Bill Hicks – The Eyes Of Love

I stumbled across Bill Hicks on late-night TV back in the 80s. I remember watching a recording of one of his British shows, and I was hooked. The more I saw and listened to him, the more I felt that he wasn’t really a comedian at all. It may be a little too much to suggest that he was a prophet, but I’m not so sure. I think he was trying to get us closer to our God, to our humanity, to our soul. He was using humour, sometimes fairly coarse humour, but don’t let that scare you.

Bill died at a very early age. He left us before 9/11 before the second Irag war, before the war on terror, etc, but I think he already said everything that needed to be said. I urge you to watch his videos and search out his audio recordings. In a world of war, famine, death and destruction, he saw through the fog. And there are jokes too!

This short clip was a piece that he used at the end of one of his shows. It resonated with me the first time I heard it, and every time I see, hear or read the words, I know it’s the truth.

One last thing. You can follow me by email, by clicking the link above, or subscribe to this blog through your own WordPress account. I’ll probably be posting around once a week, Look at it as a slight, wistful diversion from your everyday life. Please feel free to share, engage and comment, otherwise, this will be like screaming in a vacuum.


Measure Twice, Cut Once

My Father On The Mall

There is one phrase that I find myself using more and more as I get older. I can’t remember the first time my Father said the words, but it must have been after I’d made some kind of mistake. It is a proverb that has become a part of me.

My sons are probably tired of hearing me saying the words over and over again, but I feel it is my duty to keep going like it’s some kind of mantra. Work colleagues have heard me say it – and returned the compliment with glee after spotting my errors.

“Measure twice, cut once”.

Simple don’t you think? Honest, pure, direct and profound. I think my father meant it in its literal sense. He would say it to me if I were doing something like hanging wallpaper or sawing a piece of timber. He taught me so many things, but I’m sure he would have admitted that he wasn’t the best teacher. He had taught himself everything he knew, and I think he believed that everyone could do the stuff he could do. After all these years I know that he had talents that went unrecognised and unrewarded. I, on the other hand, prospered with a fraction of his skill.

Over the course of my life, I’ve made many errors. From small slip-ups to full-blown disasters. From minor faux pas to major fuck-ups. Let me be clear, there is no blood on my hands, and no one has been physically hurt! Some of my more significant blunders have had significant consequences, but most of the time no one noticed and I just shrugged my shoulders, cleared up the mess and moved on. The feeling I get when I make a major boo-boo is like no other. I get sick to my stomach, I cold-sweat, my face turns scarlet as my heart rate hits techno-speed. I’ll attempt to apologise. I’ll squirm, not for the benefit of others, but out of physical necessity. I generally want to get up and walk out and keep walking until I find a place to hide, to remain invisible until the fuss dies down. Then I will skulk back in, head tipped slightly, to begin the grim task of making good.

“Measure twice, cut once”.

The more you reflect on the phrase, the better it gets. I guess it works best if you act on the wise words before committing the transgression. But then to err is human, to forgive divine.

Do you have any inherited phrases, proverbs or wise words that have become a part of your life? Are you someone who never makes mistakes? Or maybe you won’t admit to them?

One last thing. You can follow me by email, by clicking the link above, or subscribe to this blog through your own WordPress account. I’ll probably be posting around once a week, Look at it as a slight, wistful diversion from your everyday life. Please feel free to share, engage and comment, otherwise, this will be like screaming in a vacuum.

Gil Scott-Heron And Me

I have been a devotee of Gil Scott-Heron since some time in the early 1980s. Although not a household name in the UK or the US, he was and even after his death is, a major influence on musicians. I think the first record that grabbed my attention was ‘Re-Ron‘. That would have been around the time of Reagan’s campaign for a second term in office. ‘Re-Ron’ is not particularly representative of GSH’s oeuvre, as I later came to discover, but it got me crate digging to find more vinyl nuggets.

Many people know the often misunderstood proto-rap poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and I guess it’s the key reason why GSH is often called ‘The Godfather Of Rap’. GSH was more than that. Much, much more.

