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.