Is there a difference between night and day? Where does one end and the other begin. When the sky grows dark I begin to wind-in my energies and exertions, wind-down my sense of duty, and gradually move towards a state of relaxation and hopefully sound sleep. I wake before the light in the sky has returned, but at at a time that we can call ‘day’.
In the dark I manoeuvre, doing those things that will help me to feel better, more ‘normal’ as sleep seems to have cast a heavy cloak that covers me outside and in. Gradually, I shake it off by eating, drinking, exercising. In my new home, some glass doors open onto a little terrace and yard. Over the wall of the yard I can see a street lamp. I don’t think I have ever seen it switch on, but I see it go off sometimes, heralding the official arrival of daylight.
Inside the yard the neighbours upstairs have roughly hung a stream of coloured light bulbs. Because the switch for their socket is in my terrace I have become responsible for switching them on when it gets dark – they really cheer-up the yard – then I switch them off again before I go to bed, and switch them on again through the dark early morning, brightening things up for that difficult time between waking and the day really beginning. Whenever I go out to switch the lights on or off, I experience a tiny burst of weather, fresh air, sometimes rain and usually cold. It’s a pleasure of a kind. This morning going out to switch on the lights, I felt like a monk, as if my new home is a temple, as if turning the lights on and off is my monastic duty, my contribution to the community of the ‘temple’ – like fetching wood, or water, or sweeping. I suppose the temple life is still an ideal for me and perhaps for many others.
We strive and toil, against all those odds outside us and all those odds inside us, all those odds and obstacles close and far; we strive and toil to achieve worldly success and recognition, and yet, anyone who has witnessed the calm rhythms of temple life might also feel, deep inside, that the apparent absence of desire found there, the humble and noble reconciliation with the relative importance of daily ordinary acts, is something with which worldly achievements simply cannot compete.
Perhaps we are embroiled in Maya to an extent that it is impossible for us to escape or transcend, and we are resigned, more or less ironically to being bound to fail, both in our particular ambitions and as human beings. And yet, the model of the monk or nun and the temple, the attention to small daily, routines and rituals, can, and does, I think, assist us at least, reminding us that, whatever our worldly dreams might dangle before our eyes, creating conflict between our best and worst mind, it is these simple and necessary daily routines and rituals that in the end make us who and what we are. Remembering to create balance by seeing them as of equal importance to any other aspiration in our lives is very important. Simply maintaining them is most important of all. As I write this, one of the neighbours upstairs descends the metal staircase into the yard, and – as they always do at about this time every day – feeds a crying cat.
Lately I’ve been trying to relax by walking and by listening to the radio and by reading ‘lighter’ materials, and yet, the walks turn into meditations or talks, the radio seems to fill me with thoughts about creativity, and the supposedly ‘lighter’ reading materials seem just as relevant to my work as do philosophical tomes. Even when I do yoga I seem to find it hard to switch my mind off of a certain intense self-reflexivity and internal dialogue. And, unfortunately, I’ve been finding that my sleep is also occupied with some kind of activity or anxiety that makes me wake-up with a tensed stomach, sometimes causing nausea for some or all of the morning. Andre Breton, in his manifesto of 1924 included the following anecdote: “A story is told according to which Saint-Pol-Roux, in times gone by, used to have a notice posted on the door of his manor house in Camaret, every evening before he went to sleep, which read: ‘THE POET IS WORKING’ “. However, I don’t think they had in mind here the cramped stomach that has been afflicting my mornings of late.
Working all the time. Yes, that’s true. Sometimes its painful, stressful. At others its joyful, when things are going well, which, in turn means that I know what it is I am doing, have to do, what I am doing feels like my best and, most of all, I can see how it is going to be resolved, published, set before an audience or ‘the public’. That’s when things are going well. But yes, it’s true I think that for decades now I’ve found it near-impossible to separate work from play, personal from professional life. I’m not sure if that is a good or bad thing, but it probably starts out in not having a professional background, context, and upbringing. I didn’t have ‘professional’ parents, though my mum and dad were both very hard-working and conscientious, I now realise, as parents / breadwinners.
As I’ve often tried to relay, here and in other writings, the first decades of my adult life were marked by a very unprofessional naivety and confusion. ‘Naivety’ because I just had no idea or information about the professional fields in which I tried to find success, how they might unfold, what they required or demanded; and ‘confusion’ because I kept flipping and flopping between different career paths at the same time as approaching them all with the aforementioned naivety. It was somewhere towards the end of this, in my late 30s, that I stated to feel -perhaps as a way of getting beyond that confusion – that absolutely everything in my life was art and/or connected to art and/ or was research for art. I know I’m far from unique in feeling this, and yet sometimes I think or fear that there is something not quite right about the way I conflate it all. Also, as anyone in middle-age or older might recognise, life has a knack of creeping up on you and filling your time and your mind with anxieties, concerns and issues that mean it is harder and harder to locate any freedom to indulge yourself in pleasures, relaxations and recreations that you might have done without thinking when you were younger.
