Tubular Bells

Mike Oldfield
Virgin Records (1973)

mike_oldfield_tubular_bells_album_coverThis was a pretty big record for me. It shaped a lot of my musical tastes at just the right time, pointed me in lots of different directions, down a few a few cul-de-sacs too, and gave me my first teenage musical hero.

I came across it in round about 1984-85, aged maybe 13 or 14. I’d been given records for Christmas by a groovy auntie and every now and then I spent my pocket money on cassettes of dorky stuff I thought my parents or my music teacher would approve of. Like  Handel’s Water Music. Or like Dermot “Dancing Fingers” O’Brien (I was a student of the accordion from an early age). Tubular Bells was the first music I can recall buying that was just for me.

The album entered my life when I was an impressionable second year high school pupil. We had an English teacher who was younger than the rest, a bit off-the-wall, bursting with mad ideas. One term’s assignment, for example, was to invent a pop band. We had to come up with a name, write their songs, design their posters, write a gig review etc. The next term he set us up as a university style debating society, which went about as well as can be imagined.

One day he came to class with an 8-track player and a bag of cassettes he’d bought that weekend. He was evidently extremely pleased with himself and he proceeded to give us a one-man show-and-tell. He sat at the front of the classroom and raved about the technical superiority of the eight-track system and, with diagrams, demonstrated how the thing worked. The tape in the 8-track was ingeniously looped so that you never had to turn it over to play the other side. It was designed specifically for playing music in cars – I think he drove an old Ford Cortina, which was pretty retro even then.

The one album he played was Tubular Bells, played the whole thing in class. He told us all the stories – Oldfield the boy genius playing all the instruments, Richard Branson and the start of Virgin Records, five years in the top 40, The Exorcist etc.

I was utterly electrified. I’d never heard anything like it. I lapped it all up: the music, the lore, the lot. I adored the album immediately and after my next birthday, armed with record tokens, I made the trip to John Menzies…

John Menzies in the Plaza in East Kilbride town centre was a major pocket-money magnet. Downstairs was all sweets and crisps, books and magazines and stuff to stock your school pencil case. Upstairs was toys and games, music and video (LaserDisc!). It was always chock-full when I started making regular Saturday afternoon trips with pals, cash from grannies and aunties and chores burning holes in our pockets.

There were a few shops in East Kilbride that sold music back then – but they were generic places like Boots and Woolworth’s that stockpiled Greatest Hits records and top 40 stuff. I wasn’t cool enough to go anywhere near Impulse, the only proper record store in town. It was a hang out for a certain kind of kid. Stunt hair. Stunt shoes. Fashion and a fuck-you attitude. Perhaps piercings. Was it punk? Was it post-punk? Was it New Romantic? Was it indie? Whatever it was, peevish wee spods like me who listened to accordeon music weren’t it. I was barely even cool enough for Menzies. I didn’t dare go anywhere near.

In fact, I never felt entirely comfortable anywhere in the town centre. I still don’t. As well as the post-punk/ new romantic mob at Impulse, casual football culture was finding its moment too. Swaggering tribes of well-togged youngsters roamed the place – sharp wee guys dressed in Pringle sweaters and “waffle” trousers, looking for trouble. Everyone had to have a look. I always felt conspicuously, blandly different, an awkward wee alien boy dressed by his maw.

Eventually, I discovered my own refuge in the music section of East Kilbride Central Library. People with sharp haircuts and clothes with names never seemed to go there. Hardly anyone did, especially when it was temporarily relocated to the basement of the Civic Centre.  I loved it down there. I went every week. I prized my four yellow Music Library tickets and would spend hours browsing every Saturday, then leave with a full fresh compliment of albums tucked under my arm, their see-through protective sleeves slipping awkwardly all the way home. I’d spend the rest of the afternoon listening and studying liner notes, absorbing facts and details, tracing conductors, personnel, songwriters, producers, for any kind of clue as to what I should go looking for next week.

