Tag Archives: music

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.

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When I grow up

I’m three years in to this blog now and have sporadically produced an end-of-year round up of my favourite records at year end. Okay, I’ve done it once. This will make it twice. Two out of three ain’t bad as Meatloaf wisely attests.

There’s no getting past the fact that it’s been a dreadful year. The world has gotten uglier, more stupid, and less tolerant. Irrespective of your personal perspective on, say, Brexit or Trump it’s been a  year characterised by a dearth of reasoned, fact based, rational discourse. We are all a little poorer and democracy is ill served by a toxic environment where lies stand as truth and dissenting voices are shouted down as traitors.

In “normal” circumstances the dumbing down and drift (lurch) right of our politics would have been enough to tip this year into the debit column. And, sure, we lost some fine people too. Bowie, Cohen, Prince. How’d I get through the 42 records thing without room for any of them ? All of that marked 2016 as rotten. But all of that, personally, ended up being nothing.

I lost my mum this year. I’m old enough at 44 to have known her a long time. In brighter moments I take some comfort in that but it’s only been three and a half months and there haven’t been many brighter moments. I’ve written about loss and grief elsewhere in these pages and it has seemed an easier thing for me to access or articulate in the abstract. I have exhausted metaphors involving the sea or the weather but it’s interesting that they were the props I reached for. There is something vast and overwhelming about the loss of a parent, even as an adult, that means you reach for things equally vast. I’ve written about depression a lot on these pages as well and there’s some equivalence in the feelings but they’re not the same. I guess the symptoms present in the same way but the root cause is different. Mum used to read my words and I suspect they were a route in to her hearing from me, understanding me. I’ve never been a great talker. I don’t regret. I can’t change the way I’m wired but I hope (I think) that she knew me a bit better as an adult by reading my ramblings about records and my sporadic, random stories. I miss her as my best reader but most of all I miss her as my mum. She was the best one anyone could have.

So my three stand out records of the year (the year being when I experienced them and not necessarily when they came out) entirely reflect all of the above. First up, Marillion’s FEAR (Fuck Everyone And Run) deals in an angry, anxious reaction to the banking crisis, to changes in global politics, to a world in which divisions between rich and poor deepen and grow. It’s breathtakingly good. Broad in scope but personal and relatable, musically rich, technical but emotional. It won’t get much credit in the end-of-year lists because Marillion have long been abandoned by the mainstream music press but it’s a remarkable statement and a career high for a band that have already scaled a few anyway.

Second is Nick Cave’s “Skeleton Tree”. It was released after the death of his son (and partially written after that event, though not entirely) and is devastating. I’m not sure in any other year whether I’d have had the appetite to listen to Skeleton Tree very much. It’s too raw and too painful but I found it a conduit for my own feelings. A lot of stuff felt very trite this year in comparison to “real life” and this record was anything but.

And finally there’s Tim Minchin’s “Matilda” soundtrack/score and, in particular, the song “When I Grow Up”. The musical is an utter delight and I think I found its overtly clever lyrics a tonic in this post-truth year of all years. I’m well aware that the musical particularly speaks to me as a father of a smart, sensitive daughter and that I have become overly sentimental in my middle-ish age. However, “When I Grow Up” kinda sums up the year for me. On the face of it it’s a singalong call to be older, to get to “eat sweets every day” and do what you like – the imagined liberation of being an adult from a child’s perspective. Inevitably it’s more complex than that and I can’t listen to the song without feeling an extraordinary sense of sadness and pathos in the lines about being old enough to carry all the things you have to carry as a grown up, about being able to fight off the monsters under the bed when you’re a grown up. There are lots of markers of being a “grown up”. Formal ones like turning 18 or 21. Or informal ones like buying your first home or getting married or having children. Or losing your mum. I wish, I really wish, that you did get to easily fight off the monsters under the bed when you grow up and I really, really wish you learned to carry all of things you have carry but it’s not as straightforward as that. This year they all got a lot heavier. This year I got to be a grown up and I’d give anything to be able to be a child again.
Go listen if you’re so minded. They’re all great records although none will make the playlists at many Christmas parties. But it hasn’t been that kind of year.

