Five years on

Co. Kerry, 2009

Co. Kerry, 2009

Five years have passed

And you are missed as much today
As you were on that first day.
And even more.
We cannot turn to you
And chat, and have you there,
So instead we will reach out today
With a thought, or a prayer.
_____
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Bob’s boots were better from a basement

The weird mystery.

As a crate digger back in the 1990s, with a pretty deep interest in Bob Dylan recordings, there were bootlegs and there were bootlegs and then there was “Blood On The Tapes“.

I clearly recall first reading about this pirate release, which was recorded in New York in 1974, in an article in the Irish Times – in which it was cast as buried treasure from a golden period in Dylan’s songwriting. The 11 recordings were solo first drafts of songs that Dylan would later re-record in Minneapolis with a band and which would make up his famous “Blood On The Tracks”.

The New York songs were rawer and closer than the re-made versions, most of which went onto the official release of Dylan’s famed marriage break-up album.

I also recall travelling from Athlone, where I was working as a reporter on a local paper, to Dublin on a 1990s midsummer Saturday afternoon, solely to visit a basement record shop on Wicklow Street and pick up my £5 cassette of the bootleg.

This led to a probably-not-wholly-healthy period of listening to and learning to play all the songs, an activity which occupied most of the rest of that summer and probably didn’t leave me in the sunniest state of mind. I’ve kept the bootleg close to hand ever since – buying it on CD, pushing copies into the hands of friends, and generally regarding it as 40 minutes of peak Dylan.

Last week’s news then, that the songwriter is now set to release an exhaustive haul of “Blood On The Tracks” outtakes, alternative versions and forgotten takes (essentially “Blood On The Tapes” on steroids), should be a cause of celebration.

But it’s not. After my initial excitement at reading the news, my heart sank. A piece of esoteric musical history, a little-known-of Pandora’s box known only to the faithful, will now be cataloged, opened and exposed. The air of weird mystery that saw me spend weeks teasing out every nook of the recordings, learning every cadence and breath and bum note and cough, will evaporate.

The New York recordings will still be great, but they will be buried amidst many others, and the wonder of the 11-song artifact that was “Blood On The Tapes” will be lost. Except to those of us who have the old cassette or CD, though, and who know just when those coughs and bum notes pop up.

 

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My end of the world nightmare sounds like this

"I shuffle along an empty beach...ash in the air". Pic: Cormac Looney

“I shuffle along an empty beach…ash in the air”. Pic: Cormac Looney

When I picture the aftermath of a catastrophic event – a nuclear attack, the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, the “Big One” hitting the Pacific Northwest – I’m rarely focused on the soundtrack.

In my mind I picture something not unlike the closing scenes of “The Road”, John Hillcoat’s movie of Cormac McCarthy’s novel: I’m shuffling along an empty beach, polluted waves washing ashore, ash in the air, everything a tundra brown. It’s raining, I’m hungry, I’m terrified. I hope my loved ones are safe, if not near. There’s an acrid scent on the shoreline breeze.

This is how I think the apocalypse would look, smell and feel. For a while I’ve wondered what it would sound like – having listened to the new Low album, I think I know.

Double Negative” sounds like an album recorded in the basement of the last, dilapidated house on that shoreline in my end-of-days nightmare. Huge, static bass, martial drums, vocals half heard, creeping in and out, broken radio transmissions, fragments of melody – it’s exactly what I’d expect to hear as I boiled my last leather shoe for soup.

The lyrics may be more personal than ‘death of civilization’, but the themes of disconnection and doubt fit the vast, jarring eruption beneath them. It’s the sound of something gone badly, hugely wrong, and the sound of its fallout.

I try not to think of a slow, tortuous Armageddon. But listening to “Double Negative”, challenging and, in equal parts, brutal and beautiful, it’s hard not to.

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The meaning of life, according to a ghost

George Saunder's 2017 novel.

George Saunders’ 2017 novel.

The world’s bookshelves – not to mention its places of worship – are filled with attempts to uncover the meaning of life. Not only is it hard to find (let me know if you have), it’s also hard to write about.

In terms of fiction, at least. While philosophers and the religious can deploy a chosen strategy or belief system in their attempts to pin down and formulate it, novelists have no such overt frameworks to hang their theories on.

