Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Go your own way

The invite had sat on my kitchen table for a couple of weeks before I really looked at it. I’d assumed it was some sort of alumni fundraising circular; the usual plea for funds to refurbish the science labs or name a building after some long dead headmaster. I hadn’t dismissed it, it wasn’t mentally earmarked for the shredder, but it was a long time since I’d really thought about school. Seeing that name again, the old latin motto, brought back memories I’d long since let settle. They’d taken a long time to sink and silt over and the envelope shone out at me like the search lamp on some sort of submersible come to dredge my past. I’d had to google the motto. Ironically it was ‘ad perpetuam memoriam’.

The fact that there was a reunion wasn’t the thing, at first, that I noticed. I was fixated on the opening paragraph of the letter and three words in particular. Twenty five years. There was something about seeing it in black and white that shook me out of myself, took me out of my comfortable, self imposed solitude. Not a content comfortable. More a best-we-can-do-is-make-him-comfortable comfortable. I was sober after smoking too much in my 20s and drinking too much in my 30s but I was still rounding off the sharp edges of living, now through routine and work and exercise. I didn’t feel much anymore – my heart rate only spikes now in spin classes – but that seemed better than the relentless sense of disappointment and dislocation of the past couple of decades.

Twenty five years. The words seemed to press play on a montage of memories I didn’t know my brain had edited together. It had done a pretty professional job. There was a soundtrack. Soft filters. I’m sure we didn’t all look that good. I know we were all younger but the photographic evidence would suggest a greater number of dodgy haircuts and bad fashion choices. I knew because I’d pulled all the old ones out to look through. Me and K seven or eight years ago at someone’s 35th birthday, the whole night spent fielding questions about when we were going to get a place, when I was going to pop the question. It was round about the time the penny dropped for me with Bob Dylan. Maybe just after it fell apart, I don’t properly recall. She should have been everything I wanted: smart and funny and confident. Like all the bits of myself that I liked reflected straight back at me. I can’t tell you why it didn’t really work out.

There were earlier pictures when me and S were together, mostly late night, early morning pictures. We were always laughing. Half the time we were high as kites which explains some of it but there’s a kind of youthful mania in those shots that I barely recognise now. Back when we thought we were indestructible and the world was laid out solely for us to experience and enjoy. There’s a couple of pictures of my flat in Harrow, presumably taken sometime in the aftermath of great love number 2 imploding. The flat’s littered with pizza boxes, my old acoustic guitar propped up in the background, a copy of ‘After The Goldrush’ on vinyl set in front of it. Looks suspiciously like I staged that shot. This was all pre-instagram and social media though so I’m not sure who I was trying to impress. Possibly myself. I don’t really listen to Neil Young anymore. Better to close that whole period off.

There’s only one picture of Anna. The American Girl. Someone at school must have had a polaroid – first time round before they came back as some kind of ironic, kitsch reminder of more innocent, less digital times. She’s gazing off into the middle distance, knees tucked up under her chin, hand resting on top of one of them with her obligatory silk scarf tied around her wrist. I’m not in it but I remember it. I was sat a couple of feet away, eyes fixed on her as she looked out towards some imagined future. I was always sat a few feet away staring at her in those days.

I wasn’t in touch with anyone from that far back. I’d often wondered why you’d never written but as the years had passed I’d accepted that I must have simply misjudged the connection. Mistaken your amusement for affection. It had taken me a long time. I think it’d have been easier if there hadn’t been that one moment, the day you left, when we held each other. I felt awkward at first but you wrapped your arms around my back and buried your face in my neck. You said something but I didn’t quite catch it, your voice muffled by my body. It sounded like ‘I’d give you my world’ but I don’t know now. Memories play tricks. I must have listened to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ a hundred times after you left, anything that Stevie sang on, anything that spoke to heartbreak in a language that we shared, and maybe I just came to believe that in your moment of leaving that you were quoting lyrics back to me. You were packing up. Years later I assumed you’d long since been shacking up too.

I put the invite back onto the kitchen table. I knew without checking my calendar that I was free the night it was on. I was always free. That night I put ‘Go Your Own Way’ on for the first time in too many years and all I could hear was Lindsey Buckingham singing ‘everything’s waiting for you’ over and over again.

