Monthly Archives: October 2013

You can’t change the unchangeably untogether

8. Star – Belly                                                                               When: 1993

It began, as befits a great love story, on Valentine’s Day 1993. Unlikely as it seems, it began in Leicester.

She brought her mates. I turned up alone. She was cool, confident, talented and sassy. I was growing out a haircut gone bad. She was from Boston, Mass. I was from Bristol, Avon. It probably wasn’t meant to be…

She was Tanya Donelly, her mates were her band, Belly, and whilst I might have wished it otherwise our romance never progressed beyond adulation from afar. There are certain bands, certain singers, that you just get a little territorial about – that you claim as your own and stick with regardless. There are just some bands and some singers that you just feel like you get. In this case, as is often the case, timing played its part.

In 1993 I was in my second year at University – or sophomore year at college, if you will, given we’re discussing a band synonymous with college radio in the early 90s. Not that college radio was something that we had in Leicester, not, you know, being actually in America. It was just something that seemed mildly exotic if you spent that time listening to Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, Throwing Muses, Buffalo Tom and Mudhoney. I digress. Second year, very single, going to gigs on my own… You get the picture ? Yes, we see. It’s not too difficult to imagine that a young man in such circumstances, melodramatic impulses twitching out of control (it was Valentines Day, stick with me) could be receptive to one of those epiphanous moments that music sometimes delivers. And I use the word epiphanous advisedly. If not correctly.

It was also one of those relatively rare occasions when I saw a band promote an album that I hadn’t yet bought – relatively rare now in days of more money than sense, streaming, and Youtube. More common then when the opportunity cost of a record was a night out. Believe me, I sometimes look at that Faith No More live album and wonder at the fun I could have had: it was a double, that’s practically an all-dayer. The upshot of this rudimentary economics diversion was that Belly played a set of unknown (to me) songs and there’s just something more arresting about falling in love with a band in person than on record.

So, worlds turned, the planets aligned, Belly take the stage, and for an hour or so time stands still. I won’t pretend that I can recount the intimate details of that performance, it was too long ago, but, even now, fragments linger. A vulnerable take on “Untogether”, performed by Donelly alone, a joyous, exhilarating rush through “Slow Dog”, and a soaring, spine-tingling, heart-bursting-out-of-your-chest climax of “Stay”. Those were the three clinchers. I’d heard the singles (“Feed The Tree”, “Gepetto”) but it was these album tracks that turned what might have been a fling into a love affair.

“Star” was released in 1993 in the period following Nirvana’s break through in ’91, breaking down the door that Pixies, Sonic Youth, and others had pushed ajar. I guess it would be filed under “alternative”, that entirely unsatisfactory genre definition – alternative to what ? It is certainly different. Beguilingly so.

The album opens with “Someone To Die For”, its chiming, circular guitar figure like a music box slowly rotating, opening its secrets. Slightly eerie, a little sinister. Donelly’s voice floats in, slight reverb lending it a dream like quality; now it feels (and much of the album feels) like that curious state between sleep and waking. There’s a nagging voice here, gently questioning:

Poor thing, poor thing… do you have a sister ?

Would you lay your body down on the tracks for her ?

It’s all a little creepy, somewhat menacing; there’s some unknown danger, threat here which can’t quite be seen. It sets the tone for the rest of the record. I’d like to wake up now.

The sleeping / dreaming theme recurs throughout. Second song, “Angel”, bluntly asserts “I’ve had bad dreams, so bad I threw my pillows away”. It’s a record of the subconscious, images that bubble up in dreams, suggestions of themes – loss, death, nature, childhood – conveyed in fragments, the whole picture never quite revealed.

The menace never leaves: “Witch”’s “you’re not safe, in this house”, “that kid from the bad home came over to my house again, decapitated all my dolls” from “Gepetto”, “see this child twice stolen from me” from “Full Moon, Empty Heart”, “somewhere to scrape your body off my feet” from “White Belly”. It’s twisted and dark, fairy tale nightmares given voice, an exposure of those veiled, dusty recesses of the mind.

The irony is that these dark songs are wrapped in the sweetest melodies and, in some cases, are gloriously catchy. Listen to “Gepetto”, you will be singing along by the end, cheerfully bellowing “decapitated all my dolls” on second listen before then realizing what you’re singing. It tricks you this record. Breezily dances around you, pulling you in, before revealing the trouble in its heart. It’s like a spell. It’s the apple offered to Snow White, the vial marked “drink me” that tempts Alice – take a sip and it will take you somewhere you haven’t been before, somewhere magical, somewhere that’s not quite here. Not everything there is quite as it should be.

