‘THE LATE SHOW’ & ‘HOW LONG?’ – Jackson Browne

 

 

I’m putting these two songs together –perhaps over-ambitiously? –and I’m not sure if I can convey what I want, but somehow I want to suggest that the gap between these two songs is a story in itself, from the introspective angst which characterises (and caricatures) too much of the early 1970s singer songwriter material, to something more outward looking, observational, politically and socially engaged [Note: this is one of the reasons why Dylan was outside of his time – the chronology of his own development is quite different.]

When Jackson Browne’s ‘Late For The Sky’ album was released, I was just ripe for its musings and expressions, particularly for the emotings and the confident pseudo psychological declaratives of the final song ‘The Late Show’…’ Seems like people only ask you how you’re doing/ ‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care..’ This kind of rawness, this naked facing up to the need-for-meaningful-love at the core of our beings , was exactly where I was at, there in the early 1970s.  And even while I’m writing this, I’m recognizing a chicken-and-egg conundrum: did the Californian songsmith’s navel gazing emoting actually engender my perspective, or simply correspond?  Remember that I was late adolescent burgeoning into the early adulthood: first romance (Margaret); equally in love (or was this the fault of DH Lawrence?) with the idea of friendships.  So the song resonated and resonated.  And either way, I recognise this as both the internal and external mood of the time.  I remember singing a snatch of the song at home one evening –could possibly have been the lines already quoted –and my mother saying ‘Oh?  Do you think that’s true?’ Or something equally unexpected.  It led to a brief, interesting but slightly awkward conversation where I affirmed my commitment to be real, to talk about real feelings.  I think I might even have said that my experience of God’s love meant that I felt ‘reconciled to the world, and the universe, and myself’.  Something of that nature. (!)

The song continued in that vein, arguing (it did argue, I think) for emotional honesty – ‘to see things clear, is hard enough I know…/Without dressing them in dreams and laughter/I guess it’s just too painful otherwise..’ and encouraging us to probe beyond surfaces and to recognise the rawest of human emotional needs – ‘you could be with somebody who is lonely too/ He might be trying to get across to you..’

The disturbing thing is that some of my own songs may still be ploughing this same particular furrow. Yikes.  Take my song ‘Discover Me’ which urges the same kind of awareness (‘perhaps it’s like the one about Not waving here but Drowning’).  But despite that, listening back and thinking back, I recognise, as JB himself must have, that there are limits to this heavy emotional dissection.  It simply calls for a ‘breaking out’ to less-internal preoccupations; and it is a refreshment, relief and reinvigoration when this is reflected in the song-output.

I’m choosing ‘How Long?’ From the ‘World In Motion’ album as the other contrasting bookend.  I found the album in a shopping mall in Asuncion in 1991, though I think it may have been released quite a few years by then.  This wasn’t by any means the beginning of Browne’s more outwardly looking songs –even back in the mid 1980s, when Sue, Kev and I had gone to see him in Hammersmith Odeon, he was promoting his ‘Lives In The Balance’ album full of eloquent criticism of America’s foreign policy, and of awareness of its effects globally. That very title track in itself was a most arresting wake-up call.

The World In Motion album follows in the same vein –but the ‘How Long?’ track really got to me –because it seemed more than just mere polemic; it also employed the controlled emotive focus which song is so good at, of course (* see below) –to help promote and clarify that same anti militaristic perspective.  And so it alternates political statement (‘How long will they tell us these weapons are keeping us free?/It’s a lie..’) with more blatant emotive appeal (‘how long/can you hear someone crying..?).  *And OK, what needs to be debated of course, is whether all this is just political naivety; it could even be argued that the subtle complexities of political and militaristic pragmatism cannot adequately be addressed within the vehicle of song, which perhaps by  very nature tends towards simplifications and polarisations.  Today, I’m particularly aware that ‘emotive’ arguments can be easily abused – hearing Donald Trump crassly justifying his own recent air strike on a Syrian military target, with a suspiciously sudden newfound concern for the ‘poor little innocent Syrian babies and beautiful children’ who had not seemed on the radar of his compassion any time previously.  I’m not comfortable thinking that Browne and Trump might be using the same kind of manipulative technique , and I almost wish I hadn’t started this bit. Still, of the two, I know who the more articulate one is, and who I trust more.

