The Who : I Can’t Explain

Easter, a time for retreat, reflection and revelation.

So, I have journeyed to the ancient flatlands of the East where the winds hit heavy off the coast.

By passed and forgotten lands filled with ghosts.

The ghosts of Boudicca and the Iceni.

The ghosts of Hereward the Wake and his Fen warriors.

Seried ranks of airmen from Wichita and Warsaw and Winnipeg and Waterford and Wellington and Worcester who flew one mission too many and who now sleep under endless East Anglian skies.

I stirred a few ghosts of my own when I revisited my old Cambridge College.

Looking up at the window of my old room I was teleported back 40 years or more to walk imaginatively beside the curious (in all senses of the word) youth who seemed to have spent a whole year reading Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Summa Theologica’.

614 Questions. 3125 Articles.

Everything that could be said and explained, Explained.

Man and God and Law.

And yet, the great Thomas himself overwhelmed by a mystic insight before his death came to regard his life’s work as nothing more than Straw in comparison to the reality he was attempting to explain.

Some things you know but can’t explain.

Some things you feel in your bones.

Sometimes your heart beats fit to bust out of your chest.

Sometimes the hormones surge.

The blood sings.

If only your heart would give up its secret.

If only you could say the words you are dying to say.

You’ve got a feeling inside you can’t explain

You feel hot and cold.

You’re feeling good.

Down in your soul.

Dizzy in the head.

Ah, but, you can’t explain.

You can’t explain.

Do you think it’s love?

Do you think it’s love?

Try to say it (go on you do)

Try to say it.

I think it’s love.

Love.

Forgive me.
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I can’t explain.
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I think it’s love.
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I can’t explain.
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Love.
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They had been The High Numbers.

Now and forever they were The Who.

With this record they announced themselves as a great group.

One to stand shoulder to shoulder with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks.

A group bursting with talent and drive and character.

An unstoppable Force.

A group with a distinctive sound and ethos.

Modernists.

Mods.

Style and Attitude.

Attitude with a capital A.

The energy of the streets and estates.

The experimental approach of the Art School.

A sound emerging like a train from the dark tunnel of post war British History.

Specifically drawing energy from a City, London, throwing off the grey dust of the bomb sites and austerity.

London about to dazzle in thrilling colour after decades of monochrome.

The youth of London ravenous for the New, The Modern.

Purple Hearts. French Blues. Black Bombers.

The Suit. The Scooter. The Sound.

The correct number of buttons.

The barnet cut – just so.

Ravenous for clothes and music that was New.

Fashion and Sound that was Theirs!

Youthful beneficiaries of the 1944 Butler Education Act and the end of Conscription into the Armed Forces.

A generation not exhausted by a depression followed by a world war.

A generation not carrying the guilt of having survived when so many others had not.

A generation released into unlimited ambition.

A youth quake of disruptive, undeferential, talent and energy.

Ray Davies, Richard Hamilton, Mary Quant, Albert Finley, Pauline Boty, Terence Stamp, David Bailey, Julie Christie, Mick Jagger, Bridget Riley, Tom Courtney.

Leaders.

Emblems.

Faces.

Pete Townshend : A Face among Faces.

Fiercely intelligent.

Fiercely energetic.

Electric, overflowing with intelligence and energy.

Creative and destructive.

Make that guitar scream and ring like an alarm!

Smash that guitar to smithereens!

Write ringing, screaming, songs that tumble out trying to explain all that can’t be explained.

Be honest about how confused life is when you are young and the blood is singing and the hormones are raging.

Can’t explain.

Can’t explain.

Record and perform the songs with a natural front man singer.

With a bass player who holds together all the manic energy surrounding him.

With a drummer who plays the drums as the lead instrument and whose energy levels are always in the red, ’about to explode’ zone.

Absorb, contain and volcanically release all this energy through your guitar.

Attend to those funny dreams.

Again and again.