The trick works so well that it produced a hit. “Feed The Tree” just broke the Billboard Hot 100, scraped the Top 40 in the UK, and was a staple of MTV. Not bad for a song about commitment and respect told via the metaphor of gathering around the tree at which family members would be buried. It’s an unusual hit but, like “Gepetto”, offers a carefree sing-along if that’s all that you want from it. It also probably would have been the more obvious choice as one of the 42 but I think the album works more effectively as a complete piece, rather than picking out an individual song. It’s a record that I can happily play start to finish and think it works more effectively like that, the recurrence of images and overall mode slowly seeping in. Its follow up, “King”, suffers in comparison by being less coherent. It’s a fine collection of songs (“Seal My Fate” might even be my favourite Belly song) but, to me, lacks the cohesion of “Star”.

So, why lead the piece with that line from “Untogether” ? I’m not sure I fully understand “Star” but I’m not sure that the point is to understand it. It gets under your skin, my unconscious recognizes some of what it’s trying to say even if I can’t consciously process it and pick it apart. It came at a time, the first time really, in my life when I had lost certainty; there was a version of me that I might become and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. It wasn’t the first (or last) time in my life that some people didn’t like me but it was the first time that their reasons for it bothered me. Too sharp, too self assured, too quick to pick an easy laugh regardless of the impact or victim. I guess it was a lack of confidence masquerading as confidence, sarcasm masquerading as wit. Whatever it was it wasn’t something that I was altogether comfortable with and so began the slow process of unpicking and rebuilding. On some level an ongoing attempt to “change the unchangeably untogether”. The resonance of this record is specifically that it deals below the conscious, gives voice to worry and anxiety in an indirect way, attaches stories and images to feelings that can’t quite be articulated in a straightforward way. I very much doubt that I was even aware that it was worming its way into my head, giving safe outlet to parts of myself that I wasn’t sure how to reconcile, but I suspect that’s exactly what it was doing. It spoke to me and still does.

I saw a lot of bands in ’92 and ’93. Saw a lot of bands on my own. It wasn’t something that I thought then concerned me but despite having a wide circle of friends, there is a slight sense of loneliness that I associate with that time. It might be too trite to describe music as the constant, as my companion through that time in my life (through most times in my life) but there is something of truth in it.

Star became one of my favourite records that year and its twisted, fractured pop sound-tracked the rest of that twisted, fractured year. For that night in the Union Hall though, all of that was remote, temporarily forgotten. Falling in love, even if it’s with a band, is about possibilities, about being at peace in the moment and, on a winter’s night in the East Midlands, the possibilities were endless and I was at peace.

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Trust in your calling, make sure your calling’s true

7. I Believe – REM                                                             When: always

They might be the last truly great American group.

REM never apologised for being artists, for trying to marry head and heart, for refusing to follow pop culture’s relentless march to the intellectual bottom. They were a properly kick ass rock ‘n roll band. They maybe had the best front man in rock in the 80s/90s. Who was also a poet. They believed in things and spoke about them. They campaigned for Amnesty. They appeared on Sesame Street. Michael Stipe. Peter Buck. Mike Mills. Bill Berry. They took it very seriously but laughed at themselves along the way.

There will be a small handful of bands, singers, and artists on this list where I could pick from any of a dozen songs. REM are one of them. The breathless smile-in-the-face-of-the-apocalypse-stream-of-consciousness “It’s The End Of The World (And I Feel Fine)” is worth a place purely for the “time I spent some time alone” harmonies at its close. In stark contrast I could also easily argue the case for “Everybody Hurts”, possibly the purest, most redemptive expression of the universality of human pain committed to record. The straight ahead beauty of “Nightswimming”, the Byrdsian jangle of “Driver 8”, the sheer fun of “Stand”, the chilling darkness of “Country Feedback”… That’s without even mentioning “Losing My Religion”, “Turn You Inside Out”, “World Leader Pretend”, “Talk About The Passion”, “Fall On Me”, “These Days”… A ridiculous embarrassment of riches from which I decided to pick one.

“I Believe” sits eight songs in to 1986’s “Lifes Rich Pageant”, the missing apostrophe apparently deliberate, and for me, shoddy grammar aside, it’s their finest album. For today at least. Ask me tomorrow and it’ll be “Automatic For The People”. Or “Murmur”. And I’ll always carry a torch for “Green” which was my start point with the band. You get the idea.

