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Yes, I know I've been lax these last three and a half years. Wild and wonderful things have been happening, and I haven't transferred them into print for the edification of music fans and students of the bizarre everywhere. What can I say? I'm not Nikki Sudden, a man with a hyper-active keyboard hand and a mission to enlighten the world with news about his innumerable musical activities. Neither am I Michael Gira, who also manages to keep track of a million and one things while at the same time running a record label and releasing one excellent CD after another. It's not that I'm lazy - I just seem to get easily distracted, which is a lame excuse, I know, but it'll have to do. So maybe I should just make a quick summary of some of the things that have happened since December 2001 then cut to the chase... Here goes...
Fatal Shore and Phil Shoenfelt & Southern Cross (now shortened to SHOENFELT as most Czech people can't get their tongues around "Southern Cross"), continued to wend their chaotic ways across large chunks of the continent of Europe. (If you're a member of the genus known in England as "Trainspotter", you might like to check out our progress on the "Gigs Played In Your Hometown" section under "Concerts"...) There were concerts in Greece and The Ukraine as well as Austria, Switzerland, the UK, Slovakia, Denmark, Germany and Poland. In between all this musical activity came the floods of 2002 which nearly wiped out Prague (luckily we live in Zizkov, an elevated area of the city that should be safe from flooding except in the event of total meltdown of the polar icecaps...), and the two auto accidents which nearly wiped out me. The first was on July 6th 2002, when I failed to see a gold Peugeot that came hurtling out of the afternoon sun on a switchback road in Southern Bohemia. My beautiful old BMW was a complete write-off, but luckily neither I, my wife Jolana, nor the occupants of the gold Peugeot were seriously injured, even though the collision happened at a bone-shuddering 100 kms per hour. It was my fault too, so thanks to God and my guardian angel for keeping a watchful eye over me and those I nearly killed. Then, six weeks later, as we were negotiating traffic jams and diversions caused by the previously mentioned floods, our replacement car suddenly erupted into flames and nearly succeeded in incinerating the two of us. The car was a twelve year old Skoda, donated to us by Jolana's dad, and as old Skodas have a tendency to overheat in traffic I was keeping a watchful eye on the temperature guage. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of the related tendency for the petrol feeder pipe to slip off its mooring and pour petrol onto the red hot engine. We were on our way to a wedding party on the lake shore in Slapy at the time, and my friend Ollie Peters from Once Upon A Time was in the car behind us, along with Chris Hughes and several other musical types from Berlin. Ollie had his digital camera with him, and so we have some excellent footage of the event (complete with crackles and whooshes as the petrol tank exploded). Long before the fire trucks arrived the car was reduced to a smoking heap of twisted metal, but again nobody was injured and the whole thing was really quite dramatic. "Wow, that was great," said Ollie as he hit the playback button on his camera and savoured the carnage. The fire chief who arrived with three fire trucks to douse the flames wasn't fazed at all. "Yes, I have seen this many times with old Skodas. The rubber petrol pipe gets hot, you see, then it tends to slip out of the clip that is supposed to hold it in place..." Well it's good to know these things in case I'm ever tempted to buy one of these death-traps again. Needless to say, after these two little mishaps I didn't feel like driving for quite some time...
