Word Interview #8 – Rhodri Marsden

While I was interviewing Rhodri for a book I’m writing about fanzines it seemed like a good opportunity to briefly talk to him about his recollections of Word. We met in March 2018 at the British Library, a place Rhodri had never been to before. This made me feel like a street-wise Londoner.

We discussed his writing career following his days as a fanzine editor.

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RM: When I left university in 1992 I had no idea what I was going to do. I ended up working for Nick Hobbs, who was the manager of Pere Ubu, Laibach and others. He used to manage Henry Cow, he’d been an agent at Rough Trade for many years, he’d set up Recommended Records with Chris Cutler and organised pioneering tours of Eastern Europe with acts like Billy Bragg and Misty In Roots over there. I knew him as the singer with the Shrubs, a C86 band who I’d been to see a few times. I was round at his house to tap him for gig contacts in Eastern Europe for my band at the time, The Keatons, when he asked if I wanted a job as his assistant. It was another one of those moments when someone recognised that I was enthusiastic and reasonably conscientious. He was hugely influential for me in that he was making a living, albeit a chaotic one, out of doing stuff that he thought was important. All of his decisions were motivated by enthusiasm, rather than financial gain; if he needed to buy a thing he would do and worry about it later. He was really good at creating work and making it happen. He was this completely self-contained unit of creativity.

He sounds like a fascinating character.

Absolutely, I still see him occasionally. He lives in Istanbul now, doing the same kind of work. He’s a real eccentric.

Another thing I got from him was that he was an absolute stickler for clarity of communication, whether we were dealing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ rider requirements in the Ukraine or communicating with Pere Ubu’s record label. He would write these beautiful, concise letters. He drilled into me that there was no room in this business for omitting detail or not communicating exactly how things are. He wasn’t a writer as such, but he made me good at organising my thoughts in a coherent way. I remember some friends asking me if I’d considered writing for a living, and I thought yeah, maybe I could.

I got to a point with Nick where the job was getting too stressful. It was taking up weekends and I was getting calls from angry people on the other side of the world at 3 a.m. I quit on Christmas Day in 2000. My idea was that I would leave the job and get into writing, but I didn’t have a strategy. I decided to give it six months, and very early on I got a job working on a website for a BBC drama series called Attachments. Then I got to know a few people, pitched a feature for Time Out and it went from there. Bearing in mind how the media has changed in the last 20 years, I was very lucky timing-wise. I just sneaked in under the wire.

How did you first get involved in doing some work for Word magazine?

I can’t quite remember… I’m not sure how David and Mark became aware I existed. It might have been because I was friends with Michèle Noach, the artist, who used to be married to Robyn Hitchcock. Robyn and Michèle were part of a kind of Chiswick social scene with Peter Blake and various others. Mark Ellen was central to all that, so I’d met him a few times. Also, I suppose by that time I’d amassed a lot of Twitter followers, so David might have been aware of me through that.

I’ve never written very much about music. In around 2003 I’d had a column in the Observer Music Monthly called ‘Guitarist Wanted’. The idea was they sent me undercover to audition for bands I had no intention of joining and then write about the experience. It was really stressful because it involved deception, which I’m not very good at. I also remember that my remit was to be mildly amusing but they took all the jokes out – a very common thing, I’ve discovered since, but at the time it left me highly distressed. I remember the editor and deputy editor took me for lunch after six months of this and I thought ‘Ooh, this is a good sign’. But they told me they weren’t going to do the column anymore and asked if I wanted to review some records instead. I didn’t really want to, but I thought I should show willing. They sent me to review ‘You Are the Quarry’ by Morrissey. I had to go to a plush office and spend an hour and a half with this album, and I remember writing a review which could be summed up as ‘Well, I think it’s alright but who cares what I think?’ And that was the only time I got paid to review a record.

But while I’m not very good at writing about music, I think I’m quite good at writing about the making of it. I think the first thing I wrote for Word was about the art of songwriting. It was looking at how a song emerges, how do people prepare mentally, do they sit down with a guitar or a keyboard, do they have a special room, what comes first, words or music and so on.

And you went on to write some other pieces for them?

I think the main one, which ended up being a three-parter, was about the noises that made pop music. It was looking at the building blocks of pop, things like the Beach Boys’ use of theremin, Big Muff distortion pedal, Motown tambourine…

The cowbell?

Exactly, like ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’! More cowbell! Also the 808 cowbell on ‘Dance With Somebody’. Over the three issues it became quite a sizeable piece of work. I remember there was some interest from Radio 2 about doing a documentary but it never happened. I also went on a Word podcast to talk about it.

Were they fun to do?

Yeah! I think I ended up doing two of those podcasts. Green and also I did some Scritti songs in the broom cupboard at the office.

Were you a fan of the magazine?

Yes, mainly because I really liked the people that made it – Andrew Harrison, Fraser Lewry, Kate Mossman… And Mark is such an extraordinary force of nature. I know him quite well now through Michèle. She does these festivals in the Arctic, in a small town in Norway called Vadsø. She invites some of her favourite musicians to go up there, and we put together a show over the course of a week and then perform it. The most recent one involved me, Terry Edwards, half of REM, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip – a very improbable collection. Mark came on the first one and he’s just great. I don’t know anyone as enthusiastic as him. When you enter a room and see him there you just think ‘Oh, brilliant, Mark’s here!’

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Word #51

Cover star – Rufus Wainwright

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May 2007

Word shuffle

1) P12 – two page interview with Carla Bruni by Ian Reeves. “What the two women (Marianna Faithfull, her friend and English teacher) share is their own place in the tabloid history of The Rolling Stones. Bruni’s 1990’s affair with Mick Jagger (three decades or so after Faithfull’s) was the sort the red-tops like to describe as ‘on-off’ and is often cited as the last straw for his marriage to Jerry Hall. There are plenty of other names in the cuttings file too – including Eric Clapton, Kevin Costner, and, bizarrely, Donald Trump.”

