And Now The Present Bristles With Difficulty

(Or “The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”) 

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My father will always remember being at the Dargaville Racing Club on the day the President got shot in the head. The way he tells it the news broke over the loudspeakers and echoed around the grandstand. The echoes slowly dissipated into silence, and out of the silence slowly emerged the kind of chatter that doesn’t so much want to communicate as simply put an end to the silence.

Thirty-one years later my father had settled in Auckland with his wife and three children. I was sixteen years old and reaching the end of my secondary education – a dayboy at Sacred Heart College where Dad had boarded many years earlier. I was at school on a Sunday for the annual fair when I heard some news that I would come to remember in the same way Dad always remembered that day at the racetrack. News forever framed by where I was, and who I was with, when I heard it.

My friends and I had strayed from the school fair and its attendant raffles, stalls, preserves, hand-me-down clothing, and adults. We were sitting on an empty field behind the squash courts. A boy named Matt tells the rest of us what he’d heard on the car radio as his father drove him to the fair. “He didn’t even wait till I got to see him play,” snickers Matt, deadpan beyond his years and devoid of sympathy. No loudspeakers. No echo. News that didn’t so much break as just fall in your lap. An odd way for an epiphany to land. And I do mean epiphany. The first compact disc I had ever paid money for was Nevermind and this was my first rock and roll suicide.

“The guy put a bullet in his brain,” Dad said as he drove me home that afternoon, his voice full of indignation and devoid of sympathy. It pissed me off because I couldn’t see what I can see now. The line between sympathy and empathy for a rock and roll suicide could be thin for an impressionable teenager. My father hoped that he could thicken that line up a little if he put enough indignation in his voice. He was trying to protect me.

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If I’m being fair then I should probably give a good portion of the credit for me still being here to my father, but sometimes I like to think the actual reason I’m still here is that I have an equally clear memory of another musical epiphany – one of less cause for fatherly concern. I had not only left school by this point, but had completed an arts degree. Predictably enough, I was now working the retail trade. I had a day job at Borders Books and Music.

I will always remember being at my workmates flat in Grey Lynn when I first heard a band called the Mountain Goats. Matt (a different Matt) and I were drinking Sapporo, a beer I have never paid money for since, and he was spinning me records he thought I needed to hear. Of all the music he played me that night it was the Mountain Goats that hit me the hardest – in the gut, in the heart and in the head all at once. At work the next day, being deeply in thrall to that have-to-have-it-now music collector tendency that certain of my friends and I now call “the sickness”, I ordered two of their albums through the notoriously slow Borders Special Orders service (which I was in sole charge of for a number of the eighteen months that my retail career lasted.) One was called Sweden and the other was Full Force Galesburg. When they finally arrived both albums boasted liner notes as lyrically rich and brimming over with illustrious energy as the songs themselves. Whoever was behind this stuff was not a rocker – was not a star. There was no photo of the singer and he was even apologetic about putting his name beside the copyright symbol. Amidst the poetic prose and actually-fun-to-read album credits of the Galesburg notes there was a quote from the prison diary of Ho Chi Minh.

I am a straightforward man, with no crime on my conscience,
But I was accused of being a spy for China.
So life, you see, is never a very smooth business,
And now the present bristles with difficulty.

And now the present bristles with difficulty. I loved how that sounded.

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Full Force Galesburg is an album riddled with urgency. The singer seems to be in a hurry to get the words out whilst he still has time left on earth

I try and tell you secrets ’til my face turns blue
I am not getting through to you

Suspicion and uncertainty are the engines it runs on.

Breath rising and falling, expansion and contraction
Why’d you tell me this, were you looking for my reaction?

Which seems a little rich coming from this album given it doesn’t always know how straight it wants to be with you itself.

Most of June I spent in jail again
I don’t mean jail exactly

The natural world threatens to bear down on these songs, or at least, that’s how the natural world is perceived – as a threat.

You were lying in the moonlight outside in the grass
When I heard an animal voice somewhere in the dark
And I saw a wing shadow pass

And, with the singer’s old-fashioned preference for perfect rhymes keeping all these images as entwined with each other, as shoulder-to-shoulder as possible, the natural world threatens to bear down on his memories.

