byronism


‘I am gone though I am here.’ (Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing).

Yesterday, as normal, I woke ‘with the sparrows’ and ‘[hurried] off to work.’  I taught some kids. I fretted about GCSE coursework folders. I felt sick when I jotted down my ‘to do’ list for the next few days. I ate a banana . I talked about the weekend just gone. But when I taught, fretted, jotted, ate, talked, although I was polite and professional, I was not there at all. Yesterday, much more than is the case on most days, my heart was lost and my soul was elsewhere. I wanted validation, I wanted Love (not love), I just wanted.

All day the experience of the previous evening raced and ached through me like a second pulse. One face, one voice ghosted through the childrens’ and teachers’ faces and voices (picture those Victorian photos of ‘spectres’ where the effect is achieved by two photographic plates being superimposed on each other). The ‘presence’ causing my absent presence yesterday was, of course, Nick Cave, whose Birmingham Academy gig I attended on Monday.

Perhaps, you’re thinking, the intro to this piece is a little overblown. Perhaps it seems that here the violins are just a little too loud in the mix. It’s only a bloody gig, in a sweaty dive at that, with a band of hirsute Australians playing eccentric-sounding musical instruments. Only a gig. But, you see, a gig is never just a gig. It’s a doorway, a fire-starter for the soul. These rock gods, what they do is light the touchpaper and stand back, and most of the time, the flames fizzle out in a day, two days. Or maybe, if the audience-member (or rather communicant) is up to it, is all ears, a different, consuming blaze takes hold.

The opening of the set was certainly explosive. Cave, Ellis et al walked on stage and began with ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters,’ and as they did so it felt like I was under the spell of a crazed preacher as Cave sang ‘get ready to shield yourself’ over and over; an apocalyptic beginning if ever there was one. Unlike the previous gig I had been to (Alexandra Palace, 25 Aug 05), where the venue was lofty and cathedral-like, here the size of the place allowed me to get to within 10 feet of Cave. This meant that, as the band went on to do a suitably ferocious version of ‘Tupelo,’ I found myself able to gaze at Cave’s face and body rather in the way you are supposed to look at Pietas by Michelangelo; with a curiously still and open eye. It’s odd but accurate to speak of stillness here, given Cave’s frenetic movement; during the entire evening, he was only anchored when he briefly sat at the keyboard during the encore, and even then his energy seemed barely contained. But as he raged through his repertoire I drank him in, despite the fact I was dancing at the same time. At all points on Monday night I jumped and wiggled, waved and reached up my hands towards the stage. But at all points I was still. The Bad Seeds’ storm exorcised the storminess in me.

Songs rained down on us in a hurricane. Most of Lazarus got an airing (or rather a thundering) and the tracks I heard are even better (and weirder) live than they are on record. ‘Dig Lazarus Dig,’ for example, is rump-shakingly sexy, and the desire expressed in ‘Lie Down Here’ is alluring but terrifying (oh, the snarl when he sang ‘I’ll build a million of y/ baby/ & every one of them will be mine’). What I’ve heard Cave call Bad Seeds ‘Standards’ were drenching us too: ‘Deanna’, ‘Red Right Hand,’ ‘Get Ready for Love,’ and at every turn that ‘enormous yes’ of the crowd got fatter, sweeter, more abandoned. I was reminded with each tune of the astonishing variety of very very beautiful work this man has produced. Although various punters kept crying out for this song or that, increasingly, I did not care what the band played. Each song had the same manna in it, the same grace.

And as the set stepped up and up in intensity, I also became aware of the face behind Nick Cave’s face: his physiognomy’s weariness and sadness. Yes, as he says, he just wants to move the world, but there’s a paradox in this. The more songs he creates of this quality, and the more people love him, the more they feel they own him. Then, when he doesn’t make a record that sounds like these fans feel he should sound, they’re incredibly let down; ‘moving the world’ also involves such ‘low down bummers.’  They want him to play songs from another band of his — The Birthday Party–(someone asked for ‘Release the Bats’ on Monday and at one point, when there was a glitch with the keyboard, there were so many requests bombarding him that he commented ‘will somebody start the fucking song.’) They want him to be smacked up, rootless, dead. They want him to wreck his life because they haven’t the imagination to wreck their own.  They want him to be immortal, immutable, and, of course, he’s not. He must know that as much as he delights, he must inevitably disappoint. Like every other rock god he’s bound for glory and disintegration. Hence the solitariness that glows in his face, as if his gaze is arriving from light years away. It’s the loneliness of the long-distance singer, one who now has over a quarter-century’s worth of music under his belt, and whose songs are forever slipping out of his fingers and into the souls of his fans. Cave, as he must well know, is inexorably ‘becoming his admirers.’