Tenderness and Terror.

Denial and Declaration.

Can’t explain.

Keep silent or speak out.

Tenderness and Terror.

Dizzy in the Head.

Can’t explain.

Can’t explain.

I think it’s love.

Love.

The Immortal Jukebox’s Greatest Hit : Mary Gauthier (I Drink), Iris Dement (Easy Getting Harder) Ordinary/Extraordinary Stories

I was downing a couple of bottles of Mr Whitehead’s excellent cider at the, ‘Pub With No Name’ the other evening and fell into conversation with one of the hostelry’s regulars who commented (approvingly) on my most recent post on, ‘The Third Man’.

He told me that he’d been following The Jukebox since 2017 and must have by now read more than a hundred posts.

I asked him did he have any favourites and he replied :

‘Well, I’m a major Van Morrison fan and can see he is your specialist subject so I always look out for those. And, I always think there’s never enough written about The Blues so I especially enjoyed your Post on Little Walter.

Still, I would also have to say some of the Posts I’ve found most intriguing have been about artists I had never heard of previously like Arthur Alexander, Toussaint McCall and Paul Brady’.

He added, ‘How many Posts have you written since you started?’

I quickly looked up my Stats and said to my own astonishment, ‘I can hardly believe it but it seems I’ve published more than 320 Posts since March 2014’.

As he ordered up another round of drinks Declan mused, ‘I suppose your most popular Post must be one about one of the classic Baby Boomer artists like Van or Dylan or Carole King?’

‘Actually, you’d be surprised’ I said.

‘The most popular Post ever, by a significant margin, is the Post I wrote on Mary Gauthier and Iris Dement – who are not exactly household names!’

‘And, its a Post that every week, in countries all over the globe is being discovered by new readers’.

He immediately looked it up on his iPad (other tablets are available) and when he had finished reading said:

‘Well, those are two great songs and I like the way you’ve introduced the theme of the ordinariness and extraordinariness of all our lives. How many followers did you have when you wrote this?’

‘ A couple of hundred then and more than 10,000 now’ I replied.

‘That’s a lot of people who probably haven’t read your most popular post – you ought to ReBlog it!’.

So for Declan and all of you who haven’t yet read it here’s my Greatest Hit!

‘It’s just an ordinary story about the way things go … Round and round nobody knows but the highway goes on forever’ (Rodney Crowell)

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’ (Raymond Carver)

I live an ordinary life.

So do you.

Yet, I guarantee that if we sat down and talked honestly about the lives we have led, the people we have met, the narrative arc of our lives; including the successes, the mis-steps, the fulfilled and broken dreams, the regrets and the wonders, that we would each think the other has led a truly extraordinary life.

All our lives contain experiences we struggle to understand and come to terms with: unresolved longings, fault lines, tender wounds, hidden scars. In a very real sense we will always remain mysteries to ourselves.

I believe that our attraction to art – to stories and songs – is because the best of them resonate with and go some way to help explain the eternal mystery of why we exist and why we have turned out the way we have.

A great song can be our pilgrim’s companion and staff as we navigate through life’s slalom ride of fate and happenstance while attempting to fashion a connected, meaningful life.

The singer-songwriters featured on the Jukebox today; Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier, share the ability to look compassionately, honestly and unflinchingly at ‘everyday lives’ illuminating them with sharp eyed, flinty, observations and heart rending detail.

These are songs about the dignity and indignities of real lives not adverts for ‘lifestyles’. Popular culture, as these artists demonstrate, can offer far more than mere consumer branding: it can offer us the insights and balm of art we yearn for as we struggle to make it through, or knock off, another ordinary day.

Iris Dement’s early childhood was spent, as the youngest of fourteen children on a tiny island in rural north eastern Arkansas before her father moved the family to California, as millions had done before, in search of work and a better future.

