THIS IS BAGHDAD – Bruce Cockburn

 

Most of what we know about present Baghdad will be from news reports. I felt, though, that the third section of David Mitchell’s wonderfully ambitious ‘Bone Clocks’ novel was probably giving me a different,more incisive glimpse into life there; and I feel something the same about this song – that both lyrically and in its sound-collage, it’s conveying something movingly authentic about life in that ravaged city.

If you read my earlier Bruce blog (After the Rain/Creation Dream) you may remember I promised a Part 2 to my Bruce story. Here it is. I met someone in a Jonatha Brooke concert who, in our chat, shared that she’d come to appreciate Jonatha through her association with Bruce (the ‘War’ track?); she’d been practically a ‘Cockburn completist’ she said, but she couldn’t rate any of his more recent albums (She was talking ‘Charity of Night’ onwards, I think.)

I realized then that I was far more indiscriminate about my acceptance of Cockburn’s work because – and you’ll need to see the previous Cockburn essay to get this –it was more of a case that I’d ‘adopted him’ than simply got attracted to some things rather than others. With each new album, it’s a bit like he’s come home from school with another new crayoned picture and each one of them I put up on the fridge and love, because it’s Bruce.

Ha. That sounds slightly pathetic, and it’s perhaps overstating the case, because obviously I can’t fully lay aside my critical faculties, and the part of me that responds appreciatively or otherwise, to song. So I suppose the fact is: I also do find so much to enjoy in ‘later Cockburn’. Having seen him in concert very recently, too, I feel like in some ways there’s even something of a growing strength in his compositions. Certainly in the maturity and confidence of his performance-presence.

Take this song – and I’m listening to it right now as I write – it feels like a major oeuvre. Based on his extensive travelling, BC’s songs have often reflected impassioned responses to various trouble-spots, highlighting and challenging examples of social and political injustice. For many of these songs (I’m thinking of the 80s and 90s especially) he’s chosen a more brooding monologue-type structure, more or less spoken verses with sung refrains – and no less powerful for that. But this song is melodic right through – verse and chorus – and the content, after some intriguingly cinematic orchestration in the intro, is direct from the word go – ‘Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law..’

We get snapshot images of the war-torn ruinous state of a city with such a richly historic culture. These elements are reflected throughout the song’s sounds – eventually we’re aware of a clashing, battering background rhythm, cumulatively insistent throughout the five-minute song, but over this – and unusual for BC – lush, melodic strings in the introduction and returning to sweep elegantly alongside the plucked guitar and percussion in the chorus. ‘This is Baghdad’ intones the repetitious refrain, underpinned by these musical elements – and the result is one of the most ‘filmic’ pieces he’s ever produced. Alongside these cameos of devastation and deprivation (‘Not enough morphine and not enough gauze/Firefight in darkness like snapping of jaws’)  there’s a sense of probing reportage ( the ‘blast’ in verse 3 – its ‘radiant energy’ and resultant fatalities), and the final verse is a bold challenge to US accountability – ‘Carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot/How do you like it, this freedom we brought/We packed all the ordnance but the thing we forgot/Was a plan in case it didn’t turn out quite like we thought’…

Bruce takes his songwriting seriously and that’s another reason to love him. These are songs with integrity, asking questions.

CONFITEMINI DOMINO – Taize

I was first introduced to Taize chants – and it was this one, in fact – in a fairly unusual setting. In 1988 I attended a weekend conference on ‘The Early Church’ run by the London Mennonite Centre and held at their lovely place in Highgate. The directors of the centre, Alan and Eleanor Kreider led the teaching (in the most collaborative manner I’d ever seen, incidentally) and also led the worship – which was low-key in some ways, but consisted of a few songs unfamiliar to me, most of which were apparently based on first or second century hymns, of course. Eleanor Kreider has actually written a couple of books about worship, and how to ‘put it together’; she is keen to see us drawing on diverse traditions so that we compile rich, colourful worship experiences.  And anyway, they included this Taize chant in the mix.

I’d never heard of Taize. I knew nothing. But this was something different for me: the novelty, perhaps, of singing in Latin, but the ‘release’ of it, too – singing a simple encouragement/truth/ affirmation/acclamation (Trust in the Lord who is good – Alleluia) repetitiously, quietly, insistently without histrionics. Even then I’d read enough Merton and Nouwen to be familiar with the idea of prayer ‘descending from the mouth to the heart’ and I felt that this kind of chant was another way to help this happen.

