Category Archives: 42 records

The start point for 42@42 – 42 records for each of my (at the time) 42 years

And I could be anything if I just put my mind to it…

42. Glory Days – Pulp / Glory Days – Bruce Springsteen

53,000 words, 11 months, 300 or so songs, a very loose interpretation of 42 records, and here we are at the end. So what was all that about then ?

On one level it was a set of posts about some records, from Abba to Zevon. Whilst the artists that I did write about were a pretty fair reflection of what I listen to there’s a long list of people and records that somehow didn’t find their way into the list that I could happily make the case for. The Cardigans’ glorious “Long Gone Before Daylight” album is the most glaring omission in terms of records that I love. Bowie never made it. The Manics never made it either: I could find good reasons for “Motown Junk” or “All Surface, No Feeling” or “Your Love Alone” or the entirety of “The Holy Bible”. No Cowboy Junkies. No Smiths. No PJ Harvey. No Kate Bush. Massive Attack. Portishead. Rilo Kiley. Prince. All sorts of people that I adore that never made it. Posts for another time perhaps.

So, if you read any of the posts and discovered some music because of it then I’m glad. To be honest if you read any of it all then I’m glad. Much as I tried not to get too obsessed with the WordPress stats page I really came to hate those double zero days: no visitors, no views. It was all mostly written for my own benefit but, hey, who am I kidding, having an audience makes it all the more gratifying.

As well as the records it was about me. Whilst you may be thinking that I could have wrapped this up in six words – sad man listens to sad music – I have always been a little verbose and chose to ramble on a bit more than that. There was always a risk that this ended up being an extended version of Springsteen’s “Glory Days” – someone past his best reflecting on former glories. That wasn’t the intent but it does give me an excuse to ensure that Bruce gets yet another mention in the 42 and to watch the none-more-80s video:

If it’s not just a collection of boring stories of glory days then what is it ? There’s another song that bears the name “Glory Days”, tucked away on Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore” album. It’s a song that I probably more readily identified with when I was slightly younger – the nods to single room apartments and wasting days in the café by the station are distinctly 20something references – but the spirit of it still rings true.

If it all amounts to nothing these are still our glory days. There it is again. That acknowledgement that there might not be a greater point to all of this but these moments are still what we have. I have bashed myself around the head repeatedly with this fairly simple conclusion, one day if I bash hard enough it may actually sink in. Not entirely seriously, writing the 42 was, in honour of that number, an attempt to work out what it’s all about. The big one. Life, the Universe, everything (rest in peace Douglas). And I think I did. It’s about moments and love and friendship and community.

For me it’s also about writing. If the slightly up-its-own-arse conceit behind writing these posts was about working out the meaning of life via 42 records of personal significance (slightly up-its-own-arse ? disappeared so far up it has emerged from the top of my own head) then actually the real purpose was to write again. Rather than sit and stare forlornly at a blank piece of paper waiting for my novel to disgorge itself this process gave me a route back to writing.

The key lines for me in “Glory Days” (the Pulp one) are the ones about the promise of potential:

Oh and I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it

And I could do anything if only I could get round to it

I hid behind those lines for a long time with respect to actually trying to write something and I won’t hide behind them anymore. I have started again and I won’t be stopping – otherwise it’s Springsteen’s “Glory Days” that becomes the end note to this project and that isn’t what I want. I’ve read all of the entries in the 42 back to myself. Some of it isn’t great and there’s quite a bit I would change but, you know what, some of it isn’t half bad and I’m proud to have seen it through. I’m sure there will be other posts to come about music and possibly some that are about me but I think I will be actively trying to write more fiction now. I may still end up telling my own story but I may use some other characters and other vehicles to do it.

Hope you enjoyed it and got something from it. So long, for now, and thanks for all the fish.

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Made my mind up to be a black winged bird

41. Black Winged Bird – Nina Persson

This is me.