The best kind of work is of course, not only satisfying and rewarding in a creative way but also financially rewarding, or in some other way gives you something tangible back in the way of recognition, status, reputation, promotion etc. Unfortunately, after all these years, decades of working writing, publishing etc. I still find myself working for weeks and months on inspired pieces that, for reasons beyond my control, do not find a home, do not get published, and are not financially rewarded or in any way acknowledged. This is a great frustration for me, and one of the worst things about it is that so many pieces like this, into which I have invested great amounts of time, lots of creative thinking and some valuable ideas, then get lost in my sprawling and amateurish ‘filing system’. Now, even if something changes in the future, and I do find an outlet for a piece, often I will have trouble trying to retrieve the last version I was working on.
I sometimes fantasise about being spun back in time to an age when a lecturer with my experience and qualifications and record of publications might by now have an office provided by the university – but even my managers and managers’ managers don’t have those any more. I also dream about the image of an author who employs both a secretary and an agent, one to organise and the other to ‘place’ their work in the market, and thus – in return for an investment in these helping hands – is able to make a real living and achieve recognition for all that they are capable of doing.
But of course I resign myself to doing the best I can with the situation I have and with my own shortcomings, tight budget, and various lacks. Ultimately, I feel I work all the time not just because I ‘successfully’ blurred the ‘gap between art and life’ in my late 30s but also, in part, because, having made a breakthrough at age 40 into professional work that could sustain a basic living – i.e. pay the rent on a city apartment – I felt, from that moment, that I had to make-up for those lost decades when I couldn’t earn anything at all, had no professional context, fell in and out of low-paid labouring jobs, bounced on and off the dole, and kept trying to work out what kind of artist I thought I was.
I suspect that I have indeed ‘made-up’ now for as much of those semi-wasted years as I can, but still I don’t seem to know where and when and what is ‘not working’. Finally, don’t get me wrong, I’m not proud of this, it’s something I would love to go beyond into a new, perhaps more enjoyable and healthier way of ‘working’ and ‘living’.
Concentration, concentration, concentration, that’s what you need. Life is more full that it has ever been before with distractions, with other voices, wills, needing, craving, demanding attention. And yet writing is yours only, in some way, some way that perhaps those who don’t write much or don’t write often, or don’t write ‘seriously’ don’t encounter (sorry, that’s a lot of don’ts).
It may be difficult, even impossible to write in a careless, non-attentive way. To do so would, it seems, require a certain care and attention. To write carelessly would also be to strive to produce something of no value, and, perhaps you can see that this is unlikely to work either. If I consciously write what the English call ‘gibberish’ the consciousness will provide a context for the gibberish by means of which the gibberish becomes valuable, at least ‘interesting’ as something testing the limits of the value of various forms of writing.
I don’t think of this as a diary, and so I try to avoid sentences that begin with the words: ‘This week I …” but this week I, among other things, continued my recent obsessive indulgence with and attention to what seems to me to be a very healthily burgeoning new-punk scene in British Indie music. ‘New Punk’ is not an adequate name, and I would love to be the one who eventually names it, but I am not there yet.
Aside from the music and the particular kind of delivery used by the vocalists in this scene (which seems to revolve around Radio 6 Music DJ Marc Riley) I came to focus on their lyrics, and therefore on their writing. It’s tempting to extract the lyrics and claim that they stand up on their own right as indicative of this vibrantly progressive and experimental subculture, but in fact the music and the particular kind of delivery used by the vocalists is inseparable from the way their lyrics will be read/interpreted/inseparable from what they mean.
This thought seems to plunge me back into the very heart of all I have ever wanted to do as an artist and writer, or artist/writer. This synthesis or fusion of what we mean to say and its dependence upon how we say it (whether you be a writer, painter, video maker, performer, installation artist, sculptor etc.) is the core it seems to me of our mission, our motive and our aspiration.
The great thing about the artists I’ve been listening to on the radio is that they’ve found that synthesis – invariably by working with others – and it’s worth noting that they’ve found it by stepping over a certain edge of inhibition, forcing themselves to fly (or we might say ‘swim’) by removing their own safety harness or going purposefully ‘out of their depth’.
I have experienced this myself, and on occasions in my long and winding career, breached or broached my inhibitions to release my voice and my body from who I supposedly ‘am’ into becoming something or someone other – yes, the artist. On one occasion I even changed my name to mark the fact, and thus made a fait accompli of my metamorphosis.
