music


Terry Hall, best known as the frontman of 80s groups like The Specials and The Fun Boy Three,  has recently turned up in my mind in the way that buried and unsettling memories, unexpectedly set loose from their time and place, often can. A few days ago I was reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Sebald’s description of Manchester in the 60s was making me think of my earliest memories of visiting the city when– there he was: Terry Hall, with his exquisite sad face, driving through deserted city streets at night with his fellow Specials singing ‘This town is ‘comin’ like  a ghost town.’ Watching the video now I see the humour and the political anger in the song: this was 1981 and Hall’s lyrics are a direct reaction to the high unemployment and hopelessness experienced by a generation in Thatcher’s Britain. But at the time I first watched it, I was 8 years old and along with two other pop videos (Julian Cope and The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’) this was the most frightening thing I had seen on TV. Of course, at 8, you don’t understand the politics of these songs, but you are able to understand desolation, and this was my experience. It was the music and images in these pop videos, especially ‘Ghost Town,’ that gave me my first taste of insomnia and the strange way the mind works when you don’t sleep. In the insomniac state, ordinary things– blackened brickwork, a man lifting a trumpet to his lips, a car swerving as it rattles over broken tarmac and cobbles–are tainted and become more tainted as the images and sounds that frightened you repeat and strengthen themselves. The dark becomes dirtier.

And somehow, Terry Hall’s physical beauty makes all that decay seem worse.  Hall, in 1981, looks like a male Garbo: huge eyes, an almost deathly pallor, a smile that passes, occasionally, like a cloud over his face. The face is sensitive and alert but also somehow mask-like; a living being in a dead world. Watching him, Julian Cope and the Floyd in the early 80s dropped me into another world. The comforting, sugary froth served up by bands like ABC and Duran Duran melted away when you watched and listened to music like this. Life wasn’t men in linen suits cavorting with models on yachts. It was something rainier and sharper and it could be lived more truthfully. Terry Hall both attracted and frightened me: he was political in ways I didn’t understand and was sad and honest in ways that I somehow did. His was the first voice I can remember that sang about life in a minor key. He said a lot in a few words, and quietly.

versus

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‘St John of the Cross, he did his best stuff imprisoned in a box;

And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks.’

Nick Cave

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds do all kinds of songs: weird fables, howling bad dreams, exquisite love songs. Blues straight from the abbatoir; lullabies filled with desire; stir-crazy sermons: my little list represents only part of what the band can do and what Nick Cave, as principal songwriter, can create. But still we find the greedy Cave is hungry to do more. This Elvis-Odysseus is on a mission to ‘move the world.’ He doesn’t stop. ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’ is the song that tells us of Cave’s greed, but also of his male muses, two of whom are named above. The rest? John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; Karl Marx; Paul Gauguin; Philip Larkin; Dylan Thomas; Vladimir Nabokov. Grisly lives, grisly deaths: debased, obscene and comic, all of them, even speccy old librarian Larkin, become rockstars the way Cave writes about them. They suffer and endure, but above all they carry on creating as they disintegrate.

‘There She Goes:’ a more joyous and desperate love-song you can’t imagine. A gospel frenzy, a prayer for the muse to ‘send that stuff on down,’ Cave’s song is one of his best. It’s like seeing  some crazy man walking into an open field in a thunderstorm and watching him bear his chest to the lightning–not so much prayer as dare.

‘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/

The Boatman's Call cover

At my first Nick Cave gig in 2005, I happened to be standing behind two very drunk fans who began to heckle even before the band had walked on stage. I can’t remember exactly how they phrased it, but their humorous banter went something like ‘get your Bible out Nick, have a good pray. Hallelujah!’ Refraining, but only just, from kneeing them in the bollocks, I contented myself with the thought that Cave must be used to, and even thrive on,  taunts like this. Cave’s unbelieving religious fervour is nowhere better exemplified than in his passion for ‘Amazing Grace.’ On the tourbus, years back, he was known to become physically violent if anyone so much as whispered during the playing of this hymn. He might not ‘believe in an interventionist God’ but he knows his Bible, and to such an extent that his lyrics are saturated in its language: he worships the Bible’s drama whilst rejecting its consolations. Exactly the quality, of the passionate agnostic, that makes him my kinda guy.

