The Dark Song Blog


In the mid-sixties, when he was at the height of his immense powers, someone asked Bob Dylan how he had managed to reinvent himself and change the face of popular music in such a short time. His response? “Carelessness.” For many years I believed this to be an evasive answer from someone who didn’t want the world to know how painstakingly he crafted his lyrics. Now I’m not so sure.

For three weeks now I’ve been writing new melodies at the rate of one a week, and I’ve found it to be a most sobering experience. I say “melodies” rather than “songs”, because almost all our songs begin as lyrics by Barbara, which I then set to music. I live with these words, find my way into them, looking for the tunes in which they want to live, the voice in which they want to be sung.

Finding your own distinctive voice is the crucial challenge facing any singer, songwriter or lyricist. We all have a hunger to create something new and inspired, something that wouldn’t have been there without us. How else could you explain our willingness to lie awake at night looking for that rhyme or phrase or chord change which eludes us?

At the same time, when I sit down at the piano to fit words and music together, I can feel the presence of the many singers I love. I can feel their voices inside my voice, teaching and inspiring me, but also reminding me that it’s late in the day; that everything has already been said. I have to balance my love for the music that feeds me with my desire to make something fresh and surprising. Think long and hard enough about this dilemma, and writing songs becomes impossible.

And so you learn to turn off your mind, to chase your critics and influences off your shoulder, even the most beloved ones – particularly those - so you can breathe the free air you need. You trick yourself into believing that you are at the beginning, that nothing really important has happened yet, that the conversation has just begun and that everything is still possible.

We all have our rituals to trick the mind into believing these things, and in this light it becomes easier to understand the much-publicised chronicles of substance abuse at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll mythology: when it comes to shutting up the inner critic, anything is permissible. Speaking for myself, though, in spite of my respect for such mythmaking I have found substances less helpful in marshalling creative energy than dogged persistence and strict deadlines. Still, I think I now understand what Dylan meant: you have to be out of your mind to attempt something new.

The Dark Song Blog


As someone with more than my share of concern about the effects of organized religion in the world, I was ambivalent when one reviewer referred to our first album, Look For Me, as gospel blues. She reassured readers who might have been resisting the urge to unearth their gospel records that it was now permissible.

Actually, it wasn’t at all surprising: of the fifteen tracks on that album, at least two, Take Away the Stone and the blues-drenched The Shining, used religious language to evoke altered, heightened states of mind. Of course blues singers have alternated songs about God, love and murder at least since the beginning of the recording industry, and the same is true of Johnny Cash. But we were writing in a tradition that combined religious and profane language in the same song, which is something else altogether.

In Into My Arms, the opening track of his wonderful The Boatman’s Call, Nick Cave (or one of his alter egoes) tells his beloved: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God / But I know, darling, that you do.” In the choruses he sings: “Into my arms, O Lord / Into my arms”, summoning a world of belief in which he cannot share, but whose language of surrender he cannot resist.

In Jesus Gonna Be Here, again, Tom Waits summons up a character who anticipates that Jesus will “cover us up with leaves and a blanket from the moon.” He imagines this Jesus coming in a brand new Ford: “I can hear him coming on down the lane / I said ‘Hollywood be thy name’.”

In both these songs two worlds meet in such a way that the rules of both are broken, and there is a tear in the fabric of the language that usually divides them.

For our second album Barbara wrote another such lyric. It was called Tattoo Jesus, and it features an unspecified narrator who draws the listener into an exotic setting, a tattoo parlour in Santa Fe. Into this parlour wanders a sad-eyed stranger on a Harley Davidson with a torn print from a magazine, identified as “Jesus in the arms of Mary Magdalene.” He wants this image to be tattooed onto his chest. By the time the tattoo artist finishes the work, the stranger lies “with arms stretched out wide”, and we know that everything is at stake here.

Of all the songs we recorded for the album, I found it most challenging to do justice to this one. I think this had little to do with my own doubts and beliefs. This is a song of surrender, and it demanded of me to be out of my mind and to enter and believe in a world where the rules I know are irrelevant.

At the end of the song Dave Ferguson plays a wonderful harmonica solo as the other instruments gradually fall silent. It goes on and on, irreverent and playful. It is as if someone had left the world of the tattoo parlour and was running down the road with some kind of knowledge that can’t be put into words.

There are days when I don’t much like the sound of my own voice, but that solo always puts an irreverent smile on my face.

The Dark Song Blog


As a musician, one of my most poignant memories is of an interaction I had with a cultured European woman after one of my early shows. I was performing Cole Porter songs with a pianist. Was it Stellenbosch or Somerset West? I can’t remember.

I can’t say from this distance whether we did justice to Porter’s show-stoppers, but in the slower, sadder songs – Love For Sale, Get Out of Town, Miss Otis Regrets – I remember feeling for a moment as if I could be someone else, held voices inside my voice of which I knew nothing.

