A Minute with Zack de la Rocha

Picture Credits: Alexis Gravel

On
the day I met Zack de la Rocha, I made a conscious choice not to be tear-gassed.
Some people were tear-gassed that
day, the anarchists and hard cases who showed up in DC with actual battle plans
and gasmasks slung over their shoulders. They were down the block on F Street
taunting the police at the barricades. I was on E Street, on a more
domesticated path, walking in a slow, orderly parade of 30,000 demonstrators
who were trying without much success to muck up a big meeting of the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund.

That day – April
16, 2000 – would be remembered as “A16” in the annals of the anti-globalization
movement. I had driven to DC from New Jersey the night before with Jake, a
journalist friend. We stayed in a Holiday Inn downtown, and in the morning, we
walked over to the Mall, jumping into the demonstration at 10th Street. The
march was already underway, a big slow-moving parade headed down E Street.

Already
this protest didn’t feel like others I had attended. There was an edge to it, a
whiff of violence and unhinged possibility. In those days, the style of Leftist
street protest was carnivalesque – a potent form of edgy performance art
that was part block party, part Mardi Gras, part Red Brigade street action. At
the center, you would find a peaceful street festival with giant puppets, drum
circles, and floats, but around the fringes, the anarchists and hardcore
revolutionaries were prowling, searching for weaknesses in the State’s armor.
Often the boundaries between these two demonstrations were fluid, but on this
day, the organizers had managed to literally channel them down different,
parallel streets. The street party followed the police-approved parade route on
E Street, pulling most of the demonstrators behind it in tow, but one block
away on F Street, where the barricades were actually set up, the anarchists
were fighting a running battle with the police.

If
you had asked me that day in Washington why I was there, I would have shared a
few David-and-Goliath stories about Indonesian labor organizers and Central
American campesinos standing up to global corporations. Like many American
liberals after the Berlin Wall fell, I was finally waking up to the great
circuit board of connections linking me to people throughout the world.
Globalization was forcing liberals like me for the first time to stare down the
long supply chains that stretch from our supermarkets and big box stores back
into steamy tin-roofed places where children work fourteen hours a day in a
textile mill and labor organizers end up in a ditch with their throats cut.

I
glanced over to the left, and there was the lead singer of Rage Against the
Machine, the poet revolutionary of ’90s rock music, walking abreast of us in
the crowd. In my wildest fantasy of meeting Zack de la Rocha, I could not have
pictured this more perfectly.

I am of that
generation that cares about authenticity in popular music. As a proud son of
New Jersey, I had grown up on apocryphal stories about Bruce Springsteen
materializing in the crowd at some honkytonk bar in Arizona and then jumping up
on the stage to play with the house band. At a U2 concert in the mid-’80s, I
had cheered as the band brought a teenage boy out of the audience, strapped a
guitar around his neck, and let him play along to their cover of Dylan’s
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” To see Zack de la Rocha on the street in a hoodie
marching against global capitalism – just one of the proletariat – confirmed
everything I believed about the power and potential of rock music.

He was so close I
could reach out an touch him.

At that stage of
my life, I could count the celebrities I had met on one hand, so in my naïveté,
I formulated a plan that in retrospect was quite silly: We would pretend not to
know who he was, start up a conversation, and then hang out with him all day.
But before I could say a word, Jake was pushing up to Zack to ask for his
autograph.

The moment was
spoiled, of course. In the end, despite the hoodie and the prince-and-the-pauper
routine, Zack de la Rocha was a rockstar and we were fans, and no amount of
political solidarity could erase the uncomfortable wall separating us. He
quickly scribbled his autograph and then disappeared into the crowd without
uttering a single politically significant word.

*

Seventeen
years later, I am watching a YouTube clip of Rage Against the
Machine’s first public performance, in an outdoor pavilion on the campus of California State University on October
23, 1991. There they are, fresh from the womb and already a perfectly formed
rock band. Zack is bolting around the stage like a pinball in play, wearing a
long-sleeved sweatshirt. Tom Morello leans into his blistering guitar riffs.
Students and teachers are walking past the stationary camera, mostly ignoring
the band, but a few students are facing the stage, obviously aware that
something epic is popping off in front of them. For everyone else, it’s just another
day on the quad.

In the mid-’90s,
I thought that rock music was wildly incongruent with the zeitgeist, so I was –
and continue to be – mystified by the mass appeal of Rage Against the Machine. There
we were, in the midst of unprecedented prosperity and a genuine technological
revolution, but our popular music was awash in angst and suffering and
impotence. Whatever the mass psychology underlying the “nu metal” movement,
Rage was trying to both harness its political potential and monetize it for consumer consumption. Their very existence in popular
music seemed unsustainable to me.

Rage was always
overestimating the political commitment of its audience. You can hear it in
Zack’s rhetoric in the 1990s, in his tendency to regard his fans as an untapped
ocean of radical political energy. “We’re not going to play to the [mainstream]; we’re going to
hijack it,” said De la Rocha, in a 1997 Rolling
Stone
article. “The tour is going to incorporate everything which the rich,
wealthy classes in America fear and despise. Each of the 20,000 people in the
audience will be reminded of their independent political power.”

Did he actually
believe that effective political action could cohere in a mosh pit? He seems
unaware (though how could he be?) that many of the kids who bought tickets to see
Rage and other nu metal bands in the ’90s were on a more visceral trip. This
was made obvious to the world in July of 1999 when the Woodstock ’99 concert
ended in a flaming riot. Earlier that day, Rage played a “blistering” set and
lit an American flag ablaze. At the end of the concert, the mostly male
concert-goers torched big piles of garbage and trashed the place. Some women
were raped in the ensuing melee. People were beaten up. The police were called
in to restore order.

Rage could never
escape the marrow-deep contradictions of its devil’s bargain with Big Music. It
didn’t matter how stridently they campaigned for justice for Leonard Peltier or
Mumia Abu-Jamal in between songs, they would always be the band for upper middle
class white kids who fretted over their sweatshop t-shirts and Nikes. The money
from millions of record sales would always flow out of that sea of disposable
income from the most privileged and affluent society in human history. There
would always be Rage fans who grabbed ass and kicked ass at their concerts, whose
politics were smashy smashy.

After I finish
watching the video, my wife reminds me that it’s Monday – Trash and Recycling
Day. I sort of drift out of the house on autopilot, and before I realize it, I
am standing on the curb in brown crocs and blue-and-white-checkered pajama
bottoms holding the blue recycling bin in both
hands. In the moonless dark, the cul-de-sac looks like an ancient Stonehenge
circled by giant stone monoliths, a place of solemn ritual. I am deep in the
priesthood now, with my Ph.D. in English and my academic career and my slouchy
dad bod, and my eight-year-old daughter asleep in the house behind me – a life
like the one my parents had, but with a lot more plastic crap and stress.

I am thinking,
what was it about that period from 1999 to 2001 that so captivated my sense of
idealism? Why was I, at 34 years old, marching with anarchists and Guatemalan
campesinos and the Socialists Workers Party?

It is difficult
for me to resurrect the feeling I had on that day. The early 2000s have already
sunk into a hazy miasma, in part because 9/11 so decisively divided my sense of
personal history into before and after. Ideology decompiles our
experience of time and then reassembles it according to new hierarchies of
importance. From somewhere, I learned that whatever we were anxious about before – Y2K, the Dot.com bubble
bursting, Saddam Hussein, the thoroughly fucked-up 2000 election, the Battle in
Seattle – all of this was trivial when measured against the shadow of those
falling towers and what happened after.
I do remember believing that we could make a crack in the endless dream of
consumer capitalism. I remember being gripped by a persistent uneasiness. I
knew something was wrong with the world, but I couldn’t quite name it yet.

And here I am, nearly
twenty years later, standing at the curb, still wracked by the same anxieties.

In quiet moments
like these, the angels of my repressed desires step forward out of the
darkness. Sometimes it is Tyler Durden, who wants to whisper prophecies in my
ear:

“In
the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around
the ruins of Rockefeller Center,” he says. “You’’ll wear leather clothes
that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu
vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny
figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of
some abandoned superhighway.”

This
is what happened to
some of us, the last-wave Boomers and first-wave Gen Xers who only
halfheartedly embraced the lifestyle our parents bequeathed to us; who moved to
the suburbs with our irony still intact; who somewhat reluctantly took jobs
inside the vast interlinked bureaucracies of corporate-academic-government
power; who feel aggrieved by our rampant consumerism and tormented by our long
commutes; whose true politics are still formless, still without a name or a
party; who now find ourselves struggling to recall lines from late-’90s cinema
in the dark to find metaphors for our lives. We fell asleep, but only halfway,
and we keep trying to wake up.

Sometimes it is
Morpheus, in his beautiful black trench coat and those cool stemless
sunglasses:

“You take the
blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you
want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you
how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Do I really want
to know how deep the rabbit hole goes? Somewhat. Yes. I want to know.

Our fathers dreamed
about being John Wayne and Neil Armstrong, but we fantasize about tearing down
the system, or what it will be like after it falls on its own. For us,
patriotism is dead, eviscerated by the zombie apocalypse. It’s all dystopian
downhill from here. Post Skynet. It’s as if we are stuck inside of a
never-ending fracture, like a windshield struck by a big rock – after Watts,
after ’68, after Watergate, after the fall of Saigon, after the Great
Recession, after the never-ending culture wars and the never-ending War on
Terror, after the city-busting hurricanes and each heart-wrenching school
shooting. The web of tiny fractures grows and grows.

Sometimes it is
Zack de la Rocha, performing in front of a choir of angels, if angels singing
sounded like a chainsaw cutting through sheet metal.

Tonight it is
Neo, who flies stealthily out of the darkness like Superman and is suddenly
standing there in the cul-de-sac, dropped from the sky. He has a message for me:

“I didn’t come
here to tell you how it will end,” he says. “I came here to tell you how it
will begin.”

Despite everything I know – despite all of the
compromises I’ve made along the way – I still so badly want to know how it will
begin.




Book Review: We Were Strangers, an anthology of new stories inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, edited by Richard Hirst

A Book with the Sound of Its Own Making Covered with Semen…

You’d expect a book that was inspired by the ten tracks on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures to contain some green and greasy semen somewhere along the line. And this book does not disappoint. From the final fiction, “I Remember Nothing”, by Anne Billson: “I look forward to tasting his green greasy semen again, and laughing with delight, remembering how earlier I found it so repulsive. What a fool I was. It’s a delicacy.”

A metaphor for JD’s music and the whole spectrum of post-punk? At first you’re not too sure, it sounds dodgy, but then, gimme gimme gimme. Dribble, dribble, dribble down chin. They were probably right naming the album Unknown Pleasures though, rather than the more jazzy Green and Greasy Semen.

It will be forty years in 2019 since the release of this seminal album that’s forever intertwined with the suicide of Ian Curtis in 1980. A suicide like a black blanket permanently wrapping this record. But not by Christo. Thus, most people just won’t go there. It’s like handing someone a frothing pint of green and greasy semen and asking them to pay thirty quid for the privilege of drinking it down in one gulp. Eh, no thanks there mate.

All this misjudged levity is really an attempt to sublimate the subject matter of the record that inspired this collection: depression. As Mark Fisher said, Ian Curtis goes way beyond the blues and into the pure, unadulterated black. This is the black dog fully grown, ungroomed and drooling all your serotonin onto the floor. Go on, try to lick it up. See what I fucking do. Make my day, punk. And besides, as Camus said, “After all, the best way of talking about something you love is to speak of it lightly.”

It’s 1979 and Thatcher is here to change everything irrevocably. There’s nothing more for the young working class to look forward to anymore, except make two modernist masterpieces and kill yourself. And the first fiction in this collection, “Disorder”, by Nicholas Royle, paints a frightening montage of those times from inside the mind of Ian Curtis. “The pain is here. Mine.” The words of this fiction comprise all the lyrics from the album. No quotation is used and “no word is repeated unless it is repeated in the lyrics.” A mad scientist of a Sudoku puzzle yet quite chilling because even when the words are all mixed up and put into another narrative, the message stays the same. Life is a pantomime. It’s shit. Don’t take part. Kill yourself. “I’ve lost the means to connect, the will to know the truth.”

There’s a conceptual artwork by Robert Morris from 1968 called, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. The artist recorded himself making a wooden box. Then he slapped said box onto a plinth in an art gallery and played the recording of the sound of its own making as a soundtrack, thus pricking the romantic balloons of the art-mystics and drawing attention to the actual boring and time-consuming nature of making art. This collection could be called Book with the Sound of Its Own Making or perhaps more a propos, Coffin with the Sound of Its Own Making, for the cut-up lyrics in this first fiction get so raw you can physically see bones sticking out from skin: “Descend by wire with my own hand”, and, “I’ve talked for too long. But I’ve said it all. I have to live until there are no new sensations anymore”. This will leave you, “Occupied by death. Corrupted by sin”. Which I suppose was the original intention of the album. If you cut-up the words you use in a week and rearrange them into a different narrative, would the same hold true? You’d get the full picture of what you’re actually thinking and feeling without the blinkers, would you? With modern technology it’s certainly doable to record everything you say for a week. But would you really want to go there? Really? To know yourself that well? But then we all know ourselves only too well, and need constant distraction in order not to say it as out-loud and as out-straight as Ian Curtis’ lyrics and the sound made by the rest of the band. This album and this particular fiction is the be-here-now moment we don’t want to know about. Because in the next fiction, “Day of the Lords”, by Jenn Ashworth, the be-here-now moment is the up and coming world war with Russia. It doesn’t say it’s Russia. I just know it is. And who the hell wants to focus and think about such a reality in the ice-cold manner of a JD track? That much death? Not me. So it’s best to focus on (in this story) the broken relationship of a couple with a young child instead. The mother’s new partner has to deliver the child to his father on one of his weekly Saturday access visits, while conscription, mind-altering drugs and bad dreams by father and son quietly explode in the background. So a good interpretation of the JD track it was inspired from, but perhaps a little bit too literal. A delicate, beautiful at times, telling of this four-way relationship, punctuated by nice lyrical squawks along the way: “He was zipped up in a tight red raincoat, the laces of his shoes done up in big bows.” But it’s all, as I said, a distraction from the war raging in the background and the gradual degeneration of the human psyche, only delaying the ineluctable march of death. Listen to JD. Go on, kill yourself. Cut out the middle man. Don’t just wait cowardly for the Russians and the Americans to press the nuclear buttons. Rick, the soldier father of his young son, Ted, says, “Distracting him out of a tantrum. He once threw a fit in a supermarket and I told him there was a pigeon sitting up on one of the shelves and he was scaring it. It kept him entertained for an hour, that one did.” A fizzing ice-cream in lemonade of an image in sharp contrast to “Candidate”, by Jessie Greengrass. This is pure Joy Division. No quarter given. Like a noose around your neck. But in a good way because as your legs are dangling there in midair, it can feel like you’re dancing. And we all love to skank. Of course we do. Again, attempted levity to distract from a real and fictional world of zero-hours contracts, unaffordable housing and constant it’s-so-easy-to-be-an-entrepreneur courses shoved into your face as soon as you open your mouth to breathe. It’s grim out there. And so too in Jessie Greengrass’ story: “We have always lived in the factory. We were born here amongst the engines and the lathes, the conveyor belts which stretch for miles.” It has everything, that opening sentence. The history of Manchester pigeon-struts up your nostrils. Frederick Engels, Peterloo, Thomas De Quincey, Cottonopolis, Sex Pistols in the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, The Fall, The Smiths, The Hacienda, etc. It’s not supposed to be a comprehensive list.

This story reminds me of Bernard Sumner’s experience of the shock of real life, that Mark Fisher wrote about. He grew up in Salford in a two-up two-down. An idyllic childhood relatively speaking, poor but with ample opportunity to play on the street to all hours. Long games of Giant-Steps-Baby-Steps with all his mates. On summer evenings even the mothers, fathers, grandparents and grandmothers would be up chatting outside at their front doors until past midnight sometimes. But the factory wouldn’t allow that. The houses/slums were pulled down and everyone was flicked into tower blocks with all its attendant anomie. The shock of real life. “We don’t know what it is we make. We don’t know the purpose of so many narrow lives. We only know the way to slot this piece to that one.”

Back then the culture of the times created people as inveterate modernists who would spit into your earholes if you asked them to repeat something from music’s past. It just wasn’t in their nature. Progression was the carrot that made them hopeful. Mark Fisher again. He said everything. Greengrass says, “A necessary recalibration of a mechanism. A swift repair. Hope is a lubricant.” Yet this story shows that even creating two astonishing works of art doesn’t prevent the dead-certain future from putting that noose around your neck.

“Insight”, by David Gaffney, seems to refer back to Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. Or Coffin with the Sound of Its Own Making. A man buys Ian Curtis’ former house in Macclesfield and one of his new neighbours offers him big money to buy the garage that comes with the house. The why and the wherefore of his interest in acquiring the garage will definitely put a chill down your trousers and leave you thinking for days afterwards. So a decent cover of the JD song that doesn’t spare the maggots.

Sophie Mackintosh’s (on the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize) “New Dawn Fades” gets even deeper into Ian Curtis’ mindset as the protagonist is haunted by her past self. Today, yesterday seems nostalgic. You hated yourself and could barely look up from staring at your shoes back then before finally being pushed outside into the natural light. Those sad and anxious days of yore seem rosy and practically carefree compared to today’s trials and tribulations. You want to go back. You can’t go back. You want to go back. Even though you wanted to kill yourself back then like you want to kill yourself now. Sophia Mackintosh writes, “A place will disappoint you like a person. No more pearlescent lustre. No more pastel water.” This is intense fiction with scant narrative detail, making you fill in a lot of the gaps yourself. The world within this fiction inexorably leads you to a room with a gun and a locked door and then a loud bang: “Spreading you and your feelings around like butter on toast, diluting the intensity of your territories.” My interpretationIs this the only way of obliterating the intensity of where you were born and raised? Possibly. Another decent attempt at a JD cover version.