I thought a little while about you
The sky was a petrifying blue

This album often feels trapped in a state of perpetual astonishment, unable to let its gaze linger on any one image or idea for too long.

 Squirrels climbing trees in bloom
Soft yellow light spilling into the room
My favorite records, my favorite books
The people i loved, the people i almost loved
Light beckoning, wind whistling
Hey hey hey hey

As beautiful a pile up of imagery as this is, I can’t help but see beneath it a little of what used to be called dread but is now called anxiety. Or to be more charitable, one form of self-protection in a world that is never quite what it seems is to never allow oneself to point in the same direction for too long. After all, the less time you focus on one thing the less chance it has to disappoint you. Furthermore, the least agitated and most thematically focused song on this album, a song about a snow owl suddenly appearing on a branch outside the singer’s window, ends with a confounded perception.

Thought I saw a mouse kicking in your beak
It was only a skeleton

And so it is with love.

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These songs hang on to dear life for dear life – if by life you mean love, and if by love you mean an inability to let the past become the past.

I, I wanna follow you all the way down this time
I want to see what it is you’re going down for
I, I want you more than I want anything
I want you the way you were

To the point where the present is rendered a place of exile.

This is an empty country, and I am the king
And I should not be allowed to touch anything

Despite all his yearning for an old love to be the way it was, one gets the impression that the singer actually found “the way it was” pretty darn unlivable.

I used to love you so much that I was sure it would kill me

With its sun-struck, awe-struck lyrics about the inability of people to bear it when those ancient, sweet, bitter feelings well up inside of them; with its acoustic guitar that does admittedly get strummed, but also gets the shit beaten out of it; with its cassette deck wheel grind as interminable as the indifference of nature, Full Force Galesburg is the sound of someone striving to stay in the moment, even though the moment is long gone.

On the day that I become so forgetful
That all of this melts away
I will burn all the calendars that counted the years down
To such a worthless day

Many songs in this world arise from the sadness of remembered happiness. Not quite so many from the madness of remembered bliss.

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I’ve been back in Auckland for some years after a three-and-a-half year sojourn in Dunedin. I’m older than my father was when I was born but I don’t yet have a wife or children. I am not yet settled down. I’m in the basement of the central city library working a different-but-the-same day job. I’m trying not to sneeze. Setting aside books that people have requested for loan. Taking out my lack of sleep on many an anonymous library patron whose choice of reading material I am finding decidedly wanting for decidedly wanting reasons. I’m winding my way through the nine-twenties when I glimpse the words prison diary on a slim, faded book spine.

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Sometime in 1940 a Vietnamese revolutionary leader changed his name to Ho Chi Mihn. Nguyen Sinh Cung’s new name combined the common Vietnamese surname ‘Ho’ with a given name that means “he who has been enlightened.” His Prison Diary collects the poems he wrote whilst in captivity in China for 18 months from August 1942. So as to not attract the suspicion of his jailers, he wrote his poems exclusively in their language.

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The Prison Diary alluded to in the liner notes of my most played to death album of 2000 exhales a long sigh. It watches quietly as the sun travels behind the roof, and the shadows cast by the prison bars slowly, soundlessly, shift across the cell. Perhaps because it has few other choices, the Diary knows well the art of making do.

For prisoners, there is no alcohol or flowers,
But the night is so lovely, how can we celebrate it?
I go to the air-hole and stare up at the moon,
And through the air-hole the moon smiles at the poet. 

Even when the poet is dragging a ball and chain long miles during a transfer to another prison, this quietly optimistic, philosophical tone remains.

Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs,
All over the mountain I hear the song of birds,
And the forest is filled with the perfume of spring-flowers.
Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these,
Which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?

The diary has that sense of paradox often found in the perennial wisdom literature of the East.

Having climbed over steep mountains and high peaks,
how should I expect on the plains to meet greater danger?
In the mountains, I met the tiger and come (sic) out unscathed:
On the plains, I encountered men, and was thrown into prison.

Its irony is the naturally occurring cosmological irony of the real world.

Outside the jail, people who gamble are arrested,
But once inside the jail, they can gamble just as they like.

The poet exudes humility, spending more consecutive lines feeling sympathy for the working conditions of the road menders he passes en route to a new prison than he ever does on his own plight. On occasion he is able to disappear himself and his prison out of a poem entirely.

