'John Cale O.B.E.!' my friend insisted, when I enthused about Cale's latest offering ; as though issuing a challenge.
It's not that difficult really. In the end the music must be separated from the man.
If I'd ever thought about judging artists purely in ideological terms then I'd never have read the brilliant novels of Yukio Mishima, a writer who elevated the Japanese Emperor to a deity, or I'd have boycotted the albums of Neil Young because on his last one he very weirdly did a version of 'God Save The Queen'!
In an age of septuagenarian singer-songwriters some are producing the very best music of this century, while others flounder.
Dr John's 'Locked Down' was (apart from one track) his best album ever and Tom Waits' 'Bad As Me' a definite return to form, full of black humour and wistful balladry.
Bob Dylan's 'Tempest' however, despite being lyrically interesting, is one of the most musically tedious albums I've ever heard, with the band chugging away as if half-asleep. It had universally positive reviews!
John Cale hails originally from Garnant, in what was the mining area of Carmarthenshire , and now lives in LA after spending most of his life in New York. For his 'Obscene British Empire' gong he dyed his hair pink to meet Carlo.
I only wish he'd given his award the same treatment as he once did a chicken on stage, beheading it in front of a large audience!
An article about Cale recently appeared in the 'Observer Food Monthly' and ,sadly, Cale has not become a veggie in order to do penance for the chicken homicide. Journalist Ed Vulliamy described Cale as a musical 'genius'.
This is an epithet bandied around in rock / pop circles . In Cale's case however, it's deserved.
Ever since my friend the Bartzman taped 'Faithless Kind' way back when, I have collected most of his albums.
Some are very tricky to get, including piano music 'La Naissance d'Amour' which Malcolm Lewis once described in 'Planet' magazine as his pinnacle. Likewise 'Caribbean Sunset' which has been undeservedly deleted.
I've seen him live twice and both times it was very memorable. Firstly he concentrated on the acoustic versions of his songs, as on 'Fragments of a Rainy Season' and secondly highlighted his then latest album, 'Walking On Locusts', which is underrated,comprising as it does several wonderful songs like 'Set Me Free' and 'Some Friends'.
I deeply regret not going to his most recent concert in Wales at the Coal Exchange. A friend went and called it 'superb' and he is a recent Cale convert. According to Vulliamy someone at the front commented - 'He's ours!'
Over the years Cale has had an ambiguous relationship with Wales, though his entertaining autobiography is called 'What's Welsh For Zen?'
He has recorded songs such as 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' and 'Ship of Fools' which draw greatly on his upbringing here.
His musical interpretations of some of Dylan Thomas's poems on the album 'Words for the Dying' are very much 'marmite music'. Personally I like their angular, rhythmic approach which reminds me of Bartok's piano music.
He has admitted that his daughter Eden felt more empathy with the Welsh language (he was brought up a Welsh-speaker), yet he used Cymraeg at his recent concert. I believe the way he resists Americanisms in his voice and places emotion at the hub of his music shows he is still 'ours'.
His latest album 'Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood' is his finest this century by some distance.
His most intriguing work in the last decade has been on two EPs, '5 Tracks' (a unique and captivating musical adventure) and the more direct and often witty 'Extra Playful'.
'Nookie Wood' combines what works on both of these as Cale uses modernist techniques of composition, the layers of Brian Eno's influence, with melodies which instantly engage.
If the songs are outwardly very catchy in their repeated choruses, then the lyrics are a fascinating journey into the wood as it's turning dark, all its passages and strange sounds surrounding.
I love the way they bewilder and riddle and even an ostensibly straightforward song like 'Living With You' has a dark subtext.
Musically, this album rewards you the more you listen and you only have to watch the video of 'Face to the Sky' to appreciate that. There is a mysterious and gentle keyboard phrase throughout, punctuated from time to time by clashing, crashing synthesizer chords which suggest the passion and energy of the woman dancing, 'dizzy like a top on a chessboard.'
