Category Archives: Music

A Curious Thing

Last night I dreamed of my father. We were sitting together on the couch, talking. He was sharp, warm, funny: it lasted for several minutes before a part of me observed how wonderful it was to hear his voice, and that awareness triggered the realisation that I was dreaming as Dad has been dead for over two years.

Maybe I’ve been listening to Kate Bush a bit too much lately. Wiley, windy moors and a dead loved one at the window. Loved you, hated you. Bad dreams in the night.

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It’s been two weeks, every day. The mind is a curious thing.

I so looked forward to today. So much to do, so much time to do it without the distraction of work (or my wonderful child) but I am distracted beyond any possible focus: anxious/unsettled, unable to complete the simplest of tasks.

I have just joined a gym and love the exercise which is aiding the recovery from my Achilles surgery. I have a challenging musical poem to write for the online course I am doing. Also a piece of original speculative fiction that has been percolating for an age until last week, while aqua-jogging in the pool, I found the change of voice and perspective that has sent it forward to where it needs to be, waiting with great promise. And, most pressingly of all, my computer continues to splutter and freeze, threatening to give up the ghost so I really need to go and replace it ASAP.

But I can’t get the words from my dream out of my head.

dreams2To top it off I am also being plagued by an earworm, waking the last two mornings to Joan Baez’s version of the Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. I heard it the other day on the awful radio station they constantly play at work, the music so tired it reminds me of being locked in a rest home waiting for the inevitable. It’s a format beloved by decaying Baby Boomers; ‘the Breeze’, songs you’ve heard at least a million times played in a never-changing purgatory of ‘60s/’70s smaltz. Yes, there’s good stuff and ‘classics’ amongst it but every Monday they play ‘Monday, Monday’…stopped into a church, alooong the wayyyyy…sigh. There’s always Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Abba, Paul Simon etc et al. Resigned sigh. No escape from the tired familiarity.

Yes, all fine music but it’s the lack of surprise that saps my will.

That said, I’m obsessed with my earworm today as it’s the only way to escape the uneasiness of last night’s dream. I’ve never had any interest in the Baez version; too much syrup for a song which plays to racist sentiment (as I saw it). I have heard the Band do the original and it seemed to be more honest and nuanced/less of a celebration of a society founded on exploitation, oppression and hate.

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But like all great music, it has a surface reading and an unfathomable depth. The lines about choppin’ wood that finishes with “but they should never have taken the best” is what has won me over. I’m playing the song again and again just to revel in the poetry of the image.

About six weeks ago I met a man who could have been my father’s twin. Not as he was, confined with all the others to a secure facility waiting for the Alzheimer’s to end. Nor as he was in the ten or so years before that as he was consumed from inside, forced to avoid direct questions to conceal the growing confusion. But as he was twenty years ago when he was sharp and funny, engaged, playful. This doppelganger had my father’s eyes, face, hair, skin, manner of speaking…a distinctive mix echoed nowhere in the family or anyone I have met. We struck up a marvellous conversation as waves of (hidden) emotion surged through me. I hoped I wasn’t being creepy but grief is often an unexpected ride, and not having had a good chat with my Dad in many, many years I clung on for as long as I could.

I wouldn’t have thought too much of this encounter if not less than an hour later I had met someone whose address was on a street bearing my father’s name: Christian and surname, spelt just the same as Dad’s. At the time, it was hard not to laugh, to feel a little touched. I wished Dad had been alive to tell him there was street named after him.

Later, when work had finished, I googled the address just to make sure I wasn’t being totally wishful. Dad’s street was a cul-de-sac, around the corner from where I was working, attached to a street with, er… my name. Yip.

I was very amused: a playful joke worthy of my father.

Today we are experiencing mad, extreme winds. I can see the white horses galloping across the Bay from my salt-caked windows.

It is time to walk down to the water, listening to the ghost of Cathy and the death of Dixie, and make good my escape.

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Music Is A Story

Having lived a life in music and story I am increasingly convinced that they are not separate entities but differing shades of the same thing.

Sorry Steven Pinker, music is not “cheesecake for the mind”, it is quite clearly part of what makes the mind. And to bend his metaphor for the purposes of this blog, it is not the icing on the cake; it is part of the cake. If you regard it as the former then you miss a great opportunity to nourish.

Earlier this week I watched the LCD Soundsystem documentary ‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’ which is about their farewell concert at Madison Square Gardens in 2011. It’s a great film and the band was clearly wonderful live. I knew little about them, only being familiar with their rocking wee track ‘North American Scum’.

