Wrestling the Angel


Recently I was at a conference in Cape Town which gathered together different role-players in the music industry. The message from those in the know was clear: in order to succeed as a musician today, one has to be a little bit of a salesman, a little bit of an accountant, a little bit of a publicist.

I felt liberated: this line of work was going to turn me into a Renaissance man, a well-rounded individual. Now, by the cold light of noon, I’m not so sure.

About five years ago, before I started collaborating with a lyricist, I wrote a song called Wrestling the Angel. It was about a man who goes to the outside of town, searching for an angel. He knows that he will have to “wrestle that angel down” in order to receive a blessing. The outcome is uncertain, but we know that the odds are stacked against the singer.

The song is meant to be ambiguous: it refers to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel in Genesis, but also to the myths about blues players selling their souls to the devil at the crossroads. Those two worlds – the world of Genesis and the world of the blues – collided in my imagination. I was simply there to capture it when it happened.

Barbara Fairhead, my lyricist and primary musical collaborator, loves to use a metaphor borrowed from an ancient Chinese text to describe the creative process. In the Chinese story, a man tries to catch and tame the wild ox. To begin with, he hears something rustle in the sedge-grass which tells him that the ox is nearby and that he must be on the alert.

It is a good metaphor for creativity because it describes the need to be absolutely available when it happens, the time that has to be invested for the imagination to be fired. When people ask me how I manage to write songs, I say that I do it by getting rid of the clutter in my mind and making space for something new to happen.

Which brings me back to my starting-point: how does a musician or songwriter maintain the momentum necessary to create new things when there is so much to be done in the market-place?

Of course being in the market-place can be fun, and one does learn some useful things there – for one thing, one learns that one is part of a wider community of musicians and listeners. The real problem lies deeper: how does our relationship to our craft change when our primary goal is to compete for space there?

I don’t know the answer to that one, but one thing is certain: the moment when a creative impulse comes to me, tends to be a solitary one. The man looking for angels at the crossroads is lonesome; the ox is shy of the crowd.

This is not to say that songs are written in isolation, in disregard for the latest fashion. Far from it. But there is a moment when nothing matters except the song for its own sake. Then you leap in at the deep end, and don’t look back at who can follow you down.



At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I must admit I was dismayed to hear the interminable collaboration between Josh Groban and the often wonderful Ladysmith Black Mambazo when it invaded the airwaves recently. Whatever subtlety the song had in its original context had been lost, and replaced by something lush, clamorous and vaguely self-congratulatory. By the time the last “say I, say I” had faded into silence, I felt as if I had been co-opted into someone’s Sunday School picnic version of nation-building in Africa.

There was a time when I believed that music could seduce us into becoming nicer, more tolerant people as opposed to, say, sharper and more complex ones. Certainly when I was growing up in the ‘eighties, I looked back to the ‘sixties as a remote, heroic age that took the redemptive power of its music seriously. Those singers had a “message”, they really believed, in the words of Graham Nash, that “we can change the world.”

Looking back today, it’s easy to see that Nash’s optimism, shared by so many of his contemporaries, was misplaced, and that the music it produced hasn’t always dated well.

The relationship between popular music and politics is obviously much more complex and mysterious than we supposed. Sometimes, in the hands of Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle, one does find a good song that is politically slanted or stirs the blood on a particular issue – Earle has famously spoken out against the death penalty, Springsteen against the war in Iraq. But more often it’s the internal politics of the listener that is probed and excavated. When Dylan stopped writing protest songs and chose instead to explore the many characters and voices that inhabited his own inner world, many fans were shocked, but the gift to all of us has been immeasurable.

The best persuasive songs are often personal rather than universal, and often sung in the voice, put into the words of a particular character – Dylan’s With God On Our Side, Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars, Steve Earle’s Ellis Unit One from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. Such songs are often about characters who don’t have all the information, whose perspective on their own lives is limited. At the end of With God On Our Side, we have more insight than the troubled man speaking in the song, and our uneasiness grows with our knowledge. Similarly, in Randy Newman’s ironic Political Science 101, the character representing American foreign policy seems so reasonable on the surface that his injunction, “let’s drop the big one now”, catches us off guard.

In this country we have had our share of songs with a social conscience, many of them only known to a very few (David Kramer’s Tjoepstil is a good example). Weeping, by Bright Blue, was in its time such a song, drawing an allegorical picture of a frightened man with a demon tied up in his back yard which mirrored the fear of those in power at the time. It was briefly played on the radio until a DJ recognised the references (still subtle in those days) to Nkosi Sikilele Afrika in the choruses.

There was something poignant about the song, which had a lot to do with its timing: it was written at a time of widespread uncertainty, on the eve of the unbanning of the ANC and SACP in 1990. Needless to say, subsequent cover versions of the song tend to miss the point.