I saw Gil Scott-Heron perform pretty much every time he came to London. The first time I saw him was at the Artists Against Apartheid concert on Clapham Common in June 1986. Check out the bill for what was one of the best one-day festivals I’ve ever been to. The event was referenced in the newspapers the next day but only in connection with the downfall of one of pop’s biggest stars of the time Boy George, but that’s another story. I saw GSH at many venues over the years, but my favourite was always the Jazz Café in Camden Town.

One particular performance at the Jazz Café in the mid to late 1990’s, I can’t remember exactly when, and although I’ve tried to remember from checking old ticket stubs, I can’t be precise. GSH was on top form as I recall, sitting centre stage at his suitcase Fender Rhodes piano. The Amnesia Express line up included Ron Holloway, Larry McDonald, Glen Turner, and one or two others that I can’t quite recall for certain – one of the reasons for committing this story to ‘paper’ is to stop me from forgetting the rest of it! The repertoire at that time centred on GSH’s back catalogue, and would generally end with an audience participation on the famous (OK, I realise it’s not universally famous but it should be), ‘Johannesburg’.

About midway through the set, Gil was introducing his next song – ‘Lady Day And John Coltrane’. He said that as he was getting older he needed a little help to sing this particular song and asked for assistance from a member of the audience. He called for a volunteer. I was standing quite near the stage – the Jazz Café is after all an intimate venue. I looked at my friends and asked them if I should do it. I didn’t really need to ask permission, and in a split second I was scrambling up onto the stage to rapturous cheers and applause. Straight away my heart was jumping out of my chest and Gil asked my name and introduced me to the crowd. Lady Day and John Coltrane was a song I knew – but I’d never consciously learned the lyrics.

Before I knew it a microphone was placed in my hand and I positioned myself behind Gil at the Fender Rhodes. Gil continued to introduce the song, and Larry McDonald, obviously sensing my fear, just said, “Do you know the words?” Shit, did I know the words? I said I thought I knew them. Larry’s quick retort was, “Well you got up here”. Those words hit me like a brick in the face. I was all at once completely sober. I looked at the audience, it felt like all eyes were on me. I was on stage in front of a packed house, about to perform with one of my long-time musical influences and heroes. Did I really know the words to the song?

Then we were off. Gil counted-in and the band kicked in. I know my music and knew the intro. I swallowed hard and drew breath for the first line and right on cue came in with ‘Ever feel kinda down and out and dunno just what to do…’ Gil just stopped everything to great laughter from the band and the audience. “Hang on there Simon, I’ll tell you when to come in!” I’d walked into the trap set for me to intentionally mess up. Gil was a great showman and he did this in such a way to allow me to be a total clown – this was entertainment and I was the foil for a probably well-worn routine where he and the band made fun of the willing amateur who had braved the stage for three minutes of glory.

Gil called the band together to restart the song. The intro again and Gil came in with…

“Ever feel kind of down and out you don’t know just what to do?

Living all of your days in darkness let the sun shine through”

Then he called me in and I took the second half of the verse.

“Ever feel that somehow, somewhere, you lost your way?

And if you don’t get help quick you won’t make it through the day?

Then Gil came back in to join me with the chorus.

“Could you call on Lady Day? Could you call on John Coltrane?

Now, ‘cause they’ll, they’ll wash your troubles, your troubles, your troubles, your troubles away!”

The audience had erupted as soon as I sang the first line. The crowd were clearly amazed that I appeared to know what I was doing. I was now on fire! Gil started the second verse in the same way. This time I was ready. I was going to enjoy the experience. In my mind, the crowd were already on my side. It was time to perform. And so, from somewhere came the confidence and the capability. I strode the stage, performing as if it were my last day on this planet – much to the obvious surprise of keyboard player Glen Turner, who smiled at me encouragingly. I was in my element. This was ‘dream come true’ time, And I was delivering on that opportunity.

