Monthly Archives: December 2013

They’re singing deck the halls…

20. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love

I make no apologies for the faint whiff of predictability in posting about a Christmas song four days before Christmas. I really hadn’t intended to but I’ve found it particularly hard to write about any music in the last couple of weeks and I think part of the issue has been the steady invasion of Christmas music into my auditory landscape; in shops, on the radio, and increasingly at home.

This got me thinking about all those very specific, seasonal songs and why it hadn’t occurred to me, when initially drafting the list of the 42, to include any of them. The reason is obvious, of course. I drafted the initial list in August and, more than any other type of song, these are records that I only really think about for a finite period every year and then they’re gone. But think of them I do and, every year, they’re a big part of my musical life so, on reflection, it feels remiss to not acknowledge that.

I also got to thinking about the lack of Springsteen thus far in the 42 and, post rationalising furiously, decided that I was covering a number of his key influences first – deconstructing some of the elements of his appeal before tackling the man himself. It would have been quite smart if I’d set out with a deliberate intention to do that but it’d also be completely untrue so I will just have to claim it now as a happy accident. So there’s been a post on Dylan and some bits and pieces on Motown and 60s soul records, still missing Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Animals, Van Morrison and James Brown (to name but some), but now, at least, I can add Phil Spector to the list.

Spector has been hugely influential in how popular music sounds, famously through his wall of sound production techniques; progressively layering multiple tracks and a large range of instrumentation to create a big sound. He was at the forefront of the explosion of girl groups in the 60s, writing and producing for The Crystals and The Ronettes, and was at the helm of two of the finest recordings, in my opinion, of the 20th century: The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”. His influence covers everyone from Brian Wilson to The Jesus & Mary Chain and was an acknowledged touchstone for Springsteen, particularly with respect to the sound he created on “Born To Run”.

Spector’s career petered out through the 70s and he largely disappeared in the 80s and 90s before he was found guilty of second degree murder in 2009; he had shot actress Lana Clarkson at his home six years previously. He had always been a somewhat infamous figure – allegedly frequently pulling guns on recording artists working with him – and now his reputation will always be tarnished by the severity of that crime. Before all of that, back when he was establishing himself as a producer, Spector put out “A Christmas Gift For You”, a collection of festive songs from his stable of artists at the time. It even includes a take on “Silent Night” over which Spector himself thanks everyone for working on the record and wishes us all a merry Christmas; it’s slightly bizarre to reconcile his softly spoken tidings with the man he evidently became.

“A Christmas Gift For You”, which is pretty much brilliant throughout, also includes this: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. It’s far and away my favourite festive song. I share the general appreciation for, say, “Fairytale of New York” and have a big soft spot for The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” but this is the one. Start to finish it is the work of a genius (and I don’t use that word lightly). First sixteen seconds, those big chords echoing out on the first beat of each bar, tambourine (sleigh bells ?) counting out the tempo, strings shimmering in the background, bass climbing up a scale, before the drums accelerate us into the vocals and that first burst of “Christmas !”. That, right there, is the entire experience of the expectation and anticipation of the run up to Christmas climaxing with the day itself wrapped up in sixteen seconds. Darlene Love hasn’t even opened her mouth yet.

When she does she absolutely lets loose and belts out the song. No frills, just a show stopping display of raw singing power. It’s a vocal that could level buildings. It’s testament to Love that she invests some fairly straightforward lyrics – girl misses boy at Christmas, wants him to come home – with real feeling. There’s a desperate longing in her performance which culminates in the pleading “please please please” section towards the song’s close; it’s terrific hairs standing up on the back of your neck stuff. Spector, of course, was something of a specialist in evoking that sense of yearning – “Be My Baby” later elevating it to stratospheric heights.

Christmas for me has taken on a series of rituals over the years; whether it’s decorating the tree, watching “Elf”, putting out a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve (and whatever booze we have in for Santa, this year will be port), and visiting family and friends. This song is part of that fabric and, as such, carries lots of happy associations. It always makes me smile.

Halfway through writing this it occurred to me that this is such a quintessentially Spector sounding record and consequently, in some respects, such a quintessentially E-Street Band sounding record, that surely Springsteen must have covered it. Especially given that he’s always had no qualms about goofing around with a fun Christmas song when the time of year is right.

Sure enough here it is. It works well (not as perfectly as Darlene Love’s peerless take – there have been tons of covers of this record but none of them get close to the original) and I feel vindicated in my notion of deconstructing his influences ! If only I’d kept quiet it could have looked like a brilliant pre-conceived plan.

So, Merry Christmas, and if you want to make a case for why, for example, I should have gone with Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” – also produced by Spector funnily enough – then let me know in the comments. Would love to hear which festive tune does it for you.

Mirror in the mirror

19. Spiegel im Spiegel – Arvo Part                                                                                          2011

More than any other record in this list I would urge you, before you read any further, to take ten minutes out and just listen to this one. Quite aside what it means to me and the associations it has it is a sublimely beautiful piece. If you’ve never heard it then it’s worth hearing “clean” before  anything I might have to say about it becomes part of your association to it.

Back ? Good. It’s quite something isn’t it ?

My usual start point in approaching any of these posts is to try to learn a little more about the record in question, mostly by listening to it but also by reading about it. Sometimes the latter exercise throws some new light on the music for me but often it’s just checking things I’d always assumed as fact: Abba getting divorced, Al Kooper sitting in on “Like A Rolling Stone” by accident, the difficult gestation of The Wall. I’m not sure what those facts add. I’m not sure that they particularly tell me, or you, anything about my relationship with the record. Not really. They tell you I can find my way around Wikipedia, probably know a little bit of this stuff anyway after *cough* roughly thirty years of listening to music, but beyond that ?