Sometimes it’s best approached in a roundabout way. The gangster Pinkie Brown from Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” comes to mind in this respect, a killer whose surface actions appear to motivated by understandable criminal hatreds, but whose cold-blooded willingness to kill underlies the great empty pointlessness of his situation.

On other occasions, it’s tackled head on – the “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…” lines that the narrator speaks in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place“; the nothingness that the old man in the cafe in the story seeks to avoid, through brandy and company.

I recently came across a more positive – or less hopeless at least – outlook in George Saunders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo”. At its core a novel about death and bereavement, one of the main characters, a ghost who’s speaking as he’s about to ascend/descend into heaven/hell, provides as clear an account of the meaning of life as I’ve read in fiction in some time. Whether it enlightens, or provides consolation, is a different matter, of course (personally, I’ve looked to poetry for that), but it reads as good as any.

“None of it was real; nothing was real.

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.

These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and , in this way, brought them forth.

And now must lose them.”

_____

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Farewell sun, hello rain

Fall leaves, Portland

Autumn leaves, Portland

Autumn’s arrived in Portland, heralded by a dip in temperatures, the return of the rain and low, gray clouds in the morning.

Perhaps it’s the Irish in me but, after a summer of record-breaking heat and smoke, I can’t say I’m unhappy. I’m damp, but not unhappy.

If anything, I feel slightly nostalgic. Changeable, sunny/showery weather reminds me of Ireland, and Irish weather year-round. How many soccer games did we abandon at kids when a deluge erupted halfway through, blown in on blustery westerly winds? In July too.

Ask me in November and I’m sure I’ll give you a different answer, but for now the coming of Autumn has seen me look indoors and inwards, leading me deeper into my reading pile and back to my guitar, and allowing me to enjoy a cup of hot coffee without sweating (it’s the little things).

And forcing me to dig out my raincoat, of course.

_____

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Standing on West Street, NYC

One World Trade Center, September 2018

One World Trade Center, September 2018

Marking the passing of time by registering certain dates seems remarkably futile – after all, why should a one year anniversary hold any more meaning than a one year and one day anniversary?

And yet. As I stood on West Street in downtown Manhattan this weekend it occurred to me that – 20 years to the day – I also stopped on the same street, perhaps even at the same spot, to take a photograph of the Twin Towers.

Back then I could barely visualize 20 days into the future, let alone 20 years. Staring up at One World Trade Center, I wondered where they went.

What of the hundreds of people I’d known, or worked with, or briefly encountered during those years? Or the smells and sights of the places I’d been? Or the high highs and low lows of those intervening decades. How many of them could I recall? Were they already disappearing? Twenty years hence, would I even recall the day I first stood on West Street?

In other words, what is the point of marking the passing of time? Shouldn’t I take a hint from this most famous of forward-facing cities, and focus on the future, leaving the past to the past?

And yet, and yet – I still found myself standing on West Street, looking at the impossible skyward glass, absorbing its curious mix of hope and fear.

_____

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Seamus Heaney and loss

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney died five years ago, on August 30, 2013. I remember hearing about his passing as I drove from Dublin to the small nursing home in Co. Wexford where my mother lay grievously ill. She passed away five weeks later.

At the time the two events didn’t seem connected. Then, a month after my mother’s death, I bought a copy of Heaney’s “Selected Poems”. In it, I came across “Clearances”, a set of sonnets the poet wrote following the death of his own mother.

One – sonnet 8 – stood out, and came to be an evocation of my own mother, an elegant summation of grief, and a confirmation, a reassurance. (I now think of Patrick Kavanagh’s lines, “others have been here and know, griefs we thought our special own”.)

It needs little exposition, or none, in fact. It should simply be read, as I now do on occasion, when I want to remember, return, or be thankful.

I thought of walking round and round a space

Utterly empty, utterly a source

Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place

In our front hedge above the wallflowers.

The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.

I heard the hatchet’s differentiated

Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh

And collapse of what luxuriated

Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.

Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval

Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,

Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,

A soul ramifying and forever

Silent, beyond silence listened for.

—–

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Things I’ve learned from a 10-month-old puppy

Hadley

Hadley

Hadley is a miniature dachshund who lives in our house. More accurately, as we’ve discovered since she arrived here at the age of seven weeks, we live in hers.

She’s trained us to dutifully attend to her toilet breaks, prepare meals and retrieve any and all toys that fall underneath the sofa. She’s working on training us to toss those toys to her on a bark command, but it takes time to break in humans.