I love music. Mostly listening but I can muddle my way through a few chords on the guitar. I am tone deaf when it comes to singing – something which I really wish wasn’t true. I briefly had trumpet lessons as a child but the trumpet and I were never going to be close. I used to be able to play the intro to Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” on the piano but it now eludes me. I could probably have a crack at singing it. You might not want me to.

I’m just as likely to laugh at something involved and clever as the crassest, stupidest gag. My all time favourite movie joke is in Steve Martin’s “The Man With Two Brains”: what are those assholes doing on our porch ? Those aren’t assholes… It’s pronounced azaleas. I guess that’s kind of clever and stupid at the same time. That’s the sort of thing I’m most likely to laugh at. I have a good sense of humour (everyone thinks they do though, don’t they ?). I laugh at myself a lot and, given a fair wind and a decent run up, I’d probably make you laugh too.

I sometimes buy books that claim they’ll change my life. Invariably they don’t. I often buy books that don’t claim they’ll change my life. Sometimes they do. Lord Of The Rings changed my life when I was 12 years old (though Star Wars had already done the damage when I was 5). Ken Kesey and Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe blew my mind. Clive James writes in the way that I most aspire to.

I love words. And I mean all words – sometimes if you mean fuck you should say fuck. There’s no offense in words on their own. Context is everything. About a year ago I remembered that I liked to think of myself as a bit of a writer so I started writing again.

I don’t love numbers in the way that I love words but, despite this, I seem to have some aptitude for them. I see patterns in data and build frameworks to understand things. It’s how my mind works. Somewhat accidently I built my career on it. I’m pretty rational and like to see order and causality. I sometimes wonder if my growing realization that life holds far less order and causality than I’d imagined has made me increasingly ill at ease.

I play video games. I was supposed to grow out of it after we got rid of the Commodore Vic 20 when I was about 10. Again after the Spectrum. After the Playstation. Playstation 2. X-box 360. Playstation 3. Still haven’t grown out of it and doesn’t look like I will. Nor do I want to. I mostly play role playing games. So not only do I play video games but I play the nerdiest video games you can play. I usually max out my intelligence stat and make in game choices that are for the common good.

I love sport. Back in the day I was a half decent footballer, what I lacked in finesse I made up for in pace, size, and a low centre of gravity. Or at least I did until I ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament. Bust up my knee. If I’d done it now I’d be in and out of hospital in a day and back to full strength in nine months. I didn’t do it now, I did it then. I’ve had ten operations on that knee: it will never be right and I never kicked a ball again.

I’m an introvert. An introvert in the true sense of the word – my resources and energy are internally focused, not external. People tire me out. Too much external stimulus tires me out. I’m not shy, I don’t entirely lack social skills – it’s just that sometimes I need my own space to recharge. You extroverts might not understand but that’s how we’re built, don’t take it personally. I do sometimes wonder if I correctly balance my need to be alone against feeling lonely.

I’m stubborn and bloody minded about some things, practically horizontal as I’m so laid back about others. If I’m in your corner I’ll fight your corner. I stand my own round. I’m polite, I try to be kind, and I hold doors for people. I think the Oxford comma is a good thing. I serially abuse punctuation though – I am trying to wean myself off dashes and brackets and ellipses (with mixed success…). I get scared and am vulnerable sometimes but don’t much show it. I may have an underlying sense of being weak but a desire to project strength. I over think things.

There are only a handful of people that I love but I love them very deeply. My daughter is the single most important and enriching thing in my life. My wife is the best person I know. They have not always had the best version of me these past couple of years and I sincerely regret that. I have found myself difficult to be around at times so am damn sure other people have too. I’m sorry.

Why ? Well, all of that above is me but then this is sometimes me too:

Churchill had his “black dog”. I have my “black winged bird”. It seems to be a feature of depression that people that live with it characterise it as something separate from them: it isn’t me, it’s this other thing that comes and takes up residence from time to time. The black winged bird that picks me up and takes me away from myself. I can see everything from up there but I’m a long way removed and can’t be reached.

