The Dark Song Blog


It seems strange now, but my introduction to the Velvet Underground came via an acoustic album by John Cale, 1992’s extraordinary Fragments of a Rainy Season. I remember hearing it for the first time one winter morning in the house of John Turest-Swartz, who later came to produce Red Earth & Rust’s first album. Cale accompanies himself on piano throughout, except for a few tracks with acoustic guitar, but his performances are all the more effective for their starkness. I remember hearing a lot of madness in songs like Darling I need You, Fear (Is a Man’s Best Friend and Guts, and a sort of rueful tenderness in Buffalo Ballet, Close Watch (On This Heart of Mine) and Chinese Envoy. The effect of this juxtaposition on me was so powerful then that I can still sometimes hear Cale’s voice in mine, a voice that is at the same time cultured and primal, alternating between caresses and menace in the same song. One of the highlights is a slow piano version of Heartbreak Hotel that always returns to the same jagged, unresolved chord as if to emphasize that there’s no getting back out of lonely street, until you can feel it in your bones.

There are other similar concerts I love by established artists: Randy Newman’s Live, for one, and Tim Buckley’s Dream Letter. More recent examples include Rickie Lee Jones’ Naked Songs and Marianne Faithful’s Twentieth Century Blues. But Fragments of a Rainy Season just might have the edge over all of these. Two decades of great songs have a lot to do with it, but there is also something else: there is something strangely compelling about Cale’s relative lack of interaction with the audience. He does not explain anything, never seems to look affectionately over his shoulder to make sure that everyone is having a good time. When the last song (a sparse cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that inspired Jeff Buckley’s more famous rendition) and the succeeding applause has faded, there is a sound of distant thunder. It is as if we have been abandoned in an open place, exposed to all the elements.

In those days I didn’t think of myself as a pianist, although I did happen to have one in my house. I can see now that Cale’s daring to accompany himself on piano emboldened me to do the same. Later I heard John (Turest-Swartz, this time, not Cale) play Close Watch (On This Heart of Mine), a song that mixes longing and regret in equal measure, on his piano, adding whole verses of new words in places. Perhaps that was the final piece of the puzzle: you could learn songs by heart; make them your own and earn the right to change them.

Even then, for a long time I could only imagine my own role in such a conversation as that of a mediator, or as a sort of encyclopaedia of fragments, of other people’s voices, other people’s songs. It would be years before I felt ready to fashion a voice of my own. Still, I remember that first encounter with the contradictory Cale as a moment of permission and a challenge to follow.

The Dark Song Blog


Music works on many different levels, but perhaps its main appeal is its ability to bypass analysis and make you feel different inside your skin. When writing about songs that do this, the effect often seems dry and detached by comparison, but the original experience is always a visceral one.

Yesterday I stumbled across the title track from John Prine’s 1991 album The Missing Years. The song is based on the premise that Christ’s life between the ages of twelve and thirty is a complete mystery. The song starts like a children’s poem: “It was raining, it was cold / West Bethlehem was no place for a twelve year old / So he packed his bags and he headed out / To find out what the world’s about …” After this inauspicious start, Prine has Jesus travel to Europe, get into trouble with a cop for shoplifting, marry an Irish bride, learn to play the guitar, discover the Beatles and record with the Rolling Stones and see Rebel Without a Cause on his thirteenth birthday. The song is utterly secular, yet it hints at a context in which the life of Jesus matters. The most important clue to this context comes in the chorus, the only part of the song that isn’t spoken: “Charley bought some popcorn / Billy bought a car / Someone almost bought the farm / But they didn’t go that far / Things shut down at midnight / At least round here they do / ‘Cause we all reside down the block / Inside of … 23 Skidoo.”

The point seems to be that, for the purpose of the song, Jesus experiences everything: love and pain, family, music and the drug culture of the ‘sixties, whereas the characters name-checked in the chorus choose to play it safe.

A similar comparison is drawn in Richard Thompson’s unforgettable God Loves a Drunk, from 1991’s Rumour and Sigh. Whereas Prine’s lofty subject is belied by his unassuming drawl, Thompson is defiant. In this song God’s love is extended to drunks, “the lowest of men”, to the exclusion of those “with your semis and pensions”, who “bring up the babies to be just like Daddy” in the hope that “… maybe you’ll be there when he gives out wings.”

