Saving Face: A life without Facebook

On December 28th, 2009, I pre-empted one of my new year’s resolutions and did something remarkable – I ditched my Facebook account.

For most people, this may seem decidedly unremarkable; it’s just a social networking site and you are free to leave any time, right?  Well, no, not really. Not once you are hooked.

Some of my profile pictures were getting ridiculous

I wasn’t just a casual user of the site; I was what could be termed an ‘avid user’.  In other words, I was getting horrendously addicted.  In just over a year I had amassed nearly 400 ‘friends’.  I would think up a status update when I was out and feel the need to write it down so as to not forget.

Then I discovered I could use Facebook on my mobile phone, and my every waking thought only seemed to be real once it appeared on my profile.  If it wasn’t on Facebook, it didn’t exist.

I took great pride in knowing that some of my friends would log on mainly to see my status updates, declaring them the funniest things they had read.  My ego loves a bit of polishing.

What I didn’t realise was that whilst there may have been a core audience of 30 or so people who appreciated my incessant banter, there were many more who blocked my updates or removed me as a friend because of the sheer volume of comments which had no bearing on their lives whatsoever.  So what if Stevie hasn’t been paid this month?  In fact, who the hell is he anyway?

My work in general was being impeded by the frequency with which I was returning to Facebook.  My daily thoughts were also needlessly occupied by it.  The excuse was that, as a journalist and general media type, I needed Facebook.  It was a vital tool in my armoury, I insisted.

During a long walk up the hills on what had been another miserable snow covered day, the peace and tranquillity of the landscape allowed my mind to put 2009 behind me and attempt to find ways to make 2010 the successful year that the previous 365 days had failed to deliver.  I knew Facebook had to go, for the good of my sanity.

Incidentally, the seed had been sown barely two weeks earlier, when a friend accosted me at my part time job (wine shop) asking, “Shouldn’t you be at home updating your Facebook status?”.

Dear Lord, had it really come to this?  I could no longer ignore the fact that more people now found my online omnipresence to be an irritant than a source of entertainment.  As soon as I got off that hill, I was hitting the cancel button.

Upon deciding to undertake this deletion process, the Facebook infected part of my brain started to bite back and immediately identified a total of 9 key areas of concern.  Here, in no particular order, are the problems I faced:

1)What about all the photos I have on the site, as well as great photos of me taken by other people?

2) Will my friends think I have removed them as friends, and how offended will they be?

3) Are there people who I am only in touch with through Facebook and how will I address this?

4) How will I publicise my work if I can’t use the links via the site?

5) Having 400 friends is very useful as a journalist.  How will I cope without these contacts?

6)Work aside, will I miss the social interaction of the site?

7) My work in music journalism relies heavily on the events and invitations through Facebook.  Will I suffer without these and thus be cut out of the loop?

8 ) How will I remember people’s birthdays?

9) What was it that led me to get so addicted in the first place, what need did it satisfy and how will this part of me react?

To deal with the facile ones first, people tend to tell you when their birthday is, so simply writing it in my diary will be enough.

Even unsavoury pictures of me stealing children from playparks made it onto the site

The ‘social side’ was replacing a genuine social life, where people used to leave the house to catch up with friends.  A return to this antiquated way of life will be most welcome.

As for pictures, well I prefer to live in the present and have never been one for pictures.  My mind remembers things for me; often more favourably than the original event, and that is fine by me.

If I am only in touch with someone because of Facebook, chances are they are not very close to me.  With my workload this coming year, my social circle is going to have to contract significantly, not expand, so this is an ideal opportunity.  I certainly didn’t spend £12k getting a journalism MA so I could expand my social circle.

As for the work related elements, such as the contacts, the events and the usefulness of being able to publicise my links through the site, I will have to wait and see how this pans out.  There are ways round these things, but many of them are long-winded and will probably cost me more time whilst being less effective.

Facebook is a very compact and concise site which generally functions very well for people with something to publicise.  My reasoning though, is that Facebook never put any money in my pocket.  I need to impress employers, not my friends and certainly not the distant misanthropes with whom I had the misfortune to attend school.

