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 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.