Three Is The Magic Number: A Review Of Stuart Cosgrove’s Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul…

 

46523465_252474145447194_8238799154168463360_n.jpgAll good things must come to an end, and this is sadly true for Stuart Cosgrove’s epic and engaging soul and civil rights trilogy. What began with Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul, and moved to Memphis ’68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul, ends with Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul, and while it is a crying shame that, for the moment at least, we won’t find out more of what happens next (although, as suggested in the title, Cosgrove does touch upon the future), as James Brown knew, when you depart the stage do it in style and leave them wanting more. Cosgrove is leaving us in the finest style, job done.

Anyone who has read the previous books will know what to expect in terms of form. Cosgrove takes us through the year of 1969 chronologically, month by month, and looks at events which may have begun in Harlem but which had ramifications way beyond the neighbourhood boundaries. His cast of characters are a Venn diagram of the well-known, the lesser-known, the expected, and the unexpected. For every Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, and Donny Hathaway, there’s someone such as Fat Jack Taylor, Betty Mabry, Arthur Conley, and Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams) whose stories are vital – indeed they, and others like them, are the spine of Harlem ’69.

All four mentioned have the most remarkable life stories, as a musical impresario and drug dealer, a muse – and so, so much more – to Miles Davis, a man struggling with his sexuality in a none-more macho world, and a leading Black Panther and mother to a future superstar. Theirs are just a few of many such accounts, and they are evidence of what Cosgrove does so well – taking everyday people’s extraordinary lives and linking them to what’s going on, not just in Harlem, but across America.

Then there are those who appear who you, or rather I, just don’t expect. Famous names such as Jimi Hendrix, Luther Vandross, Frankie Knuckles, the aforementioned Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Nile Rodgers, and George Benson. Most music lovers will be aware of their lives and work but they seem to belong elsewhere, to other musical movements and eras. For all of those mentioned to appear in the story of Harlem in 1969 is as fascinating as it is surprising.

So far I’ve only really touched upon the music, but this is as much a story of civil rights (and social issues), if not more so. They are intrinsically linked with the time and place, and with each other. This is epitomised by the staging of the free concert which came to be known as ‘Black Woodstock’, with appearances from Sly and The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and a legendary performance from Nina Simone – her version of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ a highlight of the set, and as a result the song would become the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in 1969.

The backdrop to Harlem ’69 is dark and dangerous, with the increasing prevalence of heroin taking a terrible toll, street gangs at war, and crime and mortality rates through the roof. As the months unfold matters only get worse. There are events throughout the year which define the times – the raid leading to the arrest of 21 Black Panthers being one of the most far-reaching in its consequences. But perhaps the most shocking is the death of 12-year-old Walter Vandermeer, an event which came to symbolise Harlem’s problems.

I was wondering how Cosgrove was going to wrap things up before the close of this third act, and he does so by looking to the future, linking events and individuals to people, places, and music from the next five decades which only reinforces his central thesis that these are three years which shaped America, and shook the world, musically and politically. The influence on, and the links to, the greatest exponents of hip-hop and rap is particularly strong, and poignant.

Tupac Shakur, Dr Dre, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Tone Loc, Mantronix, NWA, Public Enemy, Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest – their music and politics can be directly traced back to the years and places covered by Cosgrove. The Black Panthers’ influence in particular can be felt in music, film, theatre, art, fashion, and elsewhere, and that continues to the present day (perhaps most obviously in Marvel’s recent Black Panther movie). All the issues that Cosgrove touches upon, in this volume especially, are still felt keenly, and there is a sense that he views 1969 as a year zero for America – socially, politically, and culturally – and things would never be the same again.

There’s a playlist on the Books from Scotland website which Stuart Cosgrove has carefully curated for your listening pleasure, but here are just a few of my favourite tracks mentioned in Harlem ’69:

It is to be hoped that this isn’t the end of Stuart Cosgrove’s writing about American soul music and culture, but if it is then it’s on a high. However, if you happen to read this, Stuart, I have one last thing to say, “One more year, one more year…!”.

Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul is out now, published by Polygon Books.

