to understand why five-boys-in-a-row makes the birth of a girl next time no more likely than it was during the first pregnancy (at least in theory). Boy/girl, like heads/tails, is a binary choice, so binary numbers are useful for understanding the probabilities of birth or coin-tossing. Questions like these are often asked to test knowledge of elementary probability:

1. Suppose a family have two children and the elder is a boy. What is the probability that both are boys?

2. Suppose a family have two children and at least one is a boy. What is the probability that both are boys?

People sometimes assume that the two questions are equivalent, but binary makes it clear that they’re not. If 1 represents a boy, 0 represents a girl and digit-order represents birth-order, the first question covers these possibilities: 10, 11. So the chance of both children being boys is 1/2 or 50%. The second question covers these possibilities: 10, 01, 11. So the chance of both children being boys is 1/3 = 33·3%. But now examine this question:

3. Suppose a family have two children and only one is called John. What is the probability that both children are boys?

That might seem the equivalent of question 2, but it isn’t. The name “John” doesn’t just identify the child as a boy, it identifies him as a unique boy, distinct from any brother he happens to have. Binary isn’t sufficient any more. So, while boy = 1, John = 2. The possibilities are: 20, 21, 02, 12. The chance of both children being boys is then 1/2 = 50%.

The three questions above are very simple, but I don’t think Archimedes or Euclid ever addressed the mathematics behind them. Perhaps they would have made mistakes if they had. I hope I haven’t, more than two millennia later. Perhaps the difficulty of understanding probability relates to the fact that it involves movement and change. The Greeks developed a highly sophisticated mathematics of static geometry, but did not understand projectiles or falling objects. When mathematicians began understood those in Renaissance Italy, they also began to understand the behaviour of dice, coins and cards. Ideas were on the move then and this new mathematics was obviously related to the rise of science: Galileo (1564-1642) is an important figure in both fields. But the maths and science can be linked with apparently distinct phenomena like Protestantism and classical music. All of these things began to develop in a “band of genius” identified by the American researcher Charles Murray. It runs roughly from Italy through France and Germany to Scotland: from Galileo through Beethoven and Descartes to David Hume.

Map of Europe from Mercator's Atlas Cosmographicae (1596)

Map of Europe from Mercator’s Atlas Cosmographicae (1596)

But how far is geography also biology? Having children is a form of gambling: the dice of DNA, shaken in testicle- and ovary-cups, are rolled in a casino run by Mother Nature. Or rather, in a series of casinos where different rules apply: the genetic bets placed in Africa or Europe or Asia haven’t paid off in the same way. In other words, what wins in one place may lose in another. Different environments have favoured different sets of genes with different effects on both bodies and brains. All human beings have many things in common, but saying that we all belong to the same race, the human race, is like saying that we all speak the same language, the human language. It’s a ludicrous and anti-scientific idea, however widely it may be accepted (and enforced) in the modern West.

Languages have fuzzy boundaries. So do races. Languages have dialects and accents, and so, in a sense, do races. The genius that unites Galileo, Beethoven and Hume may have been a particular genetic dialect spoken, as it were, in a particular area of Europe. Or perhaps it’s better to see European genius as a series of overlapping dialects. Testing that idea will involve mathematics and probability theory, and the computers that crunch the data about flesh will run on binary. Apparently disparate things are united by mathematics, but maths unites everything partly because it is everything. Understanding the behaviour of dice in the sixteenth century leads to understanding the behaviour of DNA in the twenty-first.

The next step will be to control the DNA-dice as they roll. China has already begun trying to do that using science first developed in the West. But the West itself is still in the thrall of crypto-religious ideas about equality and environment. These differences have biological causes: the way different races think about genetics, or persuade other races to think about genetics, is related to their genetics. You can’t escape genes any more than you can escape maths. But the latter is a ladder that allows us to see over the old genetic wall and glimpse the possibilities beyond it. The Chinese are trying to climb over the wall using super-computers; the West is still insisting that there’s nothing on the other side. Interesting times are ahead for both flesh and binary.