2) P70 – Christopher Bray writes a two page feature on the 50th birthday of Sweet Smell Of Success. “Before Sweet Smell, Burt had been either the acrobatic athlete of colourful costumers, or the femme fatale’s fall-guy. After it, he was as often cast as a hard-nosed huckster as he was a hero. Had Mackendrick (Alexander Mackendrick, the British director) coaxed a new kind of performance from his star, or had he merely exposed Lancaster’s heartless, reamed-out vanity to the world? Norman Mailer, who wrote a biography of Gary Gilmore and so ought to know, once said that the only time he looked into the eyes of a born killer was when he met Burt Lancaster.”

3) P126 – The Home Service section in which Word writers enthuse about their current passions. Jude Rogers talks about her recent trip to the Pacific North West and says that “musical highlights from over the pond included Alela Diane’s fantastic The Pirate’s Gospel on every boho cafe radio, the Mountain Goats and Pony Up! in the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland – the latter a young female four piece who do a nice line in sassy, how-dare-you-dump-me-riot-grrrl numbers – and Peter Buck walking past us in Seatlle, wearing massive cans and an anorak.”

4) P103 – A page of adverts: the ‘Collector’s Edition’ of OMD’s Architecture & Morality, Loney, dear’s new album Loney, Noir (“Loney , dear should be 2007’s Jose Gonzalez” – Clash magazine) and 6 Bananarama albums are remastered and expanded and available at Borders.

5) P17 – a two page feature on Crowded House’s comeback gig on a boat, in front of 400 people. Neil Finn tells Jon Bennett: “In a way there were more more obstacles in my mind when Paul was around. Paul isn’t around now and we miss him desperately. We could have carried on when he left ten years ago if we’d applied ourselves but we could have gone mad. There’s a lot of psychosis in being in a band and it was right to do something else. There is a strength in the way Nick, Mark and I relate to each other and it can grow and develop and be organic. If I’m going to be in a band, what other band is there? Why would we name it differently?”

Interesting – David Hepworth believes that we’re living in a ‘Golden Age Of Music.’

“On a simple quantative basis, there is infinitely more music to be enjoyed. The new stuff pours forth and the old stuff doesn’t go away. The 17 year-olds I talked to knew who who Jimi Hendrix was. I’m not sure I knew very much about Django Rheinhardt. I was locked in the present because the past didn’t seem to have been invented. Now and in the future, an increasing proportion of the catalogue of record companies, the floor space of megastores and the digital catalogues of online retailers will be taken up by that which has been done in the past rather than that which has just appeared. In fact the whole idea of ‘back catalogue’ is a nonsense. And as Andrew Harrison pointed out recently, this has the effect of blurring the difference between new and old. Thanks to the iPod, everything from Loius Armstong’s Hot Fives to the new album by Clipse swims around in a permanent now.”

Andrew Collins reviews Arctic Monkeys’ difficult second album. “Now Turner has turned 21, the lyrics have matured along with his problem skin. He misses Sheffield (“Dorothy was right though”) and a mystery girl (“In my imagination, you’re lying on your side, with your hands between your thighs, ” he coos on 505 a thematic sequel to lovely B-side Despair In The Departure Lounge). And it seems that married women have been throwing themselves at him on tour. When on the Shakespeare’s Sister-indebted The Bad Thing, a suitor takes off her wedding ring, he’s “struggling to think of an immediate response”.

Daniel Miller of Mute Records is interviewed by Toby Manning. “Being a producer is a pain in the arse because I’m not very good at being the conciliator. Depeche go through these long cycles of splitting up and not splitting up. One of them will ring up and go. ‘I’m fucked off with X or Y’. A lot of it is about not wading in and letting time do the job to be honest. I’ve never said, ‘No, don’t split up’, I say. ‘Don’t decide now, see how the tour goes’. It usually works out.”

Rob Fitzpatrick reviews Basil Kirchin’s album on Trunk Records, Particles. “We Don’t Care is breezy jazz whipped and whizzed to buggery, Amundo takes one rumbling bassline and squashes it into extraordinary new shapes, The Dice Is Cast is like Bernard Herrmann with his head in a huge electronic bread bin.”

Longer article

Following an article about Pentangle in Word 50 , Colin Harper, the compiler of their box set, replies to their criticisms.Word51 002Word51 003

 

Word Interview #7 – Andrew Collins

I met Andrew in the autumn of 2017 in a café in south London.  Before the actual interview started we were talking about records. As a music journalist whose enthusiastic reviews in the NME were an important component in many of my vinyl purchases, I was happy to discover that Andrew continued to have a connection to music’s physical objects.

…the next house move we thought, ‘Do we really want to move these heavy things?’ Something in me clicked and I decided to just keep the 7” singles. I’m glad we did because they’re like photos in a photo album but they can be played. They’re lovely objects.  Also, they’re kind of rarer because the vinyl revolution is about 12” albums. I found a flight case online that was designed for singles and the collection fitted perfectly so it felt like it was meant to happen. You could literally carry it – it’s heavy but next move it will definitely come along.  All the 12” singles and LPs went though.

I sold the lot to a nice guy that used to come down to London from Newcastle. I’d not met him before and he turned up in his Range Rover. He said ‘”You can leave the room and I’ll sort them into two piles – one of records that are worth something and the rest aren’t worth me buying but I’ll take them off your hands if you like.” The pile that was worth anything was pretty small although the wad of cash was nice. I just kept a small pile of 12” singles so I could do an eighties disco if anyone asked me to – some elongated remixes of Echo and the Bunnymen tunes and stuff like that. I’ve only been asked once since then as a promotional event for one of my books but I was glad I had them. I think keeping the 7”s helped to counteract the emotional upheaval from having to get rid of a load of records.  I’m not sentimental about CDs really. My old ones are mostly at my Mum and Dad’s house. I went up there an few years ago and said “I’ll do you a deal. I’ll clear the loft out and get rid of anything in there that’s from when I left home in 1984.” I put boards down to make the space more useful for them and put some boxes of CDs up there. It was a good deal, everyone benefitted. When Bowie died I went up to see them for the weekend, took some bags up and collected all his CD albums. They’re all on i-tunes but somehow it seemed important to have them as objects.

I think the world is still getting over his death.

I genuinely believe that when he died the whole world started falling apart. He got out because he knew it was time to go – unfortunately. And as for keeping magazines, I wish I had all the Word magazines. That’s why we need you!

Well, that leads us nicely on to the first question… when did Word first come onto your radar?