Advertisements

Tangled up in blue

I didn’t get Dylan until I was 33. I don’t know why it didn’t happen earlier. There was a time in my mid 20s, a time half lost in a fug of smoke, incensed and insensible, when I remember really trying to get him. I was listening to a lot of Neil Young and it seemed like a logical progression. Maybe I had it back to front. Everything was a little back to front then, dealing with the fall out from the end of love number four. It even sounded a bit like a Dylan song. Talkin’ love number four blues. Ballad in desponden-cee minor. Maybe not. Look, he’s a genius that shaped the entire cultural landscape of the twentieth century. I’m not. I’m just someone chalking up too many failed love affairs, measuring them all against a teenage friendship with a girl from America who disappeared, and finding them all wanting.

I think an appreciation for Bob is hard won. I don’t think it’s something that just slots into place instantly. There’s that snare shot at the start of Like A Rolling Stone, like a starting gun for a century, but otherwise it doesn’t offer itself up easily. You have to work at it. Stick with it, live with it for a while, let it percolate into your soul. Perhaps that’s the great lesson here: that anything worthwhile is going to take a little work. Anything including you but I guess it’s a bit late for that.

You choose your poison. I got tired of feeling blunt so I knocked the smoke on the head sometime in 2012. My standard joke is that I quit after discovering it wasn’t going to be part of the Olympics in London: that I’d trained all those years for nothing. I think I had a line about being disqualified for taking performance enhancing drugs as well. One of those standard, semi rehearsed bits of conversation you carry round with you. Scarily enough, if by some oversight on the part of the IOC, pot smoking had been approved as a discipline (or an indiscipline I guess) than I’d have backed myself for a medal. Probably not gold. It’s the sort of event where you could imagine none of the participants quite rousing themselves to strive for the gold but I reckon I’d have split the bronze with some other lost stoner. Maybe from Estonia. There you go, another Dylan-esque turn of phrase for you.

It was easier after I left the flat in Harrow, escaped further up the Met Line into Metroland. Out here it’s all Majestic Wine and micro brew shops. A much more respectable narcotic selection to desensitise yourself and get lost in. I buried the memory of you, phosphorescent number four, in expensive reds and dry whites. It was cheaper to buy more than six bottles so there was better value in oblivion. There were occasional moments of reflection as I was stewed in the booze: why didn’t it work, was it you, was it me, wasn’t life simpler sitting up on a balcony kicking round stories about Stevie Nicks with the smartest, sassiest girl you ever met? I keep coming back to that last one. I see friends now pair off and proclaim that they’ve found their soul mate. I always shied away from the phrase. It seemed a bit, well, shit. Maybe I’ve softened lately. Maybe I think I let mine slide away. Not just my soul mate. My accomplice in chief, my co-conspirator, my confidant, my touchstone. Time distorts memory and perhaps I just see the past as a rose tinted hue, all Stevie Nicks silk scarves and bare feet and incense burners, and perhaps it wouldn’t have been that simple.

That’s why I didn’t get Dylan until I was older. He’s complex. Life looks pretty simple when you’re young and you figure getting knocked down isn’t such a big deal: you’re spry enough to pick yourself up and go again. It hurts a bit more these days. Takes a little longer to find my feet each time I lose them. There’s more dust to dust down. It’s all a bit more complicated and that’s the thing that Bob speaks to. After we finished I sank into ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and didn’t surface for weeks. Just absorbed it until it was part of me. Didn’t try to learn it (I could never get Dylan’s picking down). Just drowned in it.

Got tangled up in it as I untangled myself from you.

America/Idea

I fell in love with an idea of America.

Desert roads, haze on the horizon, white lines on grey tarmac disappearing to the vanishing point in the impossible distance.

Art Deco towers in chrome and steel, visions of the future from the 30s.

Open skies above endless plains.

Wrought iron fire escape stairs unwinding down concrete buildings.

John Ford vistas in Monument Valley. Woody and Diane on a bench in Central Park, Springsteen ripping up the Jersey shore, Marvin and Tammi radiating love and colour through black and white TV sets, and Bob and Jeff in the Village, decades apart, holding coffee shops with just a guitar and poetry. Joni in Laurel Canyon.

Sane crazy dreamers on Haight Asbury, daisy chain strings in their hair, tuning in, turning on, dropping out. Pushing furthur on the bus with Kesey and the Pranksters. Chasing the ghost of Gram Parsons in the scrub of Joshua Tree.

Pedal steels and heartbreak.

Adidas trainers, laces pulled out, tapping on caged courts cracked under the sun.

Shore to shore, coast to coast, highways criss crossing State lines and states of mind.

I fell in love. And my idea of America remains.

