‘We need to live, love and prosper’ – Steven Machat
Wales Arts Review arrived to a rain-sozzled Green Man and immediately headed out on a pilgrimage to see what was new and what remained from our much cherished memories of the previous year. The eponymous Gin Tent was altered but still under construction and the final touches were being put to the Walled Garden; as people streamed in it was exciting to feel the festival coming to life. After wincing at the weather reports and with worrying flashbacks to the mudfest that was 2010, Wales Arts Review (who have, curiously enough, dabbled in a little landscape gardening), were reassured to see that the GM team had been working hard to manage the inclement weather whilst preserving the unique aesthetic which underpins the festival. Wooden, symbolically un-droopable bunting led the charge down improved paths and about massive straw bales which, combined with the arteries of lighting, provided a magical tour around the site. Green Man, now in its thirteenth year had managed to both preserve and improve upon much lauded attention to detail, enthusiasm and friendliness. The impressive line-up combined with the offerings of the Talking Shop, workshops and Cinedrome promised much for the weekend ahead.
Fortified by a Rum Tent ‘Mai Tai’ – complete with a pineapple leaf masquerading as cocktail stirrer – it seemed the right time to go and pay homage to the Green Man himself. This year he was knee bent as though in supplication to the earth. His arms were outstretched, hands resting on the earth and cupped upwards as though scooping up the wishes suspended on the strings which stretched out before him. This year he was a beneficent guardian, he was our austerity Green Man.
Unfortunately, Wales Arts Review had contracted what felt like a new, more virulent strain of the Black Death and instead of doing all the things it had planned, much of Friday was spent shivering and debating whether life was worth it. Again, Rum and Ginger were called to the rescue and we managed to catch Rhod Gilbert hosting a special Green Man version of his very chaotic and hilarious ‘Jest a Minute’ with Holly Walsh, Greg Davies, Chris Corcoran and Rob Deering. As expected for a festival it was a lively audience, and a joke-off between the younger members showed how much Green Man is an inclusive place for families to enjoy time together.
Saturday stretched out in anticipation of the many things on our itinerary. We had to forgo the infamously difficult Pop Quiz due to feeling dreadful and instead took a stroll to the Walled Garden to watch Meilyr Jones but were not in the least disappointed with the sacrifice. Jones himself, as a stage presence, is both disarming and bewitching; his lyrics are precise, literary and intense and his obvious enjoyment is infectious. Wales Arts Review was a little bit in love.
The Talking Shop was one of the festival highlights of last year, partly because this particular emissary of Wales Arts Review loves a lecture and partly because it provided an antidote and a counterpoint to the more typical festival excesses. This year, inclement weather and apocalyptic-flu led this writer to the sanctuary of the Talking Shop often, although, quite frankly, we would have been there anyway.
Richard King, this year’s curator, began the day with a reading and a discussion of his book Original Rockers, an account of an early 1990’s spent squirreled away in an independent Bristolian record shop. The book is a recollection of the shop’s idiosyncrasies – from the fire door entrance to the ‘back room’ of staff-only vinyl, to its infamously indecipherable cataloging system. King read an extract about trying to find a Can record in the ‘back room’ of the shop, searching in vain through the ‘C’s only to find it (a lot later) in K, under ‘Krautrock’. On another occasion Roger, the shop’s owner, came in to find King playing Can’s ‘Yoo Doo Right’. ‘Can’t play Can in the shop’, he said, before turning his back and going into such almost indecent ecstasies that King spent the remainder of the sixteen- minute song averting his gaze. Whilst the description of these interminable minutes is very funny, the most humorous and perhaps even poignant moment concerned Roger explaining afterwards, calmly and almost sadly, that he can’t play Can in the shop because he ‘gets too involved’, before shaking his head and leaving the room. This anecdote not only summed up Roger’s unapologetic love for music but it also gives an insight into the shop’s downfall. Its best peculiarity was also its fatal flaw; music was a passion which overrode all other concerns, most notably the financial. King explained how records would be traded for Olive oil or work-in-kind such as putting up shelves. He also pays homage to the people who inhabited the shop, from Roger and his co-workers, to now famous musicians and the often maligned and perplexed customers. King’s memoir plucks this unique and fated shop from the obscurity it was destined for and preserves it, not only for those who knew it, but for those to whom it belongs; the lovers of music.
