Monthly Archives: June 2014

I must be losing my mind

37. Lazarus – The Boo Radleys (with guest appearances from “Indian” – The Cult and “Finest Worksong” – REM)

A cautionary tale from a more guilty time…

Where are they ? Where the fuck are they ? It’s been too long. Something must be wrong, properly wrong. Must be wrong to have been this long. Too long. Too, too long. Wrong. Wrooong. Fuck. Get a grip. Concentrate. Think. Mind enhancing, isn’t that what this is supposed to be ? An upgrade. A stepping up and out of normal consciousness. So thinking shouldn’t be too hard. It should be easier and better in fact. Shouldn’t get stuck on an echoing rhyme of long and wrong bouncing around endlessly in my head. Long. Wrong. Long. How long could this go on ? And not be wrong ? Or be wrong ? How long ?

I seem to have lost something here. It might be my mind. If I sit very, very still perhaps nobody will notice. Not that anyone is here anymore, only me and Andy. He won’t have lost his mind, I think he’s used to the artificial enhancement. I better not let on that mine may have been misplaced, it won’t look good, will make it look like I don’t know what I’m doing. I should let you in on a secret though – I don’t actually know what I’m doing. But if I sit here very, very still and just listen to these songs then nobody need know and in a few hours I expect – at least I’ve been told – that I will find my mind again. The mind I will find. A mind find.

Focus. Don’t start all that again. He will suspect if you start all that again, the rhyming of a madman. Although I don’t think I said it out loud so how would he know ? It feels like he would know. He seems calm, just sitting there listening to the songs, so that’s what I need to be. He seemed pretty calm when we rang the ambulance, the only one thinking we should get out of the house and find a phone box. Best not let them know where we are. Smart thinking. We were just panicking. He seemed calm when the ambulance picked them up. I’m glad he didn’t go with them. He’s the only one who knows what’s going on so I’m glad he stayed. He can’t have been completely calm though because as we were walking back across that petrol station forecourt he didn’t seem to see the fuel lorry siphoning its load into the ground. He can’t have seen it otherwise he wouldn’t have lit that fag as we walked by. We both saw the guy come running out of the booth shouting and waving his hands. We ran.

There could have been an explosion. A spark was all it needed. Like the ones he’s making now, running his thumb around the wheel of that lighter, holding it upside down and watching the flame invert itself. Why does it do that ? I should know this. Heat rises, maybe that’s it. Maybe the flame rises too. Maybe I’ve been looking at that flame for a long time now. It feels like a long time. Best look away before he gets suspicious. Just listen to the songs.

He’s rewinding the tape again. How many times is that ? The same three songs over and over again. “Lazarus” and that one by The Cult and then REM, “Finest Worksong”. Bliss. Despair. Hope. Again and again and again. Did he only tape three songs ‘cos they’re all so long ? So long and not wrong. Steady, hang in there, focus. I know these songs and they’re not that long. Time stretching out and out and out must be one of the enhancements. Only that Cult song – what’s it called, Indian Woman or something – sounds so bleak and I don’t want it to go on and on and on. Standing at the edge of the world. Me too Ian, me too. What happened to you and Billy Duffy after Love anyway ? He suddenly learned the guitar as if he’d had a time machine like at the end of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and you uncovered some long lost Native American heritage and started prancing around with feathers in your hair. Maybe you had some of what we’ve had. Come to think of it you probably had quite a lot. Where do you get the Native American stuff ? Peyote. That’s it. Rhymes with coyote. Shit – where is my mind ?

Standing at the edge of the world… Wonder where they are ? They must have gotten to the hospital by now. Ages ago in fact. We’ve listened to these three songs – the longest, longest songs in the world, the longest songs ever recorded – at least four times so hours must have been and passed. I can’t listen to this one again. I need to tell Andy to turn it off. That refrain, it’s killing me. What if they are standing at the edge of the world ? Not literally. I haven’t lost that much of my mind. Just misplaced some of it. Not literally. What if they lost theirs and they can’t find it again ? He seemed pretty out of it. We’re all pretty out of it. Keeping clear of heavy machinery might be a good idea. What’s Andy doing skinning up again ? Surely that’s not a good idea ? In for a penny I guess.

