64. FOR MR. THOMAS – Robin Williamson

I’ve been listening to RW’s lovely ‘Songs of Love and Parting’ again, now I’ve got it on CD at last. My confession is this: I didn’t really get into the Incredible String Band when I should have.  I liked the pictures I saw of them on album covers and in music magazines, I found interviews and reviews interesting, the whole gypsyish-ragamuffin Celtic-folk-alternative/slightly stoned-looking image was of course beguiling; and I particularly liked the fact that one of the girls was called Licorice.  But the music, for whatever reason, passed me by.

And even when I did begin to appreciate something of their sound and their charm, I’m ashamed to say it was through the doorway of the cutesy novelty track ‘the Hedgehog Song’ which Bob Harris played on his radio show one night.  This did send me back to looking for and at the albums – found some cheapo second-hand ones in a hippy shop in Pontypridd, where in a haze of nag champa the owner told me he’d listened to lots of ‘the Incredibles’ when he’d made his trips across land to Katmandhu. Honest, it’s what he said. Listening to the albums, though, I found that with each bunch of tracks it was with some relief when I came upon one with a ‘proper tune’.  What a shallow plebeian am I.  I really got to love ‘Seasons They Change’, though, but that’s another story.

Anyway, one night my good friend Julia and I found out that Robin Williamson was performing in Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre and we went along.  Without doubt, it was one of the best concert experiences of my life –I was quite blown away by this harp playing, guitar playing, word spinning storyteller, and particularly by this song. *

The funny thing is that the frissons of excitement I got from hearing this song for the first time –with its heady and relentless barrage of words and images addressed to Dylan Thomas –corresponded very closely with the chills of delight I got when I first read ‘Under Milk Wood’.  And my memory of that is fairly sharp –I was 15 or 16, I think –still in school anyway –and I got a copy of this famous play for voices from our local library.  For some reason I decided I would read the book by torchlight under the blankets of my bed.  No logical reasons for this: I was no longer sharing a bedroom with my big brother by this time, and my parents had no problems whatsoever in allowing me to keep the lights on till whenever.  I must have just thought it would add something to the atmospheric thrill of the experience.  And in a strange way, it was fitting.

I don’t think for all my teenage reading that I had encountered anything where words tumbled over each other with such rich relentless profusion, and yet at the same time seemed to be savoured for the precise, delicious value of their sounds and connotations.  And now here’s a funny story.  When I applied for a place in Swansea University, I was invited for interview (do they still do that sort of thing?).  On the day, following some kind of written ‘test’ of my lit crit skills, I sat before a panel of some kind.  They glared down at my application form. “Oh, you’re quite a reader,” one of them said, “Tolstoy?  Evelyn Waugh?  Kafka?” (I had written to impress, largely bluff based on a couple of pages here and there) “and you like Dylan Thomas, apparently.  What is it that you like about him?” Awkward and inarticulate as I was then I managed, “well…  he’s…  a master of words, isn’t he”. “Ah, and what if we were to say to you,” said one of the boffins eagerly leaning forward, “that words mastered him, rather than him mastering them?  How would you respond to that?” My awkward inarticulacy stumbled up a further notch – “well…  I suppose…  I.. wouldn’t really agree,” I said.  My cross examining tutor smiled. “Well, you can write anyway, so that’s good,” he said  (kindly? benignly ? patronizingly?) looking down at what I’d written earlier that day.  Even today, I’m not sure what the answer to that question should have been.

Back to this song.  There is a frenetic stream of images from the word go in this song – I’m probably clueless about any precise meaning many of them have; yet the energy of that stream perfectly echoes something of Thomas’s own mystically poetic verbal extravagances; and the words have something of the wildness and ferocity and recklessness which he sees and admires in Thomas. And just like the best of Thomas’s poetry, the magic is as much in the sound as in the content.  The beautiful rawness of Williamson’s Scottishness adds edge to this –even that first line (excuse the clumsy attempt to phoneticise) ‘fram faded newsprint used tae wrap a fush..’ , every alliterative fricative sounded, every ‘r’ a crisply struck rhotic . It draws you in straight off.  [I didn’t know until today that no less a figure than Van Morrison had covered this song – adding to the mix of Celtic connections; and yes of course you can see why he chose to.] Williamson’s guitar style in the song is spare but with some deft hammering and picking, the tune simple, repetitive and cumulatively powerful.