I was slightly out of the loop with EMAP at the time. In 2003 I was working for five days a week at 6 Music. In fact I remember that one of the first times I was in the magazine was for one of those articles where you’re asked for recommendations, you know ‘Books For a Rainy Day’ or ‘Records You’d Save In A Fire’. There was a photo of me alongside it with shoulder length hair. The first piece I actually wrote was ‘How To Be An EastEnders Writer’ which was lovely to do because it was something I knew about. At that stage it was two people I’d worked with for years who had formed a publishing company that I didn’t even know about. I think Mark or Dave must have got in touch and said they were starting the magazine. I was quite wrapped up in 6 Music then – if someone told me now that that they were starting a magazine and they were people I knew and loved I’d be banging on their door! I was quite busy but I was really glad to be asked to do a decent-sized piece about EastEnders and then I just started picking up more bits and pieces as I went along. From day one to the final issue there was just no downside to any of it. It was the magazine that came at the right time for me and for the people who read it. I subscribed from the beginning because I knew that Dave and Jerry needed subscribers as you can imagine. A lot of American magazines survive on subscriptions and I wanted to support my friends in their venture. I wasn’t writing for it then so it wasn’t for mercenary reasons!

There was a lot of fun in writing for it. I didn’t go to the office much, it was too small, but I liked the atmosphere they created, not just in the office but from Mark’s emails or if he called you up. I was coming up to forty in 2003, exactly the right age. I was a similar age to Andrew Harrison and Fraser Lewry and a bit younger than Mark and Dave. As you approach your forties there’s no difference with people in their fifties and sixties. The years make less difference but they make a lot more in your twenties and thirties. At the end of your thirties you think ‘Wow, I’m an adult now’ but you still think ‘They’re in their forties’. And then you get to forty and you admire anyone who does anything at any age! I think ‘good on you’ to anyone who achieves anything from that point, anyone who makes something brilliant. Why should life slow down?

It was the right magazine at the right time and if I’d never written for it I still would have bought every issue. It was only after a few years that I asked Jerry for a guest subscription – by then I was quite a regular contributor.

You were writing articles in every issue by that point?

Yes, it was the first time I had a column anywhere and it was about TV to begin with, called ‘Telly Addicts’. I’d been on the TV programme in the eighties and I’ve managed to recycle the title as a TV review column for The Guardian and a blog which no-one looks at but I felt that I could own it. It was brilliant, you still had to pitch, you couldn’t just write about you liked and I liked that discipline. I’ve always admired columnists, usually political but often cultural as well. One of the reasons I like The Guardian is that their columnists are the best ones. Some of them, like John Harris are friends and that helps but that’s not why I think they’re great – I just think they’re excellent writers. The Guardian has kept me as a reader because of their columnists.

The New Yorker was a model for The Word and is all about people occasionally writing a column. It’s a very personal magazine. For my fortieth birthday Stuart Maconie bought me the best birthday present that you could get, a year’s subscription to it. At that point I was aware of it but I’d never actually sat down and properly read an issue. The ‘Talk Of The Town’ section of The New Yorker was the template for the first part of The Word. You’d have an article, go down a column, then the next story would start and then an illustration just like The New Yorker. The Spectator and The New Statesman did a similar thing but they were the first music magazine to do that. It just felt so grown up. The Word was bigger too so you felt more like holding it and keeping it. It was the best magazine to be in. As a shop window you thought ‘I’m going to do my best stuff for this magazine, I’m going to hone it and not just hack it out.’ I think a lot of people, the writers of my generation who’d come through the NME like Stuart Maconie, David Quantick and others, had been accused of knocking it out. I remember Stuart being unhappy when Danny Kelly asked him to bang something out. He was really offended by the terminology because no writer wants to be seen as a hack. I think everyone is a hack occasionally, especially on a weekly, even more on a daily. When I got to Q there seemed to be less of that attitude. There’s something about move from newsprint to a glossy that makes you care more. I cared a lot when I was at Q because I was learning and I was young and trying to prove myself but I cared even more about what I wrote for The Word. Mark Ellen was in a more executive role when I was at Q, he was always one step above the editor but always visible and hands on. I’d been under him at Select with Andrew Harrison as my editor and under Dave at Q so the idea that those two would pop up in their own scrappy little office in Islington with a scary lift – it was just too good to be true.

I remember there was a classic Word feature, where they got all the writers to contribute one thing. You’d be asked something like ‘What’s the greatest vocal performance in a song?’ Clearly the best way to approach that is to try and think of something that no-one else is going to do. I did Method Man’s ‘Tical’ which is my favourite track by him. It’s the most incredible performance – he’s got a low voice and has a lot of spit in his mouth. It’s not particularly pretty but you can pick his voice out in the Wu Tang Clan. He does this weird thing in the song where he goes into a falsetto, really odd but brilliant. It was only about seventy five words but it was great on the page because everyone chose different things. I was so proud to be asked, I’m sure everyone else felt the same way. It was treasure trove of thought and knowledge and powers of description and interest in things and yet it was the spread of all music. I’d love to go back and read it. That can never be on a website, there’s something about holding it. It makes me feel like an antique dealer, who really appreciates something you can hold.

There’s some unnecessary panic at the moment about kids reading things off screens but you just look at whatever the thing is that everyone else is using to look at things. We were brought up with the printed word so we still have an interest in that. For me the big question about The Word is why couldn’t it have carried on as a website? Dave said there was no money in it and it was a business decision. Once it couldn’t be a magazine it had to stop which is the saddest thing about it, it felt doomed to fail.

Did you go on the website and forums much?

When it folded I didn’t so much, it made me sad. Sometimes I’d be sent a link if I was mentioned so I‘d go and wade in because I like to have my say if people are talking about me. On The Guardian I sometimes stupidly start looking at the comments but there are too many so I try to stick to the newest or the oldest and let it go. When I was writing things for them, I always read all the comments as I felt that if it had my name on it, it was my responsibility to respond. You develop a little community of your own. That’s been the best thing that’s happened since The Word really, getting to do that at The Guardian – they have a similar sensibility.

