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Ian Penman

Ian Penman’s essays on musicians, many of them first seen in the LRB, are being published by Fitzcarraldo in the summer.

The Question of U: Prince

Ian Penman, 20 June 2019

One evening recently I was in the local supermarket, which always has a surprisingly tasteful collection of old pop and soul hits on its playlist. ‘Raspberry Beret’ came on and I just couldn’t help it: I was instantly transported, singing along and showing out, right there in Aisle 3. It still sounded so good: those unexpected violins, the slightly ‘off’ backing vocals (a white girl sound, reversing the usual formula where a so-so white male lead is vamped by phenomenally good black female singers), the down-home cornbread of the song’s narrative queered by tiny splinters of subtext that black listeners would immediately flash on (Prince’s store-owning boss ‘didn’t like my kind/cuz I was way too leisurely …’). Was there really ever such a phantasmagorically odd pop hit as this, or was it all just a dream?

Bowie

Ian Penman, 5 January 2017

People still get into knots about the ‘mystery’ of Bowie’s serial life-swapping in the 1970s, but he’d been pulling the same trick for years on the perimeter of Tin Pan Alley before he applied it to rock. A bit of sci-fi, a bit of up-in-the-air sexuality, a bit of scarves-in-the-air sing-along, a bit of an ‘Oh no he isn’t!’ panto vibe, and a lot of power chords.

Ways to Be Pretentious

Ian Penman, 4 May 2016

Patti Smith, who turns seventy this year, has had just one hit single (1978’s ‘Because the Night’) in forty years, and the only one of her 11 albums with an unassailable reputation is her glorious debut, Horses. I’ve known many people who dearly love Horses, but I can’t recall a single person ever declaring a passion for any of the other work, intermittent poetry and photography included. For a while now, Smith has been the sort of feel-good, feels-real celeb who gets invited to ‘guest edit’ Vogue when the Dalai Lama is resting.

Swoonatra

Ian Penman, 1 July 2015

Even into late middle age, even for his closest buddies, carousing with Sinatra was a serious three-line whip: beg off early, fall asleep, order a coffee instead of Jack Daniels, and you risked expulsion, exile, the Antarctica of his disaffection. He could not abide the ends of days: it was one thing he had no control over. So he made an enemy of the clock, of merely human time, each night’s feeble apocalypse: that dire moment when the ring-a-ding bell must be wrapped in cotton wool and stowed away. Then came the risky, occluded territory of sleep.

Elvis looks for meaning

Ian Penman, 24 September 2014

In the spring of 1965, on the road between Memphis and Hollywood, desert plains all around, his bloodstream torqued by a tinnital static of prescription ups and downs, Elvis Presley finally broke down. He poured out his troubles to Larry Geller, celebrity hair stylist and, lately, something of a spirit guide for Elvis. Geller had given him a mind-expanding reading list of what we would now recognise as New Age self-help books. Elvis had read them all, performed all the meditations, but didn’t feel the light, not in mind, body or soul. The fire refused to descend; his spiritual air remained a vacuum.

On Kate Bush

Ian Penman, 16 April 2014

A dream, just before waking. It’s a day or two after Kate Bush’s unexpected announcement of her return to the concert stage for a series of shows later this year. In my dream, Bush takes the form of a child’s tiny hardback book: solid, substantial, not too many pages. On the front cover is a menagerie of cartoon animals, all Smartie-tube colours and toothy smiles. (It looks a bit like the sleeve of Kate’s album Never for Ever, from 1980, but not nearly so borderline sinister.) In the air, a singing ringing chorus: ‘This Easter egg, full of rain!’

The Obsession with Charlie Parker

Ian Penman, 23 January 2014

There is a long and slightly disreputable tradition in jazz of oral biography. The ‘as told to’ voice here belongs to Miles Davis, in Miles: The Autobiography, first published in 1989 and officially attributed to ‘Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe’ (see also Lady Sings the Blues by ‘Billie Holiday with William Duffy’). Depending on mood, ethnicity, ideology, drug of choice, an oral biography can strike the reader as an authentic reproduction of voice, in all its self-contradictory rhythm and curl – or borderline racist, like some Victorian anthropologist’s respectably freaky show and tell.

Mod v. Trad

Ian Penman, 29 August 2013

In a lovely 1963 piece on Miles Davis, Kenneth Tynan quoted Cocteau to illuminate the art of his ‘discreet, elliptical’ subject: Davis was one of those 20th-century artists who had found ‘a simple way of saying very complicated things’. Jump to 1966 and the meatier, beatier sound of a UK Top 20 hit, the Who’s ‘Substitute’, a vexed, stuttering anti-manifesto, with its self-accusatory boast: ‘The simple things you see are all complicated!’ You couldn’t find two more different musical cries: Davis’s liquid tone is hurt, steely, where Townshend’s is impatient, hectoring.

From The Blog
14 July 2014

Last week someone on Twitter sent me a photograph of the late German iconoclast Rainer Werner Fassbinder, decked out in the crisp white livery of FC Bayern Munich. Ach, der einzige Fassbinder! A waxy faced slob who worked harder than anyone alive; a queer and dreamy aesthete who necked Bavarian beer by the steinful and counted German league football an all-consuming passion. (All Fassbinder’s passions were all consuming: this was both his song, and his downfall.)

From The Blog
11 July 2014

Three World Cup teams were carrying a little piece of my heart: Algeria, France, Italy. When one by one they fell away, a large part of my own tournamental passion waned. As compensation, I picked up the recently published autobiography of my favourite Italian player, Andrea Pirlo, which glories in the frankly irresistible title I Think Therefore I Play. (Personally, I think a comma after ‘Think’ would have improved things no end, but I quibble.)

From The Blog
30 June 2014

On the subject of the Suárez bite, the World Cup pundits (David Runciman aside) were in agreement for once: ‘He’s sick’; ‘He’s obviously got a problem’; ‘He needs to get help.’ But in a kind of casual-wear version of ‘political correctness gone mad’ not a single one of them mentioned what’s staring us all in the face – the Suárez overbite. No one thought to mention those outrageously present teeth. But isn’t it possible that the back story is right here, hidden in plain sight? It’s not hard to imagine him receiving real grief for those teeth in his earliest years: children can be devastatingly cruel. If Suárez goes into analysis now, what chance his therapist will discover that on some deep unconscious level football was but a detour to his real goal – the revenge of those outsize teeth? That lurking somewhere in the backyard soul of Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz is still a hurt and resentful little boy? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ always struck me as one of the more misconceived bits of popular wisdom. Broken bones are nothing, a detail, a cinch to mend. But cruel and blithely repeated nicknames can haunt the soul for decades. A kiss on the wrist when he scores; a bite out of the old, jeering world when it stands in his way.

The Great Ian Penman

Iain Sinclair, 19 March 1998

One of the myths that fuzzes the shadowy outline of Ian Penman, a laureate of marginal places, folds in the map, is that Paul Schrader, the director of a sassy remake of Jacques Tourneur’s

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