OK, back to the music and writing! I notice that in my last newsletter I boast of having finished writing the first part of "Stripped", my follow-up to "Junkie Love", which documents my debauched years in New York between 1979 and 1984. Well rewind and edit - I'm still working on the damned thing, and it's probably gonna be the death of me. Or if it doesn't actually kill me, the chances are that it will drive me completely nuts. After reading it through, I decided there were large chunks of it I didn't like so I deleted them and basically started from scratch. This was after the manuscript had been read by my good friend Laura Conway, the Prague-based American poet who also happens to be an excellent editor. "Too much repetition," she said, "and the characterisation sucks. There are some excellent bits, but then you lose the plot entirely and everything goes out of focus. And why are you using this strange syntax? You're not James Joyce or William Burroughs, so why don't you just tell the damned story..." I put it away on a shelf for three months then read it through, and I had to agree that she was mostly right. So I started the whole thing again after ditching the parts I wasn't happy with, then wrote entire new sections and tried to weave the whole thing together. The problem was with the structure, which is far more complex than the "plot" of "Junkie Love". I wanted to capture the chaotic nature of the late '70's and early 80's punk scene in NYC, and so the structure is similarly free-form and chaotic and jumps around all over the place. The challenge is to write about the chaos without allowing the chaos to take over the writing, but I THINK I'm almost there now and I'm just polishing up the prose and making sure the whole thing hangs together. Bear in mind that this is just the first book of what was originally intended to be a trilogy - as it is now about 320 pages in book form, I've decided to be a little less ambitious and make it into a "biology", or whatever it is you call a book in two parts. Otherwise it's gonna be up there with "War and Peace" and the King James Bible. This long period of gestation is pissing off my Czech publisher Lubor Mat'a, though, who has had the book in his catalogue as "forthcoming" for the past three years. But as I pointed out to him, Gogol took eight years to write the first part of "Dead Souls", ten years to write the second part (most of which he destoyed), then went mad and starved himself to death before he could start Part 3. So there's hope yet, I suppose...
In between the re-writes, I did manage to play a fair number of concerts, though. And my short play "George and Tony and Dick and Don - a 21st century morality play" got published in the Slovakian literary magazine "Vlna" ("Wave"), as well as in the Prague Literary Review. I wrote this satirical play in a fit of rage in August 2002, when I realised that Bush and his cronies were succeeding in their con trick of using the World Trade Center attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq. Horribly enough, much of what I wrote in the play has come to pass, even down to the building of the "security fence" in the occupied Palestinian territories. My music these days isn't at all "political", because I don't want to repeat what I've already done with my old NYC band Khmer Rouge; plus, I'm now a little cynical about music which purports to be political and which ends up being marketed for mass consumption by the very corporations that are contributing in various ways to the destruction of the planet. Even so, sometimes the shit you see and hear necessitates making some kind of statement, and the way the US administration got away with their blatant lies and their campaign of deliberate misinformation really pissed me off. The play is printed on this homepage under "Writings", if you'd like to check it out...
Speaking of Khmer Rouge (horrible name, I know, but I was reading a lot of Situationist texts at the time and wanted to make a statement...), a double CD of our music was finally released on the UK label Voiceprint in Sepember 2004. In 1984, the band relocated from NYC to London, and I remember walking around just about every independent record label in London, knocking on doors and trying to get a deal. Nobody was the slightest bit interested, and the tapes mouldered away in boxes for the next eighteen years. As I didn't want to lose them forever, I contacted my old bass player Barry "Scratchy" Myers and we agreed to make a selection and burn it onto CD. As it turned out, there was enough material for a double CD, and after Barry had mastered it all in London Volker Regner burned several copies and, unbeknown to me, advertised it on the homepage. Lo and behold, a Belgian music journalist called Pierre-Michel Doutreligne contacted me, wanting to review it, and when I told him it hadn't been officially released he said he'd review it anyway. He also suggested that I contact Rob Ayling at Voiceprint, an English label that also releases stuff by The Fall among others, and upon receiving the burned version Rob was sufficiently enthusiastic to press up 500 copies and launch them onto the unsuspecting world. Which just goes to show that everything happens in its own time, a thought I use to comfort myself while poring over the ever-expanding manuscript of "Stripped"...
Late 2004 also saw the release of "Deep Horizon", a double "Best Of..." CD on the German label Phantasmagoria. Again, this offer came like a shot out of the blue, shortly after Pavel Cingl and I returned from doing a short tour of Greece, and I have to say I'm really happy with the way it has turned out. I spent ages selecting the tracks and the running order, but thanks to the combined efforts of Lothar Gärtner, Roland Popp and Volker Regner (plus the design skills of Friedel Muders and Rolf's excellent mastering), it's turned out to be the CD I'm most proud of. Thanks also to Nikki Sudden for his sleeve notes, and to all the musicians I've played with over the years and whose contributions appear on this CD. I think it's a great summation of all my music to date, and I'm looking forward to finishing this damned book and getting back into the studio to take up where I left off...