So what prompted me to want to own my own copy of Tubular Bells when I had a ready supply of free music on tap from the music library? I suppose it was a realisation that perhaps I wouldn’t want to take it back, that this was a piece of music that I wanted to live with. I wanted not only to possess this music, but to inhabit it. My world hummed with it for months. I fantasised about playing the mandolin and the glockenspiel. I wanted to own a set of tubular bells. I was going to be a composer. It was a visceral longing to get inside and understand the textures of the music. Incredible feeling.

It’s the very same copy I bought in John Menzies all those years ago that I’m listening to now. It still sounds like nothing else on earth, but I can more easily trace the paths that run through and around it. I’m struck by how folky and mellifluous it all sounds. All those mandolins and 12-strings, those gentle melodies, those rolling rhythms. The influence of Philip Glass and Terry Riley is apparent, but doesn’t dominate – there’s no trace, for instance, of the hard city edges of the New York minimalists beyond those repetitive arpeggiating piano and organ lines that weave through the opening sections. Some of Tubular Bells suggests introspective English pastoral rock music, the likes of Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Pentangle etc, without sounding much like any of them. You could call it folk minimalism if you like, but mostly Tubular Bells just sounds like itself.

Thanks to the East Kilbride Music Library, I went through a period of several years obsessively listening to all Mike Oldfield’s records to date. Ommadawn (which I never really warmed to), Hergest Ridge (even less so), Five Miles Out, Crises, Discovery, the live one, the orchestral one, etc. I liked everything he did – not for the music so much as for him. There was something about the man himself that I heard in his music that I completely identified with. Maybe it’s just something that happens to you when you’re a particular age. You need a spirit guide, some kind of hero to project all your desires and ambitions on to. Someone to point the way.

Mike Oldfield felt like my kind of guy. I liked the tone he set in his music. I was to hear it later in others, too. Bill Frisell, maybe. Ornette Coleman. Erik Satie. These are people whose music, for me, is about more than just the music. They seem to open up something about themselves in the music they create in a way that deeply affects me. There’s certainly an honesty and integrity to it, but you kind of expect that of all artists – I think what I’m getting at is about more than just self-expression. Good artists offer us a way of feeling about the world – because of who they are, because of how they feel, and because of how they can transform that feeling into art – that wouldn’t otherwise exist. This is truly what the “creative industries” create: ways of being, ways of seeing.

Ways of hearing, too. I love the journey that listening to this album has taken me on, even though I’ve seldom returned to Oldfield’s music since then. Tubular Bells opened my ears at the right time, but more than that, I think it showed me the kind of person I wanted to be: a bit of a freak, perhaps, a bit of an outlier, of his time, happy to be nothing more, nothing less than just like himself.

 

 

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Real Gone

Tom Waits
Anti (2004)

realgoneThe first time I saw Tom Waits in concert was on the 2004 Real Gone European tour.

I belong to a now semi-defunct group called the Zornlist, which back then was a pretty lively discussion and information sharing forum which allowed people from all over the place – mostly Europe and the US – to post stuff about John Zorn and the various genres of music his output crossed. Which is a lot. From free-improv to cartoon scores, hard bop to hardcore, modern classical to radical Jewish music. His roster of regular collaborators is a tower of talent that would make you giddy and includes the guitarist Marc Ribot, a regular collaborator with Tom Waits since Rain Dogs.

One of the guys on the list posted about a ticket that he was selling for the upcoming Tom Waits tour. I was lucky and got in first. I could have high-fived the sky. I was going to see Tom Waits. If I could get to Antwerp for Saturday 13th November, the ticket was mine. The seller was honest with me, said he he was going to ask twice the ticket price, which meant the gig was going to cost me €200 before I had even booked a flight or thought about a hotel room.

But fuck it. This was Tom. Fucking. Waits. The only other musician I would travel to a different timezone to see was John Zorn. It was totally worth it. A bargain, even…

There was just the tiny detail of the transaction to take care of.