Crucially, she was also raised in the bosom of the Pentecostal Church with a mother who daily sang its sweet consoling hymns as she went about her domestic tasks – a process Iris recreates with tender love in her song, ‘Mama’s Opry’.

The influence of those hymns pervades all of Iris’ songs though her own relationship with faith has been troubled.

Her songs seem to me always to be charged with a sense of the sublime, a conviction that every life, however small, burdened and disregarded, carries a light that shines through the darkest hours.

Above all, the gospel influence is felt by the listener through her voice: a gloriously cracked country voice that throbs with yearning passion. It’s a voice made to embody intense emotions, a voice that cannot and will not be denied.

At the end of an Iris Dement song I always feel both uplifted and exhausted no matter what the subject of the song because her vocals are freighted with a humanity of heart, flesh, blood, bone and spirit that hits you like a punch to the solar plexus.

A punch that takes away the breath while reawakening you to the miracle of every breath you take.

‘Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day’ is Iris Dement’s finest song and one of the best songs ever written about the passions, dreads and torments involved in living a seemingly ‘everyday’ life’.

The song steadily, plainly and without hysteria or pity presents us with a portrait of a mature, self aware woman struggling to come to terms with the sense of strangled entrapment she feels in her marriage, her job and her community.

The beauty and art of the song lies in the dry eyed simplicity with which the weight of accumulating straws on the back of the protagonist are evoked: the rain, the buzzing alarm clock, the marital conversations and lovemaking reduced to mechanical routine.

The radio mast lights blink on simultaneously highlighting and mocking her dreams of another life with a different name in another town. She knows she will never make it to Couer d’Alene. And yet, though Easy’s getting harder every day she carries on.

She carries on.

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Mary Gauthier writes songs of bright boned shocking intensity.

Before she took up songwriting in her thirties she had lived a life filled with more drama and incident than Dickens himself would have dared invented in a multi volume novel.

She has been; an orphaned foundling, a teenage runaway and a street and college student of philosophy. She has known the degredation of addiction and the unremitting daily struggles of recovery. She has been arrested and jailed and also triumphed as a highly successful Cajun Cook and Restaurateur.

All the while with her keen intelligence and moral rigour she was storing away these experiences so that when she came to write her own songs she could have no truck with dishonesty or glib sentimentality.

There is an almost brutal matter-of-factness in many of her songs.

She is able to honestly describe desperate lives lived the gutter because she has been there. There is respect but no romance in her descriptions of such lives.

It is the test of a true artist to be able to present recognisable living characters but not to idly judge them.

The reader or listener can do that if they feel comfortable casting a stone.

‘I Drink’ was played by Bob Dylan on one of his Theme Time Radio Hour radio programmes – an accolade given to very few contemporary songwriters.

Bob, the Keeper of American Song, would have recognised the spare elegance of the song and the craft involved in creating a wholly believable genealogy of alcoholism.

This is not the testament of someone who has won through.

It is the confession of someone anchored in addiction unblinkingly reporting on the history and daily realities of that condition.

The slowly dropping hours and self absorption of the habitual drinker are superbly evoked as the narrator relates the banal details of how he cooks his TV dinner and the flatly acknowledged realisation that the face in the mirror is the same as that of the father silhouetted in the lighter flame a generation earlier.

Mary Gauthier’s words, sung carefully with a court reporters calm and measured clarity, move beyond prose into the realm of folk poetry especially in the nursery rhyme chorus which hits home with the keening knell of pure truth.

As the silence descends at the end of the song you are left bereft and sadly aware of the terrible imprisoning and yet alluring power, for the prisoner, of such cycles of defeat and pain.

Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier with immense skill show us lives that but for fortune any one of us might have led or might be on the way to leading.

Their visions are not comfortable to confront but to avoid such visions is to impoverish our humanity and our moral imaginations.

So Pilgrim, as you listen remember that everyone you meet today and tomorrow is almost certainly in the middle of a much harder battle than you can see.