Rob Chapman’s Psychedelia and Other Colours is a new history of psychedelia which charts the history, precedence and cultural impacts of LSD. Chapman explained his theory that LSD had a feminising and world-opening influence on bands such as The Small Faces and the Beatles. It allowed them to transcend the limits of their education and to reach out into the world with new frames of reference. The book explores the themes of cultural shifts and politics, the history of LSD production, the music it inspired and the people it changed and the discussion touched on all of these, at times, controversial readings. One aspect of the discussion that puzzled this reviewer was Chapman’s theory that LSD was a feminising drug and that by virtue of this he had written a feminist book. An example of this was his timeline of the Beatles, who he argued switched between masculine and feminine modes throughout the 60s. Thus, Sgt. Pepper – their most overtly LSD LP of course – was a feminine album, while Abbey Road reverts to their more masculine, Hamburg-origins. Whilst it can be argued that the previous Mod aesthetic is more easily allied to masculine notions of brutalism and conceptualism and that these harder edges were softened and stretched by the influence of LSD, it doesn’t stand that this makes it an essentially feminising movement. It makes it more likely that traditional, post-war notions of masculinity were challenged and changed by its influence which in itself is a far more interesting topic for debate.
Mojo then had the unenviable task of asking Mark E Smith a series of baiting questions such as ‘What do you think of UNESCO world heritage sites?’ and ‘What is your favourite flavour of crisps to put in a sandwich?’, all of which had been chosen by their readers. As expected many of the questions got short shrift but in Smith’s typically acerbic way many of the answers were hilarious. In answer to the crisp question ‘a conspiracy of crisps’ was declared, the variety of flavours declared ‘democracy gone mad’ with Smith even going on to explain that the UK’s obsession with all things crisp had undermined our international reputation. In Mark E Smith’s world, only plain crisps would survive – there would be giant, stretching aisles of them in each supermarket. Naturally he brought no peace and love to the avowedly hippy-ish Green Man, with his enduringly punk spirit, nothing and no-one is sacred to Smith. It was expected and delivered in a kind of mutual contract which began with the audience excitedly discussing whether he would even turn up. The fact that he was fifteen minutes late, deeply irascible and walked off stage after being asked a question by uber-fan Stewart Lee, was exactly what was expected and delighted at. His razor tongue was also, rather hilariously, turned on The Rolling Stones, Paul Morley, ‘the piano player from Squeeze’ (for whom, rather pleasingly, this was not the first maligning of the festival) and Virgin Records AKA ‘the home of Satan’.
Last on the bill was the Super Furry Animal’s Gruff and Guto in conversation with Gwenno. The discussion was a little stilted and neither Gruff nor Guto seemed to be in the chattiest of moods. Nevertheless, there were some interesting aspects to the conversation. They discussed how the band met at raves – they were typically the-last-men-standing – and through ‘a common spirit of adventure’, wryly illustrated by a fateful meeting between Gruff and Bunf on a slow train to North Wales. A discussion of the place of Welsh language was unsurprising given that Gruff, Guto and Gwenno are all Welsh speakers and performers. It was in part testament to the mainstream success of Mwng (confirmed with its very successful re-release this year) that great music is great music, no matter what language it is in. They discussed how it was a ‘reaction’ album, not to writing and playing in English but to a series of time intensive records which demanded months spent in the studio and then touring. Mwng was their antidote, a nod to songs written and recorded sparingly and perhaps it is this which makes the record feel so intimate. When pressed on the question of language, Gruff was uneasy with the responsibility or perhaps more specifically the individual politics of preserving or promoting Welsh language. On first consideration this seemed to be a little disingenuous given the bands obvious engagement with and connection to the Welsh language, but perhaps what Gruff meant is that first and foremost they are artists: writing in English and moving to Cardiff gave him the opportunity to be part of a wider Welsh music community and as he put it, he ‘just wanted to make an album, play songs and enjoy it’.
Wales Arts Review valiantly rallied after the previous day’s excitement and Sunday began nursing a coffee (still in the driving rain) and wondering around a decidedly squishier Green Man. It was then a hop, skip, brief interlude with some falafel and back to the Talking Shop for ‘Croydon Till I Die’. Andy Miller, John Grindrod and Bob Stanley all grew up in Croydon and were discussing their love of the ’burbs and its influence on music, culture, architecture, film and literature. The suburbs, for those who love them, are a breeding ground of new energy, an enclave of their own – eschewing the cities they satellite and indignantly fostering their own culture and identity. For those who don’t they are a frustrating necessity, uncertainly placed on a boundary between city and country, a place to flee from. As expected, there was a definite affection for and commitment to the suburbs among the panel and like most things, it was universally agreed that only people who live there can be critical of it. The discussion then ranged through the artworks which capture suburban life; The Diary of Adrian Mole and The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, the Bromley contingent and Mike Leigh. There was much lamenting that it is somewhere often ignored yet so important the social and political fabric of the country.
