ain’t got time to die: my soundtrack to 2009

It’s taken longer than usual, but here’s my soundtrack to 2009.  Like a movie soundtrack, music accompanies events and periods of my life.  This is a way to reflect on my year AND have a productive outcome – a compilation album of quality music.  I recommend any and all of these songs and the albums they come from.  Enjoy!

Marker in the Sand – Pearl Jam
I went on a massive Pearl Jam bender for the last 6 months of the year, just putting every Pearl Jam album I have on my mp3 player and soaking it up.  Who knows why?  But this was a standout.   Great light and shade.

Counting Crows – Cowboys (live from Palais Theatre, Melbourne, 27-3-09)
After cancelling their Australian tour 4 years ago, they finally came back – and it was worth the wait.  In two nights they blew through two MASSIVE sets of more than 22 songs each, repeating just one.  The main song I wanted to hear was Cowboys.  When they opened with it, I knew it would be a good night.

Wake Up – Rage Against the Machine
One night this year I just happened to catch a new documentary called Chicago 10.  Strangely I’d never heard of these guys who had been arrested and tried as the Chicago 7 (then 8 when Bobby Seale was indicted, and now they call themselves the Chicago 10 because their lawyers got caught up in it…).  Anyway, it was a truly inspiring story of a bunch of activists who proceed, at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, to make a public mockery of the government and judicial systems by their wit, humour, and anti-establishment spirit.  The director decided that if he was going to tell this story in 2009, he would need to update the music.  This is from the soundtrack.

Adelaide – Ben Folds Five
I made two trips to Adelaide this year – once to be keynote for a Uniting Church young leaders conference, and the other to hang out with my friend John Dear for the weekend.  Both were amazing.  I did warn the UC crew with my opening line, “I might as well apologise now.  Everything I know about Adelaide I learned from Ben Folds.”

Onion Skin – Boom Crash Opera
I picked up the best of BCO for about $10 and it transported me back to my high school years like a crazy time machine…anyway, January 2009 was devoted to them as well.  I have a vivid memory of listening to all of these on repeat during the National Christian Youth Convention I was involved in, so this was the soundtrack to having 150 Christian kids descend on BAe Systems, the world’s 3rd largest weapons manufacturer. Weird?  Yes.

Inside Job – Pearl Jam
Great patient buildup.

I’ll not lose my faith
It’s an inside job today
I know this one thing

Landslide – Lior
Yeah, what can I say.  I just like it.

Live Forever – Oasis
Counting Crows do an amazing piano version of this as an intro to Long December, but if you don’t already know the original you really need to.  Classic.  I listened to this a lot this year.

Maybe
I don’t really wanna know
How your garden grows
‘Cos I just wanna fly…

Ain’t Got Time to Die – Acapella
The first time I heard this song was Jarrod singing it in the back of the police transporter on the way back to Rockhampton.  We ran through every spiritual we knew, and then taught each other ones we didn’t.  It was so much fun, and I realised that this is what group singing is for – to collectively affirm truths when we most need them, and to deepen the meaning of things at such times.  If we don’t practice them together beforehand we don’t have them to reach for when we need them.

Lord I keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom
I keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom
Keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom
Ain’t got time to die

Come in from the Cold – Joni Mitchell
Have I had a yearly soundtrack without Joni in it?  I don’t always listen to her, but there’s always a time of year when I listen to her a lot.  This happened to be in the dead of winter.  Perfect.

Back in 1957
We had to dance a foot apart
And they hawkeyed us from the sidelines
Holding their rulers without a heart
And so with just a touch of the fingers
It could make our circuitry explode
All we ever wanted was just to come in from the cold

Counting Crows – Miami (live from Palais Theatre, Melbourne, 30-03-09)
As I said, they repeated just one song in their two Melbourne shows.  That song was Miami, and they did it electric the first night, and then acoustic the other.  This is the acoustic version, and includes a new interlude.

If you knew everything
If you could see everything
Before it happened
What would you do?
If you knew that the love that you threw away
Would mean everything to her
If you knew it would ruin her
What would you do?

Let It Go – Resonance Choir
This is the closing song for inspiral evening prayers (a Leunig poem set to music), but it gained new meaning for me in Queensland in July.  It was my first night in the lockup, and we put in solitary.  They wouldn’t let us eat, and wouldn’t give me my prayer book, but I sang this song to the cells around me for an hour as a prayer and a meditation.  This is a recording of Anthony’s old choir too – listen out for him!