The most hurtful thing that ever happened was a letter that The Word printed about my piece about joining a film society. It was a piece that David had commissioned for the back section, those personal stories. I’d written what I felt was a loving and affectionate history about this society. It was set in the early eighties when I was a teenager, a key time in my life when I got to see loads of X-rated horror and foreign films. I loved writing it and had spent ages on it. Someone wrote a letter saying it was the most boring thing they’d ever read – not just in the magazine, but the most boring thing ever! The fact that they printed was more annoying than the fact that he’d written it. I wished it had been online as I wanted to respond to it saying “I’m so sorry, I hope you didn’t read all of it. It sounds like you did in which case I apologise about making it so long.” I thought, ‘I’m not going write a letter for them to print. Who cares?’ and just had to let it go.

Favourite memories of The Word?

Always the podcasts.

How many were you on?

Quite a few I think. I started my podcast with Richard Herring around the same time. I had no idea that my laptop had GarageBand on it, I didn’t know what it was. I was on some of the earlier podcasts before Matt Hall got involved, when the sound quality wasn’t quite as good. It sounded like an echoey room – which it was. Dave and Mark were there, they opened up the laptop and it already had this GarageBand programme on it with channels and a little external mic. I said “What’s this, where did you get it from?” They said it was already on the computer. After the first one I went back to Richard, who used to be a guest on my 6 Music show where we used to have fun going through the papers. I thought we could sit down and chat into it for an hour and just put it out there, we only needed to buy a mic. It didn’t cost anything to put it onto iTunes. Without it I wouldn’t have had those five years of me and Richard almost making a career out of it. We used to do gigs that we’d get a bit of money for. When we split up it was mentioned in The Guardian’s ‘Media Monkey’ page, that’s how big it was.

You had the recent reunion on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast. How was that?

I really enjoyed it. Do you know why I enjoyed it? Because years had passed and I always followed who was on it. I felt no bitterness towards him, even though it ended in some acrimony. After it all finished very publically (we both wrote blogs about it) he invited me to his wedding so there was clearly no deep-seated ill-will. Then I went to Edinburgh and saw his show, we went for drinks afterwards and so on. At that point he’d met the woman who went on to become his wife so it was natural that we would spend less time together. I’d watched his Leicester Square podcasts and he’d get fantastic guests on like Stephen Fry and also sometimes less well-known guests from the comedy circuit. The less famous ones were sometimes better. I loved the fact that he’d worked out a way of financing it so it ticked over and he’s got a lot of fans.

Occasionally people would ask him on Twitter when he was going to have me as a guest and I noticed he would never respond. I thought it was really funny, I guess he just thought ‘I’m not going to get involved’! I did wonder if he would run out of comedians at some point. I was never going to ask but loads of people kept asking me and I would just say something like ‘I think it’s too soon, it would be too awkward’ so it didn’t look like I cared. When he asked me, I said yes straight away. I thought I’d do it in a way that draws back a bit of the moral high ground for me because I’d been painted as the villain of the piece. 6 Music had asked me to pilot a show with Josie Long. I’d told him about it and did the pilot. They wanted to get her on the station but she didn’t have much radio experience so they decided to put her on with an experienced presenter who liked comedians – and that was me. We did that show and went on to do six months, at which point he and I had split up. He said I’d been duplicitous because he thought I’d put my career before my relationship with him even though what I’d done with Josie hadn’t had any bearing on what I’d been  doing with him as 6 Music had got fed up with him.

So, when he invited me I said yes. I thought it would be a great thing to do and I love performing, as I found out when I was working with him. I thought I would just go out there with an absolutely confident attitude. A lot of the audience were people that used to come and see us so they’d be happy to see me. I said “I’m the most anticipated guest you’ve had on. It’s easy to get Stephen Fry, he’s got an agent – but you’ve got me now!” His job as the interviewer when he’s with Stephen Fry is clearly delineated but it’s different with me because we used to be equals. This time he had to interview me and listen to what I had to say. I stopped and said to the audience at one point “He’s never asked me this many questions before.” On our podcast he’d talk about himself, I’d talk about myself and we’d talk about silly things; it dawned on me how weird it was, him asking me about things I’d done in my career. So I enjoyed it, not to get back at him because beforehand we’d had a hug and been pleased to see each other. I liked going off on my flights of fancy too which you can only really do on stage.

Like the Frog Tape riff?

Yeah, I hadn’t planned that but that’s why it worked, I just got my teeth into it. It was important to me because I’d been doing a lot of DIY! I listened back and thought it was pretty good.  Long ago I decided not to be a stand-up comedian because I sort of was one for a while. I did one run at Edinburgh and a few years with Richard. It was good that it happened when I was older because if I was younger I might have thought I should have a go at this. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go out every night and that’s insulting to all stand-up comedians because the one thing you have to do is gigs. If you’re married or have other things you want to do in the evenings or just like to be in bed by half past ten, then it’s not for you. Not that’s it’s a young person’s game but it’s better if you’re single with nothing else to do in the evenings. I did a free show (the safest way to do it) in Edinburgh, people came and it was full every day for the run. I remembered my lines, got some laughs and some kind comments from other comedians. There’s an idea that comedians hate non-comedians having a go but that’s not true. Sarah Millican and Gary Delaney came to the show and gave me tips about how to deliver certain lines and I took their advice. It was nothing but fun but when I got home I thought I can’t be doing it anymore. I love going to watch comedy but I’m past the point of trying to do it properly. So when I went on the Leicester Square Theatre podcast with a little audience of partisan nerds it was great fun but I can’t see why we’d do it again – it wouldn’t be a reunion.

Do you listen to any other podcasts regularly?

