The Dark Song Blog


Writing about music is difficult, at least if you are willing to probe beneath the surface of facts and opinions about the lives of musicians and performers. For one thing, our frames of reference are so different that we might as well not be listening to the same song, as I found out one day when a cleaner at the Cape Town Waterfront walked up to me and said by way of a compliment: “Music man, your voice is coming strong: you sound just like Philip Collins.”

Another time a respected colleague who tutored English with me at the University of Stellenbosch sent me home with a highly recommended tape of the Dave Matthews Band (I forget which album) assuring me that it would change my life. It didn’t.

It’s hard to give a name to the quality I look for in a song, which I find in the songs I’ve written about here and which Collins and Matthews will never have for me. If pinned to a wall I would probably have to settle for presence, a feeling that the singer is absolutely at the forefront of the material.

Yesterday, for instance, I felt this quality very strongly in a song from the Stooges’ 1970 Fun House album. Dirt looks unobtrusive on a lyric sheet, but it is transformed by Iggy Pop’s voice into something primitive and powerful, strangely menacing and utterly convincing: “Ooh, I been dirt / And I don’t care / Ooh, I been dirt / And I don’t care / Cause I’m burning inside / I’m just a yearning inside / And I’m the fire o’ life …”

When Iggy sings the word “dirt” (it becomes “hurt” later on in the song) he puts into it a whole world of self-loathing, then waits for it to sink in before his voice comes defiantly back.

I hear that defiance most clearly in the word “inside”, repeated over and over like an incantation, suggesting a vast distance between the singer and everything else. Later he reinforces this sense when he sings: And do you feel it? / Said do you feel it when you touch me? / Said do you feel it when you touch me? / There’s a fire / Well, it’s a fire …”

Iggy is such a master of timing and phrasing that we do feel it, and it is a troubling experience. There is an invitation in these lines, but the fire Iggy summons is not comforting. Words like “fire” and “touch” are charged to such an extent that they create a sense of danger, as if the singer is radioactive.

The accompaniment provided by the band is suitably raw and ragged: there is a wonderful moment near the end when the beat changes and it sounds as if the song is lurching out of control. But it is Iggy’s voice that stays, refusing to go away or be anything but itself.

The Dark Song Blog


Probably my most important musical revelation in recent years has been the voice of Mary Gauthier. She claims Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan as influences, but her songs offer a unique vision of the world, with a voice to match that carries an immediate stamp of truth.

In the title track of her 2005 album Mercy Now she describes the human race as hanging “in the balance between Hell and hallowed ground”, or, as her next album title puts it, between daylight and dark. Only the hand of grace, the song tells us, can save us. The desire for that grace runs through all of Gauthier’s work, but in her songs this grace is extended for the most part to a host of beautiful misfits and malcontents. The title track of an earlier album, Drag Queens in Limousines, sings the praises of outcasts who took her in when no-one else would, and they reappear in Wheel inside the Wheel, her astonishing send-off for a dead musician friend. The song describes a Mardi Gras parade of souls across the sky, and the chorus evokes Ezekiel as well as Blake: “Souls ain’t born, souls don’t die / Soul ain’t made of earth, ain’t made of water, ain’t made of sky / So, ride that flaming circle, wind that golden reel / And roll on, brother, in the wheel inside the wheel …”, but the invitation list pairs the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau with Oscar Wilde, and the song builds up to the unforgettable couplet: “… The French Quarter queens in their high-heeled disguise / Sing “Over the Rainbow” till Judy Garland quivers and sighs …”

Most often Gauthier’s songs seek out dark places and characters that are in some way bereft, and then imbue them with dignity and courage. So, for instance, Between Daylight and Dark ends with a song entitled Thanksgiving, in which the main character and her grandmother visit one of the inmates of Tallula State Prison. The grandmother’s hands tremble as she is frisked by the guards, but afterwards “she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in.” It is the way Gauthier sings these lines as much as the power inherent in the words that makes the song so moving.

At other times the songs contain the possibility of redemption, but at an immense cost. So, for instance, in Before You Leave, a lover addresses a beloved who is leaving, clearly for good: “The darkness that shadowed you was mine, it was never yours at all / And the light behind your eyes that used to shine gets brighter as you walk away …” Again, it is the voice that breaks your heart as much as the words it phrases, though as I write this the words themselves are enough.

