Monthly Archives: June 2012

Songs To Play At My Funeral – Part Two

LISTEN TO THIS and tell me if it makes me a sad person.

Something I love doing  – which Laura tolerates – is when we’re together of an evening I’ll play a piece of music that just seems right for the mood of the moment. And then I’ll think of another that has some connection with it. It might be the title, or some phrase in the song links to another. Possibly the same person played guitar on both, or maybe there is a similarity of tone or melody, or maybe it’s some emotion in the song that prompts me to reach for another song which seems to carry the same feeling. Once I get going I can spend an hour or two playing one song after another, all connected in some way, at least in my mind. It’s a form of word association but with music.

Here’s an example. I could play “Youngstown” by Bruce Springsteen. For some reason, while its playing, I remember that another of my favourite Springsteen songs – “Tougher than the Rest” – was covered by Everything But the Girl on their acoustic album. So I play that. Tracey Thorn’s voice reminds me of the gorgeous vocal she did on the title track of Massive Attack’s Protection album, so that comes next. While that’s playing, I remember another Indie chanteuse, Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins sang sweetly and memorably on “Teardrop”, another Massive Attack song. As it happens, I choose not to play that. Not because I don’t want to hear it. (Because I do, oh I do.) But because I remember my favourite Elizabeth Fraser vocal; the version of “Song for the Siren” (which was in Part One of this funeral list – see June 14th). So I play that. The song was written by Tim Buckley, so next up is another of his songs, “Dolphins”, as played by Billy Bragg on 1991’s Don’t Try this at Home.

That Billy Bragg album is rich in possibilities. Johnny Marr plays guitar on it, so it opens up the way to any number of gorgeous Smiths songs (and normally – trust me – I need no excuse to go in that direction). But for some reason I also play the track “Cindy of a Thousand Lives”. The first line of this strange and unsettling song refers to “Blue Velvet America”. Think about David Lynch, who made the film Blue Velvet and I‘m on to the TV series Twin Peaks. So the next song I play is “Floating”, co-written by David Lynch as the theme tune to Twin Peaks and performed by Julie Cruise.

In a few songs I have made my way from the bitterness of Springsteen’s declining steel community in Pennsylvania to the scary dreamscapes of the theme music to a bizarre soap-cum-horror series set in a weird community in Washington State. Meanwhile, Laura lies on the sofa and sips her wine. Occasionally she greets the first notes of a song by saying something like, “I love this track.” But mostly she is happy to let it wash over her, just to take each piece of music as it comes and enjoy it for what it is.

Unlike me. As I listen to each song start, the links with other songs are already starting to run through my mind, as if each song is a piece of a much larger jigsaw and when I hear it I can see where the edges of one piece match with other pieces. As Billy Bragg sings “Dolphins”, it offers a lot of edges with other songs of his. I could go for Kirsty McColl’s version of his song “A New England”, or Paul Young singing “Man in the Iron Mask”. Or try this: Billy Bragg wrote the song “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and Levi Stubbs was one of the singers in the Four Tops. This opens up the whole Four Tops catalogue. Or beyond that – given the way Tamla Motown used different writers on different artists’ records – there are edges which link up with hundreds of great Motown songs.

And all of this goes through my head for each song. Pity me. How do I ever get anything else done?

Anyway, mentioning the Four Tops takes me back to that list of songs to play at my funeral.

5. “Reach out I’ll be there” – Four Tops

I’m sure a lot of people would have this on their list of songs to leave behind, to say goodbye to their loved ones on their behalf. Mainly because of the words (”If you feel that you can’t go on…I’ll be there, with a love that will shelter you”, and so on.)

The song is so well known it barely needs describing. But the power of the obvious should never be underestimated in pop music. Nor should the power of emotion expressed without words.  What makes this song for me is the raw edge of desperation in singer Levi Stubbs’ voice, and – best of all – the guttural “Ugh!” yelled by the backing singers at the start of the very first line, and again at the start of other verses, matched by the “hah!” that Stubbs lets out before the second chorus.

These guys didn’t write this song, but they sure meant it. And so do I. Those people who love me can hear this at my funeral and know that if I still had the power, every line would come from me.

“Just look over your shoulder…”

6. Blue – Lucinda Williams

This is basically just a couple of guitars, gently strummed and picked, with Williams’ aching and gentle singing over the top of them. Some people don’t like her singing. At times –and especially in this song – her voice seems to fall short of the note she was aiming for, and comes close to cracking. But if ever someone turned an apparent flaw to their advantage, this is it. You hardly need the words to know what she’s feeling. She could be singing this song in Polish and you would still know exactly what she meant. The shaky-sounding voice expresses perfectly the longing and loneliness at the heart of the song.  “Go find a jukebox,” she sings, “and see what a quarter will do.” In her hands, it does a lot.

