a writer's life Family history Music

Jazz Baby

So here is your humble blogger as a young hepcat. My parents were in their teens when I was born in October ’59. My father, last glimpsed by me when I was five, worked for a while as a policeman. My mother had served coffee at Ronnie Scott’s club in its earliest days and was friendly with Stan Tracey whose tune Starless and Bible Black is awesome. When my mother remarried, my stepfather was also a jazz fan, and jazz has continued to be part of the soundtrack of my life.

I am writing about memory at the moment. My own memories date back to being very young indeed. Memory is of course unreliable — especially when you are imaginative by nature. However, because I was moved from place to place, I can remember being in several houses and situations that date back to toddlerhood. I have no recollection of the scene above however (which is what makes it attractive to me) although I vaguely recollect the Police flats in Belsize Park where we lived, especially the bedroom I slept in. It was there I had a recurring nightmare of a man in a hat climbing into a wardrobe. That man in a hat has featured in at least one poem, as well as being a sinister figure in my play A Glass of Nothing.

Having Spotify and Google I was able to track down the LPs and EPs that are in this photo, and then make a playlist of the tunes on it. There are tunes by Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges and Wardell Gray. I am listening to the playlist as I write. Very cool, and full of saxophones and sophistication. I am hoping a Proustian memory will be triggered by a trumpet run or tune, but so far there is nothing. The Miles Davis EP, however, features Milestones. To this day it is one of my favourite pieces of music in any genre.

I am enjoying the exploration of a soundtrack to my temps perdu. I am thinking of Keats now … ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter‘. Yeah man.

David Bowie, Yes and The Stranglers

The reemergence of David Bowie, with his new album The Next Day is exciting. And while not a crazed Bowie fan, Station to Station and Heroes were vitally important albums to the teenage me, and I can still listen to them with pleasure. I took advantage of iTunes free streaming of the album a week or so ago and listened to the album through twice. While it did not annexe new territory musically, it has opaque meanings and an appealing wistfulness among the harder rock settings.

All this ‘Bowie reborn’ news has made me think about what I liked in the 70s. Interesting to observe how liking David Bowie is still cool. Unfortunately, along with the soul, reggae, punk, new wave and jazz I listened to in my teens, the music I was most crazy about was by the ‘progressive rock’ groups Yes and King Crimson.

Yes are definitely not cool. In fact they are generally considered particularly risible. They were wildly popular in the 70s, and I went to several of their concerts and listened obsessively to their albums as if my life and sanity depended on it. And I am not sure if they didn’t in a way. This was a complete world to escape into, hugely textured soundscapes that lasted up to twenty minutes a piece. Plus Roger Dean’s wonderful covers which provided an entire gravity-defying visual environment. (Dean’s work lately was scandalously ripped off in the film Avatar.)  Growing up, my mother’s few records were mostly classical or jazz. I was listening to things like The Modern Jazz Quartet, or Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite before I developed my own choices. So long instrumental workouts, of the type favoured by Yes held no fear for me.

In London, from about 1977 admitting to liking Yes made you a laughing stock. Partly this was because of the emergence of Punk. While I saw no problem in seeing Yes and The Stranglers in the same week, many did. My brother and I saw Yes at the Wembley Empire Pool in 1977, and it was stunning. All breathtaking lasers, amazing playing and incredibly complex and wonderful pieces from their Going for the One album.  The Stranglers at Camden’s Hope and Anchor, a few days later, had Hugh Cornwell wanking his throat, and sending a gob of saliva onto the low ceiling, compelling the audience to watch it drip as the band thundered out their exhilarating The Doors with a nosebleed tunes.

Both entirely wonderful experiences in their own way.

The fact that most people I know despise Yes has slightly saddened me. This is a group who have been almost uniquely vilified. And of course there is the fact, a running sore withYes fans, that despite selling gazillions of albums in the 70s and 80s they have stubbornly been barred entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

All the criticisms of Yes are true: the music was full of technical ability, and played brilliantly. Fine. Jon Anderson’s lyrics are obscure, ungrammatical and pretentious (that damning word useful to people who don’t want to think). Well yes, but as someone who has read and written published poetry for several decades, I can tell you that Anderson’s word choice was frequently excellent. Being a musician he first thought of the sound of the words he was singing, and the sheer strangeness and abstraction of the imagery painted pictures in areas of my head that I didn’t even know I had. And of course it didn’t deal with working people’s lives (as described, for example, by son of a diplomat, public school boy Joe Strummer).

Actually as someone who was at school in London in the 1970s, and had to deal with the reality of fascists lurking outside the school distributing British movement literature, meeting frequent racism because my girlfriend was black, of going to a crap school, power cuts, strikes, the rise of Thatcherism and other horrors, a bit of escapism was pretty welcome. I loved punk too, who wouldn’t love that rush of mad, anarchic excitement, but why did this suddenly invalidate Yes music? It was like criticising snakes for having no legs.