Passion, suffering and sexual, hedonistic and holy, is his subject, and there are many examples of songs in the Bad Seeds’ repertoire that have received considerable critical attention for their fusion of depravity and grace. But there is one unassuming song, a ‘stone the builders neglected,’ that is worthy of considerably more attention than it has yet received: ‘Brompton Oratory,’ a quiet wonder nestling at the core of a near-perfect album, The Boatman’s Call (1997).

*

‘The reading is from Luke 24

Where Christ returns to his loved ones’         Nick Cave

‘But they constrained him,’ Luke tells us in Chapter 24, ‘they’ being the disciples. They are speaking to the risen Christ, whom they still do not recognise, ‘saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent’ (Luke 24: 29). After the vast sorrow of the crucifixion comes this meeting and the King James makes it unbearably sweet. Look at the disciples’ tenderness to Christ: ‘abide’ has to count as one of the most lovely verbs in the English language, deriving from the Anglo Saxon ‘bidan,’ meaning ‘live with,’ ‘remain,’ ‘endure without yielding’ and which is ‘akin to the Latin fidere (trust) and the Greek peithestai (believe).’ (1) ‘Abide’ has more than the force of prayer here because the supplicant is praying without knowing it  and praying to an unknown god at that: the desire is greater than the man who desires. A spontaneous prayer that is both with and without the object of its adoration, it is coupled with the weary beauty of ‘the day is far spent.’ The King James can often catch at the reader’s breath with its poetry, but this phrase ‘the day is far spent’  feels like championship free-diving, like the longest, slowest held breath you have ever taken. In the space of that breath are the distances, the desire for rest, the need to hold the others, hold them and uphold them.

Biblical exegesis isn’t normally my thing, but when looking back at ‘Brompton Oratory,’ it does the song more than justice to read the passage from Luke alongside the erotic lesson delivered by the lyrics. Cave wants his audience to get the references, although he doesn’t demand that they do—even if you do not know and appreciate the poetry of the King James version of Luke 24, Cave does enough in the lyrics to suggest it. But the precise chapter reference indicates that he wouldn’t mind attracting an audience who respond to the Bible as he does because he wants the eroticism of the song amplified as much as possible. Understand the emotional force of the sacrament and the flitting sweetness of Christ’s return and you understand the thirst in the lines that follow on from the reference to Luke:

I look at the stone apostles,

think that it’s alright for some.

And I wish that I was made of stone

so that I would not have to see

beauty impossible to define

beauty impossible to believe.

A beauty impossible to endure:

the blood imparted in little sips,

the smell of you still on my hands

as I bring the cup up to my lips.

Two sacraments fuse here, two Eucharists. Suddenly, the absent ones are present; one in the chalice, one on the uplifted, scented fingers. A prayer has conjured both these presences, a negative prayer: Cave wishes he was ‘made of stone’ and could avoid seeing ‘beauty impossible to believe.’ The force of his longing is such that he asks for it to stop, but it does not, cannot, because it has gained such momentum that it is completely beyond his control. Saviour and the woman’s sex are equivalent sources of desire and desolation. Both return but do not, ultimately, abide.

(1)  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bide

[Below are two versions of ‘Brompton Oratory,’ the first being a slightly tongue-in-cheek MTV recording (Cave plays a Casio keyboard on his knees and it all looks a bit wobbly). The second is the album version, set to a fan’s photomontage of stone Christs, angels and apostles, and mercifully complete with the sigh of the original ending: ‘forlorn and exhausted baby/by the absence of you.’   You can also clearly hear the ecclesiastical-sounding organ on the album version, something that Warren Ellis swamps with his violin on the MTV clip.]

 

Castleton: the Devil’s Arse Cave, and along with only a couple of hundred other fans last Friday night, I watched Richard Hawley play his Christmas gig. Picture the Gretsches, acoustics and lap steels being tuned by the roadie, waiting for the band like roosting swans:  they breathe and dream of flight, even when at rest. If you can see this in your mind’s eye, then you know the value of a Hawley gig. All’s alive there and full of longing, even before the first note’s played.