Mostly, I don’t want sad songs at my funeral. But somebody’s got to shed a tear or two. This is the song that will do it.

7. Dreamland – Bunny Wailer

From the marvellous Blackheart Man album, on the surface this song glows with simple optimism, as Bunny Livingstone sings of a land ‘like heaven’, ‘across the sea’, where he can get breakfast from the trees and honey from bees and live happily with his loved one.

But an apparently straightforward song is for me given immense power by two things. The first is the unusual dynamic of the song. The verses are very simple, loping along on a relaxed backing of drums, bass and a child-like electric piano. But each line is sung twice, the first time slowly and gently, and then repeated at a higher pitch, with a hint of Wailer’s voice straining, despite the happiness of the lyrics. Then, just when you expect a shift back down, the song goes up a key and into a chorus that is really just another verse, but sung in that emotional falsetto, twisted up a further notch. The effect is similar to the Madonna song I listed last time (see 14 June). What lyrically might seem wide-eyed and soft-centred acquires an edge of desperation and sadness from the tone of Wailer’s voice.

That impression is strengthened as the next verse lurches into the second chorus, which is really just a fourth verse but one that spirals upwards on a circular synthesiser riff as the unease in Wailer’s voice leaks into the lyrics themselves. ’Oh what a time that will be,’ he sings, with all the joy of a man who has just realised that the only way he will reach his dreamland is by dying first. ‘We’ll count the stars up in the sky,’ he says, before finally, over the fade out, voicing the fear that has shadowed the song all the way through: ‘surely, we’ll never die.’

Where exactly does it lead, all this time and effort spent thinking about music? What is the point I‘m trying to make here? I guess it’s this. I constantly marvel at just how much there is to listen to, how much great and interesting music there is in the world. Sometimes the beauty of it all is a little too much. I listen to a song and find myself wanting to play all the other great songs which have a connection to it. But each one I choose suggests another bunch of links to another crowd of great songs. And each of those connects to many more. So many more that you just couldn’t keep track, you couldn’t sit down and play them all. You couldn’t possibly listen to all the songs you’d want to listen to if you started following the links between them.

That seems a little depressing sometimes. I wonder if there is time enough left in life to listen to all the music that ideally I’d like to listen to. There probably isn’t.

All of which leads on to other gloomy thoughts. I get to thinking about last times. It must be sad to know that you are doing something you love, or seeing or hearing something you love, for the very last time. But maybe it’s even sadder not to know, to have that final taste but not realise it is the last. That way the thing you love could slip away unnoticed.

It is usually easy enough to know that you are doing something for the first time. There are some first times that we all remember: the first time you kiss a girl or touch a teenage breast inside a teenage bra; the first time you have sex. You may not remember clearly the first time you rode a bike or heard the Sex Pistols. But at the time you would have known that you hadn’t done this before.

Maybe you don’t know what exactly was the first time you ate artichoke (as it happens, I do, but that’s another story). However, when you faced that globe, and cagily watched people around you peeling off the leaves but only eating a small part of them, you probably knew very well that this was a new experience.

It isn’t guaranteed to be that easy with the last time. The last time I ate artichoke was about two weeks ago. I have no specific plans to buy any but I expect I’ll eat one again within the next few months. Or maybe I won’t. What if I don’t get around to it over the next year? What if I didn’t eat artichoke at all now until I die unexpectedly (and tragically young, of course) in a year or so?  True, if I died in a year’s time I would probably have more to regret than failing to eat artichoke recently. Even so, the point is that I would never know as I ate my last artichoke that it was in fact the last.

The same thing applies to music. (To be honest, the music worries me more than the artichokes.) There are so many fantastic songs around that you can’t listen to them as much as you want to. I look at my shelves of CDs and tapes and vinyl albums and catch sight of a Rolling Stones album cover. When was the last time I played Let It Bleed? Not in the last year or two. But just thinking about it now reminds me of that exhilarating choir which spirals up into the heavens on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Suddenly I want to hear that soaring vocal chorus and the way the drums start hitting in front of the beat to speed the song on towards its end. I hardly ever play it these days. Maybe the last time I played that song was two or three years ago. What if I die before I play it again?