In more modest ways I can also recall ‘improving’ and progressing as the player of a musical instrument by realising that I had to let my hands do what they were capable of, not trying to make them do what I wanted them to do or thought I could make them do. By releasing my own power over my hands they started to do something that neither I nor they could previously do, and that was a profound lesson. It reminds me of another lesson that a first year undergrad taught me, her teacher, and taught the rest of her peer group. When I asked the group what they or ‘we’ might believe in today, the student I am referring to said: “I believe in my hands!”.
Now, I am not currently planning on changing my name, and I am not regularly gigging, rehearsing or writing in a burgeoning new-punk band, but I hope that some of the lessons I have learned from the above experiences nevertheless feed into my writing on a daily basis; that, in my Blog here and in the many other forms of writing I am involved with, I do somehow, step out of my comfort zone, broach my inhibitions and allow my hands and mind to produce something that I neither intend nor govern.
If you don’t mind, I will partially illustrate this Post by pasting below lyrics from two current songs that really impress me. Perhaps, having read them you might be able to go and listen to the way in which they are performed by the artist in a relevant YouTube video.
‘Scratchcard Lanyard‘ by Dry Cleaning
Many years have passed but you’re still charming Rose falling and exploding and you can’t save the world on your own I guess Don’t send me it You keep it You keep it You keep it Weak arms can’t open the door, kung fu council It’ll be okay, I just need to be weird and hide for a bit And eat an old sandwich from my bag I’ve come here to make a ceramic shoe And I’ve come to smash what you made I’ve come to learn how to mingle I’ve come to learn how to dance I’ve come to join your knitting circle I’ve come to hand weave my own bunk bed ladder in a few short sessions It’s a Tokyo bouncy ball It’s an Oslo bouncy ball It’s a Rio de Janeiro bouncy ball Filter, I love these mighty oaks, don’t you? Do everything and feel nothing Wristband, theme park, scratchcard, lanyard Do everything and feel nothing Do everything and feel nothing Pat Dad on the head Alright, you big loud mouth Thanks very much for the Twix I think of myself as a hardy banana with that waxy surface And small delicate flowers A woman in aviators firing a bazooka A woman in aviators firing a bazooka I’ve come here to make a ceramic shoe And I’ve come to smash what you made I’ve come to learn how to mingle I’ve come to learn how to dance I’ve come to join the knitting circle That’s just child chat Why don’t you want oven chips now? It’s a Tokyo bouncy ball It’s an Oslo bouncy ball It’s a Rio de Janeiro bouncy ball Filter, I love these mighty oaks, don’t you? Do everything and feel nothing Wristband, theme park, scratchcard, lanyard Do everything and feel nothing Do everything and feel nothingYou seem really together, you’ve got a new coat, new hair Well, I’ll tell you one thing, you’ve got it coming One day, you’re gonna get it Ha
‘SCIENCE FAIR‘ by Black Country, New Road
I met her accidentally It was at the Cambridge Science FairAnd she was so impressed I could make so many things catch on fire But I was just covered in bubbles of methane gas And you ended up burning I’m sorryI have always been a liar Just to think I could’ve left the fair with my dignity intact And fled from the stage with the world’s second-best Slint tribute act Okay, today, I hide away But tomorrow, I take the reins Still living with my mother As I move from one micro-influencer to another References, references, references What are you on tonight? I love this city, despite the burden of preferences What a time to be alive, oh I know where I’m going, it’s black country out there
I saw you undressing It was at the Cirque du Soleil And it was such an intimate performance I swear to God you looked right at me And let a silk red ribbon fall between your hands But as I slowly sobered I felt the rubbing of shoulders I smelled the sweat and the children crying I was just one among crowded stands And still with sticky hands I bolted through the gallery With cola stains on my best white shirt And nothing to lose, oh, I was born to run It’s black country out there It’s black country out there It’s black country out there
Sometimes you feel better than others. But, in a way, you are always looking to feel good. How do you feel good? It might depend on what you eat, your health, your relationships, your economy, your housing, your environment, the news. I think that Walter Benjamin says somewhere that all our models of happiness are drawn from previous experiences. That might sound obvious, but I think he was getting at something profoundly interesting (as he usually is), i.e. though we appear to live and progress in something like a forward motion what we are fundamentally seeking – well being or happiness – is always based on past experiences, and in this way we might also be living backwards, or perhaps travelling into the future while looking back, or even not seeing new ways to well-being and happiness because they are ‘un-re-cognisable’.