Once airborne,  Hawley, Shez and the rest, dapper even in the cold,  opened up a finely balanced range of material, including ‘Just Like the Rain,’ ‘Serious,’ and ‘The Sea Calls.’  My second Hawley gig, the songs now worked differently. This time, it was less a revelation, more a homecoming. Less ecstasy, more intimacy; even in a cave, even when gusts of icy rain blew past the cave’s mouth, we, we all were,  held tight.

Hawley’s so good at this; he holds an audience as elegantly, and sensitively as he holds a guitar. Never implying superiority to those who listen to him, his playing and singing style always belong to you. His voice unknots you with its rich, sweet darkness, and it’s all done so unobtrusively, like kissing the face of a sleeping lover. He doesn’t ever seem to own his material, or indeed any cover song. He doesn’t even feel the need to dominate the stage. ‘Darlin’ was on a par with ‘Devil in Disguise;’  ‘Lady Solitude’ was partnered by, danced with ‘Silent Night.’ He let Shez take the lead with guitar; his mother and aunt, heavenly when they covered the Everly Brothers ‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’, were watched intently and delightedly by Hawley as he stood behind them. Hawley was both player and spectator–all ears, and always in the music as artist and fan to a degree rare in the egobound business of rock’n’roll.

Simple, really. But so difficult to attain that kind of listening that is self-forgetful; most of us have too much noise in our heads to get to that ‘span of pure attention’. However, watching Hawley at work is an object lesson in duende: he always seems to know the way in. And we get the joy of it: for once, work and rest don’t separate; for once, the weight shifts and lightens; and for once, going to the devil is a shortcut to a wintry piece of paradise. ‘Silent Night’ releasing the dead souls in hell.

[What follows is an approximate interview that took place yesterday evening before The Smoke Fairies (Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire) played their second pub set of the evening, during the ‘aftergig’ Richard Hawley had organised as a delicious add-on to his Devil’s Arse event (see my December 8 posting). I say ‘approximate interview’ because the background noise on my dictaphone was so loud and distorting that I have simply had to guess at what was being said in some cases, although I hope I have stayed faithful to the spirit of the conversation.  

I had just listened to them play to a packed Castle pub in Castleton. They used guitars and amps but no mics, trying to reach a difficult crowd. Most of the audience had been at the Hawley Devil’s Arse gig earlier, but not everyone was intent on listening to the Fairies’ delicate, fierce sound and there was quite a bit of chatter clouding over the purity of their music. I tried my teacher death stare on as many of the miscreants as I could, but most were too drunk to pay much heed to any subtleties of body language. So I closed my eyes and tried to tune in. Actually, it wasn’t difficult. Without a rhythm section, the guitarvoice vortex they create opens a door at the base of your spine if you let it–just close your eyes and surrender.

The Smoke Fairies talk about creating an atmosphere in their songs, as you will see when you read the interview. It’s no idle boast: the Fairies could create an atmosphere of delight even in a howling blizzard,  so unerring is their inner focus and poise.  I would like to see them in a setting where they can really let the poise release into the whole deep song thing; another time, I know I will. But for the moment, I’ll settle for the ‘still-point-of-the-turning-world’  experiences I had in The Castle and The Bull’s Head. Last night’s gig and interview were about getting a glimpse of sublimity. These two ooze talent, sensitivity and intelligence and as yet I, they and the rest of the world have only seen less than a tenth of what they can do. Nine tenths is still under the surface, dangerously good and glistening.]

NICHOLA DEANE: I want to start off with the songrwriting process. Can you describe a little bit about how this happens? Is there a general pattern or is it different every time?

JESSICA DAVIES: It’s kind of that one of us will write the songs and then we’ll show the other one. We’ll try it on our guitars and that will take the song into different directions. We’ll add a chorus or something. We’ll start songs by ourselves and blend them later.

ND: I don’t know if you can describe what happens when a song starts? How does that thing happen? Do you get a visual image, a snatch of melody or a rhythm?

KATHERINE BLAMIRE: It’s probably just an atmosphere. Our words are quite visual, though, based on a visual image, sometimes an idea that’s been kicking around for a long time.