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.

Walk tall… or baby don’t walk at all

27. Incident On 57th Street / Rosalita / New York City Serenade – Bruce Springsteen

I was recently tipped off by a friend that Springsteen was making most of his current run of shows available as official bootlegs for the princely sum of £6. Given that most of his current shows are running to three hours or more that’s a pretty fair deal. At a point in his career when he could be forgiven for slowing down, or even stopping following the deaths of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, Springsteen seems as alive, more alive maybe, than he has in the last twenty years. The loss of Federici and Clemons has prompted a shuffling of the E Street Band’s line up, its ranks swelling with the addition of a full horn complement, string section on many dates, and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine on guitar – as if Nils Lofgren, Steve Van Zandt, and Springsteen himself isn’t a stellar enough line up already. The current band is phenomenal. Of course, it always was.

The Brisbane show on the current tour features a complete run through of “The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle”, Springsteen’s second record, and the one that prefaced his eventual break through with “Born To Run”. I am a massive fan of that album and it contains my favourite run of three songs straight on any record: the whole of side two covering “Incident On 57th Street”, through “Rosalita” and finishing with “New York City Serenade”. None of the songs clocking in beneath seven minutes but none of them outstaying their welcome. Springsteen was never this – excuse the obvious lift – wild again, rushing headlong into a myriad of musical ideas, embracing styles, trying anything and everything (virtually all of it working). All he learned gigging the Jersey shore is here. All his influences sucked in – Dylan, Van Morrison, jazz, latin, R&B, gospel, straight up rock and roll – and spat back out across three songs that are almost heroic in their ambition and scope. There is more invention here than most artists achieve in their lives; Springsteen crammed it into twenty four minutes.

I adore “Wild, Innocent…” for its sheer hubris. It’s a young man’s record, before age and experience reins in some of its excess. Ten minute jazz rock work out ? Yeah, why shouldn’t I do that ? “West Side Story” ? I could reimagine that. If I’m going to serenade New York then why not nod back to Gershwin with a dramatic, classical piano intro ? All of this, eventually, was tightened up, compressed and finessed, onto the record that became “Born To Run”, every note worked and worked until it was perfect, but I don’t think he could have gotten there without stretching out on the sprawling “Wild, Innocent…” first.

So, for me, the Brisbane show is telling. A much older man revisiting a young man’s record and, arguably, his most diverse record musically. For the most part it’s a pretty straight run, not quite a direct recreation of the album but not far off (which, don’t get me wrong, takes some serious chops to pull off). Then, towards the end of “Incident On 57th Street”, Springsteen launches into the climactic solo and something magical happens. It begins in very similar style to the record but then he finds a gorgeous new sequence, a series of intricate, melodic runs that aren’t there in 1973. It’s a really small moment but it lifts the whole run through of the album for me, beautiful evidence that his creative spark is still firing forty years later. Not for the first time he moved me to tears – happy tears – when I heard it. It’s like a thirty second salvo against fading away into old age, not just because technically and physically it’s a pretty astonishing piece to play, but because he’s still finding new things and creating new moments.

It’s a measure of my love and admiration for Springsteen that I believe I could run a list of songs, in parallel to this one, filled entirely with 42 of his records. Perhaps that’s an idea for another time. He deals in songs of joy, songs of pain, songs that demand you get up and dance, songs that ask you to sit down and reflect. There’s shade and light and tears and smiles. Fear, hope, truth, anger, remorse. And redemption. Almost always redemption.

In short all human experience and life is here. All of my life is here. It’s no accident that last year Springsteen inspired a documentary film – “Springsteen & I” – which specifically deals with people’s – his fans’ – relationship to his music. If his music touches you (and I accept that he’s an artist that doesn’t resonate for everyone) then he connects in a way unlike anyone else currently working, arguably ever working, in rock music. I use “rock” music as lazy shorthand for the eclectic stew of rock, pop, jazz, latin, soul, folk, country, blues, hell-pretty-much-whatever, that characterises his songs over the past forty or so years. I’d originally written some of this post immediately after the Dylan one (here) as there’s common ground between the two and Dylan was a hugely important influence on Springsteen. I buy the argument that without Dylan there would be no Springsteen, certainly not as we know him, but I don’t buy the argument that Dylan is the greater artist (in so much as I buy that any artist is “greater” than another, it’s not really a competition). The fundamental difference between them I think is that Dylan has no interest in being understood whereas everything Springsteen does is about making a connection, about finding a way for the themes in his songs to be recognised.

