the sky, the sea and the dead: Norfolk, music and the late 80s

Ray (with John)

What we find transcendent in music requires no explanation, just as the heavens do not need us to explore them.  There are moments, however, wherein the mysteries unravel themselves for us, as on those nights when the galaxy lays itself across the sky, presenting as both map and territory unto our eyes.  

We had been remarking upon The Fall’s most primally attuned and supralingually uncanny of latter-day albums – Your Future Our Clutter, The Real New Fall LP (Country On The Click), and the aptly titled Levitate – pointing, as astronomers agog at the action painting of Andromeda, to their sense of being elemental yet steeped in spirit, of hailing from both within and afar.  Talk turned to the gigs we’d attended in our more formative years, in the late 80s in Norwich.  John ventured that, similarly, there had been something more going on in those sounds, those times; something in the very notes and chords, perhaps, the beats and voices.  What was it?

We took ourselves back to those nights, and they opened themselves up for us.  It became clear that this impression was not explained simply by the fact that, back then, we had been young, cluttered with conviction and confusion, on the cusp of doing our own thing, out over the water on a fraying ropeswing.  No, it was also that music seemed culturally to matter more then, to have a more evident underbelly, naked and unashamed; it had, indeed, the guts to recognise, at least tacitly, the presence of all manner of conflict, and to insist thereon that life didn’t have to be as it was, in those days before the collapse into consensus into which so much music became increasingly co-opted, subsumed.  This sense of openness to possibility – hence, to unease – was amplified in the relative intensity, intimacy and murkiness of vinyl, the foremost format of the time before music became so routinely, and brusquely, glossed up through digital processing.

The fact that recordings then came physically constituted in sizeable slabs, rather than immediately available down a series of cables, also markedly influenced our relationship with music: it necessitated our dedicating forethought and effort to the process of getting hold of it.  Get a sweat on cycling into town to pick up the music press – when’s the album coming out?  are they touring?; the muck of ink on one’s fingers.  Ring the shop: have they got it in yet?  Forego the haircut, save the money for bus fare – or cadge a lift, take the trip from the village to the city, a full day spoken for: all this activity serving as physiological and psychic detritus to be dragged in by the stylus, so composing the surface noise behind the sounds.  And of course, gigs in those days were not full of people present largely in absentia, lost in the scrolling of devices: one went all in.  One had, then, to maintain a deeper and more enduring connection with music so as to access it; perhaps it was partly this need for committed observation of the contingencies of music’s time and place which encouraged our enmeshment in and abandon unto it, exacerbated the magic.

Indeed, it wasn’t just when, but where it occurred, that mattered.  I’m sure that similar vibrations were chiming everywhere and anywhere throughout the land around then; I hope they were.  I can only point to the particularities of the experiences I, and those around me then, shared.  This was Norfolk, an entity of itself, out of the way and aspiring to nothing else: small settlements spaciously set in open land, distances rolling away between them; by night, clear skies were arrayed with stars, resplendent in the relative absence of light pollution.  It mattered, too, that we experienced music with the sea close by; that we had those songs in our minds whilst lingering on quaysides, or watching light flit between the pines.  A ripe environment for curiosity, for wonder; it made a world of difference, inexpressible in verbal language, to the ways in which we related to sound.  

And the gigs took place in Norwich, a city in the midst of this expanse of space, with its own distinct, discernible but indescribable character.  I have scarcely been back there since, but then it always struck me, atmospherically, as if a vestige of some other, contentedly adrift, continent – the paradoxical air of gentle unease, of accommodation with the sinister; narrow passages offering glimmers of mystery, river breathing unto the sea.  I don’t know whether any of the bands who came by to play felt any such sense of it being different – this notion may be fanciful: but one could sometimes perceive that perhaps they, too, had imbibed the space, communed with something on the journey through the sticks, and consequently felt released to cut loose in ways that may have been less accessible to them in places more clogged with industry, stifled by competing conurbation.  I recall Callahan, fronting the Wolfhounds – perhaps the best live band I saw in that period – murmuring between songs, with half a smile, “Norwich, a fine city”, the slogan featured on the signs one passes when entering its territory.  It seemed, at that moment, merely a throwaway remark: however, hearing them then swoop and screech with the savage majesty of other-worldly dangerbirds whirling and plunging, his comment seemed as if it might have had more to it …  and for me, they never soared quite as high elsewhere.

An oft-visited venue was the Arts Centre, now rather done-up but back then an imposingly bleak converted church, accessed via the portal of a slender alley.  In the hall where the bands played, we stood upon the flattened gravestones: so there we were, among and the dead, awakening them with the dance of our lives, going out of our bodyminds to Blown Away.

The future unfurling; distances and contestation; the sky, the sea; the dead.  Part of me is still back there, in that time, shoving my dole quids into the slot of the village phone box under a midnight full moon, on the line to California, trying to ascertain the truth of a whisper that Neil Young would be coming over.  I recollect, too, driving in the small hours through abandoned East Anglian undulations, fields flush with snow; pulling over to step out and wonder at the sheer size and starkness of the sky, the brilliance and subtle pulsing of constellations, as tunes continued to ebb gently from the stereo.

I realise I may be accused of being a look-back bore.  That’s OK: all of this is nonetheless still true for me.  Much magic persists, yes.  But a lot is being lost.  