Wearily to the wood the birds fly seeking rest.
Across the empty sky a lonely cloud is drifting.
Far away in a mountain village, a young girl grinds out maize.

This is not to imply that the poems repress hard feelings. They allow themselves to mourn the lack of a reason for what has happened, but they never reach for that reason. They give vent to anger and sorrow, but not in a self-perpetuating manner. Like the album, the diary asks questions. Unlike the album, it doesn’t demand answers. These questions are for the most part rhetorical – spoken so as to be released.

Free spirits haunting the sky of liberty,
Do you know your own kind are languishing in prison? 

The setting may be exotic to most readers but the poems point to a possible answer for ageless, worldwide questions. How does one remain hopeful in the midst of sorrow and solitude without reaching for hope? How does one preserve precious things without getting precious? The poems manage to bear their own introspection because they are not so naïve as to think that patience is merely a virtue. They know that patience is a state of mind. Even to call it “perseverance” seems to inflect it with a little too much calculated drama – a little too much reaching – because those times when the poet is having to try, when he is giving vent to anger, are the times when one feels he is leaving himself most vulnerable.

Habit. Repetition. These are the tools of escape. Waiting on the other side of the bars is a still mind.

Without the cold and desolation of winter
There could not be the warmth and splendour of spring.
Calamity has tempered and hardened me
And turned my mind to steel.

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“We all have our prisons,” a film buff friend of mine named David, whom I also worked with at Borders, once said to me. He was trying to impress upon me the universal quality of one of his favourite films – Robert Bresson’s 
A Man Escaped. When thinking on why the Prison Diary speaks to me as a fellow human rather than an exotic stranger I can’t help but think of that Bresson film, which as it happens is set in 1943 – the same year Ho Chi Minh got out of prison.

By virtue of its lack of dramatic dialogue, its lack of conventional “action” scenes, and the recurring use of a quote of its own (a musical quote – the Kyrie from Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor), Bresson’s film begins to transcend the physical prison on the screen if you allow it to. Let yourself fall in with the film’s rhythms and your expectations as a viewer will start to evolve. You will stop reaching for things that aren’t there. Bresson leaves so much narrative space free in his films that your own life is allowed to fill it. Like a genie returning to the bottle. Now it is your own reflection you see on the screen. The bars of the cell are those things holding you back from what you swore nothing would ever hold you back from. Like the diary, it speaks for the plights of the mind and the spirit, which are the same plight, in a world that would keep turning without you.

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Striving not to struggle – the struggle not to strive. Where these two temptations meet. A line between them as thin as the line between sympathy and empathy. That is where these works of art exist. Their differences come from the ways in which they choose to cope with being there. The Diary knows this. So does the film. The album doesn’t want to.

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Until I had read the Prison Diary I always assumed that Full Force Galesburg was aligning itself with the diaries hardships. “I too bristle with difficulty” it seemed to insinuate. I was wrong. That quote was put there because Ho Chi Minh’s poetic tone, and thus his way of life in the midst of hardship, was one to aspire to.

Eight years and five albums on from Full Force Galesburg the Mountain Goats wrote some songs whose subject matter stretched way back beyond the beginning of the band and deep into their own uncomfortable past. On The Sunset Tree the singer finally let himself sing of a prison he’d learnt something of as a child – the prison of domestic violence.  Gone was the wheel grind, gone was the furious hammering on the resonator, and gone was any sense of needing to cover ones poetic tracks. Whereas the Galesburg liner notes declare its songs to be about what made one particular intimate moment “either possible or inevitable, depending on how you look at it,” The Sunset Tree simply states its songs to have been “Made possible by my stepfather.” The agitation and nervous energy of the past is not entirely dispensed with, but the balance has shifted. It had to. This time around the way of life exemplified in the prison diary was not to be merely aspired to if the singer was to going to survive birthing these songs.

(“This is a hard song for John to play” speaks the singer, before performing the song Lion’s Teeth on a solo-acoustic, boom box-recorded, available-on-tour-only, alternative version of The Sunset Tree entitled Come, Come to the Sunset Tree.)