Predictably enough I listen to Bigmouth! I was on one of the first episodes; Andrew Harrison has given me some dates to do others but they’re always on the one day I can’t do. I’d love to do it again, it’s in a proper studio and feels very professional. It’s always the day I have to be at the Radio Times. I’ve been running the film section there since 2000 and it’s completely different to every other magazine I’ve ever worked on. It’s huge and there’s so much to process. The subs are people that tend to have been there for a long time because it’s a proper skill and you need a certain mind-set. You have to get every listing right and there are so many channels now. There’s a lot of  information in there, apart from all the features. They’re the glamorous pieces at the front of the magazine and the film section is halfway between the two. We pick out certain films to write about and I get to choose a ‘Film of the day’ which I tend to write quite fast, there’s no time for inspiration. The main skills you need are over-confidence and punctuality both of which I believe I have. I have a humble view of my talents but they’re good ones; doing something to order, spell-checking, reading over it at least once and trying to be amenable if you’re there in person. Everyone else is there working their arses off to get the magazine out so you can’t come in and be like Oscar Wilde. You come in, sit down and get on with it. I don’t mind bashing it out because if you also read it back then that’s not bashing it out. I would never name them but…there would occasionally be a piece in Q magazine written by people of a certain level, named writers, and as features editor you’d sometimes get a feature which looked like someone had started writing it, put a couple of quotes in and think it was done. I’d get furious and think ‘You got where you are by working hard and gaining a reputation, don’t piss it away now.’ One I can mention is Tom Hibbert, a brilliant example of individual talent who I only got to work with for a few years because he was in a bit of a decline. When he was in his pomp, doing his ‘Who The Hell…?’ pieces, no-one else could compete. His legacy was sealed by that point and by the time I got there he was still doing it. His copy would come in, not quite crayons on sheets of A4 but pretty raw. There was brilliance in it but as an editor you had to shape it. That was quite easy with Who The Hell…?’ as it had quite a straightforward structure with quotes in it. There’s only so much madness he could get into it, most of it came from his interview technique –which was just to shut up. He’d have Jimmy Saville or someone, ask them a question and then sit there. Once they’d answered it he’d keep nodding, waiting for them to say something else. It‘s a brilliant strategy but it takes a bit of nerve. I’m not sure I’d be very good at; in fact I’d be shit at it, I’d start talking immediately if someone wasn’t saying anything. Anyway, a piece came in from Tom, a think-piece about The Eagles. There was some reunion and we didn’t have an interview so we thought we’d get Tom to write something about them instead.  When the copy came in it wasn’t quite a stream of consciousness but you couldn’t just ring Tom up and get him to change a few bits and I needed the thing on the page. So, as Features Editor, I just plucked the Omnibus book on The Eagles off the bookshelf and went through it. I looked at Tom’s piece again just adding in names of band members and some facts. It read well on the page, plenty of Tom in it but it was also factually correct. I felt like I’d been a conduit for the unbottleable spirit! You can’t have too many unbottleable spirits on a magazine, not when there’s a deadline but you probably could on a website. I love the idea that I got to edit someone like Tom Hibbert.

Sometimes you’d get poor copy from a name writer who wasn’t an unbottleable spirit, just a writer who was very good and you’d think ‘Just read it back!’ So even there, there were people who were coasting a bit. I never felt that at The Word. I’d pitch three or four ideas to Mark every month, usually in an email and he’d pick the one he liked. He’d often say “No, I’m not sure about that, that’s not going to work. Have another think.”  That was fine though because no magazine should be a free pass, you should earn your place as a contributor.

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I recently met Billy Bragg at The Green Man music festival and asked him for a question for you. He told me to ask you when you’re writing another rock biography. (Andrew had written Billy’s biography ‘Still Suitable For Miners’)

All the stars were in alignment when I was asked to write the book. I’d been a fan of his before I was even a journalist. I was at the NME around the time of his album Don’t Try This At Home. It was bold, a pop record and I’d have loved it whether I was writing about him or not. I was Features Editor then and had the video for the single Sexuality, directed by Phil Jupitus. Go Discs, his record label, sent it to me knowing I was sympathetic and in a position of some power. I took it in to Danny Kelly and said, “You’ve got to watch this video!” It was a great song and video and I thought it was time for Billy to be back on the cover. I said I’d write it as I was a fan and occasionally I’d give myself a cover feature to write – not that often because it’s a bit naughty. I did the same for My Bloody Valentine when ‘Loveless’ came out. There was no argument so off I went to meet him with my tape recorder. We started the interview on foot, walking along the canal in Camden and ended up in the pub. He’s everything you want; a brilliant interviewee, he’s always got lots to talk about and he’s a great musician. We got on well and he identified me as a fan. When I got to Q, his next album came out and I put myself forward to write a piece, again as Features Editor. We did a series of epiphanies with the headline “Still Suitable For Miners” (I’ve copyrighted that pun!). It was about things that changed his life like joining the army or hearing Dylan for the first time. It was a good Q feature, an artist we all know about but maybe some things in there that we don’t know. He was about 39 at that point.

When I left Q and was cast into the world of freelance danger, my friend Ian Gittins at Virgin Books rang me up and asked if there was anyone I wanted to write a biography about. The two I said I’d like to do were The Cocteau Twins or Billy Bragg. I went to Billy first and he said, “It’s funny you should say that.” He was thinking it might be a good time to do it because he and his partner had had their son. He started thinking about mortality and handing things on. Lots of good writers had wanted to do his biography but he’d always said no up to then because they’d wanted to write about his political views. He said “You’ve written about me and not always just about my politics.” He was about to turn to turn 40 and selling a flat that he’d lived in while he was single so it felt like the right time in his life. I had the time and so I wrote it over the next six months. I met his family, went to his Mum’s house, visited Oundle where he’d formed Riff Raff in the Northamptonshire wilds and went to Dublin together where he was recording the album with Wilco. We were in this house that the record company had rented for him and it was full of members of Wilco. We slept in this little spare room together – separate beds – but that’s how close we got! I listened to the music he was referencing while I was writing it, things I hadn’t listened to before, lots of folk music, much more Dylan because he’d been a big influence on him and Jackson Browne.

I’m very proud of the book. It first came out in 1998 and every three or four years Virgin have been in touch and asked for an updated version with a new chapter. He deserves it and it says a lot about him that they want a current edition on the shelves. It’ll be the book’s 20th anniversary in 2018 and he’ll turn sixty soon so hopefully they’ll ask for another chapter. I put the same amount of care and attention into this as a Word or a Q feature. You have to be proud of something if you’re going to put it out as a book. It’s great that anyone is still putting books out. I’ve always been optimistic and I don’t think books will ever completely die really because they should have already. If vinyl can survive, books definitely can.

