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Issue 32 January-February 1997 RSS

The Mancunian Candidate

Film

Barry Adamson

Moss Side, where Adamson was born of a white mother and black father and raised, during the 60s and early 70s, within an education system that was indifferent at best and damaging at worst, was an uneasy community of whites and blacks who were united solely by deliquescing rituals of northern working-class society. In the late 70s this cocktail of urban deprivation, attendant crime and legitimate protest would turn volatile, eventually explode into rioting and prompt a long-term programme of inner city regeneration. And, as with the riots in Bristol and Brixton, this messy blaze of unrest would coincide with the fallout of punk rock and its dialogue with the musical blackness of heavily dubbed reggae and mutant funk. The young Barry Adamson, despite having been a Stockport Art College punk, had grown up racially and emotionally with a strong sense of belonging to neither black society nor white subculture; as described by the title of a cult hit by the first band he ever played in, Magazine, he was ‘Shot By Both Sides’. Being outside the outsiders and different amongst different would be the crucial informant of his development as a musician and composer.

For Adamson, the urban topography of south Manchester would double as a map of his own memories, leaving an indelible imprint on his imagination as the arranger of soundtracks for the imaginary films of his life - the principal trilogy, Moss Side Story (1989), Soul Murder (1992) and Oedipus Schmoedipus (1996), were punctuated by the EPs The Taming of the Shrewd (1989) and The Negro Inside Me (1993). Luxurious, erotic, tense and self-aware, Adamson’s musical range can score the themes of classical tragedy or dirty realism to the sound of Count Basie or an avant-garde fusion of Scott Walker and Can.

These scores to Adamson’s imagined role as a character within his own fictional world - a film noir on the edge - endlessly revisit the struggle of sensibility between black and white, acceptance and rejection, love and sexuality. And, to this extent, his artistic project is as much literary as musical: casting himself as the private detective within his own experience and the secret agent investigating opposed factions, he is both the cop and the criminal, tracking himself down in the urban landscape of his memories. Like the sleuth victim/hero of Alan Parker’s film Angel Heart (1987), Adamson is on his own trail in a darkly Faustian allegory.

In keeping with the ambience of this filmic narrative, the Adamson sound is an epic and eclectic collage of musical styles, creating the effect of sound-stage lighting on the scenes that are being played out. On Moss Side Story, (‘In a black and white world, murder brings a touch of colour’) with its obvious punning on Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story (1965), the listener is drawn not only into the soundtrack of a film - created by a mixture of movie melodrama and industrial atmospherics - but also into the sense of being surrounded by the expanded sound of a cinema auditorium. Similarly, on The Negro Inside Me, Adamson would convey the echoing acoustics of a 40s dancehall, or, on Soul Murder, the penetrating intimacy of a wireless broadcast. Whether adopting jazz, gospel, funk, soundtrack string synthesiser chords or big band swing, Adamson scores arrangements in which sound itself becomes a character contextualised within an imaginary environment, as consciously created as his own fictional role.

Artists create new identities for themselves, often in childhood, that are primarily survival techniques based on psychic self-defence. For Sartre, in his philosophical biographies of Flaubert (L’Idiot de la Famille, 1970) and Genet (Saint Genet, 1963), this process was a response to what Flaubert described as ‘the ever hidden wound’, and gave birth to the ‘becoming of’ the new mask. Thus, in Sartre’s analysis, Flaubert had to create the role of the invalid for himself (as, arguably, did Proust - aided by the tyranny of asthma) in order to authorise his creativity; similarly, for Genet, being an unwanted ward of the state demanded in him the reinvention of his being as both the author and hero of his fictional worlds. Alienated by his mixed race parentage, but more importantly by the ‘ever hidden wound’ - unknowable but fundamental - Adamson’s first portal to reinvention was a gift for mimicry that earned him protection. This process was a necessity, unconnected to the elevated thinking of the purely artistic process.

An avid childhood consumer of television series such as Man In A Suitcase, The Invaders, The Fugitive and Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Adamson became the hero of these tele-dramas within the streets and playgrounds of Moss Side. He revelled in an ambience of new glamour that could project him as Romantic hero or Existential victim within the real world of classroom boredom, pregnant 13 year-olds and boys who came to school with black eyes. Like Genet, pursuing a dreamscape through the imagined lives of cat burglars and pimps, Adamson could find in the wounds and bravado of his peers the beginnings of a cast for his imaginary worlds - with himself, withdrawn by nature, assuming the starring role in what turns out to be, in a narrative loop, the pursuit of his own case. The self, as defined by Proust, becomes ‘the many gentlemen of whom I am comprised’.

Hence, on Soul Murder, Adamson’s proclamation of his mixed identity in the tellingly titled ‘Split’:

‘Allow me to impose myself upon ya.

I’m El Deludo

Oscar de la Soundtrack

Mr Moss Side Gory

From Rusholme With Blood!

That’s me, H.P.

Harry Pendulum, the last of the big time swingers

I’m livin’ off a theme.’

