Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Great Intoxication

Picture the scene:
2001, me aged 43, doing the washing up, new David Byrne CD, paying a little more attention than usual to the lyrics ....

He sings: "Who Disco? / Who Techno? / Who Hip-Hop? / Who Be Bop? / Who's been playing records in his bedroom?"

Those words suddenly draw a visceral reaction: "who's been playing records in his bedroom?" and I sharply remember the intensity of my younger self, the way I would listen to records, obsessively poring over album artwork and lyric sheets, absorbing, responding, trying to make sense of it all, and all the while the music is shaping me.


1996, age 38, driving a 2-hour commute, revisiting old C90 cassettes, among them King Crimson's "Larks Tongues in Aspic". Listening with profound attention, the sheer power of the music coupled to an equally powerful wave of memory. Understanding for the first time how this one, almost forgotten piece has all unknowingly shaped my musical tastes: the rawness, the invention, the minimalism, the discordance, the slow build - this album left those doors wide open.


2013, again driving to a work meeting, again revisiting 70's prog rock.  This time Golden Earring - Eight Miles High.  Again that tug, the music that drags you back to who you once were, back to boarding school with a clapped out old woofer speaker that we attached a 15 foot length of string to and saw how the bass notes made standing waves in the string.


Walking through London, my Android phone playing Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" in my ears, and, fully forty years after first hearing I still marvel at the tightness and polish of the performance, and even though I know the lyrics are a pretentious spoof of an epic poem by a fictional pretentious eight-year-old, still I am moved by them.

"In the clear white circles of morning wonder / I take my place with the lord of the hills /
And the blue-eyed soldiers stand slightly discoloured / (in neat little rows) sporting canvas frills."
Listen here:

Spoof it may be, but with Ian Anderson you are never sure - he has a way of finding the profound in the banal, and then slyly teasing himself for his pretension, and you for buying into it.  Just look at the way in which he sets up this mythic feel in the first two lines, and then punctures that with the gently mocking second two lines.  I take delight from every time I hear this, and I want to point it out to someone, to share it.  I don't expect you to get it - I know it's just me, but still I want to share it.


As a father to two young boys, wanting to share with them something of my childhood, finally finding this Burl Ives tune, and hearing it, becoming a very small boy again.

"In San Francisco town there lived a whale / She ate porkchops by the pail / By the pillbox, by the suitcase / By the bathtub, by the schooner.

Her name was Sarah and she's a peach / But you can't leave food within her reach / Nor nursemaids, nor airedales / Nor chocolate ice-cream sodas

She eats a lot, but when she smiles / You can see her teeth for miles and miles / And her adenoids, and her spareribs / And things too fierce to mention.

So what can you do in a case like that? / What can you do but sit on your hat / Or your toothbrush, or your grandmother / Or anything else that's helpless?"


What's going on here?  These are none of them peerless masterpieces, but every one of these pieces feels somehow integral to my being.  I don't think I could fully explain to any one person exactly why each of these pieces of music (or any of a hundred others I could have chosen) key into some deep part of me, and bring out such strong feelings. But they do: somehow this is important.

I know that this reaction to music like this is intensely personal.  I have a deep desire to explain to someone what is so insanely great about each one, but actually I know they will never get it, not the way I get it.  Because I know that what makes these special is that the original experiences of listening over and over to these actually changed me, and in some small or not so small way, made me who I am.

And now ...

My musical tastes have grown and matured, and new pieces and new discoveries come along and in their own way, they continue to influence and shape me, but perhaps not quite so much.  And I still want to share with others these discoveries, and what makes them seem special to me.  And I want to understand why music can do that ...

Indeed, a Great Intoxication.

David Byrne continues:

"The great intoxication / Mental generation / Sound effects & laughter / Stupid ever after
Hopin' it was cranked up loud enough for you to hear"

Spot on ... I am still that teenager (stupid ever after), and I am still hoping this is cranked up loud enough for you to hear.

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