For anyone who only associates Cale with the Velvets I suggest you start with his selected, 'Close Watch' and then get this one.
For all the achievements of Dr John and Tom Waits, there simply is no other musician/ singer / songwriter/composer as bold yet ironically as accessible as Cale right now.
And on this album he even lifts up his old and trusty viola to occasionally provide the kind of sound so characteristic of the Velvet Underground in their prime.
Hail Cale! Viva John! Bachgen bach o Garnant erioed erioed!
LEAVING SWANSEA BAY
He set sail
on a ship called Pianoforte
out of Swansea Bay
set off for New York
and the factory of sound
with frames for tins
fish swam in and out
of the strings
he mimicked the cries
of gulls on his viola
( Cymraeg had been an anchor
and ropes of home
tied to a pier
unknotted by the wind
to hold the distant torch
beyond the beats of the sun
It's been an amazing couple of weeks for the Red Poets. I don't want to go over the top, but it feels like a revival. While the magazine was never in need of one ; the performance aspect certainly was.
Sadly, some of the old hands like Jazz and John 'Maesycwmmer' Davies haven't been around to join in, but the latest magazine (issue 18) - with a striking portrait by Alan Perry of the late socialist poet RedRej on the cover - is surpassing all others in terms of positive feedback and , so far, sales as well.
It began with the launch in late September at The Imp's monthly Open Mic. night in Merthyr and followed on at The Castle, Tredegar, this month.
At both events there was a fascinating combination of music and verse, which brought back the halcyon days of Riff Williams , whose songs were always so powerfully delivered.
( Incidentally, Riff and his band Little Miracle seem to have disappeared from the internet completely. One day some musical archaeologist will dig up his work and its treasures will be on display for all to see in the future).
At The Imperial the music was provided by Huw Pudner and Chris Hastings, who desperately need a name, a record deal and a crafty manager...no, I'm not offering my services!
They gave us contemporary folk which is so rare nowadays : one which engages with the struggles of working people, without ever sounding preacherly. Chris's gentler voice is well complemented by Huw's harder tones, no doubt influenced by his heroes like Dick Gaughan.
The room was fit to bursting and a Canadian who arrived late ( I thought he said he'd come from Ireland!) thought it was too cramped...the first time anyone's commented that! Old stagers like myself and Tim Richards read alongside Julie Pritchard and Jonathan Edwards (making their debuts in this issue).
Wonderful to see Chris O'Neill read again and he has a very good poem in number 19, which I'm already in the process of planning. Also, Emily Hinshelwood, just one of the many Red Poets who have gone on to win the John Tripp Prize for Spoken Poetry.
The Tredegar gig was organised by local Andrew Benjamin and we knew it would be a tougher task , as they just weren't used to listening to poetry there.
It was doubly tricky because we had to read in the public bar with punters present , who were there for the beer not the verse.
Luckily, we had a real mic. and a landlord and -lady who were full of encouragement, in contrast to our last performance in Newport when the landlady actually refused to knock off the juke box at first, even though poetry-goers were the only ones in the pub!
Music was provided by Merthyr's own Jamie Bevan with one of his band Gwedillion and Blackwood's Barry Taylor. Both are committed socialist republicans and Cymdeithas campaigners.
Unusually for our events, there was a group of 6th form pupils from the local Welsh language Comp. I stupidly asked them were they there for the poetry or music, to which they replied in unison - 'Jamie Bevan!'
The music that night was forceful and direct : Barry's two Welsh language songs about the Jubilee full of mockery and his version of 'Dance on Your Grave Mrs Thatcher' by John McCullagh ( a song I wasn't familiar with) was a real roof-raiser!
A pub-load of people singing along to the chorus...beats karaoke any day.
Jamie is a different kettle of piranhas altogether. He performed all the songs from his fine EP 'Torri Cerffiw' and his lyrics are literally oozing Merthyr : from 'Jonathan a Jonathan' about an infamous character 'Sioni Pen Tips' to the wild and witty 'Strydoedd Merthyr', he is rarely political, yet a genuine 'canwr bro'.
