Sunday, 30 December 2012

Sketches from a smoker's album: Christmas annals

Half the best smoking moments come during the festive period. It was on a solitary session listening to the dulcet tones of Phil Collins and the lesser know Andrew Gold that I appreciated that some of the best moments in writing are to be had on the tod as it were! 

A flight was enjoyed this evening, starting with a very superior smoke, a No. 2 Montercristo was the first of my venture and it had a wonderful plume against a fabulous flavour paired next to (dare I say it) a brilliant gingerbread rum - a la M&S - and cola. I fell no shame in the combination despite my previous incredulity, it was a very nice combination. the drink sat well against a potent havana with quite a plume. 

Next was a lovely little cigar, a Trinidad to be exact, given  to me by a great friend who knows my preference to tobacco! I am sure that the smoking of the very item in front of our mutual relations would have caused quite a stir but I refrained on this occasion...maybe next year in SW19! It was a beautiful, light draw and a rich cadence of smoke which followed, well chosen by a fellow who has little idea of smoking (or maybe he does)!

I wish I had the foresight to choose something that was of great heritage to the last but you should always finish, after a couple of great character, with something of the mainstream like a Villiger Grosseformat coupled with a very apt band... The Doobie Brothers...I smoke as I write, a great crime! But like those cool cats of the 70s I live ‘minute by minute’ and enjoy the occasional can of lager!

Their rather catching tones made me think and reflect on another couple of moments had over this short but festive era...

Bolivar No. 2 has haunted me this Yuletide season, we have go through family, feast, famine and fun in equal turn. Buying the two cigars, as i did at Wimbledon’s finest purveyors of  tobacco goods ‘Sutherlands’ (not finest - that is reserved, for Wimbledon Wine Cellars), I had no idea that these two little tubes of Cuba’s finest would afford me such enjoyment over the Christmas period. 

My first was had standing outside a floor to ceiling glass window, I understood that no one else wanted to share my enjoyment of the cigar and luckily I had already seen the film they were watching. Listening to some raw Rickie Lee Jones (‘Company’ if you want the song), it was a moment, the chill night against my cheek set against the rich smoke. It was a wonderful feel, reflective and indulgent, a slight guilty pleasure was discern in addition as relations cast a few disapproving glares at the, pretentious as he is, ‘catcher in the rye’

The second: sitting down with sympathetic company and enjoying a few scotches we were chopping a mountain of red cabbage and peeling potatoes, I knew this stogie well but it must  be one of the moments where this cigar both came in useful but captured my heart. I have recommended it in an earlier post but it is definitely something to have when you are up against it, as a real morale booster. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

Bloody Good Chap's last minute Christmas shopping list

It was not too long ago that I sat down to make a list of things that I really wanted for Christmas, or would have wanted to recieve on this year’s yuletide had I not purchased them myself over this year. Perhaps you yourself are stuck with what to buy a friend of a loved one? Well fear not, for I have made a list of my favourite purchases or received gifts over 2012 which might give a bit of last minute inspirations...

Books might seem a bit old hat but I think that this is far from fair, if anything the market has become more exciting the more it is squeezed, encouraging authors to be a bit more creative in their content and their design. As many of you will know, food is something of a passion and I am quite the avid collector of books focusing on all culinaria. I have purchased a number of fascinating and beatifully bound tomes but by far my favourite of the year is Joanna Blythman’s What to Eat (£16.99, 4th Estate). I have not read such an original book about food for a very long time, it makes you take a step back and question the decisions that you make from shopping in the supermarket to how you treat your ingredients when you get them home. Not only is it highly informative, you can tell that Joanna is as passionate about cooking the food as she is analysing the production, the logistics and the impact of the food supply chain. 

If you (or someone you know) love food and like books crammed full of factoids and fancies, make sure that this is the one book you purchase. For fiction lovers, may I suggest the rip-roaring and adrenaline filled novel Shogun by James Clavell (£8.99, Hodder). I was gripped by this beautifully crafted and unputdownable book about a British sailor shipwrecked in early 17th Century Japan. Apparently it is incredibly accurate as a portrait of Japanese culture as seen through the eyes of a Westerner, but for me this is merely complimentary to a tale in the true spirit of high adventure with forbidden love, outrageous courage, rugged terrain, feuding warlords and a great sense of humour. Some might be put off by the large number of pages (roughly 1100 in total) but you should tear through it soon enough as you become engrossed in the story. 