“Transmission, A Graphic Interlude”, by Zoe McClean is imaginatively drawn and a quick, lively read. Minimalist with word and line. An Ian Curtis-esque live transmission. Making me think of JC. Jeremy Corbyn is a racist and an anti-Semite, apparently. The surf is sky high. No wonder Ian Curtis ended it the way he did and didn’t live to see such duplicity. But Ian was a Tory apparently and always voted that way according to Deborah Curtis in Touching from a Distance. So there’s Krautrock-like electronic interference coming through in this particularly enjoyable graphic interlude.

“She’s Lost Control”, by Zoe Lambert is a darling of a story that interprets the lyrics of the song literally. A young woman of nineteen. Her epilepsy manifests at the worst time of her life, if there’s ever a good time to be diagnosed with anything. “It happened just as her friends were starting to cut their hair into long sexy fringes and watch bands in Manchester, just as they were getting jobs or going to college or getting married. She found her life getting smaller.”

“Shadowplay”, by Toby Litt is a Philip K. Dickish fiction and is not only a cover-version of JD’s Shadowplay but also a cover version of Martin Hannett’s contribution to the album. A story about a very rich man that’s paid big bucks to transfer himself into another body so he can live again. After an accident / robbery / kidnapping involving seven robot Prousts the protagonist finds himself in a spaceship millions of miles from where he’s supposed to be – and alone. The ship has a personality and a voice. You can turn everything on and off. “But he could tell it was an interference and he asked to get rid of the pleasure. It did.” The ship can make things in life more enjoyable and keep your senses high as a constant injection of heroin. It must be like what being middle-class feels like. But he wanted it turned off. He was alone and wanted to feel alone. What was the point in simulating anything else? If it’s ice cold and lonely, with no one else to talk to, except programmed robots, then why pretend otherwise? During the recording of the album Martin Hannett use to turn off the heating in the studio to drive all the members of JD to the pub so he could do what he wanted to their sound. So I see the protagonist in this story as Martin Hannett building a new graveyard from the already masterpiece-like work presented to him by JD. Gilding the lily. A coffin with the sound of its own making.

And further into the freezer we go with “Wilderness”, by Eley Williams. A story about a person who works as an ice-resurfacer. Dancing on ice and all that Olympic sportiness in tassels. The language employed here is quite seductive: “…give me the calming scrape and top of my mechanised strigil, the pizzicato of my re-surfacer across the ice, and I’m completed transported.” It makes me want to jump into the rink after all the dancing on trippy tippy toes is over and lie down on the ice looking up at the roof with crossed arms like Dracula in his coffin. Waiting for the protagonist’s ice-resurfacer to come toward me, and poetically, do the business. Put me away. Rebuff and gloss me over into the ice. “I’ve developed an ear for the phonology of ice-resurfacing, the word itself almost onomatopoeic, and catch myself listening out for the fricatives of the blades on ice.” A mellifluous, sensuous and life-affirming annihilation. JD present no answers, however forward-looking their sound. They present the unvarnished truth in all its poetic blackness. If you can banish hope without killing yourself then rave on. And we’ll all live happily ever after. The ice-resurfacer in this story only wants to help and connect with people however difficult his personality. But without hope, there is hope after all: “A cut-up ice rink is something lacerated but unweeping, furrowed like a brow but unthinking, ploughed but not bringing anything to harvest.” Scary but then again, not so scary.

“Interzone”, by Louise Marr, shows how all the progressive dreams of the past were shot dead in their tracks by Thatcher and her confrères. A young woman gets a job as a Project Manager and has to attend a high-fallutin meeting with all the design and architectonic bigwigs of the company. She’s fully qualified for the job but had been working in a coffee shop for a long time previously. At the meeting they discuss, question and show slide shows and drawings from the past. “From around the world, there were pictures of bridges to nowhere and highways that just ended, paving and tarmac coming to an abrupt end on the bare earth.” Sound familiar? Constructions just left hanging in midair forever frozen. There’s no way back to build forward from where things were left off no matter how many meetings.

And finally, “I Remember Nothing” by Anne Billson is pure horror show. A man and a woman wake up in bed together covered in green greasy semen in a room neither of them recognise. They don’t even remember who they are. When they finally do realise, make sure you read these paragraphs again and again. Ian Curtis’ makes the case for the base nature of man over and over in his lyrics, like this final story in the collection. The phrase the base nature of man brings immediately to mind, Nazis and fascists. JD were accused of being fascists themselves in their overly fond use of Nazi references. Were they Nazis? I personally don’t think so.

Rik Mayall in The Young Ones (Rick with a silent P) used to casually call everyone who gave him the hump a Nazi or a fascist. And when I was young, many people I knew did the same. Like crop rotation in the seventeenth century, it was more widespread. Hold on. Considerably more widespread. These references outside the context of history lessons in school I found quite exhilarating. Yes, a bit childish and Kevin-and-Perryist. But not entirely wrong. Were they? I must have been stupid because when people compared someone to a fascist it made me feel intelligent (I was very young) that I got the reference and saw the comparison. Although I knew to take it as an exaggeration. But the past is a different country, I suppose and maybe I’m wrong. Everybody’s clever nowadays apparently. You’re not supposed to bring the Nazis into anything anymore, it would appear. The trope goes that the first person to invoke the Nazis or fascists loses the argument. And is this the final horror of all horrors that this story is trying to scream? That JD are fascists. Which means by implication that all the writers of this book are fascists? Which makes me one too for reading it. Perhaps not. But worth considering when you’ve finished this death-rattling good read.

Before the horror of all horrors (from “I Remember Nothing”): “Rancid and noxious and green, like no semen I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve encountered quite a lot of it, in my time.”

After the horror of all horrors (from same story): “I look forward to tasting his green greasy semen again, and laughing with delight, remembering how earlier I found it so repulsive. What a fool I was. It’s a delicacy.”

We Were Strangers is out now from Cōnfingō Publishing.

 




Reading Words, Hearing Music

Recently I was browsing through Paul McCartney’s book of poetry and lyrics, Blackbird Singing, which I’d bought a few years before but hadn’t fully read. This time I paid closer attention to the verse, and I began to notice that I was reading the poems very differently from the lyrics. And for an obvious reason: the lyrics register in a way that seems less cerebral and more visceral than the lines written as “poetry,” meant to communicate solely as words on a page. I cannot separate the words of, say, “Eleanor Rigby” from the doleful melody and slashing strings that vivify and embellish them on the recording I’ve listened to hundreds of times since childhood. The words are already inside me, attached to musical notes, and refuse my attempts to give them a purely verbal life through the eyes’ silent, inner-voice perusal. The emotions the song brings out are in fact older than my comprehension of the lyrics. As kids we learn songs by repeatedly hearing them and singing them, even if the lyrics are far beyond our understanding. This odd disparity between cognitive and emotional response is sharpest, I think, in songs. I can enjoy poetry whose meaning evades me (some of Stevens or Hart Crane, for instance), but that enjoyment is largely an aesthetic effect of the words, not an emotion created by music that infuses, as it were, the words at some preverbal level.

Songs become part of us by reiteration, working deep into our minds and residing there, dormant, until we hear them again or they are revived by a random association or a deliberate summons. And it is the melodies, the notes, the wordless instruments that create this lasting power. The song that provides McCartney’s book title begins “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” Perfectly nice phrasing, but here as I write them and when I read them in a printed book, the words don’t, as it were, take flight. Only when I liberate them by allowing the buoyant, folk-like tune and McCartney’s voice to assume their natural place beneath and within the words (by no longer trying to suppress the remembered music) do they assert their full force, aesthetically and emotionally. The words have some of the music of poetry, but mostly they rely on – have their fulfilment in – the music of music.

Another way to look at this might be to compare the use of language in “Blackbird” with a similar use by a non-songwriting poet, not of course to disparage “Blackbird” as a poem (it isn’t one) but to suggest some differences in the way poetry and songs work. Repetition provides a good example: in “Blackbird” the line “You were only waiting for this moment to arise” is immediately repeated. When read on the page, it is merely a repetition, meaning pretty much the same thing the second time. But when sung (at least in McCartney’s own interpretation), the lines are different because the notes are different, as are the singer’s inflections. We aren’t so much attentive to the echoing as to the variation in melody and emphasis, reinforcing the line’s meaning but also changing it. The waiting and the moment are given poignant urgency, and “arise” lifts hopefully.

Words’ own music, however, can also transform a seemingly simple repetition. Putting aside the myriad birds in poetry (including “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”), we might turn to one of the most famous repetitions in verse, “And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep” at the end of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” These simple yet elusive lines, of course, have inspired countless commentaries and discussions, in scholarly journals as well as in high school English classes. They’ve become almost part of the vernacular. And it is the repetition itself, the echoing of the phrases, that creates much of the oft-noted ambiguity. The words have many possible connotations, and the repetition forces the reader to consider those multiple alternatives. But the deeper resonance of the repeated line comes from its silent presence on the page, so that we create difference in our minds, a difference of sound and sense. No musical notes or singer provide the variation, which comes from the interplay of words compelling our close attention by their insistent sameness. Spoken aloud, the words would acquire whatever emphases or implications the speaker chose to give them, as in a play. Yet the focus would still be on the words. Poetry, written or spoken, relies on the depths of words as well as on their surfaces.

*

Another thought as I browsed Blackbird Singing: why did McCartney not make songs out of some of these poems? Why not give them a larger life in music? After all, songs reach far more people than poetry does. This question too hinges on the differences between lyrics and poetry. The McCartney poems feel conversational or ruminative, centred on the sound and significance of the words themselves, sometimes mysterious, inviting contemplation. One example, from “Full Moon’s Eve”: “Old loves return/ To kiss the lips/ In case the empty gallery/ Should fill with whispering strangers/ Like a flood.” Music would not necessarily add to the verbal play here, and might subtract by distracting. Also by specifying: notes pull us toward particular emotions and specific meanings, whereas words alone (carefully selected) allow for a variety of thoughts and feelings, affecting us intellectually as well as sensually. As Stephen Sondheim succinctly puts it, “poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.” Sondheim has cited the example of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’/ Oh, what a beautiful day,” words that rely on Richard Rodgers’ ebullient melody for their full emotional effect.

All of which led me to consider, not for the first time, why I usually dislike poetry set to music, especially poetry I know well. So when even a great composer like Britten or Copland joins the words of T.S. Eliot, say, or Emily Dickinson with notes that carry those words along, I often feel that the words – and my response to them – have been hijacked. They’ve been elicited to take on a role, forced into a new identity, like a familiar friend compelled to wear a perhaps attractive but distorting costume. The more intricate the music, the more extreme the poem’s alienating transformation.

In an essay on “Music and Opera,” W.H. Auden asserts that “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate, it goes on to become.” Later in the essay, he elaborates:

Poetry is in its essence an act of reflection, of refusing to be content with the interjections of immediate emotion in order to understand the nature of what is felt. Since music is in essence immediate, it follows that the words of a song cannot be poetry.

As Auden suggests here, the music of poetry involves sense in two senses: the direct pleasure and emotion in words and the less immediate implications (intellectually, spiritually) of those words. The greater the poem, possibly, the more self-sufficient it is, the more its inherent music renders any musical setting superfluous.

But what about great poems that have become great songs? Often, as in William Blake’s “The Lamb” and “Jerusalem” for instance, such works were songs or song-like to begin with – “The Lamb” is one of the Songs of Innocence, and “Jerusalem” has a fluidity, rhythm and rhyme that adapted naturally into a hymn melody. Some of Auden’s own poems, such as the “Anthem for St Cecilia’s Day,” are similarly musical and became fine songs. In such poems, the words seem enriched, even completed, by their settings (even as they are defined in a particular way by those settings).

And of course there are contemporary poets who write songs. Leonard Cohen was prominent among these. In his songs, the sound and sense of words predominate. We can enjoy a song like “Suzanne” even without its melody. Yet that melody, especially in Cohen’s deep sombre voice, half-speaking the lyrics while tracing the tune, enhances the meaning, emotion, and sensual power of the words. In rap and hip-hop also, the primary force is in spoken or chanted words, and the music without them would have much less impact. But that music and the human voice impart an urgency and immediacy that the words would not have on their own.

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This contrast between song-words and poetry-words might be further illuminated by considering Paul McCartney’s songwriting alongside that of his fellow-Beatle John Lennon. The Lennon-McCartney collaboration has long been understood to exist in name(s) only; aficionados and critics readily identify songs as Paul’s or John’s. And it is commonly asserted that Paul’s songs are stronger musically while John’s have superior lyrics. But is that true? I think the differences are more complex. Lennon’s lyrics are closer to poetry, especially the surreal or nonsense poetry of Lear or Carroll or of Lennon’s books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Two fine examples are “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus,” which have seductive music but rely as much on the sounds of words (and their startling juxtapositions) as the sounds of the notes that accompany them. Compare “Strawberry Fields” with its flipside on the original single, “Penny Lane” (a McCartney tune). Both were inspired by places in the Beatles’ native Liverpool, but Lennon’s song unfolds in a dreamlike locale of the mind while McCartney’s sketches an eccentric, idealized but recognizably actual townscape, a remembered place nostalgically reimagined. The difference is created in large part by the interrelation of lyrics and tune in each song. “Let me take you down/ Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields/ Nothing is real” begins Lennon’s song, which becomes more and more abstract and introspective in lines like “No one I think is in my tree/ I mean it must be high or low.” The melody circles, as it were, in a sort of timeless repetition, almost a droning chant, that intensifies the words’ tug away from the everyday world. Lennon riffs verbally on the title place-name and, presumably, the feelings and associations it evokes – each word creating an effect, sometimes detached from the words around it and therefore making little cumulative sense. This adds to the atemporal, dreamworld feeling (enhanced by George Martin’s innovative production, which slowed down and sped up the original tracks).

“Penny Lane” describes the title street, where “there is a barber showing photographs/ of every head he’s had the pleasure to know.” The words move along like a genial pedestrian strolling. Whimsy and cosy reassurance abound even as the words turn ambiguous, and the music has a clear melodic line. The pleasure in “pleasure,” for instance, comes from the sung notes smoothly conveying the word as it follows from the previous word and leads into the next. In “Strawberry Fields,” the music serves the words; in “Penny Lane” they are mutually reinforcing. But in neither are the lyrics truly poetry.

Sometimes in popular songs this balance tips strongly in the direction of the music, almost as in opera. The words exchange their deeper connotations for a secondary role as verbal vehicles for mellifluous melodic expression. We hear this in a “minimalist” song like McCartney’s “Hello, Goodbye,” which exhilarates musically while repeating the same few binary words with an emphasis on the “positive” ones, so that verbal monotony is lifted by music into joyful affirmation. The Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds album epitomizes this immersion, as it were, of words in waves of music; the lyrics frequently give way to pure melody vocalized in non-signifying phrases. And in Stevie Wonder’s superb Songs in the Key of Life, even words that might seem greeting-card banal take on thrilling eloquence through Wonder’s wondrous musicality.

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The subliminally powerful effects of music have long been noted by scientific studies. People with cognitive difficulties, for instance, are able to remember songs with much greater clarity than purely verbal information. This would seem to lend empirical support to our sense that words partnering music create a more direct and physical effect than words alone, that words have an essentially cognitive nature even in the most emotive poetry. We process the music of words differently from the music of music, and that difference underlies the particular power of songs. Possibly one reason why McCartney titled his book not Blackbird (like the recorded song) but Blackbird Singing was to emphasize that printed lyrics, those black signifiers on the page, find full life only through a voice. In reading, we naturally sing them.

*

Paul McCartney quotations are from Blackbird Singing (Norton).

W.H. Auden quotation from The Dyer’s Hand (Vintage).

Robert Frost quotation from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Holt, Rinehart, Winston).

Stephen Sondheim quotation from Finishing the Hat (Knopf).




Pieces of Reality: Philip Corner at Café Oto in London

Philip Corner performing Homage to Ben Patterson
Philip Corner performing Homage to Ben Patterson.

The silence in Café Oto is the silence of a church. On the dozen or so tables, tea lights flicker. We sit very still not daring to take a sip of our drinks for fear we might make a sound. This silence is immersive despite the fact we have all been handed a sheet of paper, which gives us permission to participate by

“buying something

to eat or drink

and then sometime during ……

make

consciously & explicitly

a sound with it.

Thus adding to the music …”

No one seems willing to enact their right to participate given to them by Philip Corner, one of the founding members of the Fluxus group. A tall and imposing 83-year-old, Corner appears under a dim spotlight and walks to the piano. Café Oto doesn’t have a raised stage or sloped floors—it is an intimate room with large windows looking onto a narrow East London street. In a Javanese batik shirt, cotton trousers and sandals, Corner’s white hair and mutton chops are the only evidence of his age. His movements are powerful and focused. He introduces his “collaborator, wife and muse”, Phoebe Neville, who is sheathed in a hand-painted silk tunic and a pair of sparkly rubber toe shoes—the kind where each toe has its own ‘finger’. Her hair is green and her face wears an expression of worship.

Corner announces a “reverence to the piano”. While Phœbe performs the traditional namaste, he bows until his head touches the keys. This is the first note we hear. He then says, “Piano Work, a movement”, and he and Neville turn the instrument around so the keys face the audience. At this moment an alchemy begins to take place: the transformation of one element into another. A piano is not simply a means to make music but a kinetic object, a sculpture that creates sound or allows for silence. We are entering a new kind of space. Neville moves with grace. She practically floats.

In the first sounded piece, ‘Petali Pianissimo’, the performers drop petals onto the keys. Where a petal falls, a note is played. They are conversing silently through the means of flowers and chance, physics and aesthetics. We are reminded of our very physicality, our relation to each other, and how it is so much more than the exchange of data via our mobile devices. And this is why we need this kind of performative work more than ever: It is not only a reminder of the power of art and a community of minds, however fleeting, but it is a corrective to lives in which experience is continuously being subsumed and replaced by mediation. There is no algorithm for the chance falling of petals. Corner’s work is an inoculation against the tyranny of ‘if you liked that, then you might like this’.  It is real and human and immediate.

Some Javanese masks come out for a piece called ‘Understanding’ in which Neville and Corner blindly play a small Yamaha keyboard—the only electronic sound of the evening.

“The masks will make sure I don’t know what I am doing,” Corner says. Then adds, “Not that I ever understand what I am doing.”

