Spirit of Eden

Talk Talk (1988)

imageI listened to this album a lot throughout the summer of 1990My cassette version had been copied, back-to-back with The Colour of Spring, from a couple of LPs belonging to the singer of a band I was in, who cited them as an influence. Love at first listen, I don’t think it had anything like the effect on him as it did on me.

I took the cassette with me on a month-long adventure, criss-crossing the continent on an InterRail pass. Sleeping in trains, in stations, in parks, the odd youth hostel. Getting on overnight trains to anywhere. I spent most of my time in Germany, or West Germany as it was still called. The GDR. I had several friends from my exchange year dotted about the country – in the north near Dusseldorf, another near Munich, another near Stuttgart – all of whom I planned to visit. My main objective was to see The Wall in Berlin – still, unbelievably, not part of the West; you had to get on a bus in Hanover to take you there.

aachen

As much as I loved The Wall, and as momentous as that concert was, it long ago disappeared from my shelves. My memories of that summer are bound up with Talk Talk. I tended to listen to it late at night, very early in the morning. Whenever I hear Spirit of Eden I’m instantly transported to dawn sidings in Aachen. Grinding points. Reverse shunting. Midnight layovers. Coaches coupled and uncoupled. Sweaty compartments full of boozy Yugoslavians. Passport control. Your papers, please.

I was still listening to it a lot towards the end of the summer when a schoolpal, P-, suggested we do mushrooms. They were coming into season, his folks were away. He collected hundreds of them (in an old crisp bag) from the moist grass of a nearby park, and infused them in hot water and a sachet of mushroom flavoured Cup-a-Soup in his parents’ kitchen. There were three of us: myself, P- and his girlfriend at the time, L-. A fourth invitee, another schoolpal, had declined at the last minute.

It was quite late by the time I got there – a Friday night, probably around ten. I’d been rehearsing with my wind band in Glasgow. I had my bass clarinet, my lapelless suit jacket, and my walkman. Dressed to the 90s.

We drank the (somewhat less than magical tasting) soup and decided to go out for a wander. We walked to the swingpark along the road where things started to get interesting. Each of us retreated into our own worlds. Snowflakes – massive fucking snowflakes, of all colours – started appearing in the cloudless sky. Red berries popped out glowing from the trees. The grass had become a silent, stirring sea. If it hadn’t been so wondrous, so beautiful, it would have been terrifying.

We went back to the house, conscious we were drawing attention to ourselves. It was weird being indoors again, a little bit too real. P-‘s trip started to go bad. He was turning in on himself and L- started trying to bring him round. I was confused about what was happening. It seemed to come on suddenly, but it also appeared to be a pattern, something they had been through together before.

I felt clumsy and helpless, out of my depth. I knew about “bad trips”, had been reading psychedelic literature, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey et al. But I had no idea what demons P- was battling with, what the psychoactive ingredients in the mushrooms had unleashed that night, and which he continued to battle with for the rest of his life. There was something dark at work here. There was also something between him and L-, something intense and difficult that I had nothing useful to offer. I left and hoped they’d be ok.

That night was distinctly in two halves. First half with them, drinking mushroom soup and wandering the parklands, ending on the stairs in P-‘s house with L- soothing him, feeding him orange juice to bring him down. The second half was my journey home across town towards the dawn, bass clarinet in hand. Spirit of Eden on my walkman.

If the whole night was like being let in on a great secret, Spirit of Eden was the perfect accompaniment. It too has secrets to reveal, hidden dimensions, an underlying magical order. I walked home filled with wonder and amazement. I sat on a swing and played my clarinet for the longest time, in thrall to the sound. The sleeping world around me was properly alive in a very real way, faces in the undergrowth, patterns in the sky, beauty in stillness. It moved me profoundly and would change me forever.

I felt no need to repeat the hallucinogenic experience – once you know, you just know – but I have returned to Spirit of Eden often. Hearing it back again for the first time in several years, that very first note sounds like a nod to Miles Davis – a muted trumpet, his signature sound. But what else is going on? Those strings, that organ – could be something from Arvo Part, John Tavener – a kind of spiritual minimalism. There’s something of Erik Satie in the piano work. Something John Cage-y about the whole thing, especially where traditional instruments cede to silence, to the sounds behind the silence, the stillness between movements – metallic grinding, mechanical murmuring, stirrings in the dawn, dew dropping. Is that a railway axle turning? Are those creatures in the undergrowth?

P- took his own life last year. We didn’t really see each other much after that night. I went to the funeral, met other old schoolpals. We didn’t talk about P-, much: “He had his troubles”. Otherwise, we chatted kids, careers, catch-up stuff mostly forgotten by the time we all got back to our cars.

I frequently cross paths with L-. I played in her band for a time, even went to her wedding party. But I see her and feel the same awkwardness I had as a 19 year old in EK. Maybe she does too. But we have something unsaid between us, something unsayable, that exists because of EK, because of P-, because of that night.

Something I’ve only asked myself since starting to write this – and it’s been hard writing this. What is the spirit of Eden? The music is its own answer to that, I guess. But we all have our notions of what Eden might be like, where we might find it, and what we might find there.

