The Dark Song Blog


A few years ago Barbara and I watched Be Here to Love Me, a documentary about the life and art of Townes van Zandt. I remember it as being inspiring and harrowing in almost equal measure, for van Zandt’s journey was a troubled one, often apparently derailed by the extremes of joy and pain. When you listen to his albums, however, this capacity for holding extreme, contradictory emotions at the same time, in the same song, is an extraordinary pleasure.

Perhaps this emerges most clearly and starkly on 1972’s appropriately named High, Low and In Between, though I might name a different album if you ask me tomorrow. It contains samples of van Zandt at his most hilariously unrepentant, but also features The Highway Kind, in which the singer seems unable to escape from the prison of his own restlessness: “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.” The melody is haunting and narrow, circling its root note to emphasise the sense of being stuck, and the lyrics strengthen this impression at every step: “I don’t know too much for true / But my heart knows how to pound / My legs know how to love someone / My voice knows how to sound. / Shame that it’s not enough / Shame that it is a shame. / Follow the circle down / Where would you be?” In the final verse it emerges that someone else – a potential love interest - is being addressed, but she offers no way out: “You’re the only one I want now, / I haven’t heard your name / Let’s hope we’ll meet some day / If we don’t it’s all the same.”

There is a gesture in the first verse, though, that stands as a kind of response to these days that come and go: “Pour the sun upon the ground / Stand and throw a shadow / See it turn into a night / And fill a spinning sky.” I hear a kind of defiance in this gesture, as if van Zandt is willing to stay with the growing darkness that is so palpable throughout the song. What’s more, after generations of singer-songwriters who have capitalized on their own and others’ suffering, the absence of self-pity and sentiment in van Zandt’s voice is a breath of fresh air.

The title track of the same album explores the same restlessness from a different angle. Here the shadow cast in The Highway Kind is still in evidence, but there is also the possibility of leaving behind a trace that will bear witness to his journey: “What can you leave behind / when you’re travelling lightning fast / and all alone? / Only a trace, my friend, / spirit of motion born / and direction grown. / A trace that will not fade / in frozen skies / your journey will be / and if her shadow doesn’t seem much company / well, who said it would be?”

To Live Is to Fly from the same album shows van Zandt at his most triumphant. It is also a song of leave-taking, but light, almost innocent: “To live is to fly / Low and high, / So shake the dust off of your wings / And the sleep out of your eyes …” The inability to keep still and stay in one place is seen as a virtue here rather than a curse: “Days, up and down they come / Like rain on a conga drum / Forget most, remember some / But don’t turn none away …” The triumph, apart from the sheer beauty of the music itself, lies in this willingness to turn nothing away. He goes on: “Everything is not enough / And nothin’ is too much to bear. / Where you been is good and gone / All you keep is the getting there.”

I’m sure there’s an excellent biography of van Zandt out there, and one day I’d like to seek it out. But what ultimately matters about him is the astonishing body of work he left behind, those traces that will not fade even in frozen skies.

The Dark Song Blog


On Monday night I was at a poetry reading in Observatory. In the open mic section, after the featured poet had finished, an Irish friend of ours called Liam stood up and sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in a lilting, beautiful voice.

It is a much-covered song, but most of these versions are irredeemably sentimental, drowned in strings real or synthesised. Ewan MacColl, the man who wrote the song for his lover Peggy Seeger and taught it to her over the telephone, had a special place in his record collection for these covers – apparently he called it his “chamber of horrors.”

It was, of course, made famous by Roberta Flack in a version that has its moments, but is ultimately weighed down somewhat by its string arrangement. However, there is a version by Johnny Cas hfrom his American IV: The Man Comes Around album that I find impossible to resist.

Cash’s late-career comeback saw him record definitive versions of several other unlikely songs – Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man and Sting’s I Hung My head come to mind - lending them an austere dignity that they never had before. But somehow it’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face that takes me by surprise every time.

Cash recorded The Man Comes Around shortly before his death, and this is likely to influence many listeners in its favour. But the stark beauty of his singing is disarming on its own terms, quite apart from any biographical details. Rather than disguise the technical limitations of Cash’s now much older voice, Rick Rubin’s sparse production emphasises it, and never to better effect than here.

It is an easy song to wreck – the evidence is unmistakable. MacColl himself apparently accused Elvis’ cover of it of sounding like Romeo singing up to Juliet from the bottom of the Post Office Tower, and I regret to report that this is a fair assessment.

The greatness of Cash’s version lies in the fact that it places his voice centre stage, so that one hears every word of it as if for the first time, which of course is exactly what the song demands in the first place: “The first time ever I saw your face / I thought the sun rose in your eyes / And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave / To the dark and the endless sky …” By slowing the song down and keeping the accompaniment sparse, Cash manages to evoke the dark and the endlessness of that sky in the absence of the beloved.

After that you’d expect the song to go on without further surprises, but it is a shock when Cash’s ravaged voice says in the third and final verse: “And I knew our joy would fill the earth / And last till the end of time my love / The first time ever I saw your face …” Because what that voice evokes most strongly is transience, the possibility of a last as well as a first time. When a young pop singer like Flack makes such claims for love we smile and remember a time when we too felt idealistic about it. When a voice as beautifully fragile as Cash’s shortly before his death makes the same claim, it feels as if it has come from the ends of the earth to tell us something. We begin by being entranced by the apparent gap of time and experience between that voice and what it is singing about. And we end up surrendering to something so powerful that it makes us believe that time itself can disappear in the face of memory and the power of the human spirit.