After the second chorus, the band went into an instrumental break. I now had a few minutes to come to terms with what was happening to me and get my composure for the final verse. The band went into a series of solos, and it hit me. One thing audiences don’t realise is that although music sounds good from your place in front of the stage, you cannot begin to imagine what it sounds and feels like to be part of the magic. To be in the middle of such a tour de force. Because ‘magic’ is the only word for it. I was floating, out-of-body, for what seemed like about ten minutes, as the band grooved on. I had time to realise that this would be one of the moments I would treasure until the end of my days.

The band came out of the instrumental and started the introductory bars of the final verse. Gil told me to take it – the whole thing – just me – and the band. I gave everything I had. Gil came back in on the chorus, and then on the chorus repeats I started to rhythmically scat around Gil, me now standing at his side, him looking across to me with a look of complete surprise – just who did I think I was! The song came to its climactic end. The crowd went berserk. Of course, I did not want to leave the stage. I made sure I shook hands with every member of the band – after all – we now had a musician’s bond! I was standing with Gil with my hand on his shoulder. It was AMAZING!

I left the stage a very different person to the nervous man who’d scrambled up ten minutes earlier. As I went back to my place in the audience, back slaps, handshaking, shouts of ‘respect’, I found my friends. They were in complete shock. What had they witnessed?

Gil, in his humorous way, thanked me and asked if he could join me when I was next playing in town. I’ll take that! The show continued and the band carried on playing for a while before taking a break. As I walked to the bar, I was the star. Everyone knew me – “Hey Simon, tell me, was that a setup?” someone said. A setup? If only they knew! I went to the bar and the barmaid said, “What can I get you, Simon?’ Surreal. The band came back, the show continued and when it came for time to leave, I was still as high as the balcony.

I walked downstairs to the toilet, still being recognised with smiles and “nice ones”. I went to collect my coat. The cloakroom attendant handed me my jacket. “You’ve got a lovely voice” she said, in a way that made me feel that I was in some kind of dream.

Walking out into the cool, fresh, late-night Camden air, I didn’t want the night to end. I didn’t want to go to sleep. For a few minutes, I was King of the world. Thank you Gil Scott-Heron. Next morning, I was back at work.

Have you ever had a similar experience to this? Have you ever met your heroes? Did they live up to your expectations? Have you ever surprised yourself?

One last thing. You can follow me by email, by clicking the link above, or subscribe to this blog through your own WordPress account. I’ll probably be posting around once a week, Look at it as a slight, wistful diversion from your everyday life. Please feel free to share, engage and comment, otherwise, this will be like screaming in a vacuum.

Above The Clouds

In the Dolomites, Italy

To be standing at the top of a mountain, surveying the clouds below is a privilege I have witnessed many times. It is difficult to do justice, in pictures or words, to what is a majestic experience. The ceiling is one of cerulean blue, the carpet is woven of clouds, interrupted by snow-clad peaks. It makes me feel like I’m flying. I feel free. It is exhilarating. Nothing beats it.

In Winter, the UK is such a dark, damp, dank place. Punctuated as it is with the too short festive season, but mainly filled with gloom. I find the cold season hard to bear, and so I try to escape for at least one week to go skiing in the mountains of Europe. It hardly matters where I go, mountains are mountains and although the scenery is obviously different everywhere you go, the resort is secondary to the overall thrill I get to be out in a winter wonderland. Deep joy!

Whenever I’m presented with a vista like the one above, I’m struck by how fortunate I am to live this life. I try not to take anything for granted. I am grateful for everything I have. With all the horror, misery, death and destruction that we’re bombarded with every day, I try to take a step back and breathe. Life is beautiful.

Do you have something, a place, space, pastime or activity that sets you free? Are you a lover of the great outdoors? Do you ski or board?

One last thing. You can follow me by email, by clicking the link above, or subscribe to this blog through your own WordPress account. I’ll probably be posting around once a week, Look at it as a slight, wistful diversion from your everyday life. Please feel free to share, engage and comment, otherwise, this will be like screaming in a vacuum.

