I was thinking about what it is to be an artist, as opposed to a common or garden performer.
Kate Bush is an artist. Bob Dylan is an artist. The Beatles were artists, but Paul McCartney probably isn’t. Jessie J certainly isn’t.
People get cross when I make these distinctions. “You’re being elitist.” That sort of thing.
Well, yes. And in reply, I’ll say, “Tonight, make yourself some beans on toast.
“And then tomorrow go to Murano, and have dinner prepared by Angela Hartnett.”
It’s a safe bet to say that any chef worth a Michelin star and a handful of AA rosettes is an artist. You and your baked beans, not so much.
This all came to the fore when I asked the pop star who lives in my house what was happening with Jessie J. Turns out she’s having a career break. Having a career break? What does that mean when you’re a songwriter?
I found this fabulous headline:
“Jessie J shows off her toned bikini body in a zebra-print two-piece as the hits the beach during idyllic getaway in Portugal.”
Substitute the name Kate Bush for Jessie J.
Just wouldn’t happen, would it?
I’m not picking on Jessie J in particular. In fact, I’m not picking on her at all. But what a treadmill it is being a pop star these days. And how soul-destroying it feels to listen to what passes for a song at the moment.
The pop star was listening to something on her phone. It was just sitting on the kitchen table (no headphones) and its tinny little speaker was mincing up an already bleak track that appeared to consist of one chord, nothing that could be called a melody, and a bunch of words that would never qualify as lyrics. Straight after came another song in the same key, with a similar riff. I seriously thought it was an extended fade of the first one.
And for some reason, my mind wandered off on my last trip to America, where, after maybe 1,000 miles of driving I ended up in Portland, Oregon.
At the time, Portland was taking over from Seattle as the indie music capital of the world. For about ten dollars, almost every night of the week, you could go and see two or three bands. And, honestly, they’d all be bloody marvellous.
I saw Cloud Cult, a sort of precursor of Arcade Fire. Lots of people on stage, all sorts of instruments, and an artist creating paintings as the others played. You could buy a painting at the end of the gig.
I saw Pseudosix, whose dreamy indie pop sent me straight to the CD table before they’d even finished their set. Seven years later I still love it, and they don’t even have a Wikipedia entry.
There was the frankly bonkers 31 Knots, fronted by Joe Haege, a frequently scary guy who can nevertheless play the varnish off a guitar neck. I felt sure he would come over to London and get something going.
Most of all, though, there was Anita Robinson.
Anita and her husband Kevin toured and recorded as Viva Voce. Viva Voce had some success, and toured Europe a few times. They made a handful of albums before they divorced and sadly split the band.
But the hook for me was Anita. She looked like a soccer mom, all neat and tidy, sensible dress, maybe from WalMart. But oh my God – when she started to play guitar it was like she was channelling Jimi Hendrix.
And there were no histrionics. She wasn’t showing off. She wasn’t playing as if every note had to be ripped from her very soul. She is just … a musician. It was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen. This ordinary looking woman with her sensible hair and sensible clothes (she may even have had a string of pearls) just absolutely tore the joint up.
And I suppose that’s why my mind suddenly drifted back to Oregon. It was probably the last time I saw great, interesting new music live.
Not that I’ve seen nothing good since. I’ve seen Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for goodness sake. And Blur. And Kokomo.
But everyone I’ve seen has been a known factor, a guaranteed good time. Portland, Oregon, 2007 was the last time I saw seven or eight unknown bands, all of whom rocked my world to some extent. I came back with four cds, which I still treasure.
But most of all, Anita Robinson: where are you now? I guess the world just wasn’t ready for Soccer Mom Hendrix. But at least I had the pleasure.
This first YouTube clip will show you what I mean. You may not watch it all, but you’ll get the picture.
Then have a look at the second video, which is a neat rip-off of John & Yoko’s Bed-In. There’s a blistering guitar solo about two minutes in. Soccer Mom rules.