The Dark Song Blog


Years ago I had an argument with a musician friend about the greatness of Tom Waits. My friend had reservations: Waits, he said, didn’t sing from his own experience, wasn’t on the hard road on which his characters struggled any more, didn’t sing from his own experience in the sense that Dylan and Cohen still did.

Remembering that conversation now, I can understand what my friend meant, although I still disagree with him. His assumption was that singers can only create authentic songs out of the raw material of their own experience – the harder the better. In that model songs are confessional poems set to music, and the experiences that fired them are as important as the words and melodies that reveal them to us.

Me, I think that songs disguise where their writers and singers come from as often as reveal it. Their connection to their sources is mysterious and inconclusive. Sometimes you write a song in order to be in a conversation with another song. I believe that Dylan started out in that way, and his early Song to Woody quotes liberally from Woody Guthrie songs to establish a relationship between them. The test of that song’s greatness is not whether Dylan had actually done the “hard travellin’” he claims to have done, but the fire and intensity of his voice and of the performance.

At other times songs are more like stories than confessional poems (Springsteen’s Nebraska, Cave’s Murder Ballads). But the test of a song’s greatness lies in whether it can build a fire where people you’ve never met would want to sit. Where the wood for that fire comes from makes little difference: what matters is that it should be built well.

An example of what I’m talking about is a song by Lucinda Williams from her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album. Jackson is the lament of someone who is imagining driving through Southern towns with beautiful names and trying to forget someone: “All the way to Jackson / I don’t think I’ll miss you much / All the way to Jackson / I don’t think I’ll miss you much …” Succeeding verses repeat a similar theme while the tension in the music slowly builds until it is almost unbearable. I had always assumed that this was one of the strongest songs of thwarted desire I had ever heard. I was certain that Williams had poured her own romantic longing into it. Years later I met someone who told me how he had loved her music so much that he had travelled to the US to meet her. Apparently she had mentioned, either on stage or to him personally, that the song had been written for her late grandmother. This might well be true, but for me those earlier associations – the fire that the song built in my mind - still determine the way I hear it every time it plays.

Building that fire is the most important thing you can do if you are a singer or songwriter. The original inspiration fades from memory, or it remains mysterious: otherwise why would you have written it in the first place? That mystery is essential if a song is to stand up to repeated listenings. Only then can something be created which has power to move listeners so that they can lose and find themselves by the light of it.

The Dark Song Blog


“Rattle big black bones / in the danger zone / there’s a rumblin’ groan / down below / there’s a big dark town / it’s a place I’ve found / there’s a world going on / Underground …” So begins the opening track of Tom Waits’ magnificent Swordfishtrombones. The underground world itself is not described to us, but we are told that it is inhabited: “they’re alive, they’re awake / while the rest of the world is asleep”, roars Waits to a relentlessly marching accompaniment. We are left in no doubt that this hidden world will infringe on our own in way we cannot, dare not imagine. But the rest of the album (and every subsequent album by him) serves as a map to the big dark town he has discovered. He had always sought out dark corners to explore, but with Swordfishtrombones it is as if a whole dark universe is illuminated for the first time.

Music survives because it takes us places, illuminates new worlds of experience. Sometimes it does this hand in hand with language; sometimes it wells up from and fills places where language cannot go.

Of course most music does nothing of the sort: any ill-advised foray into local radio will reveal that music is most often meant to soothe and calm us, to help us forget the big, dark towns of our imagination.

It might be difficult to say without sounding elitist, but much music that is good is not immediately accessible, and possibly never will be to most people. For one thing, you need to know where to look for it, and for another, much fascinating music poses sonic and imaginative challenges. There is something troublesome about people that confront us with our nightmare imaginings, with the beautiful and the sublime, as the title character in Nick Cave’s song The Lyre of Orpheus finds out. Cave’s Orpheus is a gloomy man who creates a lyre out of sheer boredom. The music he plays is so overwhelmingly beautiful that animals detonate in the sky or dash out their brains against the trees in order to avoid it, and his wife Eurydice’s head bursts open at the sound. Orpheus follows her down to hell, still with his lyre in hand. When Eurydice sees him, she says: “If you play that fucking thing down here / I’ll stick it up your orifice!”

But if music can take us down into our own personal underworld, it can also take us to places of such ecstatic beauty that the world seems to be transformed while we listen. Waits himself wrote such a song in Come On Up To the House, the track that closes 1999’s Mule Variations. Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man never fails to lift my spirits, and every time I listen to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or to Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball I feel myself to be in the presence of something exquisitely rare and fine.

When we say that music moves us, we mean that it opens us up to our own experience, to moments of intense pleasure or pain or a mixture of both, when we feel the possibility of something new in our lives. What is at stake is nothing less than our ability to feel, so often numbed through choice or necessity. It is this ability that music protects, expands and illuminates.