The Path to Your Door – Gyan and Leunig (with Paul Kelly)
My birthday gift from Chris and Jane was this remarkable cd of a woman called Gyan who has put a whole bunch of Leunig poems to music.  From the strange (Billy the Rabbit is dead) to the beautiful (Summer Palace), it’s a truly fascinating listen.  I never fail to find this one deeply moving.

Not a crazy frog in sight: Simon’s soundtrack 2005

I finally did my soundtrack to 2005 compilation disc, entitled “not a crazy frog in sight”, and here’s the tracklist:

1. Ben Lee – Gamble Everything for Love
2. Lifehouse – Unknown
3. Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues
4. Midnight Oil – My Country
5. Ramones – It’s Not My Place (in the 9 to 5 World)
6. U2 – Love and Peace or Else
7. Jason Mraz – Curbside Prophet
8. Counting Crows – Sullivan St (with Did She Wanna Run alts)
9. Missy Higgins – Nightminds
10. King Curtis – Memphis Soul Stew
11. Ben Lee – Desire (B-side of Gamble Everything For Love single)
12. Jess McAvoy – Easy
13. Powderfinger – Don’t Wanna Be Left Out
14. Ben Lee – Catch My Disease

seriously, it’s the best way to reflect on your year. try it sometime.

actually, that reminds me of the Nick Hornby quote from Hi Fidelity about mixed tapes.

“To me, making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again…A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention…and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs…oh, there are loads of rules.”

ben lee & missy higgins

ticket

The ticket read “proceeds rain or shine”, so we were lucky it was a balmy 26 degrees when we arrived at the Music Bowl. In fact, when we arrived at 5 (the same time the gates opened), the line was already enormous. I dropped Julie off so she could get us a spot while I parked the car about 12 kilometres away. We (Julie and I, Meryl and Croz and Alex and Em) ended up in about the middle of the grassy section. Instead of being my usual pedantic self, I decided to relax, resign myself to our spot, and not try to get any closer. I’m glad I did.

The opening act came on at about 6ish and was the McMannamans (try saying that 10 times fast – it’s not hard as you’d expect, but it’s a whole lot of fun) were on first, a duo on guitar and violin/mandolin. Good sound, and amazing violin work, but a little too country for my liking. But they did their job well, in fact, all of the opening acts did their job well, in whetting our appetite for what was to come, as well as making the wait as pleasant as possible.

Then it was Ash Grunwald, another aussie artist who is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix. Long dreads and a weather-beaten face completes his surfie look. He drums with his feet while he plays the guitar, using a lot of reverb and sliding effects, and while his songs are all in a similar style, he was obviously “stoked” to be there, and his enjoyment was infectious. He was also one of the only performers to really interact with the audience, and they responded to that with their attention (although not many sang along).

By the time Ray LaMontagne (pronounced Lah-Mon-TAYN, read his incredible story here) came on, with the balmy evening, thousands of people sitting together on the grass, and the multiple artists, it had taken on the feeling of a 70’s music festival. Ray then completed the look with his bearded face and hippie orange shirt. In fact, we were debating for a long time how old he was – the girls thought late 40s, Alex and I thought early 20s. We still don’t know. Interestingly, he was the only non-Aussie of the night; a fact that has me encouraged for Australian music. I had heard good things, and I would say he lived up to expectations with some really strong songs. Perhaps a little too earnest for a support act, although it seemed like that was his style of folk. I suspect he would have won himself some fans, although probably more in the older end of the spectrum.

I was really impressed by all of the changeovers – quick and smooth, so you never felt like you were kept waiting, but it wasn’t all rushed and frantic either. I noticed because it’s unusual. Normally bands have this mistaken idea that if you’re kept waiting it builds the anticipation. In actual fact, you just get bored and tired of waiting.

The short review:
Ben Lee was fantastic, light and fun, but ultimately the set was too short. Missy was not quite as good, largely due to the fact that she rarely emerged from behind the piano. Amazing voice though, and incredible musician with some really impressive songs.

The long review:

This was the last night of the tour, a fact that was referenced many times, particularly given that this is Missy’s home town. It actually gave an element of comraderie for those who were there, because it was clearly a personal high point for Missy. Her entire family (grandparents, etc. included) was there, as was, she admitted, most of the people she referred to in her songs. In fact, it was a huge crowd, I mean the Music Bowl was totally and completely packed. That added hugely to the atmosphere which was one of excitement and anticipation, but in a relaxed and laid-back way given the venue and seating arrangements (most people had packed dinner and ate it picnic style on the grass).