He touches the keyboard with the nose of his mask, riffing on the first reverence. Neville switches between timbres confusing their dialogue. They are playful, respectful and above all totally alive to each other’s bodies and movement. Neville seems to revel in being the ghost in the machine, switching it on and off while Corner stabs at the keys. Undermining the purpose of an object is pure Dada, pure Surrealist, pure Fluxus. Ceci n’est pas un piano when it is under their command—it is a living sculpture, a means of communication.

It is noticeable that no one is taking photos. There would be no point because no recording of this performance would be able to capture the atmosphere in this room. We are watching a rare thing: an experience that defies mediation. A moment we will remember, or not, but it will add to the sum of our parts whether we like it or not.

When the concert ends, the clapping erupts.

Corner says, “And here’s our encore.”

The audience laughs.

“Why are you all laughing?” He asks, genuinely confused.  

We are laughing, I think, because we’ve interpreted his comment to mean that our clapping is the encore. We are finally providing the audience participation asked of us.

Then he surprises us by beginning the real encore: a piece dedicated to his friend and collaborator, the Fluxus artist Ben Patterson who died this past June at the age of 82. One of Patterson’s best-known performances was his 1960 ‘Paper Piece’ in which the audience was asked to make sound with paper.

“In memoriam, Ben,” Corner says before unwinding brown packing paper from a large roll and spreading it over the keys. Neville rips some and lets the pieces fall onto the piano, echoing the earlier petals. The piece gets more frenzied as they wrap the instrument, and the sound gets louder. There is the violence of grief to it by the end. The eveninreag ends with the piano sitting silently in its shroud. This is a sane response to the death of a friend. Forget tweets: this is the way to say “I miss you”. We need to re-find our missing rituals and create new ones for our times.

The next morning I meet Corner and Neville at their hotel. The reception area is the size of a phone booth and the breakfast room is cramped. So we walk along London’s juddering, diesel-filled Essex Road in search of a place to talk. The first one we get to is a greasy spoon called My Favourite Café. It smells of sausages and chips.

“Does it bother you always being referred to as a Fluxus artist?” I ask Corner as we take our seats.

“I told myself many years ago, ‘don’t fight it, it’s hopeless’.” He pauses. “I had this epiphany about it a few years ago. For my whole life I’ve been saying, ‘I don’t want to be reduced to Fluxus’ with everyone saying, ‘Oh, Philip Corner is a Fluxkunstler’. Is everything I am doing now Fluxus?”  

His food arrives, “Oh God!” he says. The plate is heaving.

“I don’t want to be reduced,” he goes on. “Basically what I am saying is that I am not only Fluxus or somebody’s narrow idea of what Fluxus is. Instead, Fluxus has expanded to everything that I do! I put that in an expression to an Italian collector who asked me to give him a statement. I said, ‘Now let’s accept everything good and call it all Fluxus.’ He loved it! In fact he uses it as his letterhead.” Corner laughs. “At the concert last night, the ‘Petali Pianissimo’ piece, well you could call that Fluxus,” Corner says. “Certainly bowing to the piano, that’s a Fluxus piece, but sitting down and playing François Couperin, well that’s not a Fluxus piece. That’s just so stupid!”

Corner tells me about a studio visit he had recently with another collector, which seems to sum up the absurdity of our consumer society and its relationship to art—an absurdity he seems to relish. “There was this guy who was supposedly an art collector and he came to my studio. One of the things that I do are these things called ‘Pieces of Reality’. They’re related to the music, obviously, but they’re also a visual thing to do with making things out of natural objects. So anyway, I had these ‘Pieces of Reality’ around and I also had this clear plastic bag with some garbage in it, crumpled paper, a great dried spider, and so on, and it was tacked to the wall.

“This collector says to me, ‘when did you do that?’ and I say, ‘what do you mean, when did I do that? That’s my garbage!’ And he tells me he wants to buy it. I said, ‘I can’t sell you my garbage!’ But he wouldn’t give up. He says, ‘But I really like it; it’s a work of art.’ I say ‘no it’s not; it’s my garbage,’ and he tells me he knows what a work of art is. So finally he bought it.”

Corner widens his eyes, still mystified by this exchange, and goes on: “Then I said, ‘I don’t understand’. He says, ‘what don’t you understand?’ And I say, ‘the art market. I don’t understand the art market.’ ‘What don’t you understand about the art market?’ he asks. ‘I don’t understand why anybody would want to buy my garbage.’”

Corner pauses. “So that’s what I think about it all! The world is crazy and they want to buy my garbage. Hey that’s a good slogan!” He repeats it, “The world is crazy and they want to buy my garbage. That sums up everything.”




On Neurology and Grief: All About Melissa

My second novel, Melissa (Salt, late 2015), is – like a lot of my writing – all about music and neurology. On a sunny afternoon in June 1999, a young girl called Melissa Comb dies on a small street in Stoke-on-Trent; immediately afterwards, everyone on the street experiences the same musical hallucination. The novel opens with this strange phenomenon, and then goes on to focus on what happens to Melissa’s family in the wake of their terrible loss. While the community, media and onlookers around the family are obsessed with the musical phenomenon, the grief-stricken Comb family gradually disintegrates – like Bruegel’s Icarus falling into the sea, in the corner of everyone’s eyes.

The story behind the novel arises from various related and interwoven ‘true’ stories – stories which affected me personally when I was growing up, stories which affected people I know, strange phenomena from history (including, for example, so-called ‘Dancing Plagues’ and ‘Laughing Plagues’), and well-documented medical case histories of auditory hallucinations. In his book Musicophilia (2007), the late great Oliver Sacks discusses various cases of auditory and musical hallucinations; and his work was one of the starting-points for the novel’s opening scene. In fact, there is a fictional neurologist – Prof. Christopher Sollertinsky – who actually appears in the novel, and tries to explain the phenomenon. He’s by no means based on Sacks, but some of the neuroscientific language he uses, and the way he mixes that language with aesthetics, is inspired by Sacks’s work.

In his earlier book Awakenings (1973), Sacks famously calls for a ‘Romantic Science’ which mixes art, narrative, music, imagination, neurology, medicine; and personally I feel it’s important that novelists (as well as scientists) respond to that call. Art, music, writing don’t belong in an aesthetic bubble, isolated from the world outside; in fact, one of the strengths of fictional narrative forms such as the novel (as it comes down to us from, say, Dickens’s collage-like Pickwick Papers) is the way they can absorb many different kinds of narratives and discourses. The same is true the other way round: scientific discourse, as Sacks understood it, can absorb literary, musical and artistic imagery, and, indeed, often does. As Sacks himself was aware, books such as Musicophilia and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) are at once works of neurology and short-story collections; and similarly Awakenings is a great novel. Medicine (as many medical practitioners know) is a narrative art – and illnesses are themselves stories, with beginnings, middles and ends – or, in musical terms, expositions, developments, codas. Hence why my first ‘creative’ book, my memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), was not primarily a biography of my father, nor an autobiography of myself, but was first and foremost a story of a neurological disease as we experienced it.

No doubt the experience of my father’s Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and weird brain syndromes (including one which meant he misrecognised me, and believed I was being impersonated by an evil double) explains my interest in Sacks’s work and in neurology in general. But I think all modern writers should be interested in neurology. It’s clear now that the way we ‘choose’ to behave as human beings is shaped and determined in all sorts of complex ways – not just by traditional psychology (as is the case, for instance, for characters in a Trollope novel), nor by psychology plus social, economic and geographical environment (as is the case, for instance, in an Arnold Bennett novel), nor by psychology plus environment plus unconscious forces (as is the case in, say, a Wyndham Lewis novel) – but also, on top of all these things, by neurological forces. This doesn’t mean that ‘biology is destiny’ (as Freud once said), because all of these factors overlap and interact. But I think writers shouldn’t ignore – when observing characters, deciding how people behave – that we are all a mass of neurological symptoms, tics, neurons, synapses, illnesses, and that our very realities are pieced together through these fragile systems.

This is clear in auditory hallucinations, which are usually experienced as ‘real’ by those afflicted. That is, the same brain systems (in the auditory cortex) which are engaged when experiencing so-called ‘real’ music from ‘outside’ are also engaged by musical hallucinations. In neurological terms, a musical hallucination is ‘real’ to the person experiencing it: there is no difference in the brain’s terms between music heard ‘through’ the ears, and music heard ‘within’ the brain.

Too often do we (and by ‘we’ I mean particularly the British) separate what happens in the brain from what happens outside it: one is fiction, one reality, one mere subjectivity, one objective truth. Clearly, the most radical aspects of Sacks’s work undermines this distinction, and the British (and perhaps some British writers too) need to change the way in which subjectivity and objectivity are divided. Subjectivity, it turns out, is often ‘real’ and ‘true,’ at least in neurological terms. Music, whether of a hallucinatory kind or not, is pieced together, sorted, constructed in the brain – it doesn’t exist as a coherent narrative for the listener until this (miraculously fast) process takes place within. Musical narratives are sorted, compared, and understood within the experiencing subject.

The same goes for other kinds of narrative – including, I think, emotional narratives such as grief and mourning. Grief, like music, is pieced together within the experiencing subject; grief, like music, is experienced as vividly, overwhelmingly ‘real’ by the subject, even though it is an internal, subjective phenomenon; grief, like music, often has an hallucinatory quality; and the structure of grief, I think, often shares certain traits with musical narrative structures, in which refrains, cadences, variations, (emotional) polyphony, codas, concords and discords all play their parts. That is why I structured Melissa not in conventional chapters or sections, but in the form of theme and variations: because this musical form, perhaps, is closer to the emotional structure of grief than a linear literary narrative structure. Music, as Sacks suggests, perhaps maps onto neurological and emotional processes more closely than other forms of narrative.




Conjuring a Sense of Place: Interview with Calexico’s John Convertino

John Convertino of Calexico playing in Melbourne Australia March 2016

Tucson-based band Calexico will tour Europe again in July 2016 promoting their 2015 album, Edge of the Sun (ANTI-). This tour includes the Larmer Tree Festival in Dorset (16 July 2016) and the Citadel Festival in London (17 July 2016). Calexico enthrall their audiences around the world, who are treated regularly to the band’s passionate and diverse live repertoire. Their music is intent on “negotiating borders” and is often derived from exotic landscapes and cultures they have immersed themselves in. On their recent Australian tour, Melbourne writer Venita Munir interviewed Calexico co-founder and drummer John Convertino about what influences his songwriting, from literature, landscape and place.

Generally speaking, how do books and reading fit into your life?

I love books and reading. Nothing is more satisfying to me than reading a really good book. My wife and son are ferocious readers and can go through books much faster than I can. There are always lots of goods books to read around the house, and that I can take on the road with me.

What books have influenced your thinking and your songwriting craft, and how? 

I think The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy was a big influence on our early songwriting in Calexico. Getting out of Los Angeles, into the desert and reading those books, put us in a place mentally and physically that was a good fit for what we were doing musically.

The beautiful short novel by John Fante, Ask the Dust, was important as well because the romance involves immigration – what it’s like to be an immigrant in America, trying to understand how to fit in and find an identity.

Your music evokes your country’s landscape as clearly as a portrait. When I listen to your music I see a desert in Arizona or a colourful busy city in Mexico. How does landscape influence your songwriting?

A sense of place, like the Sonoran desert, can certainly conjure up images, and like painters or writers, it is important to have a connection to your subject, to express what you see around you. But there is the inner landscape as well, how the place where you live sinks into your heart, how it troubles it, how it brings it joy. This comes out in the music in ways that are harder to explain, or maybe even inexplainable (sic).

There is no set method of songwriting, or recording. Certain perimeters can be set in place, but things always change and there are so many variables. Allowing the song to find its way to you usually gets the best results, but that takes a lot of intuition and trust, that can take years to develop.

How do you write landscape into music, both instrumentally and in lyrics?

Allow for space. Break the silence, but don’t fill it up too much. Like in writing, it’s important to allow for the reader to use imagination. Same in music. Tone and sonic texture can direct your thoughts. Words can give you hints, but it’s the space that will allow the listener to imagine his own take on it. The song can become a part of the listener in this way.

Do you write lyrics too? Or is that Joey (Burns)? And do the lyrics come at the same time as the music or after?

I have written some lyrics. On the record Algiers (ANTI-), Joey asked me to write lyrics for three of the songs: ‘Epic’, ‘The Vanishing Mind’ and ‘Para’ … Joey rewrote most of the lyrics on ‘Epic’, but the other two he liked and kept them as I wrote them.

On earlier records I would help him make word choices. We would go over lyrics together and I would help him find more abstract ways of saying things. Lyrics usually come at the end after we have put the music together. Joey is the main songwriter. He has a million ideas all the time. I think he enjoys working with other people to get perspective. I happen to be one of those people.

I do write songs and present the ideas to him, and on occasion, he will develop them more and they become songs for the record, or for our tour-only CDs. I wrote a solo record a decade ago called Ragland. It’s instrumental, only three instruments: drums, vibes and piano. I had been working on another solo record when it turned into a collaboration with Naim Amor. It’s called The Western Suite and Siesta Songs and is going to be released on the LM Duplication label.

How do you form such precise observations of nature and inner insights that can shine through in your music? Do you write inside or outside?

I think we are writing all the time. It never lets up. Once you write your first song, you are always thinking about the next. Inside, outside, in bed, walking around, in museums, reading, movies, books and conversations, eavesdropping; all of it is part of songwriting. Heartbreaks, children, even pets. It’s all there. Just looking at the scenery as the miles drive by. It’s so important to daydream.

Australian Aboriginal people have a concept of ‘Country’, not like ‘country music’, ‘country & western’ or Australia being ‘a country’. It’s a totally different concept that encompasses the land, flora, fauna, water, sky, people and spirituality all integrally linked to their Country. How might you describe this notion of belonging to your own Country?

I have been thinking about this a lot. I once was a very religious person, put a lot of faith in God and spirituality. I feel very different about that now. I feel more connected to the earth and its natural state. I feel that is where I am from, and that is where I will return. My spirituality finds itself more on a molecular level. Indigenous peoples have their beliefs seemingly much more connected to the earth.

I love the book Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks), about the native American boy who meets a missionary’s daughter and they describe to each other their beliefs in God.

A sense of belonging to the earth and the human tribe becomes so much more open to me, taking any notion of religion out of the equation, or nationality or borders.

Another good book that touches on that for me is The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck). Humans lose touch with the earth getting wrapped up in their creations, their walls, their beliefs, etc.

How do those ties to the land influence your sound and songwriting?

I think where you are conceived, where you are born, the bloodlines, they all make up who you are. Any culture is a learned culture. When someone says, ‘It’s in your blood’, there is something else going on there, something not learned, something more instinctual. You are feeling something for a reason… it’s not learned. It has to do with where you were born, where your cells came together to form you, your blood. Yes, you have license to write about your country, but you can write about what you learn too. What compels you to write about is there for a reason. What you choose to write about is in your blood. What you may reject or not want to write about is in your blood too. I think cells influence our thinking.

I relate to Italian culture. I love a lot of things about it, and Irish culture too, but really, I am a human being. The cells came together to make me a human. What I am trying to learn everyday is not to be Italian, Irish or American, but to be human. To fight off the things that bring us down, and look for the ways to bring us up.

Have the countries of your ancestors, or their cultural landscapes, influenced your music to date? For example: have the songs, lullabies, fables, poems and urban myths of those cultures found their way into your songwriting?

Yes, very much so. I will choose to pick up an accordion and try out a melody because I feel it’s in my blood, but the accordion is also German and South American and Irish. There are themes that are universal. I love how when the early rock bands started experimenting with different forms of music and blending them in with what they were doing, how it opened up so many people to different cultures. The same happens with food too.

Obviously you’ve lived and worked in the U.S. for most of your lives but do you perceive that as your Country?

The U.S. is my country. It is where I was born. I woke up in a bed made by Europeans conquering a land and a people. The history of my people is something not to be proud of, but I can change that with my own life. How I bring my kids up, what I can teach them and what they can learn from so many different cultures.

I read that you moved to El Paso, Texas. Has it changed the way you write? Has the landscape or political environment been inspiring in different ways to Tucson?

I love being in El Paso. It is different than Tucson in that it is the border. Whites are the minority and in some areas Spanish is the preferred language to be spoken. It’s something I’ve always felt, but becomes increasingly clear living here – there really should be no border fence or wall between us and Mexico. I know that’s easy for me to say, and it’s much more complicated than that, but that’s how I feel.

I think wherever you are or wherever you live is going to affect your writing. How it does that, or in what way it will influence is never really known until it happens.

My belief is that we modern humans disrespect the land and have been too greedy and consumerist for too long. I really hope that we can all learn to cherish what we have and keep the bigger picture in mind. 

Yes, I agree, humans do not respect the land like they should. Capitalism and greed are the roots of this seemingly endless abuse. As much as we know how to solve the problems, there is no turning back the fact that we are the problem. So we have to keep chipping away at what it is we do that brings it all down and find the ways to bring it back up.

 

 




This Is the Sea

waterboys

One chilly evening in November 1984, waiting for U2 to appear onstage at Wembley Arena, I found myself idly watching the unknown support band struggle through their set. Seated in a tier stage-left, close to the action, I saw everything in profile, as it were. The lead singer was wearing leather trousers, and brandishing a Gibson Les Paul Special, like Mick Jones from the Clash. His chestnut-coloured hair was coiffed into an impressive, if slightly dated, rock-star shag-pile; and his nose had an upward tilt, uncannily like my own. He was singing something about hearing the Big Music, after which he would never be the same. The noise they were making was rapturous, incandescent, exhilarating. It was clear the U2 fans couldn’t have cared less, talking in their seats like farmers at a livestock market, but I sensed the band had something I needed. I was 16 years old, still at school, and living in my staid Hertfordshire hometown, a nowheresville called Hitchin.

I immediately decided it was an injustice they were dying up there on stage. The frontman seemed to share this sentiment – even from 20 yards away one could feel him bristle at the audience’s indifference. Finally, the band played a long, curious, narrative song about World War Two, into which the singer poured his very soul.

When the tune finished: nothing. Tumbleweed. Only myself and a few others whistled and cheered. At this, the singer did something unforgettable. He cocked his head, turned on his heel, and walked purposefully offstage. He then proceeded calmly down a concrete gangway, Gibson slung upside down across his back, rock n roll-outlaw style, and vanished out of sight. Wow. That was a gesture. A fuck you. But also a challenge: are you with me or are you not? Are you in or are you out?
I was in.