Jamie Bevan has a prison poem in the next issue and I'm very excited about the contents so far, with new poets like Paul Harrington and Mair Pitt contributing.
I took to The Castle as soon as I heard Captain Beefheart on the juke -box and was told they had piles of Tom Waits.
As I was reading 'A Big Party' from last year's magazine, someone yelled 'Fuck off!' from the back and a couple of minutes later the poem echoed this phrase.
( I was told later that he was actually shouting at his mobile, but it didn't sound like that to me!).
Patrick Jones, Tim Richards and John Williams 'shone like crazy diamonds' and we took Tredegar. They even want us back on a regular basis ( hopefully not just to boost sales of booze!).
Now I'm looking forward to our next gig at the Oxfam Bookshop in Swansea on November 7th, starting 7 pm.
It will be a third launch and a fitting one to commemorate RedRej, whose poems will be read by the well-known actress Helen Griffin.
John Tripp was a writer who, I 'm sure, would have been an avid supporter of Red Poets.
He was consistently leftwing and highly conscious of Welsh working-class history, even though he became extremely disillusioned after the 1979 referendum on devolution.
I'm very grateful to John because he gave me my first opportunity in print, by publishing a couple of early political poems in 'Planet'...one in a very odd patois.
He could be very abrasive in later years, but was one of the best performers around. He would have relished the challenge of a Valleys pub and an audience unused to poetry.
MEETING TRIPP'S GHOST
I'd arranged to meet Tripp's ghost
in his home town of Bargoed.
He'd be on the Cardiff train,
myself on the Merthyr bus ;
non-driving poets, both experts
at cadging unlikely lifts.
He was looking rather haggard,
as befits one 26 years gone.
Didn't seem healthy enough for a few pints,
so I suggested the new caff, the Bookworm.
'Yew're goin soft, boy!' he growled,
taking me from tavern to tavern :
the Old Mill, Blast Furnace and the Nelson.
Told him he'd given me the worst advice from anyone,
'Don't be funny about the Valleys!' he'd said.
He laughed, asking if they'd erected a plaque yet.
He couldn't believe the state of the town -
'It's like a bloody building-site, mun!'
He railed against supermarket plans -
'I knew it...Tescoville,Morrisonburg, MandSton!'
Pissed up against the visual projection
of roads, people, buildings in one direction.
From Mozart Cottages in Pontlottyn
and Tennyson and Milton Terraces
shoppers passed him by tut-tutting.
'Hanbury Chapel's a library now,' I told him,
'but the Emporium's empty as a disused mine.'
'I was always a visitor, you know,' he explained.
'You mean in Cardiff?...you couldn't belong?'
'No...in the end, the page was my home.'
Before Friday's World Cup qualifier against Scotland I would say I was supremely confident......that we would lose!
I used to be a dedicated fan, never missing a home game,till the FAW changed their Members' system and it became very complicated when tickets were only allocated through the clubs.
But with demand low and expectation even lower, it was easy it get them for this game.
Before the match it was like being in Glasgow not Cardiff. Kilted Scots were everywhere, but mostly outside pubs pints in hand and one lad walked towards town blowing his bagpipes as he went along.
From out of the Owain Glyndwr a small group of Welsh and Scottish fans linked arms and danced a merry jig, as they chanted - 'We hate England! We hate England! We are the England haters!'
In Canton it was even more like an invasion, with every pub having the saltire outside, often declaring allegiance to particular clans. One set wore witches' hats above their tartan : the MacCoverns?
Over a pint of the very best Breconshire brew my Scottish friend, currently living in The Netherlands, informed me that - according to his language tutor - there was no word for Wales in Dutch. It seemed like a portent.
Before the game there was more piss flowing through Canton than rainwater. We were outnumbered and overwhelmed, as we surely would be on the field of play.