This song isn’t really about depression. It’s hard to read but it’s probably about a failed relationship. That is the sense in which I’ve appropriated it I guess: hard to read and about my failed relationship with myself, or, at least, all parts of myself. It reminds me of aching sadness and absolute loneliness and depression. Perversely I also find it extraordinarily beautiful. The Nina Persson cover is the one I came to first (released as part of loose Irish collective “The Cake Sale”) but the Emm Gryner original is also fantastic.

I guess the point of this post is that I’m not sure what the best way of dealing with depression is. I know… 41 records in with only one to go and I still haven’t worked it out. Slacker. Until very recently I had held it apart from myself, given it some kind of external name – in this case let the talons of some black winged bird rip me out of myself. It might not need such grandiose metaphor and analogy, it might just be a chemical imbalance. The pharmacological solution so readily offered up my local GP might be the right solution. Even if it is then it’s not something to be externalized: it’s part of me. Accepting that it’s part of me and treating it – treating myself – with some compassion might be more helpful than wishing it would go away.

This is sometimes me but I will not let it be all of me. I am all of the things in this post and I don’t want to define myself by my depression or anxiety. It might be part of me but then, so is an occasional compulsion to listen to Meatloaf’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me” and I don’t define myself by that either. Don’t judge (mainly for the Meatloaf thing but, you know, all that mental health stuff too…).

I like to skewer my own self importance with bad jokes. My other favourite joke, apart from the Steve Martin one, is that one about a man taking his wife on holiday to the Caribbean. Jamaica ? No, she wanted to go.

This is me.

Go on and make a joyful sound

40. For A Dancer – Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris

As I’m closing in on the end (of writing about 42 records of personal significance, not “the end”) then I thought I should lighten up proceedings by sticking together a few words about death. You know, just to take the edge off all those pieces about depression and anxiety and all that laugh out loud fare. If there are a set of recurring themes in my writing then uncertainty is certainly one of them – this, however, is one point of certainty: we’re all going to die.

The irony, of course, in thinking about death is that it quickly becomes thinking about life. It’s reasonable when confronted with mortality to give some urgent thought to how you’ve lived, how best to spend the time left, and to wonder what it’s all about. That hoary old chestnut. Nothing like a midlife crisis to bring on a sudden search for meaning.

In some respects my chosen position on a couple of things, namely a belief that this is all there is, no second chances, no afterlife, and that there isn’t a higher, guiding force in the universe, can lead to some on-the-face-of-it bleak conclusions. The point-of-it-all may well be that there is no point. Particles reacting and colliding predictably, governed by the immutable laws of physics, but the major events in your life governed arbitrarily; order and chaos, humans with free will running amok amid those immutable rules. I think the tension between the two is important – there has to be a belief that you’re the master of your own destiny else you either give up or write everything off to fate or surrender yourself to something ineffable. At the same time there’s too much evidence of chaos to ignore: planes crash, people blow themselves up on trains, maniacs run into schools with automatic weapons. Tell the innocents in each of those scenarios that they were masters of their own destiny.

So, in my version, perhaps meaning is found in those moments of balance between the chaos and order; in control whilst things are out of control. Perhaps it’s more an acceptance that things are out of control and the prospect of that is so terrifying that it’s at the heart of that loose conglomeration of neuroses and mental health issues that I like to wrap up as “my problems”. Wiser people than me have grappled with it. The broad consensus, secular position seems to be that fully experiencing the individual moments of life, being very present in those moments, is probably as good as it gets, probably as much as there is. Teenage Fanclub’s “Ain’t That Enough” (number 26 previously in this series of posts) and Po Girl’s “Take The Long Way” (number 31) cover this territory far more eloquently than I have here.

Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer” fits within that family of songs albeit it’s the only one of the three that ponders life through the lens of death. The version of the song that I know is the one on Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris’ “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions” album which, in turn, I’d come to via their brilliant collaborations with Dolly Parton. In truth this is more or less a solo Ronstadt record with Harris adding harmonies (is there any less selfish singer than Emmylou Harris ?) and given the news that she won’t sing again having being diagnosed with Parkinson’s it has acquired further poignancy for me. Chaos up to its arbitrary tricks again.