JD: Then I’ll pick up a guitar and play and something will happen…

ND: …And an image and a melody will meld together. Listening to ‘Living with Ghosts’ and ‘Troubles’ I got the sense that travel’s a really important part of your songs’ imagery. Is that a preoccupation for both of you or just one person’s?

KB: Travel is a preoccupation for both of us really. We spend quite a lot of our time travelling around, yes, but it’s also other travel songs that have had an effect on us.

ND: What kind of travel songs?

KB: Blues songs, really.

ND: I wondered too whether you could describe what it feels like when you play your guitars. I’m interested in how that feels, speaking as a non-guitarist, to stand up there on stage, especially as women guitarists. 

KB: We really enjoy the idea that people don’t expect us to come out with this kind of guitar playing, because it’s not normal for women to stand there and come up with these riffs. I enjoy defying people’s expectations. I think that in general its sad that there aren’t more women out there doing this.

ND: Is that because it’s usually seen as a masculine instrument?

KB: It’s actually a much more delicate instrument than people think and can be played really sensitively and I think that’s something that women can explore more.

ND: Do you ever really have that kind of moment on the guitar when you’re really aggressive, when you really rip into something?

JD: We’re trying to be more like that…we’re not wanting to be confined to any one particular way of doing things. So to expand and be more aggressive would be great but we really enjoy that our music is dynamic and it’s about knowing when to bring that in and when to pitch that out.

ND: How long have you been together as a band?

JD: Twelve years or so.

ND: How long have you felt  professional about it? Did you notice yourself developing and changing?

JD: To begin with we weren’t really playing guitar, we were just strumming, and gradually got better, the guitar playing just sort of evolved really…

ND: Was there a moment when you were playing and you thought ‘Oh God! we’re actually doing something here?’

JD: I suppose  we just finally worked out that…

KB: We try to weave around each other rather than one person pushing forward. It’s not really about solos or flashy stuff. It’s meant to be about just creating an atmosphere.

ND: And that’s what’s so amazing about the sound, it doesn’t sound separate. There are two separate things going on but they don’t feel separate. The guitars meld together, the voices meld together…I was wondering too if you have any female guitar heroes?

KB: We were thinking about this the other day and…

JD: Yeah we were both really into Sheryl Crow. We haven’t listened to her for a long time, but it was the way she was extremely raw and very strong as well. There weren’t many women who were that raw when we were starting out.

KB: Also someone like Joni Mitchell  is a great guitarist. She probably isn’t known for that…

JD: But I like the way that her melodies go in ways you’d never expect.

KB: We try to achieve that same sort of idea that you start a song in one place and you end up completely differently. You’ll be playing one thing and then you’ll switch to something unexpected…

ND: That’s what makes your heart stop really, that ability to switch. But what about male guitar heroes?

KB: Well there are so many of those…Well we were saying the other day about that band America. They really started us off.  And a really great slide player called John Anderson. His slide playing is really amazing.

ND: So how did these guys affect your development?

JD: I don’t know. In a way all this has just happened because I think we’ve stayed together for so long and we’ve spent so much time together that the combination of that…

KB: It’s been a gradual process of subconsciously learning from each other.

ND: What’s your first musical memory? Do you remember a moment when you began to be really attracted to music?

KB: I remember being at church as a kid with my parents and it was listening to hymns, epsecially the old ones, which were so stirring and influenced me I suppose without me really knowing.

JD: For me it was television, I suppose. Watching things like Rainbow.

ND: Did they used to sing on Rainbow?

JD: Yeah–Rod, Jane and Freddy.

ND:  Oh God, yeah! So they did.

KB: I think that back then children’s TV programmes used to be a lot more musical. Now they seem to be very simple.

ND: TV tends to treat them like they’re just blobs!

KB: Yeah, like they have to just repeat things at them. I feel quite sad that children’s TV has become so dumb and unmusical.

ND: I see this in the kids I teach too, that they don’t sing as much, that their parents’ don’t seem to teach them nursery rhymes in the same way, and that it affects the deep subconscious parts of the brain.  One last thing: your lyrics sound poetic, they have a poetic quality. Do you read poetry at all or is the poetic quality just instinctive?

