Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Adventures in a record collection (part 1).

I am, although it pains me to admit it, somewhat stuck. I find myself wedged between different projects. Above me, pressing down with a frustrated heaviness is what looks suspiciously like a finished manuscript for a novel, which I am slowly sending out to agents and wincing when I come home from work to find the inevitable ‘thanks, but no thanks’ compliment slip on the bottom step. To either side like gobby yoofs on the evening train are half a dozen aborted short stories that were never going anywhere interesting. And pushing up from underneath my feet, fearful of being trampled all over, I seem to have the fledging shoots of something else: An idea.

It is an idea that’s been rattling around my head for a few years and found its missing heart in the summer of 2009, right when I was pounding the keyboard in full flight for that probably completed manuscript that scowls at me every time I fire up the computer. At the time I was too busy to work on it and so scraps of notes went in the ‘ideas’ folder. That tends to be how it goes, I guess. Productivity equals more stuff being produced, like a chain reaction of fictional ideas.

So, on one hand I’ve been hanging out with these new people for a long time. On the other, they’re like strangers. Or more like celebrities. People I know superficial things about, their publicised highlights, but I’ve been sat down next to them at a dinner party (in some weird universe) and now I’m nervously trying to understand the real them. It takes time for they are sensitive souls and prone to going into a silent sulk if I press to hard.

In other words, I’m writing as though my fingers were coated in lead. Very, very slowly.

Still, I think to myself, productivity equals more stuff. Perhaps I should be more consciously trying to reboot the chain reaction. Perhaps it is time to return to the blog.

Except… Except… Ngh. I can’t think of anything to say! I don’t even have many stories of bizarre London roaming to recount, or none that I want to share anyway. Sorry.

And yet, this was the original idea for the blog. Its original function was to be a way to kick start my brain into putting words down on paper.

So: Emergency conversation piece one-oh-one. Music.

Let’s write something about music. Let’s write something about music I love. Let’s write something about music I love and how it feeds into my writing. I think I may be slightly unusual in that I almost always, except when close editing, write to music. Lavinia Greenlaw says that, despite being obsessed with music, she can’t create with it on; that she needs to hear the poetic rhythms of her prose in her head. I’m not that sort of writer. I’m probably not that good a writer, but regardless even when I have turned the stereo off the songs just play on as shadowy remnants of tunes heard earlier. Choosing the right record, setting the right tone, has become part of my preparation.

So, let’s write about that.

Except that’s a bit easy. Let’s make it harder. Okay, you up for this? I’m going to choose a record at random and try and find something interesting to say about it. I am going to roll three dice. One determines the record stack in my flat, the second the shelf of that stack, the third the number of CDs in from the left.

(This could be really painfully embarrassing).

Huh. Interesting. Okay, there’s something I can say about Billy Bragg and Wilco: Mermaid Avenue.

This is a slightly unusual album in that British folk/protest singer Billy Bragg was invited by American folk legend Woody Guthrie’s daughter to record songs using some of her father’s unused lyrics set to contemporary music. Mermaid Avenue was where Guthrie lived in Brooklyn during the late forties and again ten years later when his career was all but over. The fact that the record is named after where he went to die might tell us quite a lot.

Guthrie was a principled recording artist in the thirties, frequently touting a guitar with the motto ‘This machine kills fascists’ either etched into the wood, or marked on a sticker and attached. He wrote Americana folk songs, including ‘This Land is our Land’, and broken ballads that drifted out of the dust bowl and dumped dried dirt into your ears. He lived a self-stylised hobo life criss-crossing the country, daringly associating with communists and somehow being both patriotic and disruptive to the state. But by the fifties he was barely able to play guitar, his coordination so wrecked by motor neuron problems. For twenty years he suffered from undiagnosed Huntingdon’s disease, variously being labelled as an alcoholic or a schizophrenic and the frustration at the unfairness of life was taken out on two wives who were eventually driven away (although the first returned to help him to the end).

By the time fan Bob Dylan tracked Guthrie down in the mid-sixties he was described as having ‘good and bad days’. There were days when he would talk enthusiastically to Dylan about music and messages and days when he wouldn’t understand what was happening to him. He eventually died in 1967 a echo of himself and outside of folk circles his influence waned. In the mid-nineties Nora Guthrie saw Billy Bragg, the bard of Barking, performing at a festival and invited him to record the project.

