The Musician’s Testament …
“Being a living legend is such a precarious livelihood. What a ducking of responsibility!” (John Cale)
“Success means being worried about everything else except money” (Johnny Cash)
I’m putting down this last eyewitness account leading up to zero hour because all the registers have gone into the red; everything’s going to blow. If I am stopped in mid-sentence, that will be far more meaningful than anything fully articulated, anything remotely retrospective.
The circuits are overloaded – all the knobs are turned up at full blast; the membranes are bloated with acrid gas – within a hair’s breadth of splitting. There’s a mass of lights winking through the window, threading through the cobwebs. Any one of them may parallel the final signal. This chewed-up, cracked biro may burst before everything else does.
It’ll have to be me or the world, so I’m saying it’s got to be the world, because I am the world. I got the tip-off on the cusp of my high, and everyone else will be swept into the chasm before me. Even as it yawns, that brooding cavern threatens to vomit its poison. Only the ignorant will survive to benefit. Soon the industrial archaeologists will have a great time rooting out where the mines were. Such fragments will give those grimed, bedraggled survivors some skeletal guides to their reconstruction work. Shades of ditching schoolbooks and hitting the road!
There’ll be overloaded, short-circuited amplifiers in sync with the next terrorist attack. I hope that blast of sirens in the background is in sync with its prevention.
All sentient beings have witnessed mingling, fleeting bondings – and sensed the great dispersal, trampled over fragmentary gellings of scraped, scarred survival. They have faced, and assumed, all the moulded postures of rebellion, some true, the majority false. They see, and they are, the half-moulded, half-pushed egos ravaged, broken by penury and bilious credit alike, nonentities bloated by the gas of half-digested models. Hypochondriac anarchy is counterpointed against real estate investment. Grimy grindings between half bars, petulant hisses and spits in fatuous, hair-splitting copyright wrangles. All the oceans are now a dull, murky grey.
My mirror focuses me on those who struggled to crack their frames: after they had succeeded, they became retrospectively embittered by their flecked rainbow bubble success, gazing on the fragments of their broken frames – splinters and paint-gunged sawdust. I recall the background of massed, bulging bin-liners during the dustmen’s strike, garages filled with howls of desperation, sometimes honed by loose connections, flip-side to the synchronicity of amplifiers and diesel engines.
Slouching in his squat, remote-control bleeping the organic video camera inside his cranium’ teenage jab of the first jack-plug insertion. First flash of the PA, fear of the private self, terror of the shrieking, waving public aura, desperation at the stifling refuges of comfort. None have escaped jittering through the lash of the broken string, trembling through the rampaging feedback, flailing at the short circuit.
Decades of fashion – whirling, defying linearity, through beaming contradictions of retro. I see faded tints of rockabilly grease, crowning abandoned beer-bellies; they prod my remote memories of Picture Post.
Some were told “we like you, but I’m afraid we can’t sell you”. Some opted for clinical coiffure, rediscovered pinstripes, some huddled in Benefit-propped withdrawal, with all its worn gentility. Low-profile managers and accountants modulated between the two poles of fashion.
I thought that Sixties song The Free Electric Band was really quite silly, though it did highlight the emptiness of bogus rebellion. How many saw through it? How many will always respect a hit when the revulsion it engenders is there for all to see? When I started out, there was none of today’s demystifying biography around. But then all were sneered at by the gagged and sheltered as helpless pawns, gaga narcissistic cretins. Now so many on both sides are bloated with fictitious wisdom.
Initially ridiculed with infantilizing smiles, gagged and muffled as a noise nuisance, crass shatterers of the translucent porcelain palace of taste. Could time go on, rolling its wheel, catching up with its own tail when rejection melted into acceptance, when relentless clockwise motion engendered an anti-clockwise mirage.
Heralded by cumulative shredded eardrums, the waves have rolled; the boundaries of censorship have been pushed to sub-flyover walls – so vulnerable to graffiti. Manhandling-battered sounds systems huddle under their frayed tarpaulins.
* * *
Now, in bold enlightenment, the casualty roster is faithfully displayed in retrospective Top of the Pops broadcasts. So many just trapped by exhaustion, so many more by strobe-light fixation. But how many of their respectable equivalents are in straits essentially every bit as dire, but swishly disguised, rank corruption percolating with infinite subtlety through the pinstripes, the laundered creases? The banal, the ugly and the bizarre often attract just as much attention as does the presentable.