The singer was Mike Scott, and his band was called the Waterboys. They had just released their second album, A Pagan Place, and were promoting it on U2’s Unforgettable Fire tour. A few weeks later, I borrowed the record from a friend, then illegally taped it, as was the custom in those days. On the sleeve, Scott peered enigmatically out from beneath the shag-pile, one eye visible only. He certainly possessed all the qualifications necessary for the job of wind-swept, romantic rock singer: fine cheekbones, full lips, scarily taut jaw-line, and that strangely vulnerable nose. Furthermore, as had been hinted at live, Scott’s voice was a revelation: forceful, moving, yet wistful. Every so often, for emphasis, he would emit a trademark ‘Whooo!’ – a sort of uninhibited Red Indian holler. There was almost too much to admire in Mike Scott’s voice. The grain. His power and range. The secure top notes – high As – of ‘A Pagan Place’ were particularly impressive.

Few facts about the band could be gleaned from the sleeve. I knew from an interview in an old issue of Sounds that Scott was from Edinburgh, now living in West London, and that the Waterboys were a fluid collection of associates rather than a ‘proper’ group like U2, or Led Zeppelin. On the back of the cover was written, quaintly, ‘For information send S.A.E to: 3 Monmouth Place, Off Monmouth Rd, London W2.’ I considered it for a moment. No, best to wait for the next album, which would be out soon enough, certain to be a masterpiece, and learn about the band from the surfeit of press it was sure to receive.

A whole year passed. Autumn 1985. No mention of the Waterboys in the music papers. I was 17 by then, an upper-sixth former, walking the carbolic corridors of my small-town comprehensive with an affectedly world-weary gait, a copy of The Penguin Book of English Verse, and a mullet. Exiting through the gates one splendid, blowy September afternoon, reading the Melody Maker (the habit of religiously reading the music press, especially the MM, had been established that year), I noticed a tiny News In Brief. The Waterboys were about to release their third album, This Is the Sea. The oddness of the idiom, and its inherent romantic quality, was immediately exciting. It had a great deal to live up to with a title like that. Not this is a sea, but this is the Sea.

I bought a copy on the day of release. Vinyl, of course. The sleeve, in ravishing black and white, displayed the same artfully cultivated mystique, but this time there was no eye contact, instead, Scott looked down, attaching a feather to his jacket. The pose was a direct reference to the cover of Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, the wrist canted at exactly the same angle. On the inner bag were lyrics, and copious illustrations. There was also a list of all the instruments used beneath each song. A bellzouki had been played on one tune. What the hell was a bellzouki? I was intrigued. On the back cover, Scott wore dark glasses, and peered intently over his piano at something just out of reach. Anthony Thistlethwaite, the sax player on A Pagan Place, was be-scarfed and be-shaded. And there was a new recruit: someone called Karl Wallinger, a geek in Lennon specs, enigmatically sniffing a wild flower. They looked cool as fuck. What would the Waterboys have for us this time?

This Is the Sea, released 30 years ago last autumn – in the same week as Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love – is one of those albums that writers throw the word ‘masterpiece’ at. For once, this is not an exaggeration. It is a perfect collection of songs, faultlessly executed, and, although not concept-driven, as side two of Hounds of Love is said to be, has an integrity of sequence; a will of its own, a flow. Grandstanding epics (‘Don’t Bang the Drum’) are audaciously succeeded by technicolour pop songs (‘The Whole of the Moon’). Numinous mediations (‘Spirit’) are tempered by brash Patti Smith-inspired devotionals (‘The Pan Within’). Meticulously arranged cold fury (‘Old England’) gives way to all-out Dylan ‘65 thrash (‘Be My Enemy’).

Aptly, the theme of the record’s eponymous final track is regeneration – the ending of an old life and the beginning of a new. Scott presents us with a simple idea: the unhappy past has faded, become irrelevant, and the far larger, more important present is here, right now. ‘That was the river / this is the sea’. Further, there’s a chance you might have a future, but ultimately, it’s up to you. Life’s what you make it. What a freeing, hopeful idea! This could have been trite, homespun wisdom if it wasn’t for the music’s huge elemental power, and the darker, conflicted undercurrents of the lyric. The song allows that past events don’t just vanish, they have consequences that intrude on the present. Yesterday mingles with today, making it harder, as each year accumulates, to make decisions. Indeed, the narrator (if one reads the lyric as inner dialogue, counsel to oneself, not a friend) is trawling through his memories, trying to identify where he went wrong. ‘These things you keep / you better throw them away’, the song begins. But he is stuck, and can’t just throw the past away. If only he could . . .

If you are familiar with the song, you will know that much of its power comes from the lyric’s uncanny ability to describe all your life’s crucial turning points as and when they happen. ‘This Is the Sea’ is a song about regeneration that constantly regenerates itself. The words always seem to fit the situation or dilemma precisely, like a mathematical formula. In this way it is perhaps the definitive ‘memory song’, where one can look back at the layers of memory, when and where the song was one’s companion, on which dark nights of the soul. It may be the end of a relationship, a friendship, a job, or time spent living somewhere, but the song’s lyric always represents it perfectly. At 17, the train in the fifth verse that you could catch if you hurried was the transport that would take me to London, where I intended to form a rock n roll band. I imagined I needed to get a move on; that time was running out.

After this verse – the drop, or lull where the band take it down – the song begins its ascent to a kind of summit. A gathering instrumental wave of frightening power, a giant breaker threatening a tsunami, starts to rise. The sound picture becomes dangerously engorged, Scott urging ‘THE RIVER!’ over and over. It builds and builds until it cannot build any further . . . Then it breaks, and there is calm. Scott had been true to his promise. The album’s title track was the sea, an ocean of personal meanings and connections, but also oddly mimetic of the sea itself, its dreadful power. And how unexpected and pleasing it was to discover that last unruffled line, the quiet injunction to behold the sea. Accept change, it seemed to say, marvel at it; don’t ask why. Such is the song’s strength, if I sit down to listen to it now, I still come away dazed, altered in some way.

Some of the effect, it has to be said, arises from straight musical repetition. Back in 1985, if you’d suggested Mike Scott was a Velvet Underground fan, I may not have believed you (he was a Bowie-phile and Lennon-head also, but I didn’t know that either). There were many bands beginning to use the Velvets as a template then – shades, turtlenecks, feedback – but the Waterboys were not one of them. Instead, he took their quintessence. In the sleeve notes to This Is the Sea’s 2004 re-issue, Scott states that from the Velvet Underground he learned: ‘The power of the two-chord song . . . the glory of sustaining a single dynamic intensity for an entire track.’ ‘This Is the Sea’ uses double-tracked 12-string acoustic guitars, playing a simple E to A sequence to create a rolling, repetitive tide of sound. Each guitar is ‘hard-panned’ (i.e. separated, so one is heard in the left speaker, the other in the right). Consequently, they spark against each other, talk to each other almost, one accent complimenting another. Over this, Scott layered multiple tambourines playing ‘disciplined rhythms’, as he called them – the triplets that drive the song. From this simple, naive palette, emerged a distinctive, sweeping, quixotic sound, one at odds with the cynical airbrushed eighties; something no other artist was attempting at the time.

If his musical influences were sometimes well hidden, Scott was, ironically, one of the great ‘portal artists’. Like Bowie, Scott’s work often alludes to, or quotes directly from, another artist or cultural figure. In this way they are, in a benevolent teacherly way, the portal to another body of work, a new world. Just as Aladdin Sane references Jung, Benny Goodman, Che Guevara, the New York Dolls, Marilyn Monroe, and, Jean Genet, via ‘The Jean Genie’; This Is the Sea alludes to, among others, Yeats, Joyce, the 19th Century English artist William Strutt, and Sylvia Plath (the album’s title is a direct quote from ‘Berck-Plage’). And not forgetting the name of the band. The Waterboys, I was delighted to discover, derived from Lou Reed’s Berlin: ‘I am the Waterboy’, from ‘The Kids’.

Scott also led back to an author who, fittingly, had written about an actual portal to another world, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis. I knew the book; it had been read to us by our form teacher as we sat cross-legged on the carpet of our classroom at Junior School. But I knew little about the man. A biopic of Lewis’s life, Shadowlands, was shown on television around this time. I watched it solely because Scott had referenced the title in the first line of an early song, ‘Church Not Made With Hands’. From the film it transpired Lewis had written an autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which I found in a dusty Hitchin bookshop. In this wonderful, short book I discovered a marvellous phrase. As a young man CS Lewis admitted to often feeling an almost nauseating thirst for ‘the idea of autumn’. Without any further explanation I knew precisely what he meant. It perfectly summarized how I felt at 17, an earnest, bookish young man, thinking himself a rock star, at all times longing for the season of melancholy and decay, loss and falling leaves. Keats’ mists and mellow fruitfulness. Good job the Waterboys were my new favourite band that fall, and not the Style Council. This Is the Sea was the apposite soundtrack – autumnal music par excellence.

Unsurprisingly, around this time, as un homage to Mike Scott, I started growing my hair out, wearing fisherman’s caps, blazer jackets, open-necked shirts. I even bought some leather trousers (PVC actually, from a rare trip to Camden market), and for a while thought these were a perfectly acceptable way for a young man to dress.

Concurrently, the press profile I’d hoped This Is the Sea would achieve was starting to build. The fabulous ‘The Whole of the Moon’ had attained a respectable chart placing – 26 – and as a result the band were starting to divide Hitchin’s small community of aspiring musicians, like Marmite. (You were either in, or you were out.) On the cover of the Melody Maker, Scott had revealed a sideburn. It was an affront to the clean-cut pop faces of the day, two fingers up to the wine bar bands, the Wham! wannabes. In the same photograph, the top three buttons of Scott’s shirt were undone. Shirts in the eighties were to be fully buttoned at all times. The transgression was the subtlest of code, Masonic almost, a faint visual recognition signal of ‘our people’, but all the more powerful for it. There were hints in the music too. Perhaps I imagined it, but wasn’t Scott’s ‘see-ea yeah!’ in verse four of ‘This Is the Sea’ a direct quote from Zeppelin’s ‘Custard Pie’?

An episode one day in the local guitar shop perfectly illustrates this polarity. The short-haired fellow behind the till was in one of the many local bands – outfits with names like Surface Tension, or the Passion Theory – jazz funk combos infested with tasty geezers in Pringle sweaters. Level 42 fans. His group didn’t wear Pringle but played a harder style of funk, and were called the Good Time Boys. I couldn’t have come up with a better eighties antonym of ‘Waterboys’ if I’d tried. That decade was about hedonism, summery, pastel colours; a particularly nasty, Tory, philistine set of values. The Waterboys were inward, autumnal, defiantly poetic. I knew which side I was on. The Good Time Boys wore ankle-length leather coats with the sleeves rolled up, and covered ‘Get it On’, not the fleet-footed T-Rex original but The Power Station’s pompous slaughtering.

I’d only asked for a pack of Ernie Ball strings, heavy gauge, when he embarked on a tirade.

Him: ‘You know the one band I can’t stand at the moment are the fucking Waterboys, and that ‘Hole in the Moon’. Absolutely hate them. Saw their video on The Tube last night. That’s everything that’s wrong with music at the moment that is. Just fucking hippies. Awful. Who let them back in? Him with his earring, long hair and sideburns. What year does he think it is? 1973? You probably like them . . . ’

And so on like that, until I zoned into a dream. Yes, the video was rather fine, Scott with the anchor jacket, Ovation acoustic held high, spinning round and round on his heel as the music reached one delirious climax after another. Flags, rags, ferryboats, scimitars and scarves, every precious dream and vision underneath the stars . . . God it was good. I saw myself onstage, throwing a few Scott-like shapes. You came like a comet (BANG!), blazing your trail, too far, too high, too soon . . .When I came to, the peroration was still in full swing.

‘Fuckin ‘The Hole in the Moon’, what does that mean?’
Me: ‘Er, actually it’s ‘The Whole of the Moon’. ’
‘Whatever.’
‘Can I have the strings please? And my change . . . Thanks.’

In October, to mark the album’s release, the Waterboys headlined the Kentish Town Forum on the This Is the Sea tour. This time Scott, still wearing the leather keks, a Lou Reed sunburst Gibson 335, a fisherman’s cap, and the greatest haircut he would ever have, owned the audience. Opening with ‘Don’t Bang the Drum’, the first track on the record, Mike Scott demonstrated to those of us plotting to form a group how it should be done. Two hours of beauty, abandon and heartbreak followed. ‘This Is the Sea’, appearing towards the end of the set, almost felt like a religious experience. I exited feeling as if I had just witnessed the best live band in Britain, if not the world. Which of course, I had.

Autumn gave way to winter. Snow covered the dead leaves, banked up in all the lanes leading out of Hitchin. There are several references to snow on This Is the Sea. (Mike Scott’s music always made me want to ‘find my scarf / and wrap it around my throat’, as he sings on ‘Medicine Bow’.) One of my chief memories from the time is listening to the record at home, the snow falling outside in perfectly vertical lines, reading and re-reading the album’s Melody Maker review. It was a rave – written, appropriately enough, by MM stalwart Matt Snow – and concluded: ‘This is the Sea, and this is the one’. The old small-town life would soon be ending, the river emerging into the sea.

*

Fast forward. A long way forward. 26 years later, in autumn 2011, I switched the TV on one night, and there was Mike Scott, on Later With Jools Holland. Cocky Lennon-stance, well-cut suit, Bowie ‘Space Oddity’ 12-string. He and the Waterboys were halfway through ‘Mad as the Mist and Snow’, a song from Scott’s album of Yeats’ poetry set to music. With its wild punk energy, references to Cicero and Homer, and Scott’s incomparable voice, I experienced the same tremor of excitement as when I’d discovered them all those years ago. They were still hungry. Coldplay were on the same show, and, in the rock n roll vernacular, the Waterboys blew them off stage. It was hard not to smile – in Scott’s attitude to the bigger, more feted band, I recognised the same singer that had stalked off U2’s stage at Wembley in ‘84.

Mike Scott hadn’t been on my radar for a while, but now he was back. Nothing in the intervening years had challenged This Is the Sea’s status as his masterpiece. Sure, Fisherman’s Blues had sold more copies, but This Is the Sea was still the one. It had even permeated the wider culture thanks to a great piss-take of the song on Father Ted, and ‘The Whole of the Moon’ reaching number three in 1991. Mike Scott’s strange, rapturous unique vision was, and still is, a jukebox staple the land over.

I knew what I had to do. I switched off the telly, found the old battered vinyl edition of This Is the Sea in my collection, and dropped the needle somewhere towards the end of side two . . . These things you keep, you better throw them away . . .




IDENTITY, MUSIC AND BEING A WRITER

IDENTITY, MUSIC AND BEING A WRITER

I am a proud Indian at heart, love my cultural heritage and have a strong sense of family and the Hindu values I was raised with. But in many ways my family isn’t a typical Indian family, and exposure to other cultures and encouragement to embrace their merits while maintaining my core, was also part of my global upbringing. India with its multicultural, multilingual, diverse, yet inclusive personality has offered me a wonderful opportunity to naturally experience a wide spectrum of life and emotions. My identity is thus a combination of different parts than a localised entity, and it is fascinating how location, cultural identity and heritage link to a person’s writing. I have a particular interest in exploring identity in relation to a foreign country and culture since it has been very easy for me to remain rooted to my Indian identity, but also absorb (mostly sub-consciously) the new inputs from the UK and relate to many of its aspects during my time there as a student, as well as from my current 9 month stay in Spain as an English conversational assistant so that now my perspective is even more of a collage than before.

In a way it is intriguing to be between an insider and an outsider and have insights from potentially rich and varied angles. My first novel in progress as well as other works appear to be largely Westernised commodities, and yet ones that hide an Indian sensibility, an integral part of me. The conflict between me, my life and work is indeed present, and my long-term challenge as a writer is to embrace this vantage point, even though it means I don’t exactly ‘fit-in’ in the natural sense of the term.

One thing I have realised is that for me identity is linked to philosophy, values and beliefs rather than place. It is only by complete acceptance and peace with my position that I’m going to be able to bring out that very unique perspective through my writing. Writing that won’t be more or less than my current writing, but writing where I can finally come to terms with all parts of my complex identity. This personal conflict is conveyed perfectly by Rainer Maria Rilke in one line; our human need to be true to our own identity and life, however complex it is.

(There is) ultimately only one conflict which constantly reappears under a different guise … to reconcile life with work in the purest sense.’ (As cited in Davis, et al. 2003: 81)

But I also believe in the universality of certain things like basic human emotions, music and colours. I am fascinated by the potential of perception and associations with all three that can make it so diverse for different people. As a writer, I have always been interested in the intricate relationship between art, music, the artist and the audience.

Does music evoke emotions and thoughts or are they already present and the reason why we can relate and bring meaning to it? Similarly for the written word, is the writer capable of making the reader feel and think in a certain way, or does the reader connect to the world because of previously existing feelings?
Or is it all akin to brainwashing, like the questions raised in Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby (2002) where repetition and clever arrangement of words (in a pattern and structure similar to that found in music) are said to manipulate the audience in the manner intended?

I personally don’t believe it’s that simple or that I’m a manipulator for creating characters and situations that my readers can (hopefully) connect with. Ron Silliman has said that the mind is the shortest distance between two sentences and I suspect that it is similar with music, so the relationship ultimately works both ways between audience, medium, content and effect, and they play off each other. The workings of the mind and brain are complex and so is this relationship.

Through my writing, what I want is to be able to create three-dimensional characters relatable through their experiences and emotions, not their professions. One of my main aims is to show music as the main interactive medium between the characters, where the sound and its consequent effect is what matters. My writing is an attempt to verbalise and concretise the ‘sound’ of feelings and emotions, without resorting to structuring the piece in any form of music. It is said that if you could say something in words, there would be no reason for art and music. However I still believe in the possibility recreating a ‘vision’ of music that has a similar and equally powerful effect on the reader. Attempting to make the abstract concrete is an integral part of why I am driven to write, and that more than anything else forms the hopefully universal sensibility of my work rather than where it is based or what nationality the characters have.

