Love Letters

When I was about ten, I pulled a poster down from my wall, wrote “I Love Sally” on the back, and put it back. Nobody had known my guilty secret, and now, following this confession, I knew it. It was real. Signed, sealed and, until now, never delivered.

Pen on paper, feeling the contour of the lines, the resistance of the paper against the felt tip, you have to push the pen, gently ease the words into existence. It was real, real but protected by a photograph of the Chelsea squad circa 1970 that originally belonged to my dad. A firewall for the old century.

Perhaps I wanted, one day, to be discovered, then someone else could spread the rumour, take over the administration of this devoutly wished-for union. And maybe Sally had her own scrawled secrets beneath the bedroom blu tack. I liked to think of our posters talking to each other, meeting in some kind of virtual union of unfulfilled actions. Safe, secure.

Either way, I am glad there were no home computers, let alone internet, available to me then. Printed words, like these here, carry a kind of authority for me learnt from childhood. Print meant books, newspapers, magazines. The effort of putting something into print meant that somebody somewhere meant what they said. You couldn’t have five pints in the pub, become melancholy and morose and publish an article for publication five minutes later. Even newspapers, working on a very fast turnover, required witnesses (editors) to filter the content and, in the meantime, you could sober up clutching your head thinking “Why did I write that?”

Now there is no hangover, but there is the rage and counter-rage of the internet. Momentary thoughts slip through our fingers into the public space, unedited but presented in the flawless fonts that pass for a measure of quality. You’d think twice about that passing comment if you’d had to chisel it into a stone tablet. Today’s Moses would likely have had another couple of hundred commandments saved as drafts in a separate folder.

Landlords often stipulate that no blu tack on the walls is allowed. I used to think it was to avoid damage to the inevitable magnolia paintwork. Now I know: it’s to force our secrets out into the real world. You cannot hide anywhere except, for now at least, in your mind.

I won’t be tagging Sally in this post. Her Facebook address is safely hidden under a firewall on the long since corrupted hard drive of my memory.

Possible origins of “Brother Face”

 

 

I never used to read poetry; it was somehow a symbol of everything I didn’t know, and could never learn.  Steve Swallow’s album “Home” is built around Robert Creeley’s poems, but at the time it was the musical forms, endlessly rotating yet deceptively simple, that attracted me.  Listening to Steve Swallow’s music is like a familiar face that always appears new, yet retains its identity, as if one views it from a different angle each time.

 But then I started looking at the poems – strange fragments of conversation, no long words, there was nothing I didn’t understand, but I couldn’t find its meaning; it was confusing and yet something about it drew me in.  I decided to investigate, eagerly amassing volumes of his work; like buried treasure, I had a feeling I could dig it up in the future, and age might render it even more beautiful, perhaps I might even understand some of it.  Along with The Beatles, Beethoven late string quartets and making my own jam, it was something I could save for later life.

Several years on,  I am in many ways none the wiser.  I must say I don’t know what Creeley’s on about most of the time.  But I keep going back to him, there is so much to enjoy even without understanding, it’s taught me to listen to words both written and spoken as I would to music.  I want to understand it, and in the meantime am happy just to read it.   And every so often, a quote will jump out at me, and a meaning presents itself.  Here’s one, from a poem called “En Famille”.

 

“Somehow it’s sometimes hard to be a human.

Arms and legs get often in the way,

Making oneself a bulky, awkward burden.”

 

I love the way the words are not only describing a feeling, they are doing it.  Reading these lines, I feel like my mouth is reliving the actual experience, the consonants piling up and making a spluttering mess of what should be a perfectly normal sentence.  No long words.  At the same time, I think it expresses a feeling that many artists, writers and performers have; the need to somehow transcend the limits of physical body.  One often hears of people who feel they are “a woman trapped in the body of a man”, or vice versa.  Well I am a man trapped in the body of a man.  My arms and legs often get in the way, and so does everything else to be honest.  I feel that music temporarily removes the physicality of being alive and translates into a pure energy, or perhaps an energy “outside” of one’s body.

 If I’m playing, and especially if it’s going well, it’s “flowing”, I’ll get to the end of a tune and it will feel like someone waking me up.  It’s like falling asleep at the wheel, but with the physical danger removed.  This is not a cosmic, hippyish assertion; it means that as a player, one enters the realm of the listener.  The closer you can get, as a player, to the listener’s world, the more the music will seem to compose itself.  Of course, the stuff “under the bonnet” needs to be working too in order to get there, but I am loathe to talk about the fuel injection to someone who just wants to see a good race. 

In essence, music, both in its making and its appreciation, is an out-of-body experience.  (It is also, a lot of the time, an out-of-money experience.)   I feel like the occasional alienation one experiences as an artist, the often structureless form of the weeks, every one different and yet similar, busy and empty in strange alternation, the “What do you do I’m a musician oh that’s glamorous what kind of music jazz mostly….(silence)…does jazz still happen now that you can’t smoke indoors?” conversation – all of this is compensated for the intensity of the out-of-body experience.  The precarious existence of a musician, envied by many, sits uneasily with the sea of rampant consumerism where a desperate lunge for the shops seems the only way to stay afloat.  The escape needs to be real, not just a discussion about what is possible or not possible, it has to be physical, tangible, living.  At that point one might see a shadow not of one’s former self, but of the one that is here now.  Maybe not even a shadow, maybe a reflection.  Here’s another Robert Creeley poem, “Histoire De Florida” and it opens like this;

 

“You’re there

still behind

the mirror

brother face.

 

Only yesterday

you were younger,

now you

look old.

 

Come out

while there’s still time

left

to play.”