Here are the elements of Adamson’s founding theology of his new self as glamourous sleuth: ‘El Deludo’ (mixed up), ‘Oscar de la Soundtrack’ (the self as composer of one’s own psychic soundtrack), ‘Mr Moss Side Gory’ and ‘Harry Pendulum’ - swinging between the roles of the cartoon cop and the pantomime gangster, touched by the vernacular of northern comedy and attempting to solve an oxymoronic crime in which the only culprit can be Adamson’s own sense of difference. Within this passing through roles in a film noir of the self, the walls of the mind begin to collapse; perceptive certainty is lost, in a manner akin to the baroque complexities of plot in Howard Hawks’ film The Big Sleep (1946) - of which even its author, Raymond Chandler, claimed not to know ‘who done it’.

The identity that Adamson has composed for himself on his solo records, from Moss Side Story to last year’s critically acclaimed Oedipus Schmoedipus, with its guest appearances by Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave, has been hard won as a process of reinvention in the wake of his vital roles in Howard Devoto’s group Magazine, and Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party and Bad Seeds. A self-taught musician, Adamson’s first instrument was a two-stringed second-hand bass guitar to which he added a couple of extra strings, learning to play through the vibration of the neck on a wooden bed head during the night before his audition for Magazine. Having been Bootsy Collins to Howard Devoto’s James Brown, he later became the crucial architect for the echoing, swamp-fevered soundscapes of Nick Cave’s terrifying rituals of self-hatred. As Cave acted out his own tragedy of heroin addiction and obsessive relationship to Anita Lane (as brilliantly documented in Ian Johnston’s 1995 biography, Bad Seed), so Adamson, no session player or second fiddle, discovered his own need to escape from the destructive psychosis which Cave’s drama had bred. His first single, released in 1988, was a reinvention of Elmer Bernstein’s The Man With The Golden

Arm (1956).

From the beginnings of this solo career, Adamson’s project has mingled the sonic ambience of the TV tele-dramas that he appropriated as a child, with the desperado gothicism of early Alice Cooper - whose ‘Halo Of Flies’ on Killer (1971) seems to rehearse much of the Adamson aesthetic. But this formula of formative influences was set in motion by a literary and cinematic turn of mind that provided a narrative framework, as he proclaims on Soul Murder, to be ‘steering the wheels of this tired old jalopy onward and upward into desire’. The voice of Adamson’s music, whether sung, spoken or articulated through musical composition, is the voice of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or his black equivalent, Easy Rawlins, created in Walter Mosley’s contemporary crime novels of 40s

Los Angeles.

Rawlins, in particular, parallels Adamson’s musical alter-ego as the mordant-humoured black man in a white underworld; indeed, for both Adamson and Rawlins the term ‘black comedy’ becomes a racial pun upon itself. Their characters are less concerned with the morality of crime-busting than their own safe passage - itself a journey of self-discovery - through an urban labyrinth where double identity, convoluted twists of fear and smiling treachery look on at the amoral and the absurd.

When Easy Rawlins gets caught in the maze of mayhem around the white gangster Mr DeWitt Albright in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), he wakes with night sweats of dread and a yearning for the comfort of a woman, in which the desire for a lover is ambiguously linked to the infantilist or Oedipal longing for his mother:

‘I woke up sweating in the middle of the night. Every sound I heard was someone coming after me. Either it was the police or DeWitt Albright or Frank Green. I couldn’t throw off the smell of blood that I’d picked up in Richard’s room… I was shivering but I wasn’t cold. And I wanted to run to my mother or someone to love me, but then I imagined Frank Green pulling me from a loving woman’s arms; he had his knife poised to press into my heart.’

Such a mixture of fear, desire and the sense of abandonment is also central to Adamson’s Oedipus Schmoedipus, with its musical interpretation of the distance between love and lust, and its revealing inner-sleeve artwork of the Virgin Mary, a nude pin-up starlet and a hand-tinted, archaic photograph of a benign maternal woman. But the sound of Oedipus Schmoedipus continues to foreground tension, even within its more soulful arrangements, and the work as a whole seems to investigate further the ambiguity of desire and the inevitability of alienation. Jarvis Cocker’s vocal on ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Pelvis’ delivers the lyric, ‘Save me from these glossy photographs; save me from my mother’s laugh’, while Nick Cave’s co-authorship and Scott Walkeresque rendition of ‘The Sweetest Embrace’ concludes with the paradox: ‘I just don’t want you no more, and that’s the sweetest embrace of all.’

Above all, Adamson’s music articulates the moment of apprehension - the turn in the poorly lit corridor, the door to the room that might not have a floor. And as such he has remained faithful to his formative experience of eerily glamourous or fantastical tele-dramas, identifying with the transplanted ethos of fugitives, secret agents and alien infiltrators. Only the emotional status of these fictional ciphers has been upgraded to describe the no man’s lands of gender and sexuality, where nerves, in keeping with Chandleresque scepticism, ‘snap faster than a ten cent mousetrap’.

It is small wonder that Adamson has recently enjoyed the supremely ironic triumph of being asked to score the additional music for David Lynch’s forthcoming film, Lost Highway. Now completed, these pieces mark an inspired partnership between two great anatomists of anxiety; Adamson and Lynch both play in an emotional fourth dimension where fear and comedy combine to shed light into the oubliettes of human frailty. Their mutual project is the fateful constitution of curiosity. Adamson, however, has been a veteran traveller on his own lost highway, which stretches all the way back to Moss Side.

Michael Bracewell


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First published in
Issue 32, January-February 1997

by Michael Bracewell

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