The song is sung from the perspective of someone saying goodbye at a funeral and reflecting on what it all means: I can’t help feeling stupid standing ‘round, crying as they ease you down. My direct experience of such events is, fortunately, very limited but in all cases Browne / Ronstadt’s next line rings true in spirit to me: ‘cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing, dancing our sorrow away, no matter what fate chooses to play.

The solemnity and sorrow of each occasion was no real reflection of the life that had passed and that we were mourning. That’s not to say that there isn’t and wasn’t value in soberly giving respect to the loss of loved ones but there seems to me to be a difference between that ceremony and the one that the dead might choose for themselves. Do we mourn for ourselves, for the space in ourselves left by the one that is gone ? Speaking on behalf of my future dead self then I’d far rather everyone was dancing. Not some sombre shuffle either: give it your best Jagger strut and, aging limbs allowing, pull a star jump and remember me.

The dancing in “For A Dancer”, of course, doesn’t have to be literal, it’s just a metaphor for living. Browne extends it to wonderful effect in laying down advice from the dead to those left behind:

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

There’s no belief here in certainty (pay attention to the open sky, you never know what will be coming down) but you’d best meet the chaos as well as you can (keep a fire burning in your eye). There’s also something stirring and deeply moving in the unflinching lack of sentimentality in the song’s overall message:

Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Essentially we’re in the same place, with the same conclusion, as “Ain’t That Enough” and “Take The Long Way”. This is it. Experience it, savour it, try to enjoy it and maybe, just maybe, there doesn’t have to be a point to it all. Embrace the chaos.

So you can play this song at my funeral during the sad bit before everyone gets drunk and strikes some poses on the dance floor. It’s about as close to anything in a four minute pop song that gets at the big one: what’s it all about ?

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know.

Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time

39. A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell

Heartbreak. Has ever a subject preoccupied so many songwriters, so many songs ? Specifically the kind of heartbreak that follows the break down of a love affair. Maybe falling in love is the only subject that’s covered even more comprehensively. So, evidently, there’s something potent, something that’s felt deeply, in the marriage and subsequent divorce of hearts and minds. This begs the question: where are those songs in this list ? Other than “December” back at number 9 this has been a heartbreak free zone. Sure, it’s not exactly been a party zone either but songs about lost love haven’t really figured. Have I been so lucky ?

Well, yes, in most senses I have. This is a different post on failings of the heart than I’d have written fifteen or twenty years ago. The perspective inevitably changes when you are fortunate enough to meet and fall in love with someone with whom you don’t subsequently fall out again. The passing of time and security of partnership lessen the memories of those previously painful partings. It’s tempting to discard the past – as much out of respect for the present as anything – but I don’t think my lasting relationship with my wife would have been possible without the prior experiences of loving and learning. There are people (a small number of people) who are inextricably a part of who I am even though our paths have now diverged; paths that ran together once, for varying lengths of time.

At those sharp points of reckoning, the places we agreed (or one or the other declared) to walk separately, there were many, many records of gut wrenching heartbreak. All About Eve’s eponymous debut album and follow up “Scarlet & Other Stories” managed the neat trick of soundtracking both the beginning and the end of my first love. I once found Teenage Fanclub’s “Mellow Doubt” so apposite following the break down of my second love that I was inspired to buy it as a gift for my ex. On reflection its opening lines it gives me pain when I think of you may have needed some explanation to avoid confusion. Wonder if she still has it ? The debut Embrace record was basically purpose built for regret and I had it on repeat for much of early 1999 as my third love disintegrated. I think I appropriated Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks” to further rub salt into my own wounds.