It started well. That’s what we’ll probably say later when we’re laughing about it. It started well. Like these songs. Wait for Lazarus to come back on ‘cos that’s kind of how it started. A slow vibrating, swelling noise – dislocated shapes echoing out of the silence. Shapes ? Shapes don’t echo. Ignore me, I’m wasted. Settling into that dub bass with the fragments of feedback sounding queasily in the background, everything shifting and sliding slowly out of the old focus and into something different. Shaking your head as if descending into a dream and then that build into the trumpet, rising, rising, swelling and rising, peaking and climbing, a wave crashing over the sea wall you’ve put up around your consciousness. Jesus I am wasted. But that’s how it started. The song ? Not just the song.

I must be losing my mind…. It’s right there in the first verse. It’s not like they’re hiding these clues. It’s not particularly oblique. I must be losing my mind. Lost it and bought the tee shirt. Lost it and we’re a man down, carted off for an adventure in A&E whilst we sit here in silence and listen because we don’t know what else to do and don’t have control of our brains anymore. But it started well.

And now it’s The Cult again and standing at the edge of the world and, presumably, slipping off the edge of the world and tumbling into some terrible abyss, never to return. Except… except hang in there for a few minutes – it will feel like a few hours but believe that it’s a few minutes – and REM will roll around again. “Finest Worksong” is the most aptly titled song in the world. Listen to it blazing out of that cheap little tape player, all defiance and pride and get-up-and-go. I want to roll up my sleeves. Andy wants to roll up a joint. He is rolling one up. No wonder we’re not finding our minds, he must have done this every time that song has come on. Worksong, roll one up. Rewind tape. Smoke joint. Listen to Lazarus and believe we are touching the outer limits of a higher state of being. Finish smoking. Listen to The Cult and believe we are about to be pitched into the deepest reaches of hell itself, taunted by Ian Astbury, possibly brandishing a tomahawk. Worksong. Repeat. Must break the cycle but unable to speak. This way madness lies…

What was that ? What the hell was that ? Shit, it’s the phone. It’s… Andy’s answering. How can he still function ? What ? They’re okay ? They’re sitting behind a curtain in A&E on a bed laughing their heads off whilst we’ve been here in despair with Ian Astbury and REM and The Boo Radleys ? If I had any pieces of my mind left I’d be giving them one now. But they’re alright. And that means we’ll be alright.

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Sanvean

36. Sanvean (I Am Your Shadow) – Lisa Gerrard

There’s a moment in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, about three minutes in, when Merry Clayton, in duet with Jagger, gives herself over to her performance so completely that Jagger is spontaneously moved to acknowledge what he’s hearing. Her voice threatens to break open, cracks on the line “murder yeah”, and he lets out a gleeful, slightly awed “woo” in response; completely natural, unforced and without artifice. Clayton had been called up in the middle of the night to see if she would come down to the studio to record a vocal. She hadn’t heard of the Stones but, encouraged by her husband, she duly turned up, hair still in curlers, and talked through the lyrics before delivering her peerless performance in two or three takes. She was pregnant at the time and sang sitting on a stool. Tragically she miscarried later that night, possibly a result of the stress and strain in the performance.

Even stripped of the surrounding context it’s an astonishing recorded moment, you don’t need Clayton’s back story to recognise the brilliance and intensity of her performance. Knowing it makes the song even more chilling. It’s telling that trying to replicate Jagger’s response comes across as a little flat on the page: “woo”. That is broadly, phonetically, the sound he makes but it’s nigh on impossible to impart the complex range of feeling, from encouragement to admiration to delight to astonishment, that he lets slip in one sound without actually hearing it. Similarly noting that Clayton’s delivery “cracked” in the verse scarcely does justice to the ragged, impassioned, desperate pleading in her voice unless you hear the tones and textures as well as listen to or read the words. You can hear the song here (link) introduced by Clayton’s vocal separated out as an individual track: it is magnificent, terrifying, and simultaneously one of the most inspirational and heart breaking things I’ve ever heard.

Music can tap emotion directly. I think, when you strip away everything else I’ve written in the 42 so far, that’s what it fundamentally does for me. In hearing the direct expression of feelings in a performance I can experience more fully my own. It might be too simplistic to say, to paraphrase Nick Hornby, that I particularly listen to sad songs because I feel sad but there’s some truth in that. I do genuinely think there’s solace there too, I think that in experiencing that sadness it makes me feel better – this isn’t just a form of emotional masochism. Or at least I don’t think it is.