Old Morality: A Review Of Charles E. McGarry’s The Shadow Of The Black Earl…

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One of the most welcome literary surprises of last year was Charles E. McGarry’s novel The Ghost Of Helen Addison. It introduced the world to private investigator, and bon viveur, Leo Moran, whose gift of second sight is both a blessing and a curse. To say this is a Glaswegian gumshoe with a difference is ridiculous understatement writ large. Quite simply, you will never have met a character like Leo Moran. In the SWH! review we said, “With The Ghost Of Helen Addison Charles E. McGarry has presented a new voice to Scottish crime fiction, and a memorable character to match. I’m looking forward to seeing how these novels develop…”. Well, look no further as the man is back in The Shadow Of The Black Earl.

If you liked the first Leo Moran mystery you are going to love this one. After a particularly upsetting funeral the dapper detective goes to stay with his now firm friend, the extravagantly named Fordyce Greatorix, at his family home of Biggnarbriggs Hall. There he encounters a range of eccentric characters who would not be out-of-place in an Agatha Christie novel. What unfolds is a whodunit which delves into the world of the occult, masonic and pagan rituals, and police corruption, as well as touching on every one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and then coming up with a few more. If you didn’t read the previous novel you may think this is business as usual in terms of Scottish crime fiction. You’d be wrong. With this second outing what’s now clear is that Leo Moran mysteries are something entirely different altogether. Continue reading

Great Scott!: A Review Of Allan Massie’s The Ragged Lion…

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The first book of Allan Massie’s I read was his historical novel Augustus (I think in the late ’80s) and it made a deep impression on me. I hadn’t been a huge fan of historical fiction up to that point, preferring the modern and contemporary even then. Written in the form of a memoir by the titular Roman emperor in old age, what was so impressive was how Massie managed to get into the character and make the reader believe that this was his life, at least from his point of view.

It’s a style which served Massie well in 1991’s Tiberius, the second of his “Memoirs of the Emperor” novels, and it is one he similarly applies in The Ragged Lion, his 1994 novel about the life of Walter Scott which has just been republished by Polygon Books. For those who are fans of Scott’s fiction it is essential, but, as with the Roman Trilogy, it is also a great read for those interested in the history of the time as it looks at the people, places, events and attitudes through the prism of arguably the most famous Scottish writer, and, certainly at the time, the most celebrated. Continue reading

Listen Closely: Ron Butlin’s The Sound Of My Voice (Revisited)…

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Back in 2011 I wrote a post for the much missed Dear Scotland website on Ron Butlin’s 1987 novel The Sound Of My Voice as part of the monthly Indelible Ink column. In it I made the claim that it was “The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”. A new edition is being published by Polygon, and I thought this was the perfect time to revisit it to see if that assertion still stood strong.

I should lay my cards on the table before we start. The Sound Of My Voice is one of those cultural touchstones which have become part of my identity. As with the music of The Blue Nile, the writing of James Kelman, the films of Bill Forsyth, and everything that John Byrne has ever done, it is something I evangelise about, attempting conversions whenever possible. These are important relationships and returning to them after time away brings the possibility of disappointment and disillusion if you find they no longer affect you as they once did. It’s a risky business.  Continue reading

Fowl Play And Finery: A Review Of Stuart David’s Peacock’s Alibi…

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Two of the most challenging types of writing are crime and comedy. For the first you have to avoid repeating well-worn clichés while still making it as recognisably belonging to the genre. For the second, well, it’s got to be funny – perhaps the most difficult trick to pull off on the page. A successful crime/comedy, therefore, is something which is to be celebrated.

Christopher Brookmyre and Douglas Skelton are two writers who get the balance right, combining the dark side of life with the blackest of comedy, but they are rare. A worthy addition to that niche section of your bookshelves arrives in the shape of Stuart David’s latest novel Peacock’s Alibi. Set in Glasgow, and with an unerring ear for what the word on the street should sound like, Peacock’s Alibi is like a lost Taggart script as written by John Byrne. Like Byrne, David writes dialogue that isn’t how people speak, but how they wish they spoke – funnier, wittier, and with a better line in the last word. Continue reading

Talking Books: A Preview Of Aye Write! 2018…

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For 10 days in March (15th – 25th) Glasgow’s Book Festival Aye Write! is the only show in town for lovers of fact, fiction, food, poetry, prose, biography, comics, and any other form of writing that takes your fancy.  While the majority of events remain at the festival’s spiritual home of The Mitchell Library there is also plenty occuring at the CCA, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Tramway, City Halls, GFT and Glasgow University Chapel. But it is only right that Glasgow’s most famous library is the focus point for a book festival which is international in scope, but has its roots firmly planted in the city.

