There are so many songs about missing a place, of longing to be somewhere else. I just had Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues on my computer speakers for the first time, and I could tell by the end of the first verse that I wouldn’t forget it in a hurry. Actually I had heard the song before, sung by Townes van Zandt in a voice that managed to be both frail and compelling. Clark’s original version is slower, and you really feel the space after the place names – musical space, of course, suggesting geographical and emotional space between the singer and what he desires. “I wish I was in Austin”, the song begins, “In the Chili Parlour Bar / Drinkin’ Mad Dog Margaritas / And not carin’ where you are / But now I sit in Dublin / Just rollin’ cigarettes / Holdin’ back and chokin’ back / The shakes with every breath …” As with so many great songs of this kind, one realises early on that they aren’t so much about wishing you were somewhere else as that you were someone else, though there’s a note of defiance in this one too.
Songs have a particular way of organising time and space: for the most part they rely on rhythm, metre and rhyme to transform the chaos they speak about. As they are imprinted on your memory until sometimes you learn them by heart, they start feeling like places you can revisit and call home – no matter where you are.
Barbara and I have just moved house, and I asked myself beforehand what music I should keep aside from the madness of packing. In a sense I needn’t have bothered: I can hear Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, walk into it in my mind, without having to find the appropriate disc. I can feel the spaces between the lines of the song, and the way the piano and guitar circle each other. There is a fury smouldering just beneath its surface, but when you listen to it or say the words out loud to yourself, what you get is a sense of place – a place in which you can breathe, which you can inhabit with another person or by yourself.
Of course Blind Willie McTell, like Dublin Blues, refers to many things outside itself: apparently people travel to the Texas Chili Parlour Bar from all over the world now and order Mad Dog Margaritas, only to be disappointed, because by all accounts it tastes like nothing on earth. But there’s more to it than that: songs do not only evoke places, they are their own places. They organise the world into a kind of emotional architecture, and each one has its own rules and independent existence. I’ll stumble on Dublin Blues involuntarily one day when its nostalgia and defiance are the last thing on my mind, and I will be forced, once again, to attend to it.
There are times – often times of emotional upheaval – when I find myself walking and singing absent-mindedly - singing measured, assured lines to steady myself. This has nothing to do with being a singer by profession: it’s simply a way of orienting oneself in a different kind of time and space. Listening to the measured chorus of Dublin Blues, that’s the kind of movement you feel – out of the shakes (of whatever kind) and into steadiness; the measurement of rhythm and metre that seems to promise that we can transform anything: “I loved you from the git go / I’ll love you till I die / I loved you on the Spanish steps / The day you said goodbye …”