Be that as it may, I still find this a powerful song –one of those rare ones that did make me cry; and it’s a song I have used in school assemblies – I constructed my first ever power point presentation with this song –and, with its sense of purpose and ‘protest’, I suppose it’s the kind of song I wish I had written more of, and perhaps had paid more heed to, and had celebrated more.

See what I mean?  In these two songs, a whole history….

‘BORDER SONG’ by Elton John

I think one often returns from time-out breaks with a sort of heightened awareness –and perhaps particularly so when they involve some cultural contrast, and in my experience this is especially true when the breaks have had some spiritual focus –and ones antennae towards matters of spiritual reference becomes acutely sensitive – perhaps amusingly so…

 

At least, such was the case in the spring of 1970 when I returned home from an Easter jaunt with the church youth group, who had been taken by our pastor Rev. Albert Turner (recently deceased – God bless him) to camp in the Bois De Boulogne and see the sights of Paris (following, now I come to think of it, a short Christian youth conference somewhere in Belgium, the first opportunity incidentally to practice my excruciatingly clumsy bits of O level French).  Show us the sights he did, and looking back it seems slightly unorthodox that for one of our evening visits he took us  -all young adolescent boys, if I remember rightly –to stroll along Pigalle’s avenue of strip joints and girlie shows. ‘Something of the world’s attractions’ he said, implying that anyone blithely following a perceived call to a Christian lifestyle might as well know what they were up against!  Ironically other visits and evening walks –less sticky and embarrassing –were equally alluring: the beauty of the Champs Elysees, the Left Bank, the art…

 

We must have returned home midweek, because I have a feeling that I was still fresh and raw from the headiness of foreign travel and from the intoxicating camaraderie of young people together, and the rarefied atmosphere of constant ‘Christian fellowship’ and refreshment, when we came to sit down and watch our regular ‘Top Of The Pops’ date, as a family, that Thursday evening.

 

I had probably only been away about 10 days at the most, but I suddenly felt that everything had changed – a song called ‘Spirit In The Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum had rocketed to the top of the charts –and this obviously a song about God!   Other singles too (I forget which) seemed less about teen romance and more about less earthbound concerns….Spiritual awareness was everywhere!  And now, look –this young fresh faced pianist-singer Elton John was also singing a song of unequivocal gospel tones and content!  Had a revival taken place in my absence?  It was spring, after all, and an opportunity for awakenings in more than one way!

 

Okay, very funny now, that I should think of Elton’s song as evidence of a sweep of Christian fervour, or something akin.  What on earth was I basing it on? ‘Holy Moses’, no doubt (though today Taupin’s ‘Holy Moses’ seems little more than a substitute for a more frustrated expletive!) and possibly the impassioned call for tolerance in the last verse, which in its clunky literalism sounds more like The Office’s David Brent than anything else! (‘tell the man over there/what’s his colour?/I don’t care/he’s my brother/let us live in peace…’).  I subsequently learnt that young Reg added this verse himself, while Bernie Taupin’s lyrics in the rest of the song remain much more ambiguous and enigmatic –and somehow more enduring because of it.  Take the ‘bridge’ for instance –‘I’m going back to the border where my affairs/my affairs ain’t abused/I can’t take any more bad water/it’s poison from my head down to my shoes.’..  And borders are of course essentially dangerous, risky, uncertain, ambiguous tightropes between neighbouring or opposing states.  Perhaps that’s why they appeal to poet-singers –think of Richard Thompson’s ‘when I get to the border’ and Joni Mitchell’s wonderful ‘Borderline’ etc.

 

So yes, it was pretty silly wasn’t it, to see the song as potent with spirituality.  But the funny thing is, for me the feel of the song is still gospelish, and although my Elton-history is a relatively short one, I gladly come back to this one (it’s on the jukebox) and experience from it a familiar frisson.

 

 

 

 

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]

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.

 

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]