If so, is it possible to change this, to perhaps become more open to, and aware of unprecedented forms of well being and happiness, of kinds we have never experienced, and derived from surprising sources? This seems desirable and advisable. There is a lot of ‘retro’ in our culture right now. The music and cultural critic Simon Reynolds recently published a book called ‘Retromania‘, and David Edgerton another called ‘Shock of the Old‘, while Craig Staff published ‘Retroactivity in Contemporary Art‘, and I have also been publishing my own ‘Technologies of Romance‘ series. All of these publications are interested in the way we might today need to glean values from the past in a society whose future seems to have become newly curtailed or compressed.
Some years ago, the cultural critic Francis Fukuyama published a controversial thesis (largely seen as conservative and later revised) proposing that we have arrived at ‘The End of History‘ – ‘we’ of course being a convenient and largely mythical abstraction or ideal loosely referring to all citizens of the so-called ‘leading nations’. I work with young students all the time and it’s true that = according to the experience of my generation – a certain dynamic narrative of endless innovation and renewal has come to be questioned, dampened, ironicised and itself rendered mythical.
And yet, we could argue that cultural progress is taking different forms, i.e. no-longer obeying, or being perceived as, a linear model but rather – and according to our new relationship with the globe and the global – as a constant, immanent state of volatility, a chaos of constant rejuvenations, explosions of non-linear progress that inform one another but don’t have any clear or geometric form or understandable accumulative effect.
My students seem to have everything contemporary available to them along with everything of the past, in ways that I can’t recall having when I was their age. Out of these multiple ‘everythings’ they create an unprecedented present constantly jolted by events, large and small (9/11, a text message). This way of life has no apparent plan or hope to guide it, rather, its philosophy might be characterised by that millennial buzzword ‘Whatever!’. This might sound resigned, cynical and negative but in fact it is equally vigilant, open to possibility and positive.
After all, Benjamin also wrote that all those who wait for some kind of messiah (this could be Christians, Marxists, Modernists … ) need to be aware that a, or the messiah can and might appear at ANY time and at ANY place. To live in such an enlightened state, prepared for happiness, well-being, fulfilment, as well as form and meaning, at ALL times and in ALL places, may just be the best way for us to live today.
Every time I write and every time I write this Blog I am hoping for surprises. To be honest, like most creative people I expect, I am always hoping not only to exceed what I thought were my current abilities as an artist and writer but also ( … oh dear in writing the ‘not only’ I have forgotten what the ‘but also’ was, perhaps a sign of ‘maturity’?. So let me think again … ah yes, that was it …) but also to ‘hit pay dirt’ as they say, to start ‘cooking on gas’ as they also say (though who this ‘they’ is we never seem to know, and I, for one, have never met ‘them’, to my knowledge).
‘Hitting pay dirt’ is slightly different from ‘cooking on gas’ I suppose, and I think both are desirable while the former is perhaps slightly preferable. Though I don’t mean here ‘pay’ necessarily with regard to cash or income, rather I just mean that – and to go back to the start – every time I write and every time I write this Blog I am hoping for, not only surprises in general but also the surprise of finding myself writing, not only better, not only consistently at a heightened level (that might just be ‘cooking on gas’), but writing consistently to a standard that I have occasionally only glimpsed here and there, now and then in my writing, and/or perhaps going beyond that, excelling and excelling-myself is, I suppose, what I mean.
You get older and sometimes you might feel your best work is behind you. You read old articles, essays and sketches and wonder how on earth you could have been so inventive, intense, witty and productive. Then again, aren’t your early works just a little ‘green’ (any reference to Joni Mitchell there was unconscious and unintended), i.e. a little hyperactive and over-stuffed with self-conscious displays of new-found abilities?
Yes, the mature writer (N.B. writing and maturity go together far better than some of my other youthful ambitions, such as football star, astronaut etc.) must appreciate that sooooo much has now been learned, and indeed can be ‘taken for granted’ concerning our abilities, after professionally writing, editing and publishing well over a million of words, that we have to turn our mind to concerning ourselves with other, perhaps ‘larger’ or ‘meta’ matters, e.g. issues of scale and form as well as particular audiences, editors, personal agendas or even ‘markets’. And, while concentrating on these meta matters, the writing itself tends now to take care of itself. Your ‘babies’ are too old now to require constant supervision, you just have to trust them to behave in a manner that you approve of, and hopefully to do well, and perhaps even do better than you expect them to.
Now, the great god of chance, who is one of my only consistent and trusted guides in life, just led us (see above) into an unexpected encounter with the artist Joni Mitchell. I have to confess she has been on my mind (or should I say “in my blood”) this week after pulling my vinyl copy of her classic album ‘Blue’ out of my collection, sitting myself down comfortably and listening to the whole masterpiece from end to end with no interruption other than that necessary to flip the record over to side two (which is not really an interruption but rather a crucial part of the ritual for which the running order was carefully designed).