There was, certainly, something more going on.  John forgot that he’d left Rob’s sacredly-held copy of Pet Sounds on the roof of his van; we all clambered in and drove the half hour or so along the dry road to Wells, where Rob lived.  When we arrived, the LP was somehow still there: in a seemingly impossible feat, the slightest corner of its sleeve had caught in the shallow rim running around the roof, and The Beach Boys had clung on, waving tremulously to the sunny skies, all the way to the coast.  Those days keep hold.

do nothing: an invitation to the church of stop chopping

Adam Nedman

The word “love” has long been graffitied on the brick of a nearby clock tower; it had, until sometime recently, been there for at least the few years that I’ve lived hereabouts.  Today, on a local mosey, I saw that this four letter word had been censored, cleaned away.  

It was only later in the same walk that I realised that this seemed to be the sole graffito to have been cleaned away locally of late: many tags, signatures, and other street obliquities remain scrawled on the suburb’s various surfaces.  I am, generally speaking, welcoming of it: I’d much rather graffiti than advertising.  (‘Love’, the only missive to be effaced – imagine!).

On another recent jaunt in the area, I came across a somewhat distressed woman, de-littering a freshly-shredded hedgerow by the river in an agitated manner.  My remarking on my sadness at seeing what had evidently happened to this patch of ground – trees cut down, bushes ripped out and dumped, the bramble angularly slashed – brought forth from her a torrent of pained outpourings regarding the desecration.  “Neanderthals!”, she cried, explaining that, having tried in vain over several years to persuade the Council to come and free this patch from litter, she was alarmed to see their workmen turn up and instead begin liberally lopping, chopping and tearing, inflicting upon the area a treatment as savage as it was pointless.  (Neanderthal man and woman, it must be said, might well have treated the land with greater respect – but one appreciates, I think, what the woman was expressing through her use of the term).  It’s worth pointing out that this is not a piece of land which is near to any residences, and has no other reason for being manicured as some showpiece; neither is it being prepared for any building work.  It’s purely the occurrence of natural habitats along a riverside, adjacent to a sizeable area of rough grassland.

Similar examples can be found of public authorities, and their hired hench-forces, taking it upon themselves to do precisely what isn’t necessary.  The detritus of our neoliberalised existences accumulates in gutters, gardens and hedges; polluters are left to idly belch as they see fit; the city street is everybody’s flytip.  Meanwhile, Councils up and down the land waste their time, and our money, in busybodying themselves with nature.  They send their troops to engage in the futile and carcinogenic glyphosating of  ‘weeds’; trees are pruned and hedges hacked, and at the wrong times, when they are growing or when birds want to nest.  Grasslands are often mown to within millimetres of their life: even if this does not kill the grass outright, it is left much more vulnerable to drought; its roots are stunted and struggle to bind the soil, which is at greater risk of being washed away by rainfall; and the danger of flooding is increased.  Further, the biodiversity upon which we depend is instantly lost.  (Conversely, when such areas are left and life allowed to take its course, the natural assets we are increasingly aware of badly needing – soil, trees, insects – spontaneously flourish …  These incidences seem small matters – but writ large and expanded across nations and continents, they have significant impact; and in any case, I care about every chaffinch that bids me visitation).   

There is perhaps more going on here than simply the need for folk to be given things to do by which they can earn money (etc etc, world without end, Amen), or a ritualised fixation with an idea of tidiness as a measure of local character.  The philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote much about humans’ perceived need to impose themselves through any form of doing upon each other, the world, and time; he described this as a form of inherent vanity, a seemingly inevitable offshoot of our notions of ourselves as selves.  “Contaminated by the superstition of action, we believe that our ideas must come to something” [his italics], writes Cioran in the pointedly-entitled essay ‘Thinking Against Oneself’ in the collection ‘The Temptation To Exist’, in describing what he referred to elsewhere in the same tome as “the idolatory of becoming”.  (I have sometimes mused on the notion that the simple, even puerile need to have something to do may be a major factor in many acts of murder).  In this sense, Cioran paints a colonialist instinct as intrinsic to us: the question is to what extent, through awareness and restraint, we can offset this.

We live in a society with a strong bias towards doing, and being seen to do, one abetted by the ubiquity of functional accessories: “What if our reveries were not productive? …  What if we lay back on a lily pad, with nothing to do?  Would someone call the police?”, enquires Richard Seymour in concluding his book The Twittering Machine.   And in the neoliberal era, wherein we are primed to compete and to be wring as much from the earth as possible, it may be that desecration and domination is a yet more likely expression of this ‘need’ to seek recognition (from self and others) via activity.  (Note that there are generally higher rates of violent crime in more unequal societies, in which the spirit of competition is enhanced). 

The overall effect, if not the underlying aim, of such neo-Neanderthal nature-cowing as described herein is the extension of the project of humanising the world as much as possible.  Only latterly have the ecological needs, and perhaps natural rights, of other forms of life begun to be spoken of in the same breath as the grand plans humanity has for earth and space.  It remains the case that our distorted sense of self-significance, and our perception of our own force of life as being individually possessed, rather than part of a universal energy, provokes our craving to make our mark (concrete is required for us to leave a lasting imprint) – to take some ownership of, or some virginity from, the world; be the user, not the used.  One might think that by now we’d be getting the message that our human dominion over nature only serves to threaten our own survival; however, this perhaps fails to account for the deeper drives that are in play, acknowledgement of which may be key to our safe collective passage into a habitable future.

The spontaneity of love, and love of spontaneity, will each be required in this quest: thus, plans are afoot to re-inscribe that four letter word upon the brick of the clock tower, and to undertake geurilla planting of trees and wildflowers along a nearby riverside path.  Further to which, in that patch of land, there may really be nothing for we humans to do.