14 October 2014, I flew to Krakow from Stansted for the 12th edition of the Unsound Music Festival. There was fog in Krakow and the plane was diverted to Katowice instead, where we naturally had to wait an hour or so for coaches to take us to the right airport. It seems that they built the airport in the only place near Krackow where there is frequent thick fog. Presumably it was on land owned by a party official, unless it was an example of that weird state of mind you used to find in the music industry: ‘This guy has hair down to his waist and he’s a complete twerp.’ ‘’Terrific, hire him!’ We got to Krakow-Balice and Unsound soon had a cab for me. By now it was 2:30am. I sat in front with the driver to see the empty streets as we drove through the old city centre. He had been on duty since 4pm and I was only his third job. He said there were over 1000 illegal cabs operating and that it had made it almost impossible to make a living driving a cab. His English was pretty good and he said his daughter had taught him. When he was at school it had been ‘Russian, Russian, Russian.’ The exchange rate means that cabs – and everything else – is very cheap if you have dollars, pounds, euros. Most cab rides were about £2. In from the airport was about £10.
Krakow streets have very little traffic; more bicycles than cars. There are tramlines everywhere, down every major street, and the trams run all night, though with less frequency. That’s how most people get around. Their deep rumble is the sound of the city, somehow very Eastern European to this Western ear. The Unsound Festival is an avant-garde music get-together of folks such as Deathprod, Eltron John, Pharmakon, Swans, Zs – most of whom I had never heard of, showing just how long I have been away from music journalism since my days as a writer for NME. The music was very electronic based: minimal wave, electro, techno, grindcore, sludge, drone metal, trance: all fun stuff. It was almost 100% white, almost 100% male: the audience looked as if the youth population of Shoreditch had been gathered together and all given tablets and state of the art headphones; very short hair, very long hair sometimes in white dreadlocks, or unusual topknots were combined with piercings and tattoos shown off by sleeveless t-shirts with the names of obscure bands or even more obscure images, worn with low-slung pants with bulging pockets at knee level filled with phones and gadgets. No-one talked much, but gathered together in bars and cafes, each with their computer or tablet in front of them, illuminating their facial hair. They were American, German, Dutch, British and even Polish.
I was there to give a talk on William Burroughs, and was intrigued to see that many of the events had been named after Burroughs’ novels: the first concert I attended was named The Third Mind; others were called Place of Dead Roads; Nova Express and Ticket That Exploded. I was interviewed on stage by journalist Andy Battaglia who flew in from New York the day before, and so must have been more jet-lagged than he showed. He had been involved with Unsound for some time so we had no problems. The event, called ‘Barry Miles on Burroughs, Music and the Shadow of a Counterculture’ was at the Narodowy Stary Theatr. It was pretty full and seemed to go well. I enjoyed it, at any rate. The previous day I took part in a panel discussion on ‘Sound As Transgression’ with Philip Sherburne, Uwe Schmidt and Robin moderated by Luke Turner from The Quietus which was really too wide a subject for any discussion to evolve given the widely disparate backgrounds of the participants. But Luke held it together. See his review of the festival at: http://thequietus.com/articles/16561-unsound-festival-review
The concerts were interesting, but I had been expecting something even more avant-garde, I guess. One band seemed dead-ringers for Tangerine Dream; others suggested Ornette Coleman’s 1960 Double Quartet. I did enjoy Ren Schofield, aka Container, in a collaboration with Norwegian drummers Kenneth Kapstad and Tomas Järmyr, who, according to the programme, were transformed into “human drum machines”, directed by Ren via an intricate set up of contact microphones, effects and triggers. Now that was more like it. They certainly could play fast and loud – and for a long time.
I like Krakow, which is a very beautiful town. It is scarred from years of communism and neglect: many of the buildings are blackened with soot, missing cornices or ornaments, but there are signs of restoration, particularly in the Old Town where several buildings had restorers working at street level on their brickwork. There are lots of bars and cafes where no-one seems to care how long you stay, and by Western standards everything is very very cheap. A huge, filling, Polish-style meal with wine costs about £8. I couldn’t even finish it.
On Friday 17th, I was up early to take Easyjet from Krakow straight to Liverpool where I took a train to Manchester for an event at the Manchester Literary Festival that evening. Unfortunately I missed by old friend Tom Pickard, who was on before me, as part of what seemed like a very interesting festival line-up. I was interviewed onstage by Doug Field, professor of American Literature at University of Manchester. We had a full house and it seemed to go well. They laughed in the right places. I wish I had had more time to discuss things with Doug because the Beats have now become very much part of the canon, and he is involved in all manner of intriguing projects involving Jeff Nuttall, little literary magazines and all the stuff I’ve spent my life doing.
Rosemary and I had dinner afterwards with my sister Jenny and her husband Jerry Smith at a Chinese restaurant where they gave us plastic wineglasses. They produced real glass ones without any bother and I can only assume that Saturday night in the centre of Manchester can be a rowdy affair and they were taking no chances. The crispy duck was terrific.