And so I could go on. The other night a good friend of mine brought me a rare EP Gauthier recorded at about the same time as Mercy Now. It contains yet another heartbreaking song called Christmas in Paradise about a woman living under the Cow Key Bridge with her friend Davey. It is Christmas time, and Davey has obligingly stolen a Christmas tree and tied it to the bridge. The song ends with the radio playing Christmas music as the two of them get high together, while Davey shouts “Merry Christmas, y’all” to the cars passing by. The character in the song is sentimental, but Gauthier is not. Christmas in paradise indeed.

Again and again Gauthier shines the light of her acute understanding and considerable compassion into dark, forgotten places and makes us feel at home there. She has that rare, dangerous curiosity about how other people live, about what goes on behind bars, under bridges. It is this combination that earns her a place alongside the greatest songwriters, and gives me hope for the future of songwriting.

The Dark Song Blog


I might never have started writing this blog if it hadn’t been for Nick Cave. About twelve years ago Cave delivered a lecture which he knowingly called The Secret Life of the Love Song. In it he describes his own songwriting career as “an attempt to articulate an almost palpable sense of loss”, and he argues that popular music today tends to neglect the sense of loss and emptiness at the heart of every love song worth its salt. “Excitement, often; anger, sometimes: but true sadness, rarely …”

Cave’s argument is all the more formidable because he includes five of his own songs in it, all of them rendered with an intensity even he has seldom surpassed. The Sorrow and loss that permeates them is palpable, but that is not the whole story. The power of Cave’s songs comes from their ability to show characters at a turning-point in their lives that releases immense energy, or else they show a universe at the point of dramatic, even apocalyptic change. Tupelo, from 1985’s The First Born is Dead, is such a song. It shows a world literally in flood, but also in need of spiritual redemption. This redemption is offered not by the God of either the Old or the New Testament, but by the birth of Elvis Presley. There is an irrepressible energy in the song that teeters between apocalyptic fear and apocalyptic ecstasy.

Tom Waits’ Walk Away, originally released on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack and now included on the mammoth Orphans compilation, is another such song of crossroads: the song’s protagonist wants to “walk away and start all over again”, and although the listener knows that this is impossible, hearing it repeated endlessly by Waits’ gravelly voice calls into being a desperate energy that feels like redemption.

When we were recording songs for our double album last year, there was one lyric in particular that I wanted to infuse with this energy of crisis. Dare I Come Into Touch? started as a simple melody that circled around a single droning note. I wanted it to build with the possibility of something happening – an old life dying in order that something more vital could come into being.

But it wasn’t Cave or Waits that presided over the final proceedings, but the Pakistani singer of Sufi devotional music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose voice I heard for the first time on that same Dead Man Walking soundtrack.

Cave is right in saying that sorrow and sadness are under-represented in popular music, but the same can be said of all extreme states of mind where language struggles to go, including states of joy, even ecstasy. Khan’s voice is the closest thing I know to a pure expression of these.

When we finally recorded Dare I Come Into Touch? I introduced vocal improvisations into one of its sections that were meant to suggest Eastern sonorities. In the end we combined two different takes of that section, so that now they sound unearthly, like two disembodied spirits meeting above ground. But it was Nusrat’s voice I had in mind.

That voice is almost impossible to describe. It is capable of soft, plaintive tenderness, only to soar to a piercing intensity a moment later, seeming to circle an imaginary centre, scattering into short staccato phrases that leave you gasping. On Musst Musst, his 1990 collaboration with Canadian producer Michael Brooks, he sings for the most part without lyrics, improvising over a seemingly infinite vocal and emotional range. Anything further removed from the dark, brooding universe inhabited by Cave and Waits’ desperadoes would be hard to imagine, yet these, too, are love songs, and they share a fierce energy that can open up the world and give it back to us transformed.

The Dark Song Blog


One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father coming into the living-room one morning and announcing to my oldest sister: “Come quickly – there’s a very sick man in your room.” That sick man was none other than Bob Dylan himself (she had left her favourite tape running). After that it always felt as if Dylan’s incorrigible voice had invaded our house.

A certain disruptive, restless quality has always been at the heart of rock, and it seems to be channeled most effectively through voices that are not smooth or conducive to easy listening. The talent shows that obsess TV viewers today are designed as family entertainment, and they tend to reward voices that have the broadest possible appeal in small doses.

Dylan’s voice, by contrast, has always had the raw power to polarize any audience, and the same is true of surprisingly many singers who have something to say. Listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited or Randy Newman’s Sail Away, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones or Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man for the first time can be unsettling: why would anyone who can hold a tune deliberately sing like that? The answer is not always the same, but in Dylan’s case at least the vocal style he cultivated was a perfect fit for his subject-matter and his particular stance.