Music is the way in which many of my characters find a solution to their problems. However the obvious dilemma surfaces when the mode of communication you feel most comfortable with is itself the source of the problem. I have often thought about what would happen if writing just didn’t make any sense anymore and failed to give me the joy it continues to give. How would I react to waking up, not only lacking that compulsive urge to put pen to paper (or words on the screen) but being actively repelled by it? I honestly don’t know. I presume I would feel lost, angry, frustrated, even depressed, but I’d like to think that I would keep trying to find my way back, and not give up.

There is another side to this discussion about inspiration, craft and identity, and it is the knowledge that all this ‘transitory and ephemeral beauty’ that we feel through and by art is always accompanied by its opposites, by extreme darkness, pain, sorrow, hurt and suffering. And the contemplation that unless we embrace and make peace with the darkest parts of ourselves, we will never fully understand nor attain harmony in the true sense of the world. But this artistic desire and sheer compulsion to write and keep writing is mixed with the annoying realisation that it can never be fully satisfied. This is where the discussion about hope comes in, something that forms an important part of my identity as a writer and person.

‘Hope is a good thing. The best of things. And good things never die.’ Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

I am a huge fan of Friday Night Lights (Berg, 2006-2011) not just because of its intense realism and ability to tackle real and difficult issues, but because all characters, however bleak or dire their situation and however many times they try and fail, never let go of the hope of change and never give up their attempts. Uncertainty and struggle is a permanent fixture of a writer’s life, more than most and it is something that at its frustrating worst may seem insurmountable, especially as something that will never go away. However it is only by infinite patience, perseverance, and sheer determination that one can hope to get anywhere. Why should writing be any different? Gary Snyder, in The Real Work: Excerpts from an Interview (Gibbons, 1989: 294) makes a very matter-of-fact observation about the relationship between the artist’s existence and never giving up, The real work is to be the warriors that we have to be, to find the heart of the monster and kill it, whether we have any hope of actually winning or not.

I am a believer. Life is hard, tough, annoying and unfair. It will tire you out, wear you down, depress and frustrate you. But it is also beautiful, magical, enigmatic, and full of hope, joy, love and laughter. And it is up to us to keep searching for it, more so in the world of today. I believe in all the good, in spite of all the bad, or maybe more so because of it. That this shows in my writing has been a retrospective discovery. There is a large degree of sub-conscious absorption as a writer and now that I’m more aware of the processes, there is an increasing percentage of self-control, fine-tuning and being able to focus the sub-conscious mind on picking up specific inputs. But inspiration still takes me by surprise and I’m glad it does.

It’s nice to know you can never control certain things, proof that there are still moments of magic left in life. Even now I’m inspired daily by a random quote, a paragraph in the newspaper or a book, a scrap of conversation. I’m inspired by music, one single song, one good movie.
I’m inspired by the fact that I can reach out to people through my writing, people I’ve never met and probably will never meet, and touch their lives in some small way. I read and write because I can’t not; a compulsive need. The more I read, the more I learn and the more I want to write and vice-versa. Both processes are so closely inter-connected and inter-dependent that I can’t separate or differentiate when one lets off and the other picks up.

Is it just the ability to pick up a pen and piece of paper that makes a writer? The ability to form coherent sentences in a fairly pleasing and flowing manner?

Having a story to tell or an urge to create narratives in whichever form? Technically every able-bodied person is programmed to run, but can we call all of them athletes and marathon runners?

One of my MA essays discussed the strengths and weaknesses of language, the potential and infinite possibilities within the boundaries of limitation. As writers, these pros and cons are a constant personal companion – and awareness about both, as well as a kind of peace with them is a crucial and essential part of the never-ending journey. In the same vein of thought I want to discuss the helplessness when faced by beauty that we’re sure cannot be translated into words, or captured enough through photos and images, or experiences that we feel will overwhelm the attempt on our part to freeze in time, which in truth won’t live up to the actual event or experience. As artists whose very livelihood depends on that very elusive nature, it can be frustrating and daunting to say the least.

Why then do we (myself very much included) persist and persevere against these added odds to ones that are scary enough on their own?




On Nostalgia: The Music of Christmas Past and Present

Photo by Grant Cherrington (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Grant Cherrington (copied from Flickr)

I remember standing as tall as I could, lifting my head up and singing at the top of my voice. In the corner the tree stood taller still, lighting beneath it the gathered ranks of our parents who had come to listen. This was the school carol concert and I was going to sing every word, never mind the embarrassment.

I used to get ridiculously excited about Christmas as a child. This was only increased by the fact that Christmas day is also my birthday. For me, December 25th has always been Christmas and New Year’s Day all rolled into one. I would literally be starting a new year of my life. I started to look forward to it as soon as I began writing the date at the top of my new exercise book at the beginning of each school year. Long before it was time to open the doors on my advent calendar I was counting down the days in my head.

I can see now from the vantage point of my mid-thirties that music played a big part in my childish excitement. If I shut my eyes I can hear a constant festive soundtrack composed not just of those carols we rehearsed for our school concert but all sorts of pop songs, novelty records, charity songs, and TV themes. There is, for instance, Howard Blake’s music for The Snowman (1982) and Geoffrey Burgon’s soundtrack to the BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – compulsory teatime viewing on Sundays in December 1988. In a sense, my memories of Christmases past are saturated with melodies.

When I hear all those same pieces now I do not feel excited about Christmas so much as nostalgic for it. I feel like I have opened the window on a different calendar of days to find that the view is one of my own past.

The way that we celebrate Christmas is in many ways structured around a broader principle of nostalgia – of actions repeated every year with minimal alteration. We put up our decorations and at the same time put up around us our memories of the festive period.

The way we consume Christmas music is both a cause and effect of this repetition. The special efficacy of festive tunes to act as a site of nostalgia is in part due to the fact that they themselves encode a kind of musical reminiscence. Christmas carols are, for all their convoluted histories, structured quite conservatively in musical terms, relying upon conventional tonal relationships and simple tunes. It is this that makes them so easy to learn and to remember. Modern Christmas pop songs are perhaps even more straightforward in their melodic and harmonic construction. Just as important, though, are the ways in which the basic musical structures of these hits are decorated, so to speak. Beyond their familiar lyrical content, these records often establish a feeling of ‘christmassy-ness’ through the deployment of certain key ‘Christmas’ signifiers or sound effects: sleigh bells, tubular bells, the introduction of a choir and so on.

These aural signs are triggers for a nostalgic process that operates beyond the song itself. They draw upon a broader cultural construction of Christmas that extends not only from the Christian tradition but also the Victorian imagination, and the work of Dickens in particular. In a sense, their effectiveness is dependent upon both strictly musical matters and their ability to activate a cultural memory.

As I have grown older my experiences of Christmas music have inevitably broadened. To take two examples: as a teenager I discovered Ralph Vaughan Williams’ remarkable ‘Fantasia on Christmas Carols’ (1912); and then, more recently I have come across Franz Liszt’s Weinachtsbaum or Christmas Tree Suite (1882). These are works that wear their nostalgic intentions on their sleeve. However, they also exhibit an expressive complexity that negates any straightforward representation of the period – its celebration or its remembrance.

And here, I think, is the crux of the issue. A tendency towards nostalgia need not erase every kind of complexity. Whilst ‘the nostalgic’ must, by its very nature, rely on a certain idealised point of view the articulation of that view can be rendered in a convincingly complex fashion – if not problematically then at least in a more sophisticated style. It is no less joyful for that. The very best festive music – whether explicitly Christian or more secular – maintains a rich sense of the period, its traditions and histories. It also stands up to repetition. In this sense, it is like our memories of Christmas itself.

And so, another Christmas is approaching and I’m looking forward to another birthday. This year I won’t be singing in any carol concert. I will, though, I’m sure, find myself reaching for the same old CDs. I will be placing the same old music on the piano’s music stand. It is there that I will find the particular story of my own Christmases past and present.




Book Review: The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus

historyStrictly speaking, the title of Greil Marcus’ latest series of essays on music has more to do with the conceptual history of pop music in America than a material trudge through facts and dates. As with his magisterial Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, originally published in 1989, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is a fascinating exercise in associative historiography and chronicle, bringing together fringe, mainstream and canon singers, songwriters, bands, performers, A&R men, producers and audiences into the whirling gumbo of rock ‘n’ roll.

Pulling apart the themes and motifs in the book’s ten songs, Marcus plucks their threads to see where and how they resonate in pop consciousness. To Marcus, the ten songs under discussion here — The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action”, Joy Division’s “Transmission”, The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite”, Etta James’ “All I Could Do Was Cry”, Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”, Barrett Strong’s “Money”, The Brains’ “Money Changes Everything”, The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment”, Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him is to Love Him” — approach civilizational significance.

The performance is so fast, so big, relentless and unforgiving it feels as if it’s flying apart, three minutes and three seconds of the Big Bang in a box made of mastery and will.

Referring to Groovies’ guitarist Cyril Jordan’s description of rock ‘n’ roll as “the only free country left in the world… no boundaries, no passports [there] wasn’t even a government”, Marcus argues that the music represents “an argument about life captured in sound”. In the pre-punk 1970s, when dinosaurs roamed the rock landscape and boogied agreeably to laser show stagecraft, the comparatively lo-fi “Shake Some Action” tapped into the voodoo of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. Marcus suggests that the cult San Francisco band’s song is every bit a foundational statement as its antecedents, the idea being that rock ‘n’ roll may be “invented” by anyone, anywhere, at any time. There is no one history, but many histories.

By far the most interesting chapter in the book, and representative of Marcus’ method, is the section on “All I Could Do Was Cry”. Opening with a brief account of Barack Obama’s January 2013 inauguration, where James Taylor warbled “America the Beautiful”, Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and Beyoncé performed “The Star Spangled Banner”, Marcus maps a diverse web of interconnected images insinuated into the event — ranging from The Colbert Report, Steve Martin’s The Jerk and Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, to the films Ben Hur and Les Miserables. The reader follows Marcus’ logic through Obama and Stephen Colbert riffing on “a black guy who likes James Taylor” on national television and Obama’s winking repartee derived from the Steve Martin comedy, to King’s incorporation of the hymn Clarkson would sing fifty years later into his “I Have a Dream Speech”, to Beyoncé’s rendition of the national anthem as a “the last number of some quasi-historical-religious Hollywood epic”.

She brought herself to life as her own Pygmalion, breathing into her own mouth… she plunged into the melismatics that turn every song into a mirror into which the singer gazes at her own beauty.

Picking up from her performance at the Super Bowl a few weeks later, Marcus recounts Beyoncé’s immense commercial accomplishments and lingers on the idea of mimicry and artifice. Like her two most obvious analogues, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, Marcus writes that Beyoncé has succeeded in “replacing even the memory of soul music with its counterfeit”. He moves to explore the relationship between emotional efficiency and sincerity just as Etta James finally enters the narrative, halfway through proceedings — only towards the end of the chapter do the various fragments of culture and music laid before the reader begin to coalesce.

Marcus reflects on Beyoncé’s portrayal of James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records (the story of James’ record label, Chess), noting how the uncanny vérité only seems to restate the fundamental unreality of Beyoncé herself. In the film, at the inauguration, at the Super Bowl and sold-out arenas around the world, Beyoncé plays at inhabiting Etta James, and the spirit of what the Etta James story represents — she remains shadow.

Though mapping similar territory to Lipstick Traces, Marcus’ new book reads as a series of meditations on disparate cultural events rather than a comprehensive survey of culture. He teases out complex and inventive ideas, comparisons and connections between isolated incidents that map out histories and trajectories rather than the monolith suggested in the The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs’ title. For example: a teenage Phil Spector’s obsession with the inscription on his father’s gravestone, “to have known him was to have loved him”, which he transcribed into a faux doo-wop that topped the charts in 1958, which in turn established his Wall of Sound production technique, which spawned such imitators and copycats as The Shangri-Las, whose own success with songs like “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember” led to lead vocalist Mary Weiss’s burnout, is tied to Amy Winehouse’s 2007 recording of “To Know Him is to Love Him” and her own difficult relationship with fame.

The essays’ prose is tight, with the passages describing the songs and the effect of the music on listeners being particularly evocative. Those new to Marcus’ sometimes involved compositional style may at first be confused with where exactly his musings on, say, photographer Nan Goldin’s visual diary The Ballad of Sexual Dependency intersect with boxer Joe Louis and The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment”, but he remains admirably on point pulling these strands together into a broader commentary. Equal parts challenging and compelling, Marcus makes the fundamental point that it’s only rock ‘n’ roll — but it’s also something much more important.




Books in Review: Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões.
Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.
– George Gershwin

Imagine trying to describe a colour. Orange. What mix of words could give a blind man an idea of what orange looks like? Now take music. Yeah you could say it’s a bunch of sounds that feel good to hear, but that’s a cop-out, to put it mildly.

Boris Vian’s not alone in having tried to pin the feel of jazz music down on the page. F. Scott Fitzergerald’s got Tales of the Jazz Age and Toni Morrison had Jazz, but Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (translated: Froth on the Daydream) — reckoned to be his masterpiece and recognized as one of France’s greatest 20th century novels — does something special by both being all about jazz and nothing about it at the same time.

For a start, this is not story about music at all really. There’s a thousand and one references to jazz in the book, with characters obsessed with it and dancing to it all the way through, but strictly speaking it’s about two pairs of couples, how they fall in love and how things go wrong in them and around them. The book’s main character, Colin, has a deceptively simple story to tell: he wants to be in love, falls in love and then has to fight to keep his love alive when she falls ill.

But even writing that down, there’s so much of the book that’s being missed. The style here is light, warm and violent. Think Tom and Jerry, where frothy conversations about dating are interrupted by ice skaters slamming into the nearby walls, and it’s typical to lay the table with knife, spoon, fork and catapult. It’s full of completely irrelevant detail, such as step-by-step descriptions of recipes or technical explanations of dancing styles, and a lot of the dialogue toes the line between innocence (no one has sex, they just blushingly share a bad) and knowing. Like when Colin describes Isis,

She was pretty. But Colin knew her parents very well.

The friendly onslaught of distracting little details is oddly fitting. One of the things that makes jazz jazz is that it’s always feels fresh and improvised, even when the sound’s been machine-tooled tireless. How can you keep that improvised, scatty and warm feeling alive on the page? Words don’t improvise.

Vian’s tack here is both to keep the reader constantly caught off guard. You’re not meant to get all the jokes or all the descriptions or all the detail, in the same way that you shouldn’t be picking out each note a saxophonist is playing. If you stop to notice on your first read that all of the women at one time or another wear the same clothes (yellow skirt, white top), you’ll have lost the rhythm.

But at the same time, the writing wants to be noticed, with many description beats, like on the first page where Colin combs his hair: “his amber hairbrush divided the silky bulk into long orange lines, like the farrows that the happy worker draws with a fork in apricot jam”. A mix of pushing forward without needing to stop to take it all in, just enjoy what you immediately enjoy, and slowing down into well written beauty.

On top of this, the universe itself is a world of happy and unhappy coincidence rather than following some masterplan. As Colin goes from stoned happy in the first half of the book to desperate and depressed in the second, everything changes. His luxurious and spacious flat becomes an ever-shrinking maze of corridors, sunlight can no longer get in and the tiles are covered in black soot. Emotions are everything here: cook Nicola literally ages 10 years in 6 months just because Colin is unhappy, in a way that’s both naive and hard. In L’Écume, emotions and tone are all consuming, much like the state you’re in when listening to music: when you’re in you’re never in halfway.

And it’s this line that L’Écume treads so well – the same line jazz runs along: deep melancholy and who-cares frivolity. The love story itself is made fun of, Colin falls in love with Chloé after deciding he wants to fall in love and after being taught some new dance moves to music “in the style of Chloé as arranged by Duke Ellington”. The characters aren’t meant to be real. But it’s also devastating when the novel central tragedy strikes – that all too real feeling of an unjust world that takes away as easily as it gives, and of people trying as hard as they can to be happy despite it.

One of Vian’s best inventions in L’Écume is the pianocktail: a piano that creates cocktails based on the song you play. As Colin’s friend Chick plays “Loveless Love”, a blues song by W.C. Handy, their exchange neatly captures the spirit of the age:

“I was worried,” said Colin, “at one point you played a false note, luckily it fitted the harmony.”

“It takes the harmony into account?” said Chick.

“Not at all,” replied Colin. “That would be too complicated. It’s just there are a few constraints. Drink and come eat.”




Words & Music: Joshua Idehen of Benin City

Photo by Zach Den Adel (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Zach Den Adel (copied from Flickr)

The first ‘song’ I ever wrote was ‘Baby.’ Inverted commas because a) everyone else does, the fools, and b) it’s got a verse, a chorus, and a second verse and chorus and a bridge and final chorus, so I guess it must be a song. Except, to me, it’s a poem. Of course it’s a poem. It’s a poem with sing-y bits. And a sing-y chorus. And a bridge. All my ‘songs’ are poems.

I feel this way because I’m a poet. It’s how I started; I got into poetry because I didn’t think I could sing and at the time, the idea of being a Hip Hop artist in the UK was like, lol, UK Hip Hop sucks, yo. I know better now, but for my money (not a lot of course cuz, lol, I’m a poet) nothing gives you as much control over your art as poetry. All you need is words, and something you want to say. How you choose to say it, what conventions you want to employ, is up to you: free verse, spoken word, blank verse, limerick, rap, prose… and even ‘song,’ or as I call it: poem with sing-y bits. I say it’s up to you when really it’s up to the bloody poem; Baby, for example, came to life as a chorus one night, in between a Gods of War 3 session and listening to the next door neighbours argue over who cares the least. Lovers being mean to each other for what seemed like hours, with me on the other side of the wall, asking why, eh? “Why You’d Have To Be So Cruel?” Voila.