PROSERPINA by Kate McGarrigle

I can guarantee that this is a song which after a couple of listens will get into your head – it has into mine, anyway, in the few years that I’ve been aware of it. (And it will annoy people around you no end as you keep muttering this strange polysyllabic name and humming this simple hypnotic tune while you’re going about your daily business…)
This being the case, one would like to think there’s more to it than an insidious earworm, and I suspect there is. It’s worth considering something like this: the Proserpina (Persephone) / Hera (Ceres?) story – where beautiful Springlike Proserpina is captured and carried off into the underworld –  must have some sort of connections with ideas of seasonal cycles, withdrawal and re-emergence, death and re-birth. The song charts the grief of the mother’s loss, the insistent cry ‘Come home to Mama’ echoing a longing for the return of Spring perhaps, or for some sure survival beyond death.  Meanwhile  the ‘verse’ of the song is a kind of angry curse on the land reflecting  inescapable wintry barrenness (‘I will punish the earth/…I will turn every field into stone…’). The biographical poignancy of this is that this was Kate McGarrigle’s last song before her death.; and a more ‘polished’ recording has been made by Kate’s daughter Martha on her ‘Come home to Mama’ album.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle, whose debut eponymous album is much loved by my generation of listeners, eventually extended their franchise into a kind of legendary tribal grouping, incorporating friends, children, sisters, husbands, ex-husbands (notably Kate’s famous ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III….and his family members).  This extended family first surfaced in the extraordinary ‘McGarrigle Hour’ album and then with expanding and slightly modified configurations each year for a Christmas concert (and a Christmas album); the one recording of Kate singing her song was at one such ‘family’ Christmas concert at the Albert Hall in 2009; and since Kate’s death, I believe, these concerts always include this song.

Both in lyric and melody the song’s content is brief, simple, artless; but in subsequent performances the Macgarrigle/Wainwright clan have shaped it , despite its simplicity, into something with an almost operatic intensity – solos on some lines (Sloan Wainwright the best of these), some lines with two or three harmonising (Rufus Wainwright good on the harmonies), others where the women in the wider group surge in with added weight of unison (‘i have taken away every morsel to eat..etc’), then as the men adding their own thrust, the verse expands to fuller harmonies to the harshness of the ‘curse’ verse  ‘I have turned every field into stone..’ etc. Not unlike a Chorus in a Greek tragedy, now I come to think of it.  And it ebbs and flows with these subtle variations, never allowing us to lose the plaintive sense of longing in the chorus, and sustaining that evocative quality.

There’s an interesting and powerful contrast between the simple repeated call of the chorus, and that ‘verse’ I’ve mentioned. And I think it’s at least partly to do with rhythmic contrast. (Indulge me a moment). In poetic terms, there are the arresting trochaics of the called name; Próserpína…then in the verse the angry march of these anapaests – ‘I shall punish the earth, I shall turn down the heat.’..etc. It’s quite chilling to listen to.

So listen to it. Find some of the clan’s performances of this haunting song on Youtube. A final word about this tribe of performers: they make fascinating watching, as any extended family does. You find yourself musing on the dynamics at work.  Rufus and Martha Wainwright are its guiding members, it would appear – and (imho) Rufus through genuine music talent, Martha through a strong personality (and perhaps sheer bossiness?),both with an extremely high profile in the music world, though (personal viewpoint again)probably neither of them as talented as their father whose presence is fairly low-key in these events. Likewise Anna, half the ‘original’ duo. Interesting to see that Lucy Wainwright Roche is relegated somewhat to sidelines, though a creditable songwriter/ performer herself – at least the equal of Martha;  but it’s Martha, the composer’s daughter, who’s claimed this song for herself and rightly so, as with confidence and pride she  helps to keep alive the legacy of Kate’s warm, extraordinary talent.

‘ANOTHER DAY’ & ‘WHEN AN OLD CRICKETER LEAVES THE CREASE’ by Roy Harper

‘The kettle’s on, the sun has gone, another day…’  As I’ve mentioned more than once, it was not unusual  in the late 60s/early 70s for my brother to come home with a long playing disc of an artist hitherto unknown to me.  Here was a classic case: the album ‘Flat Baroque And Berserk’ was both captivating and intriguing.  On the one hand, there was some very nice acoustic guitar work, either with crisply strummed chords or some neat twiddly finger picking, and a few of the songs were par for the course in early seventies English folk prog imagery, with sunshine/ countryside/ seaside allusions, all not too far from McTell.  But with far more of them there was a different tone too, a Dylanesque sharpness, an edgy angry quality.  And let’s not forget to mention that voice – that lovely leaping range he has, from quiet/tender/menacing in the lower registers soaring up to strident/piercing/ challenging/pleading in the higher registers. ‘I hate the white man’ is a perfect example . One interesting feature  was a long monologue (would we pretentiously have referred to it as a ‘rap’ back then??) before Harper launches in to that particular angry song.  It’s a bit rambling, bordering on semi-incoherent, possibly fuelled by, ahem, substances… does it explain some of the ‘impressionism’ of these early songs?

