Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Unfairground; Beef Cochin

Two days ago, when the world was still spinning too fast and I was struggling to put my thoughts in order (it was a busy week; I’ve also found this summer’s extreme heat disorienting), I stared into my Blackberry’s tiny screen (to my family’s annoyance) and learned that on October 4th EMI Records will be releasing “An Introduction To Syd Barrett”.  

Although on some levels, the burgeoning post-mortem Syd Barrett industry is crass and annoying, it is understandable why the formerly august (and now apparently permanently broke and damaged)  EMI label would wish to dust off (again) the Syd Barrett archives, and it is to their great credit to have engaged David Gilmour, Syd’s friend and the musician who both replaced him in Pink Floyd and acted as amanuensis and midwife on Syd’s two “official” career solo lps, to oversee the project.  The album  collects and chronologically connects Syd’s brilliant early Pink Floyd compositions/recordings and the still revolutionary tracks included on “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett”, the “live-est”, most present tense studio recordings ever made in the rock era.  A newly discovered, long instrumental called “Rhamadan” and the ok, but inessential “curiosity” track “Bob Dylan Blues”, are also included.   

Inevitably, the digital “sprucing up” will cause some changes in the sound (I recently heard what was an apparently newly remastered version of Pink Floyd’s  “See Emily Play” on satellite radio, featuring increased separation of instruments  and greater clarity than the original, and it sounded all wrong) and one can only hope that these are not too jarring.  Based on David Gilmour’s  own body of work and his perceptive, empathetic comments over the years about Syd Barrett, I am confident that “An Introduction To Syd Barrett” will successfully introduce this unique and unforgettable artist to a new generation of lucky young people, who will find it inspiring.   
Thinking about Syd and the tragic aspects of a talent and career cut short by mental illness made my mind turn to Syd’s contemporary and friendly rival, Kevin Ayers, also a composer and lyricist of great acuity, charm and power, whose career took a different course.   Kevin is still alive and well and living in southwestern France, his enormous talent intact.   His Soft Machine albums and his many solo records are all still in print (Kevin’s records, like Syd Barrett’s, are jewels in the EMI library), a considerable achievement for a commercially unsuccessful musical artist, and a sign that even in the current “diminished, but not finished” (a Kevin song title) recording industry, the special and unique qualities of Kevin’s work are acknowledged.
Two years ago, Kevin released “The Unfairground”, which in some ways is the best record of his long career.  Unlike Syd Barrett, Kevin was granted (or, rather, achieved through prodigious talent and diligent effort) his “late Rembrandt/late Titian” moment.  “The Unfairground” is an “old age” record that belies the idea of old age by showing surpassing energy,  inventiveness and wisdom gained through experience.  It’s high art and a record that one treasures and can learn from.  Released into an increasingly bland-across-all-genres market, “The Unfairground”  was an “old-style” record featuring live musicians, complex, detailed arrangements, a varied international flavor (a Kevin Ayers trademark), plus the indispensable ingredients of catchy tunes, sharp and clever lyrics, humor, humanity and empathy.   

Like the turntable two-sided records from the pre-CD era, “The Unfairground” proceeds like a poem or a novel and takes you on a journey.  As with Syd Barrett’s solo lps, “The Unfairground” also had a midwife in the person of Kevin’s manager, Tim Shepard, an Anglo-American visual artist who befriended Kevin in his Pyrenees aerie and who wasn’t content to allow him to conclude his career with his previous record, “Still Life With Guitar”, a “return to form” masterpiece about lonely life in Mallorca, which had been released fifteen years earlier in 1992.   Shepard, against all odds (including a reluctant artist, a largely indifferent world, and challenging finances), succeeded in making Kevin complete his masterpiece, a record every bit as good as the previously unmatchable (and utterly different) “Shooting At The Moon”, which Kevin recorded in 1970 with his revolutionary outfit The Whole World.  (N.B., no Kevin Ayers and The Whole World, no Roxy Music, no Brian Eno, a different David Bowie, etc., etc., for starters.)