I craft most of my sing-y poems like the normal, less sing-y ones: start with a line I really, really like, which will probably make the chorus and determine the narrative/mood of the piece and expand from there. I love to hear and write spoken word with a strong story to them; third person narratives or monologue pieces like Musa Okwonga’s Cooper Chimonda, The Roots’ Return to Innocence Lost, Polarbear’s Jessica, Faithless’ I Want My Family Back and Shane Koyczan’s Crickets Have Arthritis. Nina Simone’s I Cast A Spell On You is probably the most perfect sad love story ever written for my money (again, see first bracket) and you can gleam most of the tale from the chorus and the sucker punch just near the end: “I love you, I love you, I love you anyhow/And I don’t care/ if you don’t want me/ I’m yours right now.” Stories are cool. Why be abstract when you can make sense? (Don’t answer that).

Writing poetry, you learn to observe the conventions of whatever style the poem blossoms into and bend them to suit your style: a song does not need a verse and chorus structure but it sure as hell helps everyone else go oh look I see he’s written a song. Brevity: generally between three to five mins long else you are being indulgent/genius and sometimes it’s too hard to tell which is which and besides why are you writing poetry if you’re writing pieces longer than five mins anyway mate go write a short story you fake (although I do often write very wordy, rhythmic verses in all of my sing-y poems). You also become a real snob towards clichés, you hate adverbs, avoid adjectives ‘til there is no other word you can use, and you develop a taste for the most unique, unusual rhymes and imagery you can think up: For Baby, I spent a day staring at a blank page before, eureka! I decided my fictional couple were going to have a near-breakup at a kebab joint, because no one else had done that as far as I know. Oh, and her smile was crooked, because crooked smiles are rarely called beautiful so I will.

You may not have guessed, but honestly I’m pretty still much winging it as far as songwriting goes, and I could even say the same for poetry. I write things that connect with folk and when I sing people don’t scatter for the mines so it’s going well so far I guess. One day I’ll write a proper song, not a sing-y poem. Or maybe I’m good where I am. I dunno.




Boston Tattoo

Tattoo You
Tattoo You

I sat on Boston’s shoulders, fists pumping in the sun, near enough to be sprayed by Mick Jagger’s sweat. The pounding bass shook my chest, five-foot high speakers bursting ear drums. Looking across the crowd I saw other girls on shoulders, buoys swaying above the body sea. We echoed one another: long hair, dangling earrings, Jagger’s lips and tongue t-shirts. Boston’s blonde head nodded to the beat between my thighs, his hands holding me steady. I floated, exceeding the fantasy I’d rehearsed ahead of my bedroom mirror countless times. Boston had been a stranger that morning, but in one afternoon he had transformed me from the quiet Roman Catholic school girl to a free-spirited Rock Chick.

The Rolling Stones saved the summer of 1981. Newly legal for work at 16, I started waitressing as soon as school break began. My gal pals and I had spent the last few months planning night barbeques on the beach and seeing countless movies together. With regular wages and tips stacking up, I burst with summer plans. Yet, repeated rounds of phone calls yielded nothing. Every movie had been, or was about to be, seen with a boyfriend. Each proposed adventure had to be left open-ended “in case he calls.” As the only one in our group running solo that summer, the girls adopted a sympathetic tone with me. I stopped calling and drowned myself in music.

That August when the Stones released Tattoo You, I rushed to buy the LP as soon as it dropped. Excitement had been building since the band announced a world tour. With school starting at the beginning of September, I wanted to be an expert on the album. Perhaps I could reclaim a place within the girlfriend circle. Dancing ahead of my bedroom mirror, I sang ‘Start Me Up’ into a hairbrush, gyrating my hips, making Jagger faces. My rendition of ‘Waiting on a Friend’ had a sobbing accompaniment each time I played the track; lyrics articulating my summer of abandonment.

In September, neutralised by our green herringbone skirts, crisp blouses and knee high socks, the girl gang returned to an easy school day rhythm. Despite my lack of boyfriend knowledge, they accepted me as the resident music expert. They launched a campaign to fix me up with one of the males in our class that they traded between them. A single candidate offered to take me out, on the promise of a real date with one of the other girls. I feigned indifference, telling my friends that well-scrubbed boys from the right families had no appeal for me. After a summer of staring at album covers and music magazines, I craved unkempt layered hair, cigarettes hanging from mouth corners, electric guitars bouncing off hips. Alone in my room, watching glossy vinyl discs spin on the turntable, I imagined myself at dim grunge clubs or stadium concerts. A bass player or singer catching my eye, security ushering me backstage.

One morning the school campus buzzed as students exchanged the huge news – the Rolling Stones would play one San Francisco date in October, tickets on sale from 10am. A few dared to ditch class, disappearing in their Mustangs and Corvettes to stand in line downtown. By the time the final bell rang, whispers filled the halls that the concert sold out in a couple of hours. Staring out the window on the bus ride home, I didn’t join in the usual girl chatter.

After my stop, I walked up the house steps with concrete feet and a hanging head. My mother opened the door with her usual smile, but didn’t ask about my day. A hand on my shoulder, she guided me to the breakfast room table. Four royal blue tickets lay fanned out, red lips and tongues exposed, a row of luminous white teeth glimmering on each. I screamed and hugged her tighter than I had in years. My middle-aged mother had heard about the concert on the early morning news, driving to a sketchy part of town to stand in line in her sensible brown shoes and matching handbag. I pictured her making the purchase, the seller categorising her as a Rolling Stones anomaly. Grabbing the phone I called my best friends, three screaming phone calls later, Tattoo You blared out of my room for the rest of the evening.

I had an elite status at school for the rest of the week, my three besties hanging on my arms as we walked the halls. We were The Ones, The Ones With Tickets. Friday afternoon my wave crashed. The Stones added a second date with tickets going on sale Saturday morning. Sunday night the phone rang, each friend in turn gushing the same tale – the boyfriend taking them to the second concert, but they were sure I’d find someone else. By Monday I was The One With Three Extra Tickets. And they were wrong; no one wanted to go with me.

As the concert date crept closer, guilt weighed on two friends, each offering up an older brother. I knew Jay and Louis on sight, but had exchanged little more than single word greetings with them. Jay had a friend who’d take the last ticket and the four of us could go together. In their early 20s, they seemed a lifetime away from me, but desperate to go and with no other options, I agreed.

The morning of the concert, I borrowed my older sister’s chandelier earrings (an approved request) and applied her mascara and eyeliner (braving her wrath). Completing my look, I wore a tight camisole and jeans that I had to lie down in to get zipped. I slipped on a sweatshirt to get past my mother and waited by the front window. My pulse hammered. Mentally I practised light banter. With the lawn mower sound of Jay’s old grey Beetle filling the street, I shot up, bolting out the front door before the horn’s second beep. Louis, already in the back, nodded as I slipped in beside him.

Jay looked around the headrest. “We’ll just pick up my friend Boston and then head across the Bay Bridge. There’s a bus to Candlestick Park from the parking lots by the piers.”

“Boston? That’s his name?” My voice sounded squeaky, not the sexy drawl I had planned to use for the day.

“That’s the name he goes by.” Jay revved the engine and turned towards the highway.

Jay’s friend lived in an off-limits part of the city. Passing houses with peeling paint and cars parked at odd angles on front lawns, I curled into a corner of the Beetle, scalp tingling. Jay pulled into a driveway, stopping ahead of a house garage now converted into an apartment. My eyes darted around the neighbourhood, glad Jay had left the engine running. After four beeps, Boston sauntered out – tall and muscular with long blonde hair hanging loose around his shoulders. I wiped damp palms against my jeans.

He slid into the front passenger seat, the Beetle felt smaller. Twisting, he surveyed Louis and me in the back. As Jay reversed out of the driveway, he tossed out our names like he was dealing cards. The three of us nodded in unison. Boston stared at me, unblinking ocean eyes. A black alligator tooth-shaped earring hung from his left ear, below it I spied a raised neck scar, thin and white. I looked down at my hands.

“You the kid whose mom scored the tickets?” A deep timbre, softer than I expected.

“Yeah.”

“Cool, thanks. It’ll be a good time.”

I glanced up at him and he winked.

Jay cleared his throat, tilting his chin. “You got the stuff?”

Boston patted the front pocket of his worn jeans. “Primo.”

Parked by the piers, Jay popped open the front of the Beetle. He hauled out a heavy rucksack, slinging it over one shoulder. The four of us joined the crowd at the bus stop, an excited jumble forming a loose line. I distributed the tickets. Jay and Louis had paid earlier through their sisters. Boston pulled a thick roll of green bills from his pocket, removed a rubber band and peeled off several notes handing them to me. The boys talked together over my head. I regretted my flat sneakers and 5’2” height. Craning around the boys hips, I saw several kissing couples making intimate use of the wait. Despite the foggy chill, I took off my baggy sweatshirt, tying it around my hips and fluffed my hair.

The bus dropped us at Candlestick Park and we shuffled along the security line. They pulled out bottles from Jay’s bag, all plastic and gave the ok. A burly officer jerked his thumb at Boston, moving him to a corner for a full pat down. The rest of us stood on the other side of the gate waiting. I peered through the chain link mentally flipping through Mrs. Alvarez’s Drug Awareness class slides. When the search yielded two fatties, a lighter and a roach clip, security handed them back and waved him through. With a rush, I released the breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding.

The sun broke through the fog, welcome warmth on my bare arms, chest and back. At a t-shirt stand, Boston turned to me.

“Do you want one?” He gestured to rows of concert t-shirts.

I looked through my lashes and smiled. “Yeah, ok. I’ve got money.”

One hand on my arm, Boston pushed his way to the front. “Which one do you want?” he said.

I pointed to a men’s sleeveless with the Tattoo You album cover on the front. Boston shook his head and pointed to a tight woman’s short sleeve with the iconic lips and tongue in red sequins. I bit my lip and nodded. Purchase made, I smoothed it on over my camisole, removing wrinkles as it clung to every curve. He stepped back and swirled one finger, asking me to do a circle. “Yeah kid, lots of sun. You were going to fry.” He gave my back a pat.

We settled into our seats, Boston indicated I should sit between him and Jay. Ant-sized people moved across the playing field below, congregating near the front. Even at this distance the stage appeared massive. Giant cartoon cut-outs of a guitar, car and record in primary colours stood against tall purple walls. When the J. Geils Band, the first warm-up, hit the stage people were still flowing in. I tapped my foot to Centerfold, singing nana-nananana under my breath. Jay passed bottles among our group, crossing my lap over and back. I shook my head at each offer. By the end of their set, the sun had burned off the fog. My top and jeans were sticky with sweat. When Jay’s large Coke bottle came round again, I took a swig, sweet then burning running my throat. Several quick swallows and Boston leaned over to pull the bottle out my grip. “Slow it down,” he said into my ear. Louis, on his own supplies, had entered another zone.

I watched the roadies change out guitars on the stage, their ghost movements like time delay photos. My muscles loosened. I slumped back in my plastic stadium seat with a permanent grin. George Thorogood and The Destroyers hit the stage to weak cheers, but soon had the crowd swaying to their blues rhythm. I wiggled my shoulders, shook my legs, but didn’t stand up. A smoke haze drifted around us, the air filling with a pungent skunk smell. An encore and George Thorogood and The Destroyers left, filler music blasted out during the set change. Jay and Boston stood up.

“Time to make a move,” Jay said. “We’re going down.” He pointed to the packed field.

“What?” Even in my muddled state, I had a clear vision of myself alone, lost in a drug crazed crowd. “I, I don’t…”

Jay and Boston nudged me along, Louis stumbling behind us. When we reached the field, a wall of concert goers blocked our way. Boston took my hand, holding me behind him and elbowed a path towards the front. Keeping my head down, I scrambled to keep up. Jay and Louis followed us. In my peripheral vision, flashes of colour streamed by. A mix of sweat, alcohol, vomit and weed clogged my nose. The ground became slick and muddy under my sneakers. Two hands grabbed my left foot and I fell to my knees, giving Boston’s hand a sharp tug. Without letting go, he turned and lifted me to my feet. “My shoe!” I looked down and saw one sneaker and one white sock. Laughing, a guy with dazed eyes rolled on the grass next to me, folding my sneaker into his arms like a football. Boston kicked the thief’s side. “Give it back man.” Another kick and it tumbled onto the grass.

Like Cinderella, I balanced with a hand on his shoulder while Boston replaced my sneaker. He gathered his hair into a bunch on one side and patted his back. “Time for you to be a koala.” I scrambled onto his back, arms around his neck, his hands supporting my thighs at his waist. Boston continued to push forward through the crowd, my legs and feet buffeting torsos and arms. I kept my chin against his back, peering over a shoulder. His hair had a sweet, tropical fruit smell. The scent made me think of a shampoo ad, the user having a climactic moment in the shower. I stifled a laugh. Boston’s t-shirt slid down as we moved, revealing a cracked heart tattoo on the back of his neck.

He stopped, releasing my legs and I slid down to stand on the grass. Bodies pushed in from all sides, my view blocked by waists and shoulders. His blonde hair a beacon, I grabbed a fist full of Boston’s t-shirt. He pulled me around to stand ahead of him, holding me against his chest, his arms blocking off other contact. Moments later the crowd erupted and I heard the opening notes of ‘Under My Thumb’. Boston squatted, lifting me onto his shoulders.

I blinked, emerging from body shadows into sunshine, swaying above thousands of multicoloured heads. At my level, other girls also danced on male shoulders, while some guys waved inflatable sex dolls instead. Jumping and pumping, bodies bounced. My body shook and tingled, on impulse I finger-tipped a drum roll onto Boston’s head.

There they were – the Rolling Stones: Jagger, Richards, Wood, Wyman, Watts.

Mick Jagger stomped around the stage in tight white pants with navy kneepads and white knee high socks. I bounced to ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, sang the ‘Beast of Burden’ chorus into Boston’s ear, dripped tears through ‘Waiting on a Friend’.

Shirtless Jagger continued a non-stop strut, his hair hanging in damp strands by ‘Brown Sugar’, chest glistening. Boston drummed the beat on my thighs, swinging his head forward and back. I drifted immersed in the music, the magic, snapping my fingers, waving my hands. As the band played on, Jagger disappeared, emerging in a Union Jack and Stars and Stripes flag cape. He swirled and spun, a kaleidoscope of colours. They transitioned into ‘Satisfaction’. I shouted the chorus along with the rest of the stadium. Dropping the cape, Jagger sprinted onto the catwalk next to us. Twisting, hips swivelling, he dropped to his knees, for a second our eyes met. I screamed, a shiver travelling down my spine.

Dun-da, dadadadadadadada, dun-da, dadadadadadadada. ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Keith Richards and Ronnie Woods front and centre, axes burning chords, they leaned back against each other. Jagger swung out over our heads in a cherry picker, thousands of hands reaching to him and the sky. White balloons filled the air, fireworks burst overhead. Screams drowned the final notes.

Boston held me aloft the entire 26 song set. Swinging me down after the final encore, I hugged him – squealing, jumping like an over wound bunny toy. Fuelled by adrenaline and alcohol, I hugged Jay and Louis, then Boston again. The four of us pulled into a huddle, holding the moment, reluctant to leave the trampled grass and graveyard of crushed plastic bottles. Giving into the inevitable, we moved towards the exit tunnels. The four of us skirted a few prostrate concert goers. They seemed unaware the music had stopped.

Melding with the crowd waiting for buses, elbows and hips knocked against my head as people jostled for position. Boston grabbed my hand, clearing a path. The four of us reached the front. Mounted police encircled us, their boots at my eye level. Pushed from behind, I stumbled, Boston catching me before I fell into a police horse flank. Bus after bus arrived. Each time the crowd surged forward, fighting to get through the doorway. I watched the compressed horde squeeze in, a hot and sticky lava flow filling the bus within seconds.

Boston turned to Jay and Louis. “Next bus we put her in the middle and push her on.” Hands on my shoulders, he said to me, “Don’t worry about us, we’ll get on, you just go, ok?” I swallowed and nodded. The bus doors opened and my feet left the ground. I lost track of arms and heads, caught in a churning current of people. Bench seats already full, I stood in the middle of the bus unsure how I landed and wrapping my arms around the nearest pole. The three guys appeared a few minutes later, red faced and clothes askew. Reviewing the nearest seats, Boston targeted a skinny teenage boy. He reached out, grabbing the boy’s arm. “Give the lady a seat.” The teenager scrambled to obey.

Conversation filled the Beetle during the drive back home to Oakland. Together we relived each note, each move. What the band did, what the crowd did in response. Every nerve alive, words spilled out of me. I squeezed their arms and shoulders. We sang Rolling Stones tunes, out of pitch, a few words out of order, but in harmony with each other. Jay parked ahead of my house, conversation ebbing away. Boston hopped out, flipping the seat forward, offering me his hand. On the curb, I leaned back into the Beetle saying my good-byes. Boston walked me up the steps. He tucked a strand of my hair behind one ear and smiled. “You’re going to have them eating out of your hand Chicka.” I wished for him to lean forward, wanting to feel his breath on my face. Instead, he lifted my right hand and kissed the back of it. A wink and he disappeared down the steps. The image inked into my memory.




Words of Silk

Photo by Cassandra Panayiotopoulos (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Cassandra Panayiotopoulos (copied from Flickr)

Before me stands a man, dressed in a grey suit, no tie. But before we get to the man, between us stand hundreds of people, maybe thousands with all the ones behind me too. He sometimes shouts, he’s sometimes soft with his words, so carefully chosen. Thought behind every action, sentence, word, emphasis. His slicked back hair, his black shirt and his serious cockiness combine with a speech that just feeds the drip that everyone around me raises their arms for. More, give us more, we’ll never be satisfied, never stop. We scream and beg, order and demand, plead and grovel over a simple thing, not all too different from you or me. So why do we do these things? Why do we flock at his request, and feverishly discuss arguably trivial things outside cold buildings? We wear our colours and chant for our idols, we play their words so loud people can’t help but listen. We force our passions onto others, and is that fair? Shouldn’t we just revel in our own bliss, after all, we chose this lifestyle, it isn’t our decision if others would like to join us. Leave them be, or let them know in an unforceful manner, let them decide. Not everyone is born with the fire burning in their hearts, with the fuse running down to their legs, their arms, their mouths. We scream and we wave our arms and we dance with our mad feet. We move in time with the pendulum of his voice and we shout our affections as if competing with the rest of the crowd. We pour our souls out whilst he basks in our applause, giving a simple thanks at our sacrifice.