On the cusp of 2003/2004, the long-awaited second CD by Fatal Shore was finally released on the German label Moloko +. Free Fall was recorded in Cincinatti in the year 2000 (actually, it was recorded across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky), and I have to admit I was starting to doubt if it would ever see the light of day. After many re-mixes and periodic losses of contact with the producers Dan May and Jerry Chambers, we finally got a version we were happy with and Ralf Friel at Moloko decided to release it. I've just managed to get distribution for it in the Czech Republic, through X Productions of Brno (home label of the wonderful Moimir Papalescu & The Nihilists), and it's also available in Germany through Moloko + (if you can't find a copy, and would like to buy it, you can contact me directly through this homepage).
And just to back-track a little bit, Phil Shoenfelt & Southern Cross's third studio CD "Ecstatic" came out on the Exupery label in June 2002. Both this CD and Deep Horizon have subsequently been licensed to Hitch-Hyke Records of Athens, Greece. I'm still working on getting distribution in the UK and USA, but you can get Deep Horizon through Phantasmagoria in Germany, and Ecstatic at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, what else have I been getting up to lately? Well, I began a collaboration with the band Wissmut from Leipzig, and their off-shoot band The Russian Doctors. This has resulted in another literary effort on my part called 'A Little Known Episode - Pratajev In Prague", a kind of spoof about a fictitious Russian poet/doctor who is kidnapped by the Red Army in 1945 and ends up having all kinds of adventures here in Zizkov, Prague. (You can also read this piece on the homepage under "Writings".) This story led to my first excursion into film-making, when Makarios of The Russian Doctors asked me if I could make a Hollywood-style epic for inclusion on the "Schnaps & Weiber" DVD (available at email@example.com ). I also "wrote" the screenplay and act the main role in this 16 minute extravaganza, playing the part of one "Charles Cockburn", an ill-fated BBC documentary film-maker who comes to Prague to make a film about the great Russian poet... Southern Cross also toured in Germany last November along with Wissmut (Makarios, the lead singer, used to be head honcho in the well-known German post-punk band Die Art), and they toured with us last month in Czech Republic and Slovakia.
So, I think that's about all the news for now, other than to mention my recent reunion with Mark E. Smith and his wonderful and frightening band The Fall. I called Mark up on Easter Monday to ask if there was a chance of doing some support shows with The Fall in Britain, as it's now several years since I've played there and I was starting to miss the warm, flat beer and the wonderful food the promoters there provide you with (usually a limp baguette wrapped in plastic, if you're lucky enough to get anything at all...). Mark released my fist solo single on the Cog Sinister label back in 1989, and Khmer Rouge did a couple of UK tours supporting The Fall back in the mid-1980's. My ex-wife Marcia even ended up playing keyboards with them for four years before getting fired and turning into a doctor (not a Russian one, but a very beautiful American one...), so the relationship goes back aways, as they say. Mark obliged by offering me two Scottish gigs, one in Glasgow, the other in Aberdeen, and I have to say it was a very interesting and rewarding experience. Usually, fans of The Fall are rabid and frustrated civil servants who hate any other bands/music apart from The Fall, so I was a little nervous when I stepped onto the boards the first night at Glasgow University. I did get a few whistles and cat-calls at first (being a lone singer with an acoustic guitar at a Fall gig is a little similar to being an early Christian pitted against lions in a Roman amphitheatre...), but after the first song they decided to accept me and I ended up getting quite a positive reaction, both in Glasgow and Aberdeen. I also renewed contact with my old buddy Alan Wise, one of the founders of The Factory Club in Manchester, along with Tony Wilson (check out the film 24 Hour Party People if you want to know more, even though Alan was deleted from the movie for one reason or another...). He was promoting the Fall concerts and invited me to drive with him to Aberdeen, where he wangled me a four star hotel instead of the crummy Bed & Breakfast establishment I'd booked myself into. He was also promoting the Little Richard tour in the UK, and insisted on trying to sort out various kinds of chaos via his mobile phone while careening recklessly down the motorway at 100 mph. Needless to say, The Fall were amazing, better than they have been for years. Mark just keeps going on and on and seemingly never runs out of inspiration, and with new musicians, new teeth and a new wife (not necessarily in that order), he seems to have undergone something of a creative rebirth.
