Reviewed: Pale Green Ghosts and The Low Highway

Addictive personalities.

Pale Green Ghosts (Bella Union);
The Low Highway (New West)

John Grant; Steve Earle

Male singer-songwriters aren’t usually encouraged to share their pain – at least, not in the teary, chest-beating sense. John Grant’s 2010 debut, Queen of Denmark, was a rarity, a luxuriant journey through 1970s-style melodic rock (Carpenters, early Elton) studded with sardonic lyrics about being a gay junkie in small-town America.

Grant looked like a trucker but he had the magical mindset of a child: in songs such as Sigourney Weaver (“I feel just like Sigourney Weaver/when she had to kill those aliens”) you could hear a little boy in Spiderman pyjamas upbraiding an adult version of himself. It was a masterpiece of wit and selfloathing. He’d all but given up on music: having slid out of view after fronting 1990s Denver rock band the Czars, he’d been working as a French/Russian interpreter in a hospital when the Texas group Midlake gave him their spare room and a studio.

After the surprise success of his solo album, Grant adopted northern Europe as his home and spent two years on what appeared to be a permanent tour, trackable through enthusiastic Facebook postings (“Malmö, I love you!”). He was wringing every last drop out of his debut with, one imagines, the same fears that occupy any musician in the small hours: what if I can’t do it again? What if they realise that was all I had to give? In the perverse book of rock-and-roll lore, walking into the sea or raiding the bathroom cabinet is a viable way of preserving yourself at your most creative, but rock suicides seem a bit hokey nowadays. So what would John Grant do next? The strange thing is that those of us who liked the album really cared.

At the heart of his music is a personality that engulfs you. Like all charismatic people, Grant is both addictive and exhausting. And though his songs appear to tell you everything – too much, in fact – you still wonder what life is like for him once he’s closed the door at night. That’s a powerful thing in a modern musician, when the private life is technically there for all to see.

The new album, Pale Green Ghosts, was recorded in Iceland and largely swaps acoustic rock for sparkly, electronic minimalism. There are shades of modern classical and ambient music – Satie, John Barry and something that sounds like Brian Eno’s Arena theme tune on “You Don’t Have To” (a song that includes the lines “Remember how we used to fuck all night long?/Neither do I because I always passed out”).

Grant’s melodies are spacious carriers for his distinctively clunky phrasing, which is the centre of both his introspection and his humour. On Ernest Borgnine (named, weirdly, after the Marty star) he considers the game of HIV roulette he played and lost. There is bathos in Glacier, where “pain moves through you, carving out deep valleys and creating spectacular landscapes/Nurturing the ground with precious minerals and other stuff.” Grant’s recurring theme, which might be paraphrased as “Why did you leave me? Nothing means anything now!”, refuses to bend, while his self-mockery pre-empts anyone who’d accuse him of flogging the same old horse. In his ability to make his misery entertaining he could be one of the great, debauched literary personalities of our age.

Some of the best male solo artists strike one dramatic pose repeatedly till it becomes a thing of comic genius (Morrissey), while a few, such as Bowie, experiment with transformation. Others play within literary genres, such as Nick Cave or Steve Earle, following the template of Dylan, popping up in film and TV as fictional versions of themselves. Earle’s life was a total and utter soap opera – heroin addiction, prison, years languishing in crack dens – yet he never became an overwhelming personality, even in songs such as “South Nashville Blues”, which came right up against those themes.

Earle started out as an industry songwriter (his work has been covered by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez) and he operates within country music’s griot tradition – it’s either political (anti-Reagan, anti-Bush) or it’s storytelling (“Copperhead Road” was about a Vietnam vet turned drug dealer). His first novel (2011’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive) was a historical fiction about the doctor who administered the fatal dose to Hank Williams. Even the coming autobiography is “a literary work in three acts”. Somewhere down the line, Earle has decided that reflections of his own life are more interesting than the real thing, and after the 12-step programme and 30 years on the road, he’s probably right.

His fifteenth studio album is a celebration of that touring life, “a vast galaxy filled with the brightest of all possible futures or the blackest hole in the universe”. There are two songs – “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” and “After Mardi Gras” – which he co-wrote for the HBO series Treme, in which he played a musician (in The Wire he played a recovering drug addict). “Warren Hellman’s Banjo”, an expert copy of old-time folk songs, dedicated to the San Francisco philanthropist, is another example of Earle’s tendency to disappear into his music despite having had the life to fuel a hundred heart-to-hearts. The Low Highway chugs along on a kinetic country energy sounding just like its theme, the relentless pursuit of the road.

John Grant.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war