In general, and especially work-wise, it is far too early to know how my self-imposed removal will work out.  One of the earliest and most alarming outcomes, as well as the most surprising, was the number of close companions who could see no reason for my disappearance other than some catastrophic personal slight.

A fair number of people, including many who really should know better, sent text messages enquiring as to why I had ‘defriended’ them (a delightful new verb).  These, of course, are the ones who actually sent a text.  I can only speculate as to how many have simply taken umbrage in silence.

The final unanswered question brings me neatly to my conclusion: What was it that caused me to get so addicted in the first place?  Well, most likely it is my compulsive need to communicate constantly.  My career choice as journalist/radio presenter/podcaster seems to back up this assertion.

In fact, what is this article if not a replacement form of communication from a man whose life is no longer published via Facebook?

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My top 10 albums of 2009: Part 2 – The top 5

Following on from the previous post, here are the final five selections in my list of the top 10 albums of the last year, in descending order…

5) J. Tillman – Vacilando Territory Blues

More west coast americana here, this time from Seattle’s husky voiced Fleet Fox member J (Joshua) Tillman.  Vacilando Territory Blues sees him in typically thoughtful form, with the track ‘James Blues’ an example of his piano and guitar backed husky storytelling style.  ‘First Born’ is another treat on this album, which was one of two released in the last year and which peaked at just #191 in the UK album charts.

This album is patient, delicate and if you loved Bon Iver in 2007 but have been disappointed by his subsequent work, then Tillman’s your man.

4) Micah P Hinson – All Dressed Up and Smelling of Strangers

Hinson’s aching, cracked voice on swooping string backings have long since won me over.  My Fresh Air radio show and associated podcasts almost turned into a one man homage to the Texan with enough angst in his soul to make me cry.  This year though, he decided to release a double CD covers record, which I anticipated and worried about in equal measure.  Covers records are fraught with danger and I can think of very few which are actually any good.  However, in Hinson we trust…

The result was a mixed press, with many of my fellow bloggers panning the record, with his cover of George Harrison’s ‘While my guitar gently weeps’ coming in a for particularly hostile reception.  For me though, Hinson succeeds because he makes the tracks his own, rather than attempting to out-do the original.  He shows respect to the original recordings and selected them because they are songs he loves.  His cover of John Denver’s ‘This old guitar’ is my pick of the lot.  Covers albums will always be divisive and I would rather have seen an album of original Hinson material.  Still though, it is bloody good.

3) The Low Anthem – Oh my God, Charlie Darwin

A fairly new addition to my record collection, ‘Oh my God, Charlie Darwin’ has barely left the CD player since its arrival.  Incidentally, I don’t really like the title track or the album’s centrepiece ‘To Ohio’ (which the band seem to like enough for it to appear twice on the record), but once these two opening tracks are over, the US alt. folk trio’s album comes into its own with the superb Cohen-esque ‘Ticket Taker’.  There are more than a few nods to Tom Waits too, with ‘Home I’ll never be’ giving the writing credit to Tom Waits and Jack Kerouac (him again).

This album harks back to an America of old, but also deals with the contemporary issues to which its title alludes; namely the conflict between Darwinism and religion in modern America.

Having recorded the album in a desolate cabin (Bon who?), the band have recently acquired recording space in an abandoned pasta sauce factory, and regular updates from their new home are posted on their website.

‘Oh my God, Charlie Darwin’ is an album with no spaces in between the sound.  Rich and lush, with layered harmonies and a vast array of instruments, this is an album full of tales and imagery and is one I shall return to time after time.

2) Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More

So, all the bloggers get together to lavish praise on a little known act emerging out of London’s indie folk scene.  Then they become successful and have an advert on the telly with the dulcet tones of Jo Wiley telling everybody to buy it for Christmas.  No we are supposed to shun them yeah, cause they’re not cool anymore yeah, they’ve sold out yeah?  Well, no.