This is the sea

Once upon a time I learned to sail. Time steals the memories of that learning and now that I can navigate the river I can’t remember those days of running aground, of fighting the slow, easy current, or even of the repeated soakings as I was tipped into the water. Nor do I remember those early journeys, all way back upstream now, through the hurried rapids, down the narrow streams of my childhood. Perhaps at the time it all seemed bigger but looking back, up and across to the mountains we made our way down, I can barely make out the path of the water; like tracing my face for the lines left by tears that dried up long ago. As the river widened and relaxed into the valley some memories stick. I do remember that initial sense of freedom, striking out from the bank alone for the first time but secure in knowing that the river was slow, shallow, and not so broad that I couldn’t swim back to something solid. The river guides. That was the teaching: trust in its easy, forgiving flow and use it to learn for the sea. The unspoken truth though was that the river is poor learning for the sea but it is all we have.

The sea looked like hope from the river as I glimpsed it occasionally back then, wide eyed, staring downstream into the future. Just as looking back changed perspective, shrinking things that had seemed vast, looking forwards played the same trick but in reverse. The sea looked contained, bound by shore and horizon; it looked manageable. Navigable. The distance flattened the ceaseless rise and fall of the tides and ironed out the distant surges and storms. It looked like a gently creased, blue grey sheet stretched out between the land and sky and I miss that idea of it. I miss the time when I headed for uncharted waters with excitement and confidence, when apprehension felt like the precursor to discovery – something new and wonderful – instead of the prelude to fear. Even when the discovery was just someone else’s map of those uncharted waters, the discovery that they weren’t uncharted at all, that someone had sailed this course before and left you their notes.

And for a while, as I stuck to the charted waters or uncovered the notes from those that had sailed before me, the sea delivered on the promises whispered in its waves. Close to the mouth of the river it was as easy to sail as the river itself had been. The boat I’d built and sailed as a child rode the benign tides close to shore just as it had coped with the nudging currents that had eventually pushed it out into open water. The coastal squalls were exhilarating rather than frightening, the rush of adrenaline feeding the strength to trim the sails or tack back into the wind. And when they abated the sea was calm for long enough, and I was strong enough, open enough, to improve the boat, to make modifications and adjustments. To face each successive squall stronger than I’d faced the last. Perhaps the sea guides too. That’s what I thought in those days skimming the surface spray hugging the shoreline. I don’t think that anymore.

I don’t remember losing track of the shore. It must have happened slowly, over years, a progressive pull from the ebb of the tides winning out over the flow. Out here the sea doesn’t look contained or manageable and the notes left by fellow sailors are fewer and further between. Is it even navigable ? Out here there’s just the sea. Vast and endless and unforgiving: it can swallow you up and leave you cold, lost and adrift. When the storms hit my boat splintered and sank. I fought them until my bones ached and my fingers blistered from straining against salt lashed ropes in the desperate struggle to stay afloat. If I’d had a solid place to stand then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the drenched deck gave no purchase for my feet. If I’d battled a single, violent tempest then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the bad weather resolved itself into a change in the climate, storms piled on storms. If I’d learned to rest, to trust the sails to others, to admit to the weariness of near defeat, then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but even back in the days on the river I’d always sailed alone. There was no solid place to stand, there were many storms, and there was nobody to relieve me as captain: my boat splintered and sank.

The sea’s depths seemed to offer solace, they were untouched by whatever raged above. At first there was a relief in the isolation as I dropped beneath the roiling, rolling waves, pieces of my former vessel, fractured and sinking beside me. As I lingered there longer though it became colder and a kind of numbness set in; it became harder to strike out again for the surface. There was nothing up there but storms and the relentless toss and twist of the swelling waters. Nothing there but more sorrow. There was nothing here either but it was a constant nothing. It was predictable. Navigable. I was lost but if I stayed where I was I’d never be more lost and I’d never risk the hope of clutching at a way back to shore. I’d never feel the touch of the sun on skin but I’d never have to feel the rain either.

