Author Archives: salwarpe

Write Here, Write Now: 12.17 – Lost In Space

Luna – Lost In Space. “You know there’s something more, but you can’t give it a name

So, towards the end of my time in the States, I go to go on this crazy, unexpected trip across the country. I was asked to help drive a car from Philadelphia to Santa Fe, a journey of some 2,000 miles. Once done, I was put on a plane back to New York, where I met my sister, with whom I travelled up to Cape Cod. Then I crossed over the Canadian border for a conference in Hamilton, Ontario. Back across the border after that, to Chicago, via Ann Arbor. Then a greyhound bus to San Francisco to see a college friend, and then finally another greyhound bus back to Philadelphia, in itself a 3,000 mile trip.

I hadn’t even expected to leave Philadelphia, apart from short trips out across the state. It was an odyssey that, thinking back I can hardly believe happened to me. A fortuitous series of events that I took in my stride and that just built up, one after the other, to make up the marathon it became.

Many memories along the way, but when I am linking it to music, the first place where it was significant was in Cape Cod, where I picked up a promo cassette copy of Luna’s Penthouse album. I knew of them from Dean Wareham’s time on Galaxie 500, so I was intrigued. And it was an album that stayed with me ever since.

Understated, simple songs with slightly fey lyrics, and sweet melodies that are almost catchy, but decide to fall apart before they really hit home. What really sold it to me was Dean Wareham’s guitar solos. Not showy, but fluid and ecstatic, like the rush to the head that comes when the whole world aligns into synergy while doing something completely normal and banal. How can this happen, this sudden awareness of pattern and meaning. both in life and in songs like Lost In Space?

The sense of the ineffable is so sweet to me. The depth of life is not to be spelled out, but to become aware of over time. Climb the mountain and then look back at the view. A confident comfort in the simple words of Mother Julian – all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

As much as it is the resonant drops of sound that peal out from Wareham’s guitar, underlying that is the reassuring presence of the bass and the ticking clock of the drums. While you are listening to the basic words, and hearing the guitar, your body is moving in unconscious rhythm to the bass, a swaying, a feeling that is like the movement of a boat over the waves.

Comfort music, even if I don’t know where I am or where I am going.

 

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Write Here, Write Now: 12.16 – Dead Woman’s Jewels

The Dear Janes – Dead Woman’s Jewels. “Never thought to refuse

After the adventure/misadventure of my time in West Yorkshire, it was suggested that I exile myself to the US. Scholarships were available to study at a college in one of the heartlands of Quakerism – Philadelphia.

There were many countries in the world I had wanted to visit, but the States was definitely not on that list. I thought I knew it from popular culture – overbearing and unavoidable. What was there to discover about a country that was omnipresent in  popular music, the movies and the small screen, that had a global presence?

But it was what was available and so I went for it. And discovered a country that was just like it was in the films – every location seemed like a movie set – and yet was much more than that behind the superficial appearance.

One thing I soon found out was that it was quite easy to get swallowed up into one part of the country that didn’t have much connection with other parts of the double ocean straddling land mass. This song is an illustration of that. the folky low key side of the music scene that doesn’t trouble the headlines, but still makes its mark in its musicianship and songwriting.

I discovered the Dear Janes quite by accident, possibly by listening to the local PBS radio station that played tunes by the likes of Dar Williams, Shawn Colvin and other artists I’d never heard of. Kind of a bit like the Indigo Girls in their harmonizing, I do like the odd instrumentation and willingness to tackle unusual topics in their song writing.

Swept up in a residential college in the pleasant suburbs of the city of brotherly love, pursuing Quaker history, spiritual writing, crafts, horticulture and mass catering recipes, I slowly started to absorb what it was to live an American life – malls, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, snowbound winters and humid summers – even baseball and NASCAR. Words and phrases associated with the region, often derived from native American usage became familiar, comfortable.

This was a world I had not expected, but it was welcome, Perhaps it’s appropriate that the band I chose for the first blog of my year in the US are still as obscure as they were then – that there is only one song on YouTube, and I cannot find the lyrics anywhere. Even in the great maw that is the centre of the information age, it is possible for pockets of isolation to exist. Long may it remain so.

Write Here, Write Now: 12.15 – A Girl Like You

Edwyn Collins – A Girl Like You. “Don’t feel that I belong

Coming to the end of my time in inner city Bradford – the degree wasn’t writing itself and both my tutors and I knew it was time for me to move on. When I think back, this song was particularly resonant of my time and one particular evening there.

