NEVER LET HER SLIP AWAY – Andrew Gold

 

Here is a lightweight piece of pop that makes me smile.  In some ways, it’s just the perfect pop single, airy nothings in a romantic vein with a sweet neat hook of melodic progression and –clincher-a gorgeous, chugging, shuffling percussive beat driving the whole thing.

I heard it first on the radio in January 1989 –I know this because I was staying in a guesthouse in Bournemouth, where I had gone for an intensive TEFL course –increasing our work options to include teaching abroad.  It was a strange and unusual four weeks (five weeks?  Six weeks?) With little spare time as such; though, in my single bed somehow I still managed to read ‘Swallows And Amazons’ (never read it before) and Doris Lessing’s ‘The Fifth Child’.  Did I have a little transistor radio?  I imagine there must have been one, because I remember lying in bed one morning and hearing the song.

No epiphanies or anything.  I knew it wasn’t  great art –but that beat, that sound, those hooks got to me and I hummed and sang fragments of it for the rest of the day.  And even now if I ever hear it by chance (a relatively rare thing) the same thing happens. Cha-chung der-der-der-der-da, cha-chung der-der-der-der-da etc ‘I feel like a kid with a teenage crush…’

I could project backwards and suggest that it had caught my attention because there was perhaps some distinct lyrical significance for me   especially the opening lines ‘ I talked to my baby on the telephone long distance..’ i.e. there was a splendid wife back in our home in Factory Road, who had let me do this, despite the fact that she was caring for a two month old baby, as well as another child of eighteen months.  Hopefully I did realise that this was an extraordinary woman whom I should ‘never let slip away’ ?  Shamefully, though I was grateful and missing her – don’t get me wrong – my realization of this was probably at a less than  conscious level.  The fact that, 28 years later, she hasn’t ‘slipped away’ is more to do with her resilience and godly faithfulness than my ‘letting’ or ‘not letting’.  But –for the record –I’m very grateful. ‘She’s good for me.. and I know it [has made!] me happy.. to never let her slip away..’

[Ha – for the record – yeh, for this one too]

THE LIVING YEARS by Mike and the Mechanics

 

I’ve tried a few times to write this one, over the last several months, but never feel I’ve quite got it right.  Ironically, I’ve ended up with ‘crumpled bits of paper/filled with imperfect thoughts…’, but it’s a new year so let’s give it another bash.

Looking at the release date of Mike and the Mechanics’ classic single ‘The Living Years’-end of 1988-I must have been aware of this song before the occasion of our exodus from Blighty (end of 1989) but, as far as my memories are concerned, this song doesn’t acquire conscious recognition until the middle of 1990.  For reasons which will become obvious.

You might think that saying goodbye to our parents at the turning of that particular year and decade, travelling as we were to somewhere that seemed a world away (and to them, even further; in these days the whole trans-continental thing seems a much less significant thing – a mere jaunt you can be back from by evening!) would have been profoundly emotional.  In some ways it was and in some ways it wasn’t.  Possibly I had steeled myself against the emotional traumas of partings, but for the most part we were all stoical. Given my father’s relatively advanced age, I must have been aware, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this might have been our last earthly hug/handshake, or whatever we did, but of course there was no way that I could have confronted that consciously.

Perhaps something of the excitement of the impending transition, and the flurry of preparations, kept me from the whole emotional import of this awareness. (Until the very first night away, in a small damp apartment in Sevilla, where we had gone for six weeks language training.  There I spent  sleepless hours suddenly confronted with a waking dread of having made a horrific error – ‘what have I done?  Taken my children away from their grandparents!  Left behind my own aged parent!…’ I think of it now as one peculiar dark night of the soul, a kind of Gethsemane type temptation to despair, and when Seville’s winter sun dawned the next morning those feelings evaporated and amazingly , never returned.)

If I hadn’t cried at leaving, I made up for it watching ‘Field of Dreams’ as part of the in-flight entertainment from Madrid to Rio de Janeiro, a film which, of course, is all about sort of recovering a relationship with a father who is in reality ‘beyond reach’.  I wept buckets, but there again, I’m a bit like that with films and so on.  Anyway, cutting the story short a little bit, my dad did indeed pass away some 5 months later (fairly peacefully, apparently, in his living room armchair, having recently had a pleasant reunion which had enabled him to catch up on some of his own family); we were not only far away and phoneless, but also in that particular week when he had died, we had been enjoying a rare little break on the Brazil/Paraguay border at Foz de Iguazu, glorying in the magnificent waterfalls, and so  were even more incommunicado than usual; his funeral went ahead without us but many friends ‘stood in’ for us, out of love.