This year I was particularly focused on 25th Anniversaries, my own being one, but also of some great films that came out in 1987 (the year I was born) and also in the following year. Whilst there was plenty of dross during a period where there were still companies like Cannon Films and Golan Globus ruling the roost of b-grade, but highly enjoyable actions films (something sadly lost to the mists of time). One such film is the 1988 tour de force Blue Jean Cop (AKA Shakedown) starring Peter Weller and Sam Elliott as a mismatched ambitious lawyer and a maverick detective looking to bust some bent coppers who are running their own drug dealing/money laundering service. This film has everything from a tense game of Russian roulette, a drag race, a brothel shoot out, a gun slinging chase on a moving roller coaster and a slew of one liners delivered with panache by Weller’s slimy lawyer and Elliot’s world weary rozzer.

 Another film from the vaults of laughably bad but highly entertaining films is the 1991 homage to the thoroughly dated ‘New Jack Swing’ craze, New Jack City starring a stellar cast of Mario van Peebles, Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Judd Nelson and a young Chris Rock (doing his very best to play a crack addict). To be fair it is a great watch and the soundtrack will take people back to an era of berets, parachute pants and the pulsating rhythms of Bobby Brown, Bel Biv Devoe, Guy and Color Me Badd.  Snipes tries to be menacing as drug lord come Scarface wannabe ‘Nino Brown’ but he comes more across as Uncle Abanazar in the pantomime Aladdin. However, in a film with characters called: ‘Scotty Appleton’, ‘Pookie’, ‘Nick Perreti’, ‘Frankie Needles’ and ‘Duh Duh Duh Man’ he seems positively conservative. Still a fun experience and worth sitting in front of instead of the fifth showing of Zulu! 

I made much ado about the NUB Cameroon in a previous post, wittily called ‘The Pelican’s Brief’ as I saw a pelican in St James’s Park when I was last smoking one. That aside, I must briefly reiterate that it is a fantastic smoke and also something very different from the norm. It is a wide, stubby creature with a long rich smoke. You can either by it regular or pressed, I prefer the latter as I find it a more satisfying smoke but that is a matter of taste really! Another recommendation if you don’t want to trawl around the boutique shops trying to scout out one of these is the admirable Bolivar No. 2 tubed cigar. These are very reliable and made by my favourite brand, they have a rich smoke but not overpowering. The other bonus is that until you break the seal the cigar will remain fresh so you can keep them by until you are ready to use them. Discourage any ignorant vendor who claims they are checking for quality from unscrewing the cap, take the risk on this one. 

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of the strong stuff and there are two drinks that I ask for each year and invariably receive. How predictable I have become in my tastes. Blackwood’s 60% Gin is one of the most original and tasty tipples on the market at the moment, although its availability is somewhat limited, however I have included the link to one stockist who I know still purveys this fine liquor. At a whopping 60% this drink packs quite a punch and should be drunk sparingly. Made in the Shetland Islands with the finest botanicals, hand-picked by the team at Blackwoods, each year’s batch is different allowing the makers to truly call each year a vintage. Their regular gin is also worth seeking out but stockist are becoming thinner on the ground each day as I believe Blackwoods have ceased to do business, a great shame, so if you do decide to buy some get two bottles and save one to have somewhere else down the line. 

Another old favourite that mine and your Christmas really shouldn’t be doing without is a bottle of Canadian Club Whisky. Single Malt lovers will be scoffing at my choice of this smooth, blended variation from across the pond but to my mind it is the perfect whisky for a casual drink and by far the best should you like yours with a mixer. Sometimes nothing can beat a double Canadian club, a couple of ice cubes and a shaving of white grapefruit peel in a tumbler topped up with Canada Dry ginger ale. Refreshing, versatile and a real crowd pleasure, definitely something to both appear under the tree and on the sideboard. 

Finally, I draw the reader’s attention to a bit of light music. Compact discs might be on the way out but this is not to stop you from looking at the large number of online options available to you from the iTunes store or Amazon’s MP3 services. Two albums really appealed over this year and both are from very different genres: Stardust (1978) by Willie Nelson, and Synchronicity (1983) by The Police. The former is a glorious paean to the golden age of the gramaphone with the country and western star Nelson giving his idiosyncratic rendition of classics like ‘Someone to watch over me’, ‘blue skies’ and most importantly his unequalled version of ‘Georgia on my mind’. Lilting guitars and wailing harmonican bedrock the album in the country genre but this is definitely a cross-over with plenty of jazz, blues and pop elements to keep even non-country fans happy. 

The latter is an album recorded at the height of their fame and their popularity. By 1983 The Police were the biggest band in the world having played monumental dates at gargantuan Shea Stadium and recording albums involving grandiose arrangements and production. This, their final album was an acrimonious recording where the band imploded through a mix of artistic differences and in fighting. However the results are pleasing and includes a trilogy of songs that are perhaps their most consistent and some might say their best: ‘Every breath you take’, ‘King of pain’ and ‘Wrapped around your finger’. The second is by far my favourite and if you would like to see why I think it is so good, take a look at my last post on this blog about my favourite songs over this year. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Bloody Good Chap's top 10 tunes of 2012

In brief - or as brief as I can be - here are my top ten tunes over this year, a real mix of the good, the bad and the downright groovy! 