When I first heard ‘Little Lion Man’ in late 2007, I was blown away.  I played it on my radio show just about every week and stated then that if Mumford and Sons could back this up with some other memorable tunes, they would have an album to be reckoned with.  Well, they only went and managed that.  ‘Sigh no more’ is superb from start to finish and has rightly put them in the spotlight alongside fine scene contemporaries Johnny Flynn and Noah and the Whale, along with the somewhat questionable Laura Marling (who I saw put in a rather shockingly dull performance at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall a few months back).

‘Sigh no more’ has more plays on my iTunes than any other record and if their reward for success is a TV advert and more record sales, then I say well done.  More please more please more please…..

1) Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom

To be fair, any Tom Waits release is pretty much guaranteed to be my top album of the year, such is my love of the gravel-voiced man whose career has spanned nearly 40 varied and glorious years.  The only real problem came in 2002, when he released Blood Money and Alice at the same time.  The bugger…

Glitter and Doom is made up of live recordings from his European tour of 2007.  The pain of being too impoverished to see him when he came to Edinburgh will live with me until my dying day.  This album has gone some way to alleviating that pain, but in some ways it has only served to highlight what I missed.

Waits has always been a supreme live performer; part barfly crooner, part balladeer, part stand up comedian.  CD1 contains 17 live tracks spanning his entire career and Tom is on particularly grizzly form, even by his own formidable standards.  The jewel in the crown though is CD2, a staggeringly funny and insightful collection of his chat between songs, edited together and lasting 36 phenomenal, side splitting minutes.

Did you know you can get 14 omelettes from one ostrich egg?  Well, Tom does.  He also claims to have purchased Henry Ford’s last breath from Ebay.

True or not, thank you Mr Waits.  Yet again, you have made my year.

Having just turned 60, Tom Waits sounds as good as ever.


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My top 10 albums of 2009 – No. 10-6

Yes folks, after finally getting some time off from my various jobs, I too have cracked and felt the need to produce a list of my top albums of the last year. 2009 was the year I took my first tentative yet clumsy steps into the world of music journalism, writing for the Scotsman newspaper’s Under the Radar blog, covering unsigned and under-represented bands in Scotland.

Those just missing out on the top 10 include Blue Roses, Monsters of Folk, Bowerbirds and my pal from Glasgow going by the name Beerjacket (Although I doubt I make it into his top 10 either).

Here then, in descending order, are my top ten albums of 2009:

10) Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – White Lunar

This superb 2 CD selection of work from Cave and his partner in crime is comprised mainly of selections from film soundtracks, most notably The Assassination of Jesse James and this year’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road. It is a soothing, classically influenced listen and couldn’t be much more different from their previous work on the ear-drum punishing Grinderman.  Cave also released another darkly hysterical book this year, entitled The Death of Bunny Munro and his performance at the Picturehouse in Edinburgh was far and away my gig of the year.  Proof indeed that no matter the genre, Nick Cave is capable of utter genius.

9) Bombay Bicycle Club – I had the blues but I shook them loose

Summer festival favourites Bombay Bicycle Club produced a really fun album that, whilst it is certainly the most mainstream choice in my ten, does not deserve to suffer simply because it became popular.  Far too often people in my line of work turn their backs on a band once everyone else catches on, which seems peculiarly self-defeating if the purpose is to bring bands to a wider audience.  2009 was certainly a great year for these guys and their album managed to be both intelligent and popular.  They deserve credit for both.

8 ) Richmond Fontaine – We used to think the freeway sounded like a river

An excess of Kerouac and Burrows in my 2009 reading list fuelled an interest in US west coast alt. country bands; a genre which is still going strong despite the dominance of New York acts on the international scene.  Portland band Richmond Fontaine’s 9th record sounds as spare as the pacific coast highways but has moments of homage to the Seattle scene which so flourished in the 90s.  It is a classic road album, rich in imagery and full of the kind of storytelling you would expect from lead singer and accomplished novelist Willy Vlautin.  Their best album to date, this is an involving and rewarding experience.