I wonder if the singer remembers where he was when he heard the news that I did on that empty school field on the day of the school fair. Either way, he felt compelled to give voice to the event on The Sunset Tree. On a song that tells us as calmly as possible that love not only creates but also destroys, a song in which he disappears himself from the narrative, the singer alludes to my first rock and roll suicide with the gentle acceptance found in the most grounded of the prison diary poems, and with what I imagine to be a certain amount of unspoken empathy for the subject of these four lines and his heavily documented childhood.

And way out in Seattle, young Kurt Cobain
Snuck out to the greenhouse, put a bullet in his brain
Snakes in the grass beneath our feet, rain in the clouds above
Some moments last forever, but some flair out with love, love, love.

The final song on the album allows itself to recall the occasional sense of companionship that could still exist between the singer and the man who made the album possible. They would sometimes go to the racetrack together. Nature doesn’t bear down on this song the way it did on songs eight years before. Here it is a slowly emerging solace rather than a dazzling threat.

We parked behind the paddock, cracking asphalt underfoot
And coming up through the cracks
Pale green things
Pale green things

The singer’s memories no longer seem to possess him so much as to be in his possession.

My sister called at 3 a.m. just last December
She told me that you’d died at last, at last
And that morning at the racetrack was one thing I remembered
I turned it over in my mind, like a living Chinese finger trap

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I also remember hearing Carl Craig that night at Matt’ flat. I remember hearing Beat Happening and quite possibly the Get Up Kids. I remember boxes of poetry and I remember Matt saying he had once been very serious about becoming a poet. I remember the wooden floors. I remember the crush I instantly developed on one of his flatmates when her enigmatic presence hovered briefly at Matt’s bedroom door to say hello before floating down the hallway. Or was that the next time I visited. I don’t remember. I remember finally being a little under the influence of Sapporo and dialling a taxi to come and take me home, and I remember how the sound of the voice on the other end of the phone was not as loud as Matt’s. He had suddenly run down the hallway to catch me before it was too late.

“Simon! You can’t leave yet! I’ve just realised I haven’t played you Half Japanese!”

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Reciting verses has not been one of my habits,
But now in prison what else have I to do?
These captive days I’ll spend in writing poems,
And, singing these, bring nearer the day of freedom.

Of Hope

In Dante’s Commedia there is a sign above the entrance to Hell. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

Hell only tells half the story. There is another side to hope. Martin Edmond writes in Dark Night: Walking With McCahon: “Hope itself may be a cross to bear, especially once faith is gone. You can nail yourself to hope in a manner that will not banish despair the way faith does.”

The things we long to abandon but cannot- they are the crosses. The reasons we cannot abandon them – they are the nails. When the reasons you cannot abandon something are hammered through you, and into the thing you long to  abandon – what then?

Raymond Carver liked to have his favorite mottos near at hand when he wrote. “Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.”

R.A.K Mason, New Zealand’s “first wholly original poet”, is rumoured to have taken the 200 remaining copies of his first collection of poems The Beggar and disposed of them in the Waitemata Harbour. When I first heard that story I feared it was the story of an embittered artist abandoning his destiny. I refused to empathise. Now I understand the other side of hope and I see the story in a new way. I allow myself to empathise. Sometimes you have to let go in order to hold on.

In Lester Bangs’ review of the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks he ponders the protagonist of the song Madame George, a young man who seems to suffer within himself more than a shard of compassion for the “lovelorn dragqueen”of the songs title. He is destined to flee from the scene of the song, even if the scene is shot through with an affection that verges on mutual. Bangs relates it to the way everyone he knows in New York has at some point learnt to just step over the bodies of the derelicts they pass in the street. They have learnt do so without pain because they remember what happened the time they listened to their instincts and tried to reach out. “You got their hopes up. Which makes you viler than the most scrofulous carrion. Viler than the ignorant boys who would take Madame George for a couple of cigarettes. Because you have committed the crime of knowledge, and thereby not only walked past or over someone you knew to be suffering, but also violated their privacy, the last possession of the dispossessed.” Does the young man see hope in the eyes of the lovelorn? Does he see himself reflected in those eyes? Say goodbye before hope has sunk its nails in. Get on the train.

There is another side to hope. The evidence piles up like so many lost souls spilling over the shoreline, waiting for Charon.