Ultimately the music of Yes taught the teenage me a useful lesson: even though everyone tells you what you like is rubbish, you never have to agree with them. You never have to accept a fashionable disenfranchisement of your personal taste and history, a narrowing of what is possible to conceive and love.

Good on David Bowie though. As well as being a fascinating musician, he has an amazing unrivalled ability to rise above and shape the forces of fashion.

Below Roger Dean’s image for the Yes album Relayer.

Buddhism Guernsey Silence

The sound of one hand clapping

I have been fascinated by silence for years. Having lately met several classical musicians and composers, it is interesting to discover just what a touchstone John Cage’s 4’33” is. What I glean from these discussions is that John Cage was trying to get people to listen to the other sounds of the music hall, or wherever the piece was presented, as well as delightfully subverting people’s expectations. I learn that the piece’s performance has of late has a flavour of audience participation with, I am told, people comedically triggering off a mobile phone rings during the performance.

The excellent A book of silence, by Sara Maitland is a lovely description of the author’s quest for the meaning of silence. The book was a welcome discovery especially as I have as yet been unable to coherently express my thoughts on the subject. Maitland’s suggestion that there are all kinds of silences is one I fully support. She also suggests certain artistic expressions are somehow express silence too — a conclusion that I also agree with.

I put here a few notes on the subject from about 11 years ago first published in my now defunct AnotherSun ezine… It kicks off with a quote from Keats, whose poetry seems to me to be drenched in silence.

For me silence in art, maybe a bit like umami – something we altogether recognise but at one time had no word for.

The sound of one hand clapping

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

 Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on”
John Keats Ode on a Grecian urn.
I can remember the first time I was forced to think about silence.
My friend Michael and I walked out from the edge of Warwickshire village, where he rented an old house, into some muddy fields. The afternoon was windless and nippy. The road through the village was far behind us, and for once there were no cars, nor aircraft overhead. All about us subdued sheep stared into space.
         “Quiet isn’t it?” I said.
         “Yes,” said Michael, “this is what Heidegger calls the pre-linguistic state.”
         “Ah.” I said, nodding sagely.
         Of course, he could tell I was bluffing.
Later, hunched over his open fire in the approved student way, we had a lengthy discussion about silence. And the things he made me think about that evening have been with me ever since. What is silence? An absence of noise? What would being in total silence do to you? And above all… What would it be like to live without language?
Many philosophers suggest that proper thinking is impossible without having words to give your ideas shape and form. And if humanity had no language, then we would be no better than the poor old sheep snuffling about in the darkness behind the house. The German philosopher Heidegger, Michael told me, described mankind as the “language-animal”. Clearly one implication being that what sets us apart from other animals was language.
That’s how I became an amateur silence spotter.  If being able to communicate in language was what made us human, then what did silence contain? Things that weren’t human?  Something basic and sheep-like? Or something divine?
Even your novice silence spotter can listen to music and hear the silence between the notes. I discovered Kind of Blue by Miles Davis was especially good for this (especially, funnily enough, when accompanied by a jazz cigarette). I began to see music as an arrangement of silences with the quality of each silence being altered by the notes that surround it.
Things got a bit extreme when I started to think about words in the same way as musical notes. You can take a poem, for example, and view this as a collection of silences. The quality of the silences being altered by the words that come before or after them.
All this silence spotting didn’t really get me anywhere, apart from giving me a nagging sense that what cannot be put into words is probably the really interesting stuff. It left me with the firm conviction that words, if used skilfully enough, could signpost the undiscovered country of silence. Which is why poetry has always been important to me. I get the feeling that the best poetry is like Captain Kirk in the Starship Enterprise, boldly going where no man has gone before.
The second stage of my career as a silence spotter came through meditation. For a several years I went to a regular Thursday night meditation group. I always left feeling refreshed, relaxed and generally sorted.
Often the people trying to meditate spoke of struggling with voices chattering in their heads. I knew what they meant. Our brains are tuned to some kind of “Radio Self” and when you try to be really silent, your brain can’t stop chattering. It behaves like a child you are trying to ignore. With practice, however, you can at least turn down the volume.
And that’s how I think I got somewhere special in my silence spotting career — through meditation. There was one especially memorable time where I suddenly felt physically empty. And had a clear (and of course faintly ridiculous) vision of myself as a bell with no clapper. The chattering radio of the voices in my head had been switched off and I felt serene. Oddly I also felt as physically close to the people passing in the street outside, as to the person sat next to me in the darkened room.
This sensation, which I guess must only have lasted for a few minutes, was accompanied by a feeling of intense elation and meaningfulness. While the business of feeling like a bell was extremely specific, and I was strongly reminded of it when I walked into bell-shaped Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka.
At last my silence spotting had got me somewhere. For one thing to a direct and startling alteration of my mood.  It left me with a deep — if temporary — sense of spiritual well-being.
Below a door in St Martin’s Guernsey. One of my own snaps which seems to me to have a quality of silence about it.