What D’Angelo means to me (summary: a lot)

d-angelo-billboard-650a

I was living in a two-bed terrace just off the Welford Road in Leicester, living with an ageing Italian diplomat called Mr La Barca, who kept the fridge sparse apart from his supply of cambozola, which he used to offer me on a little plate, saying

“You muuuuust! You muuuuust!”

After formal but friendly chit-chat, he’d go back to his desk and his study books, and I’d sit in the living room, reading monumental novels like Last Exit to Brooklyn, wondering if I would ever write something great, paralysed by that

One day in early January, wearing my bomber indoors because me and Mr La Barca (I never knew his first name; didn’t want to know) didn’t like central heating, my friend Lucy knocked and handed me D’Angelo’s Voodoo album; and I don’t know how those hippies felt when they got Sgt Pepper in their mitts, or the punk kids at the first sight of Never Mind the Bollocks, but this was a moment that, even when I’m dribbling in the nursing home, I won’t forget

You might say, “Rich, wasn’t he just another turn of the century soulboy – like R Kelly, with fewer motoring/sex metaphors? Like Sisqo, without the cheerful adoration of ladies’ underwear?

and I’d say, “Hang on.”

Let’s go back to my desolate Leicester bedroom. I stick the CD in my cheap Sony hifi. Mr La Barca is in his bedroom next door, playing one of his English language tapes to which he would repeat

“STEAK AND KEEEDNEY PUDDING”

and other essential phrases to help him fit seamlessly into East Midlands life.

I lie on my bed and listen to Voodoo and, first listen, I knew this album was a work of art. It is a journey from the street, through lust, sex, love and then, when you have been immersed in all that grittiness and sensuousness, to a song, Africa, which is the most powerful evocation of the spiritual I have ever heard.

In Miles Davis’s autobiography, Miles says that he loves the music of Prince because it is both innovative and rooted. That’s how it is with D’Angelo. He has an instinctive grasp of the essence of soul and gospel and funk and manages to coalesce these threads into something new and, in that final song, Africa, something transcendental.

D’Angelo spun out soon after Voodoo was released. Word was he turned to drink and drugs, junk food, put on weight, quite possibly mentally unravelled. There was talk of whole albums written, recorded, and discarded. It was said D’Angelo had problems with his body image. The record business turned him into a sex object (not without justification) and he couldn’t cope with people seeing him as a sort of singing, dancing, six-pack-on-legs.

It took 14 years to get to this week, when another album was released. In that time, me and my friend Patrick have often discussed him in our annual pre-Christmas drinks – is he all right, is he getting it together, will next year be the year.

In 2012, as part of D’Angelo’s re-emergence into the public sphere, Patrick, my cousin Jenny and I went down to Brixton Academy to see him. The show was okay, although not on the level of a concert from his nu-soul contemporary Jill Scott I had seen in the same venue. Despite his frankly enormous arm and chest muscles, he looked strangely vulnerable on stage. And yet, when his over-blown band put their instruments down and D’Angelo was left to sit at the grand piano and play – alone – we saw a glimmer of that once-in-a-generation talent.

When the announcement was made earlier this week, I went a bit mental. I don’t know how Take That fans reacted at news of their reformation a few years back, but if they burst into tears, ran around a bit, babbled incomprehensibly to their housemate and have been smiling ever since, then their reaction was highly restrained compared to my own.

I emailed Patrick, who is on holiday in South America: NEW D’ANGELO ALBUM!!!!! To which he responded: “This is one of the happiest days of my life.”

And if you think we are mad, I would say: “Fair enough.” I’d also say, it’s not just us. At the media launch of the album, one of D’Angelo’s close musical friends, Questlove, spoke to journalists (sparing D’Angelo that burden) and, while he is a lot cooler than me, there was a sense that he wanted to high-five and hug the whole world, when he said:

“I don’t really want to give a hyperbolic or grandiose statement, but it’s everything. It’s beautiful, it’s ugly, it’s truth, it’s lies. It’s everything.”

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My Christmas present failures (and a solution to this misery)

Billy Bob Thornton enjoying Christmas
Billy Bob Thornton enjoying Christmas

If Christmas is about anything it is about unrealistic expectations.

It is a time when we try to turn something immaterial – love – into something material: presents. We are setting ourselves up for a tumble. And rather than increasing the sum total of love, this anxious gift-giving is more likely to turn that love into hate, or perhaps a kind of woollen resentment.