I have taken the sign from Hell’s Gate and I have nailed it to the door. The door that leads into the room where the songs arise. That’s where it should have been all along.

The Etymology of Dream

We can trace back to the mid-thirteenth century the use of the word dream to denote the visual and aural sensations that pass through us when we sleep – the sensations that confound us, and sometimes scare us back up through the threshold of consciousness, and headlong into real life. We need only move two degrees of separation, passing through the Germanic variant traum, and on into the Western Germanic draugmas, to arrive at a word defined as “deception, illusion, phantasm”. This latter cognate and its meaning suggest how we came by such contemporary phrases as “Tell him he’s bloody dreaming”, where to dream is to “delude” oneself. Draugmas can in turn be connected to the Old Norse draugr, defined as “ghost” or “apparition.” Like ghosts through mirrors – that is how we pass through these phases of language, and lately, I cannot sleep.
 
One must forgive a fellow dreamer. Forgive him for the wry smile that creeps over his face as he ponders why this word dream – for so many centuries used to refer to sleeping sensations, waking illusions, and untouchable apparitions – why this word finally becomes a synonym for “ideal” or “aspiration” in the early twentieth century. Nineteen Thirty-One. Between two world wars. That is the year dream is first recorded as being used in this way. I try not to see in this progress the tendency for humanity to mislead itself. Almost as if out of spite. As if we had it coming to us. An insidious ruse. Taking its time across centuries. So that we wouldn’t notice what we were doing to ourselves. Not until it was too late. An etymological umbilical cord connects our aspirations to apparitions, our desires to deceptions, setting our collective unconscious up to feel ever so gradually let down by how things really are. The evolution of a word has wrapped our troubled sleep in wishes – the type of wishes that are as certain to come true as each new breath is to follow the one that preceded it.
 
If language would only allow us to once again think of a dream as merely an alternate state of mind, a state influenced by involuntary sensations; if we could all agree to reserve that group of letters -‘d’,’r’,’e’, ‘a’, and ‘m’, in that order- for denoting just that, and not let them simultaneously refer to those things we invest most hope in attaining or achieving; then maybe we could all sleep easier. Maybe I would be able to speak freely again – without this harboured sense of all words being shape-shifters for as long as we dare to breathe life into them.
 
My throat is heavy with unwanted knowing. A knowledge of no utility. Life was lighter before I knew where to find them. Those phantasms that glow in the darkness of sleep even though they are black. Lighter before I knew how to trace them back to the happiest waking days. Before that night I awoke, feverish, to the sight of a moonbeam. A moonbeam thin as a paper cut. Shining through a crack in the curtain. Shining across a pillow where no head was resting. 

When I couldn’t sleep you would tell me to just say it to myself until I dozed off. As long as it takes you said. Whatever gets you through while waiting for the ropes to fray. Waiting to be cut adrift. Tonight I turn it over and over again, in my wide-open mind, in the silvery dark, just like you always told me to: life is but a dream.

10 Things I Love About Tom Verlaine

1) Inspired by the poets, Thomas Miller went and changed his name. Instead of picking the pedestrian trochee “Dylan”, he chose the graceful iamb “Verlaine.”

2) He isn’t just into the french symbolist poets. He’s also into a certain artist/bohemian fashion move forever linked with France. Tom Verlaine has been known to wear berets . He even wears one on the album cover of Flash Light. Dear Lord, he even WEARS THEM ONSTAGE. This clearly demonstrates the kind of admirable indifference to accusations of sartorial pretension that a lesser man couldn’t even begin to contrive.

3) Tom used to date Patti Smith. Ok, ok, I admit that sounds a little juvenile on the page. Let’s move on and consider the fact that, aside from performing what must have been amazing shows together, they also collaborated together on The Night, a slim wee volume of poetry steeped in Rimbaud and the drug induced freestyle nature of Bob Dylan’s L.P liner notes (which were of course steeped in Rimbaud.) They take turns writing alternate stanzas: Smith the odd, Verlaine the even. It’s intense. New York’s very own derangement of the senses – a by-product of the type of blood that runs through the veins of artists who are in the process of discovering they are artists.

4) Sure Sonic Youth were the band that made jazzmasters cool, but Tom Verlaine was using them waaaay earlier, and his utilisation of the whammy bar as a mode of expression is right up there with Neil Young and his omnipresent bigsby.