In the CCFC Stadium it was the same : they were in the Ninian, Canton and Grand Stands. If it had been the 70s or 80s there would probably have been carnage, but as it was here were two resurgent nations with so much in common ( including struggling football teams!).
The anthem singing was really strange, with the Scots carrying on with 'Flower of Scotland' even as 'Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau ' had begun. It wasn't out of disrespect, of course....more like 10 too many pints of Skull Attack!
The atmosphere was noisy and passionate, so much better than a quarter full Millennium Stadium. I've got too many memories of dreary Internationals there.
Early on the game failed to live up to the atmosphere. Cymru played neat possession football with Vaughan, Allen and Ramsey holding sway in midfield, yet creating few clear-cut chances. Scotland threatened on the break, with Morrison and Maloney lively on the flanks.
Yet even somebody who knew little about footie couldn't fail to notice something. Wearing number 11, predominantly left-footed but on the right wing, was a tall athletic player with 'Bale' on his shirt and every time he got the ball he was surrounded by two or three Scots, yet still managed to beat them with ease and pace.
It all turned on two moments in the first half. This tall lad from Whitchurch, now playing in the Premier for Spurs, caused havoc and sent over a perfect cross for our Morison to miss with a header, when he should
A goal-kick punt upfield from their keeper McGregor was flicked on by Steven Fletcher for their Morrison to drive in.
As the game went on and we didn't look like scoring, we became increasingly desperate. 'Has Whitts got a Welsh Gran?' , asked my friend and fellow Bluebird.
When 'Rambo' (Ramsey) fluffed a one-on-one after a great run, we thought it wasn't to be, although I do recall saying - ' If we get one, then we'll go on to win!'
There was plenty of controversy in the second half as befits a fixture with a history of dreadful decisions, especially Joe Jordan's handball in '77. Fletcher's perfectly good goal was disallowed for offside and Berra should've been sent off, giving us a penalty. The officials made equally poor decisions for both sides.
And then, as the game was nearing the end and we were giving up hope, that player Gareth Bale changed everything!
He won a penalty...rightly so I believe... when he was clipped by Maloney during another of his powerful runs. Took the pen. Bamboozled their goalie.
With a couple of minutes on the clock, he again showed his sheer class with another surge from midfield and a hammering shot on the run into the corner of the net, giving McGregor no chance. Even as he shot Charlie Adam was shoving him over!
I cannot recall a game in which one player of world class has had so much of an influence. Certainly Giggs never did it for his country like that.
Though many Scots were aggrieved by decisions I'd say we deserved to win because we had this player who belongs with the stars.
ODE TO BALE
Gareth Bale flies down the wing
like his feet have got sails
for 'WA-LES! WA-LES! WA-LES!'
He turns Scotland's defenders
inside out, back to front, upside down,
makes Charlie Adam look like a clown.
Flips McGregor's brain like a pancake
with his incredibly tricky pen ;
beats one, two, three ; then does it again.
Kairdiff boy come home on a wet October night,
his magnificent second just proving
he belongs on another planet ;
the planet of Messi and Ronaldo,
where Pele and Best once lived,
where few players can hope to go.
A place where skill, strength and speed
are the three elements there
and you breathe excitement instead of air.
When I was six, I wanted to be a Basque! I had no idea at all about that country in Spain and its unique fight against the fascist dictator Franco.
I had merely seen a film in which the Basque people were depicted as resourceful and nimble mountain dwellers, always ready to surprise their enemy.
So, on Tanybwlch storm-beach near my home village of Penparcau, I used to leap from giant boulder to boulder like a cross between a long jumper and mountain goat, with the name 'Basque!' on my lips.
It didn't last long. If you'd asked me my ambition during most of those early years, it would've been 'a cowboy' or (in complete contrast to my older self) a soldier in the British army.
Films determined the days' long fantasies, but television and, in particular, football was gradually making its mark.
As popular music and footie took over my life and became my overriding passions (as well as the opposite sex), I might have played my tennis racket along with the hits of The Beatles, yet never had any serious thoughts about forming a band.