7) Withered Hand – Good News

Dan Willson, the man behind Edinburgh act Withered Hand, has been charming Scottish audiences all year with his shy demeanour and wry, quasi-religious pop songs.  In September he released the highly anticipated ‘Good News’, to an excitable local scene.  He is the classic example of the whole being worth so much more than the individual parts; his voice isn’t great and neither is his guitar playing (Neil from Meursault had to tune his guitar for him at one gig!). However, through a combination of self-effacing charm and lyrics which should be made into a book, Dan has produced a blinding album, aided by the production talents of Kramer, who has previously worked with the likes of Daniel Johnson, Low and Galaxie 500.

What will 2010 bring for Dan Willson?  I think he should write a book of children’s stories.  Very, very dark ones…

6) Small Town Boredom – Notes from the Infirmary

Paisley’s Small Town Boredom are not in the least the type of band you’d let you would play at a gathering of friends and are not the kind of band you’d feel comfortable passing on to a depressed friend, but whilst their music is what some would unfairly dismiss as depressing, I prefer to think of it as contemplative.  The duo have clearly been through some rough times, but ‘Notes from the Infirmary’ finds beauty in adversity and hints towards optimistic times ahead.  The tone is predominantly low key but builds to some pretty extreme crescendos, not least on the album’s standout track ‘World’s Most Unwanted’.  Never likely to break into the mainstream, Small Town Boredom’s aversion to playing life is also unlikely to endear them to potential new fans.  They deserve an audience though and anyone prepared to give ‘Notes from the Infirmary’ a few listens will be richly rewarded.

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My Band of 2009…

As part of my work for the Under the Radar blog on the Scotsman website, I was asked to submit an article selecting my band of the year…

When the dark, mysterious powers behind UtR first suggested that each of us hacks pick a band of the year, I decided to let my iTunes play count decide it for me. So, Withered Hand it is then. Except, as phenomenal as Dan Willson is, it seemed too obvious.

So I looked to see who was second and found Meursault. Dear Lord, I am such an Edinburgh cliché. So I scrapped the preposterous iTunes notion and went back to searching around the disused back rooms of my mind.

After a mentally and sometimes physically painful deliberation, I decided the band who have given me the most enjoyment this year has been Glasgow’s How to Swim.

One key reason for this is that I hate being late to the party. I sometimes get there so late that the place is scattered with empty bottles and everyone has either gone home or crashed out.

With How to Swim, I was fairly punctual in my arrival at the metaphorical party. Not early exactly (the band have been playing in various forms since 2000), but early enough to make small talk in the hall about my job whilst glancing nervously towards the door to see if anyone else was going to turn up. How to Swim turned up and their live act is certainly something to treasure.

My affinity for the band is partly because I regard the 2005 It Stings When I EP as one of my finest ever random purchases. Then I lost my copy. But 2009 was the year a copy re-emerged to gift me joy in the form of Gregor Barclay’s haunting voice and the sinister imagery he creates. ‘There’s a Building There’ has to be my all time favourite stalker song.

The new material has also lived up to previous acclaim. Perhaps with the release of the album Retina, iTunes may well be able to pick my band of 2010. So, thanks to a combination of discovery and rediscovery, How to Swim have made me happier than any other band this year.

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In the spotlight: Thomas Western

Some acts toil for years to make their mark. Others never manage to succeed no matter how hard they try. To their eternal frustration, it has taken singer-songwriterThomas Western less than a month to become the talk of the town.

Having moved from Derbyshire to Edinburgh for a spot of postgraduate study and musical adventure, Western’s first month was a whirlwind of activity. He got his first local radio appearance, had his EP in several shops, featured on some prominent blogs and managed to become ‘musician in residence’ at the capital’s much loved Bowery venue.

Not all of this was part of a master plan, as Western happily admits. On his serendipitous Bowery meeting after a Jesus H Foxx gig, he says: “I met Ruth who runs the place, and half-jokingly asked if I could play every week. She said yes”.

As part of the link-up, Western will also produce an album – another unique offshoot of the collaboration between performer and venue. “The plan is for me to write three songs each week to play, then to record and release them as an album at the end of it all”, he enthuses.

