keats


 

FLannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

Peacocks, crutches, a Byzantine Christ: when we think of Flannery O’Connor, whose dark, Bible Belt American brilliance surpasses William Faulkner’s, we need things on which to peg our thinking. Flannery herself hardly seems to exist at all. Her life, as any reader of Brad Gooch’s recent, measured biography will tell you, is short on dramatic incident:  no sojourns on other continents; no sex to speak of; no alcoholism or addiction; no mental breakdowns. In short, all the standard fare you might expect in a mid-century writer’s life-history (think Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Berryman etc) is conspicuous by its absence. In its stead is a relatively brief narrative comprising three main strands: aesthetic endeavour (or should I say struggle); the fight against Lupus, the auto-immune illness that killed her, aged 39; and her methodical and theologically driven Catholicism, always symbolized for me by the tattoo of a Byzantine Christ her character Parker decides to have etched on his back, like a giant stigmata-cum-icon, in her late, masterly story ‘Parker’s Back.’ Peacocks, crutches, and Christ; the emblems of a life.

Not much to go on, perhaps. But from those meagre materials came the peacock beauty of her first novel, Wise Blood. A weird perfection radiates from every page. Nothing about the protagonist, Hazel Motes, usually referred to as Haze, fits together. Nothing is likeable. He is emotionally skewered and skewed; a loveless old man in a twentysomething body. Yet I dare anyone to look away from the sour spectacle he presents. We stare at him, like gawping children, from the first page to the last. This is how O’Connor introduces Motes in the opening paragraph of her novel.

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the farthest edge of the woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn’t think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.

Humour, beauty, sexual disgust and suicidal despair are all in the lovely, fluid onrush of prose. Above all, there is movement. Read O’Connor and you wade into a river, where the writing feels as if it has the molecular structure of water. And like water, her prose has the ability to absorb all the taints and tints of the glorious, brutal world she describes. It happens through her knack of seeing every element as if contained within every other element. The trees seem to move away and not the train. The hogs are stones, the fat woman’s legs are pears, and later in the chapter Haze is described as having a nose ‘like a shrike’s bill.’ Haze is a bird-man, but with eyes ‘the color of pecan shells,’ he is food and hardness and emptiness too. His suit is alive and electric with anger, a ‘glaring blue’, but with the price tag ‘still stapled on the sleeve of it’ he seems like a beast going off to market or a slave or a mannequin. He is botched, odious and oddly beautiful.

O’Connor is like this. What Keats would have called her ‘poetical character’ is so complete that not only does her personality seem to have vanished into her work, the Thomist theology which fuelled her prose is also consumed within it, leaving no trace. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s iceberg, ‘it saves itself perpetually,’ cutting its facets from within. Parker cannot see his tattoo of Christ without the use of two mirrors, and the tattooist forces him to look at the bloody, newly-etched image. In this moment, art and deity are indistinguishable and become a burden and an affliction. For Flannery O’Connor, the skin and the flesh see and bear as much as the eye.

 

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‘You’ve made a blog…Clever boy! Next: flushing.’

Don Paterson

Blog. Such an unattractive word, along with its unlovely sister, blogroll, but perhaps appropriate enough for the secretions that make their way onto many websites. Blogs range from the quirky and literate to the downright loopy– why are so many religious fundamentalists dedicated bloggers? Perhaps the blog offers a kind of virtual pulpit for creationists and other types of religious eejit, a pulpit where crackpot ideas are more often affirmed than challenged.  As a ‘blogger’ (ugh, I wish those scare quotes were a pair of tweezers) I wish that the name for writing one’s thoughts down in the form of an electronic essay, available for the public to read on demand, had been better chosen. The French do it more elegantly, or they are trying to: the boys on the burning deck of  the Académie Française want the French to call blogs ‘jouebs’ whilst their French-Canadian camarades prefer ‘blogue.’ (1) The Canadian option is suave, the French is naughty and intellectual–it sounds as though it was invented by the shade of Roland Barthes, fascinated in the afterlife by le plaisir de la toile, the pleasure of the net–‘joueb’ being short for ‘un journal web.’ At least with with ‘joueb’ there are playful connotations (jouer) rather than scatalogical ones.

‘Joueb’ is a word I’m tempted to adopt here not least because it chimes with the serious play I wanted to be in evidence on The Casket. When I began, I did not imagine that this would be the kind of web log of events and feelings, the boring blogtease in evidence on so many sites. Instead, I wanted a more formal version of a writer’s notebook. The Casket is a room for improvised observations; for ‘working without really doing it,’ as Elizabeth Bishop once described letter-writing; or, for the bonsai or capsule essay. I wanted it to be the sort of place where William Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson and the other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century essayists might want to kick their shoes off and sit down, alongside– in conversation and play with–other modern idlers, punks and thinking wastrels. Guy Garvey has a chinwag with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; John Keats plays pingpong with Nick Cave; that sort of thing.