5) Despite having  every album he’s ever been a part of since Marquee Moon compared to Marquee Moon and found a little wanting, he still puts out records. Just like Nas after Illmatic! Eighties songs like Foolish Hearts and The Scientist Writes a Letter , prettier and more delicate than anything he made with Television, show just how unconcerned he was with placating anyone desperate for “Marquee Moon 2″. (Fair enough if you are suspicious of anyone all of a sudden adding synths in the eighties but these songs still sound like noone but Verlaine.)

6) He seems relatively apathetic to the press. I suppose it sounds even pettier to love someone for this than to criticise them for it. I am petty, but I am not merely petty, so I should add that when he’s offered the kind of in-depth interview his creative legacy actually warrants, it’s more likely to happen in Brazil than New York, and this 3 part interview is a pearler.

7) The dude travels at his own pace. As with former TV sidekick Richard Lloyd, Verlaine could not be accused of a prolific output, but he’s often involved in projects not particularly suited to treading the rock n’ roll gig circuit and keeping ones P.R hustle on, like being the soundtrack to a silent Man Ray film.

8) Considering Television came out of a scene forever associated with the roots of punk, it’s hard not to notice that Verlaine has recorded some of the most crytsalline guitar tones in the history of rock n’ roll. The gain on his amp must surely be turned to sweet f### all when he performs Days on the Mountain Part 1 on The Old Grey Whistle Test (collected on Volume 2 of the dvd series fyi.) In fact, I remember watching it with a friend who commented “That’s so clean. Almost alien clean!”

You mean you’ve been thinking this too? Well then let me come right out and say it: the following rock n’ roll syllogism IS completely justified:

gain at sweet f### all in rock n’ roll = defiance
defiance = defining virtue of punk
∴ GAIN AT SWEET F### ALL = PUNK

All existing internet clips of that performance seem to have been taken down for copyright reasons, so you’ll just have to buy the dvd. Or torrent it. But till then, check out the studio version. His jazzmaster occasionally sounds like an actual jazz guitar.)

9) He is no guitar pedal junkie. You’ll note during this performance of 1880 or So from the underated third TV album (performed on Later with Jools Holland), that when he wants more juice at the 4 minute mark he doesn’t stomp on no volume booster pedal. No siree. He just leans over and turns up his amp. Ah bless.

10) As already noted, Verlaine’s solo records have never been seen as particularly vital when placed beside the jaw-dropping constellation of twin guitar electric luminescence that he and Richard Lloyd carved out on the debut record Television released back in 1977.  Allow me to hold up the song Words From the Front, from the 1982 album of the same name, as an example of just how compelling Verlaine could still be when left, sans Lloyd, to his own musical devices. (It has to be said that even the ‘photo of Verlaine wearing beret’ album cover seems preferable to the ‘painting of Verlaine holding cigarette’ cover they went with for Words From the Front.)

“January 23rd
There’s no road”

Now that is an opening. Over a few brooding chords and overdubbed arpeggios that seem to quietly circle each other, our beret-clad, french symbolist-obsessed, former Patti Smith-dating, jazzmaster-wielding, whammy bar-whammying, smoke-exhaling hero proceeds to lead us through some of the trials of war, not adding a vocal melody to the lyric until the first chorus. Yes – he leads us through some of the trials of war (imposing weather conditions, sedated surgeons failing to save the wounded, yearning for home, orders to attack), but let it be known, fellow respected mortal, that he does not risk the cardinal hubris of trying to SING, of all bloody things, about the inconceivable blood and guts horror of military combat.

What he does dare express, with poetic humility, is the perpetual night of human conflict, and the strangely graceful order with which imminent chaos is approached by those ordered to do just that:

“It’s hard to see
Who is about
The fires we light
Soon smoulder out”

“Up on the ridge
They’re dug in deep
We move in waves
As if asleep”