I have to admit, I cried repeatedly and almost throughout, as I always seem to do when I listen to this album, or just listen to the artist’s voice on this album, a voice which, even if as a non-English speaker I didn’t understand her language, carries a special emotional timbre that I can’t find anywhere else in the world, and not even on any other Joni Mitchell album. I’ve mentioned before in this Blog how the tears that can come in response to a work of art always seem to me to mix the ‘salt’ of pure open-hearted pleasure, affect and admiration with the ‘pepper’ of acknowledging in some deep place that I will never make a work of art as great as the one that I am contemplating. I may be wrong about this mix, and perhaps it needs remixing but I hope you. the reader will concede and concur that there certainly are mixed emotions present in almost all lachrymose events.
Anyway, I’ll sign-off now, hoping that this rapid sortie into speculating once again on my own abilities as a writer, and my own qualities and experiences as a human being might have taken me a little further towards my ultimate goal of creative fulfilment and artistic attainment. Perhaps Joni Mitchell’s Blue can provide some kind of guide or bench-mark when attempting to attain our best work in our maturity … but then again, she was just twenty eight years old when she made it!
I recently shared with friends some examples of what I called ‘guile-less singers’. What I meany by that was singers, of a kind that I have recently heard a lot on my radio, who sing in an unusually natural way, one that has no apparent concern whatsoever with what we might think of as ‘good’, ‘trained’, accurate’ sining. Instead they sing as you would imagine they would chat with you and in this way somehow cut across and cut through something that divides singer from listener, so that each and both share a certain equality.
If progressive DJs are featuring such artists (I’ll list a few later), it might coincide with a combined legacy of rap, punk, and I would claim Bob Dylan circa 1965 that is also apparent in many young bands and their singers (or ‘front persons’). Many of these (again I’ll list a few later) don’t sing at all but deliver slabs of lyric reasoning in as deadpan a way as possible, while usually maintaining some element of rhyme.
Dispensing with the ornament of melody, along with the value of expertise, again, creates a bridge between ‘singer’ and audience, across which whatever emotional, ironic, political or other content the lyrics might contain and convey can be traded, immediately, directly, clearly and without effort – after all, we all know of songs we have loved for years but whose lyrics we have never quite translated, disguised as they are by the melody and its artful performance.
Perhaps, in an age of swirling mass communications, much of which hurts us, bores us, confuses us, or wastes our precious time artist and audience seek something honest and well-meant in these tuneless and guile-less voices I have been noticing recently? Singing/talking/shouting/rapping in this way (often with a pronounced local accent) offers something solid and reliable, as well as unambiguous and unequivocal. We may therefore be looking at a kind of ‘truth claim here.
It’s surely true that what we have been discussing from the outset here is a heightened form of honesty, and that honesty is, it seems, in very short supply in our world full of mediations, fakery and downright lies all spewed-out by the ton and at an ever accelerating rate. Somewhere within this macabre and illicit miasma is the little human heart. We all have one, we each are one, and that is who and what I hear coming through these regional, trembling, dead-pan, shouted or spoken vocalists, who also have no fear in broaching the most ‘unpoetic’ of subjects.
Somehow, it seems, we need this new honesty to survive this monstrous moment. I might even try it myself sometime soon!
BTW some of the artists I was referring to include: Shirley Collins, Kath Bloom, Jessica Pratt, Nico, along with Robert Wyatt, Richard Dawson, Sleaford Mods, Idols, Porridge Radio, The Lovely Eggs, Dry Cleaning, and then yes there’s the whole rich legacy of Punk, plus so many kinds of rapping styles, some more guile-less than others of course, and that proto-punky, slammed-down wit that you find semi-spoke in Bob Dylan’s classic albums circa 1965.
This week I sent a link to a song to some friends and family. We all do this I guess. The internet has made it soo easy. Once, long ago, I might have made a mix-tape on a cassette and sent it to one person, in a process that would ultimately take days and lots of loving care. Now I can send the same song or songs to 100 people in a flash.
That aside, the song was called ‘Cul De Sac‘, and by Van Morrison, one of my favourite artists, someone I’ve written about several times here on my Blog. People who get into Van rarely get out again. Greil Marcus, a famous and influential writer on art and popular culture once tried to write a book about the artist, somehow explaining his appeal and fascination. I resisted reading it for a long time, and when I finally succumbed found the whole exercise to have been a self-conscious failure, or at least, that’s the way I read it. It seemed to me that Marcus had to concede defeat as the book spluttered to an unsatisfactory conclusion. It seemed to prove the idea that we should never try to explain to others just what we, personally, find so wonderful about this or that artist, even when their appeal is so well proven that it involves scores of successful albums striding 8 decades (the 1950s to the 2020s).