The sea doesn’t guide, it just is. The sea doesn’t guide but perhaps those that sail it still can and still do. The notes from fellow sailors are fewer and further between out here – down here – in the sea. But some remain. Even here some remain.  I found one of those stray, rare notes and it said this: even out here it’s not truly uncharted. There’s a universal map written in the stars for those able to raise their eyes and read it. Perhaps it leads back to your shore but you can’t read that map ensconced and ensnared under water. You might see the lights, foggy and distorted, but the water refracts and changes the true positions of the fixed reference points you must follow. You must brave the surface to see the way. The only way back to the shore is to risk the storms. How do you learn to be still on the waves ? Or how do you learn to lean in to the teeth of the gale and laugh ? When does knowing you’re not in control of the boat stop being terrifying and fill your heart with exhilaration ? How do you leave notes as you chart your waters that others might find and learn from in future ? These are the questions I asked and still ask as I seek the playful exploration of the shores close to the river that I learned to navigate when I was young. I read the note and draw strength to seek the surface.

This is the sea. Terrible and terrifying and relentless. Open and hopeful and limitless. Build the best boat you can and learn to make it dance on the river but accept that when you reach the sea it can crush the strongest vessel or the skilled sailor without thought or malice. All you can do is learn to sail again. Seek out the constants in the sky, learn to sail and as you chart your course leave notes that others might follow and might know that they are not alone, adrift in their storms. The river need not be our only learning. We are each other’s guides.

Once upon a time I learned to sail. Happily ever after remains my destination, out there on the horizon, across the sea.

 

……

This is story 42 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

So that’s it. Took longer than anticipated but all 42 are done and, to date, I’ve raised £700 for Mind. This one’s about everything the other 41 were about but also, in spirit, was about the value in sharing stories.

It owes a huge debt to Mike Scott and The Waterboys who said in six glorious minutes and two chords what I’ve struggled to say here.

We are home now

It resumed, as befits a great love affair, on a hot summer’s night. Not quite the Valentine’s anniversary that would have knitted together the last twenty three years perfectly but after so long what’s a few months between old lovers ? It resumed in London. Leicester was a hazy memory of long fringes, short sleeved tee-shirts over long sleeved tee-shirts, and long afternoons in bars stretching into longer nights in clubs and watching bands.

She brought her mates again. They’d not been together for a while but the easy camaraderie and friendship was still there: a little gang against the world, like all the best bands. I turned up alone. She was still cool, confident, talented and sassy. And now she was wise and warm too. I was no longer growing out a haircut turned bad. After several missteps from our first encounter I’d settled on something suitably respectable: greying, sensible, unremarkable. I probably should have had a better sense of who I was by now. Maybe I did. Some days I’m not so sure. She was from Boston, Mass. I was from Amersham, Bucks. Twenty three years ago it probably wasn’t meant to be and I guess now that will never change.

Earlier on this blog I wrote about seeing Belly in Leicester back in ’93. You can read that here: https://42at42.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/you-cant-change-the-unchangeably-untogether/. Last night they returned to the UK for a series of reunion dates and, spoiler alert, it was glorious.

As I wrote then there are some bands that you just get. They’re playing at relatively small venues – this isn’t a cash in tour by any means – but they’re all packed out with devotees who probably never thought they’d see them again. I’ve rarely seen an audience so on side with the people on stage. Everyone who was there gets them. There’s just something in those circular, dreamlike, chiming riffs and something in those vocal ticks and trills and something in those lyrics – man, those dark and twisted and beautiful lyrics – and something in those shout along melodies and choruses. They were woven into the fabric of my 20s and I can trace the stitches back across the last twenty years. There are parts of me that those songs spoke to, still speak to, and always will.

We got the singles. “Feed The Tree”, “Gepetto”, “Now They’ll Sleep”, “Super Connected” (a riotous version: they pack more of a punch than I remember). There are a few sound problems but dynamically they were always a tough band for an engineer to pin down: from the quietest whisper in the ear to a roar and back again inside of a verse and chorus. But you know what ? It didn’t matter. We got some lesser known gems, brilliant versions of “Spaceman” and “Thief” (this post’s “we are home now” borrowing its refrain). We got most of “Star” and we got most of “King”. The songs from the latter, in particular, came across really well – a wonderful “Judas My Heart”,  a delicate “The Bees”, a joyous stomp through “Red”. We got two new songs and they offered huge promise although given Tanya Donelly’s solo and recent collaborative songwriting that really wasn’t a surprise.

