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.


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.

The Art of Miles Davis

Art of Miles DavisMiles Davis takes up a lot of room on my shelves. His autobiography sits among my books. His music proliferates among the cassettes and LPs and CDs. I’ve got a couple of VHS tapes kicking about somewhere, stuff I recorded off the telly when he died, a Live in Paris concert. The film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, for which Miles created the soundtrack, sits between À bout de souffle and Diva among the DVDs.

But this post takes its title from the one item that doesn’t fit on any of my shelves: The Art of Miles Davis. An outsized paperback edition that reproduces 70 odd drawings and paintings alongside an extended interview with the book’s editor. I ordered my copy from Waterstone’s in town, I think, when it still occupied the Ca’d’oro Building in Union Street, 1991. It’s great to see it again.

The book was a total revelation to me. I had been slowly broadening my appreciation of his music, mostly through cut price Fopp purchases (when they still occupied their original shop further up Renfield Street) and the occasional EK library borrowing. I wrote about how I got into Miles’s music, here, but this book acted as a gateway drug into another form of artistic expression entirely. It made a powerful connection between music and images. It made me want to make art.

From reading the interview with Miles in the book, I learned that he was influenced by Picasso and Kandinsky – names I’d heard, but didn’t know anything about, and which I subsequently set out to discover. I learned about African tribal art, and the influence that had on Miles’s painting. I started doing paintings of my own, out in the greenhouse, while listening to the murky funk of Miles’s mid 70s period, albums like Dark Magus and Get Up With It – which the Guardian describes as “a tremendously odd record, one that begins with a tribute to the just deceased Duke Ellington, a 32-minute piece of colossally-cool ambient space jazz” – perfect for creating the necessary conditions for the dreamy headspace needed for creating art.

Looking back at the book after many, many years, I’m struck by the vibrancy of the colours, the fluidity of movement. Robots mingle with dancers, faces peer out at you, figures stand and pose proud and indifferent. It doesn’t come to me as music, exactly, but there is a definite rhythmic quality to the compositions of many of them, and an improvisational element going on throughout. I’m drawn to the textures of the oil paintings as well as to his sinewy, figurative drawings. I can identify many techniques I’ve used myself – masking off areas with tape, gestural brushwork, scratching into the paint, I can immediately see Picasso and Kandinksy, also Klee and Rothko, a lot of abstract expressionism – a style I love, possibly because of this book.


Miles Davis/ Marcus Miller

AmandlaI got into Miles via this late-career electronic pop & funk influenced stuff. Amazingly, though he now feels like he belongs to a long gone and distant era, Miles was still an active, live, gigging, recording artist at the time when I was getting into him. He died in 1991, just as I was digging ever more deeply into his life and music. He famously played the SECC in Glasgow during the Glasgow International Jazz Festival as part of the Year of Culture celebrations – I snobbishly refused to buy a ticket, for fiercely held reasons I can’t remember, instead choosing to see a band called The Pointy Birds at the Third Eye Centre. I became a devoted fan, too late.

The title is a Zulu word, and references the struggles against South African apartheid, which Miles was outspoken about. Aptly, it means ‘power’. Listening to this again, I’m struck by how powerfully infectious the whole thing is. It’s deeply groovy, hugely melodic with a lot to delight in. I can still sing back many of the jerky funk riffs and solo lines, hum its scattered melodies, and my shoulders and ass keep wanting to pop and shake with the groove. Apart from some dated sounding synth and the odd wank-rock solo, the textures are absolutely incredible – the bass clarinet, the tone of the sax player – and I think this is what stays with me much more than Miles’s trumpet – here, less of a solo star, more the kind of star that can light up a beautiful, colourful universe of sound. The whole thing sounds like Miles paints.

The cover art intrigued me and, after reading an article in Wire magazine I bought a book of his paintings, which still sits on my shelf. It got me into painting for a while. Miles was everything for me for about a year, probably longer.