There’s a host of singers who express aspects of the human condition through sound – rather than just through their lyrics – for me. It’s why I’m generally not particularly fussed by overly technical singers; someone hitting a note beyond the seventh octave leaves me cold if it’s done just for the sake of showboating and doesn’t serve the song. There has to be, as Bruce Lee might put it, emotional content: don’t miss all that heavenly glory and all that. So I hear it as plainly in Jeff Buckley’s pitch perfect cry at the end of “Grace” just as I hear it in Kurt Cobain’s somewhat more ragged screams throughout Nirvana’s songs. It’s there in Future Island’s Sam Herring’s last-chance-saloon performance on Letterman – grunts and growls and vocal tics – and it’s there in Sinead O’Connor’s take on Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (it’s there with or without the tear rolling down her cheek in the video). Dusty Springfield had it in spades (listen to the majestic Goffin / King song “Goin’ Back”) and so did Amy Winehouse – away from all the attendant bullshit that surrounded her life just listen to “Back To Black” and it is an extraordinary record.

At the extreme end of that spectrum of singers that really connect with their song is Lisa Gerrard. Former singer with Dead Can Dance, and latterly probably most famous as the vocalist on much of Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack, Gerrard often sings in her own fabricated language. There is no room for words to either help or hinder the delivery of her message: if they mean anything at all then only she knows. As a listener you’re free to purely experience the sound of her voice and allow it to provoke or evoke.

I have very little idea as to what “Sanvean (I Am Your Shadow)” is officially about. By officially I mean what the artist may have said it’s about. There’s relatively little about it to be found online beyond some odd speculation (“is it sung in Algerian ?” – no it isn’t) and Gerrard only gives away that it was written at a time when she was missing her children who were in a different country. For me there’s certainly a deep sense of melancholy in the song, a bottomless, beautiful sadness conjured in her haunting vocal. On some level I had always taken death as one of the themes of the song, it always feels like there’s a sense of mourning in her voice here – a keening quality that conveys both the release and sorrow in that final parting. On that read I guess the “shadow” could be referenced almost directly as some sort of spectral, ghostly presence watching over those left behind – whereas if it’s a more straightforward lament to missing her children then the shadow is just a reminder that she’s always with them even when far away. It’s possible that my read has been influenced by the song’s appearance in West Wing episode “7A WF 83429” – although explicitly used to reference the mobilisation of troops to recover President Bartlet’s daughter the prospect of death hangs pretty heavily over the entire scene.

Almost irrespective of the specifics the song is quite simply utterly mesmerising, almost transcendentally beautiful. I tinker with writing and I can find my way around a guitar so, often, I can at the very least begin to understand the mechanics of a song. Whilst I couldn’t create any of the songs in this series of posts in most cases I have some comprehension for how they work, how they’re built. “Sanvean” exists way beyond my comprehension and I can understand why some people have been moved to write (in various places on the web) that they detect something spiritual here, the presence of God. That’s not to say that I entirely agree – the song hasn’t caused an epiphanous turnaround in my atheism – but it gives me pause. There is something spiritual here and something deeply, profoundly moving.

When my daughter is older and wants to talk about what I believe constitutes a human soul I think I will play her this by way of a start.

The moon and shadow

Just Write (belated catchup): June 9th

I have been somewhat slack in typing up any and all output from recent writing group classes so back to the meeting from the 9th. We spun together a story based on a three stage trigger – a set of three top-of-mind nouns, an imagined landscape, and a character we’d never really thought about before. So, here’s what came of that:

……

Lana jumped on the the back of the mech-bus as it began to move, her umbrella pulling itself shut automatically behind her. She didn’t much notice as the mirco evaporators briefly flared, harvesting and stray water molecules from the umbrella’s surface. Damn pilots she thought. Since they put through that AI upgrade you might as well forget the timetables. Behaving like those real drivers she’d read about from the past, coming and going as they pleased.

She sat. It was only five minutes to the University but she’d been out in that downpour for a while and the seats had the same tech as her umbrella. Weather was getting worse. More extreme even here. God knows how people coped near the equator now, those that were left anyway.

The windows facing her were all running ads. She realised that she’d forgotten to turn her pers-com to private and her presence had been registered. A sequence of commercials tailored to her began to run, isolated on the window in front of her. A set of texts for her study to be sent direct to her personal logs. A bag that matched her umbrella. So far, so predictable she thought, remembering why she ordinarily held her settings as private. Then the window filled with a desolate, grey expanse of rock. A voice: “ever think of starting again ?”. You’re not selling this, she thought. The shot panned to a solitary footprint in the dust, then up and away from the print to an American flag, firmly planted in the ground. With a start she realised this place to start again wasn’t here. It was the moon. They were trailing the colony program again. But why her ? She knew, or thought she knew, enough about the algorithms in the ads that tailored content and messages to individuals. Why did they think she would want to go there ?