Had I been writing about any of these at the time then the emotional blood on and in the tracks would have been more evident; that gruesome mixture of anger, sadness, failure, rejection, pain and guilt that stews as heartbreak. From a distance it’s easier to touch the beginnings of those relationships – the happiness, the recognition of yourself in someone else, the process of falling in love – than the end. It’s easy with hindsight but the reasons – which at the time may well have been framed in terms of blame – they ended were important as they were about working out who you are and what you need and what you can give. If there was a way of doing that without anyone getting hurt… If you could bottle that and dispense it in pharmacies they’d be queuing round the block. And that’s my only regret in each of those relationships – not that they ended but that someone got hurt in them ending. I wonder if learning that something isn’t right requires getting beyond a point at which you’re so emotionally entangled that it’s impossible to disentangle without something breaking. Usually a heart, or hearts.

The record that’s closest to this expression of lost love and that sense of reminiscence and reflection, remorse and regret, is “A Case Of You”. It’s a measure of Joni Mitchell that she nails a sketch of an entire relationship in three verses, vivid fragments from before our love got lost. We start with a rueful, knowing Mitchell reflecting on things said in better times:

Just before our love got lost

You said “I am as constant as a Northern Star”

And I said “constantly in the darkness, where’s that at ?

If you want me I’ll be in the bar…

Her shoulder shrugging retreat to the bar is exquisitely captured with a wonderfully precise image of her drawing out her old lover’s face and the outline of a map of Canada on the back of a beermat.

On the back of a cartoon coaster

In the blue TV screen light

I drew a map of Canada – oh Canada !

With your face sketched on it twice

The lover in question is reputed to be Leonard Cohen (hence Canada) but it’s the imagery, the poetry, that is so strikingly beautiful in this song. In eight lines we have a complete outline of love gone awry. For me there is pretty much nothing so flawless as the opening verse and chorus of “A Case Of You”. If the point of writing about records is to find those moments where words and music coalesce to cast light on something true then this positively dazzles. It is wonderful. There is nobody – and I mean nobody Bob – who combines poetry and melody like Mitchell.

The other verses flesh out the backstory, deftly colouring in the outline as Mitchell remembers the passion she shared with the unnamed man – her the lonely artist (I live in a box of paints) drawn to someone that seemed fearless (I’m frightened by the devil and I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid). The past and the present collide as she remembers words they shared in the full throes of love and how there’s a thread that still connects them even now the relationship is over.

I remember that time you told me

You said: “love is touching souls”

Surely you touched mine ‘cause

Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time

This section seems key to the song to me. That recognition that those you loved are never completely lost, part of them stays with you, changes you, even as you part and carry on your separate lives. It’s at the absolute heart of the melancholic contradiction in the chorus:

You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling

And I would still be on my feet

I would still be on my feet

That curious mixture of the sweetness of love and bitterness at its end: that sensation that someone that used to intoxicate you doesn’t anymore. I’ve seen alternative interpretations of this record as a straight “love song” – that the could drink a case of you should be read as “I can’t get enough of you” rather than “I can take all of you but it has no effect”. This song ain’t that. It tells you it’s not that in its first line. Mitchell has written plenty of lyrically oblique songs but not many of them are on “Blue” and this is direct and straightforward – and all the more affecting because of it.

There are a handful of records that I believe are perfect: music, lyrics, context, and performance. This is about as perfect as it gets. A perfect song about that most imperfect state of affairs, the end of love. There won’t be other heartbreak songs in the 42 but there doesn’t need to be as this one says it all.

It’s not going to stop ’til you wise up

38. Wise Up – Aimee Mann

If there was ever a movie version of this blog – just suspend belief for a moment – then it’s becoming apparent that the director would need to change the ending. There are five records left to cover, including this one, and in the movie you might reasonably expect those final musical musings to build to some sort of rousing conclusion. A happy ending.

However – *spoilers* – we are probably not headed for a neat and tidy finale in which our hero (again, suspend some of that belief for me) unravels the question to the life, the universe, and everything, unpicks whether the answer really is Deep Thought’s 42, and achieves a deep and abiding sense of contentment. It’s going to be more like the end of Empire Strikes Back than Return Of The Jedi, put it that way.