8. Because The Night – Patti Smith

This in the list because the night belongs to lovers. Because it’s one of the few cases of Patti Smith getting it precisely right in the balance of drama and emotion, and of sadness and defiant lyricism. And because it’s also one of the even fewer examples of anyone improving a Bruce Springsteen song.

And finally because it makes me think of a time when music mattered so much to me, and buying a new single was an exciting event. When I bought this I was a student in Cambridge. One evening I was just finishing an essay assignment when my friends Paul and Jerry came round to drag me out to the pub. I had to deliver my essay to another college, across the city centre. I left Paul and Jerry in my room playing this single. I was away nearly half an hour and when I got back they were still playing it.

Because as Patti sings with that desperate urgency that drives this song, the night belongs to us. Once it did.

9. From Clare to Here – Nanci Griffith

This is the unashamedly sentimental one. I’m not sure why a version of a Ralph McTell song by a woman from Texas should work so well, but it does.

I bought Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices, Other Rooms years ago in a second-hand shop in York. It has some strong memories associated with it. None of them features York.

The record became a favourite for me and Laura in our early days together. We were playing it a lot when we went away to Ireland for a few days. Laura was speaking at a conference in Dublin. Towards the end of the conference, there was an evening out in a pub on the outskirts of Dublin. A lot of beer was drunk, dinner was served and then there was music and dancing. The band offered to do requests and I went up to the stage and asked them to play “From Clare to Here”. It was the only song I liked that I thought they might play. The guitar player nodded appreciatively when I made the request, as though I‘d made a well-argued point in a debate. The band played the song, and for Laura and me it crystallised a perfect evening, always remembered for this song.

One of the functions of funerals must be to open the floodgates of grief, to help people break through that numbing shock and start to feel the pain. Only by feeling it can you start to deal with it. If I heard this song at Laura’s funeral I know what it would do to me. Assuming it would do the same to her, I leave it in this list as a last gift to her. Hear this and weep. Because no one could have loved you more than I did.

(To be concluded next week.)

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Songs To Play At My Funeral – Part One

There’s a scene in the excellent film ‘High Fidelity’ where John Cusack attends a funeral. He turns ands speaks to camera in a moment that confirms his unutterable music geekdom. ‘Five best songs to play at funeral,’ he says.

Sitting beside me in the cinema, Laura says: ‘That’s you, that is.‘

I deny it of course, but she’s got me bang to rights. There is indeed on my iPod a list of songs I want played at my funeral. Do I think when I cash in my chips Laura will be burning the play list on a CD and slipping it into the player at the crematorium? I can dream.

In case she forgets, here’s the list, in some cases with an explanation why the song is there.

1. “One Love/People Get Ready” – Bob Marley and the Wailers

Bob Marley did various versions of this song. The one I love best appeared on the Exodus album. The song kicks in with a rattle of drums like stones hitting a kettle, followed by the melody picked out on a few high piano notes. The rhythm is locked down tight by a fluid bass and knife-sharp guitar chops. The initial chorus is fine enough. But the track really gathers strength after about 45 seconds. Marley sings the first few lines of the verse and is followed by the heavenly I-Threes (including his wife, Rita) belting out the backing vocals with such style and energy that it lifts the song up high. It makes me smile and want to punch the air every time I hear it. Then the second chorus just takes it all up to an even higher level.

I don’t care how much ganja Marley was putting away each day (a lot, by all accounts), you will never hear a more spirited, clear-eyed and just plain joyful vocal performance than on this track. Put this on and you’ll be grinning as you watch my coffin go through those curtains.

I love music. I guess we all say that. Most of us have a song which has some special meaning, memories forever linked with a song or piece of music. You only have to hear the song and the emotions you felt that day flood back. I once had an argument with a friend at university. He got all literary on me and said how his ambition was to write a novel that would really say something, really have an effect on people. I told him I thought you could convey more emotion in a song than in a whole book.

On one level this is obvious nonsense. It is hardly possible in a song – even a very long one – to build up the complexity and depth of feeling and expression that a skilful writer can weave into a novel. But on another level I still believe it to be true. In a song the right musical backing, the quality of the voice and the way the words are delivered, can combine with the simplest of words to pack an emotional punch that most writers of prose would die for.

We all have memories in which particular songs are linked with some important event in our lives. It doesn’t seem to work that way with other forms of art. How often do we say for example that seeing a copy of The Return of the Native reminds us of an old boyfriend? I can recall only one book making me cry (Waterland, by Graham Swift, since you ask). But I have shed tears listening to many songs and I could name dozens which have made the hair on my forearms stand up, or caused a tightness in my chest through a sudden rush of emotion.