Charles Bukowski On Work

Brick Lane
On Brick Lane

As Hump day tips over towards the weekend, here is a short letter, written by the late Charles Bukowski. When I first read it I felt down. Now I’m in a better place. These are his words, not mine. His views, not necessarily mine. I’ve included the link to the place I found this because I won’t take credit for others hard work. I couldn’t find a ‘free’ image of Bukowski to use in the headline, so I’m using one of my own photographs. You can decide whether it fits!

Hello John:
Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man, I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the workplace). They are laid off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”
“It ain’t right…”
“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,

Seen in this article.

One last thing. You can follow me by email, by clicking the link above, or subscribe to this blog through your own WordPress account. I’ll probably be posting around once a week, Look at it as a slight, wistful diversion from your everyday life. Please feel free to share, engage and comment, otherwise, this will be like screaming in a vacuum.

With thanks. The Subterranean Bird x


The Way Of The Flâneur

In London

I love to live the life of a Flâneur I appreciate a good wander. I can march without reason or purpose for hours and hours. To somewhere. To nowhere. To anywhere! Sometimes to escape, sometimes to discover, sometimes to get lost and sometimes just to find myself. I occasionally carry a camera, but not always. I find that having to concentrate on photography can be a distraction. I want to see, hear, and smell the street; to take it all in.

I’m not a ‘country’ person. Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice landscape and a lung full of fresh air, but it does not give me the same sense of stimulation as strutting along a busy street in the metropolis. I have my own ways of walking. I sometimes meditate in a space elevated from the street as I stride. I have been known to walk in circles, and will often traipse around, forgetting where I was going or what I was doing.

I sometimes step along in time to the beat of whatever I’m listening to. This can be hazardous should the beats per minute exceed my fastest pace. However, listening to the radio or a playlist can also be a distraction from the many sounds of urban life, so it’s something I tend to avoid.

If you spend time on the streets you will see everything. You will see everyone. I am no longer surprised to see Hollywood stars treading the dirty streets of Soho, I don’t even look twice at a legendary musician on the pavement and would do no more than exchange a smile and a nod with Melvyn Bragg should our paths cross again on the boulevard!

This year I shall be doing a lot of walking. I intend to meander my way to thousands of steps each day whenever I can. I shall use my time productively. Meditating, pondering, planning, creating and any other thing that takes my fancy. I might even promenade aimlessly, as that has its own value.

Walking is a great way to exercise. It’s low impact, you don’t need special equipment, apart from a comfortable pair of shoes, and it helps to free your soul. So, don’t schlep! Get walking!

Do you enjoy a long stroll, a saunter or a shimmy? Or are you a rambler? That’s a whole different pedestrian pursuit!

One last thing. You can follow me by email, by clicking the link above, or subscribe to this blog through your own WordPress account. I’ll probably be posting around once a week, Look at it as a slight, wistful diversion from your everyday life. Please feel free to share, engage and comment, otherwise, this will be like screaming in a vacuum.

It’s Just A Ride

My Brother’s Cassette Box

In one way or another, I’ve spent most of my life on trains. To be clear, I’m not a gricer, although I know many fine people who are fanatical about trains. But I can’t pretend that the Circle Line doesn’t run around my head, and I know that Harry Beck’s beautiful, imaginative and revolutionary tube map flows through my body like a CT scan of my own arteries. In my young, formative years I lived close to Old Oak Common railway yard, and the distant rhythmic clacking sound of trains wheels on steel tracks became a part of me in those early days.

I have spent a lot of time riding trains, either commuting or just going places. I love the rhythm, appreciate the engineering mastery of the infrastructure, and the fact that I can think about stuff, sleep, observe the world, educate or escape in a book, watch a film, or, more often, listen to music.

Train journeys are a metaphor for life; you get on, you ride, and then you get off. The ride can be mundane and uneventful or it can be filled with drama, disruption, delay and disappointment. The ride can also be a fantastical journey that takes you from the sea to the mountains, through exciting cities, to new countries, through lush, green forests or open pastures. It can introduce you to new friends. You get to choose your journey – yes even your commute. If you’re not happy with the train you’re on, you can switch lines at the next interchange. You can get on and off at any time. Fast train. Slow train. Sometimes trains derail and sometimes trains crash. Occasionally, for whatever reason, you don’t make it to your intended destination. Sometimes the people you travel with decide to get off without you. Oh, and don’t forget the train entering the tunnel metaphor. That’s life! I trust you get my point. You don’t need a ticket, just get on board.