That position is perhaps most clearly defined in the unparalleled Chimes of Freedom from his 1964 Another Side album. The song is dedicated to a host of the dispossessed and down-trodden that comes to include “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” There is nothing in popular music of the past five decades that surpasses it for sheer lyrical ambition, and its slightly ragged vocal delivery adds to the effect, as Dylan’s voice strains to articulate a vision at the limits of language: “Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake / Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned and forsaked / Tolling for the outcast burning constantly at stake / And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

Rebels and outlaws, of course, had been romanticized in popular song for centuries. Dylan inherited a host of such characters from the plain-spoken Woody Guthrie. But where Guthrie’s outlaws are noble working-class heroes, Dylan includes both the rebel and the rake in one line.

The inclusion of the rake is significant: Chimes of Freedom was a folk song when it was released, but within a year Dylan had shocked his audience at the Newport Folk Festival and emerged as a rock singer that redefined rock’s subject-matter by creating ambivalent characters in worlds with no moral centre: the voice we hear in Like a Rolling Stone has a completely different texture from the one Dylan had used the previous year, and it cannot be pinned down to any fixed position. It pitches itself deliberately between notes, apparently impervious as to whether it gives pleasure or not.

These days I am often amazed in public places by the music playing on the loudspeakers, by its lack of force and distinction. Listening vicariously the other day to an array of boy bands, girl groups and light classics, I heard the sound of a culture afraid of its own shadow, a culture to which rock ‘n’ roll never happened.

I wish the sick men and women would come out.

The Dark Song Blog


When a friend whose judgment I trust recently expressed a lack of fondness for John Lennon’s much-covered Imagine, I felt rueful for a few seconds – I’ve always loved that song, although my relationship to it has changed over the years. But I also understood what he meant. I remembered what happened to me when I last sat through Michael Wadleigh’s monumental Woodstock documentary. From the start, my reaction was more tentative than it had been in the past, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, when the crowd started chanting to try and stop the rain, I suddenly felt an unbridgeable gap between myself and those chanters. I had seen an irony that had escaped them, and having seen it, I could never unsee it again.

I first heard Joni Mitchell’s song Woodstock, from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, on one of the cassette tapes that were handed down to me by my older, wiser sisters. It had been taped from an old record, borrowed from the Worcester Town Library. Mitchell accompanies herself on electric piano, an instrument I had never heard then, and her otherworldly original version of the song is much more tentative, less strident than the cover versions that were to follow in its wake. There is an urgency to Mitchell’s performance that can still take me by surprise.

When I was fifteen, the song’s celebration of personal and political freedom seemed to promise that both those ideals could be attained at the same time. It now strikes me that Mitchell had the sense to keep the song open-ended: the transformation from bombers into butterflies in the final verse is something she dreams, a vision whose beauty depends on the impossibility of its fulfillment. As an adolescent I was prepared for the fact that the world could fail such a vision. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the vision itself should be in any way inadequate or flawed. That was what I felt the last time I watched Woodstock, and the fact that the experience was funny made it all the more devastating.

I still listen to Mitchell’s songs, early as well as late: they are extraordinarily fine for their own sake and on their own terms; I find that Imagine still has a resonance for me. But differently: whereas before it had been a clarion call to independence from superstition and materialism, I now feel a certain tenderness when I listen to it, as if I am confronted with a younger version of myself.

I don’t think this is primarily due to getting older, though age is no doubt a factor in such things. I smiled in recognition recently when I heard the Smiths’ Death of a Disco Dancer for the first time. “It happens a lot round here”, we are told. “And if you think peace is a common goal / That goes to show how little you know.” The guitar swirls around Morrissey’s voice like broken glass, and the effect is both troubling and strangely exhilarating. “Love, peace and harmony?”, chants Morrissey, “Oh, very nice, very nice, very nice, very nice / But maybe in the next world …”

Would I prefer the Smiths over Mitchell and Lennon for desert island listening? Probably not: Mitchell went on to become an artist of many voices, and Lennon’s genius more than matched his hubris, though these days I am more moved by his O My Love, also from Imagine, than that album’s title tune. In it a beloved is addressed in terms of wonder: “O my love, for the first time in my life / My eyes are wide open …” Significantly, though, the world that is embraced here includes sorrow as well as dreams, minor as well as major chords.



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