Unsurprisingly, Words From the Front as a listening experience is still heavily defined by the guitar. This is Tom Verlaine we’re talking about and he plays two mean as solos on this track. The second one is the axe-grinding high point of the song for me. It’s the sound of a player whose ingrained sense of melodic progression never lets him descend into mere noodling even when he’s cutting loose, just prowling up and down the fretboard trying to hold some kind of ground. Occasionally, when Verlaine is taking no prisoners with that whammy bar, somehow able to vibrato the shit out of so many notes without everything just falling apart, it’s the sound of someone who just happens to be holding a guitar, and who just happens to know how to play it, but whose ingrained sense of melodic progression is being displaced by more pressing concerns. It sounds urgent. Whether you want to see it as the musical expression of the inconceivable blood and guts horror of combat (which I trust you’ll agree could not possibly be expected of any guitar solo remotely tonal) or just the evocation of a squirming, stricken mind, does not much matter. What happens at around the 5:40 mark is what matters to these ears. It’s the part that always gets me. He suddenly breaks on through, seamlessly shifting into the type of guitar figure more commonly found in fingerpicked acoustic music. It’s a momentary fragment of the type of  2 or 3-string motif that is more the domain of anti-soloists like Peter Buck and John Fahey – 1 string doing all the melodic work while the constant chime of the string beside it seems to want to prevent it from travelling too far off the beaten track, or God forbid, breaking into some kind of display of virtuosity. Out here on the front it doesn’t sound like Buck or Fahey. Here it sounds like an emergence: the sudden discovery, however brief, of what might just be a way to get the hell out.

We do not get the hell out. There are a few lines left to be spoken, the audible fragment of which is “January 23rd.” We’re back where we started, except now with a still highly agitated lead guitar refusing to make way for the vocal. The songs ends.

Except it doesn’t.

It fades out.

 And whilst the ‘fade out’ as a studio effect was more often than not used way back when to keep radio-friendly songs under 3 minutes, or to remove the need for that perfect ending that couldn’t be found before deadline, in this case it seems the lack of closure has nothing to do with not knowing how to finish a song. Some fade outs are more thematically justified than others.

Alas there is no way for one to fade out a blog post. Not without looking like one is trying a little too hard at least. What I can do is leave you with an excerpt from a poem (yeah yeah I know, nothing worse than someone getting all “here’s an excerpt from a poem”, but still . . .) – a statement of aesthetic intent that for me goes some way towards summing up what makes Tom Verlaine the type of guitarist who ought to be turned up to eleven when he is on your stereo (even on those occasions when he has the gain set to sweet f### all):

“O formal and elaborate I choose you

but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,
the mad, I sometimes can’t     always tell them apart”

Dream Song 265 – John Berryman

A Drover By Trade

Armed with a trusty, tolerant rhythm section (Stu Harwood: drums; Tom Healy:bass), the type of hunger for gigs that not having performed in a few months cultivates, and hopefully not too much ill-judged stage banter, I’ll be heading south for a few dates with fellow Auckland-based band Paquin in early July. (Incidentally, Paquin is the music project of the aforementioned Tom Healy, also feat. Mister Harwood on drums, but a decidedly different musical beast from my own).

I have discovered far too many great poems for my own good lately, and I can’t resist sharing a few. They are all far older than me (apart from that last link – who says I only read dead white males?).
  2     4

Hey, I was thinking the other day: imagine if someone wrote a poem in 2012, and it wasn’t set to beats or music, and it had no b.s video,  and it still went viral !

Anyway. . . . aside from glutting out on great writers, I’ve spent the last month or so reminding myself how one goes about finishing a song. It’s now blindingly clear to me why Nick Cave tries to “never stop”. Starting really is the hardest part- but what satisfaction would there be if it was always as effortless as we seem to remember it was? (Yes- there is this tendency to forget just how long it took to finish something once it’s actually done and dusted. This type of faulty recollection tends to start occurring about the same time the work is finally released, and interview questions elicit such suspicious answers as “That song just kind of happened.”) I think a few helpful little trails of memory have finally emerged. Contrary to the literary focus of this post, listen out for the new instrumental track, tentatively titled “I am far too superstitious to offer up any tentative titles”, at upcoming gigs.

A few words of music criticism  (ok, let’s just say ‘some thoughts’) I wanted to offer on a song I’ve spent a bit of quality time with of late: Drover by Bill Callahan.

