"Marx is so unsexy. Except when McCarthy do it."
EOTN explores the records that have influenced, motivated, shaped, altered or augmented careers, projects, perhaps even lives. These are the albums that speak for a personal love of and appreciation for music; a career journey soundtracked, a memoir in songs. Obsessed with vinyl? Even better.
Author David Keenan was born in Glasgow and grew up in Airdrie, in the west of Scotland, in the late-70s and early-1980s. Published by White Rabbit on 12th November, Xstabeth is David's third novel, an offering of transcendence and a love letter to the books of Chandler, Nabokov and Dostoevsk. Moving from Russia to St Andrews, Scotland, Xstabeth tackles the metaphysics of golf, the mindset of classic Russian novels and the power of art and music to re-wire reality.
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I’m a huge Nick Cave fan, right back from when I first heard Release The Bats and Big Jesus Trash Can by The Birthday Party on a mix-tape in the late 1980s at the same party in Airdrie where someone stole my double-7” set of Sunspots by Julian Cope (which was actually the single most stolen item from house parties in Airdrie in the 1980s). But this is something else. I wasn’t immediately as affected by Ghosteen as I was by Skeleton Tree but it is the true definition of a grower, and has become hands-down my most played album of 2020. What an incredible achievement it is. Cave has nailed a form of ethno-poetic exegesis that combines myth, modernism and highly personal imagery, and the way that each track echoes and references the other with phrases and refrains makes this a truly haunting landscape to inhabit. Ghosteen feels like an entity, a working to raise a living art, which is exactly what I was attempting with my new novel, Xstabeth, to generate life, to birth living form, from language and rhythm. I love the combination of Warren Ellis’s primitive, cranky keyboard loops, and Cave’s magisterial piano settings, and how he pushes himself into uncomfortable vocal registers, as on the epic closing track Hollywood, for heightened emotional effect. But it’s still rock n roll, and not merely poetry, and Cave connects his writing with Elvis and Robert Johnson and apocalyptic rock/roll traditions with hypnotic refrains of amazing lines like “Come on everyone/come on everyone/a spiral of children climbs up to the sun”. A total work of art.
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A music of pure longing, of exile and repatriation, and of deep soul. I know it sounds mental, but my reggae epiphany came via The Clash’s white reggae tracks, ha ha, but they really turned me on to so much good stuff, Burning Spear, The Heptones, U-Roy, Steel Pulse, Third World, Prince Far I… but it was Heart of the Congos that truly blew my mind, with a heady devotional air, a dub environ that felt like memory, or dreamtime, and those vocals, those beautiful gospel lyrics with their Biblical cadence, a cadence I grew up with myself, of Old Testament revelation: “Send my sons from afar/And my daughters from the end of the world/Send my sons from afar/And my daughters from the end of the world.” A masterpiece of high holy music.
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Okay so I was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party when I was 18 years old and had just started university but in my defence I only joined cause I was falling for this great beauty from Mauritius who recruited me on the steps of the Queen Margaret Union and who later went on to become a long-distance runner. I would attend miserable barbecues in cramped back gardens in Partick, in Glasgow, where the only books in the house were Marxist texts and where everyone sat around all afternoon cursing 'the Trots' (I think), slagging off 'rugger buggers’ and preparing for an imminent Nazi demonstration that we were gonna have to crush that never ever took place. One afternoon, at a meeting, I got too stoned and had a whitey and fell off a piano (long story) and puked up and had to be left naked in a bath at my girlfriend’s halls of residence where some kind of property inspector found me with sick on myself and kicked both me, and my girlfriend, out of the halls. Lucky it was summer, so I moved back to my parents’ house in Airdrie and she moved back to hers, but not before she bit me so badly on the neck – she had braces on her teeth, still – that I had to go and get a jag and spend the entire summer with a gaping love bite for all of the staff in the kitchen at Monklands Hospital where I worked to make fun of, cause I was the only guy working there, and the women would taunt me with a bottle of Buckfast round the back of the skips at lunchtime, but worst of all was when they would try on mail-order lingerie over their uniforms on the break and talk about how they were going to ride their man when they got back home. To this day the smell of grated carrots makes me heave.
I say all this because I love McCarthy, the group Tim Gane was in before Stereolab, and I love their lyrics even though, like Jefferson Airplane before them, another group that I love, if you actually stop and think about some of them for two minutes they are complete la-la-land insanity, but they remind me of all the sad cases in the RCP when I was at Uni only but McCarthy, even though they are thought of as a jangly indie band, play really sensuous, extended, proto-Velvets/Flying Nun-style droning dream pop. Marx is so unsexy. Except when McCarthy do it. Actually, I never heard this LP at the time, I was totally in love with their first one, I Am A Wallet, particularly amazing song-writing on that one, but this is one of my most played reissues of the year, a brilliant expanded edition that captures an even dronier, more blissed-out take on zoned agit-pop.
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Two key tracks on this, probably my most-listened to Bob Dylan album since, Tempest? Triplicate? Love and Theft?: I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You and Key West. My bud Biba Kopf, who is a major Dylan head, doesn’t like this album quite as much as me and complained about Dylan’s simple listing lyric style, his listing of musicians, celebrities, politicians and military heroes, said that it was unworked, not fully formed. But these ‘list tracks’ have to be heard in the context of the magical working of I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You. Here, Dylan has betrothed himself to the world, he has committed to finding himself out there, and no longer in here, he sees the stars up above, and the flowers growing, and the first fall of snow, and he commits himself to all of it, recognises himself in it, even, “from Salt Lake City to Birmingham/from East LA to San Antone”, and further, into the depths of the album, where he sees himself in Jimmy Reed, in JFK, in Indiana Jones and Anne Frank, in the mansions of eternity, raised from the ruins of time. It’s a jaw-dropping commitment to make in the September of his years, a work of magical daring that leads us to the epiphany of Murder Most Foul and deeper, still, into Key West one of the most gnomic songs on place and epiphany that Dylan has written since the time of The Basement Tapes, which it feels like a secret out-take from. I have accompanied Dylan all the way ever since I heard Bringing It All Back Home as a 16 year old, but I feel like his later albums have more emotional weight and complexity, and this is top five, easy. Incredible to experience someone making the greatest art of their life, still, right now.
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I love all of Lana Del Ray’s albums, she is my favourite contemporary pop star and one of my all-time favourite singer-songwriters. I think all of her albums are flawless, except for Lust For Life, but even then it was just the mis-judged celebrity duets that stank. NFR feels to me like an elegy for 20th century rock/roll culture, especially on an amazing track like The Greatest. "Me and my friends, we miss rock n roll" she sings, as she takes a detour to a bar where Beach Boy Dennis Wilson would hang out on his way to the surf, before building to a chorus that seems to hint at how none of us knew how this incredible rock/roll scene, this great 20th century cultural achievement that we had built from the ground up, would be on such tenuous ground in the 21st. “Don’t leave, I just need a wake-up call” she sings, and it feels like a love song to everything that I cared about, everything that made me want to publish fanzines and put on shows and learn how to play the guitar and write like Lester Bangs. I am in love with 20th century popular - and unpopular – culture, and NFR is my favourite love letter for all the same reasons that I wrote my first novel, This Is Memorial Device.