The song is almost a manifesto, a concise treatise on how to live; it calls to mind Stipe imparting advice to a younger version of himself (tellingly an earlier attempt at the song was entitled “When I Was Young” but failed to make it on to “Fables Of The Reconstruction”, the preceding album).

Lyrically, like many of his songs, it veers from the oblique – the shamanistic imagery, all coyotes, rattlesnakes and fever – to the more explicit and direct. All of it wrapped up in twisting, riddling lines that challenge the listener – both the listener in the song and us, the listeners to the song – to reflect on what’s important in life:

Explain the change, the difference between what you want and what you need, there’s the key

Your adventure for today, what do you do between the horns of the day ?

There’s frequent allusions to marking a period of shaking off younger, foolish ways and embracing change – the man that was “spirited, a rattlesnake” giving way to someone for whom “change is what I believe in”. There’s arguably a read of the song that’s about a rejection of religion – first line’s “young and full of grace” – but it’s not imagery that’s revisited and I think it’s less about casting off something specific, rather a general process of sifting all of the truths inherited in your youth and figuring out which ones you’re going to choose to make a part of yourself. Stipe’s gently playful in his role as the advice giving narrator – co-opting and teasing with exactly the kinds of platitude (“give and take”, “practice makes perfect”, “think of others”) that are frequently passed down as wisdom from adults to children.  My favourite section sums this up in a wonderful articulation of life as an evolving process, never fixed, never done (until, ultimately, of course it’s done):

Trust in your calling, make sure your calling’s true

Think of others, the others think of you

Silly rule, golden words make practice, practice makes perfect

Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change

Musically the song’s playful too. The studio version kicks off with a down-home, rootsy banjo that gives way to Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker – a conscious nod to the lyrical themes, taking the threads of the old and weaving them in to something new. Then it just throttles forwards, a bundle of momentum and energy, running helter skelter through the first verse, building to the kick into the chorus. It is impossible to not feel lifted up by this song. On a good day it will make you believe you can do anything. On a bad day it will make you leap around the house grinning like a loon. Either outcome is pretty good I reckon.

The version on the video above is from Tourfilm, the 1990 document of the “Green” world tour. It doesn’t open with the banjo but I particularly love it for showing off the many facets of Stipe – the poet, the incredible singer, the performer. He’s just utterly mesmerising, holding the crowd through a straight poetry recital, an acapella verse, before tearing off his jacket and ripping into the song. He veers from exposed and vulnerable to defiant and bold, always true to himself, fierce in his declamation. Incredible. The band aren’t too shabby either.

Given that my read of the song is fundamentally about embracing change, working through what’s important, and being comfortable in asserting your own identity it’s not difficult to understand why I picked it. Stipe was 26 when he wrote this and I guess that’s a natural point to work through what’s left over from childhood and adolescence and piece your self together. I’m not 26 anymore but there seems no harm in continuing the process.

As the song says: “fault lines change”.

It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights…

6. The Muppets                                                                          When: 1992-1994

Disclaimer: I said I’d stretch the definition of “record” and this post definitely tests it to breaking point. At times it also seriously tests my powers of memory: everything here is true but I can’t guarantee that details haven’t been embellished by time. The video footage contains haircuts that some viewers may find distressing. Oh, and in case it gets confusing, there were two people called Phil in the band. I was one of them.

Intro

“The best mates”

–        Listen, listen, I’ve got a great name for the band.

–        What band ?

–        The one we’re starting.

–        O-kaay, what is it ?

–        Picture this. The stage is dark. Audience going insane. Intro music starts up… “it’s time to      play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to meet The Muppets on the Muppet show      tonight”… We’re on stage. Straight into the first song.

–        The Muppets ?

–        The Muppets.

“The guitarist and the singer”

–        Richie’s in.

–        Really ? You asked him ?

–        Well, I didn’t really let him say no but that doesn’t matter. He’s in.

–        Can he play ?

–        Can he play ? He’s awesome. Strat. Gibson SG – think he’s played at the Rock Garden or something.

–        Sounds promising.

–        He’s got a singer as well.

–        Who ?

–        Andy. You know him, he’s got a room at the other end of block 7 to you.

–        Yeah, I know him. Can he sing ?

–        Don’t know. Apparently.

“The Chem Soc Ball”

–        We’ve got a gig.

–        What do you mean we’ve got a gig ? We’re not ready.

