“Daddy, what’s sex?”

A cute story from Sasha about her childhood sex education reminds me of this little episode.

Late 1960s. Having successfully spearheaded a campaign to save the Chesterfield Canal from closure, my father is now chairman of the Retford and Worksop Boat Club. This weekend, at the club’s headquarters (the White Swan at Drakeholes), we are playing host to the Wolverhampton Boat Club, who are on an official visit. Their boats have been arriving over the past week, and are now all moored up in the basin, in readiness for the visit. On the Saturday morning, my father goes round them all on a tour of inspection, his young son Michael in tow.

In the cabin of one of the visiting boats, a joke eye-chart is hanging up:






There it is again. That word! It’s such a short word, and yet I still don’t know what it means. I love words. I’m an avid reader, devouring books which are really meant for children older than me, and I’m not used to being stumped by something so easy. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.

Later that same morning, the official coach from Wolverhampton pulls up, and the deputation disembarks. My father steps forward from our group to welcome them. There is one of those slightly awkward silences which is characteristic of such occasions.

At this precise moment, I run forward and pipe up.

“Daddy, what’s sex?”

The awkward silence is intensified. In the late 1960s, this situation doesn’t yet play very well as comedy. We are, after all, English. My father is forced to reply in front of the entire assembled throng.

“Not now, Michael. I’ll tell you later.”

The day progresses satisfactorily, and it is now time for our visitors to depart. Once again, we are all standing by the coach, waiting for my father to make the official farewell address. Once again, there is one of those slightly awkward silences. Once again – at this precise moment – young Michael runs forward and pipes up.

“It’s all right, Daddy! There’s no need to tell me now! This little girl from Wolverhampton has told me all about it!”

Ten years later, I am a gawky, self-conscious adolescent, living his life in an almost constant state of embarrassment. For the second time, we are due an official visit from the Wolverhampton Boat Club. The weekend before, my father tells me this story – clearly, he has decided that I am old enough to hear it at last. It’s undeniably funny – but frankly, it sounds just a little bit too cute to be true. Maybe he has embellished it for effect? In any case, I plead with him not to mention the story to anyone from Wolverhampton the following weekend.

In the club house (now relocated to Clayworth), my father makes a welcoming speech to the assembled throng. I am sitting right at the back of the room, in my customary chocolate brown polo neck sweater, head bowed. These are my father’s opening words:

“Well, as my son is in the room, I won’t remind you all of what happened on your last visit…”

A cheerful Brummie voice immediately pipes up.

“Something about sex and a little girl from Wolverhampton, wasn’t it?”

The entire room convulses in uproarious laughter and applause, as heads turn to locate me. My face is scarlet, and bowing ever lower. I will never forgive him. Never, do you hear! Never!

Neil Diamond – Nottingham Arena – July 23 2002.

So, still reeling from the shock that I would be seeing him tonight, I swing by Virgin on the way home to pick up some revision material. There’s a new TV-advertised compilation doing the rounds, but I go for something called The Greatest Hits 1966-1992. It’s in the sale, and the track listing is almost identical.

At home, I stick the CDs on while doing the ironing. The unfamiliar early 1960s hits sound good, but I’m looking forward to his early 1970s material the most.

Uh-oh. What’s this? Halfway through the first of the two CDs, the collection mutates into a live album. There is a ropey version of Red Red Wine which sounds like a cover of the UB40 cover. Then, one by one, his biggest hits are systematically murdered. The gravely, growling voice is shot to bits, the performances are hokey, the ad-libs too frequent, and the constant crowd noises irritating. Halfway through the second CD, we revert to studio versions, but the damage is done. Just what have I let myself in for?

He emerges onto the stage on a slowly ascending platform, clad in a sequinned midnight blue jerkin and Simon Cowell trousers. The hair is definitely all his own – in the middle of the third row, we are close enough to check. At certain angles, he has started to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bob Monkhouse. Still, he’s looking pretty good for his age (61). There’s a seventeen piece band behind him – string section, brass section, the works – nearly all of whom have been with him since the 1970s. Now there’s loyalty for you. It’s the first clue.