At the time of the gig, back in 2004, Paypal and the whole business of paying for things online was a bit unclear to me and still considered to be plenty risky. Before the ticket seller and I had worked out how to handle the transaction, I asked around – a few friends, a couple of business savvy pals, some guys I knew who worked on web stuff – about how to go about securing a concert ticket from a guy who lived in Belgium whom I’d never met. Everyone basically sucked their teeth and narrowed their eyes. They were all like, “So, how exactly did you meet him? An email list? Right. And how much is he asking?  Wow, really. And what’s his name?”

They all thought I was winding them up.

“Rob Alert”.

Guy with a comedy rip-off merchant name (tho spelled in a Flemish way with many more letters than syllables) whom I didn’t know, couldn’t vouch for, who could’ve been a bullshitter, could’ve been a scammer, lived in Belgium wanted to sell me something online that I could only redeem by travelling about 800 miles.

Basically, you can probably guess, I was on my own.

Happily, however, we came to a pretty straightforward agreement. No Paypal, no Western Union, no bank transfers. If I was willing to make my way to Antwerp, he was willing to sell me the ticket. We just agreed to trust each other.

Call me sentimental but I wish there was more of that in the world.

I remember depressingly little about the gig. I think he maybe started with Make it Rain? I couldn’t tell you much more than that. I don’t even think reading the setlist on the Eyeball Kid blog could help shake loose a few memories. No wonder people make bootlegs.

I remember quite a lot of detail either side of the gig, though. The early morning flight to Amsterdam, reading the Saturday Guardian from cover to cover on the train to Antwerp. I had to buy razors from a Turkish man in a Spar because I’d forgot to bring one and he only sold packs of cheap shit Bics. There was the market. The place was scented with vanilla from the waffle sellers. I had a pretzel. I scouted the venue. I walked around Antwerp and found it familiar/strange. The accents sounded like home, full of hard consonants. I had a really quiet room in the hotel I checked into, then fell asleep watching Monk on BBC2 in my room with the volume on low.

Then I met Rob and there was the whole rigmarole of getting the ticket. Tom Waits and his management made an admirable effort to beat the re-sale market. You could only get the ticket itself on the day of the gig. The buyer had to have ID that matched the details supplied at the time of purchase. You could only buy a maximum of four tickets for the gig and your guests had to be in attendance at the time of collection in order to have a wrist band strapped to you. It meant that everyone in the audience was a True Fan, not just a bunch of schmos on a corporate jolly.

So I met Rob at the theatre, gave him his €200, got my wristband. We went in like a couple of kids on a blind date.

toneelhuisI remember how beautiful the venue was. I was amazed it was in a theatre. Waits could have sold out any stadium, any mega venue. I couldn’t believe how tiny it was. This is what they mean in the music press when they talk about an intimate venue. We were sat in the 6th row from the front, a few seats in from the left hand aisle. I was a bit overcome by the whole experience, safe to say.

The gig passed in a blur. I knew I was having a “bucket list” kind of night. I wanted to hang on to every note, to be able to quote every ad lib quip, to mime every contortion, to recall every single signal from Waits and his band that meant I wasn’t listening to a recording but watching and listening at close range.

But I couldn’t. This stuff slips away like liquid soap. I do remember the incredible bar we went to afterwards, next to the cathedral, that was full of religious statues from old churches and that sold beer in these weird test tube looking glasses. I remember enjoying myself a lot and enjoying Rob’s company.

But I don’t really remember much about the show. Nor do I remember the busker singing Tom Waits songs outside the venue, but two friends of mine knew for a fact that there was one. These friends didn’t know each other but they both knew Raymy. I had met him, briefly, years before at a jam session, through the first of these friends, a fellow sax player and improviser. He was a bit mad, carried a box of musical toys with him, had albums worth of songs on cassette that he tried to sell to people. I met him again, years later, through the second of these friends, a girl I was seeing at the time, when I got to hear about his adventures on the Real Gone tour.