Annotated setlists:

ben lee

Ben Lee (AITNS = Awake Is The New Sleep; HYYY = Hey You, Yes You, BT = Breathing Tornados)
Begin (AITNS): A moody but medium paced song that worked well as an opener.
Into The Dark (AITNS): This one’s a lot of fun, with its highpitched chord progression (capo 7th fret), bouncy feel and optimistic lyrics.
Gamble Everything for Love (AITNS): I’m loving this song at the moment so it was great to hear it live. Ben followed it up by holding his phone up to the microphone while it played the song as his ringtone. He said that it took John Farnham mentioning his name in the paper and one of his songs becoming a ringtone for his grandma to admit it was ok he didn’t go to university.
Run With Scissors (HYYY): At this point, it was pretty clear it was going to be a mostly greatest-hits + new album set. It’s a fun song though, and while it may not last as a classic, it’s good solid pop.
No Right Angles (AITNS): Introduced this by saying something about avoiding the straight and narrow. He’s certainly qualified to talk about that, given his life.
Something Borrowed, Something Blue (HYYY): This was a surprise highlight for me – I didn’t really like this when it came out on the radio, but I really enjoyed it live for some reason.
Cigarettes Will Kill You (BT): Ah yes, I was hoping this would come up. Breathing Tornados is one of those albums that sat on my shelf forgotten until recently, but I’ve rediscovered its brilliance. Left the bridge of Cigarettes entirely to the audience, although I think I was the only one singing it. Still one of the all-time classic aussie songs I reckon. Just try not to be moved by the outro: I dare you. I still can’t believe this was the only one he did from Breathing Tornados though.
Close I’ve Come (AITNS): Again, a good fun song live.
Catch My Disease (AITNS): This is the one the crowd was mostly waiting for, so he timed it well as the second last one. Song of the Year at this year’s ARIAs, and a catchy, fun tune. Everyone was up on their feet as a result, which was great. I was a little surprised he ended it so soon, especially since everyone was well into it, but I guess he was pressed for time.
All In This Together (AITNS): I suppose you could call this the theme song of the tour – he’s on this “pop music can save the world” bent at the moment, and I think this sums up his outlook on life. Again, the crowd joined in well.

So overall, too short a set, but a great one nonetheless. It was really fun and entertaining, without getting all deeply brooding or emotional, which I guess it what pop music is about. He certainly left most of us wanting more, which is a better thing than leaving us begging him to stop, but still a little less than satisfying. But then we knew we still had Missy to go.

missy higgins

Missy Higgins (TSOW = The Sound of White)

Katie (TSOW): A strangely subdued way to start a performance.
Unbroken (B-side to The Sound of White single): Nice to see an unfamiliar one in there, particularly early on. That’s the kind of musical risk that I would’ve liked to see taken on some other aspects of the show.
The River (TSOW)
The Banner (new): Good to see her trying out new material despite this being the last night of the tour.
This Is How It Goes (TSOW): One of her more underrated songs, I reckon, but she was still stuck behind the piano. Had she
gotten out like she did in Casualty later on, it would have had more energy.
All For Believing (TSOW): She dedicated this song to the memory of her dog, who died 3 weeks ago, and who apparently heard this song more than any other. It’s a very pretty song, and the one that JJJ unearthed her with.
Any Day Now (TSOW)
Stuff and Nonsense (Split Enz cover): Missy and her guitarist had recently recorded this for a Neil and Tim Finn tribute album
Don’t Ever (TSOW)
The Special Two (TSOW): A beautiful song, but heartbreaking.
Peachy: Hadn’t heard this one before either, but I couldn’t find it on her discography so I assume it’s a new one.
The Cactus That Found The Beat (High School performance piece, also on Scar EP): Missy came out from behind the piano for this one, finally! She talked about how much she admired her brother, who basically gave her her start (at 16 she was lying about her age to get into clubs to play in his jazz band) and who is an accomplished musician himself. He played piano for this and Casualty which followed, and it was wonderful to see her out the front on a song.
Casualty (TSOW): Finally saw her cut loose! She ditched even the guitar, and just enjoyed the song. A definite highlight for me.
Scar (TSOW): Such a fun, catchy song, and a good one to end on, although it might have been better to end the whole performance on it.