I was well aware, too, I think, that some of my fellow believers would roll their eyes at this kind of thing and consider that it was just a way for Christians to do a bit of suspect mind-emptying, a bit of transcendental ‘om’ing, for the sheer brainless trendiness of it. But oh no no no, it felt far more substantial a form of worship-vehicle than that. So I persisted and explored.

I was very excited to get my first Taize cassette tape (containing this song, in fact) from the Catholic bookshop in Cardiff. My developmentally challenged friend Dean Anthony Paul Lloyd was with me, and, looking back – I feel sorry for him having to listen to repetitious Latin chants all the way home in the car. In fact, while we’re at it, I really need to issue a broader apology – to Sue, to the kids, to anyone who shared a car with me in the heady days of that new enthusiasm. What for me was a moving worship experience might well have seemed an interminably monotonous piece of pseudo-religiosity to them, and in no sense appropriate driving music! OK now and sadly only now, I’m aware of how insensitive and selfish I was – sorry guys, and tell your psychoanalysts I’m sorry too.

One revelation, for me, of the recordings on the cassette, was the way that a short chant like this could live and breathe and sustain itself for (eg) ten minutes or more, through a series of ‘constructed progressions’. It was not formulaic, and differed from song to song, but it could go something like this – first few times unaccompanied four part harmonies (this sustained throughout), next couple with a bit of quiet organ, a couple with other instruments quietly bringing in a counter-melody; next time with stronger voice; then with a solo violin over the top; the next with an added flute highlighting the counter melody; then softer voices; then back to whispered unaccompanied…and suddenly you’ve sung it sixteen or seventeen times. You get the picture – there’s a certain conscious choreography effecting  a cumulative intensity and – perhaps surprisingly to us Wesleyan hymnsingers – a depth of appreciation and awareness, that makes each chant more than mere ‘vain repetition’.

These days, Taize songs have ‘taken their rightful place’ in the canon of modern worship resources. Many churches have monthly ‘Taize services’ (and since we’re on the subject I’ll say a thank you to Rebecca HC who led some while they were with us) – in acknowledgement, perhaps, of the need to worship, sometimes, without the encumbrance of too much wordiness… Thank you Lord for Jacques Berthier, and for Taize and its witness and ministry. And, o my poor little song-obsessed soul ‘Trust in the Lord – who is good’. This is such a lovely song to sing…join me now..Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus… Alleluia!

SOMETIMES by Jonathan Edwards

 

A quick one.  Here’s a little something which has ‘stuck around’ in that hummy singy part of my brain for four decades or so, surfacing unexpectedly now and again with me crooning “sometimes, in the morning…” –usually, not too surprisingly, in the morning, sometimes.

Despite that, I’ve too often thought of it as a little bit of 1970s singer songwritery ephemera from a one -hit- album wonder (and by the way, big brother, if you’ve been looking for the album, it’s in my house) and this song a melodically repetitious but pleasant two-and-a-half- chords earworm of dreaminess.  But over time, over the decades of occasional morning hums and croons, I feel the song began to acquire substance for me, and so I’m going to redress the balance and give this song something of the respect I think it deserves.

Let’s say this.  It’s not just a love song –or, if it is a love song, it’s equally about loss and memory –and the tricky, shifting insubstantiality of those memories which have acquire dreamlike wateriness.  These three simple verses eloquently explore that.  In verse one, the memory of the loved one is “…  A falling dream, disappearing scene”; in verse two, “a phrase [which] echoes through the haze/just beyond my vision…” In the final verse he declares an intention to “go back to sleep…[to] keep my memories in motion…” And there is a sad and subtle irony there –that only in the unreality of dream can the memory acquire clear animation.

We can be forgiven for not noticing the profundity of that –after all, it sounds so throwaway, such a naive, ridiculously simple, starkly structured little thing.  But – turn it on its head –and it becomes a jewel – neat, unadorned, pared to perfection – of a song, a classic of its kind.  And the melody, and the accompaniment –bravely understated, the simple chord shape chased up and down a few frets –and that voice, perfectly echo the dreamlike longing state between love and loss.  No jarring chordal acrobatics, no distracting melodic manoeuvres, but this gentle, seamless reflection.