 

You can follow Andrew on Twitter – @AndrewCollins

The updated, 20th anniversary edition of ‘Still Suitable for Miners’ will be published by Virgin Books in May 2018

And see if you agree with the choices Andrew has made for his mp3 player on his entertaining 143 blog

Previous Word interviews: Jude Rogers , Mark Ellen , John Naughton , Paul Du Noyer , David Hepworth, Andrew Harrison

Word #50

Cover star – Joni Mitchell

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April 2007

Word shuffle

1) P129 – half page adverts for the soundtrack of Hot Fuzz (with “exclusive track from The Fratellis”) and A Tale of Two Cities by Mr. Husdon & The Library. They have a myspace page should you wish to know more.

2) P86– the 1st page of a 2 page Cat Power interview by Jude Rogers. “Two days before the Brit Awards, Best International Female Nominee Cat Power is in a bed in a Park Lane hotel, chain-smoking fags, squished up on pillows, sniffing wax dug from her ear with one hand and forgaing around in her knickers with the other. Later she’ll fart – waving a lighter around to hide the smell – and pee in front of me quite happily. All this while looking elegantly dishevelled, bambi eyes peering through her fringe, like she’s an arty ad in The Face.”

3) P95 – from Robin Eggar’s 5 page interview with Joni Mitchell. Robin asks why she hates critics so much.

“They hold you in your decade. You are supposed to stay neatly in your decade and then die. From my sixth album on they were dismissive while I knew I was still growing. It was an extraordinary rejection of good work. I know enough to know when I’m doing good work but fools were reviewing it. I’d see the crap they’d elevate. I don’t care for fame and fortune but the rejection of my later work was too extreme.”

4) P120 – from the album reviews section. The most column inches on this page are given to Saltbreakers by Laura Veirs. Robert Sandall writes that “Veirs is still recognisable as the daughter of a geologist mother and a marine biologist father whose idea of the perfect holiday was to go camping in the wildest parts of the wild. To listen to her 6th album is to be imaginatively transported into the world of a wide eyed, serious-minded child for whom the minute observation of dawn sunlight, starry skies, giant waves, black butterflies, and a vast array of other eco-phenomena, acts as a prism through which all of her emotions are expressed.”

5) P24 – Andrew Collins compares the past to the present and wonders if we’ve made progress. Among other things chat shows, record shops and the charts were better then. Pubs, salad and comedy are better now.

Interesting – The 20 best and worst pop fashion items as decreed by The Word. 3 of the worst are: David Bowie’s Union Jack tailcoat and goatee, circa ‘Earthling’ (“looks like some kind of right-wing Doctor Who”), The Style Council’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ period (“is there a less convincing Wodehousian aesthete than Merton Mick?”) and Mark Knopfler’s headband (“as bad as wearing a ponytail at the front – actually worse”). 3 of the best are: Devo’s flowerpot hats (“splendidly mad and the perfect millinery for a band that was three quarters cartoon anyway”), the codpiece worn by Larry Blackmon of Cameo (“crimson genital crash helmet still gives all who saw it the heebie-jeebies”) and Johnny Rotten’s bondage trousers (“these garish and impractical ‘perv-trews’ – as Smash Hits was wont to put it – put the wind right up grans, coppers, teachers and other DOOMED OLDIES. Will clothes ever terrify like this again?”)

Lauren Laverne writes about doing the 6 – 7 am slot on XFM. “At six in the morning I’m often exclusively broadcasting to people driving home from having affairs, the depressed, people who’ve cried themselves awake over store-card debts, milkmen and criminals. That’s my demographic . I genuinely love them and I care about them deeply.” Danny Baker helms the 4-5 pm slot on BBC Radio London. “I only play records that will cheer people up. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason as to what works. Whether it’s Joyce Grenfell or bleeding Kashmir by Led Zeppelin.”

Grenfell gets another mention in the DVD review pages (for Joyce Grenfell, The BBC Collection DVD) reviewed by Hazel Davis. “Grenfell had the ability to highlight mundane details pre-Alan Bennett and string them out to their awkward and embarrassing conclusions.She honed idiosyncrasies with a style both gentle and genteel.”

Andrew Collins loves The Wire. “The real test of your Wire-appreciation is whether or not you’re prepared to stand up and say it’s better than The Sopranos. I am. The Sopranos is operatic, playfully metatextual and Freudian; it invites analysis – and gets it. The Wire is plain-speaking, unmanicured and, due to its pace, a far subtler proposition.”

Longer article

Rob Fitzpatrick catches up with the recently reunited Pentangle.

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Word #44

Issue 44

October 2006

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Cover star – Joe Strummer

Word shuffle

1) P11– double page black and white school photograph from Mount Temple comprehensive school in Dublin, dated 1976. Readers are invited to play ‘Where’s Bono?’

2) P55– a whole page of adverts for 3 recently released ‘Live At The BBC’ albums. Free and The Housemartins get a qaurter page each whilst The La’s get a whole half page.

3) P129 – a page of album reviews. Dorian Lynskey reviews OutKast’s ‘Idlewild’ (“it’s the first OutKast album to pale next to its predecessor, the first to outstay its welcome, the first to sound fatally compromised”) and Jude Rogers enjoys the “ridiculously chirpy” ‘#3’ by Surburban Kids With Biblical Names (“imagine a gang of bedwetters finding a a big stash of Ritalin…the spirit of Jonathan Richman runs manically all across this record”).

4) P34 – the first of a 3 page article on Shirley Collins by Rob Fitzpatrick. “In a small terraced cottage behind Lewes castle, Shirley Collins is laughing so loudly she’s drawn the attention of the chap currently cleaning her windows. We’re talking about the two months she spent travelling through America’s deep south with Alan Lomax in 1959, recording white Baptist hymns, fife and drum bands, share-cropper blues, field hollers, prison songs and other fast-disappearing folk music of the southern states. One of Shirley’s jobs was to transcribe the lyrics from each recording – no easy task when the accents and dialects are so heavy and you’re thousands of miles from home.

‘I had heard very little black American folk and blues and these were proper deep south prison songs,’ Collins says. ‘The references meant nothing to me. I learnt that Black Betty was a whip, but there were so many sexual connotations I just didn’t understand. I was only in my 20s and that’s like being six nowadays.’ She bursts out laughing again.”

