Obama's cliché security. Image: Getty
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Will Self: state cops, FBI letter jackets and celebrity sandwiches

"In Boston, I deliberate between the Fiscal Cliff with blue cheese and the Mark Zuckerburger."

On the dockside in Boston I spotted Fia’s Seafood – they were offering “twin lobsters” for $28.95; I ventured in and asked if the lobsters were identical or non-identical twins. “Why d’you wanna know?” the maître d’ snarled. “Because,” I replied, “I can only perform unnatural psychological experiments on them if they’re zygotic.”

The president was in town for a speech and the area around the State House was fraught with security: state cops on cliché Harleys, FBI agents in cliché letter jackets, and most intimidating of all those excessively polite men in pale yellow raincoats with pig’s tail antennae dangling from their ears. I gave them all a swerve and took the Red Line into Cambridge.

Sometimes it seems to me that the relationship between American society and its fast food is as close as that of ... well, identical twins. Foreigners writing on US gustatory habits have always understood the cafeteria and the lunch counter as the extension of the production line into the stomach. If you haven’t already, take a look at Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s ecstatically enraged depiction of American fast food in his 1933 novel, Journey to the End of the Night.

Emerging into the darkness of Harvard Square, I also gave the raggedy man standing by the subway exit a swerve. (His sign read “Looking for a Little Human Kindness” – how corny can you get?) The street folk were thronging about Starbucks, homing in like zombies on its smell-a-round of deceit – the odours of bread, pastry and roasted coffee that as one enters are dissipated by the cold winds of commercial calculation. In the lift down to the basement I sighed as I tapped my receipt code into the console. “They gotta do it,” an academic-looking type said, “else the homeless people trash the restrooms – they smear shit on the walls – I guess they’re really aggrieved.” I gave him an admiring glance and said, “Nice use of ‘aggrieved’.”

Back on the surface I passed by the Bridge Over Troubled Water trailer – “Reaching Out a Helping Hand to 16-24-Year-Olds” – before coming upon Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, a Boston landmark – or so its sign asserted – since 1960. Inside, the tables were covered with wood-grain laminate and the chairs were of the green plastic, lawn variety. A waiter with a T-shirt that read – wholly in innocence – “We Beat the Meat”, showed me to a table. Looking around me I saw that this was an establishment dominated by what Walter Benjamin characterised as the “vertical type” of modern consumerism: hokey old advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes; triangular road signs that showed stick figures crawling on their knees towards beer glasses, and which were captioned “STUDENTS CROSSING”; over several tables there were small signs that said “Johnny Cash Ate Here”, or “Robert Plant Ate Here” – claims I didn’t doubt for the thousandths of a second necessary for a computerised trading system to make a ruinous interest-swap.

Mr Bartley’s menu was equally diverting; the standard seven-ounce burger came in a plethora of guises. The Obamacare was glossed thus: “Nobody knows what’s in it ... ask the liberal sitting next to you”, and costed at: “$ Trillions”; while the Fiscal Cliff – “it’s here!” – was rather more optimistically priced at $13.85, for which you got crumbled bacon, blue cheese, red onion, balsamic vinegar and additional onion rings. I wish I could tell you I ordered a Mark Zuckerberg (“America’s richest geek, Boursin cheese and bacon with sweet potato fries”), which was a snip at 13 bucks – but, strange to relate, my sense of humour seemed to have deserted me. While I sipped my coke and chewed on my standard Mr Bartley’s cheeseburger (the only novelty being that I opted for provelone) I stared about me at my fellow preppies, who, to a man and a woman seemed to be channelling Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in those early scenes of Love Story – before the crab bites.

Lucky us. Out there in the streets the chill winds blew along Massachusetts Avenue and our brothers and sisters were dunking in the trash cans for discarded donuts. As I say, I often feel that American society and American fast food are twins separated at birth; and while one has been fed on 100 per cent ground beef and French fries cooked to a golden perfection, the other has been starved, beaten and otherwise degraded. It’s an unnatural psychological experiment – nonetheless I’m sure you’ll agree that it has to be done.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State