Encore:
Funny How Time Slips Away (Willie Nelson cover, Vince Jones arrangement): Missy introduced this by saying that her brother would “weep with happiness” if she played it. She started completely a capella, which was a great showcase of the calibre of her voice, and a great rendition of the song, which I’d never heard before. Although there were no tears involved, the most touching part of the night was when her brother joined in on the piano in the second verse, and then as they finished, they both stood up and embraced each other in a show of genuine affection. It was obviously like a homecoming for both of them, like they were acknowledging how the relationship had seen them both come to this point.
Laid (James cover, duet with Ben Lee): It was inevitable that it would come to a collaboration at some point, but the song choice wasn’t! Everyone just had fun with it, crowd included.
The Sound of White (TSOW): Again, a strangely subdued way to finish. Sure it’s been a big hit, but it left things a bit less than enthusiastic. I think I just expected a bigger finish. I was surprised and delighted though when Ryan Adams’ “My Sweet Carolina” came out of the speakers immediately after. Now THAT is a show-stopper.

One of the things that never ceased to amaze me during the whole performance was the number of people who knew the words to every song. I mean, I know this album has sold half a million copies, but people have clearly not just listened or enjoyed it, but have memorized it. And I’m not just talking about the songs from the radio, I mean from the very first song, Katie, to the very last song, people were singing along. I was staggered. They’ve obviously struck a very deep chord (no pun intended) with a lot of people.

It was hands down a professional, entertaining performance. She has an incredible voice that did not put a note wrong all night. You realise when you see true artists like Ben and Missy that quality of performance and sound cannot be bought with an Australian-Idol-style rocket ride to fame – it comes from years and years of putting in the hard yards in pubs and clubs, playing the gigs that no-one else wants to. Echoing the crowd, the stage lit up when she came on, with blue fairy lights making a pretty backdrop to the spartan stage. With her piano facing the audience, she belted out most of her ARIA award winning Album of the Year as well as a few extras. She ended up doing fairly well considering there’s not much of a back catalogue of songs to choose from. That would explain why she had to choose so many downbeat songs too, which unfortunately subdued the performance somewhat.

In fact, her style made it more sit-back-and-listen than get-up-and-get-into-it, which was an interesting contrast with Ben Lee, especially given that she was essentially headlining. I think her behind-the-piano performance style would’ve been better suited to a small club than a large venue, because most people couldn’t see the stage very well, so to only be able to see a stationary head and shoulders above the black piano wasn’t visually engaging. At one stage, after having ditched both the piano and the guitar for just the microphone during Casualty, she actually apologized for letting her enthusiasm ruin the “musicality” of the song. Personally it had been one of the highlights of the night for me, because she actually got into it, felt it, grunted it out. Live shows are meant to be raw – if I wanted musicality to be the priority, I’d be at home listening to the cd. Which was the same thing I thought about the performances of almost every one of the songs – they didn’t differ at all from the recordings, even in the modulations of her voice. Some would say that’s the mark of a skilful musician; I just think I’d rather experience it differently live. There are songs whose recordings I’ve hated that I’ve fallen in love with in hearing them live. But we really weren’t given a different side to these songs, which struck me as a shame, because people clearly knew the songs well, so that can’t have been the priority.

It also made me proud to be a Counting Crows fan, because those guys live are, well, brilliant. It’s not so much their “musicality”, although you’d have to say sometimes they are nothing short of mindblowing in that respect (see recent performances of Sullivan St as a case in point), it’s the overall performance. They mix the songs up, they play covers in the middle of their own songs, they play their own songs in the middle of their own songs. There are plays of light and shadow that are just simply beautiful, or moving, or exciting. They move around the stage, they act out the songs, they bring the audience in and hold them in the palms of their hands. Now admittedly these guys are towards the latter end of their career as compared to Ben and Missy, and therefore have a lot more learning experiences under their belt, but Ben and Missy would do well to learn from such showmanship.