So much for the state of Cave’s soul. But what might he want in return from those admirers? I’ll hazard a guess that what Cave might need from his audience is the response to art that Rilke said ‘The Archaic Torso of Apollo’ demanded:

 

We cannot know the legendary head

With eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark centre where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of his shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

 

Rilke describes the aliveness of a statue. Its beauty is so powerful that it sees into you, it knows you. It doesn’t judge you, but the work of art makes you judge yourself and know yourself. And in knowing yourself you also feel the work of art’s power to ‘change your life,’ –to change it by loving (‘where procreation flared’) and by creating —something. Rilke’s poem seems to say Cave’s desire too. It’s not so much that Cave seems to want you to ruin your life –but that he wants you to move, to Love (not love), to want, to actually live.

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I am about to write a review for a record that doesn’t exist. White Chalk is the new record by PJ Harvey, and my husband decided to buy it on vinyl. We played it and played it all weekend, thinking ‘this is the strangest thing we’ve ever heard.’ It sounded as though Harvey’s voice was weird, distorted, as though the piano was tinny, wild-west-out-of-tune. ‘Have they slowed her vocal down deliberately?’ we thought. Actually, the sheer strangeness of the sound, given the lyical content of the songs and the Victorian Gothic album cover, seemed perfect. I wrote in an email to a friend that I felt I had been in a dream this weekend, the kind from which you wake up crying ‘without knowing why.’

Actually, of course, the vinyl LP needs to be played at 45rpm, not 33, as we had been doing. Only, there was no indication on any part of the record or sleeve that this was the case. Apart from now feeling rather foolish about the mistake, I’m quite glad of the experience, not least because I haven’t stopped laughing for about the last twenty minutes. But I also feel I managed to somehow access the underbelly of the record: Harvey’s manliness emerged, as did the unbearable sadness and near insanity contained in the songs.

Harvey appears to have mutated now into a Bronte, as her album cover proves: her strange, manly beauty is reminiscent of Charlotte Gainsbourg in Jane Eyre, and the profile shot reminds me of portraits of Emily. That’s why the 33 version of White Chalk seems to show her hand: it’s the nasty dream submerged under the record, the lover mutating into the beloved, destroying herself in the process. It’s Jane becoming Rochester; Cathy becoming Heathcliff; alienated, lonely woman becoming demonic Byronic man.

Oh, and White Chalk at 45 promises to be superb too…

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glodisrufuss.jpg“Wh’T

“What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”
 Susan Sontag
Against Interpretation, 1966

Have you ever seen a movie called ‘Twenty-One’? I would be surprised, even astonished if you had. It was made sometime in the 90s and starred Patsy Kensit at a rather low point in her career. Straight-to-video, it was an English film that aspired to be Alfie told from a woman’s point of view. The only moments I remember are Patsy having a wee whilst delivering a monologue to camera and the sheer presence of a young male actor called Rufus Sewell. He played a lowlife smackhead, and the screenplay gave him very little in the way of memorable dialogue.

 

But his face! Round, enormous eyes that could seem blue, green, even black depending on the force of his expression. One eyelid was slightly lazy, half-closed, which suggested…louche disdain, or perhaps a dark inwardness, cruelty, restraint. But it’s an imperfection that makes the face crackle with life. Without it, he’d simply be a vapid pretty boy. With it, the deliciously feminine eyes acquire depth, wit, mystery.

 

You see the photo above and you see someone who appears a little rugged. Back then, however, his face was heart-shaped, his neck slender. He looked willowy and slight. Yet as is only too clear in recent TV outings, he’s actually tall and physically imposing. Strange then that he appeared to be quite delicate and Keatsian when young. It’s as if that feminine masculinity that Sontag talks about has been eroded or concealed over time. Hollywood doesn’t like it, men’s magazines don’t like it. It’s still subversive even now for a man to look so tantalizingly like a woman.

 

One of the things I do is to teach at secondary school, and I remember, after a fight broke out in a lesson, a conversation I had with one of the miscreants. He was a smooth-skinned, dark haired boy who had large, amost Jayne Mansfieldian lips, who swore ‘I’m straight, I’ve got a girlfriend, but I’ve been bullied for five years because of the way I look.’ In other words, for being pretty. The other boys found him incredibly threatening. It both surprises me and does not surprise me that this kind of male beauty (real male beauty, as Sontag would have it) is perceived in this way.

 

Teaching is one way to understand how prevalent and difficult to root out are gender inequality, homophobia and racism. Prejudice is the big sea you’re battling against when you step into the classroom. So of course, the boys’ reaction to my Byronic student wasn’t really surprising.  But on a personal note, I can’t quite understand how everyone can’t see how erotic Sewell’s kind of male beauty is. Or perhaps people do see, and then look away again. Such beauty disturbs their sense of what gender is: such beauty is not fixed or stable. It’s volatile, inflammatory, disturbing, and ultimately a melancholy thing. You can only know it like you know the air: by its movement, its fluidity.

 

 

Teachinty-One’at is most beautiful in virile men is something