The sound of sadness

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I was thirteen when I first heard the blues. It was in a rehearsal room – one autumn evening – and we ‘d just finished a run through of the play. I was getting my things together when another cast member started playing “ Basin Street Blues” on the old piano. I was hooked straight away – that slow, bitter-sweet tune coming out of the shadows went straight to my heart.

It stayed there over the years . I got to know them all – Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters – but two of them became my special heroes – John Lee Hooker and BB King. John Lee was very courtly, polite, controlled. He played a blues which was minimalist, oriental and intriguing.

BB, on the other hand, was expansive ( in every sense of the word). He came up the hard way, starting life as a farm hand and tractor driver, got his first guitar when he was 15 and learned to play by playing, and listening to his mentor Bukka White. He worked for local, then national radio, got a band together and played non-stop for the rest of his career. In one year he took only five days off.

His music is rich and smooth- think velvet smoking jacket, log fires, tumbler of whisky – and yet there’s a lot more to him than that. He’s got depth. Just look at tracks like “ The Thrill is Gone”, where he sounds like a soul in torment.

But one track stands above all the others – “ The Blues Come Over Me “ – it tells the whole story. Just look at the lyric :

“My baby gives me love
I just leave her crying”

He’s talking about an overwhelming sadness which comes unsought. There may be no reason for it – it just appears. He is inconsolable. We know this. We’ve been there.

“Some go to sleep and wake up
Tangled in the blues “

Isn’t that a brilliant choice of words ?

You get the blues and it’s as though a cloud is covering the sun, and while it’s there

“All the clocks say midnight
when the blues come over me.”

That’s what it feels like, and the only thing you can do is remember that it has happened before, that it will go away in time, like a cloud across the sun.

Don’t think that BB was a blues Mr Misery. He played some solid, upbeat rockers like “ Ridin‘ with the King “ and “ Hold On” He loved,eye popping waistcoats, and tuna sandwiches. He was fun.

But he was best at giving a sound to sadness, reminding us that every song, however sad,
comes to silence in the end.

Thanks BB.

 

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Venice Evening

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Have you ever used music as a starting point for poetry ? Don’t use songs- you’ll get hung up on the words- try something instrumental. Music and poetry have rhythm and ambiguity in common, so you often find all sorts of unexpected pictures taking shape in your mind.

I’ve always liked Vivaldi’s Four Seasons- it was the first piece of classical music which really touched me. It’s very pictorial, almost blowsy in places, but I like its neatness and precision as well, and I used it as a writing prompt for two linked poems which tell a coherent ( I hope) story.

Here’s the first- the second will go up in a day or two.

An apricot light beyond the open windows,
the smell of perfume, rosin, sweat.
Heels click back and forth
on a wooden floor, chairs scrape.
The swaying cello sheds notes heavy
as the drops hanging in her ears,soft
as her powdered cheek.
Marsala in a Venice glass; starched petticoats
and clever fingers, sliding curtain rings.
And after
waking to feel her breath against my skin,
her tiny movements, like a sleeping cat.
And later
outside, black water laps the landing stage,
footsteps, quiet curses, the splash of oars.
Musicians going home, and she with them.
The pattering of rats behind the plaster.
A dog howls in the shadowed courtyard.
Beyond the window
Dawn pales like a bruise.

Strange how potent cheap music is

Sometimes I think there’s too much music about. It’s too accessible, too cheap. Before recording, music was something special, a treat. You only had music at church, or on high days and holidays. Music was rare and live.

Nowadays people walk the streets, each one plugged into his/her own soundtrack- a bit dangerous if you’re on a bike, I would have thought. Nowadays music is cheap and canned. You can buy it at 69p a tune from iTunes, or £4.99 if you want to buy a cheap album. And that way you can keep the silence away. You don’t have to deal with the quiet. It’s not music you’re listening to on your headphones, it’s grey noise.

No. I’m talking about real music. It doesn’t have to be classical- but sometimes it is. It’s the music which reaches down into your very soul and twists your guts around and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And sometimes you don’t even know why.It’s so private, so precious, that you don’t listen to it very often in case it loses its magic.

This music ( there’s not much of it- maybe half a dozen tracks- ten at the most) marks out your life up to this point. It’s a line of milestones reaching back to your childhood.

I’ll tell you about some of mine. Does that sound brash ? Loud mouthed ? Insensitive ? I don’t think so. You see, I can sit here at the computer and write about it, but if I were to actually play some of these, then I wouldn’t be able to type a word.

Here we go.

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Vaughan Williams -Variations on a theme by Thomas Tallis

It is England. Simple as that. Broad cello lines that speak of a hills and drystone walls But more than that- it has immense strength and sadness- both at the same time. Something has gone, certainly, but is still there, hidden. And somehow the music brings all this to the fore.

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Satisfaction- the Stones

I watched Glastonbury the other week, and the highpoint was seeing Keef ( wrinkled, pot bellied) one foot on a step, firing off the DumDum dudumdum dedumdum riff that brought me back to the sixties. It’s visceral- it grabs you by the throat. I was at college at the time and it became a kind of anthem for us. We even wrote an ironic lyric to it “ We’re the latest big sensation/ Get our share of adulation/ but the words are a bore/ they’ve been done, done before/ we get too much (Dudumdum dedumdum ) adulation…” and so on.

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Here, there and everywhere- the Beatles

You’d think that, as a child of that time, that my life would be full of Beatle tunes. I listened to them a lot at the time. But only one remains. It’s a very clear memory. It’s a summer fair at the university, and I’m standing on some steps, looking down at the crowd below. I hear the line “ Changinging my life with a wave of her hand”- and at that moment an incredibly beautiful girl walks by and waves. It’s just that. As a matter of fact, she was far too beautiful for me to ask out, but she’s still a friend, fifty years later.

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Waterloo Sunset- The Kinks

It’s an odd little song, and I’m surprised it’s so important to me because it’s about London, and I’m a northern boy. It has a quirky, almost folky tune and it brings up an idyllic picture of a London evening, golden light spilling across the river. There’s a kind of sadness about it too.

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The Statues – Jake Thackwray

You won’t have heard of this guy. He was a brilliant guitarist and lyricist with a kind of Noel Coward cleverness. He was very funny indeed. He wrote about how his dog ruined his romance, about the burglar who found asylum in a nunnery ( “ Big Bad Norman, fifteen years on the run) but this one is about two statues- one of a beautiful naked lady, standing in the middle of a lake, and the other of Sir Robert Peel ( “ He was big and gritty and he fought like one obsessed” and it is very, very funny. Every time I listen to it I laugh aloud. But at the end, something wells up inside me and I get all teary…silly isn’t it.

Look out for Jake. He may be dead but his stuff is still available.

There you are then. Five tracks that stir my soul. What are yours ? I’d be interested to find out.