Fade Away

 

Booze, drugs, guitar solos, groupies, all-nighters, trashed hotel rooms, tortured lyrics, smashed guitars, whirlwind marriages, band rivalries; nobody has summed up the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle better than Neil Young when he sang out ‘It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away.’ That sentiment may well have been true for the many short-lived, 27-year-old stars – but certainly not the fans.  

 

Despite their advancing years and accompanying hip replacements, they are still going strong with the only thing fading about them being their well-worn trademark leather jackets.  And one old rocker I caught up with recently – casually supping on his lager outside Glasgow’s The Two-Heided Man pub – is London boy ‘Anarky George’, who now lives and works here in the city. He’s been a well-known ‘hanger-on’ around the rock ’n’ roll scene for years.

 

Rockers were associated with motorcycles, and in particular with the larger, heavy and powerful Triumph motorcycles of the late 1950s. They favoured black leather, much like American motorcycle gang members of the era, hence Anarky George’s ‘uniform’.  And he’s also been a long-time frequenter of the fabled Ace Cafe, the ultimate London greasy spoon transport cafe made famous in the 1960s as a meeting point for the ‘ton-up boys’: bikers, rockers and petrolheads, who all raced at high-speed along the North Circular Road.

 

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‘Halfway down the stairs/is a stair/Where I sit.’ And with that opening line, who could forget Kermit’s nephew, Robin (voiced by Jerry Nelson), when he famously made his debut on The Muppet Show in the mid-1970s?  Amidst the mayhem, madness and all the Mahna Mahna, there came along a fleeting moment of peaceful tranquillity with the stunned stillness of Robin singing Halfway Down the Stairs.

 

The song reached the dizzy heights of number 7 in the UK single charts of 1977, making this the Muppets’ highest ever chart position – but what many didn’t appreciate was that this was a poem by another children’s icon: A.A. Milne, he of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin fame.  Milne included Halfway Down in his 1924 collection When We Were Very Young; and the tune was subsequently composed by Harold Fraser-Simpson, who set many of Milne’s poems to music.

 

And with Glasgow’s Buchanan Street steps being at the apex of the city’s bustling retail triangle, capturing a moment of stillness halfway down was this lone figure all curled up, quietly sitting there reading his book – and the first thing that went through my head was that memorable ‘Muppet moment’ watching Robin’s debut.

 

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‘I love you. You love me too. It’s no use pretending it hasn’t happened, ‘cause it has.’  A memorable line from a memorable movie, and with Valentine’s Day on the horizon, there’s an upcoming screening of David Lean and Noël Coward’s classic weepie, “Brief Encounter“, coming soon to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra playing the soundtrack live.   

 

They’ve remade just about every other classic film from the golden age, but thankfully not this one, hailed as one of the greatest romances of the big screen. I imagine it must have passed through some agent’s mind: starring Kate Winslet, maybe, and possibly Hugh Laurie. But then they will have screened it and realized immediately it would be impossible. A contemporary audience wouldn’t have any patience with the unconsummated romance in a railway station buffet between happily-married but bored Home Counties lady Laura (Celia Johnson) and the stoic, equally-married Alec (Trevor Howard).

 

It would demand that she surrendered immediately. It would probably regard her insistence on decency as another word for hypocrisy. The film would last fifteen minutes, tops. But while Brief Encounter has never been remade, there was, however, one very, very memorable parody of it, and so wickedly well-done it could only have come from the late great Victoria Wood and hailed as one of her cleverest, funniest and heartwarming sketches.

 

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There’s a widely held belief that Elton John’s 1971 hit “Levon” (and let’s not forget with lyrics by Bernie Taupin) was inspired by the one and only Levon Helm, the legendary linchpin drummer and gravel-throated singer for the Band. But in Susan Black’s biography Elton John in His Own Words, Mr. Crocodile Rock explains all: “It”s about a guy who just gets bored doing the same thing. It’s just somebody who gets bored with blowing up balloons and he just wants to get away from it but he can’t because it’s the family ritual.”

 

And this also could be the case for the chess world’s very own “Levon”, Armenia’s Levon Aronian.

 

Here’s a creative force in the game who could well have gotten “bored with blowing up balloons” of playing solid, risk-free chess as he attempted to become an official challenger for the world crown. The affable Armenian had a rough couple of years attempting to and failing, but now he’s back to his brilliant and creative best with a series of big wins in 2017 – and I wouldn’t rule him out achieving the dreams of his nation by going on to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world crown.

 

And it was nice to meet up once again with Lev during my recent sojourn to the US Midwest and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis for the day job at America’s Foundation for Chess – and for those wanting more of an insight into this true artist of the chessboard, then look no further than the July issue of The New Yorker magazine that can be read by clicking here.

 

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