God and the Grateful Dead

some thoughts on my own incompetence

Music works on me as God is supposed to do. I find it completely indescribable: I cannot read or write musical notation or even name the notes reliably; but even though I don’t know music, and cannot faithfully reproduce it, music knows me, much better than I know myself; and only music can bring me into harmony with the world and with my fate in it.

There is on Radio 3 a desert island disks type programme where the subject is asked to describe music that had played a role in their lives. And when I thought about this (who doesn’t dream of appearing on such a programme?) I realised that there is an immense difference between the music I consume and the music that has from time to time consumed me. There’s very much less of the second.

A short list

Ticket to Ride” by the Beatles. I was eight, and just exiled first from home in Belgrade, where we had lived for the past five years; then exiled again from my parents’ new home in England to boarding school. And in the playground, or on the radio, people were talking about the Beatles and I heard one of their songs. I liked the beat and the bounce and the energy but I simply couldn’t understand it. What was a tickytoorah? a tickudahrah eye eye? Why did she have one? The syllables simply didn’t parse into the idiolect used by my parents, and in fact by everyone I knew who spoke English rather than Serbo-Croat. It was years before I learned to decipher Englishmen trying to sing like Americans. My mother still can’t. So that song, stirring as it is, still remains for me an index of loneliness and lostness.

Crossroads”, Cream: another misery; another boarding school. The novel quality of adolescent misery was its inarticulate nature. When first I was sent to boarding school I knew exactly why I was unhappy and never doubted the integrity of my homesickness, no matter how I learned to suppress it. But at fourteen or fifteen I couldn’t have spoken about the sexual frustration and the terrible rage I felt at being thrown down at the bottom of yet another incomprehensible hierarchy. I just wanted to break things and kill people. My friend and study mate Julian had a father who owned a pub in Wantage and sometimes we would go there at weekends. There was a disco set up in what looked like an old barn down one side of the building and we would go there and drink Watney’s Cream Stout and play records very loudly.

Julian was, and is very musical. My mother, my father, and my sister can all sing in tune and all could play some instruments with various degrees of accomplishment. But I reduced a piano teacher at prep school to silent despair with my inability to tell notes apart or to tell which was higher or lower. But though I could not myself perform or reproduce music I was intensely conscious of it, and of its absence.

At Marlborough Julian and I were part of a small group of friends who would spend hours lying on sofas in one of the common rooms listening to LPs. This was for me more of a social bond than an aesthetic experience. Much of the point of the music we favoured was that it would drive off others. So the others in the friend group loved Captain Beefheart, especially the jumbled percussive aggression of Trout Mask Replica. But there were some songs I actively enjoyed and could lose myself in. We would lie for hours at a time listening to Dark Star off the first Live/Dead record, and the 15 minute Spoonful from Wheels of Fire. All this was accomplished without any drugs at all, only because had no idea how to get hold of any.

But that one Sunday afternoon, as we were waiting in mute, knotted misery to be driven back to school, in the deserted discotheque of his father’s pub, Julian put on “Crossroads” after we had had a couple of bottles of the smooth, sweet Watney’s Cream Stout. About half way through the music suddenly broke through to me. At first it was only the rage and driving hunger of the rhythm section, then the longing in the guitar and finally, towards the end of the second solo there was a passage where Clapton started playing very high notes, a little shifted off the beat, and I was transported into timelessness. All the suffering in the world was transmuted into still, unmoving beauty.

This is much better put in Auden’s Ode to St Cecilia (who is the patron saint of music)

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
and Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day: O re-arrange.

I’ve always been a little synaesthetic about music and the guitar phrases seemed made of turquoise, obsidian and gold. Hope, Sorrow and Dread all appearing as themselves in a world of truths that never change.

Three or four years later, I was living with Julian and our friend George in a little cottage in the Scottish lowlands. We had all been thrown out of schools and were attempting to set up a sort of craft commune. We smoked a lot of dope and drank such beer as we could get hold of. We were completely useless. Most of the music we listened to at that time has blurred into a distant, smoky haze, and most of my experiences of it involved a lot of hashish topped up with about a dozen experiments with LSD. The drugs did not mean that I lost my appreciation of the music at all – on the contrary. Acid, at least sharpened my ear so I was not nearly so tone deaf, and that effect persisted to this day; but by increasing my pleasure the drugs somehow diminished its profundity. Music that can simply be appreciated, without drawing out with the joy great clots of grief that seem inexpressible or impossible to feel any other way, is not the music that changes your life, or helps it to change.

This did not stop me listening, of course, or half-listening. By the time I was thirty my mind was stocked with an enormous jukebox of tunes, fragments, little sequences that seemed to recede as I approached them, and disintegrate into tuneless noise: things that I could only hear when I was listening for something else.