So here’s what I take from those three songs now: the willful naivety of youth and its capacity to get stuff done, just for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and the fact that age and experience needn’t deaden that capacity. Play them and walk tall.

……

This post ended up being a little light on Rosalita – officially the most fun you can have listening to a song ever – and New York City Serenade. I doubt I’d do them justice so here’s some links to just go listen to them:

Roaslita from 1978 (I think it’s ’78 anyway)

New York City Serenade from 2013

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets left to conceal

17. Like A Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan                                                                   1989 (?) – 2013

I believe this is what might be referred to as “messing with the big boys”. I’m not going to kid anyone with a Greil Marcus impression (although I reckon I could muster a “what is this shit ?” to a few Dylan albums) and I’m no Dylanologist so I won’t try to be either. However, it would be wrong to avoid Dylan in this list as, firstly, I am a huge fan and, secondly, so much of what I love in popular music can be traced back to him in some way. Given his catalogue it’d also be relatively easy to pick out something suitably obscure or lesser known but it wouldn’t be true for me: this was the song that made me “get” Dylan and it is a magnificent fucking juggernaut of a record.

I have American radio to thank for this. Don’t get me wrong, I suspect I would have caught up with this song at some point in my life, but the first time happened to be on some classic rock station in the States. You know the ones – we guarantee to play “Stairway To Heaven” (full seven minutes, no commercials) in the next half hour: don’t touch that dial. I imagine the novelty wears off if you actually live in the States but, personally, I bloody love those stations. Anyway, there I am, on what must have been one of the last holidays I took with my parents and sister, sitting in the back of the rental car, and on it comes.

Bang. That snare drum. Everything in my world stopped when I heard that stick hit that drum. It’s just one beat. One note. It snaps you to attention like a gunshot. Bruce Springsteen later said “…on came that snare shot that sounded like someone had kicked open the door to your mind” and I’m not going to argue with Springsteen.

After that snare, and a heartbeat on the kick drum, comes the band, tearing into the song as if they’re trying to grab hold of it and wrestle it to the floor before clinging on for dear life. Al Kooper’s organ – astonishing that the part had just come to him – dances on top of the rising swell, propelling them all forwards, pitching them into Dylan’s words.

Dylan is many things but principal amongst them he’s a writer, a poet. Early on in his career his words are so good that he needed little else to sustain a song: an acoustic guitar, some repurposed traditionals, and that dizzying, ineffable poetry. For me though the golden mid period (early-mid period, what do you call it ?) that began with “Bringing It All Back Home” and culminated in “ Blonde On Blonde” remains the best marriage of his words and music. Three of the greatest albums ever made ? You bet. In fifteen months ? Oh yes. It’s staggering. Throwing off the constraints of working purely in folk forms – and the (perceived) constraints of his audience’s expectations at that time – seemed to release a flood of creativity in him.

In his own words “Like A Rolling Stone”, in written form, initially emerged as ten or twenty (it wouldn’t be Dylan if he was consistent) pages of “vomit”, spewed out on his typewriter. It’s easy to hear the bile in the song and, for a long time, that was mostly what I took out from it: that snarling, sneering how does it feel ? Dylan’s vocals, along with the whipcrack song start, and glorious tumult stirred up by the band, make for a hugely visceral song. For a while you just sit and let the force of it hit you full in the face. And revel in it. As a means of giving expression to an utter disdain for something then it takes some beating and, from time to time, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel that way.

Very recently though the song has really opened up to me in another way, largely because of the final couple of lines which have cast the entire piece in a different light. If most of the song is the hurricane that blows everything away then the final couple of lines are the acceptance that it’s all gone and finding salvation in being free of it all:

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, with no secrets to conceal

The protagonist in the song has, in pretty literal terms, lost everything and is now effectively invisible – everyone has seen her fall, there’s nothing to hide, and she’s got nothing left to lose. It’s not hard to take a less literal read on this too: stripping everything back, having your secrets revealed, can be liberating – nothing can touch you now. In that context the chorus doesn’t necessarily have to echo with quite the same mocking refrain:

How does it feel

To be on your own

With no direction home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone ?

Maybe it actually feels pretty good: free to do anything, go anywhere, be anything you want. Emotionally that’s the essence of what I take from it now.

