The Dark Song Blog


The revelation was a gradual one. I first heard Solomon Burke sing Up to the Mountain, written by Patty Griffin, on Richard Haslop’s riveting, greatly missed Roots to Fruits show one Wednesday just before midnight. I can remember it captured my attention, but not so much that I rushed out next day to buy the record it came from.

About a year later I was sitting in Dave Ferguson’s car after one of our first gigs together when he put one of Burke’s albums in the CD player. The sound was warm and reassuring – you could tell that Burke wanted to give pleasure. That might sound obvious, but it isn’t really: much contemporary music is born from and feeds on ambivalence towards its audience.

Burke is a soul singer, and that means that he combines vocal range and technique with a kind of generosity that’s hard to describe. I could say that he always puts his heart into the song he’s singing, but that’s already a metaphor. To understand what I mean, you would have to hear him.

Up to the Mountain, the song I first heard on Richard’s show, is subtitled “The MLK Song”, and is, among other things, a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Its title refers to a speech he delivered the day before his assassination. As such it has a political resonance, particularly when sung by a man like Burke, who knew King personally. But that is only part of the story.

Burke begins: “I went up to the mountain / Because you asked me to.” The biblical language in places suggests that the other party referred to could be God, but in others the sensuous voices of Burke and Griffin (who sings backing vocals) suggest a much more secular context. That is the way of soul music – reinvigorating popular music with the style and passionate energy of gospel.

In the end Up to the Mountain makes nonsense of such opposites. It is a song about someone who has seen everything: “I’ve seen all around me / Everywhere / I’ve seen all around me / Everywhere.” His voice lingers over the word “everywhere” in a way that suggests all the effort it has cost him to do so.

Then he hits the chorus: “Sometimes I feel / Afraid I might fall / And though the sun shines / I see nothing at all.” I know nothing in music more profoundly moving than this. It’s not so much the words, though these are beautiful in themselves. It is the conviction in the voice that carries, and something like generosity: you know he wants you to hear every note, every nuance of feeling that he has inside him.

But in writing about Burke, or any other great soul singer for that matter, you quickly fall back on metaphors and clichés. Language at its best is once removed from the immediacy and passionate energy of this music. In the end you have to experience it for yourself.

The Dark Song Blog


The first band that wanted me as a member was called The Flying Ants. It was the result of a friendship between me and guitarist Roy MacGregor. Roy came to stay at my house in Stellenbosch in the spring of 2000, at a time of personal upheaval for both of us. He had a seemingly inexhaustible ability to dream up chord sequences I had never heard of. More importantly, he had written a multitude of songs. Learning to sing these became my focus at a time when I needed it badly.

There was one song that particularly fascinated me, a round that began: “The end and the beginning / Are the same – depends where you stand.” The song came back to these words again and again - in theory it could go on forever, or as long as you could improvise new words to the melody.

At the time this song had a mantra-like significance for me. I felt as if I was falling out of my previous life as an academic in training, into a new life in which I would have to find my own way, my own words. The song seemed to promise that new beginnings were possible without sacrificing continuity.

Soon Roy and I had rehearsed about thirty songs, some quite polished, others sequences of chords to which we would hastily improvise throwaway lyrics that changed at a moment’s notice. That was an important aspect of the music – that it should never sound the same twice.

That summer we took these songs down to the V&A Waterfront and busked every day. Neither of us had other jobs at the time – we had staked everything on this venture.

I don’t look back to my time as a busker with nostalgia: for one thing, the competition from other musicians, not to mention passing trucks, made creative work almost impossible. For another, it’s hard to learn about interacting with an audience that changes from one moment to the next. Still, I will always go back to those days for the mad enthusiasm I felt then, the mad courage that I would break through to a new start even if it killed me.

I remember going to a talk once by a famous local artist. She was astonishing – wise and funny at the same time. I remember she suggested that being an artist was in accordance with the textbook definition of madness: you keep repeating the same action again and again, each time hoping for a different outcome.

I can only add that we keep this madness going by convincing ourselves that we are always at the beginning; that we can always start over if we wanted to. No wonder I loved that song so much.



Without a doubt, one of the most endearing characteristics of the rock music I love is its grittiness, its stubborn refusal to fade into comfortable background noise.

This grit comes in many forms. Often it is a quality of the voice - a coarsening of the timbre or the stretching and bending of notes that characterizes the blues. Often it is linked to the subject-matter – someone daring or bothering to look for material where no-one had looked before - but sometimes it’s simply a function of the irrepressible energy in the music, as it was with early rock ‘n’ roll.

Sometimes it is austere, as in Waits at his noisiest. (Once, when I threatened that Waits’ clanging Orphans box would be my ideal desert island listening, Barbara responded, “Well, then, I hope it’s a large island …”, though she later relented). But I have an almost equal passion for Bruce Springsteen, whose rousing version of rock ‘n’ roll is democratic in its sound as well as in its politics, and filled arenas in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties without losing its integrity. Springsteen has always had a gift for combining his harrowing tales of hope and despair with catchy songs, causing Ronald Reagan to use “Born in the U.S.A.” for his 1984 election campaign, not realizing that it was about a disaffected Vietnam veteran.

Certainly it favours the unsentimental. Cape Town poet Gus Ferguson, a master of understatement, summed up the trouble with over-emotional poetry in an immortal couplet that will do as well for music: “He reads with feeling: / It’s not appealing.”

Speaking of feelings, for an example of what I’m talking about compare Celine Dion’s monumental My Heart Will Go On from the Titanic Soundtrack and the final song on Warren Zevon’s last album, 2003’s The Wind, recorded as he was struggling against the cancer he knew would kill him. Keep Me In Your Heart is a model of unsentimental honesty, just two guitars and simple percussion: “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath / Keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave it doesn’t mean I love you any less / Keep me in your heart for a while.” Then he launches into a “sha-la-la” chorus that sounds like a singalong, but something in the unassuming production keeps you at a slight distance before that “for a while”, repeated over and over like a mantra, finally sinks in.

The difficulty with grit is that it resists being captured on record. The temptation to get everything just right is often too much for artists, producers and engineers alike.

There’s a song called The Road Past the View from our Wrestling the Angel album in which I can often hear traces of grit. It’s about a man traveling at speed towards something unknown. A refrain goes through his head: “She’ll be the death of you / She’ll be the death of you.” We were stuck for a long time finishing that song. My piano rendition of it was too genteel, and in the end I moved onto a keybord organ, which I couldn’t play, in an attempt to trick myself into finding where the song wanted to go. In the end we recorded it very quickly, in two or three takes as I remember. When we listened back to it, our sound engineer activated two different vocal takes by mistake, and the result sounded so inspired that we kept it that way.

You have to surprise yourself if you want to surprise other people.



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