–        We’ve got a gig. Chemistry Society Ball. I know the guy that’s organising it – I told him that         we normally only play around town but that we’d do it for him as a favour.

–        I haven’t got an amp…

–        Borrow one, it’ll be fine.

–        You haven’t got an amp or, in fact, a bass…

–        I’m buying one, don’t worry.

–        We don’t know any songs…

–        I’ve been thinking about that – about a set-list. Just need a few songs that are pretty easy to play but still amazing. I’m thinking rock obviously.

–        Obviously… but we don’t have a drummer…

–        No but I’ve been recommended a guy. It’ll be fine. Bit older than us, think he’s doing a post-grad in space science or astro physics. Something like that. Got his own kit and, even better, his own car.

–        When’s this gig ?

–        Two weeks.

“The rocket scientist”

–        *knock knock*

–        (Answering door) Yeah ? Hi ?

–        Alex ?

–        Yes

–        Hi, I’m Phil, this is Phil. Sorry to disturb you – we’ve heard you’re a drummer.

–        Er… yeah, I guess. I play in a couple of bands.

–        Fancy joining another one ?

–        Well, I suppose I don’t mind sitting in to see how it goes.

–        Great, you’re in.

–        What are we called ?

–        The Muppets. Don’t worry, we’ll probably change it.

Verse one

Late Spring and the French doors leading from Beaumont Hall to the Botanical Gardens are flung open. Outside curious botanists mingle with unwinding students. Inside five young men set about the task of setting up a rehearsal space. On one side of the room someone carefully unpacks a Fender Stratocaster from its flight case, sets up a myriad of effects pedals, pulls a dust cover from a Roland amp, plugs in, briefly consults a digital tuner on the floor and then refines each note by ear. On the other side of the room someone else absent mindedly strums a cheap, unbranded guitar plugged in to a borrowed amp and chats to the bassist. Somewhere in the middle the drummer puts together his kit with a precision that tells of countless hours placing snares, toms and cymbals, whilst the singer paces, nothing to do.

The drummer signals that he’s almost done and one of the guitarists – the one that isn’t holding his instrument like it’s about to bite him – suggests starting with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. The band are booked to play The Chem Soc Ball and, by way of warm up, have persuaded the social committee at their halls of residence to let them play the hall bar. A set list, largely featuring songs with no more than three chords, has been agreed and this Dylan song, albeit the at-the-time current Guns ‘N Roses version, is on it.

The opening bars of the song ring out into the room, the guitarist picking nonchalantly. A certain tension rests across the remainder of the room – they’ve never played together before, never even heard the drummer, are supposed to be performing publically in a couple of days, and then at a function where people have paid for the privilege of attending. A set of circumstances built on a fair amount of bullshit, an object lesson in how far a lot of front can take you. All of it crystallising in this moment – if they can’t run through a mid tempo, three chord Dylan song then the exercise will surely be exposed for the sham that it is ?

The drummer makes a final adjustment to his snare, sits down on his stool, twirls a stick between his fingers and, four bars in, effortlessly plays a run round his kit before everyone comes crashing in to the first verse. Perfectly on time and in tune. Everyone exhales, looks at each other and grins. Music. They might actually get away with this.

Chorus 

The bar at Beaumont Hall is packed. A night’s free entertainment, curiosity value, friendship – whatever the reasons, they had come. It’s hot, the warm evening air ratcheted up several degrees by the mass of bodies. Drink flows liberally and the mood is exuberant, expectant. A receptive home crowd.

Five people detach themselves from the throng and move to the end of the room where instruments are already arranged. The same spot where, two short weeks ago, they’d first come together to play. No stage, just an area for the band demarcated by a line of microphone stands.

The crowd are appreciative before they even hear a note, a cheer erupting at the sight of guitars being slung over shoulders and the crackle of leads pushed into amplifiers. The band pause, look at each other, exchange nods of affirmation and it begins. Thirty breathless, blurred minutes, and eight songs, later it ends – all they had time to learn. They’re not allowed to get away so easily, the audience demanding more. So they play the entire set again, grinning at each other, at this thing they’ve started.

Verse two 

Late Autumn, eighteen months on from that first gig, and the five members of The Muppets crowd round a sound engineer in a run down studio in the centre of Leicester. He pushes faders up and down on the mixing desk in front of him, removes his headphones, spins in his chair and looks up at the band: “what’s next ?”