So, that brings to an end this installment of the newsletter.
I hope it's not another three and a half years before I get around to doing another one,
and I hope that by the time I do I will have finished at least the first part of
Well, it's been quite a hectic month. On October 25th JUNKIE LOVE was finally released in English, and the publisher (Twisted Spoon Press of Prague) threw a book launch party at Club Fraktal in the Letna area of Prague. About a hundred people showed up, and I read passages from the book (including the bit where "Dodgy Dave" gets the bag of heroin stuck up his arse, and the S&M scene with the French girl!) and played some songs that were related to characters and scenes in the book. Pavel Cingl of Southern Cross helped out on violin, and the response was very positive indeed. Afterwards, everybody proceeded to get hellishly drunk, except for yours truly who had to drive home and take care of the equipment! Junkie Love was first published in Czech translation in 1997 and has gone through a couple of print runs here, but it gave me a lot of satisfaction to finally have it published in my native language. So thanks to Howard Sidenberg and Twisted Spoon Press for taking a chance and releasing it...
I've just finished writing the first part of the follow up book, which has the provisional title of STRIPPED - this will eventually be a trilogy (if I don't kick off before finishing it!), and actually documents the period directly before Junkie Love, when I was living in New York. The Czech translator has it now, and it should be published in Czech towards the middle of 2002. Hopefully, an English version will follow in the not-too-distant future...
Staying with literary matters, I took part in an
"International Poetry Day" at the Globe Bookshop in Prague on November 16th.
This was organised by the great ex-pat Australian poet Louis Armand, and featured writers
from America, Canada, Czech Republic, England, Australia and Slovakia. It was the type of
event that could probably only happen in Prague, New York or San Francisco - places that
are large enough to be cosmopolitan and interesting, but which still have some kind of
cultural centre with a mixture of people who basically know each other and are supportive
of each others' work. I read from a book called MAGDALENA, a kind of erotic/poetic novel
that I've been writing for the last year or so with the Czech poet/artist Katerina
Pinosova. Katerina is an incredibly gifted artist and writer, and is a member of the
Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group (this group includes the Czech animator/film director Jan
Svankmayer amongst its members). We actually started writing this book as an experiment in
automatic writing - we'd go to Prague pubs, get blind drunk on good Czech beer, and take
it in turns to write whatever came into our heads! The novel has developed out of this
chaos and is now in the process of attaining some kind of thematic content. Like I say
it's pretty raunchy, but we want to capture that special Prague feeling as well - you
know, the kind of atmosphere that is in the workof early twentieth century
Czech-German-Jewish writers such as Hermann Ungar, Paul Lepin, Gustav Meyrink and of
course Franz Kafka. Katerina and I took it in turns to read, and we received quite a
startled reaction from the audience! If you want to find out more about the International
Poetry Project, check out the homepage at:
So, what about music? To me, writing and music are very much bound up together, and the books and songs relate to each other in the sense that they are often different takes on the same situations and characters. My favourite musicians tend to be writers too - Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Michael Gira, Patti Smith - and I like the interchange between these different forms of expression.
So I usually get obsessed with book-writing for a couple of months then I go back into the music and spend a month writing only songs. That way everything stays fresh and you don't get jaded...