After the show the European woman approached me. “You have a nice voice”, she said to me, “But tell me – do you also do serious music?”

I can’t remember what I said to her – probably I muttered something to the effect that Porter’s music is serious, too. What I should have done is told her about the day when I came home from a boring day at school at the age of eleven or twelve and heard David Bowie’s Life on Mars? for the first time.

From the first notes of the piano intro I knew I was going to like the song. It sounded folky, like the songs I listened to at that time. Then Bowie started singing. What can I say?

To begin with I didn’t think it was a man’s voice. Those high notes in the choruses didn’t sound like a man singing falsetto – I knew what that sounded like. There was something subversive about this voice. I understood that before I had deciphered the lyrics. I already knew some songs that challenged the authorities – mostly anti-war songs from the Woodstock era. I knew where I was with those songs. This challenge was in the voice itself. David Bowie actually became that unfortunate girl with the mousey hair, and somehow at the same time he managed to be David Bowie. Nothing ever sounded more radical to my ears – before or since.

Later I had a similar – though necessarily less powerful – epiphany when I heard Laurie Anderson’s The Dream Before from her wonderful Strange Angels album. In this song, Anderson describes Hansel and Gretel, “alive and well / And living in Berlin”, a bickering, disenchanted couple who “sit around at night now / Drinking Schnapps and gin.” The harrowing lyrics are softened by the way her voice slips into their drunken, disgruntled voices. The song ends in Hansel’s voice, a low harmony underneath Anderson’s own, quoting from a lovely passage by Walter Benjamin about the angel of history wanting to fix things that have been broken, but being blown back into the future.

If that sounds immensely over-educated, let me reassure you: the effect is one of playfulness, even generosity. Anderson, like Bowie, plays with her voice, manipulates it to enable her to become somebody else for a moment. It is this daring to play which startled me as a boy, and still moves me to sing and write today.

Dark Mercy


Townes van Zandt, the man Steve Earle thought to be the greatest songwriter of his generation, was once asked why he only wrote sad songs. “Well,” he answered, “many of the songs, they’re not sad, they’re hopeless.”

This remark is somewhat misleading with regard to van Zandt’s work: listening to one of his many available live shows from start to finish is a varied experience, for he can be hilariously funny as well as hopelessly sad, and he finds room for many worlds in between. But in a sense “hopeless” is right: many of van Zandt’s songs mourn or celebrate our inability to hold on to things – love, each moment as it passes, life itself. As he puts it in The Highway Kind, one of his most memorable songs, “My days they are the highway kind / They only come to leave. / But the leaving I don’t mind / It’s the coming that I crave.”

If you can’t get what you want (or, just as often, don’t know what you want), there are a few strategies open to you: you can move on or stay put, negotiating a relationship between you and the world, or you can surrender to nostalgia and/or madness.

Townes himself wrote his share of songs about moving on, often in a voice that manages to be wistful and heroic at the same time. “To live’s to fly / All low and high / So shake the dust off of your wings / And the sleep out of your eyes”, one of them counsels, and the way his voice stops just short of the appropriate note at times hints that just getting off the ground is not going to be easy.

Another heroic lyric about moving on and somehow staying behind at the same time was written by Barbara Fairhead about two years ago and entrusted to me to set to music. It was called Dark Mercy, and it describes two people, probably lovers, standing together at the edge of an expanse of water as the sun sets over it. The first-person speaker wants to hold on to this moment, but knows that night will claim it in the end. This realization is somehow both chilling and merciful – hence the title.

The mad song about holding on to the impossible dream is exemplified for me by a Richard Thompson track that never made it onto an official studio release, From Galway to Graceland. It is a song about a woman who leaves the life she knows without a second thought in order to be with her beloved: “To be with her sweetheart / Ah, she left everything / From Galway to Graceland to be with the king.” I sing it compulsively, just to make sure it is still as wonderful as I remember it. Needless to say, it always is.

From Galway to Graceland is poignantly double-edged: the sense of release at the beginning of the song is palpable in Thompson’s lilting voice as well as in the lyrics: “And silver wings carried her over the sea / From the west coast of Ireland to West Tennessee.” Gradually it emerges that the object of her affections, her king, is in fact the long-dead Elvis Presley.

The irony is a cruel one, but that sense of release stays with you, too. In the end it is the lass from Galway who has the last word, and her stubborn refusal to accept things as they are feels heroic as well as tragic: “I’ve come from Galway to Graceland to be with the king.” That mad, hopeless journey is redeemed because it is more imaginative than the people who judge or ignore it.

What these songs share is a kind of generosity. In chronicling these fraught negotiations with time and place, they give us strength for the long road ahead – that is the dark mercy they show us.



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