The Dark Song Blog


One of our sources of musical inspiration over the past few years has been a series of extraordinary (and extremely rare) themed compilations made by Barbara’s daughter, the photographer Jo Ractliffe. These compilations, under the general banner of Killer Country, has introduced me to a host of acts both recent and long-forgotten, all occupying an edgy territory on the fringes of the musical landscape. It was on one of these that I recently heard the voice of Tim Rose for the first time, and it was a spine-chilling experience even by general Killer Country standards.

Rose is often cited as the singer whose slow, menacing version of Hey, Joe (a song he claimed to have written) was a direct inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’ much more famous version of the same song. But, as it happens, it was Long Time Man that I heard, and which has haunted me ever since. It is a song made famous through a cover version by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from their 1986 Your Funeral… My Trial album. It is the lament of a man sentenced to life imprisonment for fatally shooting his wife: “Yeah, they came to take me away / Said I’d be sitting here for the rest of my life / But I don’t really care - I shot my wife / And brother, I don’t even remember the reason why …” Cave’s version of the song has a swaggering, relentless feel, helped in no small measure by Blixa Bargeld’s sinuous guitar and the pounding percussion of Mick Harvey. Cave sings with the voice of a man possessed, torn between feelings of regret and latent violence.

In fact, Rose’s original version of the song had been recorded as early as 1967, but the version I heard was committed to tape very shortly before his death in 2002 (the past decade had seen him re-emerged from complete obscurity, encouraged by Cave and others.)

This later version by Rose is more regretful than Cave’s: it is the lament of a man whose demons have all but deserted him. There is no percussion, only guitar and a low drone as of distant thunder. There is a brief flicker of rage as he recalls the moment of passion that led to the fatal crime: “I heated up, I grabbed my gun / One very cold winter night down south …” Then the song suddenly becomes eerily tender, Rose’s voice dropping almost to a whisper: “She was lying in a pool right there on the kitchen floor / She looked at me and began to smile / Her gasping words: “Baby I Love you” / Then she closed those baby blue eyes …” The thing that is most palpable in Rose’s delivery of these lines is precisely the strength of this love, and it is this tenderness that makes the song so uneasily haunting.

Cave’s repetition of the line: “oh, it makes a long time man feel bad …” builds up to a crescendo of demented energy: it is an example of rock ‘n’ roll at its fieriest. Rose, by comparison, sings the lines again and again with small variations, building and releasing tension to suggest the tedium of obsession, of an endless replay of the same events: “I ain’t had no loving since I don’t know when / Ooh, it makes a long time man feel bad …” One has a sense that Cave’s obsessive might just have the energy to escape, but Rose’s is already moving away from us – one of the eeriest, most fully realised characters in song.

The Dark Song Blog


“Good evening. Welcome to Difficult Listening Hour. The spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of difficult music.” This is how Laurie Anderson introduces one of the many spine-chilling tracks on her extraordinary United States Live, a set that was released on six records in 1984 and is now available on four CDs for a princely sum. I can’t think of any live set as long and as engaging as this: each of the tracks on it – some sung, some spoken in an array of different voices – offers the comforts of difficult listening Anderson jokingly extols in that opening.

There is a fairly pervasive assumption – often unspoken – that popular music should be easy: easy to categorise, easy to find and easy to listen to. Turn on just about any local radio station, and the music jumps out of the speakers at you, as if it wants to make the distance between the song and your mind as short as possible.

The trouble is that so much of the pleasure you get from listening to music requires time and energy. It is dependent on close attention, on a certain distance you have to travel towards the music. Anderson herself describes this relationship on her Bright Red album as a long thin line, a “tightrope made of sound.”

Any one of my favourite albums - Anderson’s, say, or anything by The Velvet Underground – have had me sitting back at some stage to make room for something strange and new. Sometimes these have been hit records; sometimes my body has moved to their rhythms, sometimes there was no rhythm to speak of. But always I have felt myself meeting the music halfway rather than passively consuming it. All these records refused to fade into background noise no matter how much I turned the volume button up or down. Whereas so much “radio-friendly” music today might jump out at you from the speakers, but background noise is exactly what it fades into at whatever volume it is played.

The strangeness of Anderson’s sonic vision might be a bridge too far for some, though her timing alone ought to be enough to win over even the hardest of hearts. For a very different example of challenging music, listen to Chuck Berry’s gorgeous Memphis, Tennessee from 1963. In it someone is asking long distance information to help him get in touch with a party named Marie. The song has all the visceral, apparently uncomplicated energy of early rock ‘n’ roll at its best; on the surface nothing could be further from Anderson’s avant-garde sophistication. But there’s something about the song that forces you to pay close attention. It’s partly that Berry is such a great storyteller - we learn towards the end that Marie is only six years old. But there is something else, something to do with Berry’s phrasing and the way he speeds up or slows down his delivery of the lines. Behind the joke on us there is somethingslightly unhinged in his voice: when he pleads with long distance at the end of the song, there is a moment when you aren’t sure that his anguish isn’t real.

And so, once again, we don’t know where we are. We’re back on that invisible tightrope made of sound.

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.



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