So, I ‘heard’ the song for the first time, the next time it reached my ears. At least that part of the song which seemed particularly pertinent: ‘I wasn’t there that morning/when my father passed away/I didn’t get to tell him/all the things I had to say…’ And I’ve come to recognise that that sense of regret –for unspoken conversations, unvoiced expressions of affection and appreciation- are not uncommon, perhaps even universal, since we never do quite say enough of these things in ‘the living years’.  (When my mother passed away, some 14 years later, I wrote a song which included a similar reflection:  ‘…  about how much we loved you, but forgot to say..’).  And since we had two small girls with us, the next bit of that verse of Rutherford and Robertson’s song did not seem too fanciful either – ‘I thought I caught his spirit/later that same year/I’m sure I heard his echo/in my baby’s tears…’ And of course, the refrain brought a lump to my throat for quite a while after this – ‘I just wish I could have told him in the living years..’

Apart from those key emotions, though, the song is not necessarily a perfect fit for my relationship with my father.  I wasn’t particularly aware (verse 1) of being ‘ a prisoner to all my father held so dear’ and ‘a hostage to all his hopes and fears’, though increasingly I think my siblings and I recognize his quiet legacy – Inevitably I do wish we’d talked more about his Union years and his Labour party responsibilities, his ideals and beliefs; and for my part about the Gospel as I perceived and believed…. the implied tensions and conflicts in the song didn’t really exist between us, but we could have taken more opportunities to find common ground or creative contrasts. Which is perhaps part of what this song is about.

Paul Carrack’s voice is amazing, and he ‘carries’ the song with powerful conviction. As a song, it’s more than a facile verse-chorus structure, and I think survives the test of time. I learnt to play the song (though not properly, as I realized when hearing someone performing it in Open Mic recently!)and taught it to the class of 17 year olds I was teaching that year. They loved the anthemic quality of it, belting into the chorus about ‘listen[ing] as well as you hear..’ . I hope in some part of our brains we all got the message, and eventually I learnt to sing it and love it with more of a dry eye..

‘THE SUN’S GONNA SHINE’ and ‘STAYING IN THE SORROW’ – The Fisherfolk

Christians who want wide, rich, real worship expressions ignore the Psalter to their own great detriment – for within it are songs and prayers, rants and exultations, moans, lamentations, sighs of wonder and bafflement to cover most if not all human emotions. Like the News of the World’s old byline ‘All human life is there’; which is to say that the psalms help us somehow to encompass it all, and offer up in songs-of-a-kind all manner of reactions –adoring, angry and ambiguous, and the rest. This is relevant; bear with me.

Anyone who’s been part of an exciting community of believers (and this probably holds true for kinds of fellowships, fraternities and societies) will have known times of burgeoning and creativity, where solidarity is sweet, new experiences come thick and fast, and there’s a spring-like sense  of learning and newness, flow and fruition…and songs of joy and praise come easy and seem natural as breath. If they stick at it, they’ll also know times of quiet fallowness and consolidation; but then there’ll also be times of reduction, of ‘paring back’, times of challenge and disagreements, where once-simple comradeships seem complex and less secure, where disenchantments are expressed, old zeals diminished and where people change course, succumb to tragedy, or simply leave. There needs to be song-prayers for these occasions too, and perhaps that’s something which this pair of songs – never far away from my current playlists – continues to remind me.

Both these songs come from the Woodland Park Community, another expression of the Community of Celebration stemming from the historic renewal that took place at Houston’s Church of the Redeemer in the 1960s. While the U.K.-based Fisherfolk (the C of C’s touring/recording musical ministry teams) produced the great majority of recordings, the Colorado community’s ‘Fisherfolk’ produced three albums in the early 1980s. The first, ‘This is the Day’ reflects more of that early stage of community I mentioned – with songs of great joy, commitment and adoration. It’s a beautiful album. These two songs – both by Margo Farra – more later – come from the second and third albums, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’(1982)  and ‘Willing to Row’(1983). And although these albums are no less commendable and full of vibrant praise, their joy is undoubtedly tinged with more shadowy qualities – resignation, fortitude, consolations….that suggest, perhaps, a community of worship having to confront and embrace difficulties that make their sacrifice of praise all the more steely-real.