Having said that, I was pretty much able to let all that go and enjoy being under the stars, on a warm night, listening to some pretty easy-on-the-ears music, in the company of good friends. Seriously, what could be better?

gamble everything for love

“…although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” The Proverbial Pooh

Pretty much describes how I feel before a concert. Hanging out for Monday night: Missy Higgins and Ben Lee at the Myer Music Bowl. Awesome.

back to my musical roots

Normally when people talk about their musical “influences” or getting back to their musical roots, they refer to that time in their early to mid teens when they discovered the music that would define their musical tastes – the first time they heard Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” or sat stoned listening to “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones. The more cultured among us may go back to the musicians who influenced the musicians that influenced them; the Miles Davises, the Bachs, the Woody Guthries.

But I’m talking about real roots music, the music you listened to before any other; I’m talking children’s music. Last night I went to a show by my childhood favourite musician, Franciscus Henri.

Now before you get all giggly (because yes, I did go by myself), he wasn’t doing children’s music on this particular occasion. Nonetheless this was for me a pilgrimmage back to someone who was a significant early influence on me. In fact, as I journalled a couple of weeks back, listening to one of his cassettes was one of the events that renewed my passion for music, particularly of the live variety. So there was no way I was going to miss him playing a show only 5 minutes’ drive away.

franciscus henri

He’s probably better known nowadays in children’s circles as Mister Whiskers, but back in the days of the “Saturday Club” at Monash University’s Alexander Theatre, he was still known as Franciscus Henri; an exotic enough name to retain as a stage persona, if you ask me, but whatever. Earlier this year his passion for the music and poetry of Sydney Carter (perhaps best known for his song “Lord of the Dance“, which it should be noted has nothing whatsoever to do with Michael Flatley) inspired him to record a whole bunch of them to CD, and he’s now touring (if you could call five shows in seven months “touring”) on the strength of that recording.

The whole thing struck me as being like the emerging church movement for the generations before gen x. Largely, Sydney Carter’s religious work centres on the idea that doubt and questioning is a good in and of itself. As reported in his obituary in The Guardian, “With irony— though never with bitterness— Sydney satirised every form of self-righteous faith; to be without doubt was, to him, the ultimate in godless pride.” So he frequently parodied or questioned the religious status quo, particularly with reference to established Christianity. As such, I gained the distinct impression that he wrote more about what he questioned than what he stood for, and as such, perhaps had a lot more to offer than he ever realised (in both senses of the word). His views are probably best expressed in his poem ‘The Interview’:

So what do you believe in?
Nothing fixed or final
All the while I travel is a miracle
I doubt and yet I walk upon the water.
That is impossible
I know it is
Improbability is all you can expect
The natural is super natural
Where are you going next?
Like you I ask that question
I can only travel with the music
I am full of curiosity.

I confess that I find that kind of “comfortable-with-uncertainty” worldview attractive, but in the end it strikes me as lazy rather than realistic, unsatisfying instead of comfortable. The easiest thing in the world is to claim there are no answers; one therefore never needs to do the hard work of looking.

I liked this poem though, entitled “Anonymous”, and although I’m not sure I agree with it entirely, it certainly gives me food for thought.

Forget my name is Jesus
From now on I am anonymous
Do not trust the people who
Hang me like a millstone
around your neck
Do not look at me
but what I am pointing at
The Jesus who keeps saying saying
“I am Jesus, look at me,
there is no substitute”
is an imposter.
Do not trust the Christian
cult of personality,
I came to turn you on
and not to turn you off
To make you free
and not to tie you up.
My yoke was easy
and my burden light
Until they made
salvation copyright,
And all in the name of Jesus
so forget my name
was ever Jesus
I am anonymous.

I don’t think that’s the whole thing, but that’s all I could find of it. I think it had another part to it that questioned whether Jesus (or Christ) had only been born once, and therefore in a similar but less cringeworthy way to “What if God Was One of Us?”, wonders whether Christ is actually as much in those we meet everyday, and our response to them therefore equally important.

There was also the following very moving anti-war song, which has apparently been covered by Jackson Browne. Performed like a lullabye, the words have a profoundly jarring effect:

Crow on the Cradle

The sheep’s in the meadow
The cow’s in the corn
Now is the time for a child to be born
He’ll laugh at the moon
And cry for the sun
And if it’s a boy he’ll carry a gun
Sang the crow on the cradle

And if it should be that this baby’s a girl
Never you mind if her hair doesn’t curl
With rings on her fingers
And bells on her toes
And a bomber above her wherever she goes
Sang the crow on the cradle

The crow on the cradle
The black and the white
Somebody’s baby is born for a fight
The crow on the cradle
The white and the black
Somebody’s baby is not coming back
Sang the crow on the cradle

Your mother and father will sweat and they’ll slave
To build you a coffin and dig you a grave
Hush-a-bye little one, never you weep
For we’ve got a toy that can put you to sleep
Sang the crow on the cradle

Bring me my gun, and I’ll shoot that bird dead
That’s what your mother and father once said
The crow on the cradle, what can we do
Ah, this is a thing that I’ll leave up to you
Sang the crow on the cradle
Sang the crow on the cradle

He sang it in such a way that the jarring words were accentuated, which gave an element of drama to the whole thing that was palpable.