Which is not meant as a put down, because this song ‘Another Day’ from the same album, is stunningly beautiful – but it feels like a case of words and images getting collaged, sort of, by slightly spaced out intuition or serendipity or because they sound good, rather than, I suppose I mean, by more conscious language choices : and maybe that was the creative spirit of the time and the perceived value of mind-altering  stuff – freed you from over-cerebral, overly-prosaic construction? So we listen to ‘Another Day’ recognizing that it’s in the feel  and the general tenor that emerges from the accumulated images – a feel of endings, missed chances, transitions ,loss, and I’m not sure the lines will hold up to too much individual analysis – ‘I must take her while the dove domains..run my wings under her sighs/ as the flames of eternity rise..’.

But I’m also thinking that to see it like this might slightly be doing Harper a disservice – he was avowedly a fan of the romantic poets so let’s assume it wasn’t just their toothache-remedies he emulated, but also their conscious lyrical power. There’s genuine aching loss in some of the lines – ‘I loved you a long time ago/ Where the wind’s own forget-me-nots grow/ But I just couldn’t let myself go/ Not knowing what on earth there was to know..’ and an attempt to explore distances between people – ‘sat here with ourselves in between us..’  And  there’s enough consistency to make it a thing of a unified, coherent mood – a delicious, almost colourful sadness  which ends with a ‘without a sound… walk away’. Whoever produced the album wisely and sensitively accentuated this simple minor chord sequences and ambience with a beautiful string arrangement , and you could play it over and over..

I only ever saw him once, and that was my first year in Swansea University, where he played a set in a very cramped and dingy student union bar.  His song introductions, his chat between songs, were as mumbled, profane and semi incoherent as that album had led me to expect!  But similarly I was not disappointed by this searing, incisive voice, and yes, he even included ‘Another Day’ in the set.

 

What of this second song?  I didn’t really follow the Harper trail, I’m afraid. I got a bit lost after ‘Stormcock’ – which, while I appreciated the ambition and the artistry..I dunno – blame it on my short attention span. Anyway,I can’t remember when I first heard ‘ When an Old Cricketer leaves the crease..’, and I suspect it was long after Roy Harper had ceased to be part of my familiar listening repertoire.  I know now that it comes from the HQ album , which actually was released a mere five years later.  One of the things that struck me about it was that it seemed, in its rather gentle evocation of English village green cricket matches, a far cry from the anti establishment anger stances with which I associated him in my memory.  But I am no Roy Harper aficionado, and perhaps those who have followed his career, and know the canon of his work more fully and more intimately, might be able to tell me that there is more seamlessness between the two Harpers than I was aware of.  The other thing about the song, bearing in mind what I said earlier, is that this one does seem more carefully, almost intellectually crafted, and gently sustaining its cricketing metaphor throughout.

I say metaphor , I assume metaphor, because surely this is a song about mortality, isn’t it.  ‘When the day is done and the ball has spun’.. and so on. (And I identify with this because as I look back at some of my own songs, a lot of them end up musing on mortality!) Even if it’s a tribute to the classic gentlemanly sport, it’s seeing it in the context of endings, and yet with the sense of the enduring spirit ? so ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone/
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly Mid-on..’ There even seems something semi-mystical as we get into the second ‘verse’ – ‘Well this way of life’s recollection, the hallowed strip in the haze/The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days’. The lovely vocal range is still there, the ability to leap up the octave. And back to the crafting – wow, this one’s workmanlike – that neat aabccb rhyme pattern in the first two lines of the verse, ferinstance.  And – I don’t know if I’m getting this right but – I like the gentle ‘defusing’ of this perspective by equating it with the ‘sting in the ale’…it’s all a graceful ‘sunset’ (of an English summer Sunday? of life? Of old guys? Of village green cricket matches?) evocation. And in keeping, this time, production gives us comforting low-key brass band music rather than moody strings.

Two classics, two special songs, ladies and gentleman, deserving to be known and enjoyed. As does Mr Harper senior.

CHELSEA MORNING – Joni Mitchell

Since the old lady herself was on the radio the other morning, Radio Four delving into some old archival interviews – hers from 1983 –I suddenly felt it was high time to share a little more of my Joni story, and this song will do as well as any, and better than most, as a focus for those thoughts.