Despite credible marketing and publicity efforts by the Lo-Max label independent label in the UK and uniformly positive, enthusiastic reviews, “The Unfairground”, unsurprisingly, failed commercially.   Kevin’s an older artist and rock and roll is primarily a youth business.  He writes, as always, about the intricacies of personal relationships intimately and analytically, from a slightly, but appreciably, more distant perspective than Syd Barrett does.  In Barrett’s work, the pain and occasional pleasure radiate and beam like large lighted signs seen up close at night. Kevin is more modest, composed and reserved, but the two artists resemble each other in subject matter, emotional tension and sensitivity, humor and “Englishness”.  
Kevin didn’t/wouldn’t  tour to promote the album, despite the fact that he had made his living on the road for the previous two decades, is a very good live performer and had a group of young progressive music superstars (many of whom played on the album) ready to support him.   As he told a radio interviewer,  the third law of physics (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), implies that if fairgrounds exist, so do “unfairgrounds”.  I think this is how Kevin came to view the professional terrain where, by dint of his musical genius (a quality he shares with Syd Barrett) and quite robust mental and physical health (where Syd was sadly deficient), he continued to operate to diminishing commercial returns and with increasing displeasure.  Too many cycles of pre-album release build-ups followed by post-release commercial letdowns eventually took their toll.   Kevin is a modest and diffident person.  He’s much too classy ever to whine (or, as he would say, whinge.)  He looks like a rock star, but really can’t bring himself to act like one. I expect he’s finished with recording and performing and will henceforth, as he says, live inside his head, which is a “complicated place to be”.  We’re all lucky to have the records.
I began writing this because when “The Unfairground” was released I didn’t have a blog and had no way of sharing my thoughts about the album with anyone who might be interested in hearing them.   Kevin is an old and treasured friend who spent several long-ish periods many years ago living in our apartment in Brooklyn Heights, NY.  Getting to know someone quite well who was once an idol, a face on a glossy record sleeve, was quite something.   He taught Caroline and me to cook and, during visits to his home in Deya, Mallorca, how to be a gracious host.   He turned me on to the writers Elizabeth David, Alan Davidson and Myles na gCopaleen and taught me to appreciate Rhone wines. Because of Kevin, I will never play poker again. I'm no good at it. On occasion, he also provided valuable insights into Syd Barrett’s records, which were favorites of his.  Hearing Kevin play the clever, complicated guitar introduction to “Baby Lemonade” was quite a treat.  
When I think of Kevin, I always think of eating well and with a sense of celebration.  I think of the long-departed and greatly missed Bali Rice Shop on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights, where I discovered Ikan Bumbu Bali, sambal blachan, krupuk, and so many other delicacies unique to New York at that time (and still rarely found), of shopping trips to Chinatown and of Malaysia, where Kevin grew up, which seemed to be always on his mind.  Two nights ago, I thought of Kevin while discovering a remarkably delicious dish at Priya, the good Indian restaurant in Suffern, NY.  It is called Beef Cochin and it is described on the menu as "Sauteed beef cubes cooked Kerala style, flavored with herbs, spices and coconut". 

I researched the recipe and learned a lot about Kerala (also home to cabbage thouran, the subject of an earlier blog entry) and the ancient city of Kochi, a seaport that is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups and a place I would very much like to visit one day.  I haven’t tried cooking the dish yet, but here are two versions, taken from Indian websites, both of which look wonderful:

Beef Cochin 1:
 1 kg
2 medium size, sliced
Green chillies
4 split
1” chopped
Coriander powder
2 teaspoon
8 pods
2 cut
Fennel (Perum jeerakam)
4 teaspoon
Black pepper corn
Turmeric powder
½ teaspoon
For seasoning:
One teaspoon cut fine
Mustard seeds
½ teaspoon
One cup, Cut in to small pieces
Curry leaves (Karivepila)
4 sprig
Oil (Coconut oil preferred)
One cup

Mix meat with all the ingredients except cardamom, cloves, black pepper seeds and fennel.
Grind cardamom , cloves, black pepper and fennel on to a masala. Now cook the beef with the ground masala  in a pressure cooker (30 minutes) or a vessel till the meat is tender.
Heat oil in a frying pan. Add mustard seeds. When it splutters, add chopped onions and  fry till brown. Add curry leaves and coconut pieces and fry till is light brown. Now add the beef and cook till all the gravy is dried and keep the fire low and fry the beef until it is fried properly and turns in to ` very dark brown in color.
Beef Cochin 2:
  1. Beef – 1/2 kg
  2. Onion – 1 big, sliced finely
  3. Small onion – 1/2 – 3/4 cup, sliced
    Chili powder – 1/2 tbsp
    Coriander powder – 1tbsp
    Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp
    Ginger & garlic – 1/2 – 1 tbsp, crushed
    Vinegar – 2 tsp
  4. Aniseeds/fennel – 1/2 – 1 tsp
    Cinnamon – 1 inch piece
    Cloves – 4-5
    Star anis – 2
  5. Garam Masala – 1/2 – 1 tsp (optional)
  6. Bite size coconut pieces (thengakothu) – 1/4 – 1/2 cup
  7. Coconut oil
    Curry leaves

    Powder the number 4 ingredients and keep aside. Combine the powdered spices, number 3 ingredients, tiny coconut pieces, salt, curry leaves & beef. Make sure that beef is marinated well with the spices. Pressure cook the marinated beef till it is done. I usually don’t add water while cooking, but if you want you can add 2-3 tbsp of water. If there is any water left, after pressure cooking, cook till the water is dried.
    Heat oil in a pan and saute the onions, till it becomes golden brown. Add the cooked beef & curry leaves. If you want you can sprinkle garam masala at this stage. Mix well. Stir over a low flame, till it is roasted well.Serve with rice and/or chapathi,
    .Notes: The original recipe doesnt call for garam masala, I added it since I like it to be spicy. You can be a bit generous with oil, if you want a well roasted/fried  beef.
    Recipe adapted from: Flavours of Kerala
    The cheena vala (Chinese fishing nets) in Kochi pictured below really remind me of Kevin.  He’s an avid fisherman and, when he lived near the shoreline in Mallorca, at least, was the owner and master-user of a beautiful fishing net, which he used to gather whitebait.


  1. EMI is a UK-based record label. Originally, the initials stood for English Midland Industries. Later, when the company became involved in a broader range of businesses, the letters stood for Electrical and Musical Industries. Finally, EMI just stood for EMI. The same thing happened to CBS, the television network, which was originally a Philadelphia-based company called Columbia Broadcasting Systems, and British Petroleum, which just became BP. Life and corporate names are both weird, don't you think?

  2. By the way, as I think you've learned, I'm a very big fan of both Syd Barrett, the original composer/guitarist/singer of the rock band, Pink Floyd, and Kevin Ayers. Jane knows Kevin's work quite well. They're both very talented and enjoyable artists and I think you'd like them.