Everyone knows that the charts are as capricious as fruit machines. Bristling macho strutting are vainly but honestly mirrored in flirtations with androgyny. Disparate, polarized souls, showing the common denominator of crumbling tower blocks – and stale, seedy boarding school quadrangles.
Where to locate and batten down the crude riffs, where to corral the wild, exploratory chromatics? Fifties survivors – bloated, greased and ebullient. Then all that yawning at old-time knees-ups drenched in Sixties nostalgia. Rubbed vinyl straining to plummet to nothing – then, centrifugally, to reascend.
Shades of busking in the old days, before it moved up-market and got licensed – furtively shivering, feeling on the periphery of crime, breath ever-bated for the looming of a uniform round the corner – sigh of relief at the cast-off coin that once tipped the scales for me top buy a loaf of bread – then close up the torn, perforated gunny sack.
Squatting in crusading paranoia, inspiration counterpointed against dust and cigarette ends.
“If you’re really talented and brilliant, it’s a burden to have all that, it seems it’s almost a fairy book thing, like love has to come and make the beat into a prince” (John Cale)
Rasping, labored breaths of warning reticence heave in the background, inflating the skin of hypertension so that it stretches the crash barriers to a hair’s breadth of bursting. Fear always gives an edge – to any performance. A fragile fledgling fled in panic from the paparazzi, from the autograph hungry, and flipped the brittle coin of sycophantic derision. The fruit machine made a gratified grin: it knew it would always take more.
Squeezings of the bent notes from beer-soaked, rust-proofed harmonicas wail forth, making ripples in jaws and microphones. Feedback constantly reverts to its spontaneity – must be highly stimulating for those at the mixing desk – reminds me of I am a Lonesome Guitar Strangler. Smashing impulses of the Destruction in Art Symposium, wrecked instruments, defective from the workshop, or written off against insurance?
“Contradictory viewpoints are important because they show the richness of a character.” (John Cale)
There is a centrifugal force of the common stimulus, reaching to penury and glutted luxury – from the goad of being pushed to steal, to the draconian magnet of having pampered access to all the destructive agents and their corresponding therapies; from cardboard and junk-stall box to de-luxe custom built, to break out of poverty and then to go crashing right into it – to blow and to invest conjointly – shared perspective of the dank cell and the chocolate-box restored palace.
Most of the hard-thinking, the great utterers, need their reference points of shallowness – whereon they can skate, fall and get bruised, periodically cracking their surfaces. In response to intensive research, most now accept that the greatest disasters can be the greatest catalysts. The roving cameras get everywhere, and all the celebrities’ greatest catastrophes are revealed by the universal leveler. How does it all work out? The retainer fee, only awarded to the ultimately desirable, is so abysmally pathetic in real terms.
Those first exhibitionistic gestures before the mirrors, the desperate urge to break out of the dead-end rut. The followers’ matching desperation for a brief respite from their interlinked ruts, blindly piling up detritus. Retro youth club shindigs with punctuating explosions, fanning out into binge-drinking desperation.
The fabric of security is disintegrating all around us. How much security can the radiation zone of one powerful, destructive individual wreak. How many struggling souls truly live in conscious anticipation of posthumous idolatry? What are their inner feelings about what is rejected in temporal terms?
There’s a perpetual game of cat and mouse with the media-greedy – interchangeable roles, running away from them at every angle, chasing them round every corner. There’s often a sense of an egg-timer emptying, of ideas getting diluted. The relationship with mortality is ever ambiguous; aspirants rush both away from it and into it.
* * *
Rutted gig-ride in rusty, grinding, clapped-out van; sable eructations shivering, frayed in the face of biting sleet and seeping drizzle. The obsessed, poised to retch in a whirling haze, tightening the pulse-clamps on their arms, clambered up the rusted, giddy escalator, oblivious of the choking tinderbox beneath them – laced wills overwhelming into the pull of the opposite direction. You want to smash up the very thing you want to break into.
Paralysed in a traffic jam between gigs. Great dream of being the ultimate villainous genius in the condemned cell, with infinite recording facilities – multi-track, sampling, available for the ‘last request’. There might even be dreams of the reverb unit getting connected to the Electric Chair.
Bleeding momentarily from a snapped string – then blackened and clotted, brushed off and flushed as crumbling detritus. Loose valves and split reeds on saxes, thwarting their serpentine bends. In those circumstances, saliva often has a double value. Some lumps are dough to the core, others have grit inside. For those who like to treat them as apples, the teeth get chipped when they bite. The pathetic and the repulsive generate their own magnetism. When life is circular, the illusion of reverse motion becomes real, straddling the boundaries of pain and vanity.