Perhaps songs of persuasion and protest need a particularly rich soil in which to grow. Perhaps such songs are germinating as I am writing this. Attending a recent gig by the spiky and hugely talented Syd Kitchen has encouraged me. Here’s to hoping it’s true.



I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard the voice of Tom Waits. It was after a sleepless night, finishing second-rate essays for some first-year course of university study. I remember the rush to the head it gave me. It was a very physical sensation, close to ecstasy, no matter how sad the songs – and some of these weren’t cheerful by any standards.

I have similar memories of introductions to other singers I love. And so I will always have a soft spot for Richard Thompson’s Rumour and Sigh, Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, Tom Waits’ Small Change, Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, John Cale’s Fragments of a Rainy Season.

Ask the critics, and they will probably tell you that these aren’t the best albums by those artists. Maybe they’d be right, but that was where the story started for me, and I’m sure you have similar stories – if you’re young enough to still be buying your music, that is.

Now don’t get me wrong – this is not a rant against iPods or paying for music one track at a time rather than buying entire albums. To tell the truth, any one particular song from those albums I mentioned would have swayed me, but I will say this much: hearing a well-crafted, inspired performance followed by another, and then another, is like a seduction: you can’t believe that there are more surprises up this thing’s sleeve, and there always are more. Songs on an album have a way of standing (or, much too often, alas, falling) together. Sometimes they stand together uneasily, and sometimes the finished product is all the stronger for that uneasiness.

And so, when the rush to the head is over, you’re left with something coherent – and we all need a bit of coherence in the morning.

Why the rush? Well, it’s as if someone has stepped into a kind of no-man’s land, a very intimate place that isn’t on any map they showed you at school. For me it often comes with the quality of a singer’s voice or a well-turned lyric, but then I’m a singer - maybe it’s different with you. The important thing is that you are called into that place, to discover it for yourself.

At some point, while we were rehearsing the songs for our new album, we started playing a song called Tattoo Jesus, about a desperate man who wanders into the Four Star Tattoo Parlour in Santa Fe, New Mexico with a picture of Jesus in the arms of Mary Magdalene. He wants this picture tattooed on his smooth chest. When the work is finished, the tattoo artist’s daughter, who has never spoken, bends down and says one word to him. It is the turning-point of the song – everything hinges on that word, but we never learn what it is.

When we finished playing it the first time, Dave, our irreverent mouth harp player, called out to Barbara, our lyricist, “I love that … But what was the word? You have to tell us what the word was!” He, and all of us, had been seduced by the song, feeling that old rush to the head that happens when worlds meet for a second. Only this time it was one of our own.

That’s why we keep doing this.

Dark Songs


About three and a half years ago Barbara Fairhead and I started a band called Red Earth & Rust, and we’ve just released our second album, Dark Mercy/Wrestling the Angel, two weeks ago.

One of the things people say most frequently about our songs is that they’re dark. Some people say it with stoic resignation, others with regret, still others approvingly. And yes, we are proud of the darkness in our songs.

There are singers and songwriters that change your life, that open up new ways of seeing. I can remember the day I first heard Dylan sing Ballad of a Thin Man, Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire, Randy Newman’s God Song, Tom Waits’ Soldier’s Things, Nick Cave’s People Ain’t No Good – to name just a few examples. These songs all have excellent lyrics that are full of surprises, but also the words and the accompaniment are married in such a way that the song comes at you in a rush, and you wish time would stop.

Those songs have a particular kind of gravitational pull. They can make you feel as if you are being pulled through the surface of your own life into a secret place inside your imagination. As you grow older, it’s that secret world that comes to count above all else.

Somebody wrote somewhere that, if you read Shakespeare’s plays every couple of years, you could read your own autobiography. Some songs are like that. They provide the soundtrack of your life, and you feel the changes in you each time you listen to them.

Sometimes you can hear those changes in the voice as much as in the words. To test this, listen to two songs by Dylan written about twenty-five years apart, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and the more recent Not Dark Yet. Apart from the fact that Not Dark Yet is probably the better song, you can hear many layers of experience in it that aren’t in the earlier song, and you feel yourself shuffling along on that same journey.

Much of life has to be lived on the surface, making the right assumptions to get by. It’s rare to discover something that can take you all the way down into your darkest fears and describe that place, name the things in it.

A poet I know once said that some of the best poems are Orphic. I asked her what she meant, and what she told me can be applied just as aptly to songwriting. Some poets, she said, take you down into the underworld, like Orpheus going down to fetch back his beloved from the land of the dead. Sometimes they can bring you back with them, as he tried to, but often you have to claw your own way back up.

That’s the business we singers and songwriters are in.



Subscribe to our Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog and be kept in the loop