KB: We don’t read a lot of poetry but we are interested in poetry. It’s those songwriters who are very poetic, and song lyrics are like poems and I think influences on our lyrics are drawn from other writers who are more poetic, a bit like Joni Mitchell.

JD: I like the songs where you can think of something familiar  and make it seem strange.

ND: One thing I like in the songs that I’ve heard is that they seem like remote landscapes with lots of ice around. I like a bit of  ice in a song…

KB: I think it’s just what comes to mind when you feel a bit isolated, that idea of a barren landscape.

ND: Finally, can you tell me a bit about what next year has in store for you?

KB: We’ve got songs we’re going to record, an EP that we hope to release in March, and hopefully it would be nice to get an album out straight after.

ND: Excellent. I look forward to it. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

[With that, The Smoke Fairies went round the corner, set up their guitars and played their second set of the evening to the crowd at The Bull’s Head, their interwoven voices and guitars the very opposite of any rockstar posturing. Second time around, the lyrics fell on my ear even more cleanly, the landscapes blasted and wild, the exile in them even more pronounced. I came away with a rare  sense of nothing in their material being forced: not a chord, not a harmony, not a single lyric. They sing in a bubble of pure air, in a remote world, and yet that world is as close and familiar as your heartbeat. They’re from the cold sad place under your ribs,  so find them there now. Waste no time].

Auden: the most accessible of voices, the most forbidding of minds. Even when he dodges and evades, his voice hits from far, like love. Aloof, he touches, even, especially with his plainest phrases. Want a love poet? He’s your man. But don’t expect to love in the same way after you read him. Want a compass? He directs, but only into solitude. Gentle, inconsolable, terrifying, his words have such reach that he can change you without you realising that he’s at work. Look on this place you’re living in and you will not know it. Look on yourself and the mirror will not say your name.

Or so I realise, now I see how he’s been at work in me all these years, ever since that time in my adolescence when I didn’t know poetry even mattered. Perhaps he was the one who started to make poetry matter to me. Let me tell you how.

1987, and I bought an LP by The Communards. Buying it was rebellious, listening to it and loving it even more so. Those were the days leading up to the introduction of Clause 28. Busy with grief, the gay community fought two enemies: the Thatcher government’s increasingly homophobic stance and the terror of HIV. In the midst of this, Jimmi Sommerville and Richard Coles released Red, The Communards’ second album. Part of the ‘Red Wedge’ movement that drew together artists such as Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, The Communards seemed to my fourteen-year-old mind even more radical. Anger, sadness and sexual freedom characterised their music, and they promised a liberated sexual identity that, as a straight, straight-laced private school teenage girl, I could never have imagined without their help. But when I bought their record that year, I hardly knew that this precious sexual liberty that they had written about owed so much to the man who wrote the lyrics to the standout track on the album, a man who had a beautiful name, beautiful even in the small print of the liner notes: W.H. Auden.

The song in question was a setting of Auden’s villanelle ‘If I Could Tell You.’ Long after I had ceased to think of the other songs on Red, the words to this song continued to blossom in my mind. ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ How much dumb pain lies here in this simplicity? ‘There must be reasons why the leaves decay.’ A wall you didn’t see coming lies in that word ‘must.’ No answer, no answer. ‘The vision seriously intends to stay.’ No one wants an ending to that sweetness; not even the glory of it wants to go. ‘Because I love you more than I can say.’ How often has that sentence been on our lips, and when has it ever meant more than here, when Auden says it for us? And again the villanelle turns round: ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ Every time it returns, we are in a little deeper.  Every time the words face us, we yearn to see our own face.

See? This is Auden, doing what he does best, going on ahead. On Red, Auden’s words lead the way. They lead Somerville and Coles into courageous truth-telling about what was then happening to their ‘lovers and friends.’ And I wish sometimes that I could take Auden by the hand and tell him how those words led me into thinking and feeling. Not immediately, I hasten to add: it is not easy to hear Auden. It is harder still to follow on behind. But once heard, the words themselves lead, and Auden does nothing.  No-one else I know has quite this ability to stand up for language and to stand so cleanly outside it. But in doing so, he gives us the best of ideals: to love words so that we leave ourselves behind.

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