The King in the Shadows

 

Sitting here overdosing on the sunshine by the pool in Saint Louis, in the US Midwest, tuning-in to the TV in the evenings offers up almost end-to-end promotions for a week of festivities in tribute to the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, who died on August 16, 1977. And despite being on a month-long work/vacation, I thought we’d pay tribute also by delving into the Seattle archives to bring the King out of the shadows – well, at least his hidden bronze statue, that is.

 

The unmistakable lip-curling, hip-wiggling, quiff-quivering, guitar-gyrating stance is there for all to see in this statue – but only if the public look carefully for it, as it’s hidden in the shadows of a courtyard off Broadway on First Hill (directly across from the Elliott Bay Book shop on 10th Ave). It was one of three statues of rock icons – Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Presley – commissioned by Mike Malone, a music-loving real-estate developer.

 

The statue of Hendrix, directly on Broadway, at Blick Art Supplies, is by far the most iconic and most photographed. But Malone also commissioned Seattle artist Daryl Smith to do similar ones of Elvis and Berry – and all three can be found within a few blocks of each other.

 

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Well, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut to give it its full moniker – but everyone knows it best simply as King Tut’s. And this year, it celebrates its 25th anniversary. But what makes such an unassuming, fairly average, and often cramped and sweaty basement pub in Glasgow’s St. Vincent Street such a firm favourite with a generation of fans, artists and the music press alike?

 

King Tut’s opened in February 1990 with the name borrowed from a New York club; and this intimate music space quickly become a hub for emerging artists who could showcase their talent seven nights a week. And playing this legendary gig venue has become something of a rock and roll rite of passage for many bands on the up – most famously, when a then little-known Manchester outfit turned up uninvited and bagged a last-minute spot on the bill on an evening in May 1993.

 

They were Oasis, and they played in front of a crowd of less than 100. But fortunately for the oft-feuding Gallagher siblings, making up the numbers that night was record producer and promoter Alan McGee, who quickly spotted their raw talent and immediately signed them there and then to a record deal. The rest, as they say, being history.

 

It also played host to Radiohead, Blur, Travis, Pulp and The Verve before they reached their heights of music superstardom. It was also the venue for first Scottish gigs for Beck, Crowded House and The Strokes. The Manic Street Preachers dedicated a song to King Tut’s during their headline set at the nearby T in the Park in 1999 for being “the first venue to treat us properly and give us hot food on tour.”

 

My own personal favourite was when the late, great Joe Strummer played here in 1999. It was one of those magical nights that has become synonymous with Tut’s. I could never have imagined standing at the side of the stage, watching just a few feet away one of my musical heroes play all the legendary and iconic Clash songs.

 

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When the Central Station Railway Bridge was built it created a tunnel where it crossed Argyle Street and unwittingly brought into being one of the most famous meeting places in Glasgow. It became a rendezvous for the Highlanders who had flooded into the city looking for work and would shelter here from the inclement climate, so like their own homeland – and it became known by the highly evocative nickname of the ‘Hielanman’s [Highland man’s] Umbrella’, a derogatory term that stuck.

 

Highlanders would also meet at the Umbrella between church services, for example walking down from St. Columba’s Gaelic Church of Scotland to the Hielanman’s, and there swopping gossip and news from the homelands and of urban events. As well as its Sabbath function, the Umbrella was also used as a weekend evening meeting place between the sexes, and doubtless many a troth was plighted beneath its girders, as couples ‘walked out’ together – the old phrase showing the traditional link between courtship and walking.

 

This is a marvellous piece of Victorian engineering, in riveted cast iron and glass – and it’s not that long ago that it was fully refurbished. And from street level, it highlights the station’s historic “ridge and furrow” design glass roof, the world’s largest, with 48,000 panes making up 2.2 square miles of glass.

 

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“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Has any debut album ever marked its territory with a greater opening gambit than that? Yes, it could only be Patti Smith, and how could I resist not going along to watch her recently when she came to town?  She had the Glasgow crowd – and probably every other crowd for that matter – at “Jesus”.

 

Horses turns 40 this year, and in its honour Smith is in the middle of a string of live performances, from Field Day to Glastonbury, Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo to Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall – a run of venues, grand, intimate, stately, that in its diversity encapsulates her particular role – an artist who is able to simultaneously hold both the Ordre des Artes et des Lettres from the French ministry of culture and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

 

In 1967 Smith’s life changed when she relocated to New York City, and becoming romantically involved with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she would later lived with at the infamous Chelsea hotel. In the years that followed she became an integral part of the downtown Manhattan scene that circled around Max’s Kansas City and CBGB and included Television, the Ramones and Blondie.

 

But it was that debut release of Horses in 1975 that positioned Smith as “punk’s poet laureate”.  She has described the album, with its distinctive portrait by Mapplethorpe, as “my aural sword sheathed with Robert’s image”. She chose her outfit carefully: a shirt she bought at the Salvation Army on the Bowery; the monogram on the breast pocket reminded her of a Brassai shot of Jean Genet. She wore it with her black jacket, a horse pin that Allen Lanier had given to her and her favourite ribbon.  Its release and her looks established Smith as an artist who believed she was serving something greater than herself.

 

Nevertheless, everything following the main set was an anti-climax. It’s impossible to top the tumultuous psychodrama of Land and the comedown of Elegie – that was touchingly dedicated to fallen comrades such as Smith’s late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. But isn’t that fitting? Horses was arguably her one-shot flash of musical genius.

 

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, hailed by many as one of the famous of all the Victorian children’s novels. Lewis Carroll’s follow-up, Alice Through the Looking Glass, was just as popular  – and in a way, much like Alice, modern architecture around Glasgow allows us to go ‘through the looking glass’ back to Victorian times, as many of the buildings from this period reflect favourably in the reflections, whether by design or accident.