Christmas 1970 was very much the Joni Mitchell Christmas in our house: I came down on Christmas morning to find (as I think I’d probably expected, and was hoping for…) a couple of albums on ‘my’ section of the Christmas table –‘Sweet Baby James’ (Taylor) and…  ‘Clouds’ from Joni Mitchell.  I had been sort of lusting after this album since the summer; every record shop I came across I would wander in, finger through the female vocalists section, and gaze at that remarkable self portrait of the blond artist with the cheekbones and the freckles and the flower, with its heavily romanticised background from the warm, dark sunsetty side of the spectral palette.  It was transfixing as much for what it represented as for the kind of songsmithery delights to be discovered therein.  What I had heard of Joni Mitchell –very little, really: the cleverly gimmicky ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ single and the far more intriguing flip side ‘Woodstock’; a quick snatch of the BBC two ‘in concert’ performance –and what I had read of her (NME concert reviews…) suggested something/someone that could not fail to stimulate and engage my little teenage creative proclivities!

I knew that she painted –this crazy album cover, for one –and that her songs were already been covered by other people.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to Judy Collins, for instance.  What about this song?  My memory is a little hazy, but I think that I heard it first sung by John Rogers Prosser, extraordinarily talented classmate and head boy whose awareness of cool and exciting new musical movements and discoveries seemed several giant leaps ahead of me.  I often watched him closely, surreptitiously, listened in something like awe.  The song seemed fresh and remarkable for a few reasons.  We’ll come to that.  I think shortly afterwards I heard and saw Judy Collins singing this song on the Tom Jones show on TV!  (she did actually release  it as a single, though did not include it on an album until much later).  Since I only saw a bit of the famous 1970 BBC ‘pink dress’ Joni concert, a quick burst of ‘My Old Man’, I think – something better (!) over on ITV, maybe – I didn’t get to see her perform ‘Chelsea morning’ with which she opened the set, I believe.  [thankfully BBC repeated the recording the following year, I think; and in recent years have also trotted out, for nostalgic music-weeks. Am I right in thinking that the half hour productions often differ slightly in the edit, suggesting that the original recording was a slightly longer set list?] My point being, I still hadn’t heard the composer herself singing the song.

It might sound a bit pretentious, but I think there was something about the very structure of the song that seemed alluringly unusual.  Its phrasing and construction definitely wasn’t  ‘common metre’ –to use hymnody parlance –or ‘ballad metre’ even; it wasn’t really pop-idiomatic, either –though there was a bridge between verse two and three (but then the bridge modified at the end of verse three).  There was that little gap between the ‘woke up’ and the ‘it was a Chelsea morning’.  There was rhyme, of course, but not as we know it, Jim… and the verse certainly wasn’t enslaved to it –‘Christmas bells’ and ‘pipes and drums’ sounded like they should have rhymed, but didn’t.

The content, too, was excitingly refreshing for the richness of its imagery –‘the light poured in like butterscotch/and stuck to all my senses…’.  If you were sniffy, you could say that this was just the kind of dippy  poeticizing set of similes and metaphors likely to appeal to an equally dippy A level student of English.  Yet I was aware that it wasn’t Yeats, or Wordsworth or even the imagist complexity of a Dylan –but there was definitely something about it, as there undeniably is with every great song, that was much bigger than the sum of its parts.

If you’ve read  enough of these you may already be tired of hearing me say what a sucker I am for ‘morning’ songs.  I’m even not above a quick burst of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘oh what a beautiful…’ from ‘Oklahoma’; and it’s not rare for me to greet the day’s greyness with something like ‘This is the Day’ or even my own special ‘Buenos Dias mi Senor’ ; and this old Joni song, which takes its place among the classics – I never tire of it, or of playing it.

Joni wrote it as an urban morning song, of course (the Chelsea District of New York is her setting); she had already written a quieter, rural morning song (‘Come To The Sunshine’ – a pretty number that never made it onto any of the albums) but the feel good factor of Chelsea morning –and the other one too, actually –transfers itself to any setting!  And there is a sort of challenge to savour the days experiences, and to ‘stay in the present moment’ as they say: ‘Oh, won’t you stay/we’ll put on the day/and we’ll talk in present tenses’..

I said at the beginning that the album Clouds marked Christmas morning in the Hankins household –finally giving us a chance to hear the composer herself singing this amazing song, and it didn’t disappoint.  As track two, it followed the haunting ‘Tin Angel’, breaking upon us with those crisp jangly chords and the confident soaring voice, backed up towards the end of the song by her own multi tracked harmonies.  Stunning. Oh but then, in the evening present-giving celebration, my sister’s gift was ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’!  Plus,some aunty gave me a record token, which by the new year had magically transformed itself into the first album (‘Song To A Seagull’ or ‘Joni Mitchell’ whatever it’s called).  Suddenly I had the set! The rest is history.