The Jigs and the Reels

Photo by Scott Thompson (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Scott Thompson (copied from Flickr)

We met every Thursday, around eight. Joe always arrived first, a muddy work boot on the footrail beneath the bar, an elbow on the wooden counter.

True to form, he was there when I walked in. “Just in time,” he said, smacking me on the back before making his way to the table by the fire. He’d have been standing there a good ten minutes, chatting up the barmaid and claiming the thirst hadn’t hit him yet.

The girl behind the bar was new. Probably one of Donal’s nieces, they grew up so fast. Dark hair, look of mischief in the eyes. Reminded me of someone. She selected a proper branded glass for the Guinness, angled it perfectly for the pour, stopped the tap before the final stretch to let it stand. A man could settle down with a woman like that.

“I’ll bring them over,” she said, handing me the change.

“Right-o,” I said, avoiding her eyes.

Joe’s fiddle was already out of its case and lying on the table. “I suppose Peter isn’t coming?” he said, scratching his beard.

“No. Daughter’s in hospital again.”

“Poor bastard.”

“It’s operable, so he said.” It was hard to make it sound optimistic. He’d had an awful run of bad luck, the poor fella. We’d miss him bashing the hell out of the bodhran, driving us forward, but he had more important things to worry about than keeping us in time.

The barmaid brought the pints. “Now,” she said, bending down to place them gently on the table.

“Will you look at that: perfect,” said Joe, staring where he shouldn’t be. “Perfect now.”

She didn’t seem to notice. Occupational hazard. Plus she’d be the sober one come closing time, looking at the shower of eejits in the corner.

“Ahhhh… that’s taken the edge off.” Half of Joe’s pint was gone before I’d barely picked up my glass. He’d make the other half last though, until those pub doors swung open again.

“That’s a one, isn’t it?” he said, nodding to the bar. “Studying to be a teacher. Could teach her a few lessons.”

“Keep your voice down -”

“Ah, she loves it. Loves it, she does.”

“You don’t even know her.”

“Sure amn’t I after talking to her for the past twenty minutes, waiting for you to turn up and put your hand in your pocket for once? Ah now – look who it isn’t.”

“What’ll it be, fellas?” It was Martin with his battered old flute case. Joe quickly downed the rest of his pint.

“Not for me, Martin,” I said.

“Just one for the big man, so.” He made his way to the counter. Martin taught chemistry at the local college. He’d have won the egg-and-spoon race at the sports day, only he’d taken a dive at the last moment so Miss Byrne from Drama could sail through the tape. Liz was her name; they’d been enjoying a bit of mild flirting in the staffroom. News travelled fast in a small town.

“What are you waiting for? A spotlight?” said Joe to me. “Our audience awaits.”

He swept his hand across the room, taking in the three souls apart from us: Old McCarthy sitting at the end of the bar, head bowed to his whiskey glass, possibly asleep; and a middle-aged couple sitting straight-backed by the far window in matching wind-cheaters. Hill walkers they were, aka The Lesser-Spotted Tourist, not seen much round these parts since the arse fell out of the economy.

It was hardly Croke Park we were playing to, but that wasn’t the point. You didn’t play an Irish session for other people; you played it for yourself, for the hell of it.

“Here we are now,” said Martin with the pints.

“Having a nice chat over there, were you?” said Joe. “She’d have brought the pints over.”

“Ah sure there’s no harm in being sociable,” said Martin.

“How’s the missus?” said Joe with a wink.

“At home with the kids. How’s yours?”

Helen had left Joe twelve months back; nobody quite knew why. Probably for his being an annoying old bollix.

“All right, all right,” said Joe. “There’s no need for any Drama… not outside school hours anyway, wha?” He picked up his pint.

Martin was about to say something but stopped himself. He clicked open his case and took out the flute.

I opened my own case. I’d had the guitar since I was fifteen, back when I saw it as my passport out of here. It was funny if you thought about it long enough.

“Oh, here he comes,” said Joe, nodding to the door and reaching for his pint.

“Brendan,” I said.

“Fellas. Same again?” He slipped off his jacket. Real Italian leather; he’d shown me the silk lining at the football.

“Ah sure I could squeeze another one in,” said Joe, placing a half-empty glass on the table. “Where’s the accordion?”

Brendan froze. “Ah sure haven’t I left it in the back of the Jag,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “I’ll get it in a minute.”

He nodded to the barmaid. She nodded back. Brendan was the kind of man who didn’t need to approach the bar. He was all right, Brendan, despite the money and him being my boss and everything. Owned three hotels within twenty miles, had women chasing him every which way. Hence the two divorces.

“So, shall we play this anyways or what?” said Martin, slapping his hands together. “Go out there Brendan and bring that old squeezebox in.”

“How about the Listowel Set?” I said.

“Sure why do we always start with a fast one?” said Joe. “Whatever happened to warming up?”

“You’re warmed up enough,” said Martin, pointing to the empty glasses.

When Brendan returned he started us off with a few silky notes on the accordion and we all jumped on the wagon. We always stuck to the upbeat tunes – the jigs and the reels; none of those sad songs the old fellas sing.

Joe, contrary to behaviour, was an excellent fiddle player. It was as though he forgot who he was when he played. By halfway through the first jig, he was leading the melody like a wise old Sherpa, guiding us through the landscape of the tune, adding grace notes here and there that caught us by surprise and made us smile with the sheer joy of it.

Martin was a demon on the flute, the notes flowing like a freshwater stream through your ears. Maybe that’s what enchanted the fragrant Miss Byrne from Drama. I could picture Martin playing for her, him sitting on the edge of the assembly hall stage perhaps, legs dangling over the edge, her trying to look casual on a grey plastic chair.

I envied Martin his lovely wife, his family, his house, his bit of female attention. And sure what had I? Knocking around my late father’s cottage like a snooker ball that can’t find a pocket.

I looked over at Brendan: his fingers were skipping over the accordion keys, washing the sound with colour. He had a serene look on his face that you couldn’t buy with money.

As for me, I was just trying to keep up. My rhythm guitar was the backbone now that Peter’s bodhran wasn’t here to keep us in line. Sure I wasn’t a great player at all. I was workmanlike, much the same as when doing odd jobs for Brendan in the hotels. Jack of all trades. Master of nothing.

Connor had been the talented one, the school friend I’d played songs with years ago – a real acoustic duo – before he left for London on his own, with just a guitar on his back and the address of a cousin in his pocket. I often wondered where he’d ended up. Far from here, anyways.

After a few minutes we were in full flow and began to lose ourselves. To the naked eye we were just four fellas sitting around a table, but the naked eye can play tricks. We were magicking ourselves out of this town through the music, galloping away over the hills, the wind at our backs, pushing ourselves out of our skins, further and further until, slowly, the gentle but insistent pull of the melody coaxed us back to the beginning again, to home, like a baby placed gently back in its cradle.

No wonder we came here every Thursday.

After near enough two hours of playing we stopped, exhausted. We were about to pack up when Old McCarthy cleared his throat and began singing from the other end of the bar.

“Black is the colour of my true love’s hair.
Her lips are like some roses fair…”

“Ah jaysus not this auld song,” said Joe.

“Leave him now,” said Brendan.

“She has the sweetest smile and the gentlest hands
And I love the ground whereon she stands…”

McCarthy’s voice had started off shaky but grew more determined with every word.

“I go to the Clyde and I mourn and weep
For satisfied I ne’er can be…”

We sat there, trying not to listen to the words. McCarthy stared at his empty glass as he sang, as if the face of his Maggie would appear at the bottom.

“I write her a letter, just a few short lines
And suffer death a thousand times…”

When he reached the end of the song, he closed his mouth and continued to stare at the glass.

“Good man yourself,” said Brendan.

I drained the last of my Guinness. No one was in the mood for any more talk.

“I’ll be off, so,” said Martin.

“Right enough,” said Brendan.

In the car park we went our separate ways. I opened the car door and placed the guitar case on the passenger seat. Some company that was. I wished the lads had piled into the back. We would go to mine, light the fire, open a new bottle, play until dawn. Cheating the darkness.

Connor was the lucky one all right. I was supposed to go with him, to London, but I got cold feet at the last minute, didn’t turn up for the ferry.

It’s surprising how slowly a boat leaves a dock. It just creeps forward, bit by bit, as if waiting for someone who is late to just leap on: come on, hurry, you can still make it…

I’d watched immobile from the cliffs, observing the future pulling slowly away, just as I’d watched a coach rolling out of the bus station a few years later, a dark-haired woman crying on the back seat.

The lamps inside the pub were going off one by one. McCarthy stood in the doorway, hopeful for a lift back to his lodgings.

“Come on, so,” I said.

We drove in silence, except for me asking if he wanted to come in for a nip of brandy as we approached the cottage. He nodded his head. Sure I couldn’t open the bottle alone.




The B is for the Blues

Photo by Brett Jordan (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Brett Jordan (copied from Flickr)

As the bellows trundle back and forth something deep within gives a muffled squeak. The inappropriately named Mexican orderly, Angel, says he’ll get an engineer to fix it. But I don’t mind – it’s reassuring, the noise reminding me that the device is doing its job – the filling and emptying of my lifeless lungs.

Angel tells me that the iron lung breathed for its previous occupant, one of the last of the Polio victims, for 40 years straight. He expects me to take comfort in this antique’s steadfast operation, but the flipside is that surely whoever it was also died in it, and it already resembles a coffin too closely for my liking. People walking past my door do a double take at the sight of it, and stop and stare. One middle-aged daughter uses it to chide her wheelchair-bound mother, pointing at the monstrous museum piece, warning of the dangers of a continued nicotine habit. But my seven coffin nails did not have filter tips, they had copper jackets.

Besides deflating my lungs like burst balloons, one of these – intended for my skull perhaps – shattered my jaw in five places, rendering speech, and positive ventilation, impossible. And so here I lie; a miracle of survival, waiting for an organ donor to bequeath his lungs, waiting for an album to go platinum to make sure I am first in line to receive them.

Angel, not put off by the fact that my jaw is wired together, asks me what I do – or rather, what I did. I type my reply, watching the small TV screen that shows my fingers hovering over the keyboard – there is no other way to see what my disembodied limbs within the steel frame are doing. I tell him I was a music producer. He glances around the tastefully decorated private room and excitedly asks if I produced anyone famous, eager for the reflected glory that looking after a big-shot might bring. I tell him – Johnny B Halkin – and he looks disappointed. I type – “The dude on death row?” and his smile returns. “Ah! I hear ‘bout him. Hear ‘bout him lots. Next Monday, yeah?”

I give him a small nod.

The orderly pauses in the doorway. “What does the B stand for?” he asks. But he’s too far away from the screen to see, so I don’t bother typing a reply. I merely raise my eyebrows, a shrug without the shoulders.

There are many things I changed about Johnny; his name is probably the least interesting of them. Without me, he wouldn’t have been a blues player at all. I still don’t know why he came to me, maybe mine was the first sign he saw. And I doubt he read past the top two lines: James MacCracken, Music Producer and Agent. He certainly didn’t read the name of the studio, “Blues all the Way”, because he sat there, twanging his cheap guitar, singing some frothy country pop.

As he strummed the final chord, a goofy grin on his face, like a dog that’d just done a good trick and was expecting a prize, I thought, do I throw the kid a bone?

I handed him my Gibson. “Slow it down some. Sing it as a song about happiness long gone, a song of bitter remembrance. And try a slide or two.”

He frowned. “Gee, Mr MacCracken,” – I kid you not – he said it just like that. “Gee Mr MacCracken, I’d rather play my own guitar.”

I patted the old maple wood body. “This here is the best blues guitar in the world, the favoured instrument of both Chuck Berry and BB King. If the devil meets you at the crossroads and offers a trade, and it isn’t one of these, he ain’t playing straight. This one belonged to Duanne Allman himself. John Lee Hooker once picked it up, struck a few chords, and declared it admirable. So I guess it might be good enough for you.”

His face was a blank – he hadn’t recognised a single name I’d said, and I’d just name-checked four of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. I came this close to giving up on the rube. He shrugged and plucked each string in turn, and then began to play.

Well. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it wasn’t the blues and it wasn’t all that much better than the first time. He struggled to play at the slower tempo, he sure as hell didn’t know how to slide, and still he wore that goofy grin.

I was just about done for the day, so I told him if he didn’t mind waiting around a half hour, I’d buy him a drink and offer him some free advice. He didn’t mind, and wandered around the studio looking at the signed portraits and framed gig posters.

To be honest, I was all ready to give him the gentle brush-off. To tell him his music, competent though it was, wasn’t going to create any waves in this city, suggest he got a proper job, or went home, or whatever his plan B was. But before I even had the chance, he started on his life story. He told me about the little town he grew up in, the eleventh birthday gift of a guitar, but mainly about his childhood sweetheart, Mary.

It was her who’d packed him off to the big city to make or break it as a musician. The deal was, if he made it, then she’d join him, if not, then he’d go home, work on her folks’ farm. “No Regrets” was their motto, and either way, they’d be back together in six months time, married in nine, and boy did he smile when he told me that.

That was when it all fell into place. This dumb ox of a farm boy, his life was a straight and narrow road stretching into a rosy future. Even him being there with me in this seedy little bar, at three in the afternoon, was just an exciting adventure, something to tell the kids when they were big enough to sit on his knee, his one act of youthful rebellion. No wonder he played with such a grin.

If I was to produce blues music from this wet-behind-the-ears kid, I’d have to produce the blues. No regrets? Blues is the sound of regret, the song of loss. If I had to buy him a dog, and then shoot it, I would. You couldn’t miss what you’d never had, so I’d give him a taste of success, money, fame, and then somehow contrive to whisk it all away. The first and most important thing to go though, was the one thing he already had – his homecoming queen, Mary.

I was figuring on this being a long term project. Ten years, maybe. Introduce him to the bottle, get him clean, relapse. Get his heart broken, have him break a few hearts in return. All the while playing the small bars, the low dives, honing his skills.

You could say that I exceeded my wildest dreams, because in the end it only took eighteen months. I’m still not entirely sure where I went wrong. It had been going so well – I got him a support act or two at some of the smaller venues, and I even lined him up for a city sponsored music festival, a week or so after the six month deadline expired.

I should have known he’d want to invite Mary. But that was, I thought, a good thing. He’d be all gushing with excitement, and she’d see it for what it was – an unpaid ten minute slot in the slow middle of the afternoon.

Afterwards, still high on his biggest audience to date, Johnny introduced me to Mary. She looked at me shrewdly, and I knew I was in for a hard time. I pitched it carefully, listing the gigs he had coming up, mentioning a favourable review in the local listing magazine, and then spoilt it somewhat by saying that many blues players take years to become established, and by that measure, Johnny was doing pretty well already.

“And whose idea was it to play the blues?” she said, nailing me with an icy stare.

It didn’t help, and it wasn’t supposed to, that the studio flat I’d found for Johnny to live in was in a rough part of town, even less that it was directly over a cathouse. So of course Johnny didn’t want her staying with him, and of course he got flustered trying to explain why. I offered them the use of my place, but Mary decided she’d get the late greyhound back instead. Their parting was far from romantic. “Three months.” she said coldly. “You’ve got three months and then you’ll have to start looking for a new bride.”

That was the night that the brothel madam made good her promise to tell me if Johnny ever availed himself of their services.

So yeah, I thought everything was going just fine. I already had plans for that three month extension, ways I could use Johnny’s moral slip to drive the wedge irreparably between them.

I never got the chance. The big galoot ‘fessed up. He was all for running back to Mary to try and salvage the relationship. “Leave her to cool down,” I advised. “Send her some flowers. Besides, you’re playing JoJo’s on Thursday, and I hear it’s sold out.”

That was the first gig that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, the first time he played the blues as they were meant to be played. Finally, we were getting somewhere, and I made tentative noises that we ought to record a few tracks, test the waters.

So it was a shock to open the door to the studio a few evenings later, expecting Johnny, to find Mary with a semi-automatic grasped in both hands. She didn’t wait for my protest, for my appeal for mercy, and everything after that I’ve had to piece together from the police reports and the trial.

Seven times she shot me. I wonder if she heard the thundering on the stairs as she turned the gun on herself? Johnny arrived too late, but soon enough to take full responsibility for what had happened. First degree murder and attempted murder – the death penalty was a foregone conclusion.

The kicker, the twist in the tale, was the music loving judge who heard Johnny’s half-recorded demo tracks, and decided that he should be allowed to record an album on death row, as long as the proceeds were split between a gun-crime charity and his victims – namely, Mary’s folks, and myself.

I still wonder, when I listen to the achingly plaintive riffs and stripped down, almost mumbled lyrics, what exactly Mary found out. And whether, when she confronted me in the doorway to my recording studio, something in the expression in my face told her it was all true, and sealed the fate for the three of us.

If my coma hadn’t lasted as long as it did, if that last shot hadn’t shattered my jaw, if there hadn’t been a delay in fitting the keyboard inside the iron lung, or even if the lawyer hadn’t played me the first cut of the award winning prison album and asked me what I thought, then I might have told the cops who really shot me, might have saved Johnny from prison, and the dark cloud over him might have had the faintest traces of a silver lining.

Even so, I’m still kind of hoping for a stay of execution, and a second album. But it seems unlikely, since Johnny refuses to support an appeal. As Johnny would tell you himself, “Everyone knows the B is for the blues. And the blues are a bitch.”




After the Gold Rush

After the Gold Rush
After the Gold Rush

I am sitting on the floor by the record player, trying to select a track from an LP. Minutes have elapsed as I’ve tried to tee up the stylus to land exactly on the quiet part of the record between the ending of one track and the beginning of the next. I raise my eyes to stare at a blank space on the wall and wonder what this part of the record is called, and whether it could be said to belong more to the preceding or the subsequent track. I’m convinced the thing must have a name, but I accept, at this point in the evening, this word is destined to elude me.

I don’t remember when we took the last of the pills, but I checked all my pockets and my wallet and I definitely don’t have any more, so now we’re back at my house to drink some beer, Jen and me. From the living room I can see her in the kitchen mustering the willpower to yank open the fridge door.

“There should be a few bottles of Budvar in there somewhere,” I say.

Jen leans against the fridge, like the knowledge of the effort required to break the rubber seal on the door is a burden to her. She turns to me. “What’re you putting on?”