They’ve been there all day having scraped together the cash between them to book out the space and record some songs: their songs. There’s only time to get down four songs, the playback of each one painfully highlighting each mistake, each chord out of time, each dropped note, in a way that’s usually covered up in the immediacy of a live performance. It’s a sobering, painstaking experience but they persevere, repeating takes, over dubbing – trying to make the best document they can.

At the close of the day they leave – a solitary cassette containing four tunes the only tangible reward for their efforts but all flushed with the deep satisfaction at having created something new.

Chorus 

The band on stage at Stamford Hall is the same one that started out across the road in Beaumont two years ago. The same but different. Better. The rhythm guitarist now at least looks as if he’s on speaking terms with his guitar. The bass and drums play as a unit, each song not necessarily gathering unwanted pace as it goes but staying in tempo. The lead guitarist still doesn’t realise quite how good he is, knocking out dexterous solos almost casually, and the singer now looks comfortable and confident on stage. They’re tighter musically but more relaxed performing.

The audience is bigger and pulled from a broader constituency than their own circle; still a student crowd but now drawn by word of mouth and reputation. They’re no less engaged for it and, by the end of the set, most of the room is up, dancing.

The University film society are here, recording the gig for posterity – freezing in time the band at their high point. Freezing in time the impetuosity to start something from scratch, the commitment to actually carry it through, and the time to turn it into something good. And, yes, also freezing in time some misguided leather trousers, a waistcoat that’s since gone on to a successful solo career touring with Mumford & Sons, and some of the worst hair ever grown on a human head. Mostly though freezing in time one of many fun, joyful nights playing music.

Bridge 

The Muppets played a big part in almost three years of my life; I can remember rather more about the hours of rehearsal and playing than I can about, say, Jean Jacques Rousseau or any of the other great political philosophers that made up my degree course. Think I was more of a John Locke kind of guy.

There are numerous fragments that still raise a smile over twenty years later. Our very first rehearsal was marked with absurdity; as we practiced “Rain” (The Cult) the refrain in the chorus “here comes the rain” caused an elderly couple, outside browsing the Botanical Gardens, to pause at the window, peer in, raise their palms upwards and frown in enquiry. We once played someone’s 21st in London, Richie broke a string on both his guitars mid set, and so the rest of us had to try and fill whilst he repaired the damage – cue the single biggest crime against the blues ever perpetrated as we launched into an impromptu jam. I knew nothing, not even a simple scale, a semi-quaver might as well have been a crisp that failed the quality assurance process at the Walkers factory, so my response to being told that we were going to jam in D was to just play a D chord over and over and over…

There was a regular event at the University for student bands to play – the Old Coffee Bar Club. Periodically it would host covers night which marked a couple of our finer hours as we always flung ourselves into the spirit of it, picking one band, learning a few of their songs and then trying to dress up like them. The Stones were fairly straight forward (“Jumping Jack Flash”, “Sympathy For The Devil”, “Wild Horses”, “ You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) and gave us an excuse to break out a nice line in 60s wigs; presumably I was Brian Jones. Better was Take That (“Only Takes A Minute”, “Take That & Party”, “Could It Be Magic”) where our efforts extended to a couple of brief pieces of choreography and waistcoats over bare (frankly pretty pasty) torsos; presumably I was Jason Orange.

All of those songs, including the Take That ones, stayed in our growing set. By the end we covered a fairly broad range from Seal’s “Crazy” to The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” by way of perennial crowd pleasers – EMF’s “Unbelievable” and the Black Crowes’ take on “Hard To Handle” – through to some slightly more esoteric choices that we liked – The Doors’ “Maggie M’Gill” and JJ Cale’s “After Midnight”. Along the way we lost Bon Jovi’s “Keep The Faith” (top note in chorus too high), Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” (very difficult to play tight), and, due to various disagreements, never quite got round to adding Sister Sledge’s “Lost In Music”, REM’s “Losing My Religion”, or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. On top of which we’d fashioned about ten of our songs which stood up pretty well – even usually closing with the epic “Boy I’m So Glad (I’m Not You)”, a slow burner that borrowed a bit structurally (okay, quite a bit) from “Freebird”.

Song choices were probably the biggest source of argument in the band as everyone had diverse tastes. They were also a source of tension in that, sometimes, there were songs we couldn’t do due to my lack of technical ability. The most notable instance being Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way”. It’s a pretty simple riff but still too complicated for me and so, despite everyone else firmly believing it would go down a storm, we didn’t do it. This only became problematic when we played a “Battle of the Bands” at one of the halls of residence. By this point we had long since left living in halls and so turned up without an audience full of our friends, albeit with a reputation for being pretty good. First band on were clearly at the point in their group’s life cycle that we’d been at earlier in this piece: brand new, enthusiasm to burn, and a room stocked full of their mates. They opened with sodding “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and the place went berserk. “Battle of the Bands” was declared an unsatisfactory draw. Maybe we pinched it on away goals but it felt like defeat.