5) P84 – final page of a 3 page feature on Ray LaMontagne. “LaMontagne’s musical awakening occurred via the strangest of sources. Having scraped through high school he went through a succession of menial jobs. ‘I don’t like working for other people,’ he sighs. ‘I can’t stand it if I have to punch in the time clock, I get pretty low pretty quickly.’

But then, working at a Maine shoe factory, he was woken one morning by a Steve Stills song called Tree Top Flyer and his life changed. A tale of a freelance pilot operating beyond and – literally – above the daily punching-in grind, it’s easy to see why it appealed to LaMontagne.”

Interesting – In the ‘Home Service’ section, Mark Ellen recommends ‘Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. “It’s a slow read: you have to put it down every five minutes to try and accommodate fresh evidence of the misery that can be wrought upon the human condition by fellow humans, this further complicated by the cocktail of guilt you experience  if you’re reading it on a beach and about to visit a seafood restaurant.”

Andrew Collins reviews ‘The Gothic Box’. “Goth compilations usually pad wildly with ‘unreleased versions’ and Creaming Jesus. or scrap the door policy (I have one that includes The Wonder Stuff and The Ramones).”

Chris Salewicz writes about Joe Strummer in a 9 page extract from his book ‘Redemption Song’. “There was a fundamental flaw in firing Mick Jones that no one seemed to have thought out: with the exception of Topper’s Rock The Casbah, it was Mick who wrote all the music, so getting rid of him was madness. By dumping Mick, a problem may have been solved for Joe, as he perceived it. But another was about to be introduced. Bernie Rhodes was about to take charge of the music. Replacement guitarists were brought in, and the ‘dodgy Clash’ – as I heard them referred to – toured and began recording the Cut The Crap album.”

Dorian Lynskey asks Badly Drawn Boy about his “notriously erratic” gigs. “I openly admit that I’ve made many mistakes when I’ve played live but I think that’s the element that people buy into. I couldn’t design that if I tried. I want to leave 80% of the gig to chance, including the setlist, and that means you can fall on your arse at any point, which I have done, but people like it beacuse it’s human.”

Christopher Bray looks at the life and career of Anthony Perkins. “Much to Hollywood’s chagrin he had hooked up with another rising young star – Tab Hunter. So desperate was Perkins to keep this affair private that even when the two went to see a movie together, Perkins insisted they sit apart until the lights went down. When the lights came back up the two men would drive away in separate cars, Perkins powder-blue Thunderbird trailing a few hundred yards behind Hunter’s mustard-coloured Ford Fairlane as they made their way to the latter’s pad. Perkins may have picked up the Tab but there was no way he was going to admit it.”

Longer article

Andrew Collins declares the death of indie and asks ‘How Indie Are You? .

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Word #40

Issue 40

June 2006

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Cover star – Leonard Cohen

Word shuffle

1) P29 – a whole page advert for the ‘Pirate Radio’ 4CD and 1 DVD boxset from The Pretenders. It features 15 previously unreleased songs, track by track notes from Chrissie Hynde and a souvenir poster.

2) P132 – David Hepworth reviews a selection of books which all deal with US soldiers’ experiences in Iraq. “If Vietnam was the first rock and roll war, then the two Iraq conflicts are the first ones to have been fought by young men obsesses with style, weaned on films about Vietnam and uncomfortable when too far removed form a source of digital entertainment.”

3) P116 – another page of adverts, this time one for Imogen Heap’s ‘Speak For Yourself’ (“Smouldering, melodic electropop – excellent” according to Time Out and Scott Walker’s ‘The Drift’ which is  possibly the plainest advert ever to grace the pages of the magazine.

4) P26 – the second of a two page piece by Steve Yates about old records which had another life after being sampled on hip hop records. Who knew that Charles Aznavour’s ‘Parce Que Tu Crois’ was sampled by both Dr Dre in ‘What’s The Difference’ and in ‘Breathe’ by Blu Cantrell?

5) P19 – Hazel Davis writes a two page feature on celebrity marriages such as J-Lo and Chris Judd (“… the fat-bottomed diva married her backing dancer, Cris Judd in September 2001. Nine months later the marriage was over…). Liza Minnelli and David Gest (“throughout their marriage the pair denied rumours that Gest, a concert promoter and lifelong collector of Judy Garland memorabilia, was gay”) and Britney and Jason Alexanvder (“The Louisiana lovers walked down the aisle in blue jeans and baseball caps, but annulled the hasty affair after two days”).

Interesting – A great pop trivia fact from interview with Paul Simon – that Robin DiMaggio, the nephew of ‘Joltin’ Joe’ played drums on his album ‘Surprise’.

Graeme Le Saux (‘he reads the Guardian you know’) reveals his love of various 4AD bands. “Pat Nevin, a good friend of John Peel, got me into 4AD – The Pixies and This Mortal Coil, a brilliant band. I got really into the 4AD artwork by Vaughan Oliver and everything, like you do when you’re young with an enthusiasm for something.”

Mark Hooper of Esquire magazine waxes lyrical about lyrical waxings. The grandly titled Donald C Davidson Librabry’s Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project has been converting some of the oldest recordings to MP3 format. Hooper writes that the songs are “…from an era that has been completely written out of musical history in a Stalinist rejection of anything no longer deemed cool or relevant to the modern consumer. While the rock family tree’s roots are firmly bedded in folk and blues, another has been entirely overlooked: the one represented by Edward M. Favor’s ‘I Think I Hear A Woodpecker Knocking At My Family Tree’ (1910).”

Nige Tassell reviews ‘White Bread, Black Beer’ the comeback album from Green Gartside.“The Princess Di bouffant may be gone (he now sports a lumberjack’s thick goatee), but there’s one thing the extended hibernation hasn’t altered – that breathy, androgynous voice, seemingly preserved in aspic from Scritti’s mid-80’s heyday.”

Joe Muggs writes about the ‘OC Effect’ – that is quirky or unusual bands who’ve gained exposure through “…hip TV dramas like Six Feet Under and Californian rich-teenagers soap The OC.” He chats to one such beneficiary, Imogen Heap. “It’s a fantastic way to reach people, unlike radio where you’re just another song among many, and where they would never play a song as unusual as ‘Hide And Seek’ anyway, the song is placed in a real powerful context without any introduction or anything. Straight away there’s more involvement with the song, a more immediate emotional reaction, and then a feeling that it’s something exciting to seek out.”

