We are born into a world of, ‘blooming and buzzing confusion’. Yet we soon learn to discriminate; individual Magellan’s, instinctive cartographers, we test the boundaries of our physical and intellectual environments every hour of every day as we draw and redraw the map of the world we have made for ourselves.
Emperors all, we try, schooled and unschooled, consciously and unconsciously, to make sense of it all, to construct a feeling, freely flowing narrative which will contain, order and explain our lives to ourselves.
Yet on every mind map, every finely inked delineation of the rivers, the seas, the continents, the coasts, the hills and the awesome sheer mountains there is always, must always be, a blank space that used to be called, ‘Terra Incognita’ – the unknown world, the blank white space that lies outside the known world, surrounding it and who knows, perhaps sustaining everything we think we know.
We all understand that there is much, much, that we do not understand, much that seems to be beyond any understanding. I believe, without getting too catholically theological on you here, that there is essentially, at the heart of every life much that will always remain, probably necessarily, a mystery.
Each of us will have our own evolving sense of the mystery. I believe that such mysteries for the benefit of our holistic health and well being are better respected rather than relentlessly interrogated.
One of the continuing graces my love of music music has bestowed on me is a conviction that there will never be an end to the making of songs because there will never be an end to our sense of mystery. Songs, even the greatest songs, cannot solve the mystery but they can, sometimes, illuminate mystery and allow it to settle, perhaps to bloom in our own mysterious centre.
The songs that follow should best be listened to in still, patient solitude. These songs are alive and if you open yourself up to them they will speak to you. They may well carry you so far away so that you find yourself gaining access to the most mysterious realm of all, a realm too deep for ultimate sounding – your own inner self.
One of the songwriters most dear to my heart, Iris Dement, (see previous Jukebox post, ‘Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories’ for background on Iris) put it so much more eloquently and movingly – Let The Mystery Be!
Uncharacteristically, I will say very little about my selections today – largely letting the featured artists evoke the mystery each in their own way. No one knows for certain. I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
The 1969 third album by The Velvet Underground could never have equalled the seismic impact on the rock world and contemporary culture that their debut and their sophomore records had which seemed to have tilted the axis of the music opening up new thematic territory with both cool calculation and raging brio. Maestro John Cale had departed taking his unique combination of chapel fervour, conservatoire training and cathartic use of unleashed chaos with him.
There is a feeling of calm after the hurricane infusing the third album. Lou Reed, now unchallenged as the leader of the Velvets, chose to showcase quieter, more contemplative songs. Two of these, ‘What Goes On’ (memorably covered by Bryan Ferry) and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ are among the most luminously beautiful and aching songs in popular music.
To close out the album Lou wrote a seemingly artless song, ‘After Hours’ which was sung with limpid grace by the self effacing Mo Tucker, the band’s percussionist. After Hours contains a lovely line that rings through my mind every time I’m wending my way home after a late night in London – ‘All the people look well in the dark’. I find comfort, disquiet and an unfathomable mystery in that line and the song surrounding it. A song that speaks powerfully in the child like tones and cadences of a nursery rhyme. I wonder how the song strikes you?
I’m closing my venture into mystery with a recording, a performance, from December 1927 which Ry Cooder (whom God preserve) has called, ‘The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music’. Blind Willie Johnson’s, ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ is rightly featured on the, ‘Golden Record’ sent in 1977 with the Voyager space probe to represent the human experience of the natives of planet Earth to whomsoever it might meet!
However far Voyager travels it will still be catching up with the immensities contained within Blind Willie’s masterpiece. It seems to me to be the most profound keening ever uttered on the essential loneliness of the human condition.
Listening to the songs above I’m reminded that living within and expressed through music is the most pure, potent and direct shared doorway we will ever find to the deepest, inescapable mysteries of life.
The best representation of Blind Willie Johnson incomparable art on record can be found on two volumes issued by Yazoo records.