I remember P- with great affection, as someone who allowed me to find the spirit of Eden right there in front of my eyes, under my feet, and between my ears.

Heaven bless you in your calm, my gentle friend.
Heaven bless you.

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The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time

Radiohead (2004)

RadioheadI’ve always felt middle aged. When I was in second year at school, aged 14, I felt old and past it. As a 24 year old, teaching English to European teenagers, I felt impossibly grown up. At 34, teetering on the edge of a career/ relationship meltdown, I was in full-blown crisis mode. Now, aged 44, decades of disappointment behind me, I feel like a fucking veteran of career insecurity, emotional instability and dwindling prospects. If the future’s never looked bleaker, it’s because it’s always been like that.

And the perfect perpetual middle-aged, mid-life mid-crisis band for my generation?

I shunned them for years. I thought Radiohead were just a jazzed-up U2 who had nicked a few moves out of the Talk Talk playbook. Perhaps I was waiting for the right crisis for me to find them meaningful.

My brother had tried to get me into them around Kid A/ Amnesiac, amazed and annoyed I wasn’t interested. He knew they fit my profile perfectly. I just heard them as a bunch of festival-pleasers playing muso and having their Spirit of Eden moment.

“Fond but not in love”, you could say.

That line from Fitter Happier, off of OK Computer, was my way in. And from that line, the whole track. And from that track, the whole album. From that album, all albums. It’s how it goes.

“Fond but not in love”, and pretty much every other line in that song-that-isn’t-a-song spoke to me at a very direct level about the life I was living. (For fun, read the lyrics and try to identify which ones really hit home.) The slumber I’d been in since the death of my mother – the somnambulistic shuffle of my relationship, my zombie career – was disturbed.

Something below was pounding like fuck on the hatches and wanted out. An alarm was going off, defences scrambled, full denial. Do anything. Go running. Go for a drink. Go for another drink. Go on holiday. Propose (ok, not that). Buy a new kitchen. Anything, anything. And like the dawn with a hangover, the light inevitably comes up on every terrible decision, every concealment, every lie, every time you stood holding hands in silent hating. And nothing can prevent the realisation that you’re fucked, that your life is in the shit.

And Radiohead’s music puts its arm around you, grips you tight and tells you it’s going to be OK. They’ve been there, mapped it, put a flag in it and brought back field recordings. No Surprises was the next track that gripped me, furiously jabbing at the repeat button on my portable CD player, demanding to be soothed and pacified. It begins with a child’s toy of an alarm bell. It lullabies your trauma into submission as you rock back and forth, thumb in mouth, nursing your bruises that won’t heal, weeping your landfill heart out for the travesty your life has become.

But. Better it happens sooner rather than later. And who better than Radiohead to be there to squeeze your knee and put you in a chummy headlock.

My recollections of the demise of that relationship play out with a filter of warm tones and bright colours, soft at the edges, mostly thanks to Radiohead, who accompanied me everywhere I went that summer. I stayed out long into the evening, photographing alphabets, drinking with friends, drowning sorrows, sleep-walking/ drunk-walking towards my crisis-in-waiting.

In the middle of it all, I received an invitation from a blogpal to come to Vancouver to hang out, make art. Which, marvellous as the whole experience was, just ended up stretching the rebound elastic almost to breaking point.

Almost. Because as long as I had Radiohead, everything was going to be OK…

I have no idea what draws me to The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time tonight. I’d forgotten I used to love Radiohead. My pristine copy sits at the end of everything. Right at the bottom, right at the end. Hidden behind a speaker. Barely there. A present from my brother – Christmas, birthday, not sure. Makes me wonder what brothers who still exchange presents buy for each other now that no-one uses solid state media.

Watching it – barely even that – for the first time, it reminds me of the Zoo TV stuff I was excited about in 1992. Manhattan Cable. Mrs Mouth. Wayne’s World. The cover blurb reveals that it was a marketing stunt: they were to have their own TV channel that proved too expensive and ended up being a bunch of stuff on the internet.

Plus ça fucking change.

Slacker

Dir: Richard Linklater (1991)

SlackerI’m still not sure I want to watch this film, even as I slide the box out of its yellowing sleeve. Even as I press play on the DVD remote I’m not sure it has anything to say to me any more. And as the trailers play out (remember trailers?) I’m recalling the last time I tried to watch it and got no further than about 20 minutes into the movie.

Why this film? Why now? As various online articles attest: We get older, Slacker stays the same age.

I saw the film probably in 1992 or 93, a year or so after its US release, at the suggestion of a friend. I don’t think either of us really appreciated the kind of film it would turn out to be. I don’t think we properly knew what a “slacker” was, at least not in the director’s coining of the word, but something about it spoke to us. Generation X was out and had started to catch on as an idea in a tabloidy kind of way, McJobs and all that.

But we didn’t really have slackers in the UK – we had the Protestant work ethic. We had loafers, layabouts and scroungers, the feckless and the workshy, dole-ites, people asking you when you were going to pull your socks up, get your finger out, get a job, get a real job.