My strike rate for Christmas present success is no more than one in three (by which I mean about one in five). In football striker terms, I am Emile Heskey – capable of the occasional exquisite show of class, but more often a hapless chancer, failing when it is easier to succeed.

People often ask me if I get nervous before I perform on stage. I say, yes, you need to. The nerves don’t get the better of me because I am prepared. I know what I’m doing (more or less). When it comes to the giving and receiving of Christmas presents it is quite the opposite. I am a fearful wreck, seeing danger at every turn. And for good reason, because my catalogue of Christmas present failures is as long as it is confidence-crushing.

Here are some edited lowlights.

A compact disc
Last Christmas, I bought a compact disc for my cousin, Simon. He unwrapped it and gave a look as if to say, “What on earth am I supposed to do with this?” See, Simon lives in the modern age and hasn’t used CDs for the past decade. To him, a CD comes from a bygone era, like the horse and cart, without the anachronistic charm. I might as well have given him a VHS cassette. Or a mangle.

A compact disc, probably with Dire Straits on it
A compact disc, probably with Dire Straits on it

A steamer
I fall in love every day, in a skittish flitting flirting way, with people in elevators and on escalators, indeed with elevators and escalators, if their lines are elegant enough. But one time I was properly in love. Love love. That love which is all doomed devotion and Saturday nights indoors watching Ant and Dec.

In this context, you might have thought that I would have extended myself when it came to presents.

Not me. Where I should have tremulously rustled up a cliched combination of roses, chocolates and trips up the Eiffel Tower, I bought a steamer.

A steamer.

A household appliance which cooks vegetables whilst allowing said vegetables to retain more of their nutritional content. I was essentially saying: “I love you, but you could really do with eating more curly kale.”

"A healthier, lonelier life."
“A healthier, lonelier life.”

Dina Carroll’s Greatest Hits
Back in the mid-90s, back when singers like Toni Braxton and Celine Dion ruled the earth like brutal, multi-octave velociraptors, there was Dina Carroll.

I liked Dina Carroll.

Not in a big way. Not the way I liked Guns N Roses. But as an English Whitney, she was pretty great.

I once said to my sister that I liked Dina Carroll. She said she really liked Dina Carroll too. It became a thing between us. Don’t Be A Stranger would come on Capital and she’d say, “Classic!” and I would fervently agree.

This went on for some months and so, when it came to the annual trip to HMV to selflessly buy music for people who aren’t me, I bought her Dina Carroll’s Greatest Hits, thinking it the safest of safe bets.

On Christmas day, when she unwrapped the CD, she laughed and said that she didn’t really like Dina Carroll. She was only taking the piss.

In my quiet devastation I resolved to never, ever trust blood relatives again. And always to be the most sarcastic person in the room.

Junichiro Tanizaki – Some Prefer Nettles
This is an elegantly written, yet very saucy tale of marital infidelity and lust. An ideal present for a new girlfriend with a love of literature. Me? Let’s just say relations between me and my aunt haven’t been quite the same since I chose this as her Christmas gift.

Henry Miller was a big fan of Tanizaki, which says it all, really.
Henry Miller was a big fan of Tanizaki, which says it all, really.

Original Source XXX Black Mint Shower Gel For Men
I am a devotee of this brilliant product. It is minty and manly, and when you use it to wash your privates, it makes your balls tingle.

Three years ago I bulk bought this as a side-gift to the men-folk in my family (to lessen my sense of mortification when my main gifts failed).

A few weeks later, I went to see my mum and dad, and noticed that while the shower gel was on display near the bath tub, it had barely been used. When I enquired to my father what the matter was, he said he “didn’t know how to use it.”

My father has two master’s degrees. He is, whenever possible, intellectually sneering. Yet he couldn’t work out how to use shower gel.

Since then, I have had to adjust my view of my father as an all-knowing Yorkshireman with a heroic gambling habit, to a sort of flawed autodidact who, without the presence of my mother, would have long since died in a bizarre hoovering mishap.

A genius product from Original Source
A genius product from Original Source

One that succeeded

A penguin
When my neice, Amelia, was four, I got Santa to get her a stuffed penguin, and when she opened it she said, “A penguin!” She was really happy with that penguin, and so was I.

My Christmas appeal
Amelia told me the other day that while she had over thirty items on her Christmas list last year, this year she only has eleven. She explained to me that she basically had a lot of stuff. She is eight years old yet is already scratching around for material things she actually wants.

This, combined with my lifetime of present-buying torment, suggests it might be better to cut back on the buying and enjoy each other’s company instead.