Music Matters
Back in the nineties I created a lot of essays all loosely joined by A being about music B memoir related and C pertaining to how place affects creating music and how one listens. A mixed memoir called "Music Matters". Much of it I would heartily disown now , but not all - and who am I to judge now that the work is done, anyway? So I am resolved to dripping out the essays over the next few months, often without comment, sometimes with.
Geoffrey Armes
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Guitar Improvisation
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-30 12:37:01+01:00

I need to see you again

like yesterday

it's like you are the lifebuoy

in all this turmoil of troubled water

I cling to you

you are the guide

I need the ocean to wash over me

as I grasp for where you stand

I will pour out for you

but I'm lost away in muddy sand

clarify the sensations

please reach for me with your hand

October 2015 Berlin


2011 On Registering as a Berlin Resident
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-15 01:42:27+02:00

so this is some act of faith a little death again before a death

this discarding of possession place casting off what is hopefully extraneous to requirements

watching myself

in an office wait after the waiting room of that hotel I wait again

is this courage or foolishness we leave stagnancy for sure step into the flow looking for the paddle still

nearer home for sure

and maybe that is the most important thing of all

and I don't have anything really relevant to say to you even as I expect you to afford me into your daily expectations

there's a sign that tells me or asks rather, do I know that there are more nightingales in Berlin than in the whole of Bayern?

Berlin March 2011


African Brother on the U Bahn
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-15 00:18:47+02:00

I think of you my African brother

On the train lost from home

Exiled in five languages

And you

Spanish speaker man in the rain

Asking for the airport home

I can tell you

I have lived far from home

Far from love

I hear your song

I know you belong

There and everywhere

But "not here," they cry

You cry

"Where is my heart to rest then?"

Human brothers

I sigh

Wend my way

Little left to say

Berlin 2014


Jenny, Muhtar, Flip
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-13 23:27:00+02:00

At the end of the summer I went to London, alone. V’s rent had become an agony, as had the heat and the arguments: C.and I, T and C, T and I.

Once back in the city I stayed at my fathers house, as his second marriage disintegrated, and he roared and grumbled at all and everything around him. ‘Why is it all my boys are such wasters and my daughters not?’ he cried, pounding the table with a wine bottle, until I, the oldest, and not the child of the woman who grumbled back at him that day, pointed out that all his elder daughters had ever managed to do was marry, and his youngest, both sons and daughters were still in school. “You get back to New York and do your music’ he growled back, ‘and stop wasting time here’. In this of course, he was right.

Rather than take action I sought solace. I went to Covent Garden, to look for Jenny. Whenever not on the road working, she was auditioning at the Pineapple Dance centre. As I turned the corner at Langley street she came bustling round. Easy. We hugged and kissed, and hugged again, like the almost lovers we were, and ate together and then she told me something of her life. She was married to an American singer who needed working papers, and living in Chelsea. At least, that was how she told it, despite the softness in her eye when she said his name.

“O yeh?” I said, peeved.

“ Yeh, “ she answered, striking a boxers pose, pummelling my biceps. “Gonna make something of it?“

I squared up too, but then squeezed her leg, remembering my American singer, faraway in every sense, envying the closeness I believed her to have with hers. She smiled and put her hand on mine, and wriggled in her chair, lazy and thoughtful.

I pushed on, flattering her, “He does realise how special you are, though?“ “Well do you, and did you--ever?” she countered, flaring for a moment, but then she softened, eyes dreaming again.

“Come on, let’s go, my place” she said. “And we’ll go clubbing later...”

Jenny felt like both a lover and a family member that day, as integral to my life as I was:

You’ve taken this boy far from home under your wing. This is my city, come, run with me a little; is this what you told him? You who are all drive and a simple push to be what and who you are, I see none of the complication that I bring to my life in you, just your tight and sometimes inflexible body, and middling voice, not bad, not exceptional, and none of it stops you, and I remember you barely past your childhood, becoming you, searching out your own madness; yes you remember too: all those crazy parties and that effervescent kissing under the stairs in the big manor house you squatted in Bromley, those long and intimate embraces, and now I see you again at last, grown, older, loosed back into the cruelty of London’s night that you negotiate so well; fly free angel, but let me caress your brown and wondrous hands and remember, before you leave... and you do, you take me with you once again and warm me, as before, now I am calm, now I know what I am feeling....