Once again, this is a song in praise of experience, even at the expense of the body and the mind. There is one particularly haunting image in the middle verse, in which Thompson stretches the argument for intoxication as far as it will go: “And he can’t hear the insults and whispers go by him / As he leans in the doorway and sings Sally Racket / And he can’t feel the cold rain beat down on his body / And soak through his clothes to his skin / O God loves a drunk, come raise up your glasses, amen.”

Thompson’s drunk has apparently lost all sense of the outer world, and has become an object of ridicule to others, but the song stakes a claim for the private world of inner experience that becomes accessible to him, and for which he is willing to undergo hardship and suffer hostility. In this context, his life as the “lowest of men” is transformed into a solitary triumph in the face of the conformity that surrounds it, a life close to the elements as well as to the bottom.

Songs like these have the power to inspire those who hear them to throw themselves into the world in search of meaning, chaos or both. They might also inspire them to become songwriters.

The Dark Song Blog


I sometimes dream about a world in which you could turn on the radio and hear a song that surprised you in some way; that changed or heightened your state of mind. It is probably about as likely to be fulfilled as any other utopian fantasy.

I have always loved songs about radio: the one by the Velvet Underground in which the protagonist remembers how her life was saved at the age of five by rock and roll when she turns on a New York station; the one in which Joni Mitchell confesses: “You turn me on, I’m a radio”; and the one in which Van Morrison tells us again and again to turn it up.

I can remember two or three times early on in my life that the radio spoke to me with some urgency. Once, when I was about five, I heard the Beatles’ Michelle at a time when I liked a girl by that name. Maybe that was where all of this started.

Once, when I was about ten, I was visiting family with my parents. I felt bored and disconnected in the hopeless way only a child can know, and so someone suggested I listen to the radio for a bit. What I remember is my surprise on first hearing Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, a song about aimless, displaced grown-ups on the margins of a world that has forgotten them. It is not a song I often think about nowadays: Tom Waits, Mary Gautier or Lucinda Williams can evoke the loneliness and fortitude of the homeless far more memorably. But I hadn’t heard of any of them, so McTell was a revelation.

Then, when I was about seventeen and wondering if I could manage to sustain being in love, I turned on the radio one very early morning and heard Paul Simon’s Something so Right, a song in which the protagonist admits that there is a wall around him “that you can’t even see”, and wants somebody else to take it down for him. That one could have been written for me back then.

But most of the time my experience on turning on the radio is very different – so much so that I almost never do any more. Van Morrison must have had better radio than we do at this time, and particularly in this place. With music content determined by market research and demographics rather than enthusiasm, radio has passed out of the hands of those who care about it most, and each station caters solely for the perceived needs of its constituency.

Until recently there was an exception on the local scene: Richard Haslop’s Roots to Fruits show on SAFM. There was a logic to each of Haslop’s shows that defied easy classification. Old-time blues, free jazz, experimental guitar wash, reggae and soul – all these were featured and connected in ways that were both surprising and reassuring – reassuring because they made one feel for an hour as if the world, at least in musical terms, was a coherent place in which there were real, vital connections between different strands of tradition. While you listened, it was as if the history of popular music was a vast conversation to which you could eavesdrop or even contribute. Such a sense of connectedness can only come from a real connection between the presenter and the music that is chosen.

I’ve just finished listening to a beautiful live version of Richard Thompson’s The Ghost of You Walks on YouTube, and I can understand why my friends spend so much time finding music on the Internet. Still, I can’t help feeling that it would have had more resonance surrounded by other ghost songs from across the globe, not to mention through better speakers, and I still dream about a time when radio will dare to think outside the box and surprise us again.

The Dark Song Blog


Nick Drake knew relatively little success during his life and died tragically early, a combination that probably destines him to be remembered as a tragically misunderstood genius, but it was the playfulness of much of his work that first drew me to him. True, that playfulness came to be increasingly tinged with regret, but it remained with him almost till the end. Today I feel that playfulness most in One of These Things First from his Bryter Layter album. Each verse contains a list of people and things the singer could have been (“simple as a kettle, steady as a rock” for instance), and then goes on: “I could be / Here and now / I would be, I should be / But how? I could have been one of these things first …”

The insight that things (including oneself) could have been different is sometimes liberating, but it can also be crushing, as in the aching Fly, in which John Cale’s viola accompanies Drake while he plays a repeated descending guitar line and sings a haunting refrain that starts on a high note that is just within his vocal range. It is a plea for a second chance: “Please give me second grace / Please give me a second face / I’ve fallen far down / The first time around / Now I just sit on the ground in your way …” But it ends on a note of resignation, admitting that “it’s just too hard for to fly.”