I was later on the fringes of a couple without ever joining in. I should've grabbed the mic. and declared myself the vocalist, but I was less and less pushy as an adolescent.
Footie was another matter. Even though my actual career peaked when I played for the City Schoolboys at eleven, I still harboured enough fantasies to keep alive a possibility of making it.
In his fictionalised autobiography 'Ash On A Young Man's Sleeve' Dannie Abse describes himself fantasizing about being a doctor, something he succeeded in becoming. He also wanted to be a footballer with our beloved Cardiff City and even got to play at Ninian Park , though he had to play against Cardiff City reserves, as the opponents were a man short!
As a teenager growing up in England , my team was Everton and those excellent midfielders Harvey, Kendall and Ball my heroes. Before that I admired winger Derek Temple ; so much so that, playing every evening on our village's cow-field pitch one lad dubbed me 'Simon Templar' (after The Saint, a popular TV series then), while another saw my blonde curly hair and called me 'Shirley Temple'!
Ambition can be a strange thing : a mountain you climb to gaze around and down at fields, outcrops and valleys...only to spot another mountain, higher and more challenging.
I think I must've realised that, even at 14, my footballing career was never going to happen and when I discovered poetry-writing at 15 it became fundamental to my existence.
I could never think of being a writer as a job though and the only work I had any notion of doing was journalism.
I used to read football magazines avidly and later the 'NME' and 'Melody Maker' and a fine one called 'Street Life', which sadly disappeared all too rapidly. My mother even suggested I leave school after 'A' Levels to become a reporter.
Though I never realised that ambition, it has played a part in my life. At Aber Uni. I helped edit 'Rasp', an alternative newspaper, and have since written for 'Y Faner Goch' , 'Arcade' and 'Celyn'.
My biggest claim to fame was being the first pop/rock reviewer for 'Wales On Sunday' when it first appeared as a broadsheet. I relished being able to enthuse about music I loved, such as the wonderful African singer Salif Keita and Welsh language bands Steve Eaves and Sobin, who were producing politically-charged songs about holiday homes and injustices n.Ireland.
Now my son's a fully-fledged journo with Channel 4 News, it seems strange. He was always destined to be a musician, yet ended up in a very different arena.
Likewise my older daughter, a politician who always aspired to a career in theatre. I think her experiences being cast as a chicken in 'Animal Farm' and a peripheral leaf in another drama, didn't help!
My younger daughter used to want to be a fireman, till she saw a documentary showing just how risky it is. Then it was an 'architecture'...perhaps the Eiffel Tower?...she's tall enough!
For anybody who yearns to be a writer I would recommend it highly, especially if you're not interested in the money. There's so much variety: from the writing itself, to workshops and performances, from organising events to MC-ing them.
On National Poetry Day last Thursday, what better place to be than in a library with an adult Creative Writing group, all eager to express themselves?
As someone who still looks for inspiration to musicians, sportspeople and, indeed, journalists, I thought I had encountered one of those I admire last week :-
GEORGE MONBIOT ON THE VALLEYS LINE
Thought I saw George Monbiot on the Valleys Line,
wasn't dressed up as a polar bear this time.
He was reading 'The Guardian', only one on the train ;
I thought, chances are it's got to be him.
I wanted to approach him and say -
'Hey Mr Monbiot, I admire what you say,
I like your red-green fusion and vision,
your fear of a future destroyed by global warming.
I like your support for Lucas, for Wood's ideology
(before she sold out on the monarchy).
However, Mr Monbiot, no offence of course,
but your U-turn on nuclear power's for the worse.'
He would've liked my Fruit & Veg Co-op carrier,
the fact I was, like him, a train-traveller.
But it's a good thing I never went up to him,
googling him later he looked so much younger :
the one I spotted had silver hair, was going bald,
and looked more like me, if truth be told.
I thought I saw George Monbiot on a Valleys train,
it was more like a hole in my ozone brain.