2. “Song to the Siren” – This Mortal Coil

This started life as an unusual and fine song by Tim Buckley. But personally I always found Buckley’s stuff a bit hit and miss, and for all the excellence of his version, this is simply other-worldly. There’s little more to it than a very atmospheric electric guitar, strummed languidly by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau twins, and some ethereal wordless backing vocals. And of course Elizabeth Fraser’s voice. Fraser sang for years in the Cocteau Twins and no one (least of all her, I suspect) knew what she was singing about, as over the years she developed a unique way of singing beautifully in her own invented words. On this song she gets to sing some words in English but still makes it sound like a language you haven’t heard before but somehow understand.

She sings like she’s died and is trying to leave the song behind as her soul slowly slips from her body. The vocals are drenched in reverb and Fraser bends the words all over the place, adding extra syllables as she almost yodels some lines. Just listen to the line at the end of the first verse: “Here I am, he-ee -ear I a-a-am, waiting to ho-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’dyou” and feel the shivers roll down your spine.  Straight after that the guitar fades away, leaving Fraser half-singing, half gasping “Did I dream…you dreamed about me?” It’s like being haunted by someone who is herself haunted.

I don’t want to die. Ever. But if I have to go, I guess this will do on the soundtrack. You should be able to hear it at this link.

3. “Holiday” – Madonna

Not an obvious funeral song. On the surface this is just empty-headed, good-time pop music. A bass drum thumps a steady beat as a cheesy synthesizer riff floats the first sketch of the melody high above your head. Then, fifteen seconds in, the track leaps into a Latin-tinged disco groove (played in part on what sounds like cowbells) that starts your feet twitching in seconds.

There’s a wonderful book by a guy called Dave Marsh, called The Heart of Rock and Soul. It’s his list of the 1001 “greatest singles ever made”. Marsh’s take on this song seems to me absolutely spot on. He puts his finger on the way the frothy good-time girl lyrics (“Holiday. Celebrate…It’s time for the good times, forget about the bad times.”) are subverted by the hint of desperation and dread in Madonna’s singing.

Despite the pop jingle catchiness of the music, the breathless edge of anxiety and strain in Madonna’s voice undermines the ostensibly happy words. The full version on Madonna’s first album climaxes with some rolling barroom piano in the last minute, as Madonna’s voice becomes increasingly desperate. “We have got to get together,” she yelps. “Take some time to celebrate. Just one day out of life. It would be so nice.” She sounds so fearful at the prospect that this is not in fact going to happen that you want to get hold of her and promise that you’ll get her that day in the sunshine if it’s the last thing you do.

You’ll take time out from all the worries that grind you down, and take a slow train to the coast. You’ll remember that every day that passes is another day that will never come again so you’d better seize it and spread some happiness while you can.

And if that isn’t a good sentiment to carry away from a funeral, I don’t know what is.

4. “For A Dancer” – Jackson Browne

A song that is itself set during a funeral seems worth including.

For a very long time I didn’t ‘get’ Jackson Browne. It wasn’t that I didn’t like his music, in fact I didn’t get to hear it. I didn’t need to; in the didactic certainty of youth I just that I knew I wouldn’t like it, even if I heard it. He didn’t fit my idea of what a singer ought to be like. Too right-on, too Californian.

But as you get older you realise life is too short for those kind of prejudices. This, like most of the songs on the album if comes from, ‘Late For The Sky’, is just lovely. The final line is: ‘somewhere between the time you arrive, and when you go, may lie a reason you were alive, but you’ll never know.’

And I’ve never heard something that was at the same time so sad and yet so full of a reason for living.

To be continued soon……more songs to come

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Walking The Ridgeway – It’s About Time

Stone Age Motorway: The Ridgeway Footpath

A WARM AND SUNNY late May afternoon and we had already walked more than ten miles in the day. My feet were hot and increasingly sore, and what this morning had been a minor ache beneath the straps of my rucksack had grown and spread, joining up into a more generalised muscular complaint throughout my body. A sign next to the footpath told us there was an ancient monument in the small clump of trees, and warned against camping and lighting fires.