And so to the first of these songs, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’ which gives the album its title too. It ends the album, with Margo herself (I think?) taking the lead on her own self-penned lyrics. While it is indeed a song of hope and confirmation (the chorus: ‘The Sun’s gonna shine/ Just wait and see/ Spring’s gonna come/ I can feel it in me, can’t you?’), there’s an undeniable melancholy about it, underscored by the hypnotically repetitive melody lines, and explicit in its context – ‘Watching you go is the hardest thing I’ve ever done…’. There’s an elegiac quality to this (appropriate then that it was sung in Margo’s funeral some years later),  but more probably it’s about someone leaving community, breaking strong familial links forged over years of common spiritual struggle and friendship. The details in it make it sound an intensely personal song, yet for me it’s personal in the same way as David’s rawest psalms, which become ‘universal’ as cries and prayers we can all tap into. Like many a psalm, too, it traces a line through the sorrow and incomprehension to a kind of faith-intuition and acceptance (‘To find your life, you’ve got to lose your life, so you say/ Well that’s hard to believe, but in your life/ I see it working that way…’) and a further step, to the faith-declaration of the chorus, where other voices join, harmonizing, to swell out to something substantial.

Margo’s contribution to album three was also the closing track, and there’s something of a similar feel to it, and once again, a similar honest psalm-like quality to its plaint – ‘Staying in each other’s sorrow/ Bearing one another’s pain/ Sometimes I wonder/ If we’ll ever, ever laugh again..’ which hints at some of the sadnesses and challenges  the community was confronting in faithfully following their call. Once again, for most of the song the melodic range is repetitive, though in a haunting rather than a numbing way – and this time the lead vocal is given to Diane Davis Andrew whose sensitivity and precision give the sound a beautiful stark crispness. Lyrically here, even moreso than in ‘The sun’s gonna shine’, we have that psalmic note of yearning and enquiry – ‘Will we ever laugh..?’ –at one point ‘Sir, we’re here to ask you, will we ever…?’ The corresponding strain of faith, the answering response, comes in two ways: in a counter-song (taken up by the male vocalists) towards the end of the song, with the Lord’s promises and invitation to rest, peace, sustenance, healing… (‘Place your hurting hearts…in my love/ and let me warm them with my truth..’) and secondly in the more declarative hopeful tone of the last verse – sung now in unison, while Diane’s voice soars a joyous descant – Singing in the sorrow/ dancing in one another’s pain..’ and there’s something wonderful and slightly enigmatic about the final lines – ‘Because we asked the question/ our lives will never be the same..’ Not sure I fully comprehend it, but it sounds to me like an unapologetic endorsement of the way of life the community has chosen – despite sorrowful  difficulty, to live authentically with real-ness, asking questions of God (and of each other) and open to answers in ways that are literally life-changing.

I might not have recognized the beauty and worth of these two songs if they had not appeared at a time when my own awareness of church/community struggles and difficulties made them seem eminently applicable. Like I said at the start, we need songs for these stages in our communal experiences, and these fitted the bill. In a not dissimilar vein, I wrote some songs of my own at this time – ‘Calvary Love’, ‘We have a Saviour’, songs of a consolatory/encouraging tone. Perhaps Margo’s songs (and some of King David’s) helped me to find a voice.

Margo  Farra – perhaps someone should write the story of how the Farra tribe and spouses got touched by God in the destiny-shaping sweep of Spirit-renewal  at Houston… I never met Margo Farra in any of my visits to the Community of Celebration or various ‘Celebration Days’ in Dorset. But everything I’ve read and heard of her attests that not only was she well acquainted with grief – from childhood, through marriage difficulties, to her early death from cancer – but that she was an effervescent, creative character, with enormous vivacity alongside great pastoral sensitivity and warmth.  I wish I’d known her, but all I’ve known of her is these two songs, and I am more than grateful to her for them, for they have extended for me the Psalter, encouraging and enabling me to offer even the most painful experiences up in melodic prayer.

[Since completing this I’ve discovered a youtube clip containing Wiley Beveridge’s beautiful tribute to Margo, his song ‘ I will RememberYou’

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js7xvpj8MT4  ]

UNDER PRESSURE by Queen & David Bowie

First, the story of the juke-box. In the relatively brief period after Susan and I decided we liked each other enough to be married to each other, and before we actually did marry, weekends meant at least one round-trip to Shropshire – usually to take Sue back to her place (near the school where she was employed on her first teaching post) on a Sunday night. On this particular weekend, quite shortly after our commitment, I was bringing her back from Shropshire – half-term, perhaps – and taking an odd route, deciding near Ross-on-Wye to veer off towards Gloucester by B roads. We stopped for some refreshment at an old pub, where I noticed – just before we left – that they were selling off their big old Rock-ola jukebox! Perhaps Sue recognized the gleam in my eye, perhaps I was insistent, I can’t remember, but one thing was clear, in those dewy-eyed days of love, Sue was crazily willing to forgo any hopes of an engagement ring to allow the purchase of the huge record-machine. The magic of the evening was sealed by our witnessing – by chance – the passing of the Severn Bore from a bridge in Gloucester where a crowd had gathered.