Appendix

1. Suppose a family have three children and the eldest is a girl. What is the probability that all three are girls?

2. Suppose a family have three children and at least one is a girl. What is the probability that all three are girls?

3. Suppose a family have three children and only one is called Joan. What is the probability that all three are girls?

The possibilities in the first case are: 000, 001, 010, 011. So the chance of three girls is 1/4 = 25%.

The possibilities in the second case are: 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110. So the chance of three girls is 1/7 = 14·28%.

The possibilities in the third case are: 200, 201, 210, 211, 020, 021, 120, 121, 002, 012, 102, 112. So the chance of three girls is 3/12 = 1/4 = 25%.

Hateful, Bestial, Demonic

Who is the world’s saintliest womun? I would say Hillary Clinton, but she’s white, alas, so I’ll go for Aung San Suu Kyi and/or Winnie Mundela instead. But who is the world’s evillest woman? (sic) I don’t know, but I do know someone who is trying damn hard for the title: the keyly committed hate-blogger called HBD-Chick, who engages issues around an über-misanthropic unter-movement called H.B.D. This stands for Human Bio-Diversity, i.e., the hateful, bestial and demonic notion that biological “differences” between groups of humun being can help explain social, cultural and political patterns. HBD-Chick, for example, tries to explain levels of “corruption” and democracy in “different” countries by looking at how “in-bred” their populations are.

’Cuse me while I throw up. Yes, HBD is not just evil, it’s so pseudo-scientific that it makes tea-leaf reading look like gamma-ray astronomy. As proper scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and Karl Marx have taught us, humun beings floated free of biology during the Pleistocene and are best regarded as disembodied social units that just happen (for the time being) to have a corporeal component. It follows from this proper science that all social, cultural and political dysfunction can be explained by racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of hate-think invented by white male Europeans of Christian heritage. And, like cornered rats baring their yellowed fangs and squealing their defiance, this despicable demographic has created HBD in an attempt to over-turn the hard-won scientific insights of Gould et al. If you’re a good persun, you won’t be taken in by the HBDers’ lies, deceit and pseudo-science. HBD-Chick is plainly a bad person (sic), because she has been taken in. But, as a womun, she isn’t really to blame – here are some of the real vectors of this diseased and depraved ideology:

Steve Surfer – KKKalifornian krank who invented and popularized the term HBD

West Hunter – run by pseudo-scientists Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending, the former of who/whom is responsible for an unspeakably hateful theory about the origins of homosexuality

JayMan – mendaciously claims to have Community-of-Color heritage and has added more hate-think to Cochran’s hate-theory

Evo and Proud – White, Male and Evil, more like

Dienekes – so pseudo-scientific it makes aromatherapy look like quantum physics

Get Your Locks Off

Led Zeppelin, Ray Tedman (Titan Books, 2011)

Front cover of Led Zeppelin by Ray Tedman

The most important thing in this big book of photographs is, of course, Robert Plant’s hair, which often looks remarkably like mine in both its colour and its curliness. There’s also little to choose between me and Robert Plant in the sex-god stakes, so I’ve often wondered precisely whose gigs my mother was attending in her youth (related rumours circulate, muso mutato et mama mutata, about at least one other keyly committed core component of the counter-cultural community). These aren’t unusual thoughts for me when I look at a book about Led Zeppelin: their hair interests me more than their harmonics. I usually get bored well before songs like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven” are over and I would much rather listen to the Beatles or Black Sabbath, even at their worst, than to Led Zeppelin, even at their best.

But, at their best, before their locks were shorn as the 1970s ended, Led Zeppelin did look much more like rock-gods than either the Beatles or Black Sabbath. One thing all three bands have in common is their classic quadrivalency: there are four men in each filling the four standard rock roles. I’ve outlined my humorous theory of the classic guitar-bass-drums-vocals line-up elsewhere, so all I’ll say here is that Led Zeppelin fit the theory well. Each member has a distinct personality as he plays a distinct instrument. Each is also distinct in appearance: Jimmy Page is rake-thin, Robert Plant well-built, John Paul Jones average, and Bonzo stocky. Bonzo always had facial hair too, which must say something about his psychology. The colour of his hair certainly says something about his psychology. Like skin-colour and eye-colour, hair-colour is a chemical phenomenon: different colours signal different chemicals or different levels of chemical in the body, and so in the brain. Lighter hair, like lighter skin and eyes, tends to go with a more introverted, less aggressive personality and it may be significant that Robert Plant and John Paul Jones, with lighter hair, are said to have been the two best-behaved members of Led Zeppelin. Black-haired Bonzo was notoriously bestial and also the heaviest drinker. Jimmy Page wasn’t violent, despite having black hair, but his somatype, or body-shape, doesn’t predict violence.