I’ll be continuing to croon snatches from it, sometimes, in the morning –not of course those zingy, glad to be alive, thank you Lord mornings –there are plenty of songs for those days; no, this is for those more wistful, misty-headed mornings when we reach to feel the beauty even in a bit of melancholy.

‘I’D LIKE TO SIT YOU DOWN’ – The Fisherfolk

Well, yes, Fisherfolk, but also in a special way Patricia Allen of the Fisherfolk. There are two possible approaches here: I could start by writing about Pat Allen, but this feels like holy ground, and I need to tread carefully and thoughtfully.

So let’s start anecdotally, with my first – miraculous? life-changing? – flesh and blood encounters with the Community of Celebration. It was the summer holiday in between leaving my two year job with the civil service and starting PGCE Teachers’ Training, 1976, and I decided to travel around Scotland for three weeks on a ‘Freedom of Scotland’ Rail Card. There were several exciting, beautiful, funny and interesting parts to this journey – but, arriving at Edinburgh, I encountered for the first time the amazing Festival, and decided I could spare the city a few days , at least! Even then (!) the variety and breadth of Festival and Fringe events were overwhelming – my first Chekhov – RSC’s ‘The Three Sisters’ (with Ian McKellan, I recall!) , part of the ‘official festival’, blew me away. In amongst all the posters on the Golden Mile, I chanced upon one (or more?) for ‘The Fisherfolk’ – featuring in a variety of events  – a cafe/bar concert of songs; a Eucharistic celebration featuring one of Betty Pulkingham’s Eucharistic settings; and…a brand new musical entitled ‘Ah! There’s the Celebration!’

So indeed and of course, I soaked up whatever of these events I could – discovering in the process that, news to me, the Community of Celebration had relocated to Scotland, a little island called Cumbrae, just off the West Coast. The musical, held in a church  just off ‘the Mile’, featured some great songs built around the concept of a ‘family’( ie a community of Christian believers) refusing to conform to life-as-a-game-of-monopoly, subverting it by resisting opportunities to act acquisitively or competitively, instead offering sharing and kindness. Memorably the Games-master ‘Dev’ (played by David Gustafson) shouts in frustration ‘Jesus Christ! Read them the rules!’ at which point Mikel Kennedy – present throughout the action , with his guitar, as Jesus-on-a-stepladder, begins to recite some of the Sermon on the Mount. If I’ve made it sound crass or comical, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, powerful stuff. Pat Allen (and Martha Barker)’s song ‘I’d Like to Sit You Down’ beautifully exemplifies this non-competitive subversively compassionate behaviour. It’s both a reflection of Christ’s compassion for the world and a manifesto for the servant heart of a Christlike church – ‘Your feet are so weary/ From walking through problems much too big for you/ I’d like to sit you down/ Gently wrap a towel around/ And bathe your feet with my tears..’This song, like so many of Pat Allen’s, is a unique hybrid – part Broadway musical song in structure, part holy anthem. Nothing derivative or formulaic or stereotypical about this kind of Christian song; and I was deeply moved. Later in my journey I  chased up the Community to their home, centred around the Cathedral of the Isles on the Island of Cumbrae, got to meet Bill Farra, spent a night there, and was hooked for life. The following year I spent a whole week there.

Pat Allen, Pat Allen… Even on a purely vocal level there was something special there. While she seems to have been around quite close to the start of the music ministry (check out the late sixties’ ‘Keyhole’ albums, from the Houston coffeehouse ministry) her voice seems to have been used fairly sparingly – one of the earliest I recall is Betty Pullkingham’s ‘Bless thou the Lord’ psalm setting, where Pat sings the verses; then there’s her chillingly incisive rendition of the traditional ‘Mary had a Baby’ on a rather more choral album. It was a voice that uniquely melded both purity and warmth.

Her compositions, though, as I’ve said, were unusually theatrical – the still haunting composition ‘They have no Wine’ was probably our first taste of this, on the ‘On Tiptoe’ album. Then ‘The Carpenter’s Song’ (also featured in that same Fringe Musical in 1976) – a boldly human love song to the God-man Jesus. But she also had a deft touch with psalms – her setting/interpretation of ‘The Snare is Broken’ and her achingly beautiful setting of Daniel Berrigan’s rewriting of Psalm 131 – ‘May I to my Lord Hasten..’. All gorgeous.