Anyway, I’m still kind of digesting the experience. It was unlike any other live gig I’ve been to, probably since the Saturday Club – more theatre than I am used to, perhaps in many ways more intimate and soul baring, but also a little more grown-up, or purportedly so.

nick hornby on music

this guy writes like I think. it’s eerie, uncanny, and homely and comfortable all at the same time. I recently finished his book 31 songs which is basically just him writing about how he thinks and feels about music, through 31 of his favourite songs. I have this deep and abiding love of music (as evidenced recently by my irrational panic when my mp3 player went down for the count) and in so many ways Hornby describes that love better than I ever could. It’s also a useful apologetic for pop music, which is my main musical diet. I’ve picked out some of my favourite quotes from the book (some of them rather long, admittedly, but worth the read):

Songs are what I listen to, almost to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t listen to classical music or jazz very often, and when people ask me what music I like, I find it very difficult to reply, because they usually want names of people, and I can only give them song titles. And mostly all I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when other people don’t like them as much as I do…

So seriously…why doesn’t everyone else get how incredible Sullivan St or Anna Begins are? “Her kindness bangs a gong” may be the stupidest lyric ever on paper, but I still say it’s the climax of the most incredible four minutes of anyone’s life. Maybe that’s why I love Counting Crows fans too…they just…get it, with no need to explain the unexplainable.

On the snobbery of music fans:

That’s the thing that puzzles me about those who feel that contemporary pop (and I use the word to encompass soul, reggae, country, rock – anything and everything that might be regarded as trashy) is beneath them, or behind them, or beyond them – some preposition denoting distance, anyway: does this mean that you never hear, or at least never enjoy, new songs, that everything you whistle or hum was written years, decades, centuries ago? Do you really deny yourselves the pleasure of mastering a tune (a pleasure, incidentally, that your generation is perhaps the first in the history of mankind to forgo) because you are afraid it might make you look as if you don’t know who Harold Bloom is? Wow. I’ll bet you’re fun at parties.

I remember someone asking Adam Duritz outside the Palais in Melbourne, “I’m trying to write music. Do you have any advice for me?” Adam replied (and I’ll never forget it, because it redefined what was “good” or “acceptable” music for me) “Just make music that you like.” The girl goes, “But how do I make it good?” and he said, somewhat exasperated, “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it – make music that makes you happy. It doesn’t matter it if it’s happy or sad or whatever – if you get a kick out of it, what does it matter?”

It was an incredibly liberating moment – because if a song’s catchy but was performed by a boy band, who cares? You don’t become fun at parties (or in other words, enjoy life) by denying yourself such simple, cheap pleasures.

on pop music’s disposability:

…a three-minute pop song can only withhold its mysteries for so long, after all. So, yes, it’s disposable, as if that makes any difference to anyone’s perceptions of the value of pop music. But then, shouldn’t we be sick of ‘Moonlight’ Sonata by now? Or Christina’s World? Or The Importance of Being Ernest? They’re empty! Nothing left! We sucked ‘em dry! That’s what gets me: the very people who are snotty about the disposability of pop will go over and over again to see Lady Bracknell say ‘A handbag?’ in a funny voice. They don’t think that joke’s exhausted itself? Maybe disposability is a sign of pop music’s maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse.