Woman’s gotta have it - James Taylor (In the pocket, 1976)

This smooth interpretation of a Bobby Womack original is one of the most seductive and sultry tunes I have ever listened to. Rising strings, Taylor’s inimitable vocals, the 70’s funk it’s all there, making for an eminently hummable tune. The best bits are his ad-libing towards the end of the song, after all, ‘your woman needs it the same as mine, woman’s got to have it from time to time’.

King of Pain - The Police (Synchronicity, 1983)

Sting has been responsible for writing some magic but in turn he has been responsible for some lyrical atrocities - ‘Walking in your footsteps’ being one examples. Not so on ‘King of Pain’ a fantastic, idiosyncratic track which captures the band at what they do best, jumpy, frantic and reggae-influence pop. Who cares who the King of Pain is? I don’t! the best part of this song is the rousing chorus, Summer’s clucking guitars and Copeland’s unmistakable drumming. this is a song by a group at a time when they truly were one of the biggest bands in the world and it shows, hats off to the fellows! It took me until 2012 to discover this great tune but from now on in it will always find a place on one of my playlists.   

We’ll be Together - Sting (...Nothing like the sun, 1987)

Yes, I am following a track by the Police with one by their most successful spin-off. Like ‘Fraiser’ was to ‘Cheers’ Sting was to the Police and had a period in the mid to late 80s of being as truly original and inventive as his former group. He had cemented his credibility as a solo artist with The dreams of blue turtles (1984) but on the follow up ...Nothing like the sun he really rose to the occasion making a somewhat sanctimonious cut - if beautifully sung and played by the artist. My particular favourite is a funky track that would have give Michael Jackson that missing piece of the jigsaw for Bad (1987) - what a duet that would have been, Sting and MJ! The track in question was written originally as a Japanese beer commercial and it is quite apparent (similar in structure to, but shorter than, Genesis’s ‘Tonight, tonight, tonight’). It is a jaunty tune, with a deep groove, guaranteed to get you on the dancefloor. The video for the track, in which Sting sports a snazzy Tintin & Snowy wool-knit is not to be missed. 

The way I feel - Adrian Gurvitz (Sweet Vendetta, 1979)

Who is Adrian Gurvitz I hear you ask? Well I can safely say he is a bit more that the appalling one-hit-wonder lambasted in such an amusing way by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on ‘The Trip’! He did have one great album (Sweet Vendetta, 1979) under his sleeve which, whilst dated, is a homage to the underrated ‘soft rock’ genre of the late 70s and early 80s! This tune is one of the most self-indulgent tracks I have ever heard, full of some of the best musicians of all time. The late Jeff Pocaro (Toto) was on drums, and it is a masterclass of his amazing playing as well as many others. The song itself has awesome tempo, real strings and the dirtiest groove on the chorus, you could almost imagine yourself on the lit dancefloor busting out your best Tony Manero impressions to this cut! 

Love you inside out - Bee Gees (Spirits have flown, 1979) 

From one dancefloor killer to a real piece of dancefloor filler! I am sure that back in 1979 you couldn’t move for the static of the nylon on the deck as the discoball twirled above and the Bass flowed freely from the keg. This tune speaks of a bygone era when the Bee Gees ruled the charts - so it must have been a while ago - but it is a goodie. One thing you can say about this band is that in their golden age, in which this tune falls, that the playing, production and sheer style was awesome. Barry Gibb’s falsetto is so distinctive, and the synth strings soaring into the background make this a tune to strut down a street in Queens, paint pot in one hand and slice of pizza in the other!

Rocket 7” - Def Leppard (Single, 1989) 

Edited down from a track of the same name on the monumental ‘Hair-Metal’ album Hysteria (1987), Rocket has to be one of the great rock tracks of the 80s up there with ‘Paradise City’, ‘Here I go Again’, ‘Heat of the Moment’ and ‘Home Sweet Home’ - it is hard to believe from the Americanised sound that the band was from the steel mills of Sheffield, but you can tell that they were enjoying themselves when they recorded this breezy track dedicated to all their heroes from the ‘Glam Rock’ era of music with references to ‘Bennie and the Jets’, ‘Major Tom’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’. It also benefits from some masterful production, courtesy of the legendary Mutt Lange, larding an already pompous track with edits, dubs and sampling to making a quite brilliant anthem which lends itself well to some drunken air guitar playing! 