His face may predict high intelligence and high artistic achievement, however: he has always been a good-looking man. Good looks are related to symmetry, and symmetry is related to intelligence and coordination. Again, this isn’t an absolute rule: good-looking people can be stupid and bad at music, just as ugly people can be intelligent and good at music, and strange things can sometimes happen at the extremes of the bell-curve. But biology is about averages and tendencies, not absolutes, and biology is central to understanding human beings and their behaviour. That’s one of the things I find interesting about looking through this book, but there’s much more than individual biology at work here. Led Zeppelin followed fashions as well as setting them and faithfully reflected the look of the three decades in which they existed: the ’60s, the ’70s, and the ’80s.

Or first year of the ’80s, anyway: Bonzo died on 25th September 1980 and the band broke up. The book then follows Plant and Page into their solo careers and their occasional re-unions with Jones, but nobody looks as good as he did in the band’s mid-’70s prime, when their locks were longest and their testosterone levels highest. Endocrinology, or the science of hormones, is another essential part of understanding human behaviour and rock music at its loudest may influence hormones with more than its rhythms and melodies. High volume affects the entire body, not just the ears, and Led Zep were loud and proud, a band who shook the glands of their fans in more ways than one. As I’ve said, I’m not a big fan of Led Zeppelin myself, but if you are I can recommend this book. The photos range from the casual to the candid, the rampant to the risible, the phallocratic to the fan-worshipped, and there are regular biographical pages to guide you through the Led Zeppelin story. Oh, and there’s an index too, which books like this often lack.


Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page, Brad Tolkinski (Virgin Books, 2012)
Front cover of Light and Shade Conversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski
I’ve seen too many bad bios about big beasts of the rock jungle to expect much when I pick up a new one, but I was pleasantly surprised by Light and Shade. It does descend into rock-journalese from time to time – Cream and Jimi Hendrix adopted “a new, heavily riff-driven mode of expression” in 1967, apparently – but the conversations with Page are interesting, intelligent, and even impish, as when Page reveals he can mock himself:

On your 1973 tour you started using your own private plane, the Starship. Was that a good thing, or did it just guarantee that the party could continue and you’d never have a moment of rest?

No, it was a good thing. It was a place where you could bring your music and books and create some semblance of continuity as you travelled from city to city. However, [our former tour manager] Richard Cole ran into one of the air hostesses on the Starship recently and she told him, “You know we made a lot of money off you guys,” and Cole asked her how. “Well,” she explained, “when people on the plane used to sniff cocaine, they’d roll up hundred-dollar bills to use as straws. Then after they were high or passed out, they’d forget about the money. So we would go around and grab all the money that was laying around.” That might’ve been true, but I’ll tell you one thing: They never got any of my money! [laughs]

(Ch. 7, “The tours were exercises in pure hedonism…”, pg. 172)

And now you know, if you didn’t already, why Page has the nickname “Led Wallet”: he has always been canny with his cash. But don’t be misled by the coke reference or the chapter-title: this isn’t Hammer of the Gods, the most notorious of the Zeppographies, so the sex’n’drugs side of Page’s rock’n’roll story doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention as his music, his metaphysics, and his mutating fashions. There aren’t many photos, but they’re all well-chosen and you can trace the evolution of Page’s looks, locks, and collaborations right from the 1960s to the present day. There are also contributions from John Paul Jones, Jack White of the White Stripes, publicists, guitar experts and fashionistas, so you do get a well-rounded portrait of an interesting and highly influential musician. I’m not a big Led Zeppelin fan and I still liked this book. And regretted the absence of an index. So it’s a shade light there. Otherwise, it should provide many pages of pleasure for Page-o-philes.