On generational musical snobbery:

There is no doubt, though, that lyrics are the literate pop fan’s Achilles heel. We have all lived through the shrivelling moment when a parent walks into a room and repeats, with sardonic disbelief, a couplet picked up from the stereo or the TV. ‘What does that mean, then?’ my mother asked me during Top of the Pops. ‘”Get it on/Bang a gong”? How long did it take him to think of that, do you reckon?’ And the correct answer – ‘Two seconds, and it doesn’t matter’ – is always beyond you, so you just tell her to shut up, while inside you’re hating Marc Bolan for making you like him even though he sings about getting it on and banging gongs. (I suspect that this humiliation continues, and that it makes no difference whether the parent doing the humiliating was brought up on a diet of T. Rex, or Spandau Ballet, or Sham 69, and therefore should avoid the literary high ground altogether. My mother, after all, belonged to a generation that danced – danced and smooched – to ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ and if she felt able to be snooty about ‘Get It On’, then surely snootiness is a weapon available to all. Rubbishing our children’s tastes is one of the few pleasures remaining to us as we become old, redundant and culturally marginalized.)

I have this memory of trying to decipher the lyrics of Peter Blakeley’s “Crying in the Chapel” (which I found immensely engaging at the time), and thinking that what I heard couldn’t possibly be the real lyrics, whereupon my mother entered the room and confirmed for me just how inane they were. Then she said they used to dance to “Do the hot potato” and somehow that admission was enough to destroy any credibility she might’ve had in her generation being musically superior.

Theological reflection, Hornby-style; his chapter on Rufus Wainwright’s ‘One Man Guy’:

I try not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double take. When things add up to more than the sum of their parts, when the effects achieved are inexplicable, then atheists like me start to get into difficult territory. Take Rufus Wainwright’s version of his father Loudon’s ‘One Man Guy’, for example. There should be nothing evoking the spirit about it, really: the song’s lovely, but it’s a little sour, a little sad, jokey – the joke being that the song is not about the joys of monogamy but is about the joys of solipsism and misanthropy, a joke that is given a neat little twist by Wainwright junior’s sexual orientation – and it’s hard to imagine that God has time to pay a visit to something so wry and self-mocking. And yet, weirdly, He does. There’s no doubt about it. (And of course, in doing so, He answers once and for all the question of what He thinks of homosexuality: he’s not bothered one way or the other. Official.)

For me, He comes in at the beginning of the second verse, just when Rufus and his sister Martha begin to harmonize. Perhaps significantly (or perhaps He is merely demonstrating a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour), His presence first makes itself known on the line, ‘People meditate, hey, that’s great, trying to find the Inner You’. It’s the harmony that does it, although whether that’s cause or effect is a moot point. Does God come in because Martha and Rufus are singing so beautifully together – does He hear it from afar and think, ‘Hey, that’s My kind of music, and I’m going to see what’s going on’? Or does He enable them to sing together – does he spot what they’re pitching for and help them along the way?

When I say that you can hear God in ‘One Man Guy’ by Rufus Wainwright, I do not mean to suggest that there is an old chap with a beard – a divine Willie Nelson, if you will – warbling along with them. Nor do I wish to imply that this surprise guest appearance at the beginning of the second verse prov
es that Jesus died for our sins, or that rich men will have difficulty entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I just mean that at certain spine-shivering musical moments – and you will have your own, inevitably – it becomes difficult to remain a literalist. (I have no such difficulty when I hear religious music, by the way, no matter how beautiful. They’re cheating, those composers: they’re inviting Him in, egging Him on, and surely He wouldn’t fall for that? I think He’d have enough self-respect to stay well away.)

I’m not sure what difference it makes to me, this occasional vision of the Divine in the music I love. OK, maybe it comes as a relief, because a lot of people I have a lot of time for, writers and musicians and sports stars and politicians, have a great deal to say on the subject of God and hitherto I had felt a bit left out; now I have something, a little scrap of spirituality, I can wave back at them. Oh, and as a writer, I don’t normally have patience for the ineffable – I ought to think that everything’s effing effable, otherwise what’s the point? But I’m not sure there are words to describe what happens when two voices mesh (and isn’t the power and beauty and sheer perfection of a simple chord a bit, you know, Outer Limits? It’s no wonder Pythagorus got so worked up about harmony). All I can say is that I can hear things that aren’t there, see and feel things I can’t normally see and feel, and start to realize that, yes, there is such a thing as an immortal soul, or, at the very least, a unifying human consciousness, that our loves are short but have meaning. Beyond that, I’m not sure it changes very much, really. I’m not going to listen to stuff like this too often, though, just in case.

I love this chapter because although he’s coming from a different perspective (atheist as opposed to theist) we share something in common. God is never more real to me than in moments like that in music – in the tinkling piano and harmonies of the “Did She Wanna Run” alt to Sullivan St, in walking along the street to the bouncing guitar riff of The Ramones’ “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)”, in the blasting horns of “Kick” by INXS. There’s a sense in which the pure joy of human life and expression is not so much transcended as intensified (sometimes a thousandfold) in such moments. But then, like he said, you can’t make the ineffable effable.