And the long mooted name change ? It was discussed many, many times – endless suggestions that not everybody could agree on. As an example, Phil suggested “Seahorse” (him: “it’s exotic and mysterious”, me: “it’s shit”) which was largely ridiculed only for John Squire to name his post Roses band The Seahorses a couple of years later. I was right though, dreadful name for a band. The closest we came to changing was to “The Big Bush Experience” – which I guess we (wrongly) thought was just the right side of cheeky innuendo without being puerile. It only lasted one gig as everyone just kept asking us when we were changing back and referred to as The Muppets regardless. So it stuck.

Final Chorus

The posters outside the Princess Charlotte (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore) proclaim “local showcase”: bottom of the bill, The Muppets. The posters inside the Charlotte, promoting gigs long since past, whisper the promise of this venue, a roll call of bands that have made it in the last twenty years: Radiohead, Pulp, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Blur, The Killers, Primal Scream, Muse, and the Manics. It might be a spit and sawdust pub in the East Midlands serving up lukewarm beer in plastic glasses but it represents the one thing that drives all aspiring bands: hope.

The bands to be showcased loiter in the back-stage room, all feigning an air of cool detachment, like none of this matters, like it’s something that they do all the time. But it’s all artifice, all a little too studied to be real. There’s palpable nerves all round.

Being bottom of the bill offers only one advantage: you play first. The Muppets have been allocated 15 minutes and four songs but, staying true to the grandest traditions, stretch this out by tacking two songs together and closing with something that goes on for about 7 minutes. In all they probably manage 25 minutes before bowing out, reacting with innocent surprise to the annoyance of the proceeding acts.

The audience reaction is good, if a little less enthusiastic than they’ve become used to. This isn’t solely their crowd. It’s a shift from known student band playing to other students, often at events involving large amounts of booze, to unknown local band playing to paying gig goers. It’s a shift that reveals what’s involved in really trying to make it – the days and days of rehearsing, the relentless slog round pubs and clubs begging to perform, then playing to tiny rooms of people, hoping eventually to build a following. It’s a shift that they never made.

Outro

–        We’ve been thinking about the band next year…

–        Great, good – we have too.

–        Yeah, well it’s a bit awkward, but we’re thinking of staying in Leicester and carrying it on. Only…

–        I think we’re thinking the same sorts of things…

–        …only, we’d like to move on in a different direction. Andy wants to play guitar, there’s some other stuff we want to try… More blues based. Walking bass lines. That sort of thing.

–        So what are you saying ?

–        We think it’d be better if we call it a day with the current line up. I mean, Alex is still going to drum, and Phil, if you want to play bass then that might still work…

–        But you’re kicking me out ?

–        Ah, don’t take it like that, it’s time to change – it’s time to do something else. You’re in to different stuff anyway…

–        Is this because of that fucking Lenny Kravitz song… ?

Coda

It wasn’t really about that fucking Lenny Kravitz song. In part, though, it was a reflection (a fair reflection to be honest) on relative technical ability in the band – I couldn’t play to the standard of the others.

To his eternal credit Phil never took up the offer to remain in the band. It was essentially our friendship (and his incredible drive and ridiculous ability to get people to do things that, rationally, made no sense for them to do) that had started the whole thing and our solidarity stood fast to the end. Continues to do so to this day.

The Muppets mark 2 – I genuinely forget what they re-christened themselves – did carry on for a while in Leicester. I saw them play at a pub on new year’s eve, I guess 1994/5, and it was a strange, sad experience watching Andy, Rich, Alex, and some new bassist (who, yes, did indeed play a lot of walking bass lines) run through a lot of our old set. Still no Kravitz though.

However, my abiding memory of those couple of years isn’t one of sadness for what might have been but one of real pride in what we did – it might not seem like much in the scheme of things but we recorded a bunch of our own songs, played to a lot of happy people, and shared a lot of great moments. Some of which – lost in a song on stage, watching the reaction of the audience, seeing people respond to something you’re creating – are amongst the happiest of my life.