After starting out as a drummer, Western has moved on to solo work, although he admits he was “too scared for a long time”. But he says that this also acts as a spur: “In playing by myself I am totally accountable to myself and if the music isn’t good enough, then it is my responsibility to work harder at it”.

Western’s musical style is, at times, similar to the 1960s California folk scene epitomised by Tim Buckley – his vocal style is also not dissimilar, singing in octaves other artists would never dare attempt.

Citing his influences as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Will Oldham and Jeff Buckley, it’s easy to see where the inspiration has come from in tracks like ‘Plough’ and ‘Your Front Door’, the latter featuring on Western’s wonderfully homemade and packaged EP ‘Quite Early One Morning’. There is also something charming and old fashioned about finding a CD in a shop which appears to be made from paper and UHU glue, potentially falling apart at any moment.

Western plans to release a solo album in addition to his Bowery sessions album. Beyond that, he doesn’t rule out playing as part of a band again. “There is a joy to playing with other people that is lacking from solo performance, so I would really love to get an ensemble together at some point,” he says. “It is dependent on meeting the right people though.”

Given how much Thomas Western has achieved in the short time he has lived in Scotland, by this time next year he could be running the country, although surely he’s too honest for that.

Words: Stevie Kearney

Thomas Western’s EP is available from emusic and iTunes, as well as Avalanche in Edinburgh. His Bowery album will be released later this year and his first full solo album is due to be recorded in early 2010.

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Sport & Drugs: Missing the Point

This article represents a very personal viewpoint and is more of a Newsmule editorial than a news article as such.  Please feel free to add your comments below.

The issue of drugs in sport is one which becomes ever more contentious as the methods of evasion become increasingly sophisticated.

The recent case in tennis, where Andre Agassi admitted to lying to drugs officials in 1997 about the circumstances under which Crystal Methamphetamine found its way into his system, has opened up the debate in a sport which was previously considered relatively clean.

agassi

Agassi was always one of tennis' most colourful characters

The most sane point amongst the needless hysteria and media clamour was made by Agassi himself, who noted that such a thing could not happen in tennis in 2009 as the regulations have been tightened significantly.

The issue was essentially that Agassi, as he admitted in his autobiography, had taken Crystal Meth for recreational purposes and immediately regretted it – well, one the comedown kicked in anyhow.  Up until that point it appears he had a phenomenal time.  When the presence of the drug was picked up in his sample, he told testing officials that his drink had been spiked by a member of his team and the member in question had since been fired.  This was a lie.

That was 12 years ago and nowadays taking the wrong cure for a common cold can potentially lead to a year long ban from competition, so lying really won’t cut it any more.

What followed this startling revelation by one of tennis’ all-time greats was a raft of media interest and all sorts of questions being raised. Legitimate questions were aired, such as ‘how many other players have escaped a ban by lying to cover their tracks?’ – pun intended.

Predictably though when drugs issues are involved, there were some preposterous questions posed.  Some pondered whether Agassi should be stripped of his honours as he had now exposed himself as a ‘drugs cheat’.

Now, pardon my trademark flippancy, but any competitor who can take Crystal Meth and still compete for Grand Slam prizes should probably be given some sort of extra award for his efforts and should certainly donate his body to science.

Crystal Meth has been known to cause paranoia, anxiety, irritability, heart palpitations, cardiovascular problems and psychosis.  These are hardly the types of symptoms one would wish for at match point down in the French Open final.

So whilst Agassi was hardly a regular user, having tried it and realised he was about to throw his career away, the issue does bring the attention to the difference between drug types and the notion that all those who fail drugs tests are by definition ‘cheats’.

Adrian_Mutu_2

Adrian Mutu has managed to re-launch his career in Italy since serving his lengthy ban

Agassi gained no performance advantage from his brief foray into Crystal Meth, but tried it due to external pressures.  When former Chelsea footballer Adrian Mutu was sacked by the Blues after he tested positive for cocaine, he had gained no performance advantage.  Indeed, living life on London’s cocaine party circuit is highly likely to have a severely detrimental effect on the performance of any top sportsperson.