At the beginning of November, Southern Cross did a mini tour of Moravia and Slovakia, with concerts in Brno, Batislava, Prostejov and Ostrava, during the course of which large amounts of alcohol were consumed and many new friends were made. I have to admit I'm always a bit nervous about playing in Slovakia ever since a two week tour there with Fatal Shore in 1997 when our car broke down before the first gig and we had to travel mostly by train (with thirteen pieces of musical equipment, all of which had to be carried in relay each time we changed trains!). That tour ended with Bruno Adams (frontman of Fatal Shore) getting beaten up by skinheads in Brno and having to spend three days in hospital with concussion! Thankfully, there were no such occurences with Southern Cross this time and the tour went very smoothly. It probably helps that my band are all Czech and they know the scene here very well - the promoters, the venues, the language, the towns - as opposed to the Fatal Shore who know nothing! Imagine two crazy Australians and an Englishman taking off into the Wild East in a beat up 1979 Ford Taunus with hardly a word of Czech or Slovakian between them and no tour manager to talk them out of difficult situations... I could write a book on the 1997 Fatal Shore tour alone!
So, like I say, this mini tour with Southern Cross was very easy by comparison, and the only destruction happened when Jarda Kvasnicka, our drummer, accidently broke a glass door while carrying equipment into the club in Prostejov then destroyed a bannister when he almost fell down the stairs - normal behaviour for a drummer, really. (Have you ever seen the film This Is Spinal Tap? A great satire on heavy metal bands, in which the drummer explodes after each concert and the band have to look for a new one. Quite a good idea, I think... Sorry Jarda!).
The final concert in Ostrava was great - a really nice club, packed with people, lots of beer and afterwards a blitz on the local club and pub scene. When I first played in Ostrava, about six years ago, it was a totally run down industrial town that reminded me very much of certain parts of northern England - you know, lots of old abandodned factories, coal mines, steel works and not much else. The place is like a graveyard for old smokestack industries, and has the reputation here of being the type of place you most definitely wouldn't want to live in - no employment, pollution, bad housing, social problems etc. During the last couple of years, though, there has been a lot of reconstruction in Ostrava and what was once a depressing, run down kind of place has transformed itself into something totally different. One welcome addition to the local scene has been the opening of a street dedicated to the noble art of getting drunk and having as much fun as possible.
The street is called Stodolni and boasts 33 clubs and pubs along its half kilometer length (the street even has its own e-mail address). The whole street stays open all through the night at weekends, so it's possible to go from one club to another until the morning - which is exactly what Southern Cross proceeded to do after our concert. Needless to say, our hangovers on the way back to Prague the next day were horrendous!Right now, we're taking a break from concerts to begin work on the next CD. We'll lay the backing tracks down from 3rd to 9th of December, before playing concerts in Chrudim on the 14th, and in Ansbach, Germany, on the 15th. Then on the 18th I go to Berlin for three concerts with Fatal Shore and a couple of book readings from Junkie Love. Hopefully, we'll be able to finish the Southern Cross CD in January or February 2002, for a release date in March or April. The CD is provisionally entitled Wasted Life (ha ha) and will contain ten new songs:
The Streets Tonight
Waiting For You
Love And Destruction
Don't Look Down
Heaven Or Hell
The Spirit And The Flesh
These new songs are quite different to the songs on our last CD (Dead Flowers For Alice - ZYX Music in Germany; Indies Records in Czech Republic; Hitch-Hyke in Greece) in that they are quite fast and "up". Still with a melancholic feel (some people would say "depressive"!), but a little more hard-edged and even danceable!! We want to experiment in the studio with loops and samples on some songs, while still keeping a rock edge to the sound, so it's quite exciting to have this in front of us and to be thinking about arrangements, instrumentation etc.
Oh, and expect the new Fatal Shore CD sometime in the new
year as well. The enigmatic and extremely rich American producer Daniel May, who flew us
to Cincinatti last year to record the second Fatal Shore CD (FREEFALL), finally showed up
in Berlin two weeks ago with the finished master disk, and I have to say it sounds great!
The story of the making of this CD would fill another book with tales of drunkeness,
weirdness and insanity, and for awhile I was beginning to think that the CD and the trip
to Cincinatti were a figment of my imagination, or some Virtual Reality game. Well, Dan
has finally come through and we're really happy with the result. The track listing is:
So that's all for now. I'll check in again at the end of
January and let you know the latest developments on the musical and writing fronts.