The other thing that fascinates me about “Like A Rolling Stone” is how raw it is, how it’s almost constantly on the brink of falling apart. Famously Dylan and the assembled band struggled to record it, attempting it across a dozen or so takes but only running through the entire song once – the version preserved forever – on take 4. It was, in many respects, a glorious accident; from changing the original time signature from a 3/4 waltz to the now standard rock and roll 4/4, Dylan switching from piano to guitar, and Al Kooper  – a session guitarist not even booked to play on the song at all – deciding to sit in and contribute that Hammond organ part. It sounds like a glorious accident, seven people creating something in that moment, with the ever present threat of the whole thing collapsing at any moment. There’s a section towards the end (in the lead up to “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”) which would simply never be released now as the song almost self destructs – people drop out of time, lose their way, are allowed to catch up, and then the whole thing just about coheres again through the chorus. The whole thing is almost like something that found them rather than the other way round, something in the room that they heard or felt and did their best to reproduce. Maybe that’s why they struggled to replicate it.

So we’re back in a hire car on holiday in the States. I’m sat in the back utterly transfixed for six minutes. We’re a long way from musing on the nature of creativity – twenty pages of vomit alchemised into one of the most famous songs ever recorded via one complete take and an essentially busking organ player. A very long way from the sense of release in being revealed or being open. Even still some way from what became an abiding interest in 60s counter culture, particularly in the States (it was Ken Kesey and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” that fully lit that fuse). Just at the start of those things. Some of them only becoming apparent now.

How does it feel ? How does Dylan make me feel ? Like my world just got a whole lot bigger.

……

There’s an interesting “interactive” video on Dylan’s site if you want to hear the original version of the song (here: http://video.bobdylan.com/desktop.html). It was surprisingly hard to find the original on Youtube which is why I went with the infamous “Judas” performance at the top of the entry – I love that version too (the confrontation in it is compelling) and the whole back story although they kinda lurch into the song and it doesn’t have that same snare crack that hooked me in the first place.

Addendum (March 2014): the vagaries of the internet… that “Judas” performance has now been removed from Youtube as well so I’ve had to stick a less than satisfactory version from Letterman on instead. You all know it anyway, right ?

Like an extra arm, you are a part of us…

16. Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) – Laura Marling                                                2010/11

Since my daughter was born, just over six years ago, there’s pretty consistently been snow each winter in England. Growing up I remember snow as a rare event – I don’t know factually whether it was, it may just be the vagaries of memory – whereas now it seems to arrive every year.

It’s divisive, snow. With adult eyes I view it as a wearying inconvenience: scraping the car, clearing the drive, being cold and wet, dangerous on the roads. Through a child’s eyes, of course, it’s a massive adventure: building a snowman, throwing snowballs, slipping and sliding, and the delicious prospect of the cancellation of school.

“Goodbye England” was the lead single from Marling’s second album “I Speak Because I Can” and was the song that, to me, heralded the arrival of a very special talent. Her first record “Alas I Cannot Swim” is extremely good but what has struck me as miraculous about Marling is her progression from record to record in such scant time. There’s a discernible growth in confidence in her four albums, appearing in relative quick succession over the last five years, with each building musically on the last. It’s the closest thing I think I’ve heard in my lifetime to the sort of artistic evolution that, say, Dylan or Mitchell went through in the 60s. Ryan Adams also came pretty close for me in the run from Whiskeytown through “Heartbreaker” and up to “Love Is Hell” but there aren’t many others. I appreciate that puts her in some fairly exalted company but I think it’s a valid comparison; I genuinely think she’s that good. I guess there’s an argument that she wears her Bob and Joni influences too freely but, frankly, who doesn’t if you ply your trade as a singer songwriter with an acoustic guitar, and at 23 it’s not like she hasn’t still got time to transcend those influences.

I could have included a number of Marling’s songs in this list and, in fact, originally I’d intended to go with “Sophia” from her third album “A Creature I Don’t Know” – partly because I adore it and partly because I distinctly remember hearing it for the first time and just laughing at how absurdly good it was. So here’s a link to the video for “Sophia” as a little bonus: it is a marvelous thing.

For a while last year – if I’d been writing this last year – then I’d almost certainly have gone with “Night After Night”. Does it borrow a bit from Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” ? Yes (which she happily acknowledges). Does it matter ? Not really when it sounds as assured, as poised, as stunning as this. So there’s a link to that too: it is also a marvelous thing.

Or “Flicker & Fail” (very, very Joni Mitchell), or “I Was Just A Card”, or the brutal “Master Hunter”, or the also pretty brutal “Saved These Words”. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday (or any day but I’m posting this on a Sunday) than watching and listening to these.

