Here’s a good example of what I’m trying to explore here: the way that our responses to songs, particularly over time, become a complex blend of – the trivial anecdotal details of how we first connected with the song; what we like/have liked about its sound; the other personal memories evoked by the content; how lines, phrases in the song continue to make us think, feel, smile, remember… That’s all here.
Where to start? The song. It’s not easy to recreate a child’s eye view but this one does it nicely with a few simple brushstrokes – ‘It’s 4 in the morning, July in 69/ Me and my sister, we crept down like shadows/they’re bringing the moon right down to our living room..’ all to a gently shuffling chordal accompaniment, an understated musical background, a simple, sustained melody. The song ‘gets it’ – the magic, the unreality, the strangeness and disorientation of this childhood experience. The vision of those ‘slow puppets, silver ground’ on this historic, unaccustomed middle-of-the-night TV viewing; a sense of the momentous (‘We hear a voice from above/And it’s history’). But what makes this subtler still is that it captures those other elements of a child’s response – that inevitable feeling of not-quite-understanding (‘…lost in space/but I don’t know where it is.’) linked, especially in the final lines, to the child’s excitement focused then on more modest, immediate things – like …staying up really late! :‘I half expect to hear them asking to come down/(Oh will they fly or will they fall) /to be excited by/A long late night.’) Understatedly accomplished lyric – beautiful.
But of course, it’s hard to listen to it totally divorced from one’s own memory of that night of the moon landing, that night of ‘monochrome vision – static and silence’. Me, I was 16, away from home, in a Summer School at Balliol College Oxford – intended, it appears, to give brightish boys (why only boys??) from deprived working-class areas a little taste of rarified Oxbridge atmosphere. So yes, there were about two dozen of us, I think, gathered around a small telly in one of the college common rooms – excited, but perhaps a little too teenage and ‘cool’, even then, to show it too explicitly. Still, the images of those ‘slow puppets, silver ground’ no doubt imprinted themselves viscerally so that even today the Sundays’ song still sets up little shivers of recognition.
I didn’t encounter The Sundays ‘the first time around’ whenever that was. I suspect I was too busy playing cassettes of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ or listening to Taize on the Walkman , or maybe Mahler on my minidisc player. But anyway, in 2008, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, I attended a ‘JoniFest’ (organized by the wonderful Lucy Cowie), knowing only that it would be a gathering of people interested in Joni Mitchell’s music, but –beyond that – not quite sure what to expect. What I couldn’t have anticipated included the following: 1. A warm, beautiful group of people. Despite that fact that most of them knew each other already, they were unconditionally welcoming, and embraced me affectionately with ties that continue today. 2. Extraordinary affirmation for my own songwriting, something I had not factored into expectations at all, armed as I was with just a few Joni-covers to sing. 3. That JM songs were appreciated, certainly, but in the most sensible, non-fanatical ways (if anything, slightly worryingly, arguably the most obsessive collector/enthusiast of her music there was..me). 4. That subsequently, and healthily, a whole range of other stuff was sung and shared, so that I ended up being introduced to music totally new and unfamiliar.
It was the lovely Patrick Leader from New York City, whose simple, almost apologetic performances introduced me to the most unfamiliar of things – first ‘Mirrorball’ from Everything but the Girl (who?); then a song called ‘I Feel’ from The Sundays (also, who?). I liked. I liked enough to explore further: a few weeks later in a charity shop in Mountain Ash, I came across the ‘Static and Silence’ CD and my poor, pathetic little song-enthusiast heart did a familiar little leap. The other two Sundays CDs (it’s not difficult to be a Sundays completist) were not difficult to track down.
What happened to them I don’t know, even though Google could tell me, no doubt. But I do know that Harriet Wheeler’s voice is something of a rare English treasure, deserving of wider recognition. All 3 Sundays CDs are little gems, worth holding on to. And this particular ‘4 in the morning, July in 69’ song, keeps notching up plays on my ipod.