……

In case you’re wondering my three nouns were umbrella, bus and University. I had intended to write about the moon but it somehow turned into a pre colonisation story (or the start of one at least). I enjoyed putting it together in the class and could have quite happily spent much longer in 2100 or thereabouts although I’m not sure there’s much new in the final result. Anyway, homework was a stripped back version of the exercise in the class in that each of us gave the person to our left a single word as the trigger for a story. Mine was “shadow” which resulted in this:

……

“Your father lives in shadow.”

“But he lives ?”

The question echoed around the chamber, bouncing back from unfurnished stone. The tomb was cool and still, the question remaining unanswered by the dead. Varane asked it again of the living.

“He lives ?”

“Aye, he lives boy. If dwelling in the shadow can be called living.”

Varane turned. Only Zamar would dare address him as boy, especially in this place amongst generations of his line. Zamar met the boy’s questioning look, narrowed his eyes as if silently appraising him, before speaking again more softly.

“When a man crosses to the shadow Varane he is lost to us. None has ever been reached, none returned. He may dwell there a day, a week, a year – your father is a strong man – but eventually we will lay him here.”

As Zamar spoke Varane paced the tomb, every couple of strides taking him past another generation, names from the past, names and deeds he’d been learning since he could read. He paused at the far end of the room and brushed dust from a name etched into the largest and oldest stone coffin: Ombrager. He lowered his head and whispered:

“How many ?”

“My liege ?” asked Zamar.

Varane lifted his head but did not turn. “How many Zamar ? How many of them…” he raised his arm gesturing at the row of coffins. “How many of them were lost to shadow ?”

“Varane…” began Zamar advancing towards the boy. “It is not yet time to know. You are still so young my liege.” There was a note of kindness in his voice.

“Not time ?” Now Varane did turn. “Not time ? My father lives in shadow and it is not time ?” He strode towards the older man jabbing a finger accusingly. “It is past time Zamar. For all you call me boy it is well past time. Ten generations lie here. How many Zamar ? How many were lost to it ?”

Zamar didn’t move and the two stood face to face in the middle of the chamber, neither breaking the other’s gaze.

“Ten my liege” he said flatly.

Momentarily Varane’s eyes betrayed his shock; a flicker that spoke of incomprehension and a touch of fear. Just as quickly it was gone and Zamar could discern nothing in his grey eyes beyond implacable resolve.

“All of them. Every Ombrager Varane. Some young, some old but all lost to shadow.”

“And none ever reached ?” asked Varane.

“None” replied Zamar gently. “No man passing to shadow has returned.”

Abruptly both men looked back up the tomb, the door had been shoved open and a slight figure stood silhouetted in its frame, light streaming around it. The figure stepped forwards into the tomb, planted hands on hips and grinned.

“Zamar has you right brother” she said. “No man has lived in shadow and returned. But I have.”

“Aurore ? Is that really you ? How… how can this be ?” Varane stepped tentatively towards his sister.

“It’s me little brother” she said. “I lived in shadow and I have returned.”

……

I may return to this (although that would entail working out actually what the hell the shadow is beyond some vague allegorical ideas) as I quite like it. I would change the names as the first couple were nicked from the French football team as I was watching them play in the World Cup at the same time as writing… the latter ones (Ombrager, Aurore) had more of a point relevant to events when translated. Sacre bleu. 

Send that stuff on down to me

35. There She Goes, My Beautiful World – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

There are days when nothing comes. Days that stretch into weeks that unwind into months and before you realise it, years have passed. It always starts with a blank page, or a page almost blank save for a half formed jotting of an idea: something that felt alive in your mind but that you manage to kill as soon as you set it down in words. That’s how it has been for me these past twenty odd years, my twenty years of pretending to be a writer.