That’s the Dream bit. The reality of writing here is always tempered by that toile of readers, and the ways in which you suspect you are being read. WordPress provide the blogger with stats, raw data, which give an insight into possible clusters of interest: the fans of Dude Lebowski often stumble here because of my Clive James piece, which happens to mention him; college kids, I guess, writing about F Scott Fitzgerald, stop by to read my comments on Tender is the Night. Nick Cave fans, Leonard Cohen fans drop in for some duende. But most readers are text-tourists, looking for something else. Search terms tell me that what they are looking for is often information about ‘people in caskets’ or ‘dreams of dead people in caskets’ or ‘images of virile beautiful men’ (that will be the Rufus Sewell essay I wrote when I first started). Occasionally, I now get searches directed at ‘Casket of Dreams’ itself, which is flattering, but generally, most Casketeers arrive here in some kind of hurry; possibly bewildered, but always wanting the answer to a question.

On the whole, I’m glad they do show up. This despite the fact that the feedback they leave is seldom edifying. Comments by readers are usually pretty useless:  the flatterers  usually want you to visit their joueb in return; the nitpickers are equally self-important (‘How dare you assert that The Arctic Monkeys are talented self-publicists?’  with best wishes from their manager, etc). Yet how long do my visitors stay, and what do they flick through, what consider? My stats cannot, thankfully, tell me that. Still, whether you are looking for images of the dead in caskets, or whether you want to think about saudade or negative capability, you’re welcome. F. Scott Fitzgerald is sobering up next door in in time for the final of scriptwriters’ pingpong, where he meets William Faulkner in the Hollywood grudge match of the century. Mark Rothko is talking primitivism and abstraction with Elizabeth Bishop over a glass of grog by the fire. So stop awhile. Put your feet up. The weather is drawing in, and in any case, there is plenty we have to catch up on.

(1)http://www.petiteanglaise.com/archives/2004/11/08/french-blogging-vocab/

‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’ There. Are there any more perfect lines in all of pop music’s history? I almost don’t need to write about them or the song they come from. I could simply instruct you to sit and contemplate their beauty ‘until ye start as if the sea-nymphs quired.’ That would be enough. But as Guy Garvey, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang and many others have found, Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece is just too delicious to be left at that. It’s a song that not only aches to be listened to, but aches to be understood and enthused over.

Hallelujah’s depth was all too apparent to me from the moment I came across it for the first time: Jeff Buckley’s superlative, fierce and tender rendering, heard on a compilation tape my now husband made for me back in the first few weeks of our relationship. I don’t remember any of the other songs on that tape. All I remember is ‘Hallelujah.’ Consider that I was in love then like I hadn’t been before. Consider that I might have been especially vulnerable at that moment. But even so, the song’s power was so extreme that there is only one possible explanation for it: duende.

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’  I heard those lines and began to weep; they cracked me open and broke me. A secret chord? Of course there is such a thing. The idea seemed so powerful because I had always suspected that a ‘secret chord’ existed. In other words, Cohen perfectly articulated an idea I had only ever dumbly sensed: that the beauty of music could be so profound that even God would react to it as I just had: the omnipotent one wouldn’t be able to help it. But there’s more. Actually, what Cohen is suggesting is not just the existence of the secret chord, but also the necessity for the singer or poet to pursue that secret and find it out, no matter what the cost (it’s a ‘broken’ hallelujah after all). The chord is not just a mesmerising possibility but a way of life. Buckley knew that: he lost his life in pursuit of musical purity and intensity. Lang knows it in the way she sings that pronoun ‘she’ in the line ‘she cut your hair.’ She knows the erotic passion and the loss involved, but also the weight of queer history: the song, too, is allowing her to sing of her love for women in such a nakedly erotic way that it it feels like a historical release–from all the secrecy and suffering that used to be involved in being gay. She isn’t singing merely for herself here. In her hands ‘Hallelujah’ becomes the ‘I Have a Dream’ of queer politics.

Lang knows what other great interpreters of ‘Hallelujah’ know: he song is a call to arms, a way and a liberation. Leonard Cohen is a lucky, lucky man that such a song arose in him. And any singer of real duende is lucky when they take on this song, because it will release in them a trueness and sweetness that feels like a pinnacle and a blessing to singer and audience alike.