In a town where I didn’t know many people, I was somewhat freer than I had been before to make new friends, particularly women friends. Having been at a largely single sex school, it was something of a novelty to encounter women my own age – a novelty and an education. When I think about the women I did meet there, I remember how much I enjoyed their company and how I learned something different from all of them. All basically platonic, but some with deep emotional connections. Intelligent, articulate, expressive people, from a wide range of backgrounds – English, Scottish, American, Mormon, transgender, living with HIV, living with ME, wise old Yorkshire Quakers, teachers, environmentalists – I’m out of touch with all of them now, but they all made their mark on my life.

I only knew of Edwyn Collins as a Scottish soul singer, someone like Lloyd Cole, Hue and Cry, Deacon Blue, Paddy McAloon. This song was something remarkable in a way nothing he had sung before had been. It’s got enormous punch, the sing and response of his voice and the fuzz guitar, the elegant way the title line just scans in the verse, the way the sampled 60s rhythm track motors along, adding to the building intensity of the song, the multiple breathless rhymes of the lines that just pile more and more on to that rhythm, the comforting and repeating “It’s all right, yeah“- Like many great songs, it unfortunately just peters out at the end, with no resolution, whimpering not banging.

Nevertheless, it’s a rousing rousing song, that I often would sing to myself at the end of an evening with another extraordinary female. Not that it happened very often. Just that when it did, I’d often come away reeling – maybe buzzing with enthusiasm or punch-drunk after a confused encounter.

I was very naive when I went up to Bradford. I wan’t much more worldly-wise when I left, but I knew more about the theories of gender relations, if not the practice thanks to being introduced to the writings and ideas of Susie Orbach, Andrea Dworkin, Nancy Friday, Camille Paglia, Naomi Wolf, Erica Jong and particularly Shere Hite.

The storm at the heart of this tempestuous song takes me back to those exciting encounters. Soon I’d leave it all behind.

Write Here, Write Now: 12.14 – Diablo

The Grid – Diablo “Ven a nuestra salvacion En mi desierto de libertad

In the mid 90s, there was a glorious sweet spot of genres mixing – a little bit of electronica, of world music, of folk, of indie sensibility and punk attitude and as important as any of those, trance. Musical alchemists, such as the Orb, Leftfield, Fluke, Jah Wobble and The Grid created music that disregarded strictures of form and left my head dizzy as I just wanted to dance.

The Grid had made an impressive debut album, Electric Head,  that was absorbing and enjoyable on its own terms. But where they went from there was a fantastic exploration and pushing back of limits to make music that fizzed and glowed and forced me onto the dancefloor through sheer repetitive beats with layer upon layer of sound and sample built up on top.

Their most well-known song, Swamp Thing, did this by taking a banjo track, extending it and adding dance beats and synths to make an insistent sound that grabbed hold and would not let go, like something out of Deliverance.

Diablo came afterwards and did a similar thing with Spanish guitar and spaghetti western whistling, accompanied by an nervy rhythm track which seemed to take a frenetic robot hand to the strumming which twitched the body as trumpet blasts sounded out from the top. It’s almost to fast to keep up with, but I love its fast pace, as much as the moment when it all falls away and the frantic climbing allows for a look back at the spectacular view and the body’s muscles are allowed the ease of a pause.

Then, back in the saddle and it’s off again for more of the same. But it doesn’t leave you time to get bored. As a very amateur guitar player, I adore the (possibly studio-enhanced) dazzling mastery of the guitar work.

There was much that was unedifying and trying about the mid 90s, as I struggled with a second degree and other life lessons – I am glad there was such music to sustain me.

Write Here, Write Now: 12.13 – Behave

Chumbawamba – Behave “You should hear the things they say

Up north and the sound of Chumbawamba was rising. A few years before the ubiquity of Tubthumping, the Leeds collective were in that sweet spot between their early anarchopunk roots and their pop heyday, making records that mixed politics and melody in beautiful synergetic harmony, and playing gigs that were never less than barnstormingly rousing and energizing.

This single combines those elements beautifully, from the opening brushstrokes on the drums and accompanying synth wash as the high female vocals innocently denounce the puritans of Clause 28 and other outdated moralisms. through listing of iconic sexual outlaws through history to the first song again, only with just vocals and rhythm.

It was a fertile time for the radical alternative scene. Crusties, the free festival bands and DJs, the crossover between folk and punk and pop and dance, road protests. The Conservatives were still in office, but after so many years and disasters like the poll tax and Major’s confrontations with his Eurosceptic wing (how things don’t change), it felt like they were losing power to genuine alternatives. John Smith was a genuinely impressive and quietly charismatic and authoritative Labour leader – hope was in the ascendency.

And I was at the School of Peace Studies, learning about serious, credible alternatives to the conventional militarised approach to conflict. Peacekeeping, making, building were demonstrated by knowledgeable academics with real life examples from recent political history. And as a Quaker, there was a legacy of quiet involvement in international conflicts through careful behind the scenes mediation between opponents caught in toxic, intractable situations of entrenched violence. The empowerment and confidence-building was heady.