Trains are inextricably linked to popular music, evolutionary blues, or should I say music from the African-American diaspora. The early bluesmen came up from the Mississippi Delta and they incorporated the clickety-clack sound of the train on the tracks into their acoustic guitar-led blues whilst riding boxcars to the windy city of Chicago – the birthplace of electric blues. We owe so much to those sharecropping African-American musical pioneers, without whom there would have been no blues, soul, jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues or rock ’n’ roll, etc., etc. I can’t begin to imagine a world without the beautiful music that has given me such joy and eased so many pains.

With all that in mind, I offer you my It’s Just A Ride mixtape. You can feel that clickety-clack, clickety-clack backbone on so many of the songs on this list. Putting together this compilation was a true labour of love!

Ok, I appreciate that Spotify (other services are available) is not a cassette tape, and there’s a lot less effort involved in compiling a digital playlist compared to the hours and hours it takes to cue-up vinyl and press the ‘record’ button on your tape deck, ‘pause’ and repeat until that C90 – side A and B – is full of tape-hiss infused glory. For those of you too young to have dabbled with cassette tapes – do your research – and get with it, as the hipster revival is on its way!

I recommend that you ‘shuffle’ play this. I find the random order a constant source of happy contrasts. But hey, you ride it just how you like it!

I restricted this playlist to music I love, it’s not a random list of railway related references. The ‘train’ content ranges from direct and explicit to implied and incidental. Some songs may be familiar to you, but I trust there will be some surprises along the tracks. It’s a journey of medium duration. The Victoria line, not the Northern line.

I find curating compilations such a rewarding pastime. I shared a train-related ‘mixtape’ conversation with my brother back in the cassette days. I was recently reminded of that exchange of music, with our same but different tastes and selections. This selection of songs is me sharing and passing on an update of those old, carefully recorded tapes.

Do you have any suggestions to add to this mix? Maybe you have your own collection of train songs? Perhaps you have other favourite tunes that mean something to you? I hope that this inspires you to create your own mixtape/playlist. Pick a theme, an emotion, a genre, an artist, a time, a place, a city, a planet, or a constellation. You make the rules, and you’re free to break them. It can be as long or short, as loud or quiet as you feel. Just feel it!

Here’s my tracklist:
People Get Ready – The Impressions
Downtown Train – Tom Waits
Last Train To Clarksville – The Monkees
Mystery Train – Junior Parker
Blue Train – John Coltrane
Stop That Train – Clint Eastwood
Zion Train – Bob Marley & The Wailers
Night Train – James Brown
Roots Train – Junior Murvin
Just Like This Train – Joni Mitchell
Night Train – Oscar Peterson Trio
Stop That Train – Bob Marley & The Wailers
Last Train – Allen Toussaint
Train To Skaville – The Ethiopians
Train Of Love – Johnny Cash
Take The “A” Train – Ella Fitzgerald
Funky Like A Train – The Equals
Love Train – The O’Jays
Down Bound Train – Chuck Berry
This Train – The Staple Singers
Southbound Train – Muddy Waters
Down There By The Train – Tom Waits
Freedom Train – James Carr
Fast Train – Van Morrison
Move Along Train – The Staple Singers
Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight & The Pips
Casey Jones (The Union Scab) – Pete Seeger
Blue Train – Johnny Cash
All Aboard – Muddy Waters
The Train from Washington – Gil Scott-Heron
The Train – Frank Sinatra

One last thing. You can follow me by email, by clicking the link above, or subscribe to this blog through your own WordPress account. I’ll probably be posting around once a week, Look at it as a slight, wistful diversion from your everyday life. Please feel free to share, engage and comment, otherwise, this will be like screaming in a vacuum.