A link to Buckley’s version is included below.

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=AratTMGrHaQ

 If Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso’ sees you without eyes, then the life and death masks of Keats touch you without ‘living hands.’ The mouth, so wide and fleshy, seems capable of kissing you, or of whispering in your ear. The eyelashes, so shockingly visible, pierce you (all Keats’s glances and depth-charge stares are contained beneath the bulbous lids like poems; these eyes are still, somehow, palpating life). The cupped philtrum, the wispy, fine hairline look tantalisingly warm, like a live body is warm and like Keats once said the stubble fields at Winchester looked warm. (1) How to distinguish between these life and death masks? The life mask is an arrow: the face propels itself, Hyperion-like, into Odes and Epics. The death mask’s sunken features are the ripples a stone makes when dropped into deep water (think of the letters here; ‘negative capability’ enacted, ‘uncertainties, mysteries and doubts’ deepening into an agony of the unsayable ). A voyage out and a journey back, the masks show us a Keats the ground of whose being was death and the apprehension of death.

1) See Keats’s letter to J.H. Reynolds of Autumn 1819

‘The term [dude] is used mainly in situations in which a speaker takes a stance of solidarity or camaraderie, but crucially in a nonchalant […] manner. Dude indexes a stance of effortlessness.’ Scott F. Kiesling  (1)

‘Meestah Cliiiiiiive Yaaaaames.’ With those feather boa tones, Margarita Pracatan used to introduce Clive James on his television show some years back. Like a good many of my friends in sixth form, my first introduction to James was watching Clive James on Television. My friends and I tuned in, not so much for the international TV clips, but for what he used to say about them. Later, after his defection to the BBC, I used to make a point of watching Margarita, Vitaly Vitalyev, P. J. O’ Rourke and others being coaxed into giving up the very best of their wit to a T.V. audience by the outrageously twinkly Australian. James wasn’t so much a TV presenter as a cultivator of personalities. He nurtured his guests like an expert gardener might lovingly provide the right conditions in which some rare, delicate orchid could flower. Back in the sixth-form common room, during ‘frees’ when when we should have been writing essays on Hamlet, we would discuss the previous week’s guests and TV clips, laugh over the best jokes and feel a little bit more intelligent as we retold them, even though we couldn’t hope to imitate the composure of Mr James’s delivery. Clive James, my friends and I thought, was a dude.

‘Dude’ is, at first sight, a grossly inappropriate word to apply to someone who, as long as I can remember, has been cuddly and decidedly avuncular. ‘Dude’ is a word that seems to belong in Bill and Ted  or The Big Lebowski. It is a word that acts as punctuation in the speech of Bart Simpson. It doesn’t, at first glance, fit the meta-articulate James at all. But I mean the word in two very particular senses. Firstly, it’s a ‘street’ way of expressing admiration for a person, and in particular, their masculinity. The kids I teach often use the word in this way, boys sometimes greeting each other with ‘Yo! Dude!’ It’s a way for boys to say ‘I love you’ to their male friends without the other kids questioning their sexuality. The kind of masculinity these kids admire, however, is ‘gangsta.’ James’s masculinity couldn’t be more different. His wit is powerful but never violent, affectionate and yet unsentimental and undeceived. He’s a ‘dude’ not because of his swagger (he couldn’t swagger if he tried) but because of his genius for camaraderie and the seemingly effortless grace with which he writes and speaks. He is also a ‘dude’ because he is able to speak of everything from ‘the street’ up to the Sistine Chapel ceiling and beyond. Recently, his unmissable Radio 4 ‘A Point of View’ show encompassed Amy Winehouse and Snoop Dogg, but he can write just as movingly on Auden or Roland Barthes.

Above: ‘Dude’ Lebowski being…a dude.

James’s Protean intellect makes him a dude in a much more archaic sense too. A dude was originally a New York aesthete, possessed of certain fastidious and refined sensibilities, a lover of beauty and truth. James’s whole career has been a defense of this old-fashioned worldview, but with one critical difference from the aesthetes of old: they were fond of championing art for art’s sake. James loves art for life’s sake. For him, to borrow from Blake, ‘everything that lives is holy.’

But Keatsian? Like ‘dude’ this is an honorary title, but perhaps even more of an apparently unlikely appellation. Or so it seems, unless you’ve had the chance to make more than a superficial acquaintance with the life and works of the early-nineteenth century poet. Keats had a reputation until relatively recently for being a rather fey, dreamy, wistful type. In the popular imagination he was rather feminine. (3) But as recent scholarship (most notably Nicholas Roe’s) has shown, Keats is tougher and far more politically engaged than was previously thought. Keats’s problem was his image. His was what he termed a ‘poetical character,’ delighting in whatever persona he created. He himself felt he was a thing of nothing. His friends (among them, Shelley) and enemies alike couldn’t bear this slipperiness and nothingness of spirit and tried to cast him as ‘piss-a-bed’ poet (Byron) or the wan and wounded Adonais (Shelley). Anything but that ‘poetical character’ Keats felt himself to be.

Clive James hasn’t had the extremes of critical response endured by Keats; he’s not consumptive; and has proven himself magnificently capable of avoiding early death.  However, I’d like to suggest a couple of gentle affinities. James is a little marginalised these days, the default Keatsian position (why isn’t he on BBC4 and ITV simultaneously,  being at once erudite and populist as is his gift?). In addition, his writing has a ‘poetical character’ to it: his TV criticism, his essays, his poems, his comic ‘to camera’ pieces, reveal a delight in Iagos and Imogens alike– all of that work fed by the Keatsian wellspring of permanent, discreet melancholy, beating in every measured word. ‘Where but to think is to be full of sorrow’: surely James’s whole poetical identity (if he has an identity) feeds on the marrow of this axiom.(4)

 Benjamin Haydon’s sketch of Keats for Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.

 

 

1) American Speech, Vol. 79, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 281-305.
http://www.pitt.edu/~kiesling/dude/dude.html

2) Watch James in Clive James on Television and listen with nostalgia for the intelligence and humour with which he dissects ‘Captain Power’ and the singing kiddy evangelists:  http://youtube.com/watch?v=eXf4ZtYsSWg

(3) Given my earlier comments on Rufus Sewell and ‘feminine’ masculinity, I also have a secret soft spot for this Keats, the Keats whom Byron accused of perpetually ‘frigging his imagination’ in verse. Nicholas Roe’s book is John Keats and the Culture of Dissent.

(4) James’s own website has a splendid selection of prose, poetry, audio, video work by James and people whose work he admires. www.clivejames.com

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In The New Theatre Oxford, a run-down art-deco venue with a strange subterrannean bar and eccentric plumbing, I finally saw the light. Like all good conversion experiences, this one wasn’t expected, but was resisted. And when it came it engulfed me: we’re talking annihilation, bliss, negative capability, no ‘me-ness’ whatsoever. One of those.

The cause of this little epiphany? Richard Hawley, a geetarrman with a terribly un-rock’n’roll name,  on tour with his band, and supported by a rather impressive neo-rockabilly combo, Vincent Vincent and the Villains. For the uninitiated, Hawley has managed to pass most of his professional life safely out of the limelight. Formerly a guitarist with the Longpigs and Pulp, Hawley is a man who who failed an audition with Morrissey because his voice was too good and who was overlooked for a Mercury due to the presence on the shortlist of the talented and more noisy and skilfully self-promoting Arctic Monkeys. Hawley, it seems, is a past master at the ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ syndrome. And in today’s climate of rabid, narcissistic capitalism, where only the very young seem to matter, and where success had better come instantly or it can’t be called success at all, Hawley seems especially ‘out of time.’ He’s a slow burn kind of artist, a rockabilly throwback, a northern Elvis–and someone who describes himself on his website as a ‘speccy twat.’  Not the kind of profile that could lend itself to selling mobile phones or ‘designing’ perfume.

I suppose that all this low-key stuff hadn’t made me feel over-excited about Hawley himself. The beginning of our relationship wasn’t especially promising. A friend from work had given me a CD copy of ‘Coles Corner’ as a Christmas present in December 06.  As I’d never heard of Hawley, the CD languished over that festive season in the glove-box of my car, until the time came to do a post-Christmas pilgrimage to the in-laws, and I found myself playing the record whilst driving across the Norfolk fens. My other half wasn’t overly impressed: ‘he’s a bit of a crooner,’ remarked J, in a  tactful expression of mild disapprobation. I could see his point, and yet, even on that first listen I felt that a) crooning wasn’t a bad thing (you’re reading the blog of someone who grew up listening to Sinatra, Crosby, Bennett and their ilk) and b) those melodies! right from the outset they gave me that feeling along my breastbone, that sweet hit of pain…I began to suspect the presence of some serious duende right away. Elation, longing, emptiness. Oh yes.

