By Ralph Brown
A Chequered musical quilt of an autobiography, in song-shaped episodes. My Pop Life takes one moment in my life and looks at it through a piece of music. Sometimes the piece of music fits that moment really well, other times not. It is not a list of my favourite songs. It is my look back at an eventful, dysfunctional, random musical life. It is therapeutic and hopefully without regret. There is no plan. Here is one entry.
Step Vampire Weekend
The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out, what you on about?Step, Vampire Weekend
I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones.
Change. Everything is moving. Movement. Gravity holds us down but we’re spinning on our axis once every 24 hours and circling the sun once a year, and we’re growing older every week.
We give birth astride a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then it’s night once moreWaiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
Not that I want to worry you or anything, but it flashes by doesn’t it? Kids shoot up and soon start breeding, the World Cup in Germany was 15 years ago, I was 23 a few hours ago.
I always used to say “I’m in the middle of my life – c’mon!” to justify a holiday after a gig, to spend the money immediately by jetting off to the Caribbean – again. But looking back – I was – we were – in the middle of our lives. So these pieces of writing are partly an awareness of that, of time and people slipping away, of wanting to say the things I want to say to the people I want to hear it. Not waiting until somebody passes for a ‘tribute’ – to Nanci Griffith, David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister, Ed Asner, Charlie Watts, Lee ’Scratch’ Perry et al. Let’s do a little tribute while we’re still alive, so we can hear it. My tributes are to friends and family, and to my musical turning points. And here’s another:
October 2013. Jenny, my wife, had been given an apartment in Brooklyn Heights for the duration of a Donmar Warehouse all-female production of Julius Caesar, which had transferred to St Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO on the waterfront. Down Under Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass. An industrial area of warehouses and cobbled streets which has been gentrified up the wazoo and is now an expensive part of New York to live i.e. like everywhere else. Brooklyn Heights is a fifteen minute walk south and up the slope, or you can connect via the waterfront of the East River River.
Willow Street, Brooklyn Heights and Brooklyn Heights promenade looking West at Manhattan
The views of downtown Manhattan from the elevated railings of Columbia Heights are second-to-none, and better than anything on Manhattan itself. We were on Willow Street, one block east, opposite Truman Capote’s old place. Leafy, quiet, easy-going, and maybe 200 years old or so, we fell in love. We swooned. We could live here, we said excitedly to each other, collecting garments from the Chinese dry cleaners on Henry Street, sitting in Montague Street Bagels, lunching in Dumbo Kitchen before a matinée.
Living on one floor of a classic New York brownstone townhouse with wood floors, tiled deco bathroom and giant fridge. We recalled the early ’90s in King’s Road, West Hollywood. America America! the skies all seemed to say, once again.
Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend 2013
2013 was a great year for music. Kanye West came out with Yeezus which was the record of the year because parts of it sounded so unlike anything else, ever. His raps were patchy though. Kacey Musgraves made an absolute belter of a country record out of Nashville. Yasmine Hamdan had a solo record which was terrific. Disclosure. John Grant. Chance The Rapper. Rudimental. Sigur Ros. Queens Of The Stone Age. Electric Soft Parade. Run The Jewels. Beyonce. Drake. Justin Timberlake. J.Cole. Haim. Janelle Monae. Take your pick. Pretty astoundingly good amount of greatness, unusual. I picked Vampire Weekend which still is my favourite record of 2013.
By now the backlash had started – they were rich white kids appropriating African music. This is so dull I won’t refute it in detail except to say that a) they’re not white – they’re Persian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Italian; b) on scholarships and bank loans; And that, c) furthermore, anyone can play whatever they like. They are the freshest buds on a family tree that stretches back through New York time to Dirty Projectors, and before them to the mighty Talking Heads (see My Pop Life #92)
The third LP – Modern Vampires of The City – was a major development of their palette while staying recognisably a Vampire Weekend LP : world-music rhythms played as 21st century pop music from a city which is the crossroads of the world. It doesn’t sound African to be fair. It sounds fresh, playful, clever, funny, melodic, rhythmically interesting and new. Hybrid music.
The band have grown up lyrically. There is some darkness creeping in. Ariel Rechtsaid was brought in to co-produce with Rostam Batmanglij and sonically there are many innovations, pitch-shifting and other unusual ways of recording vocals and drums. It rewards repeated plays. It gets deeper and more interesting. On this track we get baroque harpsichord arpeggios and church-like soaring falsetto voices, reminiscent of the Fairlight keyboard, or treated to sound like one.
Step appears to be about girlfriend trouble and opens with the coda “Everytime I see you in the world you always step to my girl,” which is a quote from a single by Souls Of Mischief called Step To My Girl, (1992) which also opens with the line “Back, back way back…” and which is about girl trouble, by a rap group from Oakland in California.
“Actually Oakland and not Alameda/ Your girl was in Berkeley with her Communist reader/ mine was entombed within boombox and Walkman.”
Which suggests he’s listening in the 80s to hip hop rather than indie rock. Vampire Weekend’s re-think of the song is a little trickier though, and many commentators (including Rostam, who wrote the music) have suggested that the girl in the song is actually their music, that people are possessive about their music, the music of their era, or that they write in the same way that people are possessive over lovers. Ezra Koenig the lead vocalist and key songwriter and lyricist in the band has suggested that the song itself has a family tree, layers of versions of samples of references.
I won’t dissect the whole thing here, because if you’re as obsessed with this song as I am you can enjoy the 10-metre board deep dive into its salty waters yourself, but there are some fun links : Souls Of Mischief sampled YZ’s Who’s That Girl and Grover Washington Jr’s cover of Aubrey by Bread. If we’re slicing songs from David Gates (who is credited as a co-writer) and this song is about music, then….
“Ancestors told me that their girl was better/ She’s richer than Croesus, she’s tougher than leather / I just ignore all the tales of her past life/ Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife”
Tougher Than Leather is an LP by Run DMC (1988). And so on. There are quotes from Talking Heads in there, references to growing old, to dying, to buying a house, wisdom teeth, truth, Anchorage, Mechanicsburg and Dar Es Salaam.Oh and Angkor Watt.
It’s beautifully mysterious all the way through and I’ve had a lot of fun trying to unpick it, but perhaps it’s best left as a mystery in the end. The video is a homage to New York City in black and white, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. In 2013 it was like the pied piper calling me across the Atlantic, a beckoning finger, here, this is the place, right here.
Keyboard player and producer on all three of their LPs Rostam Batmanglij left the band a few months after this album was released but announced that would continue to work with them on forthcoming projects. It was the end of an era.
Jenny and I moved to New York in February 2014, the day after Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose in his apartment in the West Village. I worked with Phil in 2008 on a film called The Boat That Rocks aka Pirate Radio in the States.
Jenny and I flew over to New York City with 2 suitcases and a cat each and after two nights in Harlem, moved down to Fort Greene in Brooklyn, the area where we still live today.
It was almost exactly three months after having a conversation together in Brooklyn Heights about starting over.
A new chapter, a fresh start. We really didn’t take much convincing.
Ralph Brown is an actor, writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He has worked in the West End, Broadway and Hollywood and his writing has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.
I remember seeing that movie, Pirate Radio. I enjoyed everything about it. The story, the music, and the frenetic vibe. I feel like, after having read your story, that you are continuing that tradition.