If I ‘met’ her on my two visits to the community at Cumbrae, I never got a chance to chat. I do recall, however, a luminously peaceful smile; I also recall her giving someone a friendly back massage during one of the community meetings.. In the regular newsletters I began to receive from the Community in the late seventies, early eighties, it became clear that Pat was obeying a perceived call to a more solitary, contemplative life – within the community (I believe some kind of hut was discovered and employed within Cathedral grounds, where Pat could entertain visitors who came for prayer,  counsel, spiritual direction.) Sometime later I read she’d felt a call to live in Israel. Later still that she’d joined a Catholic Order of sisters there, and, just a couple of years ago, that she’d died there.

The existing Community of Celebration (with help, I suspect, from those many who’d left, been dispersed to other fruitful lives, but who cared, and wanted to honour how Pat has touched their lives) had the good sense to release a posthumous collection of her songs, and truth be told, I treasure this CD above most in my voluminous collection. And alongside the many new-to-me treasures unearthed, and amongst the old songs, this one, (co-written I believe with Martha Keyes-Barker) shines brightly as a statement of her own giving heart; and as a clear, quirkily unique colourful testimony to the Father’s goodness, the sacrificial grace of the Son, the mysterious and life-giving energy of the Spirit.

‘FOR THE ROSES’ – Joni Mitchell

In 1972, Allan told me he’d got us tickets to see Joni Mitchell in the Royal Festival Hall and, bless him, was willing to drive us there too. It was 6 May, Cup Final Day, though, and believe it or not, dear smirking reader, in those days this actually meant something to me. Yes, I could actually watch a whole football match without wanting to shout out (in the words of a revered older lady of our acquaintance) ‘Oh for goodness sake, look at those men chasing a ball – give them ALL a ball!’ Even harder to believe I had an extra-special particular interest in the match since ‘my’ team (?!) Leeds United was battling it out, against Arsenal. Yes, hard for me to believe I was interested, but it was unquestionably essential we watched the match.

Allan hit upon a plan, deciding we could drive to London in the morning, and watch the TV coverage of the match at the home of our cousin Jean – despite the fact we had never visited her before, or given her any notice of this . Jean had earned some notoriety for us by having married Bruce Rowland, drummer in Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, and later in Fairport Convention. It was something of a cheek, perhaps, to turn up at her door unannounced, but that’s what we did. Jean and Bruce were clearly not Saturday morning risers though, so when we brightly introduced ourselves, middayish, to the slightly groggy dishevelled Jean who answered the door, we were sent for a 20 minute walk around the block while they got their act together. Eventually we were welcomed, and given a scratch lunch; despite being a bit in awe of Bruce we still rifled through his album collection; then we were allowed to watch the match (Leeds won 1-0) and went on our way into the heart of the big city. Hard to believe now, but Al was able to park ‘just around the corner’ from the RFH, without too much difficulty and without cost.

It did not go perfectly smoothly, this concert. It started late – the sound system wasn’t working so they ended up using the ‘house PA’ system which was a little echoey and tinny. Jackson Browne’s support set, then, was somewhat curtailed, but not before he’d whetted our appetite for further acquaintance.

Joni’s set, despite all this, was utterly entrancing and memorable. She seemed to me at the peak of her creativity – looking back, one of many peaks. Like the Cairngorms. She opened with ‘This Flight Tonight’, making the most of the song’s drastically dropped bass string to hammer a note of warning –if that doesn’t sound too fanciful (it does –Ed.) – that we were in for a confident showcase of some special stuff. And so we were: she focused heavily on the new songs, at times even a little apologetically – ‘but it makes it more interesting for me’ she explained introducing yet another new one. I for one wasn’t complaining – these new compositions were enthralling, instantly engaging. She rarely gave them titles, but each was unique and compelling. Only later did we learn we had been introduced to ‘Electricity’, ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ (breathtaking), ‘Lesson in Survival’, ‘See You Sometime’, ‘Judgement of the Moon and Stars’(the ambition, the melodic sophistication!), ‘You Turn me on I’m a Radio’ – all finely honed, eloquent in distinctive ways, none moreso than this song, which was to give the album that eventually featured these new songs, six months or more later, its title.