Chumbawamba were righteous and angry, but with a dry northern sense of wit and a great dance beat. On the dancefloor at their gigs, the head heart and hips were always engaged. I loved those times.

Write Here, Write Now: 12.12 – Don’t Wait That Long

James – Don’t Wait That Long “How long will it take to get used to me?

I came back from India and went pretty much straight into a second degree course. It was up in Bradford, a part of the UK I didn’t know, though not too far removed from the town where my dad’s father’s family grew up.

1992 was not a great year for music. Looking back now, there weren’t many releases from that year that stood out. But Seven did. almost all the songs were loved. It was big music, spacious, with generous, open, maybe naive lyrics. When they played Glastonbury, the field filled up with their glorious sound, topped with the heraldic trumpet – a shiny brass finish to the expansive melodic noise.  Under the grey skies and over the rain-glistened, glass shard strewn cobbles of the city, it was a much-needed splash of vibrant colour.

The songs fitted my mood – uncertain, eager to learn, but overwhelmed by the responsibility of self-discipline, exploring new friendships, yet romantically adrift.

When I listen to the album now, I remember being in the computer room at the university, writing up my notes for essays, diligently typing in quotes from books that I would hope to use. It was a step up from my undergraduate course, where written work really was written and handwriting and stamina of the hand was essential. Not yet in an age of affordable personal computers (let alone laptops) and way before the internet was a serious option at all.

The music kept me going when stamina threatened to throw in the towel, when hours of pounding the keyboard and rearranging text on screen was too much to bear alone.

Tim Booth’s urgent, impatient entreaties thrown themselves out across the song, passing through ghostlike harmonizing backing vocals, muted trumpet, echo-laden guitar – almost ambient in its drifting through sounds, anchored by the understated yet insistent steady bass and drum beat that make it impossible not to bob about to.

It’s taking me a long time to get used to me. Sometimes I revel in who I am, Sometimes I am happy to forget, and get absorbed by anything other.

Write Here, Write Now: 12.11 – Stay

Shakespear’s Sister – Stay. “…make it safe back to your own world

There were many other songs from my time at university, but time is short and the month is moving on. So, on to the first year after, and I was volunteering in India, on a rural development project in the heart of the country, Hindi speaking and pretty much disconnected from English-speaking culture. Although living and working on a farm, I was pretty much on my own much of the time, reading, reflecting, learning from the hermit-like experience I had found myself in.

One week I managed to get to a local town and bought a short wave radio, giving me access (somewhat) to BBC World Service. News bulletins brought the world to my doorstep and John Peel and other DJs supplied me with regular, if short bursts of pop music. It was 1992 and this song seemed to be dominating the charts – sufficient for it to get a few plays on the World Service.

The sound carried over the air waves with all the associated static and distortion that a cheap tranny affords (not a reference to either Marcella or Siobhan, of course). It sounded otherworldly just because of the limited reception, but also because of the synths and the muggy sound of Marcella’s opening verse. Such is the power of the song, though – the power chords, the falsetto whistle register and the contrasting vocals, that I was transfixed when I heard it.

At the time, I didn’t have access to the video with all its obvious Goth overtones. The song didn’t come across as being about a partner in a coma caught between life and death. More, it was about simple obsession and need. In fact, I’m not even sure I didn’t think it was a duet between the two singers, their words targeted directly to each other.

I love the way Marcella’s voice seems to crack and break, even as she sustains the long notes. And then Siobhan breaks in with the severe laughing tone, complete with chugging guitar and piano ripples – binds that Marcella breaks free from with a big roll of the drums. Tense up and then release throughout the song.

It’s a shame that it just tails off at the end, but it’s a great ride until then.

When I listen to the song now, it does take me back to the simple stone flagged guesthouse where I was staying, with running water and methane gas stove but no fridge, the dusty land around and the bright sunlight, the feeling that I was on my own in a place I did not know at all. People were very friendly, but it felt very important to have a little kernel of English culture – a spark to keep the flame of where I came from with me.

The radio would be vital later, as I learned that the flight I was due to take back to Europe – with Afghan Air, was under some jeopardy as the mujhadeen had taken over Kabul and kicked out the communists. Would I be able to return at all? I kept the radio keenly tuned as I spent the last weeks of my time in the foothills of the Himalayas, listening to the latest news and wondering how safe I would be.

In the end, our flight was the first allowed into Kabul and we were accompanied on the plane by the forward division of foreign news correspondents – a more gungho and macho bunch I have never encountered before or since. Very different to the camp song that sustained me over the previous months.