That said, they were one of the acts that was a must-see at the 2008 Big Day Out, a concert I got tickets to but didn’t attend as my partner at the time was due to give birth to our child within the following couple of weeks. That in itself wasn’t the only reason we didn’t drive up to Auckland from Wellington to see the great line-up that included Arcade Fire, Battles, Hilltop Hoods, Dizzee Rascal and Bjork, it because on top of the immanent child we also had no place to live. And no jobs. It just seemed to be tempting fate to head into a sea of 30, 000 revellers in that situation.

But this blog isn’t about that story, nor is it a review of ‘Shut Up’. It’s about the power of the unexpected to throw a new slant on what you have just enjoyed.

I’m referring to the outro songs that often get played over the credits of a movie or TV show. More often than not they are very obvious and add little to the experience of the drama: show’s over folks, here’s a bouncy tune you all know to see you out the door with a smile on your face.

But increasingly there is an acknowledgement that punters aren’t necessarily all sheep to herded elsewhere; that credits offer a chance to play to those folks who actually read the words as they digest what has just transpired.

‘Shut Up’ is both wonderful and sad. It shows someone gaining fame, adulation and respect without asking for it, who then finds it all too much so he pulls-the-pin (this isn’t meant to be a spoiler; the film is about a farewell concert).

James Murphy, the kingpin, is the one who calls time. He’s one of those great singers and performers who struggles with his gift. The self-consciousness is as agonising to watch as is his performance is wonderful.

He needs it to end but feels great loss and wonders if he’s making a mistake. The final song ‘New York I love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’ is amazing. I had never heard it before but it knocked my socks off, especially when viewed in the context of what it meant in this situation… being in NY and the last song they would ever play… the final part of the documentary.

It went to black and the credits rolled. It wasn’t an LCD song but one I recognized from the distant past. It took a few bars before I realized the voice singing the final track on an LP I hadn’t played since the early 80s.

“Standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo crying in the rain…” it was Marc Almond, Soft Cell c.1981 and I knew all the words.

I never really liked the song or the album but when you’re 14 and just spent $10 on a piece of vinyl you play the album to bits hoping it will take your fancy. While some the keyboard sounds on the track (and album) clearly haven’t stood the test of time often sounding like a Farfisa organ trying to be hip, the song just builds and builds and once it got to the chorus (I still knew the lyrics without knowing that I did) I understood why the track had been chosen.

Maybe James Murphy is a Soft Cell fan but there is so much about ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ that is directly relevant to the documentary and the tortured ambivalence of Murphy that what I had just seen kept opening up to further and further layers.

Afterwards, I pulled out ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ and listened to it. Just the once. Yikes. But I have played ‘Say Hello’ every day (and sometimes several times) since I saw the movie 5 days ago. Do I think about Soft Cell? Not a lot. But I go into those lyrics (and Marc Almond’s performance) further and further.

“It was a kind of so-so love, and I’m gonna make sure it never happens again”

So apt to the movie, Murphy and the ambivalence of love.

It’s not the first time this sort of opening-up has happened to me. The other was in the first series of Girls (a brilliant, fun, clever show). I can’t remember what happened in the twisted and funny relationships but the ending was a bit of a shocker and I was dumb-founded. The screen went to black and credits started with a very retro 80s-sounding electronic track I did not know. It was either very old, or trying to sound old: cold boom-smack-boom-smack drum machine laying down an unvarying beat ‘even white folk can dance to’ (as the saying goes). The lyrics were about seeing your ex with someone else, hence why it was chosen.

It was “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn. So it wasn’t old, being from 2010, it was just trying to sound like it. I fell instantly in love with the Scandinavian coldness of the lyrics and production and it has been in my top 5 tracks ever since (“stilettos and brok-en bott-les” being my unchallenged fav lyrical image of the last year). It has gone past the dramatic moment in Girls which it was juxtaposing (I can’t even remember who it was about) and become a song of strength, resilience and defiance.

In my head, I relate these moments to the famous, infamous and (of course) outstanding final scene of The Sopranos where Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is played over the mundane family moments at the diner, waiting for onion rings and Meadow to park the car. Let me just say, I really don’t like Journey but I have listened to that song many, many times since. Why? Because that scene (and song) seem to encapsulate the whole 6 seasons, the hopes of the well-loved characters etc and I get to relive all that in the course of Steve Perry’s pompous bellowing and Journey’s overblown and average FM rock.

I just re-watched the scene and realised that, unlike the above, it doesn’t play over the credits. However, the credits were silent, and this was done to further the story (as opposed to ushering you out the door). What’s even more unusual about this is that there is dialogue all over the lyrics in the final scene… something which is very rare as most punters find it hard to focus. But it’s all part of the telling, and opening up, the story. Just brilliant.

I still have my ticket to the Big Day Out where LCD played. The ticket is worthless and having now seen ‘Shut Up’ I wish I had gone, despite the pressing concerns of my situation. Maybe LCD will reform after some time off and I will get to see them somewhere else.

Either way, this isn’t the end of the story.