You probably know that Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theories alight on the apparently contradictory or paradoxical claim to beauty. It means that, unlike other judgements, when we say something is beautiful we make a subjective assertion at the same time as assuming and making an objective or universal claim. It may be this problem that lies at the heart of of the disappointment we might feel when others don’t love, as much as we do, the piece of music we’ve sent them as a link. But why should they? How could they? The music we love is autobiographical. It writes the stories of our lives, draws a picture of who we are. And what we love most about it, is, probably and after all, the very incommunicability of this private, intimate, formative experience. Nevertheless, we feel justified in shouting our passion for this or that song from the metaphorical rooftops.
Despite the reservations expressed above, here I go:
Cul De Sac is a slightly jazzy blues I would say. Perhaps influenced by New Orleans or Southern styles? I’m not sure. But Van’s excellent band are, as ever, full of feeling and efficiency here, doing everything the maestro requires to deliver his elusive sentiment. After all, what can we say about a Cul De Sac that might be interesting, evocative, meaningful and/or romantic? Van succeeds in doing all of that, yet leaves the whole shrouded in imaginative mystique (or ‘the mystic’ as he calls it elsewhere).
The lyric that ultimately closes the various ellipses of the verses, and which constitutes a chorus is “You Can Double-Back, To A Cul De Sac’. It doesn’t look or sound much here but the song provides a beautiful sense of a soft, safe space to which you can always return. If you leave, go elsewhere, go wrong, you can always come back. A Cul De Sac has negative connotations of a ”dead end road’, but here (perhaps based on an address in Van’s real life history of changing accommodations?) it means a quiet and private and personal place. As such, the song exudes the special -I would say unique- warmth that this artist is capable of generating and communicating (‘Warm Love‘ indeed).
The singer also regrets that: “It’s been Much Too Long, Since We Drifted In Song”, suggesting that, if we do “double back” to this cosy spot we might reconnect to our most important resource, our soul, and thereby our capacity to make poetry and music and live with beauty and grace in an often harsh life and world.
I think the key motif that initially seduced me in this song was a reference to ‘cobblestones’, which is a simple enough phenomenon but here, again, steeped in emotion, atmosphere, and a sense of gravitas that we can each draw from tiny details of everyday life. Yes, what do cobblestones mean to you? We are inexorably led towards that strange ‘beauty’ of which Kant wrote, in which we harbour a subjective judgement alongside a claim to something universally recognisable.
So, the song sets a strange scene, a Cul De Sac, to which you can always “double back”. At the same time, these seeming everyday rhyming banalities are illuminated by the cosmic revelation in the song’s ‘bridges’ that the singer has: “… travelled far, to the nearest star, and Mount Palomar”. This beautiful rhyme might sound gratuitous at first, deploying a kind of ‘poet’s license’ until we note that Mount Palomar is a space observatory, which thus brings stars nearer, and is something worldly, a tool in fact, that connects us to and communicates with the heavens. This is typical, again, of Van Morrison’s career-long passion for a kind of spiritual transcendence available to us in down-to-earth experiences (consider the title of his most famous album ‘Astral Weeks‘ and think about the way its songs ‘mystify’ memories of childhood experiences, country walks, city streets, “gardens all misty wet with rain” etc. etc.)
As if to demonstrate the ability of the music and lyrics to transport us to another realm, the vocalist finally gets into a series of increasingly ambitious improvisations as the song comes to an end, transforming himself into an instrument of the very force of inspiration that created the work of art itself.
There’s nothing more I can say here. Like Greil Marcus I have been bound to fail, here regrettably quasi-academicising a more purely sensual experience and joy. All I can do (and perhaps all I should have done, is to paste the link and the lyrics below, and share this lovely song (from the amazing and underrated ‘Veedon Fleece‘ album), with anyone willing to hear my cry.
In a cul de sac, Soft and smooth Eiderdown Relax yourself And take your rest
It’s been much too long Since we drifted in song Lay it down a while In this hide-away Oh I traveled far To the nearest star And Mount Palomar, mar, mar And we don’t care just who you know It’s who you are And when they all go home Down the cobblestones You can double back (spoken “This is it”) To a cul de sac Mmm
Oh, I’ve traveled far The nearest star And Mount Palomar, Palomar, Palomar, Palomar And we don’t care just who you know, who you know It’s who you really are, really areAnd when they all, All go home Down the cobblestones You will double back To a cul de sac You know, you know you will You will, oh, will double back And not very far To a cul de sac You, you, you, will double back To a cul de sac You know, you know it’s not very far away No, no It’s just a cul de sac
And you know, and you know, and you know, it’s not very very far away, No It’s just a cul de sac Donn, donn, donn You’re not very far away, no oh It’s not, it’s not very far away It’s not as far as a country mile (You got it) It’s just a cul de sac
I am a radio addict, it’s true. I avoid most current affairs programmes and continuous rolling repetitive news. I try to avoid Britain too, by listening only to the ‘World Service’. Of course, that is a very British institution, but its slightly wider global perspective gets me out of the ‘Westminster Bubble’ and all of the daily headlines, driven, it seems to me, by Right Wing tabloid-style media, that in turn seems to determine and run the government, and shape and delimit the society, here on these little islands off the North West coast of Europe.