I don’t know about you but I’m sure that, wherever it comes from, I need a little mercy now.

Further Listening:

You can’t go wrong with these artists. All their CDs will repay your time with compound interest.

With Iris Dement I would start with, ‘My Life’ before moving on to, ‘Infamous Angel’, ‘Lifeline’ (a deeply moving gospel set), ‘The Way I Should’ and her comeback classic, ‘Sings The Delta’.

I was both impressed and moved by her CD, ‘The Trackless Woods’ from 2015 which Takes the Poems of the great Anna Akhamatova as the foundation for a  series of engrossing Songs.

With Mary Gauthier I would start with, ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’ and then move on to, ‘Mercy Now’, ‘The Foundling’, ‘Filth and Fire’ and ‘Trouble and Love’.

Mary’s latest project from 2018 is the very powerful, ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ which she wrote in collaboration with US Veterans and their families.

They are both well represented on YouTube and other sharing sites.

 

The Band, Martin Carthy, Anton Karas : The Third Man Theme

You listen to a piece of music; a song or a symphony and by some miracle of neuro-chemistry it is encoded into your memory.

It may lie dormant there forever more.

Or, it may be a recurring theme in your mind – a faithful companion as you navigate life’s crooked highway.

There is no predicting when a certain piece of music will leave the draughty halls of memory and voila! suddenly be right there playing at the forefront of your mind.

Sometimes the trigger is a person you suddenly think of decades after you last met.

Sometimes the trigger is a return to a place you once lived in when you were young and carefree or young and anguished.

Sometimes you have to accept that the recurrence of this piece of music in your life is like so much else – a mystery.

Why I should have woken up last night with, ‘The Third Man Theme’ dancing through my consciousness is beyond my understanding.

But, there indubitably, it was.

So, nothing for it but to patrol the shelves in my music library (adorned with a framed photograph of Bernard Herrmann) labelled, ‘Movie Soundtracks’ and seek out The Third Man and match my drowsy remembrance with the real thing.

The valves warm up, the stylus caresses the vinyl and …

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I think the dance listening to this tune inspired me to perform must have a long Germanic tongue twisting name but whatever it’s called it sure sets the limbs a twirl and gets the blood singing at 6 o’clock in the morning!

The Homeric Anton Karas and his magic Zither.

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Now, obviously having played the record four or five times without in anyway exhausting it’s charm and effervescent brilliance there was nothing to do but to ascend the spiral staircase to the Film Library and make my way to the, ‘Film Noir’ shelves (adorned with a framed photograph of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer) and pull out my Blu Ray copy of Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece and settle down to breakfast in war torn Vienna with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard.

Of course, scanning the credits (and I’m the kind of person who always scans the credits) I was reminded that a very important contribution to the film’s moral complexity and fluidity of tone and character was supplied by novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene.

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Graham Greene had a cinematic imagination and a compulsion to test how real men and women wrestled agonisingly with the moral and philosophical dilemmas of living through the personal, social and cultural catastrophe of War.

Image result for vienna 1945 images

What made some people behave heroically while others plumbed depths of depravity?

Was survival the supreme value in such times?

What hope is there for love and loyalty and friendship amid the falling bombs, the machine gun fire and the starvation?

Greene had been a film critic and knew that there was only one British Film Director with the eye and the empathy to bring such a story to haunting life on the screen – Carol Reed.

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Reed had been a Film Maker since the mid 1930s and he had diligently learned his trade.

The two films preceding, ‘The Third Man’ –  ‘Odd Man Out’ and, ‘The Fallen Idol’ were both highly atmospheric and technically impeccable productions.

Reed knew how to make the camera tell the story, how to frame actors and action, how to plant suggestion in the mind of the audience, how to build and release tension, how to reveal and obscure character and how to thread humour and surprise through a narrative.

He knew that music, underscoring or prefiguring image, made a film burn itself into the imagination of an audience.