There were several on stage references – mainly from bassist Gail on usual hilarious form – to reliving the 90s but the thing that struck me over and above everything was just how well the songs had weathered. They don’t sound especially like a stuck-in-the-90s band; that just happened to be when these songs first surfaced. I’m hoping they decide to surface some more now that they’re back playing together again.

Finally, we got “Stay”. Writing about the performance in ’93 I described it as a soaring, spine-tingling, heart-bursting-out-of-your-chest kind of song. I wasn’t wrong then and time has not dimmed its power. Emotionally it was a curious evening in many ways – a revisitation of people we used to be, catching up with ourselves and remembering some former, formative versions of ourselves. Mostly it was a straightforward expression of joy. “Stay” stopped me in my tracks just like it did all those years ago. There’s all sorts of personal reasons why hearing T sing “it’s not time for me to go” cut me to the core and that was the moment, right there at the end, that Belly had me in tears. I’ve a long and distinguished record of crying at concerts but this was the strangest mix of happy tears for what had been and sad ones for some things to come.

Then they were gone. If falling in love, all those years ago, was about possibilities and being at peace, then rekindling that love was about all of the things that love is really about: constance and comfort and fun and feeling like you’re home. Oh, and singing fragile ballads but also rocking like bastards.

We are home now.

Purple

It came in a rush that you couldn’t stop.
An outpouring from every fibre, leeching out of your skin.
An out-poring.
A creative rainbow burst of words and sounds and shapes and rhythms…
…and they called you a genius. And you shrugged.
Is a genius just someone who comes to the world unfiltered, raw, unaltered, and pure ?
…and they called you a virtuoso. And you shrugged.
Is it virtuosity to breathe ? It came as naturally – as easily – as breath.
…and you stopped calling yourself anything at all. And I guess you shrugged.
Why wear a name when you’re in the business of transcendence. Right ?
When you live in the rush that you can’t stop.
When it’s pouring and pouring and pouring from every pore.
When there is no gap between the art and the life and the life and the art.
When you’re bursting with words and sounds and shapes and rhythms.
They’ll remember your name. Whatever it wasn’t. Whatever it was.

Then came the morning

It’s too early for record-of-the-year proclomations but what the hell.

I spent the best part of a year writing about 42 records and concluded nothing more dramatic than the fact that savouring and appreciating moments was kind of important. A realisation that, for me, music has quite often been a short cut to that: a life hack to suspend thought, banish anxiety, and mainline emotion. It seemed like a hard won lesson, worked out over 40 odd thousand words, and one that I’m guessing wiser folk than me have had sussed for some time. A hard won lesson but one that bears refreshing.

Saw The Lone Bellow at the 100 Club last night. I love the album they put out this year – also called “Then Came The Morning” – and also love their self-titled debut. They’re both exceptionally well crafted slices of whatever we’re calling folk-country-Americana these days: you know, music involving lots of variously numbered stringed instruments. Music that, in the past few years, has moved from being a niche concern to something of a serious mainstream proposition as a genre. So much so that, inevitably, there’s a fair amount of by-the-numbers records being released – country even seems to have spawned its own Dallas-esque TV soap in “Nashville”.

The Lone Bellow make their way through the audience at the 100 Club – got to love those venues where the only route to the stage is through your crowd – and launch straight into “Then Came The Morning”. It is obvious within the first four bars that it is going to be a special night and that they are a special band. You can’t fake heart or soul or guts and from first note to last the band are, for want of a better word, real. There’s no artifice. Whether they’re ripping the place up through “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” or breaking everyone’s heart on “Marietta” or inspiring a hushed audience singalong at the close of “You Never Need Nobody” all of it is anchored in something true.

They’ve got technical chops to die for. I was literally laughing at how absurdly good a singer Zach Williams was last night. First song, utterly slayed it. And then the three part harmonies kicked in and progressively his bandmates, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin, get their chance to lead a song and laughter dissolves to mild hysteria as it transpires that all three of them are equally good. Individually sensational and together stunning. But it’s not the technical prowess that elevates them beyond the mass of acoustic country-tinged bands working now: it’s the heart and the energy and the passion. Something ineffable.