Basically, the story goes that Raymy couldn’t get a ticket for any of Waits’s European shows, so he decided he was going to follow the tour schedule and busk outside each venue before the gig in the hope of attracting the band’s attention and a) gaining admission. b) acquiring memoir material, and c) actually meeting the Man himself.

When I met Raymy I learned that he had written a book about it and was totally outraged that no-one wanted to publish it – so he published it himself. You can read about it here.

I had a day in Amsterdam the next day which I spent walking in circles for about eight hours. It was my favourite time of year. November. Cold, clear, crisp evenings. Blue skies. I walked until the sun went down and everyone’s windows were lit up like mini tableaux, scenes from a thousand lives.

I bought a book in a beautiful big busy bookshop called What Should I Do With My Life? which, as much as I enjoyed it, failed to give me the momentous epiphany I realised I’d been seeking when I bought it. It was the same when I answered the Zornlist post from Rob. I felt then, as I kind of still do from time to time, that my life had gone wrong somewhere, taken a wrong turn, and I was looking for the way back.

I had booked an early flight home which I managed to miss. It wasn’t to be for the first time, either. I literally arrived at the check-in desk as the flight was leaving. The airline sales woman couldn’t believe I had been so stupid and contemptuously took €100 off me for the next flight back to Glasgow. I had an awkward conversation with my boss too, as I was going to miss my two classes that afternoon that I was timetabled to teach at the college I worked at.

I saw Tom Waits again when he played in Edinburgh in 2008. I had a new job by that time, and a new girlfriend. I hadn’t answered Po Bronson’s question, but it felt like I was making a reasonable attempt.

The Edinburgh gig was in a theatre again, albeit a much, much bigger one. The same security measures applied, and then some. Tom was exceptional, as he always is, but don’t ask me to remember anything from the gig.

I wonder if he’ll ever tour again.

Hats

The Blue Nile
Linn Records (1989)

hatsWorking night and day I try to get ahead
But I don’t get ahead this way

Autumn 1990. Second year of university. Riding the 20 into Glasgow. Listening to this opening track as the sun comes up, golden and magical, over the hillsides of the town. My bag on the seat beside me, saving it for L, hoping the bus doesn’t fill up too much before her stop. The prospect of a cold nose pressed to mine and a sweet sticky chapsticky kiss. This album is dedicated to that memory.

I can’t go on and I can’t go back
I don’t feel so, matter of fact
I tried and tried to make good sense
What’s the good to try it all again?

This album is also dedicated to the feeling of trying to be in love with someone you know is wrong for you.

The music was always richly nostalgic, even when it was just released. It’s music with an old soul. It spoke of old truths we were only just beginning to learn for ourselves. These are songs of experience. They’re the songs of a young man, borne of world weary wisdom.

How do I know you’re feeling? How do I know it’s true?

It’s dedicated to the Glasgow we used to know, to the Glasgow we knew before we knew Glasgow. The lights we saw as children. George Square at Christmas. Sauchiehall Street. The La Scala. The Irn-Bru clock. The Corporation buses. The window displays at Frasers and Goldbergs. The cafes our grannies took us to. The places that made our early memories of the city seem tinged with sadness and distance even as we entered our 20s.

We. Our. You can get mawkish with this stuff. Indeed, there’s a whole cottage industry around Glasgow nostalgia. But this album’s not that. Its poetry celebrates the city in its ordinary aspect, doesn’t get lost in particulars. Long after it feels the song should have faded out, the final chorus of The Downtown Lights presents a perfect imagist poem of the city. There’s nothing in it that especially suggests Glasgow. It could be anywhere. But just read it:

The neons and the cigarettes
The rented rooms, the rented cars
The crowded streets, the empty bars
Chimney tops and trumpets
The golden lights, the loving prayers
The coloured shoes, the empty trains
I’m tired of crying on the stairs
The downtown lights

How could it be anywhere else?