She introduced it at length with some detail  of its inception – hearing the leaves of the arbutus trees rattling together like applause, while there in her retreat home in remote British Columbia. And she linked the anecdote with reflections from her friend who had talked about artists being like horses running for the rosettes and roses…

And of course this is what this wonderful song is about – or at least one of the things that it is about – art for art’s sake versus art for acclaim and rewards.  What happens to the artist when the acclaim and the accolades come.  The complex maelstrom of responses to success and fame, to the changing context of the artistic endeavours…  This song was chilling, then, when I first heard it on that slightly echoey PA System 43 years ago.  It is still quite chilling and it’s rich in its complex exploration of feelings and thoughts.

You’ve got to admire this about Joni Mitchell: there is generally an honesty in what she produces.  As early as ‘He Played Real Good For Free’ which made it onto the third album, she was beginning to confront awkward and uncomfortable discrepancies between the simple troubadour she had been and the superstar she was becoming, between the musicianship of fame, and the equally adept musicianship without fame, the discomfort and the something-like-guilt this engenders.  In the following album she was acknowledging the lucrative base of the business she was now a part of –‘I’m going to make a lot of money and I’m gonna quit this crazy scene..’ (she didn’t, hasn’t, couldn’t, quite…) ‘For The Roses’ takes an honest look at that –the artist caught up in a commercial merry go round so that art becomes contrived to the purposes of the machinery –‘in some office sits a poet…  And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around..’ She explores and confronts the discrepancy between the crowds of public acclaim (‘giant screens…  Parties for the press’) and essentially solitary nature of the artistic endeavour –‘it’s just you up there, getting them to feel like that…’ She explores and confronts the essentially inhuman, impersonal nature of the financial business world which controls the promotion of popular music –‘people who have slices of you from the company…’, and the powerful ‘golden egg’ metaphor in verse three hints of the precarious position of the popular artist, needing always to produce something marketable – ‘who’s to know if the next one in the nest will glitter for them so…’ The song is honest in confronting the idea that fame confers a lifestyle that is hard to move back from (‘…  Brings me things I really can’t give up just yet..’) so that to challenge the system for a successful artist indeed will seem like ingratitude as well as folly (‘…  My teeth sunk in the hand which brings me things…’) and –notably-we get the sense that recognition and acclaim are attractive enough that we carry the longing for them with us (‘did you get a round resounding for you way up here?’ from verse 1), but, equally, are essentially hollow –the ‘empty spotlight’ of that wonderful final phrase. How much more refreshing this bare probing than musicians perpetuating the pretence that they are reforming and doing another (fabulously remunerative) world tour of stadiums in their twilight years, merely for the love of the music, man.

Joni’s ‘you’ seemed ambiguous throughout the song – at times she seems to be addressing herself; at other times she seems to see the ironies and discrepancies more clearly by addressing a different second person – a former lover maybe,  a James, a Graham, a Jackson or whoever –it doesn’t really matter, the reflections are still valid just the same.  And it is powerful, this eloquent reflection-and-recollection in tranquillity, and by no means just as a lyric, but as a completely integrated music-and-words song.  Five verses, the final (half) verse bringing us back to the opening image but with a warier note.  In each verse, the opening lines follow a simple melodic strain dropping down in semi tones until a ‘lift’ in the second half of the verse with more dynamic thrusting images, somehow faltering into a final line with a chord reflecting irresolution and uncertainty –none more so than the ending of verse four where the fickleness of investment popularity has become ‘…  Bringing out the hammers, and the boards, and the nails…’ –the phrasing, the pauses perfectly reflect a world-weary cynicism with the business…  There’s a kind of instinctive compositional brilliance about this.

The song speaks – OK, yes, as one particular artist’s reflection on commercial success from the perspective conferred by distance and solitude; but also it speaks beyond itself to anyone engaged in expressive, creative or performance related pursuits.  It asks questions: was it ever enough to ‘pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee’?  Or is some kind of recognition and acknowledgment always to be desired?  Why this blog?  Why upload onto youtube and look for the likes, the comments?  How important the backpats, the smatterings of claps at open mic events?  How dangerous is it to be thrall to that. What’s creative integrity all about and how does it live with the audience it presumably needs?

(For goodness sake, give them all a ball.)