Our Lady, Star Of The Sea

5. Stella Maris – Moby                                                               When: 2011

“Stella Maris” (Latin: star of the sea) is often used in reference to the Virgin Mary – known in English as Our Lady, Star Of The Sea – and also as a name for Polaris, the North Star. Either way it’s a point of guidance – for lost sailors and lost souls.

The extraordinary Moby track of the same name takes some familiar Moby tropes – appropriated vocal, huge synth chords, a slavering of strings – and blends them into a moving, redemptive piece of music. It’s built from a 12th century plainsong recorded by Trio Mediaeval; a simple but stunning, haunting vocal over a dirge (the original is here and is amazing). Moby distorts and buries the voice beneath those patented, enormous synths, producing an effect that’s akin to half hearing them through ears clogged with water. They’re there but dislocated, distorted, displaced – the purity of the voice struggling to be heard.

There are some records which bypass parts of my conscious, rational mind and cut straight to an emotional truth. This track, by turns breathtakingly beautiful and achingly sad, has the capacity to unlock me with ease. I’ve long believed I’m principally driven by a rational approach to life but, the older (and madder) I’ve got the more I’ve come to appreciate, if not fully understand, that as fallacy. If internalisation was an Olympic sport then, frankly, don’t even show up – I’m taking home that gold medal – and it’s only through external agents that some of the forces at play inside of me find a way out. This is one such agent.

It’s interesting that, effectively, the song has no words – the original piece is in Latin and is rendered largely incoherent in the production anyway. The response engendered – that’s beautiful, that’s colossally sad­, that’s like, to nick another Moby song title, the face of god moving over the water – is a gut response to the music. And I can’t deconstruct that. I neither know enough, technically, about how it’s achieved nor have the understanding of why a particularly assembled set of notes and instruments can make the hair on the nape of your neck stand up, or make you cry, or make you dance. “Stella Maris” is not much of a dancer.

As I can’t deconstruct, and in the spirit of National Poetry Day (October 3rd), I thought I’d attempt to construct. This isn’t an attempt at lyrics that the song doesn’t need, rather it’s my closest approximation for how it makes me feel or how it allows me to reference a state of feeling that I am familiar with.

Star Of The Sea

Submerged, sinking, lost, and

Drifting within the murk

Beneath the waves.

Ebbing, flowing.

Immune to the swell; the rise and fall, the salt’s lash.

But trapped; wrecked.

……

Drowning, silent, alone, and

Accepting the deep embrace

Of the implacable sea.

Falling, fading.

Untouched by the storm; the gusting gale, the stinging hail.

But dislocated; numb.

……

An echoing tone through the depths, penetrates.

A light in the gloom,

Distant but fixed, guiding me home.

Surging, rising.

It speaks of water becalmed, of skies quiet and clear.

Breaking surface; released.

……

They sing: don’t look back, don’t be scared, don’t be scared.

4. Engine To Turn – Tift Merritt                                                             When: Summer 2013

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.” Abraham Maslow

Songs can save lives. They can enrich, nourish, bring hope, ease pain, and give expression and outlet to feelings that might otherwise overwhelm.

Three months ago I stood below deck on a moored boat in Bristol, beer in hand, and waited for Tift Merritt to perform. I was all over the place. Two years, perhaps more, of surgery, ill health, redundancy, change, lack of control, listlessness, and uncertainty had coalesced into a series of panic attacks. Constriction of the chest, shortness of breath, a chorus of competing voices yelling for attention in my head; no idea which of them to listen to first. Or whether to listen to any of them. Emotionally and mentally I had run out of road – exhausted – and my body just shut me down.

It’s a terrifying experience to wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, heart accelerating in your chest like it’s trying to hit enough speed to break out. I thought I was having a cardiac arrest. Doctor checked everything out and all was fine. Except, obviously, it wasn’t. I was mainlining adrenaline and cortisol, a primitive physiological response to stimulus, to stress.

Societally stress is a loaded word. Sometimes used blithely, mundanely (“stop doing that, you’re stressing me out”) but in its clinical manifestation it’s anything but mundane. And it’s hard to empathise with, to understand. Tolerances are so different, symptoms vary, and causes are wide ranging: one person’s bad couple of years is another’s exciting set of opportunities. I can tell you about the ruptured ligament in my knee and the resulting operations and it’s easy, you’ll “get it”, you can understand the mechanics of it. To tell you about my battles with depression, with an unspecified mental malaise, will be a little harder. I may need to hide behind some records. I may need as many as 42.