The World Service makes some excellent Podcasts, about people with extraordinary lives, and about people swept up in great moments of history, and I sometimes become transfixed by one of these. I know that I’m having my emotions manipulated by the professional skills of the interviewers and narrators, plus occasional music, but that, I suppose, is the pleasure of it. i.e. history is a kind of drama, a theatre. I have often noticed that historical events make me emotional, literally bring tears to my eyes. There is something about a huge crowd of people, with a sense of a just and unifying cause (one with which I empathise of course), taking to the streets, waving banners and chanting slogans that just gets me every time. The modern idea that we can change the world and that this is what Democracy really means and requires, at its roots, just fills me with emotion.
Of course, what I listen to most of all is music. When I feel I have done a quota of work for the day, eaten dinner and wound down for the evening, I tune in to music radio shows. There too I am immersed in history, as well as a certain currency – and the two are of course connected, seamlessly. All the DJs I listen to at least, play the most incredibly eclectic range of musics old and new and from many parts of the world. It might have seemed bizarre a generation or two back, but now it has become the norm. Popular music, allied with radio, and reproduction via vinyl, CD, MP3, streaming etc. has conquered the world with its history, and whatever your taste in music, you will today revel both in the latest emerging ‘hits’ and the whole history of popular music running far back into the decades of the previous century.
There too you or I might find things to make us cry. It could be a song’s beauty but it could also be its sheer brilliance, its invention, its wit, its originality. When this happens I wonder if my tears are for the artist, for the world, for art, or for myself, sad deep-down that I will never make anything as good as that to which I am listening.
Lately I’ve been listening to lots of emerging bands that I might classify as ‘New Punk’. They all have that raw (roar), attacking, simple (sometimes innanely simple) approach to music and lyrics, but they are also very knowing, purposefully witty and inventive, quirky and perverse. This might manifest itself in the vocals, but is just as likely to be something alarmingly original or amazingly awkward about the beat, the riff etc. As such, these bands draw upon the legacies of all the many different strains of punk, but also on something that links avant-garde activity (back to DADA) to a kind of desperate and uncompromising belligerence, the main point of punk being its unapologetic insistence on doing and saying exactly what you want to say, doing it now, not waiting for permission or to be qualified, and using attitude and audacity as much as any skill or experience – or lack of the same – that you have or have not ‘got’.
These bands of course make me laugh as much as cry (and sometimes laughter and crying seem to be the same thing). They don’t set-out to make history, but only to make a 2-3 minute assault on culture, to knock-down walls, deflate pomposity and keep possibility alive at all costs. As such they do politics (and inadvertently ‘do’ history) by other means. And, BTW, Punk is something that Britain still does, and always has done, exceedingly well.
CODA: Here are a couple of examples of New Punky songs that had my attention this week:
The new office, desk, studio and archive room has a little window that faces East. I’ve missed the sunrise this morning and the sky is already quite light, but the fact that the room is in a semi-basement flat means that the window is almost at ground level, so much of the spectacle of sunrise is obscured by the fence around the yard, the shed at the end of the yard etc.
Iron stairs step down over this window from the house above into the yard, and so the window is, as it were, under the stairs. Every morning the ironwork grid of the steps are illuminated by shining drops of rain (or possibly dew), each a glistening hemisphere of light. The grid from which they are suspended gives them the appearance of order, of a code or language perhaps, one that I haven’t yet deciphered. But the messages are different everyday, depending on how much it has rained and which droplets have remained formed and which have fallen.
A jet, an early arrival at one of London’s airports, scours the sky overhead, and I notice some wisps of white against pale China blue promising a potentially bright morning. I feel quite grounded here, perhaps one of the advantages or notable characteristics of basement living. I feel the chair on which I’m sitting. Its beech legs offering me strong support, my spine and the base of my spine fitting compactly into the angle made between the chair back and the seat. My partner chose this chair, a pair of the same chairs in fact, in a department store a year or two ago. The chairs were the culmination of years of appeals to have a ‘comfortable chair’. For years I couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about or justify the cost in time and money of wandering and looking and choosing the ‘right’ chair. But this morning I really appreciate my chair and the time and money it cost to obtain it.