We are surrounded by the diehards. There are a lot of respectable looking middle aged ladies, beaming from ear to ear, who already know the exact drill for a Diamond show. When to stand up, when to sit down, when to flex, when to point, when to sway sideways, when to sing along, when to add backing vocals, when to applaud a particular line in the middle of a song – even when to make synchronised rowing motions. Seasoned, polished professionals. The ladies in front of us have already seen Diamond five times on his current tour. We take our cue from them for the rest of the show, flexing and pointing with the best of them. Hey, when you’re in Diamond Country, you have to honour its customs…

However, the audience is far more mixed than I was expecting. There is a teenage boy on the front row who knows all the words. There are loads of people in their twenties and thirties. The gender mix is maybe 40% male to 60% female, and the men are throwing themselves into the show with just as much enthusiasm as the women. We’re not dealing with a Barry Manilow situation here.

Diamond performs for two and a half hours solid, remaining on stage throughout, with only the briefest of disappearances before the encore. He sits down only twice, and takes very occasional sips from a single glass of water. His face trickles with thin lines of sweat, which are never wiped. I don’t even think he is aware of them. He is totally and utterly concentrated on his performance at all times.

The voice is in remarkable shape. It never deteriorates into the “gravel gargling” that I was expecting, and which I heard on the CD. Close your eyes, and it could be 1978. Maybe he’s looking after himself better these days. He may not have the widest of expressive ranges, but technically he’s flawless, as are his band. The sound quality is absolutely perfect, banishing bad memories of a muffled Roxy Music at the same venue last year.

This isn’t my kind of music, and beyond a certain nostalgic value, these aren’t really my kind of songs. Despite this, Diamond delivers one of the most flabbergasting, truly awesome shows I have ever seen. You don’t survive this long in show business without learning a thing or two about stage technique, and Diamond is a masterful performer. His secret lies in the extraordinary way with which he connects with his audience. This isn’t showbiz flash on his part, and it isn’t a Pavlovian response on his audience’s part. The reciprocation between performer and spectator is tangible, and real, and astonishing. Diamond feeds off his audience reaction. It fuels his entire performance. He is not satisfied with anything less than total absorption and enjoyment, from every single individual present. He positively demands it – but not in a preening, narcissistic, “You must love me!” Madonna style. He seeks to earn it anew, night after night. The more the audience gives, the more he gives back. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it.

He works every inch of the stage, delivering – if necessary – whole songs to specific sections of the arena, until he gets the reaction he seeks. I can only resort to cliché: he has us eating out of the palm of his hand. There is a strange kind of mutual respect at work here. The gaily bopping Pats, Jeans and Margarets aren’t abasing themselves in idol worship. Instead, they seem oddly empowered. They are also having the absolute times of their lives, letting go without letting it all hang out. It is a delight to behold.

Diamond’s songs deal largely in stock sentiments, but the thing about stock sentiments is this: when properly expressed, they are universal. That is one of the true powers of popular music, and it should not be dismissed lightly. There is a fine line between populism and schlock. This line comes perilously close to being crossed during the perhaps inevitable September 11 tribute, with its dedication to the police officers, fire fighters and service personnel involved. I feel myself beginning to wince, as each group is applauded in turn. As the crowd applauds “those brave servicemen who risk their lives, every day”, the nice lady next to me notices my half hearted clapping and nudges me. “That’s us lot he’s talking about”, she says, smiling, and motions towards my hands. I don’t suppose she gets thanked very often by her heroes. She’s probably more used to the poorly concealed wincing. Anyway, we’re not applauding the institutions here – we’re applauding the individuals. The tribute song turns out to be He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I get the message.