I tell the story here because of the discs it came with. When, by the support of longsuffering friends, it was transported and heaved into the ‘though lounge’ of my little terraced house, I could see that its carousel was stocked with a selection of early 80s songs with which I had little sense of connection. When the great re-stocking took place, the only ones I left on, if I remember rightly, were Hall and Oates ‘I can’t go for that’, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney singing ‘The Girl is Mine’ and ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and Bowie.  I liked this latter track well enough, but in the fervent enthusiasm for all things Bowie following his recent death, I wish I could say that I had liked it more…the truth is that although I gleefully sang along on the ‘under pressure’s, really I probably thought of it as an odd novelty collaboration and I had little patience to explore beyond its ‘um ba ba be’s  to see whether the lyric had any specific substance. Soon it had lost its place on the jukebox.

Now, it’s really not going to be cool to admit this, but what has single-handedly resurrected this song for me in recent years has been the US music/drama series ‘Smash’ (largely centred around the writing, directing, producing, performing and staging a Broadway hit musical on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and spin-off rival musicals) – see: I said it wasn’t going to be cool. In one particular episode (series 2, maybe?) ‘Under Pressure’ is given a ‘dramatized’ performance by the main cast as they converge on a theatre ready for, I think I recall, the Grammys to deliver verdicts on their rival productions. A shame that the subject matter is something that petty, but the emotional intensity is evident, and even after repeated viewing, I still feel it is a stirring dramatization that respects the energy of the song in a way that even (for me at least) elucidates and focuses it. (*and what a shame – the videoclip of this has been pulled from youtube; you don’t get the same sense of dramatic interpretation from the mere audio).

Thankfully it sends me back – as good interpretations generally do – to the of course superior original, and now, late in the day, it appears as quite a remarkable impressionistic sound/word collage of a song. This we get not just in the scat-singing ‘day-da-de-mm-hm’s, but it’s also in the distinctive non-fluency of some of the lines – ‘…Pressing down on you no man ask for’.. Still, conversely I also begin to see there is actually more of a lyrical progression than I’d realized all those years ago. Sure, the first half of the song bemoans the ‘pressure’ of..modern life? Urban living (‘people on streets’)? Societal conflicts (‘..that burns a building down/Splits a family in two..’)? and then Bowie gets to sing these great lines which make the ‘pressure’ seem more pervasive and existential – ‘It’s the terror of knowing/What this world is about/Watching some good friends screaming/Let me out!’. He repeats these same lines a little further on, and his voice has the right kind of strident urgency for it.

The turning-point of the song – echoed in melody and tempo – comes with the words ‘Turned away from it all like a blind man..’ and the implication is that one tempting response to the overwhelming pressures of life is to distance oneself,  to ‘sit on the fence’ of disengagement… and the first mention of ‘love’ is a pessimistic one  – ‘Keep coming up with love/But it’s so slashed and torn…’. The ‘Why…’ that follows takes the falsetto of the ‘blind man’ line to greater heights screeching up the octaves in high-octane madness. But this takes us to another stage – the challenge to reject disenchantment and ‘give love one more chance..’. And that would be great enough, if we stopped there. But no, there’s even a further challenge – and this is brilliant and profound, so I’ll quote it practically all. While first acknowledging our over-familiarity with the word ‘love’ (‘such an old-fashioned word’) we hear this: ‘And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves/This is our last dance…’ Within the context of the rock idiom, this is powerfully articulate and challenging.

The ‘Smash’ cast – Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport et al – do in fairness give this section sufficient gravity, but at the same time trivialise it – the march into the theatre, the forming then breaking from their circle and the individual line-up on ‘This is ourselves’ is effective but by rooting it in their story it still feels like some petty showbiz angst -‘Ooooh such pressures we have, delivering Broadway shows for the critics and public..’. Whereas Queen and Bowie’s original is more powerfully generalised. The ‘last dance’ seems to imply that if we don’t make love work, what else is there? And the ‘this is ourselves’ is perhaps asking us to be accountable and individually responsible… yet still, no facile ending, we are left with the single word ‘pressure’.  Rock n roll classic. OK, back on the famous jukebox.