A.W Wilde and Will Burns were a welcome and popular interlude to a very music-centric Talking Shop. A.W Wilde read ‘Arse About Face’ a story from his collection A Large Can of Whopass; which he described as ‘stories about life’s changes and life changers’. ‘Arse About Face’ concerned a young man, aching to grow up, looking for the first signs of hair so that he could begin shaving. Wishing his life away day at a time, ‘Mardy Nick’ then hit his twenties and eagerly watched as his frame thickened and his face changed. He enjoyed Sundays spent walking with his retired miner Grandfather and learning about the Welsh working class community to which he belonged. One day walking around town people began to stare at him, avoid him and when watching the general election with his family a horrified Nick discovered that he looked exactly like David Cameron. The story’s title betrays the political leaning of the community Nick is a part of and soon his life tragically descends into chaos. He is the hate figure of the town, vilified on the streets, shouted at, spat at, driven into reclusiveness. Even his beloved Grandfather cannot stand to look at him. Wilde teases out this tragic and very funny story with great drama and wit. Will Burns then read a number of poems that he described as being about ‘those who are dispossessed and disenfranchised by a government that wants to separate us from ourselves and our environment’. With accessible, funny and poignant poetry it is easy to see why he has been chosen as writer in residence for both Caught by the River and Festival No.6 as well as being named as one of Faber and Fabers New Poets of 2014. The poems he read were often meditations on his family, including ‘Transmission’ which is about his cousin’s ability to fix any car and ‘Guy’, a poem about a friend who as a young man had a terrible car crash.
Steven Machat then took the stage for a reading and discussion of his latest book Sacred Knowledge. Inspired by an epiphanic three day commune with the Divine, Machat had his own truth to share with the Green Man community. Wales Arts Review is a fan of philosophy so was eager to hear what he had to share, and whilst arguably some of it was more on the kooky end the spectrum, (Wales Arts Review was somewhat troubled by the involvement of astral dimensions), his sincerity and openness was at times incredibly moving. Machat is an entertainment lawyer with an impressive history in the Music business. After the death of his son in a tragic car accident (the description of which nearly reduced the whole audience to tears), he was called to the Divine at his lowest ebb. The chapters of his book are set to ten eclectic songs, including ‘The Pretender’ by Jackson Brown and ‘Puppy Love’ by Donny Osmond, whose career he helped to re-launch. These songs make up the music which has inspired him and which like a spiritual mixtape now frame his spiritual understanding of the world. For Machat, we are the representatives of God and heaven is now, not some promised land, his creed is that we must strive to ‘live, love and prosper’. His theory draws upon many different strands of thought from radical Christianity, Buddhism and Nietzsche all laced together with arguably some more hippy notions of dark forces and virtual living. Perhaps some of the most interesting elements were how this strand of reasoning was intertwined with Machat’s own past, his work, his achievements, heartbreak and his own obvious enjoyment of the music he loves. He has discussed weapons of mass destruction with Prince Andrew, made peace with Leonard Cohen and knows pretty much every big name in the last 30 years of the music business. Whether you think him a crackpot or a genius, you can’t dismiss out of hand anyone who argues for love, compassion, understanding and sheer enjoyment of the world around us as Machat says ‘spiritual awareness is love of all human beings’.
Rounding off the festival was a discussion with Pete Fowler, the artist perhaps synonymous with the Super Furry aesthetic. Fowlers creations have been a key part of the bands identity. From the twinned bears of Radiator to the pipe smoking goat skull on Mwng, Fowler has been at the centre of SFA’s creative exploits. Fowler explained how he was a fan of the band before he was ever approached to do their artwork; he loved the psychedelic and cosmic aspects of their music and the idea of creating their own Furry world. He explained how he usually works from a lyric, theme or idea within the music and incorporates this with their common interests, most notably mobile phones and monsters. Fowler is also known as ‘The Monsterist’ and he explained how he enjoys creating monsters because they can be ‘anything you want them to be’, they are the characters which inhabit the world created by the music. The Cyclops on Guerilla came from turning a mobile phone into a deity and the cover of ‘Northern Lights’ from imagining El Niño as a weather system monster. The expansive nature of SFA’s interests and tastes is also shared by Fowler. Folk law and myth are also key influences and they tap into the way that Gods and Monsters as recurring motifs with his work represent and engage our imaginations. They are elements of us all, our attempts to understand ourselves and our interior worlds. It seemed particularly apt that while all this was being discussed two children, dressed up with animal tails and ears were wandering around the tent.
This year’s non-musical Green Man excelled itself with the quality and variety of its line-up and it is testament to this that the tents, workshops and Cinedrome were full throughout the weekend. Talking Shop was arguably a little music-talk-heavy and because of this couldn’t offer some of the more obscure surprises of last year. Nevertheless, it was consistently stocked with interesting and engaging talks and certainly enough variety for even the most music weary. The popularity of Burns and Wilde show that there is an opportunity and an appetite for more spoken word events as part of the festival and perhaps Green Man are missing a trick in not giving a platform to more Welsh writers and poets, when Welsh artists are so well represented elsewhere in the program. Whatever quibbles there may be about the line-up, Green Man consistently has the ability to share with you something new and perhaps that is the very best compliment you can pay to any celebration of talent and ideas.
Original artwork by Dean Lewis.