Hadley is also the first dog I’ve shared a house with, which has led to some insights (apart from the fact that a dog is a constantly-flowing fountain of affection, expressed through face-licking and frantic tail wagging).

Here’s what else I’ve learned since our puppy arrived nine months ago:

  • There is no limit to the amount of fun that can be had by tugging on a fake pizza slice. None whatsoever. At times I feel like we could make a whole afternoon of this.
  • If your puppy rings the pee bell (OK, bops it with her nose) twice in quick succession, you best move quickly.
  • The climatic moment in that Sherlock/Narcos/Sharp Objects episode will correspond precisely with the moment your neighbor walks up her stoop, prompting a flurry of frenetic barking from your seven-inch-high, territorially-obsessed watchdog.
  • If it’s on the floor, it’s fair game. And good luck getting it back.
  • Chewing on a stinking, desiccated bull’s penis for a hour is a perfectly acceptable indulgence. (Hey, if that was the worst thing humans did, it would be a nice world.)
  • 4 a.m. playtime is a good idea. Announcing this by jumping on your sleeping human’s face is an even better one.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Or the big stuff either. In fact, the only things you should sweat are the availability of treats, getting your blanket perfectly situated to sleep for another hour, and the fact that you haven’t licked someone’s face yet this afternoon.
  • Anytime playtime is a good idea. In fact, if you’re wondering if it’s playtime yet…it’s playtime. On that note….

_____

 

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Music to waste hot dusty days to

Alfredo Bolona

Alfredo Boloña

Mid-August. A time of absence and lassitude, not helped by the smoky wildfire air that’s infesting Portland.

It’s a time of year when it’s all I can do to maintain my nine-to-five – it’s hard to raise the energy for much outside of that – or outside at all, given that temperatures are regularly hitting 35c.

Walking along Killingsworth Street in such heat last weekend I thought: what’s the perfect soundtrack for these days? One recording came to mind, one which sums up the slow, languorous nature of a hot August day.

“Aurora En Pekin” is a performance by Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos, a version of a song written by the Cuban guitarist Alfredo Boloña. Over the course of its five and a half minutes the pace, and the volume, rarely rise above a gentle whisper, the percussion slowly ticking the beat while Ribot’s guitar line meanders in and out.

It’s not urgent music, or music that draws attention to itself. It’s just there, simmering away, softly marking time until things become more urgent, more on-track, more September.

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Strolling around, waiting for the death-blow

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Sometimes a busy week leaves little mental space to write. So it’s been in recent days – a confluence of factors has ensured that it’s been about all we can do to keep up the daily schedule of work, chores, puppy-raising, etc.

The one exception was a stolen hour this morning, when I went for a three-mile dawn walk. And a recent resolution of mine is to listen to a new or old or heretofore-ignored album on such Saturday morning rambles.

What albums have I uncovered while strolling through sun or mist or (last Christmas morning) snow along Ainsworth Street?

  • Gerry Mulligan – “Night Lights”. Relaxing, very relaxing, not least Mulligan’s piano on the title track.
  • Elvis Costello – “Momofuku”. Fast and harsh and very good, not least Steve Nieve’s thumping piano.
  • First Aid Kit – “Ruins”. Sorry, I just don’t get it.
  • Thom Yorke – “The Eraser”. A trimmer, angrier version of Radiohead. Not bad, and “Harrowdown Hill” is one of the scariest songs I’ve heard in an age.

There are others, some that either elude me or that I didn’t engage with enough to rate. This morning produced the best find of the lot though.

I knew little about The Cure’s 1982 album “Pornography” before today. I had a vague impression that it was peak-Goth, not necessarily something I’d want to listen to 45 minutes of. But I love “Disintegration”, and those in the know rate “Pornography” up there with that one.

Turns out they’re right. Pounding drums, a searing, echoing guitar line, Robert Smith at his most echoey and depressed (the album’s opening vocal line is “it doesn’t matter if we all die”, and it goes downhill from there) – and that’s all on the first song, “One Hundred Years”.

It’s the sort of song that lesser acts have based careers or – at the very least – albums on (Portishead’s “Third”, for a start). As for me, walking around the polite streets of Northeast Portland singing “Creeping up the stairs in the dark, waiting for the death-blow”) made for a different sort of Saturday morning.

_____

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