Friday 22 August 2014

Forget The Format - The Music Marches On!

            I threw out all my old records last week. Remember LPs, EPs, singles? They’d been gathering dust since my old turntable went caput about 20 years ago. I knew I’d never play them again and yet…

            It was one of those impulsive decisions. I was trying to clear some space when I stumbled upon them in all their dust-clad, discarded glory. There was The Clash with Joe Strummer glaring back at me in youthful arrogance. My sneaker print still adorned the disc courtesy of a late night stagger through my old East Third Street apartment.

            The Tain by Horslips looked considerably worse for wear – its cardboard corners curled and faded; yet, I marveled at the detail - album covers were indeed majestic compared to emaciated CD insets. 

            And then I came upon Television’s brilliant first offering. By far the best band to play CBGB’s: the glass-strewn East Village streets it up whenever they hit that Bowery stage. I was there the night Clive Davis of Arista arrived in his big-shot fur coat to sign them, and was booed by the black-leathered legion fearful he might turn their heroes into another insipid pop music machine. They needn’t have worried Television were so wired they couldn’t even spell “sell out.”

            Music meant something different back then, or were we deluding ourselves? Placing a song in a commercial would have been traitorously un-cool; nowadays getting a few licks on a toilet paper ad would be a coup announced with a barrage of tweets.

            Perhaps that’s why I dumped my beloved records into two industrial trash bags and lugged them out on the street - they were a guilty reminder of a purer time. Of course the reason a band would now kill for a toilet paper ad is that musicians retain practically no illusions. Back in the LP days there was an assumption that if you made great music you would eventually break through on radio and gain the acclaim of your peers along with a comfortable living.

            Now even Bruce Springsteen has to hustle for a couple of plays on NPR and, like the rest of us, he receives miniscule percentages of pennies for plays on Spotify, Pandora and the other “cool,” but unconscionable, streaming services. Ads – for toilet paper or Tiffany - are one of the few ways a band can fund recording and touring.

            What would Strummer make of it all? Though quite rigid ideologically he didn’t live in some purist ivory tower. The Clash functioned as a working band – paid their bills and took care of business.

He was never short of advice on how Black 47 should function; indeed he got us our first gigs in Wetlands and other rock clubs – said we had to broaden our audience and let the world know what we were about.  He appeared to take it for granted that we’d never sell out; perhaps he was right but then again, to quote Neil Young - “no one ever made me a good enough offer.”

The next morning - as I was heading into SiriusXM to “spin” digitized songs on a computer - the two big industrial trash bags were missing from the sidewalk.  It was 6:30am and I assumed the garbage men had been and gone. I felt a pang of loss but put it behind me – “life marches on” and all that baloney!   

Then at the bottom of the street I found one of the bags; it had been ripped open. Most of the albums were gone but on a nearby loading dock a half-dozen or so were strewn about. Guess which one was on top? Yeah – The Clash with Strummer glaring up at me, forever young, forever sure of himself!

I cast a cold eye back at him and passed on. By the time I returned from the studio, even those records were gone.

I guess I was right to throw out what I would never use; The Clash, Television and Horslips had found new homes where they would once more be enjoyed.

In the end the format doesn’t really matter. The music lives on – forever young, forever trapped in a moment, while we continue to age and change.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Her Garden

            I often think of her garden this time of year. Though full to the gills with all manner of flowers it was laid out with great precision and taste. It’s probably like a jungle now for she passed on fourteen years ago.

            There have been tenants, good and bad, but none had much interest in gardens; they needed a house for a couple of years and that was that. I’ve often been tempted to visit but never felt quite up to grappling with the memories.

            She was partial to many types of flowers and yet the sweet pea is what always comes to mind. It must be running riot now, weaving its lovely way around roses, lilies, mallow, clematis, fuchsia, and honeysuckle – which she called woodbine.

            She wasn’t always a gardener. People who grew up on farms rarely are but when she finally took an interest, she jumped in hook, line and sinker. It even surprised my father; he was working on the oil rigs up off Aberdeen back then and when home watched her first efforts with amusement. But he was a perfectionist, no stranger to spade or shovel, and eventually pitched in.

            Her sitting room chair faced a sunroom, so she had a good view of her creation. She bought books on horticulture; these she studied until she knew all the flowers’ names, their preferences for shade or sunlight, and the plants in whose company they might prosper.

            She would often look up from the page she was perusing and stare out, no doubt visualizing the perfect position for each of her favorites. My father paid little attention to her deliberations – he was a television man and would chuckle away at some comedy show or other. They were very unlike and yet delighted in each other’s company – though, in the Irish fashion, they rarely made much show of affection.

            My father never complained about all the digging and transplanting she put him through, for she was never quite satisfied with her groupings. She once told me that she had made some big errors early on and instead of starting again from scratch, she chose to fix things as she went along.  She regretted this decision and said that I should take it as a lesson in life, for she considered some of my choices rash and impulsive and worried about me.

            Like many gardeners she liked to take her time about a decision weighing the pros and cons – this must have driven my father crazy for sailors are forced to make quick choices and live with the consequences.  And yet he would lean on his shovel and stare off into the distance as she pondered some setting or design. Was he thinking about his life away from meandering Wexford or merely counting down the hours to his first evening beer?

            I’ll never know now. I suppose he was already suffering from the Parkinson’s that would eventually nail him. They took it for granted that he’d be the first one to go. It didn’t turn out that way. He survived her by three years. For someone seemingly so independent and well used to his own company, her loss knocked the stuffing out of him. He had no stomach for the garden anymore but he did employ a man who tended to it. 

Both my parents passed in the summer months so when I returned her garden was at its glowing best. The weather was balmy on each occasion and I spent much time rambling the little paths she had created. My father had laid these walks with old wooden railway spars and in the warm sun the tar sizzled and the smell curried the sweetness of her bee loud domain.

            I was never one for cameras but I took a lot of mental pictures on those depleted afternoons for I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.

It’s odd though, whenever I attempt to summon up memories all I seem to see is the lovely sweet pea. I bet it’s everywhere now climbing and twining its way around that sweet-smelling jungle. Yeah, I often think of her garden this time of year.