“Do you like Neil Young?”

“I think we did him in a philosophy lecture.”

“Neil Young? The singer?”

“Maybe it was someone else? I think his name was Young though. Whoever it was, he invented the ‘collective unconscious’?”

“The what?”

“I dunno exactly. It’s about how all of us, whatever background or culture we’re from, dream the same kind of dreams. The same kind of images recur. It means that we’ve all got this thing in common. We’re connected by these images. Archetypes, that’s what they’re called.” She looks over at me, like it is my turn to say something. I’m trying to think about what she’s said, but I’m not sure I’ve completely got hold of it. “So, it’s a nice theory. That we’re all linked.”

“Yeah. That is nice,” I say. And it does sound nice, but at the same time I can’t quite take it on board. It isn’t the time to be wrestling with profundity.

She heaves and the door swings open to the clinking and tinkling of glass. Her smooth legs and bare feet are washed in the fridge’s sickly white light. She starts to nod her head, her mind latching on to the sound of the glass jars and bottles and the rhythmic electrical hum of the fridge motor, as if this music is real. She stops and looks at her feet. “Do you know what happened to my trainers?”

“What do they look like?”

“Dunlop Green Flash.”

“When did you last see them?”

“I don’t know, I was wearing them when I got to the club, I think.”

“They don’t let you in without shoes. Not even girls can get in without shoes.”

“Did I have them when I came out of the club?”

“Dunno.”

I gaze at the blank stretch of wall and try to piece the night together. I met Jerry after work and we went for a few beers in The Victoria, then we hit some bars around town, just going from one to another, trying to find one that we even vaguely liked or in which we felt comfortable, or like we belonged. That must have been when we started drinking shots. Then we took some of the pills I’d bought earlier that day, which I was supposed to be saving to sell to Jerry’s mates at university. Then we went to The Underground. That was where I met Jen. She asked me if I knew where she could get pills. I sorted her out and we got talking. She was easy to talk to. Then again, the way I was feeling I would have found Helen Keller a good conversationalist. I don’t remember what we talked about. We got a cab back to Jerry’s house and he passed out after a bong. I borrowed his car to drive back to my house, with Jen, for beers. I remembered driving Jerry’s old Golf and feeling totally at one with the car, like my heart and lungs were under the bonnet.

“You must have left them at Jerry’s,” I say.

“Jerry’s?”

“The bong casualty.”

“Bollocks,” says Jen, in a way that makes me think she must do this kind of thing all the time.

Jen finds the bottles of Budvar and lifts them out, bumping the fridge door closed with her hip. Her motor skills don’t seem to be functioning very well as she tries to use the bottle opener, experimenting with it, this way and that, in endlessly confounding permutations, before the top finally pops off with a gasp. She pops the second bottle top without any trouble.

I turn back to the record player. My hands can’t make the tiny, refined movements that are required for the delicate procedure of lifting the stylus into place. My brain is still wired up to a different location and a different set of circumstances.

Jen joins me on the floor by the record player. We clink and drink from the bottles. I push the arm on the record player and the needle drops to the vinyl, missing the opening bars and skipping straight into the first verse of ‘After the Gold Rush’.

“I know this,” says Jen. “My boyfriend likes this.”

So, she has a boyfriend. At least he has decent taste in music. I look at Jen watching the record revolving on the turntable and wonder what she looks like with no clothes on. This thought goes as quickly as it had come. We don’t say anything for a while.

“Did I not say I had a boyfriend?”

“You skipped that,” I say.

Jen shrugs. It isn’t clear to me what the shrug might mean. If it is a meaningful shrug at all. For a while neither of us says anything, then she says, “Do you ever do things that you know are wrong but you do them anyway?”

“Doesn’t everyone?” I’m aware this conversation could lead in a number of directions, or nowhere much at all.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure I know why other people act the way they do. Do you?” Her eyes drift in thought, head cocked. I just watch her and we both seem stuck in a moment. “Where did I leave my trainers?” And the moment is over.

“Jerry’s. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“We’ll drive back over there. I’ll have to give Jerry his car back anyway.”

We fall asleep, curled up on the sofa, listening to records. Nothing happens and when we wake a few hours later it is mid-morning.

“Best get back to Jerry’s and find your trainers,” I say.

It has been a cold night and now it’s started to rain. It is a special Sunday morning sort of rain, the kind that washes away colours and makes everything feel second-hand and shitty. I lend Jen a pair of wellies. They look good on her.

The wipers on Jerry’s car give a squeak on each journey across the windowpane. As a boy, sitting with my mum on draughty buses, I was transfixed by the windscreen wipers. In my childish imagination they seemed like two prize fighters perpetually sizing each other up, without ever coming to blows.

At Jerry’s house he is watching Taxi Driver for the umpteenth time. It’s his favourite film. He does a very good Travis Bickle, if you’ve not heard it a thousand times already. Jen hasn’t heard his Bickle before and laughs. Really laughs; bent over double and clutching her sides laughter. It dawns on me how attractive she is, and I wish she didn’t have a boyfriend and that our night together had turned out differently. We look everywhere, but we can’t find the trainers, so I tell her she can keep the wellies and I’ll drive her home.

She lives on the other side of town and we have to take the ring road, passing all the new boxy retail developments, whose car parks are in permanent flux between being full and empty, without ever quite attaining either state. I start to feel very down. I wonder whether depression is caused by an absence of good, healthy feelings, or a surfeit of dark, unpleasant ones.

I notice the atmosphere in the car has changed too. It’s as if each of us is aware that our time together is nearly over and whatever connection we might have had is withering, and will soon be severed entirely. It’s a weird feeling, and I wonder if she really is feeling like this too, or if that’s just how I’d like her to be feeling.

Jen’s checking her eyes in the vanity mirror. Her pupils are still dilated and she’s got that blank, pillhead look about her. I massage my jaw, the skin rubbery and alien.

She asks me to drop her off at the corner of her street and there’s an awkward moment, punctuated by the squeak of the wiper blades, where we’re not sure what the situation is calling for: a kiss, a hug, a handshake, or some words? What words?

“You better have these back,” Jen tries to slip off the wellies, but they’re stuck. She tugs at them, yanking her foot up over the dashboard, slumping low into her seat.

“Have them,” I say.

“Thanks,” she says and touches my hand which is resting on the gear stick. “See ya.”

“See ya.”

I watch her running through the rain in my wellies and wonder again what she might look like naked. Suddenly, she’s rushing back toward the car, jerking the door open.

“Karl Jung!”

“Eh?”

“Karl Jung!” she says. “The collective unconscious! Remember?”

“I had a feeling it wasn’t Neil Young,” I say.

We shrug at each other and then she’s off again, her wellies making indistinct footprints on the tarmac for an instant before the rain washes them away. And she’s gone. I put the car in gear and head back out into the teeming ring road traffic.

Jerry quizzes me about Jen and what happened. When he asks why I didn’t sleep with her I tell him that she has a boyfriend and Jerry gives me a look. I’m not sure why I didn’t sleep with her when I had the chance, but somehow I’m glad that I didn’t. I don’t tell Jerry this.

He drops me off at my house and I get a bottle of Budvar from the fridge. I cue up a record and sit down on the sofa, casting my eyes around the room. In the corner, by the television, are Jen’s Dunlop Green Flash, heels together, toes touching the skirting board. There’s the sound of the needle hitting and riding over the grooves of the vinyl for a second or two, then the plaintive piano intro of ‘After the Gold Rush’ comes over the speakers. I take a drink and for a moment I’m thinking about the end of things; how certain things come to an end and how new things begin. Endlessly. I can’t hold on to the thought though, and soon I’m thinking about something else, something different.




Words & Music: Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff

The Wonder Stuff Diaries
The Wonder Stuff Diaries

I’m mildly ashamed to admit that I was a late starter when it came to reading of my own volition. Perhaps something to do with the choices that school made for us in those latter years of English literature classes. I still can’t get on with Shakespeare, much to my Father’s annoyance.

By the time I was forging my way out into the world on my own, and during the first couple of years of The Wonder Stuff’s existence, I made the acquaintance of journalist James Brown who gifted me a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office. I read it in one sitting and have since never been without a book, of one sort or another, at my side.

I had tried to make my way through Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers before reading Post Office, somewhat unsuccessfully I might add, but still managed to pilfer a couple of lines for a song I wrote for the band’s second album, HUP, called ‘Let’s Be Other People’. It’s true to say that in times of scant inspiration to pen lyrics of my own I have been guilty of taking a lead from a variety of writers that I’ve read. Much better than swiping the odd line from other bands’ lyrics I find, less chance of getting caught!

I’m happy to say that in more recent years this isn’t a practice that I have continued with. Bukowski once said that nobody should publish their written material until they have passed the age of forty, as prior to that age they have little of importance worth saying. This notion has partially proved true of my own lyric writing.

As travelling has played a major part in my life I have always taken pleasure in reading travel books, Bill Bryson and Charlie Connelly being two of my favourites. I even got hooked on crime novelist Lawrence Block for a while, just because he is always so precise about the Manhattan addresses where the crimes take place in his books. I like to put myself on the streets he mentions.

I’m big on autobiographical writers too, not celebrities seeking another chance to earn, but writers with real stories to tell. Dave Eggers, David Sedaris and Pete Hamill are three that loom large. Looking at those names I think it’s fair to say that my tastes tends to lean toward North American writers, I hadn’t really noticed that about myself previously. Again, that may well have something to do with the sense of adventure I feel when touring with the band in that part of the world.

The book that has accompanied me absolutely everywhere is Howard Devoto’s collected lyrics, It Only Looked As If It Hurt. He’s the lead singer of the favourite band of my youth, Magazine. I’m always in lyric-writing mode and his work has always been inspirational to me. I don’t carry it around anymore though, I met him a couple of years ago and he signed it for me, it is now far too precious an item to risk losing on my travels.

I’ve just finished my own book, it is based on my diaries that I kept since the beginning of the band, simply titled The Wonder Stuff Diaries, ‘86 – ‘89. I’m self-publishing in October this year. While I freely admit it’s no rival to Kenneth Williams’ diaries I still think there’s a fair few people out there who will get a kick out of the stories.

Miles Hunt will be appearing at the Latitude Festival on Thursday 17 July, at the Literary Arena. For more on Latitude – including Litro’s own events at this year’s festival – click here.




Book Review: Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson

CarlWilsonOriginally released in 2007 as a standalone entry in the perennially well regarded 33 1/3rd series, Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love was an overdue conversation about taste, snobbery, and the parts of the human race whose opinions are often left out of cultural dialogue. Employing the recorded output of the never fashionable Celine Dion as a jumping-off point, Wilson’s journey into why we like the things we like was released to the warmest of reviews and is expanded here to include contributions from the likes of James Franco, Nick Hornby, Sukhdev Sandhu and Ann Powers.

In Wilson’s central piece, Dion is a figure who becomes more sympathetic the more context she is provided. Far from the theatrical brand of diva showboating that shades-in-the-day clad music critics sneer over, she’s cast here as an heiress to a long tradition of French-Canadian chanteuses. She’s shown as a scrapper from a large, poor family, and as one of those rare and miraculous child stars who has managed to avoid the pitfalls and breakdowns that plague this particular breed of celebrity. Wilson skilfully twists some of the most malignant and repetitive criticisms aimed at Celine to show the classism that lies at their root. It’s an ugly impulse that allows the intelligentsia to blithely dismiss wide swathes of humanity based on the music that brings them pleasure or to dismiss that music because of its listeners. The author sets out on his quest to try and find something to enjoy in the eponymous album, best known for containing the song that soundtracked the sinking of the Titanic, in order to get closer to this often dismissed population.

In Quebec, Dion was a cultural fact you could bear with grudging amusement — a horror show, but our horror show — until Titanic overturned all proportion and Dion’s ululating tonsils dilated to swallow the world.

An interesting question raised in the book is the idea of what “subversive” means now that rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks adverts for very expensive cars. What’s cool is what is distanced, what’s artificial. We react against schmaltz and sentimentality because they are naked and embarrassingly, emotionally, truthful. As the book goes on, we gain poignant glimpses into the writer’s own emotional life, as he recovers from a divorce, and feels lonely out of his element in a glitzy Las Vegas showroom and just about able to meet Dion on her own terms. Even in his pursuit for empathy, though, he isn’t above a cheap shot at the expense of Phil Collins’ “Groovy Kind of Love” – which might read as hypocritical to some, but  strikes me as a man still getting his house in order.

The media landscape has sped away from the book’s original background in the seven short years since its original publication. Print media’s death rattle and the ascendence of blogs and online voices mean that a consensus “cool” opinion on an artist and their work is most likely extinct. That “cool” opinion is something that Wilson recognises as pervasive and unhealthy. We judge ourselves and the world we form around us, he says, and then let that image shape how we live out the consumer aspects of our lives. Wilson is a witty and perceptive writer and the best parts of his book spring from his questioning his own ingrained biases which gently nudge the reader to do likewise. This is a humanist book from the outset, immediately veering away from the cheap jeers at the expense of people the writer doesn’t deign to understand yet. His prose is highly readable, accessible when talking about the likes of Immanuel Kant, but avoids appearing hollow next to the quotes from these long dead philosophers.

I remember being at sound-system dances and hearing everyone from Bob Marley Kenny Rogers (yes, Kenny Rogers) to Sade to Yellowman to Beenie Man being blasted at top volume while the crowd danced and drank up a storm. But once the selector… began to play a Celine Dion song, the crowd went buck wild and some people started firing shots in the air.

This year’s reissue of Love adds thirteen extraneous essays of varying qualities that continue the conversation. Krist Novoselic’s in particular is an exercise in essayistic cliches (any writer quoting The Who’s “meet the new boss – same as the old boss!” in 2014 is moving in worlds of lackadaisical mundanity), while Ann Powers offers up a trenchant and moving piece about femininity’s application in taste. It’s better to consider these additions as mere diverting bonus features, because as little as they add, the 2007 original easily deserved this victory lap of a Criterion edition.




Words & Music: Eddie Argos on Just William

Just William
Just William

“Which books have most inspired you?” is quite a difficult question to answer, especially as any question about books inevitably makes me want to prove to people that I’m an emotionally deep and complex intellectual.

So, when asked, my first thoughts – I’m ashamed to admit – were not what books have most inspired me, but more – what books would look most impressive to cite as an influence on a website about literature?

I looked at the question and then looked at my book shelf and briefly considered writing about how I became a frontman of a band due to my love of poetry more than my love of music. I planned to list all the poets that have inspired me: John Cooper Clarke, John Hegley, Billy Childish and I even thought about throwing in John Donne (who I love) right at the end, claiming him as my biggest influence (this is in no way true, I just thought it would be a funny assertion to make).

Even with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, claiming I’d been entirely inspired by poets seemed a bit much, I couldn’t bring myself to write it down. I also realised that it wasn’t strictly true either, there is a much bigger influence on me than those poets and that influence is, unfortunately, not going to make me look very intellectual at all.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn my real name isn’t Eddie Argos. Eddie Argos was originally a character invented by my younger brother to cheer my Dad up on long train journeys over the course of a year when he’d lost his driving licence. My brother’s Eddie Argos was a ROCKSTAR who got so over excited he would slide across the stage on his knees, miss the microphone entirely and never get to sing. I was sixteen at the time and had just started being in bands myself. Hearing my brother tell these stories I thought Eddie Argos was the greatest name for a singer I’d ever heard and I decided to take it for my own. From that day forward I became Eddie Argos.

I had to make a few minor adjustments to his creation of course, I wouldn’t have become the INCREDIBLY SUCCESSFUL singer I am today if I was forever sliding across stages on my knees not quite managing to sing into a microphone.

When David Bowie created his alter ego Ziggy Stardust he made him a bisexual alien rock superstar messiah figure. When I created this new Eddie Argos I envisioned him as a grown-up version of William Brown from the Just William stories.

William Brown is an always well intentioned, but also quite mischievous, schoolboy created by Richmal Crompton. The first book (Just William) was released in 1922 and Richmal Crompton carried on writing them until she died in 1970. If you haven’t read them you really should, and I’m honestly not saying this next thing in an attempt to sound like an intellectual, or to compensate for recommending what are essentially children’s stories – but, in my opinion, Just William stands shoulder to shoulder with the writings of any other respected humourist on my book shelf. At times it even gives Saki a run for his money when it comes to creating uproarious laughter from me.

I first discovered the William books one summer at my grandparents’ house. I was 12 years old and read the three or four collections they had over and over again. I ended up reading them every summer I was there and eventually added to the collection with my own purchases from the local charity shops. The William stories are always set in the decade that they were written in, so if Richmal wrote the book in 1968 the story was set in 1968; however, William never ages, he is 11 in 1922 and still 11 in the last book published in 1970. While, when read as a whole, this gives a fascinating insight into how family and village life changed over the course of the 48 years Richmal was writing the books, once you feel you’ve taken William on as a friend it gets a little frustrating. I would have loved to been able to read stories about William as a teenager or as a grown up. I used to spend my summers at my grandparents’ day dreaming, and writing my own stories about who he’d become.

So when I was creating myself as Eddie Argos, I think these half-thought-out William stories from my youth drifted back into my mind. William was brave, especially when there was a pretty girl involved, indignant about always being right, even when he was wrong – sometimes especially when he was wrong – charismatic, daring, always on the lookout for a fun new adventure and most of all a massive show off, often getting into trouble to try and impress his peers. William would most definitely have become the front man of a band and was certainly the lead singer I wanted to be.

I should point out here that it was William’s exuberant misbehaviour that inspired me, not his writing skills – although whoever is sub-editing this may disagree.

So, it turns out, the answer to “which books have most inspired you?” is the William Brown series of books by Richmal Crompton. I’ve based my entire personality on what that funny little 11 year old may have become had he been allowed to grow up.

Because I know there are only 39 books in the series, and I want there to be a ‘new’ one for me to read for as long as possible, I’ve held off buying all of them on eBay and still only buy them when I see them in charity shops or second hand book shops. I’m always on the lookout for William and The Pop Singer (released 1965), as deep down inside, even though I know it couldn’t possibly be true, I’m hoping he ends up writing a song called ‘Formed A Band’.