 

Two centuries of architecture meld together in this ethereal visage: A late 20th century office building, as St Stephens House reflects in full the image of the very Victorian Renfield St Stephen’s Church, built in 1852, that’s directly across the road on Bath Street. The property has a very striking glass façade to distinguish it from the surrounding buildings. Local occupiers include AXA Sun Life, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Strathclyde Police.

 

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The previous blog, Looking up to the Gods, only gave us a partial steeple image of one of my favourite – for many reasons – Glasgow churches. So here’s the full, unadulterated 21mm Super-Angulon view of Renfield St. Stephens Church in Bath Street.  And from it, you can see why we need a wide-angle lens, as it has the tallest spire in the city centre; and although situated near the bottom of Blythswood Hill, its slender tower can be viewed for a great distance.

 

The church was designed in the Tractarian Gothic style – the first of its kind in Glasgow – by English architect, J.T. Emmett and was completed in 1852. It has many niches on the various sides containing statues of saints, indicating that it was not originally built as a John Knox puritan-styled Presbyterian place of worship. Indeed, it was originally to be one of the new-breed Victorian ’Independent Chapels’ – and it wasn’t always know as St. Stephen’s.

 

Until recent times, the church was known as St. Matthew’s – Blythswood Church of Scotland. It was closed in the late 1960s, threatened with demolition to make way for a motorway that controversially cut through the city, but saved by a last-minute reprieve to be extended and renovated. When it re-opened with its new name in September 1970, the church retained a small chapel dedicated to its previous patron, St. Matthew.

 

One of the reasons for it being one of my favourite churches is the recent disaster backstory to it, as much of it was destroyed on December 26th, 1998 when the steeple came collapsing down in a storm and crashed through to the crypt. I’m an atheist myself, but for those more ecumenically minded, December 26th is, ahem, St. Stephen’s day. Divine intervention or what? £3 million and 3 years later, it re-opened again.

 

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Things are always said to be ‘looking up in Glasgow’, but the trouble is that equally not many of the locals can be said to be ‘looking up at Glasgow.’ And they should be, as Glasgow’s ‘no mean city’ image belies its world-class architectural heritage, comprising of stunning spires, sculpture, ornament, friezes, gables and decorations, the vast majority of which are hidden in plain view above eye level.

 

One of the many classic examples of this can be located at the bottom of Bath Street near Charing Cross, where there stands the Renfield St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, built in 1852 and designed by London architect J.T. Emmett. Originally designed as an Independent Chapel, this is the first example of Tractarian Gothic in Glasgow, with its breathtaking tall spire and fine stained-glass windows (designed by Norman Macdougall in 1905).

 

Amazingly, in the late 1960s it was only saved by a last minute appeal from demolition – but in saving it, subsequently it was badly affected by the unnecessary removal of sculptures when the modern extension to the west wing was built. Oh, ye of little faith, as the biblical idiom goes.

 

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My enjoyment of the Victorian wealth of Glasgow is always somewhat tempered by knowing that so much of the prosperity of the time was founded on slavery and the suffering of others. I suppose my uneasiness comes from the fact that many of the things I enjoy in my own life – relatively inexpensive clothes, food, and manufactured goods – come at a price to other people working in sweat shop-conditions in other countries.

 

But such is the history of Glasgow that much of the Merchant City’s wealth derived from all this Victorian imperialism, and the buildings reflect this. And this tall, thin building could easily pass for being in old Amsterdam but it is, in fact, located in the middle of one of Glasgow’s most busiest and important retail locations on Buchanan Street.

 

It was originally the home of one of those very large companies that made their humungous fortune from slavery and colonialism: the North British Rubber company. It was designed by Robert Thomson & Andrew Wilson and completed in 1898. The red sandstone ashlar, rich carvings and statues (Allegorical figures of Justice and Truth), and the fact that this building is in one of Glasgow’s most important streets, show you just how prosperous the rubber trade once was in the city.

 

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Some years ago, the Dutch documentarian Bert Haanstra made a short nine-minute film called Holland is a Mirror (available to view on YouTube, by clicking the link) which consisted entirely of shots of buildings reflected in Dutch rivers and canals.  The 1950 B&W film was an impressive piece of work but, as might have been expected, slightly lacking in human interest.

 

And you might have been mistaken for thinking in today’s photo that your intrepid film blogger was about to embark on a similar project, but this single shot of the MOHAI (Museum of History and Industry)  reflecting into Seattle’s Lake Union exhausted my interest in what is, after all, really the belabouring of a gimmick. As the Wicked Queen in Snow-White used to remark: “When you’ve seen one mirror shot, you’ve seen ’em all”.  

 

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Only in the power of this blog can we go directly from Rap to the Blues. I’ve often thought that if blues musicians pressed the snooze button and just sleep in they would be happier. So many blues songs begin with “I woke up this mornin’…” only to be followed by a litany of frustrating events.

 

Of course, to be a blues musician one must have the blues and to have the blues I suppose you must get out of bed and face the world. Might as well get an early start. Unhappiness as a raison d’être may seem like an unhealthy exercise until considering the cathartic power of music. Perhaps blues musicians are on to something.

 

However I did meet this blues performer busking at Victor Steinbrueck Park at the Waterfront to eke out a living. His family originates from Wales, he goes by the name of Fleming, and he’s also half Cherokee – and boy, could he have done with pressing the snooze button. Several times, in fact. Turns out he woke one mornin’, found he’d lost his girl, lost his job, lost his apartment and is now homeless…and he also recently lost his big toe to diabetes.

 

I somehow don’t think that, after he told me his tales of woe and the toe, the $1 I put in his hat was going to help him much.

 

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