Daunted at having to reinterpret a hero’s musical legacy, Bragg called in alt-Country band Wilco and former 10,000 Maniacs vocalist, Natalie Merchant, to help soak up some of the emotion. Whilst they were to fall out over the project– Wilco’s bassist felt Bragg’s songs were overproduced – it is still a startling record; a concept album not about something but fuelled by something, by someone.

Whilst grounded in fairly safe folk-rock territory, the record oscillates between jocular rambunctiousness and woeful heartbreak. There are boisterous hints at seediness in Walt Whitman’s niece; heartbreaking simplicity in Birds and Ships; older-man perverseness over Ingrid Bergman; slightly sarcasm in Christ for President. Jeff Tweedy’s vocal on At my Window Sad and Lonely sounds like the last gasps of desperation over deceptively simple guitar barely in the same room. The fun almost rockabilly of Guess I Planted contrasts with the, again, meditative frustration at being locked out of your talent as age catches up in One by One.

It’s an album recorded in flushed out black and white, where the blacks are actually a faded brown, like tea stained paper or whisky, and the whites are nothing but mist.

As a (wannabe) writer I like the idea of trying to harness the ghost of someone else, an idol or a hero. The new piece that I’m playing with has a noir tinge to it, but also the hero is plagued with guilt. I am playing in the Graham Greene sandpit, taking everyone to a reimagining of Greeneland and I’m well aware of it. I'm challenging myself to wrestle down the enigma of Greene and funnel out words so utterly poised as his. It seems pretty unlikely, though. I’m not good enough.

When I take the mood of music, I often have a scene where the track plays through my fingers. It’s like in a film or a TV programme, there’s a soundtrack and often no-one’s saying anything, but it’s just a tracking shot establish mood. But because there is no soundtrack to words on paper, I have to try and convey that same mood through the tone and phrasing.

Years ago, I planned a short story which in my head featured a song from Mermaid Avenue, Way Over Yonder in a Minor Way, playing over, for want of a better phrase, the story’s credits. The point, at the end, when the written phrase pans out and the soundtrack starts. Sometimes I see my stories visually and then have to grapple how to put them into words. This was one of those occasions.

It is a marvellous song. Deceptively simply lyrics create a sense of yearning for something that never was. Bragg’s voice cracks with the ironic self-championing ‘ain’t nobody that can sing like me.’ It’s nothing to do with the tone or the tunefulness or even the soul of the voice. It was about Guthrie’s beliefs. The heart-felt intention not the delivery was what mattered and Bragg infuses it with a near mournful retrospective of a life’s disappointments.

This was in the spring of 2007. Tony Blair had yet to leave office, but it was becoming increasingly obvious he was going. I wondered how it must have felt to be one of those in ninety-seven who’d flooded him into power, who’d hung onto the coat-tails expected the revolution that never came. Would they feel betrayed? And the war was inescapable. How could they justify all the deaths to themselves? I played around with the idea of a civil servant, or a party member; someone at the heart of things and, now that it was over, they were left empty and drained and a useful nothing husk of man.

Consigned to failure.

This final scene would have had the protagonist shaking hands with someone and then walking away as the autumn leaves drifted down and the camera panned out and up into the sky, over the way in a minor way. I never did write that story. To an extent it was overshadowed by the final image. I couldn’t find the words to cram in the space of what I wanted to say, the bitter longing to try again. The rest of it never quite came together, but the final scene still sits in the ‘ideas’ file and whenever I hear that album it pops up in my mind.

Perhaps some day I’ll be able to find all the right things to say about regrets and how the past could have been; how the opportunities were missed and how life has a way of making it impossible to much other than life in the moment. Don’t put things off that you could do today for you might be incapable of doing them tomorrow.

Until then I’ll have this record to say it for me.

Or, as Tweedy gets to sing on Another Man’s Done Gone:
‘Maybe, if I hadn’t of seen so much hard feelings
I might not could have felt other people’s
So when you think of me, if and when you do,
Just say, well, another man’s done gone.’

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