All of which is a slightly convoluted way of ‘fessing up that the road back from anxiety and depression – assuming optimistically that there is a “back” – seems to be a difficult one. In the neat and tidy version of this blog I returned to work after my sabbatical with a renewed and refreshed perspective on how I wanted to live and floated through productive days in a state of Zen like calm. In the real version I’m still artificially moderating my adrenaline levels with pills, still struck with irrational panic in seemingly innocuous scenarios, and still sometimes hating myself for what has happened to me. Or what I seem to be doing to myself, albeit subconsciously. I’m not even really sure which it is. I guess it’s what I’m doing to myself.

I’ve never really been very good at expressing how I feel. Turns out I may not even be very good at feeling how I feel. I seem to have something of an aversion to fully experiencing how I’m feeling and being okay with it, in all its glorious, uncontrollable, maddening cadences. Just for clarity, I’m not a psychopath, I haven’t lost the capacity to feel, it’s just that I seem to have stopped allowing myself full range of expression without even realizing it. It’s almost as if I have become distrustful of giving free reign to experiencing emotion and have tried to lock it away, either to project some notion of strength or to protect against something painful. It is a very difficult thing for me to admit to vulnerability. I realise that sentence looks somewhat incongruous written on a publically viewable blog, somewhat contradictory, but there’s a distance here – between me writing and someone reading, even if it’s someone that knows me – that feels okay in a way that telling someone the same wouldn’t. Put another way, possibly more simply, it is not too difficult to write here that I cried on my way home from work this week because I felt so defeated by my illness (if that’s what it is – I guess that’s what it is) but I would almost certainly never let you see those tears.

For a long time I have tried to keep a lid on it. Keep it under control. Inevitably it’s all still there, bubbling away under the surface – constant maintenance of which requires no little effort (the Manic’s “No Surface, All Feeling” was on my long list of songs for this blog). That’s not to say that I think that everything would be okay if I magically transformed into a creature driven entirely by its emotional impulses, that would seem to me to just be a different kind of hysterical mess. There’s a balance somewhere and I haven’t found it, don’t seem to know quite how to find it, and the consequence of that is that stuff (eat your heart out Jung) builds up inside me, isn’t given expression, and ends up popping out in other ways: lately in anxiety, previously in depression. In that context anxiety really is a fucker (eat your heart out Freud) as it becomes like a loop – repressed emotion feeding an anxiety response which in turn provokes a repression of emotion for fear of an anxiety response. Rinse and repeat.

Even this post is telling about my essential modus operandi. It’s a pretty rational, balanced assessment of something that is happening to me – or something that currently is me – rather than a splurge of feeling. It’s fairly dispassionate and detached. And that might well be part of my issue. The point of it, I guess, is a recognition and acknowledgement of that fact. The process of actually giving up the barriers I duck behind emotionally may take rather longer.

All of which 6th form psychology brings us to Aimee Mann. I’ve alluded to the fact before that there were a number of artists whose place on the list of my 42 records was never in question and she was absolutely one of them. I first heard her properly via the film “Magnolia” (and this song is part of the soundtrack) and the album she released around the same time, “Bachelor No. 2”. She is consistently smart, sharp, wise, funny, melancholic, warm, and melodic. There are very few wry observers of the human condition via the medium of three minute pop songs that I admire more.

“Wise Up” is a pretty simple song – a beautiful song but pretty simple. In the context of “Magnolia” it works to tie together the stories of the various lost characters in the film, asking each of them to recognise that things won’t improve for them unless they acknowledge some things about themselves and change. It’s about as straightforward as it gets in terms of wrapping a record in to my own personal narrative. The last line of the song might be heard as ambiguous – it’s not going to stop so just… give up – but I have always heard that line as “giving up” modes of behaviour or habits that are damaging rather than the more blunt sense of just giving up entirely. It’s a hopeful giving up rather than a fatal one.

So I suspect, in four record’s time, that not all of this will be resolved; there will be room for a sequel (although I’m not committing to writing about another 42 records). It may even turn into a saga – perhaps I could franchise it and sell tee shirts or something (“keep calm and take propranolol hydrochloride” or something equally snappy). I will try at the very least to ensure it remains a story of wising up and giving up.

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.

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.