There was a time when Glasgow was large and held many mysteries, the names of the streets still had things to declare, secrets to reveal. Whole areas remained unexplored. It was full of people I had yet to meet, had yet to fall in with, fall out with. The place had promise.

Where the cars go by
All the day and night
Why don’t you say

What’s so wrong tonight?

The parts of the city I knew from childhood were the well-worn lines between Carntyne, Cardonald and East Kilbride. Views from the back seat of my parents’ car as we did the Sunday visiting rounds. Later, the freedom of the city, pocket money bus trips into town. A few shops. The Walrus and Carpenter. The Clyde Model Dockyard. My accordeon teacher in his tiny tenement dunny above Biggar’s. From the M8, tower blocks loomed dangerously in the distance, totems of a Glasgow that was, for us, foreign and unknowable. We never went west.

I know a place where everything’s all right, all right.

It’s incredibly healing music for me. It’s an album I need to hear up close, with darkness and raindrops at the window. I need to feel it reverberate gently inside my ears, wash warmly into my heart and reassure me that everything is going to be all right. And Paul Buchanan is a singer you trust with every single breath he sings with. You believe him absolutely, even as your heart is breaking.

And if in love she cried
Something wasn’t right

Hearing this album again after a very long time, I’m curious to note that cars feature rather prominently. Neon, rain, cigarettes, trains, bars. Yes. Also cars. Which should come as no surprise, really, for a city that has long since lost its soul to the motor car.

Headlights on the Parade
Light up the way
I love you

The song is named for Alexandra Parade in Dennistoun, with its eponymous headlights shining in the shadow of the monstrous M8 motorway half a mile away. The Parade itself leads to the old Edinburgh Road – former escape route to the genteel city. My grandparents lived just off that road, on Morningside Street. I once loved a girl who lived in actual Morningside in Edinburgh. Strange connections.

My Dad’s from round here. I always assumed I’d carry on the tradition, always imagined I’d find love and live along the Parade. Walking arm in arm on a rainwashed Saturday night at teatime, going out somewhere we both like, cars swishing rainwater into our shoes. But listening closely to myself here, to these songs, I’m astonished at how much of this album has infected my dreams and desires.

The city wins while you and I
Can’t find a way

I ended up living in Dennistoun for a short time, further down towards the Duke Street end, and had a romance that outlived my stay there, but not by much. I returned several years later looking to rent or buy, and every window I looked out from, across the city I could only see memories I never had, and the lights of the Parade glinting like sweets lined up in jars.

From a late night train
Reflected in the water
When all the rainy pavements
Lead to you

This is dusk music. Crepuscular. The musical arrangements are painted in soft oils with hard edges. The band’s great skill here is to place the listener into the landscape. We’ve all been on that train.

For me, it’s the line that runs through High Street. Looking out left as you leave the city centre, high up and heading east you see the Necropolis, etched out in silhouette against a darkening sky. A girl gets on with a wet umbrella. A short story fragment, a tiny drama.

It’s over.
I know it’s over.
But I can’t let go.

I never really shared my love of this music with L. It was kind of a given. Everyone loved The Blue Nile. They were never a fashionable band, but they were never a corny 80s turn either. This album is so very of its time, but the music hasn’t dated. They weren’t Hue & Cry, for example, or Deacon Blue, who were exactly contemporary and who weren’t running shy of the whole pop thing the way this lot were.

Stop. Go
Stop. Go.
I don’t know.

I stopped listening to the album after things fell apart with L. The music and the feeling of falling in love were inseparable. To hear these songs, that voice… for years the mere mention of The Blue Nile was to remind me of rejection and failure.

Who do you love?
Who do you really love?
Who are you holding on to?
Who are you dreaming of?
Who do you love?
When it’s cold and it’s starlight
When the streets are so big and wide

And I still wonder, if it weren’t for the music, would I have fallen quite so suddenly, quite so deeply for someone quite so wrong – or fallen quite so hard on my face…