I’m underground, and facing East, and perhaps this is going to affect the way that I write and think and read and work at this desk from now on. Why not? After all the philosophy of Feng Shui takes seriously all such orientations as influential on our lives. Just as certain dates and times might be regarded as more or less auspicious, for a wedding perhaps, or the laying of a foundation stone. Of course, why shouldn’t these factors influence our life and our work.
I can hear a tiny bird peeping, two short, identical notes, over and over. Perhaps you know what kind of bird that is (though I can’t give you the precise note. Let’s just say it’s in the middle-to-high range). From the North, the sound of a motorbike decelerating into a red light, the rider presumably enjoying the deep sound of the engine, which broadcasts their pride in power and speed across a great distance, proclaiming a kind of territory as the motorcyclist makes their way through the Sunday morning city.
We all have our territories. Even a prisoner in a cell, or a homeless person I suspect, retains some sense of orientation and territory as a necessary attribute of life, of living. Secretly we know that, ultimately we will dissipate, and so this territory that we are is intrinsic to our being. And yet, as we wrote here over the past few weeks, we are as much becomings as beings, and our apparent territory is also always in motion, in a constant state of de- and re- construction, like a sand dune in the desert, that moves, travels, retaining an approximate mass while subtly morphing as it moves.
Another airliner passes over, shifting people and goods across the globe. The sky is brighter, whiter and more blue too. The raindrops on the steps outside my window retain their secret code, a magic abacus offering and withholding a calculation I can’t read and don’t really need. I’ve written my Blog post for this week, and now it’s time to wake my partner and make some breakfast.
Another Sunday morning. I have a kind of pit in my stomach that’s common these days. It’s associated with all the stress of just getting by, keeping a roof over my head, doing my best work at work and trying to progress in several ways, e.g. as a human being who conducts themselves well, is fair to themselves and helpful to others, e.g. trying to progress as an artist, writer, lecturer and musician by never being complacent and always taking risks and experimenting (yes, these are perhaps over-familiar values but I’m still saddled with them, aren’t you?)
I wish my belly didn’t ache and that I slept more soundly, but ultimately there seems little I can do to quiet my anxieties. Long, long go I noted that the best thing about me as an artist, writer, lecturer and musician – i.e. the fact that I can generate a volcanic lava flow of ideas when necessary, is also the worst thing about me as a neurotic human being- i.e. the phrase ‘what’s eating you?’ was custom-made for me. I find it hard to switch-off an anxiety once it starts gnawing away inside me.
Anxieties are SUCH a distraction and yet we always seem to be able to find time for them, to MAKE time for them, even if that means setting aside the small hours of the night for them. And what would we be without them? God forbid, perhaps something like the careless, carefree characters we sometimes encounter in life who, not suffering from the affliction of concern, stomp all over us, apparently unaware of what they are doing and surely unaware that there is something in the world known as ‘somebody else’s point of view’, or ‘somebody else’s feelings’.
Thus, I forgive myself my anxieties in the belief that they make me a more considerate and empathetic person. They also help me keep slim I have noticed, as, no-matter how well I eat or how little exercise I do, those anxieties simply burn off the calories and, as above, eat and gnaw away at any surplus fat that might try to establish itself around my abdomen.
Artists are, I like to think, unusually conscientious creatures. If you’ve ever found yourself picking up the very last speck of plaster dust from the floor of a gallery, 3-minutes before the opening time of the show, you’ll know what I mean, just as you will know what I mean if you have ever recorded and mixed the final mix of a song in a studio, or completed the umpteenth ‘final’ draft of an arty article for publication in a referee journal. There is something about art that involves a heightened sense of resolution and comprehensive completion, but this, again, can set you at odds with a world populated by people who may have never experienced this special kind of meticulous rigour.
And being ‘set at odds’ can certainly be a painful business. After all, we might do our very best to assert our own high standards in all we do in life only to find that unpredictable, and even incomprehensible external forces, in the guise of someone else’s unfathomable logic, are more than capable of diluting, distorting or destroying our best-laid plans.
The closest thing to a solution, I suppose, that I have found, is a careful mix of isolation and milieu. i.e. by isolating yourself as much as possible you are less likely to have to encounter alien logics capable of completely missing your own points and their value. Milieu sounds contradictory to isolation, but what I mean is that we, inevitably, and from the outset of our journey into, along and through the arts, choose the circles in which we feel safe to move, where we will feel understood and supported. These choices are not easily made however, and it can take years, and yes, it can take decades to find just the right milieu and just the right degree of isolation – if the world will allow all of that – for us to be able to survive, and if lucky, even thrive in the arts.