No, one more thing…  Whatever obsessiveness there might have been, at times, in my enthusiasm for this artist, the one thing I do maintain is that the principle value and effect for me especially in those early days  – apart from the intrinsic interest, worth and often beauty of her own output –is that she inspired creativity  more than she inspired unhealthy ‘fandom’.  In other words, though I love to listen, hearing her and seeing her art has primarily made me want to write my own – more poems, more songs, do more arty dabblings.

WE LEARNED THE SEA by Dar Williams

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2qzcnrXxPI

I remember, in form six English lessons, our teacher commenting on poems we had written.  “I like this one,” he said, “and I think I like it partly because I don’t quite understand it…” I think I feel the same about some Dar Williams songs.

And here’s the thing about Dar Williams songs.  From her great catalogue of albums, there are probably at least a dozen songs – eloquent, witty, clever, moving and quite explicit in their meaning –which are as good as any songs being composed by any contemporary song writer today (as far as one can compare these things!) But strangely enough, there’s at least an equal number of her songs, achingly beautiful  but where I am not 100% sure exactly what they’re about, if I’m honest.  these are generally the ones that get me in the gut, the heart, the brain, –like this  ‘sea’ song.

So here’s how I find myself listening to Dar Williams: for a day, a couple of days, I will just put one song on repeat, playing it like a mantra through trips to and from college, or supermarket  or wherever.  Songs where I’ve done this include ‘The Beauty Of The Rain’, ‘February’, ‘Calling the Moon’, ‘The Hudson’, ‘It Happens Every Day’ ‘I love, I love’…  so many of them.  Most recently it has been ‘The Tide Falls Away‘(hypnotically listenable, but I’m still not sure); a few weeks ago, and still quite recurringly, I think, over the years, it’s been ‘We Learned The Sea’.  And with each repeated listen, I thought I was perhaps a little bit closer to “understanding”…  ‘Oh, it’s about letting go of childhood…’, ‘Oh, it’s about birth…  – No, that won’t work …’, ‘Ah, are there several voices, like in ‘The Ocean’?  No…’ And then I start to wonder: will I really love the song as much if I can tie it down to a simple, single meaning?  I’m not sure.  Certainly, the enigmatic quality of it gives it a kind of numinous appeal.

And the song has an emotional appeal, quite evidently -the spare, bare guitar picking behind the simple sense of uncertainty at the beginning -‘I am a captain, and I have been told/that tomorrow we land, and our ship has been sold…’and there’s the stirring sweep of strings that comes in behind the song’s bridge -‘you take the wheel one more time, like I showed you/we’ve reached the straits, once even I could not go through…’ Even given the mystery of an eight year old captain (?) there is poignancy in this handing on of control (?), the protective concern for the first ensign, the sagacious aphorism -‘the stars of the sea are the same for the land.’ Even the line which provides the title is enigmatic -‘for all we learned the sea’ -all we i.e. all of us learned (about?  how to handle?  the mysteries of?) the sea?  Or all that we learned was the sea -we learned little else?  So I’ve decided –don’t interpret the song for me.  I’d like its dark starriness.

Me and Dar go back to 1995, in my earliest days (part time) at Cardinal Newman school: she was featured on a brief interview on BBC radio (2?) probably visiting the UK to promote ‘Mortal City’ -I heard it as I was driving to school; she also sang ‘When I was a Boy’ which I thought was clever, charming.  On the day of my interview for the full time post, I was sent off to amuse myself until the afternoon.  I went to Cardiff and bought the double cassette of her first two albums; I did the interview and got the job; I returned to the Pontypridd charity shop the jacket I had bought for the occasion; went home and listened to these beautiful albums, and was hooked.