Solid Air - John Martyn (Solid Air, 1973) 

Taking it a little lower, a little more mellow, we come to a British folk classic by the underrated and unequalled John Martyn. Recording just before the artist discovered his signature ‘echoplex’ (a reverb/echo which gives the guitar a clean, sustained sound). This is a seductive mix of acoustic guitar, fretless bass, vibes, saxophone and a hi-hat to create a brooding masterpiece. But it is Martyn’s unique vocal talents that really evoke atmosphere in the tune, it really sounds like solid air might feel!

Down for the third time - Bobby Caldwell (What you won’t do for love, 1978) 

‘left your mark in a distant past...’, say what you like about Bobby Caldwell - and I’ve said a lot - he writes great, cynical lyrics. This closes his best-selling album, his debut, featuring the famous ‘What you won’t do for love’ sampled by all and sundry rap artist looking for horn drenched backing for their brash lyrics. This track though is a subdued affair, which benefits from a hypnotically repetitive rhythm and some gentle musing on a gibson guitar. Caldwell, a session musician by training, is always best on these workouts and it becomes even more impressive when you find out that he played pretty much all the instruments on the cut!

Teardrops 7” - Womack & Womack (Single, 1988) 

The original will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary next year and it still hasn’t lost its ability to fill the dancefloor with its catchy drum machine riff and varied percussion (very Stewart Copeland-esque) and easily recognizable vocal hook: ‘reminds me baby of you’. When you list to the lyrics it is actually a pretty depressing track of lost love and regret, but its funky back beat makes it one of those tunes that you cannot help but tap you foot to. The track has been given a new lease of life by a very pleasant version by Joss Stone, but for me the original is by far the best.

This one’s from the heart - Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle (One from the heart OST, 1981) 

It’s four in the morning, the last few fingers of bourbon are being poured into a tumbler and the last Villiger is being unwrapped from its paper parcel, it’s time to take it down a notch with the sultry croonings of an unusually clear voiced Tom Waits and the sublime Crystal Gayle taken from the soundtrack of the same name (and one of the great Hollywood flops). 

That’s your lot music wise for this year apart from a short paragraph on a particular album to feature in my next post on Christmas stocking fillers a la Bloody Good Chap! Until the weekend then...

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Sketches from a smokers album: The birthday bonanza and the sheltering sky...

Birthdays come but once a year but I feel that they should be celebrated in some style. That’s why I found myself sat with one of the densest, richest cigars hot-boxing a room of close friends at a little lunch thrown the other day. 

The cigar in question had been given to me by the fantastic colleagues I have at my establishment of work. As well as being very chuffed I was damn well looking forward to smoking it in the carefree leisure and comfort of a Saturday afternoon. 

Picture the scene if you will, bottles and ashtrays festooning the table; gin and tonics, red wine and many a toast had be drunk before the star moment - excluding the sterling company - presented itself forth from a pair of Victorian Port decanters. Australia’s Seppeltsfield VP Touriga 1987 (incidentally the year of the author’s birth) is a classy drop, holding up to any great vintage port from the same era, perhaps a little lighter on the brain than its Portuguese counterpart! It matched beautifully with the heady, smokiness of the Cohiba VI, a marriage made in heaven. 

One of the marks of a great cigar is consistency and this one delivered in spades. A fantastic plume of smoke emanated from this beast - for it was quite the monster even when I first inspected it on opening the case! As always happens when smoking indoors, the kitchen was filled with smoke which some found pleasing and most found an acrid inconvenience, but that’s the great thing about being the birthday complaints were lodged!

The winter nights are drawing in with a vengeance, forcing us all to wrap up warm. Temperature drops, rimy mornings and wet evenings can cast something of a dampener on the latter part of the year, by gum it makes Christmas seem a million miles away when in fact it is just around the corner. This was my very feeling until a wonderful smoke - which I would urge you to try - beat away those Autumnal blues! 

Sitting outside in the garden, wrapped up in many layers and my trusty puffer jacket (90’s nostalgia), I gave some attention to an old friend from my favourite make, the Bolivar No.2. Generously given to me by a great friend, this was indeed a treat. Sat under a bay tree with my copy of James Clavell’s addictive historical thriller Shogun and a pot of delicious, thick and viscous black coffee brewed a la Rubinstein, I embarked on a joyous smoke! 

As I chugged away, I kept an eye on the gathering heavens above. It was an ominous sky in every sense of the phrase, close and looming. The clouds threatening to pour down their deluge at any moment with each toke taken on the delicious cigar, washed down with a mug of hot black coffee, warming the depths of my soul against the gathering winds and closing sky whilst the gripping plot-line of Shogun struggled for attention amid all the drama...a typical Sunday afternoon in London you might say.