So, back on board The Thekla, moored and anchored – ain’t it grand when life throws you a free metaphor ? Tift Merritt is touring her wonderful new album, “Travelling Alone”, and takes to the stage, opening with “Engine To Turn” from her previous record, “See You On The Moon”. It’s one of my favourite songs of hers and, in the space of three minutes, it strips everything away, helps me let go of everything I’ve been holding on to – some of which is profoundly damaging to me – and all that’s left is me, a beer in one hand, my wife’s hand in the other, and the opportunity to listen to a great singer perform. Tears roll down my face and I lose myself in the next 75 minutes of the gig.

“Engine To Turn” is, like much of Merritt’s later work, a deceptively simple song. Four chords; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Lyrically direct, honest, straight, unadorned. Within familiar forms she addresses universal themes – there’s no mistaking what the song is broadly about but it leaves enough space for you to layer in your own experience, for the words to attach themselves to your own meaning.

From the outset the song sets out its challenge, opening up a theme – uncertainty – which has already cropped up in the 42 and, no doubt, will again:

I don’t know how to fix the world.

I don’t know how to fix myself.

Clearly for me personally this strongly resonates, speaking directly to a sense of being unwell, of being broken, and not being entirely clear what to do about it. This is further explored in the metaphor that gives the song its title – “I’m just trying to get the engine to turn”. The machinery is all there but it won’t come to life and typically, to extend the motif, an engine either needs fuel or a spark to get going. As I wrote earlier, I was running on empty, had run out of road. Any more car imagery and this is in danger of turning into a Springsteen song…

However, this isn’t a song that wallows in its own uncertainty, it’s not a pessimistic lament to a life without meaning. There are solutions here, simple articulations of what might work:

…seems like some tenderness could turn the whole thing around…

…seems like I ought to slow down…

…maybe the pieces are here if I just took a good look around…

And finally there’s an almost defiant statement of intent that closes each chorus and, ultimately, the song:

I’m just trying to smile through my tears
And I still got so much to learn

But the best I can is what I have to give

Gonna give it while I’m here 

Not beaten. Unbowed. Determined. An eloquent expression of, perhaps, all that life is about.

The final chorus is prefaced by the wonderful bridge, an internal rallying cry that’s the exact opposite of my previously referenced competing voices yelling for attention:

Sometimes there’s a choir in my head

Singing at the top of its voice

Singing at the top of its voice

They sing: don’t look back

Don’t be scared

Don’t be scared

If, at risk of sounding like an X-factor contestant, my “journey” towards dealing with my own demons (and its expression through these words) is about anything then it’s about finding a way for these shouting, squabbling, picky, destructive, competing voices in my head to cohere into a choir that sings up in defiance, support and reassurance.

There’s a Bukowski quote that feels apposite with respect to Merritt’s work over her last couple of records, and particularly so with respect to “Engine To Turn”:  “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.

There’s presumably a story to be told about Merritt’s career, from feted Americana star (debut “Bramble Rose”) to Grammy nomination (second album “Tambourine”), being dropped by Lost Highway, her label, moving to Paris, then to New York, and ultimately recording another three fine singer-songwriter records in the best traditions of Carole King, Lucinda Williams, or Emmylou Harris. But, interesting story that it is, my connection to her, my interest in her, is through her work – through what seems to be her ongoing assertion of personal and artistic integrity and growth. There’s a great recent interview with Backseat Mafia here which explores some of this territory.

Since that relative commercial failure of second album “Tambourine” and the subsequent fall out, Merritt has mined a progressively simpler, sparser seam of songs. In paring back the production and some of the instrumentation in the songs all that’s left is the craft of her songwriting. It says much about her skill that her work sounds just as vital now, if not more so, when delivered with just a voice and acoustic guitar as it did backed by a full band, Memphis style horns, and George Drakoulias production.

In many respects it’s a travesty that her audience in the UK is so limited, there must have been 80 of us at The Thekla on a Friday night. However, I suspect that’s no longer her overriding motivation. There are times in the performance that I saw – and also when I saw her play solo at The Radcliffe Centre in Buckingham (a converted church with a grand piano and great acoustics) a couple of years ago – when she and the band are transported in the performance, caught in a moment in which everything else falls away. The Maslow quote that opens this piece about sums it up; the impulse to create, the impulse to connect, irrespective of the size of the crowd, seems to be the motivating force at work. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience but she created a moment that allowed me to, if only briefly, let go of my troubles and regain some perspective. Music can do that.

Songs can save lives. Don’t be scared. Bukowski again: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us”. Now to work on getting my choir to believe it and sing it loudly and often.