The Last Word

It’s not a tragedy but it is a shame.

This week my favourite magazine, ‘The Word’, dropped through our letter-box for the last time. A victim of ‘the wider economic climate, the competition with free media and the erosion of traditional advertising’ as Mark Ellen explains in his farewell editorial.

‘At last, something to read’ the magazine used to boast on early covers, when it began nearly ten years ago. And indeed it always was. Broadly about music. Broadly. But also films, literature, technology, politics, society. Entertainment generally. Latterly its sub-heading has been ‘Entertainment for lively minds’. Reckoning that if you’re the kind of person who likes at least some of the music of, say, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Louis Jordan and Half Man Half Biscuit, then you’ll probably be curious about society and interested in their observations about it. Well I was.

My partner Sarah wrote recently about ‘frictionless sharing’ in an article on her blog, Being Sarah:

I recently read an article in The Word magazine (no I don’t read it but Ronnie does), and he’d told me about ‘frictionless sharing’. Mark Zukerberg, creator of Facebook, coined this phrase, and the concept is discussed in an article by Eamonn Forde:

“If everything we consume is being shared socially… does anything actually stand out? Sharing just becomes about quantity rather than quality.”

Yes, we picked up the Mark Zukerberg’s phrase from The Word. And no, The Word has never done frictionless sharing. Far from it. Opinionated was its default setting.

I’ve read many too many music magazines over the years and so I know what lazy journalism looks like. The ‘in depth’ interview that’s actually been supplied by the artist’s record company and just cut and pasted by the journalist. The ‘exclusive’ review of an album that’s so crawling and fawning that they’re obviously after an exclusive ‘front cover’ interview for next month. And the slow slide into sexism and lad-magazine country that can come to afflict the once-splendid but now terminally lazy – yes, I mean you ‘Q’.

Well none of those ever happened in The Word. Mark Ellen, David Hepworth and the writers that surrounded them over the years, had already been through, and in most cases started, the likes of Smash Hits, the NME, Q and Mojo. And so had nothing left to prove. Other than ‘If we could put together the perfect magazine, just for our own joy and delight, what would it look like?’ Well it looked like The Word and it felt like they were writing it for the love of it.

In fact, by the end they were writing it only for the love of it. I read elsewhere that circulation had dropped to not much more than 20,000 a month.

Well, there may not have been enough of us. But for ten years we had a great time with The Word.

When it arrived here I’d always go through the same ritual. Rip open the package. Read Mark’s covering letter to subscribers. Reassure myself the cover’s as bad as ever. Then put the kettle on, make the tea and suspend all work activities for the next hour while having an initial read through. Mostly I’d just take in the overall contents, the reading delights to come over the next few days. Sometimes the main interview would be with someone so interesting and rarely found, like Kate Bush, it would need to be read straight away.

Recent covers, shockingly bad, in my opinion.

And then I’d always, in this initial read, go to ‘And Another Thing’, David Hepworth’s consistently opinionated column. David’s like the slightly older but still hip brother I’ve never had. And he’d mostly tell me some new opinion of his, which would immediately feel like ‘I’ve always thought that!’ Except I never had.

Like this month’s ‘Writing miserable songs doesn’t make you deep, boys and girls’. A glorious hymn to the power and sophistication of happy music. How the likes of ‘Come on Eileen’ and ‘Sir Duke’ matter because, as well as being great music, they make people happy. Whereas po-faced miserablists like Coldplay, seem to want to be ‘edgy and dark’ and just end up leaving people a little unhappier than they found them. And try this:

“When they (Duke Ellington’s Band) got on the stand or gathered round the recording horn, they celebrated the fact that it was…good to be alive.

The platform of Ellington’s music had to be firm enough for even the most two-left-footed to dance to, while the main theme had to be unfurled gently enough to drop gently upon the ear of the girls who wanted something to hum in the working week, but within these precious limitations, the musicians had enough skill, invention and modesty to be

Duke Ellington

able to condense their genius into a few bars before slipping noiselessly back into the chorus. The solos danced across the bar lines, gathered themselves into choruses and syncopated passages that made you giddy and then, just when you thought they may have stayed out too long, folded themselves back into the shape of the tune as inexplicably as a Disney snake.

That’s ultimately what makes me happiest of all – music doing the things that music alone can do.”

Well, you have to go off and listen to some of that don’t you?

Later, I’d return to that month’s The Word and read it gradually. In the living room at the end of the day’s work. To the park on Sunday for a good long sit on the wall with that month’s reviews. Sometimes late at night, the long ‘First person’ guest article at the back.

And towards the end of my association with each month’s The Word, I’d sit down, go through it, and make a playlist. Mostly of new music by new people I’d not encountered before. I’d make it on Spotify, put it on my iPod and then walk around with The Word in my head. Here’s last month’s. I haven’t done this month’s yet. It’ll probably make me cry.

Richard Hawley

But me crying isn’t the last word. For that we’ll look elsewhere in this final edition. Near the front in the Foreword section, where NME veteran Charles Shaar Murray interviews Richard Hawley, ostensibly about his (magnificent) new album ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’. The discussion flows through how Richard broke his leg (the new winklepicker’s fault), the history of psychedelic music, why whole albums matter, despising celebrity culture – and his Dad and one of his best friends dying:

“It made me think a lot about mortality, and I needed to get me ‘ead around ‘where do we all go?’ When a lot of people get to a certain age they bottle it and turn to religion to make sense of the universe. And I’ve got no intention of doing that…ever.

And then the fuckin’ Tories got in and those woods I was walking in (grieving)…the first thing those fuckers wanted to do when they got in was to sell the ground from under our feet. And it just outraged me completely.

…This time loss and anger compelled me to use the most powerful tool that I’ve got in me fuckin’ shed, and that’s the guitar.”

So they finally get to talk about the album. But before they finish Richard talks about his Dad again:

“When me Dad used to play he loved Flatt & Scruggs and he played this insane stuff I was never able to copy. He was a musician, but he was a steelworker and a union man. I grew up with rock-solid principles that I’ll never bend from, man, ever.

“I was born with a harelip and a cleft palate and it’s only because of the NHS that I’m the handsome cat you see today,”

Richard Hawley is not a man to hold back from standing up for his beliefs. Even with a broken leg.”

Well I’m going to sorely miss writing and talk of that quality dropping through my door every month.

For The Word, from the bottom of my heart, love and thanks.

One thought on “The Last Word

  1. Jan Baird Hasak

    Thank you for this amazing tribute to The Word. Never having read it, I don’t know firsthand the depths of your despair in having it disappear, but I can sense your admiration for its content in every word you express. May you find a good alternative to this type of journalism, this friction sharing. xx

    Reply

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