“The real people went away
But I’ll find a better word someday
Leaving only me and my dreams
My cattle and a resonator”

This  bewildering set of lines and images in the first verse, that seemed on first listen only tenuously linked at best,  bore all the hallmarks of what tends to make a great metaphor in song. It refuses to conform to any kind of easy symbolic blueprint, but aided and abetted by the music it evokes something for you.  You feel it inside you but it vanishes when you try to pin it down or talk about it. Or God Forbid, write about it. So you end up just spinning the record again. And again. And again. The strange thing is that Drover grew less elusive, yet all the more intriguing, when it suddenly struck me that the writer had quite possibly written a song about songwriting.

I’ll admit it was an interview  I read that influenced my perception of the song.  Callahan begged off the notion that his music had become more “outward looking,” saying  of the song in question: “The cattle in that song are things inside you, so I suppose it’s about corralling the emotions.” I never like it when you need to read an interview to pick up on what the writer was bloody-well on about,  but having developed imminent faith in Mister C. over the years, I went back to the song assuming I’d missed something, and I found this:

“For I am in the end a drover
A drover by trade
 

I won’t say my jaw dropped, but some kind of equivalent occurred in my mind. What we were dealing with here, it now seemed to me, was a slow-unfurling  homeric simile about the psychic ups and downs of practicing songcraft  (Ok so if we’re being sticklers then technically we’re talking about a metaphor in this case, but you get where I’m headed with this). It was now fully plausible to read “resonator” from the opening lines quoted above as guitar. Callahan has employed this form of writing before – most notably in All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast (with its great opening lines: “The leafless tree looked like a brain/The birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me”).

 

In Drover  the writer imbues the process of navigating and sifting through ones thoughts and emotions (“this wild country” as he calls it) for the sake of the song with all the tension and drama of a psychological thriller. The process can hurt you:

“It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind”

isolate you:

“The real people went away”

leaving you sweet f. all with which to console yourself:

“But I’ll find a better word”

It can disorientate you, even to the point of the past and present blurring:

“And when my cattle turns on me
I was knocked back flat”

But the challenge, the thrill of the chase if we’re being really honest, is why one bothers at all:

“And anything less, anything less
Makes me feel like I’m wasting my time”

Lots of Bill Callahan’s work has utilised the type of images (the river, the well, the wheel) that eastern religious tomes are steeped in (which of course means by default imagery that western religious tomes are steeped in, but that’s a whole other discussion/way to freak out the fundamentalists), and when the band drops out after the first chorus, leaving nothing but slow-decaying tremulous guitar fuzz and a lone fiddle, he intones a couplet whose philosophy, the idea of disarming ones most troubling thoughts by disowning them, is decidedly taoist :

“But the pain and frustration, is not mine
It belongs to the cattle, through the valley”

The song spends most of its time in slow-build mode, occasionally coming as close as you’ll ever get to a traditional musical climax in Callahan’s music, but never quite erupting (well, I’m presuming you don’t count “lively flute, bird-like, enters the mix at 4 mins 16 secs” as erupting). Whether it be a fade out into nothing but guitar feedback, or a fade back in via an eerie percussive clock-tick, it’s always with the same sense of creeping inevitability. The singer offers a steadfast declaration of strength in the midst of the minds tyranny, in the midst of one such almost-climax:

“When my cattle turns on me
I am a drover, double fold”

It’s breathtakingly understated, and all the more defiant for it. The thing is you can have it many ways with this song. It should be fairly obvious how self-serving my own take on it is (though I will defend it to the death dear reader!)  For my interpretation to be water-tight one has to read “a drover by trade” as autobiographical, and we all know what thin ice that contention will always be walking on.  Now look here – I always get this twinge (let’s call it the “I think you might be a wee bit full of shit” twinge)  when a songwriter starts harping on about “ambiguity” and “leaving it up to the listener to decide.”  It’s not that these notions aren’t valid. It’s just that most of the writers who trot out such tired defence mechanisms when asked about meaning don’t seem to have much of anything to say. But:  the multitude of possible interpretations is real in the case of this song, and it is borne of the writer’s poetic sensitivity to every word he is singing.  For me it’s this constant sensitivity merging with hard-won, unflinching emotional cognition that makes Bill Callahan one of the more rewarding artists to be following through the valleys and many, many peaks of his chosen trade.  A song like this reminds one why the time it must have taken to finish the damn thing might just be worth the frustration.