Mutu was treated as if he was Ben Johnson or Dwain Chambers – men who deliberately used drugs to gain a performance advantage over their rivals.  Some have looked for Agassi to be treated the same way.  But surely there should be different rules for those who have what wider society knows as ‘a drug problem’, rather than pillorying them along in a similar manner to those who have sought to cheat their way to victory?

Prominent sports stars have an exaggerated list of temptations in front of them and have to perform in extremely high pressure environments.  How many of us have their disposable income?  How many of us have been attacked by members of the public because we had a poor day at work, or work for an unpopular company? Most of us don’t get screamed at by 60,000 people when we go to work.  This is a potentially explosive combination.

These sports stars are no different to the rest of us in their methods of dealing with pressure, no matter what we wish to think.  They are, by the virtue of their talent, foisted into the position of role models.  This is not something they choose, but something that comes with their exceptional abilities.

Those who have sought escape from these pressures, rather than an illegal competitive advantage, should be offered help.  Mutu was not only fired, but has to pay his former employer around £15m for his ‘breach of contract’.

If such stars are role models for youngsters, then what does such an inflexible and hard line approach teach those youngsters about compassion in society?  Sport does not exist in a bubble and its attitude towards those with drug problems should reflect the ways in which wider society wishes to address the problem.  If one of your loved ones had a cocaine problem, would you prefer they received punishment or treatment?

To suggest that Mutu should never be allowed to play professional football again is nearly as idiotic as the calls for Agassi to be retrospectively stripped of his titles.

All sports need to separate the two different types of drug taking and consider how cheats can be stopped, but also how young men and women under huge amounts of pressure can best be protected.

By failing in this respect, the governing bodies of various sports are also failing to protect those who make sport the great money making spectacle that allows officialdom to recline in self-satisfactory comfort.

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Haye triumphs over ‘Goliath’ Valuev

British boxer David Haye became WBA heavyweight champion of the world last night despite breaking his left hand in his fight with 7 foot 2 inch Russian giant  Nikolia Valuev.

The ‘Haymaker’ won a majority decision despite facing a hostile German crowd, dominating former champ Nikolai Valuev, who he previously antagonised by describing as ‘a circus act’.

All bravado vanished as Haye began the fight in speculative fashion, dominating Valuev with a

Haye1

Haye faced a massive size difference, but ultimately triumphed against Valuev

clever performance of movement and jabbing; constantly keeping his massive opponent on the back foot and refusing to give him a steady target.

Haye dominated the early rounds against the 7′ 2″  Russian, who had never been knocked down in his previous 51 fights.  Much of his clever jabbing performance was actually down to a broken hand, which Haye sustained in the 2nd round.  From then on, he looked to out-manoeuvre his massive opponent with a series of jabs and weaves, never leaving his head exposed to the Russian’s potential knockout power.

Valuev looked to utilise his height and weight advantage through the middle rounds, but Haye managed to impress the judges sufficiently through his agression to take a decision 116-112 on two score cards, with the third judge scoring the contest level.

It was a fair reward for Haye who boxed a clever fight, possibly aided by his broken hand as he looked to out-smart his opponent rather than knock him out.  Haye almost became the first man to knock Valuev out, rocking the giant Russian in the closing rounds.

Ultimately, Haye was unable to deliver on his pre-fight promise of being the first man to knock Valuev out in his 51 fights, but it meant little as he took a deserved majority decision on the judges scorecards.

Haye becomes the first British Heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis in 2003 and now has a mass of opportunities to consider.  He is now in a much stronger position to broker a fight with either Klitschko brother, after recent discussions broke down.

Whatever happens now, Haye can rightfully consider himself a bona-fide world chamion who the world boxing communtity will have to respect.  He has achieved a feat few thought him possible of, and deserves all his plaudits.

What the British boxing public deserve now is a heavyweight champion who can box on live television.  Hopefully the victory of David over Goliath will convince terrestrial broadcasters that boxing is a sport with a future and, more importantly, a potentially huge television audience.  That future is now safely in the hands of WBA Heavyweight Champion David Haye.

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