Reed knew that you had to conjure up some scenes which would stay forever in the dreams of the audience and that the key to those scenes was rarely plot but lighting, dialogue, scenery and atmosphere.

Some people, and I’m in that company, will tell you that 90% of ensuring success for a film is casting.

So, your film is set in Post War Vienna where the buildings lie in ruins and where every shade of human virtue and vice is present in public or in the shadows.

You need a, larger than life ‘Villain’ who has enigmatic charm as well as a sulphurous lack of scruples.

Someone who knows exactly what he’s doing and who is always able to convince himself (and most of the audience) that whatever he chooses to do is entirely reasonable in all the circumstances.

These are not normal times – you cant expect me to be bound by those rules we followed before (if we ever did) can you?

You need an actor who has presence, who fills the screen, seducing your attention.

You need an actor who can be a Con Man who believes his own Con.

You need an actor who can deliver oracular dialogue while expertly balancing deadly seriousness with black humour.

You need Orson Welles.

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Now, your, ‘Hero’ is not going to be a charismatic match for Orson Welles (who could be!).

No, you’re going to need an actor who in perilous times is more than tempted by the charms of an old friend.

An actor who struggles to know what’s the right thing to do in all the circumstances.

An actor who is weary and reluctant to act until he’s forced by events to act.

An event like falling in love.

An event like seeing, being unable not to see once seen, how terrible the results of a sulphurous lack of scruples can be for the innocent who didn’t know enough to get out of the way.

You need a Hero who is troubled and who will remain troubled whatever course of action he chooses in the end.

The sound of the bullet dies in the air but it will echo in your soul forever more.

The woman walks past you and keeps on walking and all you can do is draw on your cigarette and start your own lonely walk into the future,

You need Joseph Cotton.

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Every Film Noir has to have a role for an actress who can believably drive or accompany a seemingly rational man as he commits terrible acts which will lead almost inevitably to self destruction.

The camera has to love her.

The ghost of electricity has to howl in the bones of her face.

You’d do anything for her.

Anything.

You’ll never really know her and though that drives you mad it spurs you on too.

She can lead you to the gallows or walk away from you without a backward glance but you know, you know, she’ll never leave your dreams.

Never.

This film is set in Austria after a World War so you’re going to need an enigmatic European beauty.

You’re going to need Alida Valli.

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Assemble all those elements – the script, the location, the cast and the music – and all you have to do now is ensure all the elements cohere perfectly into a work which once seen can never be forgotten.

Begin at the beginning with a title sequence which introduces the mysterious theme tune and the expectant audience, breathless in the dark, is yours – Roll ‘em Carol!

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The Third Man was an enormous box office and critical success and was immediately recognised as a haunting work of art.

And, everyone recognised that Anton Karas’ music was absolutely integral to the triumph of the film as a whole.

Carol Reed had showed astonishing perception in realising that the musician he chanced upon when out for a night carousing in Vienna had a sound that would enchant tne world.

And, it was surely this enchantment that The Band saught to invoke when they recorded their own version for their homage to the music of their youth with the Album, ‘Moondog Matinee’.

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There’s something of the ‘There’s no one watching let’s play what we like’ sound of The Basement Tapes recreated here.

Kick your shoes off, set your rocker rockin’ and light up your biggest grin!

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The Third Man Theme has a hypnotic quality that calls out a cross the decades.

Certainly it called out to Folk Maestro Martin Carthy who tends to not be recognised enough for his distinctively brilliant guitar playing.

Remedied right here Martin!

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To ensure you end up with a great film you’ve got to have a great ending.

The audience leaves the cinema with the ending burned into their minds and looking at the film as a whole in the light of the ending.

Great Films have great endings.

Think of, ‘Le Quatre Cent Coups’, ‘Ikiru’ or, The Searchers’.

Think, above all of the devastating final scene of The Third Man.

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For Ramon – a true man of Film and a true Friend.