It was a place called Wayland’s Smithy, an ancient burial mound thought to date back at least five thousand years. A long low, wedge-shaped mound lay in shadow beneath a marquee of trees. There was a dark opening at one end flanked by sentinel stones. It was cool and dark under the trees, and very easy to imagine what it might have been like thousands of years ago, when ancient Britons hauled their dead leaders or relatives up here to bury them. We dropped our packs a few yards from the mound and lay down to rest. Within minutes the sudden silence and welcome cool after the hot sun of the trail carried me away into a confused dream of ancient people dragging stones up from the valley below, burying their dead beneath fresh earth under slate grey skies.

“Excuse me,” a female voice broke into my dream from close by. “You don’t happen to have corkscrew in your pack do you?” I didn’t.

I recently spent four days walking the western Ridgeway, in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. Fifty miles, west to east, from the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury to the swan-dappled river Thames at Goring. Three things struck me during the trip, all about time. The first was most obvious; the Ridgeway really is old. It seems to have been some kind of Stone Age motorway, a broad, flat track running along the top of the line of hills that, with a few gaps, meanders from the edge of Salisbury Plain up to Ivinghoe Beacon to the north of London. In ancient Britain the plains and valleys were thickly wooded, and travel would have been slow and dangerous down there, what with the vegetation, the frequent bogs and streams, and the wildlife. So our ancestors took to the hilltops, and the northern edge of the North Wessex Downs provides a wide and open thoroughfare, travelling mostly over well-drained chalk hills. Consequently, the Ridgeway path, particularly in its western half, runs through terrain that bears the unmistakable signs of habitation back through thousands of years. when we left the pub at Avebury we were among groups of tourists taking pictures of each other in front of the standing stones. As we hiked away up the gentle slope to the Ridgeway proper, barrow mounds – ancient burial sites – pimpled the fields around us. At Uffington, the path passed close to the famous White Horse, which has probably decorated the chalk of the hilltop for 3,000 years.

So the first thing that struck me was that a walk on the Ridgeway is a walk back into an earlier time. The second was something about the nature of time itself. We left London on a busy summer Saturday, going from train to overcrowded tube station, to taxi and back to train again; everything rushed and hasty as London so often is. But time immediately assumed a different rhythm on the walk. Within a few minutes of leaving Avebury’s tourists we were into a slow and regular pace that wouldn’t change for the next three days; a dogged plod that you could easily feel was getting you nowhere, but which as the hours passed spooled a slowly unfolding countryside around us, until with a faint shiver of surprise you found you were coming down off the hill and into the village where you planned to spend the night, and the low sun lit up the pub ahead in an amber glow that promised a well-earned beer.

Without really noticing it happen, that jittery urban consciousness faded away, replaced by something slower and more intense. You find yourself listening to a bird somewhere nearby, realising that you have been hearing it for some time, wondering in your pathetic cityboy way whether it’s a blackbird or a pigeon or whatever. Back in London, the idea of being stuck for five minutes on a train without a book to read would fill me with a horror of boredom. Out here, by the third day, I found that I was walking for half an hour at a time with no sense of time passing, my mind adrift on a stream of elusive and half-formed thoughts, watching the shape of the hill ahead slowly change as my position altered. London time was a memory. I was on Ridgeway time.

The last thing I noticed was the effect of time on me and the country I live in. We first walked this path over thirty years ago. We’ve changed, and so has Britain. Back then there were no frills; we simply set off with a tent, barely any money, and no plan. We walked each day until we’d had enough and then pitched the tent and slept where we could. The first day we carried with us a four-pint can of beer – what in those days we called a ‘party four’. As the sun went down we ate beans and drank the beer in a cowfield, before spending the evening in a village pub before drunkenly erecting our tent in the dark.

Thirty years ago there was a pub in every village, and usually shops too. The pubs served indifferent beer and little food beyond nuts and pork scratchings. They were smoky, dirty and unfriendly. Now there are rarely any shops in the dormitory villages of the Ridgeway and many fewer pubs, but those that remain are cleaner and better-run, with good food and usually decent real ales. And these days money and maturity mean we don’t bother with a tent and chance for our accommodation, but  instead book ahead and every evening enjoy beer, good food and a room with a bathroom.

We didn’t, as it happens, carry a corkscrew. But maybe that young woman at Waylands Smithy had spotted something about us that we weren’t aware of ourselves.

(P.S. One other odd thing about time and the Ridgeway. Thirty-odd years ago I remember I walked along with a then-current pop song lodged in my head. It was ‘Miss You’ by the Rolling Stones, which was in the charts at the time. This time, without having heard that song in years, I found that at various points it ran through my head. It was as if the music had become fused in my memory with the landscape so that walking the same way all these years later dislodged the song, and there it was, as if I had listened to it only last week. )

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