This inner jukebox was in fact curated although the DJ responsible paid more attention to the lyrics than to the tunes. I learned to listen to him and to understand that the music I heard in my head carried an endless stream of information about my own emotions which I could access no other way: it was curiously scrambled, in that I would not hear the lyrics themselves, but a fragment of instrumental music associated with them, which I would then have to identify and back track from that to whatever was the message that it was trying to convey. Seldom was it as as straightforward as Clapton singing “I’m standing at the crossroads and I believe I’m sinking down”.

The discovery that everything came down to the words paralleled one I had made earlier about the hallucinations, or dreams that I would pass into when smoking a lot of dope. I had so hoped that these would be a contact with a reality outside myself, something against which I could ground and measure myself, but it turned out that all of them were mere stage plays: illustrated or animated versions of sentences I could perfectly well spell out in words – figures of speech carefully painted out on the inside of my eyelids. There was, I learned, no escape from language: nothing that could not be said by the voices in my head – except, of course, that music every once in a while could do exactly that.

The next period in my life when I could afford to buy records I was living in a small workers’s flat in southern Sweden with a wife, and, soon, a child. Julian came over to visit, with copies of “London Calling”, “Marquee Moon” and the first two Elvis Costello albums. I loved the Costello especially, but now that I had a child, a wife, and a life, music did not have the overwhelming emotional impact I had when I was miserable and uprooted. The two moments when it cut through to me were both live concerts: we saw Patti Smith one night in Gothenburg and I had an erection the whole of the following morning at my station in the factory; we saw Costello and the Attractions in the same theatre and what impressed me was the opposite – the way in which they were so clearly playing for themselves, with the audience permitted to listen in if we really wanted to.

Springsteen appealed to me in his rage and pride but I could never entirely surrender because the rhythm section was so very pedestrian. I had learned about the power of rhythm from musicians who could swing and whose beat could dance – Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, Charlie Watts, Richie Hayward and Little Feat: even Hart and Kreutzman, despite their technical inadequacy. The thunk and batter of Led Zeppelin or the E Street band numbed much of the feeling I might have had to their music and this was still more true of plonking bass players. I wanted complexity just beyond the edge of my capacity for understanding. When I was putting Felix to sleep in our little house on the edge of the woods I would often play the “epilogue” section of jamming from the end of side five of the Dead’s Europe 72 triple album, where they move for five minutes between “Trucking” and “The Other One”. God knows what little Felix made of it, but I was trying to unpack all the different things that were going on amid the shifts of rhythm and melody and to recognise the structures underneath.

Five years later I was living alone in a little flat out the back of Miriam Gross’s, divorced, writing the police book. I had a couple of records played endlessly: a Steely Dan compilation and a Dylan retrospective. I don’t remember anything in the Steely Dan being more than anaesthesia, but there was a Dylan track that cut my belly open: “Call Letter Blues”, an outtake, from the Blood on the Tracks sessions. The couplet I that stopped time, every time, was “The children cry for mother / I tell them mother took a trip.” I think Dylan is a bad artist on all sorts of grounds, but the capacity of his voice to express pain is almost unparalleled.

Later I started having sex again. I remember the fierce longing of “Jemima Surrender” on one of The Band’s early albums. It was a simple exhortation that seemed to drive me onward. But I can’t remember that it was an emotion that marked a deep change in my life. It was simply what people nowadays call an affirmation.

By the time I could once more afford to buy any records I wanted I no longer really wanted to. The nearest I got to passion about such things was when I handed over my walkman to a peasant child in the Andes and saw his face as the music washed through the headphones to him.

In 1997 my father dropped dead of a heart attack on the platform at Euston Station, though his body lingered in a coma for another fortnight. My mother rang me, at work in Canary Wharf, with the news that he had been taken to hospital, and as I hurried out to catch a taxi to central London the inner jukebox struck up the Allman Brothers “Ain’t but one way out of here” and for once I did not need to strain to interpret it.

But as the day-long vigils by his bedside stretched out, and as his frame shrank in front of us, so that the fat that that had swathed him for half his life melted down and his cheekbones and the ribs appeared – the first time I had ever seen them – the jukebox was silenced, and replaced by a deeper encounter with music.

Returning from hospital in the evenings, I listened to the Fauré nocturnes lying on the floor of the sitting room, so that the reverberations of the piano would reach my whole body. The harmonic complexities and the hints of dissonance gave form to my sorrow and shaped it until it became something at least partially distinct from me, or I became someone partially distinct from grief. This is music that I can only listen to; I can’t simply hear it. I could never work while it was being played.

The distinction between the music that annihilated the world outside and the music that enlarged it became clearer to me. And through all these years – for almost all of my adult life, the music of the Grateful Dead has flickered back and forth across that line.

(to be continued) (I have made a playlist, of sorts, for masochists.)