It is, I guess, slightly hackneyed to talk about music in spiritual terms but on the other hand perhaps there’s good reason why the two often slot together. Spiritual in the broadest sense. In the horizon expanding, inspiring, uplifting, purging, foot stomping, chest beating, heart stopping, life affirming sense. On those terms something spiritual happened in a famous, pokey little club on Oxford Street last night. In very simple terms it was a moment that made me glad to be alive.

Brilliant, brilliant band. Go see them if you can. Buy the records if you can’t. And shortcut yourself to some of those moments worth savouring. That’s all there is.

Day After Tomorrow

It’s end of year round up time which has tempted me out of writing-about-music-semi-retirement. In no particular order my three favourite records of 2014 (without checking whether they actually came out in 2014) are: The Delines “Colfax”, The War On Drugs “Lost In The Dream”, and Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo with “Dear River”. I am obviously getting older as they all have more of a late night sit at home with a glass of wine vibe about them than throwing frantic shapes on the dance floor feel.  The spirit remains willing but the flesh is a little weak and all that.

The Delines record is a Willy Vlautin (of Richmond Fontaine fame) project with Amy Boone singing and it’s a brilliant set of bruised, weary sketches. Vlautin’s usual sharp words and eye for character detail richly conveyed through Boone’s aching, resigned vocals. It’s a pretty determinedly melancholy album but beautiful at the same time. I’ve been scratching around for the right word that sums up its mood and the closest I can get is a Portuguese term with no direct equivalent in English: saudade. A deep, nostalgic melancholic longing. It’s not quite that but that’s pretty close (and a fine word). Wonderful record anyway.

The War On Drugs record has featured a lot in end of year lists and is another heartbreaker – let’s be honest, this is me, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” was never likely to feature. I was obsessed with this in the early part of the year; a strange mashing together of 80s rock (bit of Springsteen, bit of Rod Stewart, bit of Dire Straits even) and 90s indie. “Burning”, in particular, owes more than a passing debt to “Dancing In The Dark” and “Young Turks” but manages to more than stand on its own merits: if anyone makes their way backwards from it to those records then that feels like a good thing to me.

Last, and by no means least, there’s the Emily Barker album. “Dear River” is a fantastic set of lovingly crafted folk/americana songs spinning out stories of place, identity and travel. Sadly it (for now) appears to be the last album that they will make together and so I feel a little like I arrived at this particular party just as everyone was leaving. I’m really not sure how they slipped under my radar for so long as I’ve been back through the earlier albums from “Dear River” and it’s all brilliant. Barker must be the best kept secret in the UK (and, country of origin, Australia). Possibly it was just me that not having my finger anywhere near the pulse again.

The video at the top of this post is a song that’s not actually on “Dear River”. I was fortunate enough to see the band play in London a few weeks ago, in St James’s church in Piccadilly, and this was my fondest musical memory of the year. On the night itself I was feeling a bit under the weather, was pretty tired, and it was one of those evenings when crawling into bed with a lemsip was looking like an attractive option. We met some friends for dinner before the gig and that pepped me up but, consequently, we were a bit late to the venue and ended up, initially, with a fairly limited view of the stage from behind a pillar. Glorious building, don’t get me wrong. Luckily we were allowed to move up on to a balcony for the main set and sight lines improved hugely but given how glorious the music was I’m not sure it would have entirely mattered.

I’ve tried to write before about the real magic of music to create moments: to bring you precisely into the present, for everything else to fall away. There were lots of those moments in the performance that night but, specifically, when the group played “Day After Tomorrow” (a Tom Waits cover) I was utterly transfixed. It is one of my absolute favourite things to hear something for the first time live that I’ve never heard before and instantly fall in love with it. I sat through this in a church in London, barely breathed for four or five minutes, let tears fall down my face, and marvelled afresh at the bewildering spell craft of music to strip back life to its essentials. Its capacity to really make you feel, to surface and experience emotion. In Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo’s take on the song there’s an a cappella section in the middle where all the instruments drop out save four voices in harmony. It was the most exquisite, breath taking thing I heard all year. Any sense of being tired, or off colour, or griping about pillars just disappeared.

I don’t think I’ll ever really understand it and perhaps that’s the point. It’s magic I tell you.