Before I did my degree I was a different kind of writer, one who actually wrote stuff. You may be thinking that’s an altogether better kind of writer for a writer to be. You’d be right. Write ? Right. I’m not going to pretend that the various false endings for one of Joyce’s Dubliners’ stories that I submitted just-for-the-hell-of-it on top of my English A level homework were necessarily particularly good but the point was that I wrote them. Neither will the self deprecating poems that I used to write holed up in a house in Cornwall, sharing my temporary bedroom with a washing machine, during my O levels (GCSEs for strict historical accuracy) be troubling any anthologies anytime soon but, again, the point was they actually made it on to the page. As did thousands and thousands of words, scribbled away like a West Country Adrian Mole, in various editions of my epic teenage diaries. Epic in the sense of there being a lot of it rather than the Homerian sense. Helen of Troy did not feature. Caroline of the number 20 bus did. You probably wouldn’t go to war for her. To be fair she wouldn’t even go to see “Top Gun” with me.

Then something changed. I started talking about writing a lot but didn’t actually write anything. All through University, three years, sitting around talking about the idea of publishing a novel. Picking up my first few jobs in and around Nottingham and thinking how temporary they would all be because I was going to be a writer. And then twenty years went by and I hadn’t written a word.

Which brings us to “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”, Nick Cave’s helter skelter, chaotic rallying cry for inspiration; a plea for help to a lost muse, his personal puzzling out of the creative process.The temptation in writing about a Nick Cave record is, frankly, to just reproduce his lyrics and let them speak for themselves: he is, for my money, the finest lyricist working today. Working seems to be the right word too: Cave famously sets about his craft as if it were a job, taking himself off to his office every day and grinding out the hours. Therein may lie a clue as to why I went twenty years without writing a word…

Cave captures perfectly the vagaries of artists’ approaches to creativity and the fact that various ailments and disadvantages were no impediment to their work:

John Willmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox

Nabokov wrote on index cards, at a lectern, in his socks

St John Of The Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box

And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks

We even get a little creative license wrapped up this section of the song. Johnny Thunders didn’t actually write “Chinese Rocks” (it was mostly Dee Dee Ramone) and it would be slightly surprising if Cave didn’t know this but you trying scanning Dee Dee Ramone instead of Johnny Thunders in that line. The next verse runs with the same idea:

Karl Marx squeezed his carbunlces whilst writing Das Kapital

And Gauguin, he buggered off man, and went all tropical

While Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull

And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St Vincent’s Hospital

I’m not sure there’s anyone else working in what you might loosely term “rock” music today – or indeed in the past – that takes you from Karl Marx and his carbuncles (true) to Paul Gauguin’s adventures in Tahiti. There isn’t anyone else quite as smart, funny, and razor sharp (in words as well as tailoring) as Cave.

Other sections of the song are concerned with trying to recapture the muse, our narrator lying here with nothing in my ears, just lying here with nothing in my head. His pleading for inspiration becomes ever more desperate, ever more imploring, starting out with – I will kneel at your feet, I will lie at your door – and ending up with – I will be your slave, I will peel you grapes, up on your pedestal.

In truth I don’t really know where it comes from. Of late my subconscious has been playing havoc, merrily provoking anxious physical responses to threats that only it sees, but occasionally it also spits out something positive. I was struck by it again at my writing group last night (which I will write up separately) as an exercise that started with a random set of nouns, an imagined landscape, and a character you’ve never met span out into a set of stories in the room that, twenty minutes earlier, hadn’t existed. The people in the room, I suspect, wouldn’t even have known how to reach for those stories and yet, with a bizarre set of prompts, there they were.

I wonder how Cave really works. He can’t, I imagine, sit in his office for eight hours and solidly produce line after line after line. There must be time gazing in agony at a blank page ? A quick browse round the internet ? Doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy that checks his Facebook page very often. Or ever. Maybe it isn’t like that. Maybe he genuinely produces vast reams of stuff and then judiciously mines it down to the gold.

I still struggle with the process. It’s still hard work committing the words to page and not hating every single one of them. But sometimes, out of the work, comes a sense of extraordinary satisfaction that I just don’t get with anything else. It happened last night in the writing group – not even necessarily because my output was that great but I just got lost in it at a time when I needed to get lost in something – and it happens in fits and starts when I write this blog. Courage and persistence and work: I think if the last seven or eight months have taught me anything they’ve taught me that those are the key. The difference between being a writer who doesn’t write, and consequently who can always hide behind a sense of might have been, and one who does, even if it means producing a whole lot of rubbish for the sake of the odd moment of inspiration.

Cave should have the final words. He is a master of them:

So if you got a trumpet, get up on your feet, brother, and blow it

And if you got a field, that don’t yield, get up now and hoe it

I look at you, you look at me, and deep in our hearts babe we know it

That you weren’t much of a muse but I weren’t much of a poet