Sweet Caroline is pure end-of-the-pier pantomime. It has become a raucous audience participation piece, which goes like this. Audience parts in capitals.

Sweet Caroline (WOH WOH WOH!)
Good times never seemed so good (SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!)
I’ve been inclined (WOH WOH WOH!)
To believe they never would…

I fully expect either the Hermes House Band or DJ Otzi to pick up on this, and to release an annoying Europop Benidorm Anthem cover version any month now. Maybe they already have, and I just don’t move in the right circles.

However, it is Forever In Blue Jeans which is the one for me. Memories of the golden Summer of 79 come flooding back – of the boy I adored, who loved this song, meaning that I loved it too. We’re all on our feet, right to the back of the arena, giving it up for Neil.

He plays everything. You name it, it’s there – except for Song Sung Blue, the first song of his that I remember. Other than that, they’re all present and correct, and not buggered around with either. Even Red Red Wine and I’m A Believer, which were hits for other acts. The show seems never ending, and yet none of us (we compare notes later) can take our eyes off Neil at any point. I scarcely register the presence of most of the other band members. Compelling, charismatic, spellbinding. He could take us any place he wanted.

Towards the very end, he almost does just that. The platform at the front of the stage rises up like a pulpit, as Neil suddenly comes on like a crazed tub-thumping preacher man, delivering a bizarre sermon which starts off tongue-in-cheek, and ends up largely sincere. There is something about raising your hands if you truly believe in the Lord above. Hands are shooting up everywhere, without hesitation. Yikes. I am surrounded. It’s a little bit scary, and I have no trouble resisting this time. It’s the one time when the manipulation becomes overt, and the individuality of the crowd is submerged in hysteria. I don’t care for it much.

There was a cartoon in a recent Private Eye showing an ageing star sitting in an office, with a brash young man behind the desk. The young man is saying “Basically, you’ve got two choices. You can retire, or you can become ironic.” Neil Diamond has elected to do neither. 40 years in the business, and he’s still at the top of his game. I would love to know how many of today’s young pop pups will be able to do likewise.

Brian Wilson – Nottingham Royal Centre – Friday June 7th, 2002

For Fraser’s review at Blogjam, go here.
For Lilou’s review (in French, but well worth the effort) at blogmebogmoi, go here.

As you know, I was worried about this one. Brian Wilson may have been one of pop’s greatest creative geniuses in his day, but that day has long passed. He has been dogged by mental health problems for the past 35 years, and is regularly described as “fragile”. His flat, strange, autocue-driven performance at the Buckingham Palace concert earlier in the week had made me squirm. According to our local paper, this was the most expensive concert ever to take place in Nottingham, with tickets at a whopping fifty quid a pop. Had we shelled out all that dosh, only to bear witness to an embarrassing karaoke freak show?

The opening number (Cabinessence from the 20:20 album, I later discover) is one of the most bewildering and disorientating things I have ever heard on stage. The acoustic is terrible, the sound separation is hopeless, the song is decidedly odd, Brian is an eccentric a figure as he had been on TV, and I just can’t make sense of any of it. This is not a good start.

Obscure album track follows obscure album track. I don’t know any of this stuff – unlike Dymbel and Mir, who recognise every song. Mir in particular is a true Wilson fanatic – this is someone who has both mono and stereo versions of the same original EPs, for instance. Both of them have already seen Brian at the Royal Festival Hall earlier in the year. They know what to expect, and have briefed me accordingly. I am therefore still making huge allowances for the man.

Actually, he’s doing OK. Yes, so there are two autocue screens, mounted on either side of his keyboard – but when you’re an acid casualty survivor with short term memory problems, what are you supposed to do? Without the safety net of an autocue to fall back on, he probably wouldn’t be touring at all. Yes, so his performance style is strange, especially the rather literal hand movements he uses to illustrate the lyrics (tickling the corner of his eye at the word “crying”, for instance). However, his very fragility serves to expose the child within the man, making for a sincere, unaffected, and genuine performance, unvarnished by conscious stage techniques. There is another advantage to this. Wilson’s childlike nature means that, aged 59, he can still get away with singing songs of innocent, youthful wonderment, without ever striking a metaphorical false note. As for the literal, audible false notes – well, we know his voice isn’t what it once was, but there are no major wince-making mistakes, and whatever he lacks in physical technique is made up for in emotional acuity.

Dymbel and Mir assure me that, compared to the London gig, Brian is on top form tonight. Returning to our seats after the interval, Dymbel is even able to convey this to Brian’s wife, who is sitting three seats away from me (on the sixth row of the stalls), along with her sister, Brian’s best friend and his wife. Maybe it’s their presence which is helping to sharpen his focus – apparently there had been times in London when he had looked half asleep. He is also smiling a lot more. In fact, he looks luminously happy throughout – as well he might be, as tonight’s crowd are hugely enthusiastic, with frequent standing ovations between songs. Mrs. Wilson is particularly demonstrative and supportive, rising to her feet after every number and extending her outstretched arms to him, willing him on.

The night starts clicking into place for me with the first number I recognise, In My Room. It is performed exquisitely well, with beautiful backing harmonies from the band, and takes me straight back to the summer of 1975, when my room was my sanctuary, my album collection was almost my whole life, and my Best Of The Beach Boys LP was never off the turntable. The unexpected poignancy touches me deeply. The acoustic and the sound mix have also been steadily improving, and the performers and audience have begun to create a mood which is very special. The other highlights of the first part of the show are a rapturously received Heroes And Villains and Surf’s Up, concluding with Do It Again, our first proper knees-up of the night.

So, with Part One having pleased the diehard fans with interestingly selected back catalogue material, it’s time for some more familiar stuff. Accordingly, Part Two consists of a straight run-through of the Pet Sounds album from beginning to end, followed by Good Vibrations. With the possible exception of the title track, which is a bit of a mess, It is a magnificent performance, with I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (how true, how true!) as its standout moment. During God Only Knows, I observe each member of the superb ten-piece backing band. Their expressions say it all. They are lost in the music, absolutely loving what they are doing, and presumably aware of the honour they have in recreating some of the greatest pop music ever recorded. The band radiate good-humoured enjoyment throughout. You sense that this is a happy tour.

You also sense, with relief, that Brian is not the re-animated zombie that you were worried he might have been. Rather than being pushed around from venue to venue, and being told what to do by those around him, he is clearly in artistic control here. The song selections are his, the band is his, and it is his presence which sets the mood for everyone else on stage. However, the band have successfully made one request, as I Know There’s An Answer becomes Hang Onto Your Ego once again (to my initial confusion, until Dymbel explains). This pleases the fans no end.

Part Three is devoted to uptempo, celebratory Beach Boys classics: Help Me Rhonda, I Get Around, Fun Fun Fun, Barbara Ann, Surfing USA, stuff like that. We’re all on our feet, frugging away, rolling back the years. The man has delivered in spades. This is one living legend who hasn’t let us down. The legend remains intact.

Damo Suzuki’s Network – Nottingham Social – Tuesday June 11.

Former singer with 70s “krautrockers” Can, playing his first gig outside London in fifteen years, watching Damo was well weird. Stereoboard and I decided that there was a fine line between Genius and Tedious, and that Damo was straddling it precariously throughout.

He was certainly on stage for a very, very long time – well in excess of two hours, not coming off stage till around half past midnight. The band’s first four numbers were all around thirty minutes long, with the concluding fifth number and the ska-tinged encore being somewhat shorter.

The music was unique – conventional yet experimental, accessible yet obtuse, melodic yet angular, disciplined yet self-indulgent. Out there on its own, impossible to categorise or indeed to form any meaningful comparisons. The pieces were episodic in nature; like several songs stitched together, except you couldn’t see the join. There were many long instrumental passages, where Damo simply stood around, sticking his head forward and shaking his lengthy locks about in time-honoured “AC/DC at the school disco” fashion.

The crowd were on the sparse side, which was not surprising at £11.50 a ticket (for a venue which normally charges half that amount). As well as the usual crowd of clued-up Social devotees, there was also a sizeable contingent of unreconstructed hippies in their late forties (we even had our own “idiot dancer” down the front, maaan). Restrained applause during the set – unrestrained, wild applause at the end, but we were all very, very drunk by then (it had been a long and arduous haul).

During one of the final instrumental passages, Damo came down off the stage and went round hugging virtually every single member of the audience, myself and Stereoboard included. It was a lovely, big, warm, sincere, proper hug – if a little moist (especially in the hair department).

With his hippy/shoegazer past and his long-standing Stereolab fixation, Stereoboard loved the whole thing, almost without reservation. As for me: I loved it in parts and was bored stiff in other parts, but my main emotion was probably “perplexed” (and later, “pissed”).

Troubled Diva’s Best Albums of 2001

1 ryan adams – gold
call it trad dad retro rock if you must, and sure it’s derivative as hell, but – like oasis in their glory days – ryan’s happy to wear his influences on his sleeve, and he transcends them magnificently.

2 charlatans – wonderland
their best yet – classic rawk swagger, in which timmy discovers falsetto and drops the angst.

3 super furry animals – rings around the world
vastly ambitious, endlessly inventive, never a dull moment: a “pet sounds” for the new millennium.

4 dolly parton – little sparrow
abandoning the nashville rhinestones, getting back to her bluegrass roots, and revealing her true vocal talent.

5 spacek – curvatia
moody mix of d’angelo style funk with downbeat electronica, which takes a few listens before worming its way into your skull – perfect weekend morning music (but be warned: it needs a decent hi-fi to avoid sounding muddy).

6 basement jaxx – rooty
more consistent than “remedy”, though maybe lacking its highlights – a whole heap of eclectic fun in a crisis year for dance.

7 whiskeytown – pneumonia
the “other” ryan adams album this year (though “heartbreaker” would have been album of the year if it hadn’t been released in 2000).

8 alicia keys – songs in a minor
took a long time to get into this one, but it’s the classiest soul collection of the year, from “a major new talent” (hopefully).

9 pulp – we love life
their third album in a row which accurately mirrors my current state of mind – is jarvis telepathic or what?

10 leonard cohen – ten new songs
simple language (and fewer jokes), but the songs are as complex as ever; allegedly his “dance album”!

11 herbert – bodily functions
if cherry red records had ever released jazzy deep house, it might have sounded like this – wet tuesday afternoon music which you can still twitch to.

12 daft punk – discovery
an album which I returned to at the end of the year, only to discover it sounded fresher than ever.

13 radiohead – amnesiac
“kid a” did it better, but this will do fine for now (I’m biased) – only could we have some more songs next time, please?

14 röyksopp – melody a.m.
in a sudden glut of chillout cds, this one stood out as having noticeably more rhythms, guts and ideas – my prediction for 2002’s slow burning word of mouth hit (like goldfrapp in 2001).

15 gotan project – la revancha del tango
accordion-led tango meets slinky electronica – dinner party cd of the year!

16 r.e.m. – reveal
I preferred them when they were being leftfield, but you can’t argue with accessible, commercial tunes like these.

17 missy elliott – miss e ..so addictive
can’t believe this is only #17, but it’s been an unusually strong year for albums – top 10 in any other year.

18 india.arie – acoustic soul
creamy classic soul with an acoustic leaning, like the lady says.

19 turin brakes – the optimist
on paper, everything I hate (travis meets del amitri meets crowded house), but somehow, it really works.

20 white stripes – white blood cells
great for when you’re doing the washing up late at night, pissed.

21 sunshine anderson – your woman
22 bjork – vespertine
23 playgroup – playgroup
24 avalanches – since i left you
25 mercury rev – all is dream

Delayed but played:
ryan adams – heartbreaker
lemon jelly – lemon jelly.ky
goldfrapp – felt mountain
slaid cleaves – broke down

Troubled Diva’s Best Singles of 2001

1 missy elliott – get ur freak on
2 kylie minogue – can’t get you out of my head
3 dandy warhols – bohemian like you
4 the ones – flawless
5 india.arie – video
6 charlatans – a man needs to be told
7 squarepusher – my red hot car (girl)
8 sunshine anderson – heard it all before
9 pulp – the trees / sunrise
10 ryan adams – new york, new york
11 andrew wk – party hard
12 new order – crystal
13 s club 7 – don’t stop movin’
14 daft punk – digital love
15 basement jaxx – romeo
16 ben folds – rockin the suburbs
17 photek feat robert owens – mine to give
18 destiny’s child – bootylicious
19 alicia keys – fallin’
20 aaliyah feat timbaland – we need a resolution
21 avalanches – since i left you
22 outkast – ms. jackson
23 roger sanchez – another chance
24 felix da housecat – silver screen shower scene
25 5ive – let’s dance
26 ben & jason – the wild things
27 super furry animals – (drawing) rings around the world
28 groove armada – my friend
29 super furry animals – juxtapozed with u
30 jakatta – american dream
31 jon cutler feat e-man – it’s yours
32 basement jaxx – where’s your head at
33 destiny’s child – survivor
34 ash – shining light
35 britney spears – i’m a slave 4u
36 radiohead – knives out
37 ash – burn baby burn
38 r.e.m. – imitation of life
39 charlatans – love is the key
40 pj harvey – this is love

Troubled Diva’s Best Films of 2001

1. Memento
2. Together
3. Moulin Rouge
4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
5. Shrek

Troubled Diva’s Best Books of 2001

1. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life – Bill Brewster
2. The Rotters Club – Jonathan Coe
3. The Night Listener – Armistead Maupin

Troubled Diva’s Best Gigs of 2001

1. Yes
2. Gong / Hawkwind
3. Madonna (twice!)
4. John Martyn
5. Goldfrapp
6. Super Furry Animals
7. Slaid Cleaves
8. Pulp
9. Air
10. Pernice Brothers
11. Ryan Adams
12. Gorkys Zygotic Mynci

Top 20 singles & albums of 2000.

1. eminem – stan
2. bloodhound gang – the bad touch
3. ronan keating – life is a rollercoaster
4. pj harvey – good fortune
5. kelis – good stuff
6. damage – ghetto romance
7. eminem – the real slim shady
8. angie stone – life story
9. moby – porcelain
10. wookie – battle
11. ruff endz – no more
12. badly drawn boy – disillusion
13. robbie williams – rock dj
14. azzido da bass – dooms night (timo maas mix)
15. cousteau – she don’t hear your prayer
16. madonna – music
17. britney spears – oops!…i did it again
18. aaliyah – try again
19. lambchop – up with people
20. laurent garnier – the man with the red face

1. Madonna – Music
2. Radiohead – Kid A
3. Kathryn Williams – Little Black Numbers
4. Kelis – Kaleidoscope
5. Cousteau – Cousteau
6. Jill Scott – Who Is Jill Scott? Words & Sounds Vol. 1
7. Lambchop – Nixon
8. St. Germain – Tourist
9. Dusted – When We Were Young
10. Wookie – Wookie
11. Chicks On Speed – Will Save Us All!
12. Robbie Williams – Sing When You’re Winning
13. PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
14. Bent – Programmed To Love
15. Thievery Corporation – The Mirror Conspiracy
16. Calexico – Hot Rail
17. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast
18. Brothers In Sound – Family Is For Sharing
19. Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now
20. Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain

Delayed but played:
Angie Stone – Black Diamond