I was definitely a slacker. Signing on during the extended summer holidays from uni. Staying up late, waking up whenever. Playing in bands. Playing chess. Wandering the streets of a New Town in decline, secondhand Pentax K-1000 round my neck. Making animated cine films in my attic bedroom. Painting in the greenhouse. Reading the Beatniks. And travelling. Always looking for my next ticket out of a town I was completely at odds with.

We might have had The Jesus and Mary Chain, we might have had Roddy Frame, but if East Kilbride had once been the Town of Tomorrow, it was never going to be Austin. It’s just not big enough, or warm enough. You don’t really get flâneurs in cold, wet climates. We had Rockschool, the Key Youth Centre, the Village Theatre, John Menzies, the entertainment section of the EK News, and the bus into Glasgow.

What were my concerns back then? What were my ambitions? I had a curious mind, but an undisciplined intellect. I was doing a version of what I’ve continued to do my whole life, trying to find my place in the world by wandering about and sort of bumping into it.

A line in the film jumps out:

The First Hurdle of the True Warrior:
To those humans in whom I have faith,
I wish suffering, being forsaken, sickness, maltreatment, humiliation.
I wish that they shjould not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust and the misery of the vanquished.
I have no pity for them.
Because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not: that one endures.

The Slacker generation is my generation. I was too young for punk. Punk sent its energy outwards, a seismic shockwave that took years for its ripples to reach the suburbs. It was performative, social, communal. Slacker/ Generation X was an equivalent force for introverts, nerds and misfits filled with self-contempt and self-mistrust.

There’s a community-of-sorts being defined in this film. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the film’s structure, but it feels like the people who form this community are more like individual links in a chain rather than a mass gathering of like-minded souls. A collaboration of coordinated individualism, perhaps. Relationships are almost always, one-to-one, personal, intense.

Watching the film requires a bit of work, it’s not a film you can tune out of easily. There’s no protagonist, no plot, no “stakes”, no denouement. Nothing really happens. It’s like a giant mix tape of eavesdropped campus stoner chat. I take notes. I list the scene transitions, give the characters nicknames. I list the subjects of conversation. I’m not sure I get any closer to the truth of the film than if I’d just sat back and let it happen, but I’m more engaged with it. I breeze past the 20 minute mark.

There’s a lot of conspiracy stuff – Warren Commission, JFK, FBI, moon landings. Pop culture stuff – Smurfs, Scooby Do, Wizard of Oz, Madonna, Elvis. Politically it veers from anarchy into a kind of freelance conservatism. There’s stuff about dreams/ reality, freedom/ slavery, destruction/ creativity, ways of seeing/ ways of being. A lot of ripped jeans and terrible shorts. Meaningful t-shirts. Beers n smokes. Sex n (traffic) violence. Philosophy n prophecy. And walking. A lot of walking.

Where do the film’s philosophical insights take us? I watched Slacker, and later its follow-up-of-sorts Waking Life, hoping some of that sagacity would rub off, that I would incorporate at least some of it into my everyday life, that it would lead me out of my own self-contempt and self-mistrust towards something like an enlightened self-sufficency which would allow me to create great art, or at least create something.

In 25 years, nothing has changed. Still with the self-contempt, still with the self-mistrust. No closer to enlightened self-sufficiency. Still ambling, still looking to bump into my reason for being.

I watch Slacker now as a 44 year old and I want to say to half of the characters, “Quit wasting your time with that shit, man. Read some real books. Get some real skills.” I catch myself shaking my head, thinking, “You’ll learn, kid”. I’ve become the one saying “When are you going to get a real job?”

To the others, I want to say, “I totally get where you’re coming from!” I want to join in their conversations. I realise I’m engaging with these characters as if they’re real. I simultaneously wish I was one of them, while accepting the world they inhabit isn’t just gone – it’s ancient history.

These characters gave rise to the hipster – essentially, a slacker with an iPhone and a job in the digital economy. The Austin they inhabited in 1991 is now a hipster boom town, the Austin of SXSW, the live music capital of the world, unofficial headquarters of corporate creativity that now, ironically, campaigns to hang on to what remains of the place that Linklater’s heightened sense of the local helped to define, that made it attractive to the kinds of homogenising forces that are now levelling out the kinks.

Globalisation in 1991 really only meant Coca Cola. Now it’s the very air we breathe. Every conspiracy is available online to indulge – no need to go ferreting in bookstores. No need to visit the scrapyard to fillet junked cars for parts – just hand your car back to the leasing company and get another. The guy who disappeared leaving a pile of cryptic postcard-length messages – all the mystery lost in a series of tweets.

The film ends with a convertible full of kids with Super8 cameras, riding around in the dawn, making movies. The last scene shows one of the group tossing a camera off a cliff, the resulting whorls and swooshes, one imagines, are the retrieved (and processed and edited) film. Derek Malcolm found this scene “tiresome”. I find it exuberant and joyful and beautiful. It recalls every night staying up till sunrise in the company of fast friends and lifelong alliances. It wordlessly recalls every moment of unselfconscious creation, of earnest conversation, of endless possibility. It’s the blur and the tumult of youth, the “fuck it, why not”, the leap into the void.

We may grow old; Slacker may stay the same age. But like the best of all art, its message is timeless.