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.

The Dark Song Blog


Barbara and I are moving house in April, changing our Marina home for another in Constantia. I used to think of this move as an inconvenient interruption of our songwriting work, but it has started to dawn on me that the move itself is having an impact on the new songs we are writing. The fact is that our songs are far more rooted in a particular place and landscape than they appear to be on the surface.

Many people have commented that the material on Dark Mercy and Wrestling the Angel seems to them to be rooted in an American landscape. Certainly Tattoo Jesus is set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, A Blue Pig from Mexico is meant to have at least a hint of mariachi about it, and the Bandoneon on the two tangos hints at something exotic, even if possibly from the same hemisphere as our own.

But for the most part the songs on those albums were written with a South (or at least Southern) African landscape in mind: the evening light turning blue in Dark Mercy comes from the view onto the water here, and the goats and thorn trees after which another song is named were inspired by Barbara’s memories of Namibian desert places.

We have recorded both our albums in this house, and on at least one song from Dark Mercy the house itself became a musical instrument. We were recording The Other Side of the Wind, another song inspired by the west coast of South Africa, when a strong wind came up. Aron Turest-Swartz our imperturbable producer, had the presence of mind to turn up the volume of the recording equipment, and now the sound of it blows eerily through the speakers every time we listen to the song, reminding us of where it was written and committed to disc.

I would say that this kind of connection to a place is one of the strongest motivations for our songs, particularly their lyrics. I would like to be proven wrong, but I think Barbara and I both feel that there is a dearth of truly South African songs. There is no shortage of songs by local musicians, but somehow they either seem to imitate familiar fare from overseas or draw on a fusion of local cultures in a way that seldom coheres. By trying to suggest the widest possible cultural diversity, they end up falling through the musical cracks. Now and then there is a song (Gert Vlok Nel’s Hillside Lullaby, for instance, or Johannes Kerkorrel’s Hillbrow, or Syd Kitchen’s Africa’s Not for Sissies) that explores a local reality and expresses it in a way that is singular and feels rooted in this place in all its ambiguity, but such experiences are rare.

We liked the latter with its PVC pipe (hosepipe flute) accompaniment so much when we heard Kitchen perform it that we had Jonny Blundell, usually our guitarist, improvise a pipe solo on A Man Who Longs to Dance, another song from Dark Mercy with an African feel. The song is about a blind man who is entranced by a blues singer late at night. The song he listens to is both sad and sweet, and it makes the world with its “million blazing lights” disappear. In my mind as we were recording it I was thinking about the singers of different styles I had encountered at the Waterfront, and leaning into the wind when I in turn struggled to make myself heard above it.

No doubt for a song to stand out it has to be strong enough to mean different things to people independent of time and place. Still, I hope that glimpses of sound and musical texture from our songs will continue to speak about where we have been.

The Dark Song Blog


Last night I listened to Kate Bush’s Babooshka again. It was a much-played song in the early eighties – I remember a girl I liked dancing to it when I was about nine or ten. But I first heard it, really heard it, one day at a poetry workshop at UCT when I was fifteen or sixteen.

It’s a song about a woman who wants to test her husband’s loyalty. She adopts a pseudonym, sends him scented letters and finally arranges a secret meeting with him to find out “if he would fall for her incognito.” In the first chorus she signs the letter: “All yours, Babooshka …” Bush’s voice soars as the wife transforms herself into a creature of power and mystery – the Babooshka of the title. The husband almost recognizes her, but in the end sees her as someone “ … just like his wife before she freezed on him, / Just like his wife when she was beautiful.”

At the workshop we were taken through the song (along with poems by Plath and others) and invited to “read” it as a subversion of gender stereotypes. It was riveting. The transformation of the domestic “little lady” perceived by the husband into the mysterious Babooshka felt like a triumph of the imagination. It seemed as if popular culture had given us the tools to interpret, challenge and transform the world in which we lived.

Listening to the song again today, it sounds far more ambiguous. The transformation of the “little lady” into Babooshka is real, but there is a terrible irony here: in the end the song’s heroine is able to satisfy her husband only by pretending that she is someone else. Her logic is sound, but its consequences are disastrous: in the end it is the imaginary Babooshka, not her, who is chosen, and the lyric suggests that the husband will not be able to reconcile the two for long. The song slows down at the end, signifying perhaps that not even the invigorating energy of Babooshka can last forever, but we can’t be sure.

Of course Babooshka is a better song for this uncertainty: we will never know what passes between wife and husband when the secret meeting is over, though a happy ending seems highly unlikely. Most of all, perhaps, its power lies in the way it slips from the clipped phrases of its verses into its tumultuous choruses. In those moments we feel something old and visceral – a suspicion that, even at the moment when we surrender to each other, we don’t know who we are, and neither does anyone else.



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