The Dark Song Blog


I probably wouldn’t have become a musician if it hadn’t been for Leonard Cohen, and probably not a poet either. The very possibility of being both these things came to me through him, and there have been few later examples to learn from. I remember my sister Mignon coming home for the weekend from her university studies and telling me how they had analysed Cohen’s Suzanne in a first-year tutorial class. My joy went far beyond a sense that academics were hip enough to know about popular music: my own knowledge of popular music was patchy at best in those days. I was happy that they could see what I saw from the first moment I encountered him: that Cohen’s songs were haunting in the sense that they refused to be forgotten.

The stubborn refusal to be forgotten is a quality I look for almost above all others nowadays in all the music I listen to – something you can’t easily describe that makes you want to learn a line or phrase or melody by heart. To this day I probably know more Cohen songs by heart than by any other singer, and the desire to internalise songs in this way came to me most strongly from him.

Like most Cohen fans I know, I started with a 1975 Best Of compilation, though I don’t own a copy of it today. I don’t have to: I could hum all the songs from it to you in sequence, remember the way the half-seductive, half-despairing So Long Marianne is followed by Bird On the Wire, the song whose first lines Willie Nelson once promised to have written on his tombstone.

It is a song Cohen has returned to again and again, but nothing could recreate the way it first moved and startled me when I was twelve or thirteen: “I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch, / He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.” / And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door, / She cried to me: “Hey, why not ask for more?” The lines have all the dignity of a parable from the Gospels, but leave no promise of salvation. What they did leave with me was a sense of the importance Cohen attached to his work as a singer and songwriter. This was not the same as the self-importance of other singers who chronicled their own sufferings as if they assumed these to be of the utmost importance to all of us. When Cohen sang about suffering you knew that he knew what he was talking about, and that was all.

Suzanne was slightly more consoling: there was the possibility in it that you could touch a perfect body with your mind – whatever that meant. Two years after its release, Randy Newman gave the same title to a song on his brilliant Twelve Songs album. Perhaps by way of an ironic commentary, Newman’s Suzanne features a stalker who apologises for his lack of romanticism: “I saw your name, baby / In a telephone booth / And it told all about you, mama / Boy, I hope it was the truth …” But Cohen’s song survives this hilarious irony. In its ambitious second verse Jesus learns that only the drowning can see him, and concludes: “All men will be sailors then / Until the sea shall free them …”

Whatever my misgivings, religious or otherwise, I knew with the unschooled intuition of the thirteen-year-old that I was one of this company, that I wanted to be one of the drowning who could see things and be changed by them.

The Dark Song Blog


What I remember most vividly about my adolescence is hunger: hunger for pleasure, for pain, for experience, for life itself. I remember listening over and over to songs by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell because they seemed to echo this hunger, to feed it through language until it assumed mythological proportions, and I felt as if I was a part of something larger than myself, something both new and very old.

A part of me can smile now, remembering my sixteen-year-old self, taking up the second-hand sorrows of the great to compensate for my own lack of them, but that’s not the whole story. These days that same hunger I felt at sixteen is still with me, surprising me now and then when it finds an echo in somebody else’s song, or even (miraculously) one of our own.

Being a singer and a poet, these are often songs in which lyrics are important: songs of praise, of reproach, of disgust, desire or ambivalence. Cohen and Mitchell are still unsurpassed as lyricists in my personal canon, but they have been joined by a host of others. The Afrikaans singer and poet Gert Vlok Nel never fails to fill me with this strange hunger. Like Cohen, he was a poet before he released his only album, 1998’s Beaufort-Wes se Beautiful Woorde, and that may be significant: through the crafting of his haunting, haunted lyrics he forms part of a tradition of bards and minstrels that goes back at least as far as written language, though his songs depict a bleak and beautiful Karoo in the language of today.

Apart from the words, there is a quality to Vlok Nel’s voice that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it – a keening note as if he is singing someone to sleep, or singing the dead back to life, as in his moving Waarom Ek Roep Na Jou Vanaand, addressed to the dead singer Koos du Plessis. I think I first recognised that keening note years before, listening late one night to Bob Dylan’s Dream, an evocation of lost innocence from the Freewheelin’ album. Now I always listen for it when I buy his latest offering.

I call these songs hungry because they have a restless quality; they summon a person or a place that is absent or lost. Now and then they can be self-righteous or self-pitying, as if to remind us that outgrowing adolescence is a constant struggle, but if they are worth their salt they come to embody absence as if they are speaking for all of us.

A song can have this quality for me one day, and then seem to lack it the next day: clearly there must be something to trigger the reaction – some kind of necessary appetite.

Some of these hungry songs I have written about in this blog, and others will find their way into it soon: Cohen’s Bird on the Wire, Bowie’s Life on Mars?, Nick Cave’s Nobody’s Baby Now, Lucinda Williams’ Jackson, the Stooges’ Dirt, Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man. Sometimes they have no words at all, and sometimes no tune to speak of, but you can lose yourself in any one of them, and find yourself again. Most crucially perhaps, they echo and feed our appetite for more life, and give us the restless, troublesome energy we need if we want, in the words of Van Morrison, to keep mediocrity at bay.



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