Andy Gill explains the inspiration behind Leonard Cohen’s ‘Sisters Of Mercy’. “They were literally two sisters whom he met in a doorway whilst sheltering from a ferocious snowstorm in Edmonton, Alberta, where he was playing guitar at a coffee-shop. He invited the young women back to his hotel room, where the weary travellers immediately fell asleep in his bed whilst he sat by the window looking out over the river, and wrote the song. “Whatever erotic fantasy I had had about the whole situation evaporated very quickly”, he told Norwegian journalist Kari Hesthamar. Everybody had different purposes – theirs was fatigue and rest, and mine was some kind of bewilderment as usual about the whole situation. That was the first time I ever wrote a lyric from beginning to end without any revision. When they woke up I played them the song and everyone was happy.”

Longer article

Pete Doherty meets Sylvia Patterson. One of the oddest encounters in the history of Word magazine.

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Word #39

Issue 39

May 2006

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Cover star – Jack Johnson

Word shuffle

1) P8 – Michael Krugman writes 3 pages about Arctic Monkeys’ attempt to conquer America. ” ‘That man just yawned” said Alex Turner in the middle of ‘A Certain Romance’. He stabbed a finger at a member of the audience without missing a beat. It was a rare moment of spontaneity on the carefully choreographed ‘Saturday Night Live’, the Arctic Monkeys’ first North American TV appearance. To widespread confusion, Matt Helders’ bass drum was emblazoned with the words ‘ASBO’.2

2) P92 – A 4 page interview with record producer Joe Boyd by David Hepworth. “My role as a producer was to be their audience. To first of all be present in one form or another and to put the kind of energy into listening that gives them the same feeling of performing for an audience that they get in a great concert. When we had eight-track tape and Richard Thompson was overdubbing a guitar solo, he had one track and so after each take you had to choose. Are we keeping it or wiping it? That adds an intensity to the moment which has some of the elements of being in front of an audience, knowing you have to do it better and better. These days you can build up ten tracks of guitar solos and not only pick and choose between them but also take bits from this one and edit them together with bits from that one. It takes hours and it’s soul destroying. The contrast between that and the moment at the end of a session when you’ve got to make something happen, there’s no question which one I’d rather be in.’

3) P12 – a single page on Norah Jones and her country and swing project, Little Willies. “Inspiration came when the five performers realised they all loved the classic American music of their parents’ record collections – artists such as Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson. ‘Getting into this music now that I’m older, it feels so much closer to my heart’, says Jones who talks fondly of her grandparents playing Nelson to her as a child in Texas.”

4) P145 – A single page article by Michael Moran about what the video in your pocket could mean for you. The opening sentences are extremely accurate. “It’s difficult to believe that there was once a time you couldn’t take music with you everywhere. In the future we’ll be equally amazed to think there was ever a time when TV wasn’t just as portable.”

I remember that it was in this article that I first came across a mention of YouTube. “The streaming content of YouTube.com is uploaded by enthusiasts with seemingly limitless VHS archives. In five minutes we found live concert footage of Gentle Giant from 1973, a classic promo video from The Time, and a compilation of F1 crashes. In copyright terms questionable, in entertainment terms unrivalled.”

5) P127 – From ‘Recommendation Station: Punk Singles’ – an article rounding up the best 7 inches from 30 years ago. Sheryl Garrett recommends ‘Typical Girls’ by the Slits (‘Ari’s yelping voice screamed freedom, opening a new world of possibilities’), David Hepworth goes for Richard Hell’s ‘Blank Generation’ (‘there weren’t many punk records that swung, this gets nearer than most  -it almost has an arrangement’) and Rob Fitzpatrick swoons over Wire’s ‘Outdoor Miner’ (‘to Wire’s eternal credit they chose to write so succinct and beautiful a pop song about a chlorophyll-eating insect, the serpentine miner’).

Interesting – Word chooses the 20 best and worst sitcoms. In the bottom group is’ Bottom’ (‘fatiguing bum/knob/trousers-a-thon’), ‘Babes In The Wood’ (‘Denise Van Outen, Samantha Janus and some other one share a flat in St John’s Wood – DO YOU SEE?’) and ‘Agony’ (‘an arid sun-baked gag desert’). Among the best sitcoms are ‘Man About The House’ (‘like ‘Life On Mars’ without the crime’), ‘Brass’ (‘completely forgotten parody of ‘Brideshead’ and trouble-at-mill costume drama with Timothy West as mining plutocrat Bradley Hardacre’) and ‘Arrested Development’ (‘the dad’s an embezzler, mum’s a soak and the star’s siblings are a moron, a spendthrift and a magician’).

Simon Amstell is quizzed in ‘Facetime’. Hazel Davis asks him about whether he deliberately tried to upset the acts on ‘Popworld’ as much as possible. “Not at all. On our first show Atomic Kitten were singing a capella for some reason and one of them was pregnant and she said ‘Oh, the baby’s kicking’, and I said ‘It’s probably saying stop.’Afterwards the producer said ,’I don’t think you should say things like that to Atomic Kitten’ and it took a year to convince anyone that we actually should say exactly that sort of thing to Atomic Kitten. It just comes down to truth again. We responded in an honest way to people who were on the show. And it worked.”

Jude Rogers meets the Raconteurs. “If you’re Jack White you can do anything. You’ve spent the last five years separating the reds and whites at the washing machine, making multi-platinum albums for peanuts on ancient equipment, strumming banjos in ‘Cold Mountain’, playing five-minute marimba solos at Glastonbury and everyone still loves you.”

Richard E Grant’s nicknames at school were Dolly Boy and Ponce Box.

Four pages are given over to a piece by Christopher Bray on the slow decline of Orson Welles. “Thirty-odd years ago, Welles was to be found in this great land of ours, doing voiceovers for food ads. Here’s an outtake from one session. Everything you need to know about Welles is, I’m afraid, there. There is his love of rhetoric and oratory (no matter how much you adore that burgundy growl, Orson adored it more). There is his love of melodrama. And there is his love of of picking fights – especially fights he couldn’t win.”

Longer article

David Quantick in praise of the recently departed Linda Smith.

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