I’m not sure I could analyse the lyric if I tried, but if we are selective we can get some flavour of the qualities Williamson perceives in Thomas, and which to some extent he emulates.  He clearly identifies with him – ‘while I sit drinking namelessly in a nameless bar/ 5000 miles and 30 years away..’ He highlights that whiff of freedom he recognizes within Thomas’s work as distinct perhaps from the repressiveness of traditional literary academia – ‘let smirking scholars writhe in their favoured bondage/ to hold you plaintiff to the charge of art..’.  He sees in Thomas an anarchic free spiritedness which perhaps defies any attempts to crystallise and capture him as an image or a persona, even that of a ‘wild Welsh Rimbaud’?..Rather ‘you’d laugh to see the monochromes they make of you..’ (I like that.) His sense of identification seems to gather pace towards the end of the song, into ‘Let us (together)..’ expressions – ‘let us ramble through the midnight fair…’ Ending in a violently forceful image seemingly invoking connections with a earthy sense of rooted history, with a vigorous Celtic heritage, perhaps  -‘(Let us) hack wide the bellies of the swollen mountains/and rip molten heroes forth to their furious tears…’ Just like Thomas’s famous villanelle ‘Do Not Go Gentle..’, these images have an urgency and energy that affirm the very beauty and preciousness of life itself.  Since this song, 35 years plus old now, Williamson has produced a whole album more or less inspired by Dylan Thomas’s work ‘The Seed At Zero’ with an interpretation and appreciation of a broader spectrum of Thomas’s qualities, though nothing quite touches the intuitively gutsy authenticity of this response.

[* By the way, we shouldn’t have been surprised to find Robin Williamson performing in Cardiff –he’s been living there for quite a while now, apparently.  My former boss, when we were discussing inviting guests to come to  school to inspire students, mentioned the one of his neighbours was something of a poet/performer. ‘you might have heard of him’ he said…  We didn’t invite him, eventually.  Best keep these icons at a distance]

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63. WHEN THE MUSIC FADES (‘THE HEART OF WORSHIP’) – Matt Redman

 

I feel like I have given ‘mainstream contemporary Christian music’ bad press and short shrift thus far in this series of postings; and I’m feeling something of the need to redress a balance.

And when I initially wrote this piece (oh, two years ago now I think) I was particularly indebted to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for including a Matt Redman song (not this one, actually) amongst his eight Desert Island Discs when he ‘appeared’ on that programme over Christmas 2014.  It was if I recall a lovely, gracious interview, as ever.  It made me reconsider my prejudices; and another thing it made me realise, and despite what I have said elsewhere, what I need to affirm is this: probably every generation has its cohort of pioneering hymn writers/psalmists/Jesus-troubadours who manage either to resist that glamorization and the inevitable contortions of identity that come with the commercial machinery of mass promotion and mass production; or to transcend it in some way; or perhaps just to ignore it and create  valuable psalmody in spite of it.

Now, I wouldn’t really say that I have my finger on the pulse of the current sources of great contemporary Christian music. In the greenness of my prime there was the Wesleyan prolificness (prolificity?) of Graham Kendrick, the sensitive and accomplished Adrian Snell… Possibly today it’s bands like Rend Collective whose passionate, homespun, semi-makeshift style of joyous worship breathes authenticity.  20 years ago I found the same excitement in Delirious who –even in concert in Greenbelt a dozen years ago seemed to have managed to sustain their sense of heartfelt worship. (I wouldn’t know if the lucrative results of their excellence have eroded something of that: I surely hope not); and then in amidst the whole ‘stables’ of worship music – Hillsong, Vineyard etc –  there’s the Soul Survivor team with Beth Croft etc; there’s the wonderful solid crafting of Stuart Townend’s songs- these seem to have held on to some kind of worshipful integrity – and there must be loads more I’ve forgotten, or am ignorant of.  In that list (somewhere there) of songsmiths of spiritual integrity, number such as Tim Hughes and…. Matt Redman, composer of this wonderful song.

Because this song is something special, isn’t it.  Its unique because as well as being a valid worship song which engages mind and heart in its lyric and its musical construction – like so many of the psalms almost socratically working through to something that demands resolution in true submission and praise -, its special in that it kind of questions and challenges the very genre of which it is a part – “worship” (or perhaps I mean ‘the worship industry’) “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it” he writes, and in doing so, wonderfully refocuses himself and anyone engaged in the listening/singing to the whole raison d’être – “it’s all about you, Jesus”.  For this reason, the song has a distinctive prophetic resonance: it was a song that needed to be written for those of my own Christian generation who have –let’s face it – because of the excitement of the creative process, or even the excitement of musical collaboration, or the alluringly emotive power of the poetic/musical engagement, been tempted to see song as an end in itself. “I’ll bring you more than a song/for a song in itself is not what you have required..” We are indebted to Mr. Redman for bringing us back in this song to the ‘heart of worship’ –which is of course not worship itself, but the object of our worship, our beloved, our redeemer and saviour. Him to whom we sing!

Does all of this have a wider relevance, even, to this very blog (which was conceived initially as a book of autobiographical reflections), to this whole process of reflecting and re-evaluating the place of songs in my life?  Hmmm… in some ways I think so: I hope that that is indeed what’s happening here, too – seeing and appreciating a song for what it is, sure, but also beyond it to its wider context of experiences and resonances that have shaped, continue to shape, our little lives, and how we see things.