But it still wasn’t love-yet. For me to fall in love with an artist (and, by the way, if you aren’t totally, madly besotted with the singers and musicians you listen to, what on earth is the bloody point?) I have to test their records to destruction. My car doesn’t possess a CD changer or an MP3 socket, and therefore you can only play one CD at a time. So I have evolved a method of listening to music whereby I play the same CD over and over again when I’m alone in the car, travelling to and from work. It’s a kind of intensive listening not encouraged in ipod culture, but one which has several advantages. If the record’s ok but not a Great record with a capital G, you will tire of it after about 3 listens. But if it is a Great, it will withstand repeated scrutiny: you become greedy for it, and it plays itself in your mind even when it’s not playing. The music possesses you, and the relationship becomes erotic, amorous. The relationship between you and it mutates from the cerebral to the physical. The music is, to steal from Keats, ‘proved upon the pulses.’ Over time, ‘Coles Corner’ crossed this rubicon.

And yet, and yet…There was still something missing. I bought tickets to see Hawley last September, only to find the gig was cancelled and postponed. But I wasn’t gutted as I might have been if this had been, say, a postponed trip to see Nick Cave. Something within me remained to be convinced that he deserved to be up there with Cave in my personal pantheon of musicians. It only became clear why I’d had these reservations (and why they were misplaced) when I arrived at the gig itself and heard Hawley play.

The first bit of excitement came with the choice of supporting band. Vincent Vincent were exciting, literate and incredibly sharp. Quite often when you go to gigs, the support act is some kind of disconnected distraction from the main event. Not here. Vincent Vincent weren’t Hawley identikits, but acted as well-chosen foils to Hawley himself. ‘Hawley likes these guys a lot,’ I found myself thinking. And so when the quiffed and shiny-suited ‘speccy’ one arrived on stage, it felt like a very natural progression, as natural as I imagine it would have felt to see one of those 1950s touring shows featuring Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis all on the same bill.  Except that this wasn’t a show coming out of the Deep South, but the Deep North.

As soon as Hawley opened his mouth to speak I felt immediately at home. Don’t forget that we were sitting in a theatre in Oxford, heartland of England’s establishment, and here were these magnificent Sheffield tones, coupled with the comic timing of a skilled club comedian. OK, so he’s from the wrong side of the Pennines (I’m from Bolton, originally) but I loved him for suddenly taking away the sense of exile I always feel at living in the south. Right from the outset, when he rallied us with the phrase ‘Let’s ballad,’ that draughty, damp old theatre seemed as intimate as Hawley’s front room, so much so that I wanted to have a chat with him between songs. When he apologized for one song, ‘Lady Solitude’, worrying that it might be ‘crap’, I felt I could almost get up out of my seat, walk onto the stage and convince him just how groundless his fears were.

‘Lady Solitude’ was, in fact, the standout moment of the entire gig. It came about half way through, and by the time he played it I felt I had slipped away from myself almost completely. He had begun his set with ‘Valentine,’ and from the first notes, I realised why I’d had a problem with Hawley up until that moment: on record, he had sounded almost too perfect, as if he suffered from that musical disease endemic in the digital age: overproduction. But then I understood: he sounds flawless because that’s the kind of beauty he’s naturally capable of releasing from both voice and guitar. His is not dry, airbrushed studio perfection, you understand, but a kind of loving concentration on the work in hand.

And what work it was! All of it made 500% more sense when played live. The guitar sounds he produced from the extraordinarily lovely-looking instruments he used on stage had ‘conjured soul from body. ‘ Or was it his voice that did this? Who can tell? His voice and whichever guitar he used were a continuum, with the body of the man bridging the two. I was reminded of Benedick’s comment in Much Ado about Nothing:

BENEDICK: Now, divine air! now is his soul ravished! Is it
not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out
of men’s bodies?

Benedick’s talking about the lute+voice effect here, but nevertheless, the comparison still stands for guitar+voice: the experience of being taken by a song, an experience as ancient as song itself, holy and erotic…and this is how I was feeling before he began to play ‘Lady Solitude.’ A few bars in, however, and I was completely gone: silent tears spilled down my face, so many I didn’t bother to try and dry them. This for me is the ultimate gift that any artist of whatever genre can deliver. Very, very few singers have had this effect on me. It’s a response that’s spontaneous, rare and precious, and amounts to a kind of knowledge about the world. As Nick Cave would put it, that knowledge is saudade, the sadness that lives ‘deep down things’ and which only the truly great can access or retrieve in the form of duende, deep song.

So this, really, is a call to arms. For all those that don’t know Hawley, get hold of Lady’s Bridge or Coles Corner and don’t delay. Your life should not be without music like this.  But don’t expect anything flash. This is the hard part: most of what we tend to consider good these days is flash, jump-cut, neon. Instead, give it time, listen intensively. That’s what this ballad thing is all about. Soul. The long haul. Ravishment. History.