Most of the songs on its follow-up Pink Moon, the last album he completed, seem to share this resignation, as in the wonderful Road, in which the lines: “You can take the road that takes you to the stars now / I can take a road that’ll see me through …” are repeated against a background of stark, unadorned guitar. And yet that album ends on a more open-ended note with a song called From the Morning, which describes a day that “once dawned / From the ground.” It goes on: “And now we rise / And we are everywhere / And now we rise from the ground / And see she flies / And she is everywhere / See she flies all around / So look see the sights / The endless summer nights / And go play the game that you learned from the morning.”

Barbara liked the first two lines of this verse so much that she incorporated them into Everywhere, one of her lyrics recorded for our Look For Me album, which was to be dedicated to Drake. The last verse went: “A crow-eyed dog, an old guitar / A song of blue that haunts the sky / And on the wind an almost prayer / Now we rise, and we are everywhere …”

In the end things turned out differently. Wisely or not, we wrote to the company that publishes Drake’s songs and told them we wanted to write a tribute to him using some of his words. They heard the song and wrote back that we could do it provided they owned the rights to it. We didn’t like that idea, so we changed the words, which now go: “We close our eyes, and we are everywhere.”

Most people will probably never find Drake in the song as it stands, although that crow-eyed dog might provide a clue. But there is an open-ended quality to that song that evokes his presence in my mind: partly it is in the lyrics, partly because it is impossible to say whether it is in a major or minor key right up to its last chord. Drake loved such indeterminate chords, just as he loved and always came back to the mixed feelings that are expressed in them.

The Dark Song Blog


The desire to fly is an inescapable part of our experience, and so is the desire to be grounded. Some of my favourite songs explore the pain of this ambivalence. Sometimes it is a sweet pain, as in Joni Mitchell’s Amelia from her Hejira album. The song is addressed to the famous aviator Amelia Earhart, who vanished on a solo cross-Atlantic flight. Mitchell said later that she wrote it “from one solo pilot to another”, and in fact at the time she wrote it Mitchell was traveling alone across America back to her home in Los Angeles.

The song moves dreamily between two key centres, and this turns out to be appropriate given the mixed feelings it expresses: on the one hand Amelia offers up a fantasy of flying: “The drone of flying engines / Is a song so wild and new / It scrambles time and seasons when it gets through to you …” But commitment to such a dream is risky and solitary, and so the desire to fall is almost as strong: “I guess I never really loved / I guess that is the truth / I spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes / And looking down on everything / I crashed into his arms / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”

Mitchell identifies with Earhart: “The ghost of aviation / She was swallowed by the sky / Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly …”, she senses dangers the aviator apparently does not see, but instead of warning her, the singer reassures her (and herself) repeatedly: “So this is how I hide the hurt / As the road leads cursed and charmed / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”

Mitchell’s persona seems to choose the freedom of solitude, but she immediately qualifies this as well: “People will tell you where they’ve gone / They’ll tell you where to go / But till you get there yourself you’ll never really know / How some have found their paradise / Others just come to harm / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”

Townes van Zandt’s Flyin’ Shoes, from his 1978 album of the same name is another ambivalent song about gravity. Its message seems clear enough: death is the only way out of the repetition gravity implies: “Days full of rain / Skies comin’ down again / I get so tired of these same old blues / Same old song / O baby, it won’t be long / Till I be tyin’ on my flyin’ shoes / Flyin’ shoes / Till I be tyin’ on my flyin’ shoes …”

Unlike Amelia, this song stays rooted in the same key, repeating the same words and notes as if the song itself is pulled down by gravity. In the second verse it catalogues the inescapable succession of the seasons, and concedes: “Maybe stay / To watch a winter day / Turn the green water white and blue” …Then, with a stroke of genius, it moves away from him and on to other goodbyes: “The mountain moon / Forever sets too soon / Bein’ alone is all the hills can do / Alone, and then / Her silver sails again / And they will follow in their flyin’ shoes …”

It doesn’t much matter what you choose, the song seems to say. There will be joy and sorrow regardless – particularly sorrow. Paradoxically, the accompaniment lifts it at least twice, far above the voice, and you would swear that flight was possible. And something in the way the lyric lingers over seasons and elements makes you think van Zandt wanted the goodbye to go on forever.



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