I went to Brisol to see Dar Williams perform a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time.  I’ve been lucky enough on previous occasions to get the chance to quiz her, though not yet about this song.  “I’m still not getting ‘The Ocean’” I said, “despite Peter Mulvey explaining it has three distinct voices…” I also tried asking about ‘O Canada Girls’ (which, on two occasions, I managed to request her to include in her set -and she did) but she looks at me as if am a bit slow of mind, tries to explain, and tells me to persevere.  But do you know what? I don’t mind that I don’t completely understand. I’m getting closer on ‘We Learnt the Sea’ – certainly it’s got something to do with the tenderness of older siblings helping to guide (?) younger ones. Perhaps…

Because maybe (here’s another dodgy half-interpretation) the shifting fluidity of creative and imaginative experience is perhaps our natural milieu – feeling our way liquidly through life’s subtle complexities, through metaphors and intuitions more viscerally than bland two-dimensional earthbound denotations. After all, ‘we came to learn the sea..’

SANCTUARY by Red Horse, and THE VALLEY by Jane Siberry

We had a sermon, a few months back ,on Psalm 23: the priest said that it was one of those pieces of sacred literature which somehow resonates strongly and roots itself firmly into the memories –surfacing and surviving even in the senile, in stroke victims etc.  (Like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ in Gillian Clarke’s poem about reading this in a care home).  You know what I mean.  And I believe it –even in a largely post-biblically-aware civilisation, there are these residue echoing strands…

I’m not sure what Eliza Gilkyson intended from her lovely song ‘Sanctuary’: was she indeed trying to write a psalm 23 for the 21st century?  Was it a love song for a significant other couched in the assumed elegance of semi-biblical echoes?  Was it simply an acknowledgement of her awareness of an overseeing/accompanying ‘presence’ in her life?  I don’t know –but it is a most enriching song –  its pace and its melody cradling measured tones of peace that entirely marry to the lyric.

It starts with that straight biblical ‘lift’ of course –‘…  The valley of the shadow…’ but from there on, the ‘deathly shadows’ of modern experience are expressed in fresher, more original ways –‘in the crowded rooms of a mind unclear…’, ‘through fear’s dark thunder…’, ‘through the doubter’s gloom and the cynic’s sneer…’, ‘…  The sea of desires that drag me under…’ My favourite is one I’m not sure I fully understand – ‘though I’ve been traded in like a souvenir…’!  And, like the iconic psalm it sort of emulates, this is a prayer for every one.  ‘Though my trust is gone and my faith not near…’ – for strugglers, for believers, for doubters – the affirmation we all long for –‘Thou art with me.’ And yes, please note, family, another to add to the list: I want this recording played at my funeral.

One particular memory I have of it is when, a couple of summers ago, I tried to walk sections of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway.  Trying to follow the maps, I found myself (between Hengoed and Maesycwmmer, for the record) stuck in the middle of a huge brambled-up area, hoping to find a path, but increasingly snagged up and hardly able to move.  In all of this, for at least 40 minutes I think, before emerging much scratched and bloodied, my iPod played ‘Sanctuary’ into my earbuds, and it was a most appropriate and energising prayer.

On the ‘Red Horse’ recording, it’s sung by Lucy Kaplansky, and with the other two songwriters on this sharing-our-songs project –John Gorka and the song’s composer Eliza Gilkyson, singing backup and harmonising.  As with ‘Cry Cry Cry’ (Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell) another great album and project similar to Red Horse, I don’t know whether these collaborations are driven by creative or commercial impulses – but  I can’t help but  love the end results of the co-operative, composite venture – these remarkable  recordings.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRKQWzm14-E

Looking again of the lyric of Jane Siberry’s ‘The Valley’, I’m not exactly sure why I’ve always automatically associated it with Psalm 23 – and yet I have the kind of gut feeling that she was aiming for something of the feel of it (?), in certain places anyway – ‘the valley is dark…  You walk through the shadows…  You trust the light…  The shepherd…’ Rhythmically, and and as regards tempo and tenor, it’s very close to Gilkyson’s ‘Sanctuary’.  When I first heard it, it was on that amazing Christmas (live) double album ‘Child’ –and while there are distinctly quirky choices on there,  I felt this song had a genuine spirituality and solemnity to it.  Since then, I’ve heard it in her original early album recording (on ‘Bound to the Beauty’) and also as a stunningly good cover on KD Lang ‘s wonderful album of songs from Canadian songwriters.  In each case my original impression is confirmed. More about Jane Siberry very soon. Though I’ve written more about ‘Sanctuary’, I hope this one doesn’t get overlooked:  listen to this recording.

In this song, the affirming refrain is ‘You will walk in good company’ –and although I’m not entirely sure what Siberry intended from that either, in my head it has the same psalm 23-type sense of ‘Thou art with me’.  I love it when songs lead me back to God, whether they intended it or not.