There have been pieces that have gotten closer to the spirit of what I’ve been trying to do I guess. The posts that reflect my love for my wife and family, that’s closer. The poetry. The thinly disguised fiction. All closer. All harder for me to do and all somewhat clumsily executed. But closer I think. I’m always simultaneously most satisfied and most disappointed with those ones  – satisfied that I tried and that it rings emotionally true, disappointed that it’s not better written. The other stuff is enjoyable (to me) but I’m less sure what it’s for – the Dylan piece, for example, is okay but the bulk of it, despite its early protestations to the contrary, is trying to do a Greil Marcus-esque job and there’s really no need; he’s pretty good at doing that job already. The more personal bit, the section about “having no secrets to conceal” flirts with something emotionally true to me and then gets cold feet, backs away.

The reality is that there is no “big” secret to conceal. The truth is that I suffer from – or suffer with might be more accurate – depression. Some days it’s bad. Some days, most days fortunately, I don’t really feel it at all. I’ve had long stretches of years in my life without a murmur. Then, in the last couple of years, I’ve had stretches when it’s gotten on top of me, been in danger of being swallowed by the rising tide.

Not every song in this list is about depression (“thank god” – entire rest of reading world*) but this one, for me, is. It’s the one that let me admit to myself what the problem was and start to get some help.

So, back to my usual approach, if we research “Spiegel im Spiegel” then we get something like this (it’s from Wikipedia – as I know absolutely nothing about classical music then I’m prepared to trust it as a reliable guide…):

Spiegel im Spiegel is a piece of music written by Arvo Part in 1978 just prior to his departure from Estonia. The piece is in the tintinnabular style of composition, wherein a melodic voice, operating over diatonic scales, and tintinnabular voice, operating within a triad on the tonic, accompany each other. It is about ten minutes long.

Okay. I got the bit about Estonia. 1978. Ten minutes long. That stuff in the middle might as well have been in Estonian for all I was able to understand it and, do you know what, even if I possessed the technical knowledge to decipher the sentence it still would have told me precisely nothing about my involvement with that piece of music. But that’s what I do, I try to understand stuff – try to take the songs apart to see what makes them work – rather than just sometimes experience it. In microcosm it’s what I do in life, I’m not happy unless I can rationalise something – solve it by understanding it – and sometimes there isn’t a rationale. Sometimes you just have to experience it, let yourself feel it, and wait for it to pass.

I don’t even remember how I found this piece of music. Poking around the web now there seems to be some concern that it’s almost become too ubiquitous, if something can be too ubiquitous. Is it one of those absolutes like unique ? Whatever, it was a surprise to me that it’s well known enough to even provoke a debate. It’s an odd thing to just find though, almost ten minutes of minimalist classical music – it’s not even as if any of the various algorithm sites I sometimes use would have thrown it up as a “people who liked… also liked…” recommendation. Let’s accept it as a gift and call it fate.

My memory of hearing it, whilst not a happy one, is crystal clear. I was lying on the sofa at home. I was spending a lot of time doing that, dimly aware that all was not entirely well. There had been an unprecedented run of what you might call bad luck or you might just figure was how life plays out sometimes; losing a job, struggling a bit with loss of status in a new one, reconstructing my knee (again), some unexpected and particularly unpleasant surgery, and discovering that I’d managed to displace my jaw joint. Away from my house you would never have known. Maybe that was part of the problem, trying to tackle it all myself for fear of letting anyone know that I was struggling. My wife knew of course and I will be forever sorry for the burden that it placed on her.

The circumstantial stuff wasn’t the real issue though. Each element on its own wasn’t ideal but was manageable. Even all of them together might have been okay if I’d not been pre-disposed to mental health problems. Am I pre-disposed ? Is anyone ? Maybe that’s the wrong phrasing. I’ve certainly suffered at various times in my life with mental health problems and this set of challenges pushed me further and further back into myself until I thought I couldn’t get out.

And then I heard this. Whilst that sounds a bit like it’s come straight from the “and with a single bound he was free” school of deus ex machina it genuinely was like that. I lay on the sofa listening to this and it was like someone had thrown me down a torch into the dark pit that I’d taken up residence in – the torch lasted long enough for me to see where I was and realise I was in trouble and probably wasn’t going to get out on my own. It enabled me to see myself very clearly. I don’t know if it’s the repetition or the tempo or just the still tranquility in this piece of music but whatever it is it just allowed me enough space and distance to understand.

Part moved from Estonia and spent much of his life in Berlin. I never studied German and know next to nothing of the language. Until I started this post in my usual researching fashion it didn’t even occur to me to translate the title: it means “mirror in the mirror”. Imagining two mirrors, endlessly reflecting themselves, disappearing into infinity in their planes, is absolutely the essence of how “Spiegel im Spiegel” works for me. For me it’s profoundly moving and desperately sad but also meditative and extraordinarily beautiful.

So it might seem a little strange to be so forthcoming now but there is method in my madness. After a while it’s just tiring carrying around the lie that everything’s always okay. Not allowing the bad stuff expression becomes part of the problem. It’s not about sympathy but I guess it is about empathy. It’s also an acknowledgement that lots of people either have or will experience something like this in their life and I guess this is my small attempt to let them know that I can empathise with that and that things can get better. Don’t try to do it on your own though. People will surprise you (in a good way). Find a doctor, find a therapist, find your family and friends, and they will help you find yourself.


* based on current stats “entire rest of reading world” actually means about 4 or 5 people a day. Surely one will go viral one day ? What’s that you say ? Less depression, more videos about cats. Ah, now I see where this is going wrong…

Look ! A cat: