Change The Programme Please!
Messy aesthetics ... part four
Sorry to harp on about magazines, but there is an important principle here.

The great Michael Frayn in one of his early books, which I think was The Tin Man, writes about a hilarious attempt to programme early computers to replace journalists. The theory being the media regularly recycles story lines with minor variations on a theme, therefore a programme can be devised to do this without much ado.

Looking at the latest Uncut and its tired retread of Rolling Stones tales, you do begin to suspect a particularly unadventurous computer could be responsible. After all, the Stones also made the cover of Uncut in December 2002 and January 2002. Now I was born in Dartford, and am proud of the fact our local lads like the Stones and the Pretty Things had such an impact on the world, but for goodness sake there are so many other stories to tell.

Yet, please flick through this month's Uncut in your local newsagents, for there is an exquisitely gorgeous review by Chris Roberts of Dexys at the Royal Festival Hall which captures perfectly the immensity of that great event. And in the preceding issue it was Chris Roberts that put a sort of spotlight on the lost Mary Margaret O'Hara record, and urged us all to hunt it down.

So I did, and it is at times as gorgeously exquisite as Chris suggests. There certainly aren't many times over the past 20 years that I have wanted to quote a mainstream journalist, but 'she's cooing, gurgling, doing that soulful strange strangled spooky idiot savante possessed-visionary-testifying thing, and it's out there on its own' works for me.

God bless Chris for getting rightfully worked up about a soundtrack to a Canadian film that came out a couple of years ago. And then you think: 'Erm hang on a minute! We have one of the great glamorous cult figures of popular music out there, who has not made a real record since the 1980s, and then only made that one wonderful record with half a dozen life changingly exceptional performances on. And the world may have changed but the yearning for another Mary Margaret O'Hara romantically lingered on. I may even have written words to that effect this year. But there was another MMO'H record of sorts out there, and had been for a couple of years. What was it, some kind of state secret? Did people in Canada take a perverse delight in keeping it under wraps? Where was the world wide communication network? Or have I been missing something? Were there front pages and rave reviews long before Chris Roberts'? What on earth is going on in this crazy world of ours?'

Ever since Miss America came out at the end of the 80s there has been a veritable procession of rootsy female singers led by the occasionally great Lucinda Williams, and a host of okay-others like Laura Cantrell, Neko Case, Eileen Rose, Gillian Welch, and so on. But despite the occasional flicker, the moments of magic, none of them have conjured up the glamorous mystery of MMO'H. She has, to use our old phrase, kept the mystery caged. By doing so little. Which may occasionally make it hard to convince people of her greatness. She was the best singer of the 90s because she sang next to nothing. It's all a bit Vic Godard-ish, or our other god James Kirk, where the divine are strangely recalled to life, nonchalantly perform miracles, and disappear from view again.

Which is why it is so important to keep saying how wonderful some of the performances on the Apartment Hunting soundtrack are. And how MMO'H veers from some sort of soul caressing Norah Jones 'Come Away' guilty pleasure to some sort of deeply unsettling speaking-in-tongues stuttering spirituality in the space of one verse in a way no other can. And sorry to keep on, but why oh why has it taken two years for the news to leak out?

Speaking of urban goddesses, another secret I stumbled across is a lovely Laura Nyro book called Soul Picnic by long-long-time fan Michelle Kort. It works because she is a believer, and not a jobsworth-journeyman-journalist. And it makes you love Laura even more, and if nothing else it will send you 'surrying' off to play Laura's lovely even more, and there are not many better ways to spend a damp winter's afternoon.

Which reminds me of a funny dream I had of Brian Wilson in a couple of month's time ambling out on to the stage at the Royal Festival Hall and announcing that tonight he would be performing Smile in its entirety. He would then speak the word 'strange' and nod at his assembled musicians. And they would start up the shuffling acoustic guitar rhythms of 'Sexy Mama'. After the first song Brian would clear his throat and say this is the Laura Nyro record that Rolling Stone criticised for trying to merge Alice Coltrane and Carole King. And Mary Margaret O'Hara will walk out on stage and sing 'Stormy Love', and the audience will be down on its knees. Or maybe there will be just be a bunch of sad idiots listening to a load of old Beach Boys songs. Which brings us back to where we came in, and the need to reiterate there are still so many more stories to tell than the ones we keep on hearing.

And here's one for you? Has anyone actually seen Apartment Hunting, because I forgot to mention our Mary is actually meant to be in it!

© 2003John Carney