Here are SWH!’s carefully selected daily highlights to give you something to think about, but you can peruse the full programme at your leisure here.

You can also keep up to date with events as they unfold by following @AyeWrite on Twitter or on Facebook. Tickets can be bought here and you can click the links below for further details on the individual events.

619at83IyAL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Thursday 15th – Stuart David, 7.45 – 8.45pm, University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel
Ex-Belle & Sebastian and current Looper, Stuart David is arguably better known as a musician than a writer, but his debut novel Nalda Said is one of the most-underrated Scottish novels of the last 20 years, and his memoir about his time in Belle & Sebastian, In The All Night Cafe is a must for any Scottish pop music fan. Now his latest novel, Peacock’s Alibi, is being published by Polygon, and SWH!’s very own Ali Braidwood will be in conversation with Stuart on the 15th to discuss the new book, the true story of Peacock Johnson, the Ian Rankin connection, and so much more. If you have a burning question you’ve always wanted to ask Stuart please come along as this is your chance to do so.

Peacock’s Alibi is published by Polygon Books, and you can hear Stuart and Karn David talking to the SWH! Podcast back in 2015. Continue reading

Bon Accord: A Review Of Alan Taylor’s Appointment In Arezzo: A Friendship With Muriel Spark…

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As mentioned in SWH!’s recent review of Olga Wojtas’ novel Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovarthis year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the writer Muriel Spark, and as well as all the events which are happening under the banner of #MurielSpark100, Polygon Books are republishing all 22 of her novels which, if you only know The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, (or nothing at all), offers you the chance to more fully acquaint yourself with the work of arguably the greatest Scottish writer of the 20th century.

However, not much is known about the writer herself. To help rectify this Polygon have also published journalist, and founding editor of The Scottish Review of Books, Alan Taylor’s Appointment In Arezzo: A Friendship With Muriel Spark, an account of his relationship with Spark in her later life. A notoriously private woman, the book is a fascinating insight into how she viewed the world, and how the world in turn viewed her. Continue reading

Fine And Dandy: A Review Of Charles E. McGarry’s The Ghost Of Helen Addison…

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Against all expectations, the Christmas/ New Year period allowed for the reading of some of the books which have been sitting on SWH!’s ever present ‘must-read’ pile, and the next few posts will review at least a couple of those. First up is Charles E. McGarry’s The Ghost Of Helen Addison, which introduces us to Leo Moran, a Glaswegian private eye who is unlike any you’ll have met before, which is in itself a reason for cheer.

In the world of crime-fiction, and Scottish crime-fiction in particular, the belief persists that the genre is one which relies on familiar tropes, stereotypes and cliches. However, I would hope that the work of many of the writers of crime who have featured on these pages, including Louise Welsh, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Douglas Skelton, Michael J. Malone, Alice Thomson and Russel D. McLean, would have changed readers’ preconceptions if they persisted. All of those mentioned, and many others, have very distinct styles and are wildly and wonderfully different to one another. If you’ve yet to embrace Scottish crime fiction, you’re missing out. Continue reading

There’s A Riot Going On: A Review Of Stuart Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul…

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One of the most eagerly anticipated books of 2017, at least round our way, is Stuart Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul. It follows on from Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul which was one of SWH!’s  Books of the Year for 2015 and which Stuart spoke about in depth when he was a guest on the SWH! podcast. Both books are part of his ‘Sixties Soul Trilogy’ (Harlem 69 is due in 2018) which takes the music of those cities as a starting point to further explore arguably the most explosive and important years of 1960s America.

Memphis 68 is defined by two deaths; Otis Redding’s in December of 1967 and Martin Luther King Jr’s in April ’68. The book begins with a city in mourning for its favourite son. For many music fans, this was the day the music died, with Redding’s demise in a plane-crash as shocking and untimely as that of Buddy Holly in similar circumstances in 1959. As with the earlier incident, it is easy to overlook the other individuals who also lost their lives, but Cosgrove makes sure they are not forgotten, reminding readers that while Redding may have been Stax Records’ shining star, he was a member of a large musical family whose loss was great and deeply felt. Continue reading