“Goodbye England” though is the one that I return to with affectionate regularity and, in the spirit of the overall list, has the most personal associations. The song seems to be concerned with the breakdown of a relationship and a desire to escape but those aren’t the reasons that it really chimes for me (although the escape thing is something of a recurrent theme in stuff I like). Marling recounts a story about visiting a hilltop as a child with her father and looking at the snow covered landscape. So struck with the beauty of the scene, and no doubt contemplating the passage of time as his daughter grew up, her father asked her to one day bring him back to the same place, to remember how beautiful the world could be; just once before he died. It’s a feeling that you get a lot as a parent, those peculiar moments when you briefly see the world afresh through your child’s eyes and simultaneously understand how fleeting those moments are – in a way that your child doesn’t. It’s incredibly bittersweet, somehow wrapping up a sudden, strong sense of your own mortality and a desire to preserve the innocence of childhood. It’s not unhappy – those moments can be almost perfect – but there is an abiding melancholy to it. This song does that to me every time.

Sometimes serendipity lends a hand. The song begins with the lines:

You were so smart then

In your jacket and coat

My softest red scarf was warming your throat

A couple of winters ago I was building a snowman with my daughter and she was traipsing through the white stuff dressed in a red coat and scarf. I think in the context of the song that it’s presumably Marling remembering that her father was the “smart” one with her scarf warming his throat but it doesn’t really matter to me – it instantly triggers the memory of a little girl cheerfully conversing with the snowman rising up out of the ground.

IMG_3853

As the song develops it explores the tension between leaving and staying that Marling feels as (presumably) a relationship ends, reflecting ruefully on the nature of love:

And a friend of mine says it’s good to hear

That you believe in love, even if set in fear

Well I’ll hold you there brother and set you straight

I only believe true love is frail and willing to break

She moves from disbelieving regret (I wrote my name in your book… only god knows why) to frantically pouring out some kind of explanation in a letter (I wrote an epic letter to you… it’s 22 pages front and back) before asserting that it’s too good to be used. A moment of candid self awareness – I tried to be a girl that likes to be used – before, finally, the confident assertion that I’m too good for that: there’s a mind under this hat and the decision to go (And I called them all and told them I’ve got to move).

That middle section is brilliant; sketching out the whirlwind of emotions and uncertainty that accompanies the breakdown of something in eleven perfectly judged lines, capturing the random little asides that the mind throws in to the mix. The wry, self deprecating and I bet you that he cracked a smile following only god knows why is a great touch, as is picking up the thread of being used – from her own letter being too good to be used to recognising that she had played a part that wasn’t her, wasn’t good enough for her, and that she was also too good to be used.

The tension in staying or going then wraps us back into that moment on the hill with her father, now torn between running away (as an independent adult) or returning to her family:

Feel like running

Feel like running

Running off.

And we will keep you

We will keep you, little one

Safe from harm

Like an extra arm, you are a part of us.

“Little one” is what Marling was often called within her family and, serendipity again, is also something that I call my daughter – I doubt it’s uncommon. The “we will keep you” lines deliberately borrow from the mice’s “We Will Fix It” song from Bagpuss, a British kids show from the 70s, which perfectly distills the sense of comfort and nostalgia in returning to the safety of her parents. On another level the Bagpuss tune itself is adapted from a 13th century folk round (“Sumer Is Icumen In”), something that I imagine Marling would be well aware of and that she may well have picked up from her parents; her father was also a musician and ran a residential recording studio, her mother was a music teacher. If it is a nod back to her parents, grounding the song back in a folk tradition which they may have taught her, then it’s a lovely touch. Even if it isn’t then it’s still a delightful moment in the song, it doesn’t need the context to work.

The sense in the song is that her choice is to strike out on her own (it’s called “Goodbye England” after all) but with a promise to return:

I will come back here

Bring me back when I’m old

I want to lay here, forever in the cold.

I might be cold but I’m just skin and bones

And I never love England more than when covered in snow.

I guess as a parent that’s the best you can hope for, that your child grows up confident and assured enough to strike out on their own but always with that promise to return. Like an extra arm, they are a part of us. So next time it snows there will undoubtedly be part of me that sighs heavily and prepares to shovel lumps of it off the drive. There’ll also be part of me though that puts this record on and remembers the privileged time I spent in bringing up my daughter, the opportunities to see the world anew, and the many, many glorious, transient, bittersweet moments along the way.