Mountainous banks of levers and speakers; thrub of the Carnival, striving for the epicenter. But now ever more people are realizing their dreams at home – glued in comfort, doped even out of boredom by indefinite flickers. Downloading becomes universal; virtual reality becomes actual – instant image-manipulation, available to all – ever reflectable on oneself. Now there are lenses tailored to every purpose, every angle, every distance. Nine-day wonders proliferate and shrivel – perpetual succession of houses of cards, instantly collapsible. But where would life be without a bit of gambling?
Belching barrages of plasticine emptiness make the shallow grades. Mega-drumkits, multi-brass, make a cliché of yawning, reciprocated thunder. Happily counterpointed flirtations with politics get under the skins of the sneering and patronizing. Placards and sandwich boards flap, buffeting their definition. Slogans have the dynamics of riffs. Snarls and bits of scrabbling rats with their copyright wrangles – an arm and a leg for a bar and a half.
Thin, brittle sounds deeply reverberating. Feelings aroused and titillated, feelings anaesthetized. So many figures, so many personalities turned, two-dimensional, flattened by the flickering strobe-sequence. One if left to debate the necessity of mantras. Masses are burnt out through their sweat, powdered into the aftermath of skeletons.
Rippling cross-references of crossovers; sophistication giving itself draughts of new nourishment. Grinding, blistering cartridges of shellac in the old record factory.
Buffeting crowd, spilled beer further downtrodden, wrangling around the cashbox. Bruising blows scattered, drenched, coins like confetti, banknotes ever more crumpled. Somebody had the equivalent of a getaway car. The Gretsch looked a little warped. In what direction is it going? The demagogue pressurizing wounds, the comforter, the provocateur with only the most under-cover of cheerleaders.
The politics, the disruptions, the terrifying but invigorating crowd – confused, grubby cash from abysmally paying gigs. Battering migraines counterpointed against jutting sofa wires – shivering with the morning dew at its least poetic: out of the sleeping-bags, around the block – pending opening of the dingy café.
Giddy, hyper, exhausted, careering in second- and third-wind clouds, burning more with apparent recharging, sweating into emaciation. Everybody’s chasing consumer rainbows, which can never occur with uninterrupted sunlight. Maybe some pollution lends a bit of grit to life. It all goes round in circles, dependent as it was on the spool and is on the disc.
So many get sunk in despair, accompanied by noble rhetoric about those who ‘sell out’, wallowing in the warps of might-have-beens.
The symbol of the toothpaste tube is highly versatile. Squeezing the tube, pounding the riffs sometimes grown tired. Of course, the highly dedicated often have bad breath. In some perverse way it makes me think of masses of electrician’s tape, abandoned to periodic twists, and giant insulated pliers always a necessity.
It seems no longer essential to get things right first time.
Deafening applause clinches images of cohesion, and the cameras grab them for glossy regurgitation. But the backstage friction is sometimes captured; never-ends get frayed – there are splits and wrangles, where publicity smiles get stretched and twisted.
Ever get the feeling that a handful of them have lurched and stumbled to safety by treading on rafts of corpses: fame has always run parallel to war – but now, with the advent of terrorism, it has gained linear proximity. Agents’ pawns and true originals seethe at each other.
. . . No man has contributed more than me in my original compositions to produce that exaggerated and false taste. (Lord Byron, Letter to Isaac Disraeli, 1920)
Models and footballers occasionally make their sound-blunders. Lurking mobs go one remove from a tabloid-friendly newsreel; countless masses such the dummies of headphones.
But what about those ‘oh-so-nice’ ones, getting oh-so-groomed; stiff, wincing singing teachers sharpening their poise and pose like artists oh-so-elegant 6B pencils? What about all those at limited removes from lookalikes, empty copies with diluted visual reinforcement?
Myriad scarf-waving, blending into unison chorus: how much of it is spontaneity, how much blind servitude to fashion? How many get truly fulfilled, all drenched in the mud? Still, such activities help rotate the years, activate the never-dying magnet.
Vinyl sank and rose again, the digital probes onward. Looping riffs forever hold their sway. Pulsing with the bass and drums, pushing – squeezing fantasies through congealed mass migraines, worrying visible veins – varicose and non-varicose. Vision expansion – beaming, sassy, inner bounce or intrinsic brittleness? Street corners littered with glittering obsolete equipment.