On thanking God in the liner notes:

The single biggest influence on most of these artists [British Top 10, August 2001] according to the acknowledgements in their liner notes, is…Actually, let’s see if you can guess. Who do you think is at least partially responsible for such songs as ‘Where the Party At?’, ‘Bootylicious’, ‘Bad Boy for Life’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘The Girlies’, and ‘Pimp Like Me’? Who do you think inspired the rapper on D12’s ‘Ain’t Nuttin’ But Music’ (‘Independent women in the house/Show us your tits and shut your motherf***ing mouth’ – a chummy reference, presumably, to Destiny’s Child, whose hit ‘Independant Women Part 1’ opens their Survivor album)? Give up? OK.

You may well be surprised to learn that the very first person thanked in the liner notes of the CDs containing these gems is the Almighty Himself. He gets thanked on seven of the ten albums, by sixteen different contributing artists. Brian, of Jagged Edge, for instance, declares that without God ‘we wouldn’t be here doing this third album’ – incontrovertible, according to much creationist theory, but a somewhat reductive view of the universe nonetheless. Let’s face it, without God the first two albums would have been pretty tricky, too. In a similar spirit, Michelle, of Destiny’s Child, is moved to point out to the Creator, ‘There is no one like you!!’, which is, on reflection, one of the tidiest ontological arguments you could wish to hear.

You really do have to wonder at the credentials of those who thank God in their liner notes, or in their awards speeches…somehow singing “I put it right there, made it easy for you to get to/Now you wanna act like ya don’t know what to do/After I done everything that you asked me/Grabbed you, grind you, liked you, tried you/Moved so fast baby now I can’t find you” and then saying how God made all this possible (or even, in many cases, Jesus) is more than just misguided, it’s literally blasphemous. I’m not even just talking about personal sexual morality; these people usually have no concept of who Jesus is or the way he treated people.

On why he has little time for shock art (or noise music):

That’s the real con of shock art: it makes out that it’s democratic, but it’s actually only for those who can afford it. And some of us, as we get older, simply find that we don’t have that much courage to spare anymore. Good luck to you if you have, because it means that you have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you, but don’t try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.

I guess this book just goes a long way towards explaining why his novels strike so deeply home for me – he gets it in the same way I get it, and it seems that’s a rare thing. Sharing such a love, even with someone you don’t know and have never met, is a profound bond.

the genius that is radiohead

I’d forgotten about this band until I saw the scope (formerly the spastic society) ad on tv. Anyone seen this ad? There’s a guy in a wheelchair at a train station, with a bunch of people standing around waiting for the train. A few people look over at him as he starts to sing out loud to the music in his headphones. Over the course of the ad, the music gradually becomes louder, and is revealed to be radiohead’s paranoid android (a detail which is totally irrelevent to the message of the ad, but nonetheless the detail that riveted me most).

The screen text then says, “Don’t worry, he’s just another music fan. See the person, not the disability.” A good ad, with a worthwhile message, well executed. The funny thing was, the message was kind of lost on me since I spent the whole ad trying to work out what he was singing, then listening to. Especially since paranoid android recalls a very specific time in my life, I was lost in that kind of wailing Thom Yorke does and the way the song switches up and down and drags you along like a dog tied to the towbar of a 4 wheel drive.

So it seems that personally, I hear the music, before I see the person, let alone the disability. I wonder what that says about me?

Anyway, the point wasn’t about the ad, it was about radiohead, who have this unique (well, rare at least) ability to bridge that gap the Yes never bridged (which is a real shame) between fantastical, weird experimental rock and mainstream music (popular culture). There is something truly emotive about their songs, something that needs to be heard (or rather experienced) to be understood in any sense. I hadn’t even pulled out anything of theirs (except the odd random Creep from the Triple J Hottest 100) for such a long time, and it was a refreshing reminder of that time in my life when I was young enough to be experimenting with new music and let it sink and seep in enough to be a significant influence on my character. I’m not old by any stretch, but I do find myself increasingly shutting out new music, something I swore black and blue I would never do. Radiohead’s a reminder of that time, and a beautiful tug on the heartstrings of memory it is.