London’s mire crept and throttled: one afternoon sat on a suburban train as the summer wore on, between homes, I could feel the brown and grey comfort of England harassing me, ‘stay’ whispered the golden leaves on the trees at Clapham, and the shining wet slate roof of the junior school by Lavender hill that looked as innocent as mine must have all those years ago. I had cried when my plane landed at Gatwick, circling the farmhouses and fallow fiefs of England; glinting up from the lakes came sunlight, why should I not remain here? ‘Stay,’ cried the Pen ponds in Richmond park where I walked searching out respite from my father’s hassles, the dogs crazily chasing the sticks and geese and reindeer, but no, I was lonely and ambitious, no squat-life for me. Young and hungry, I despised the cold welcome I had been given (all and everyone too wrapped in angst to welcome the prodigal home), only Flip had asked me to stay. ‘You can stay here as long as you like,’ he pleaded, but I knew how desperately he wanted to leave his home at the end of a shit-smeared council estate walkway, where only the young and virulent were comfortable...

We, the remaining band members had built a studio in Flip’s flat. Finn obtained the eight track via various dubious runnins in North London. This treasure he brought down to Stockwell and I uncovered some old speakers in my father’s attic and Flip a mixer. So we assembled, and the old magic was at hand, or so it seemed for a moment, but Finn still all pop star dreams in his projects in Camden wasn’t going to stick it, and I was slipping too deeply back....

Hence, a surreptitious phone call in the night to my friend Muhtar, in Manhattan, who knew the game and the trap too well. We shared certain antecedents, Muhtar and I: paternal roots in the Durham mines, fathers who had explored alternative spiritual ways, including work with JGBennett, and a need to wander. Finally, we had both (independently of each other) opted to follow the spiritual practice of Subud, a ‘way’ that had come to the West in the late fifties. It was through this that we had met.

He sent the ticket and then I was gone, rising above the English West country. When I came down Newfoundland way hours later, I saw a single road appear in tundra, and then slide through trees and around rivers, and then fork, two roads curling away, one towards the sea, the other through a ribboned village and more clearings, and more roads (a tee junction this time). A maze grew out of the land and towns appeared and then, at last, against the glimmering ocean horizon, came the city of Boston, and then I knew the descent was to begin, back into the never relenting city of New York, which I would now call home.

Flip phoned a few weeks later to say that the studio had been ransacked, and the eight track stolen, with our master tapes on it. This, despite the fact that the window of the room in which he kept the gear overlooked the police station...


Cedric 1978
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-10-04 00:25:36+02:00

1978

Cedric was a guitarist and singer, who during the late seventies turned up at my house to jam whenever he felt like it, and then always played with spontaneous and inspired abandonment. He never left a phone-number or address, so our get-togethers were dependent on chance meetings and messages relayed through mutual friends.

’I am not Jamaican, my parents are from Antigua, and anyway I’m English,’ he proclaimed, all in the one breathless sentence, in answer to some observation of mine about his taste in music. He disdained reggae for years, preferring rock or jazz or funk or soul. Punk never entered his lexicon of style. Cedric and I would go and hear bands at the Half Moon pub in Herne Hill, which brought back memories for us of the earlier part of the decade.

‘Remember that crew of freaks who were starting an ‘art gallery’ on the corner of Railton road? By the alley behind the station where Maltese Ray was stabbed chasing down the trilby hat they took off him at the fair in Brockwell Park? They nicked it off his head and legged it down the passage? He took off after them (he always had a lot of guts) but then he saw the blades...

...anyway, this art gallery: someone had got this shop space and because I was chasing some girl who was having it off with one of these guys I started to show my face. They never showed any art at all, this lot, all they did was lie around listening to Pink Floyd, except when there was no smoke and then they would go to the Half Moon. Long before it became the ‘pub-rock venue’ we was there drinking bitter and checking out the trio that had the weekend residency. This trio you ask? Oh, the instruments? It was an ‘organist’, the double bass, and swishy swinging ride cymbals. They went from one old tune to another and all the old people nodded along, quite funny really. But the beer was good and sometimes one of our lot, ‘Little Rick’ would get up and blow ‘Traintime’ with them, on his harmonica. Yeah him, the one what looks like a hunch-back when he plays, you know him? Yeh, very coarse sound, plays fast though. Always looks like a boxer trying to win the last round. But the way it felt when he played was like the future was, like, well, ours, instead of all that other....

Remember the black out? Them power cuts and three day weeks? It was scary going home at night, kids whistling to each other through the dark dark. Street-gangs, or so they said. By the time I got home I would realise just how piss-drunk I was, and then I had to creep up the stairs that creaked like crazy, and I always felt like I was going to fall over and wake everyone. Once in bed I’d get the earphones in place and travel until sleep swept me away....’

It was strange to be back only a couple of years later and see the dank old room full of trendies grooving to jazz-funk, and down the end, lent up against the stage-left speaker column: the guitarist. His fingers stroke a Gibson semi-solid, the notes are golden and warm, they burst from under his hand and spray the listeners, he stands back to appraise the impact as he straddles the bass and drum. Other players come and go--this is a ‘jam’ session--but he is constant, always on hand to catch the faltering chord change or the enervated solo and set it right and send the music on its way. Eventually he too tires, and then the band must break, and sit at their table, nurse drinks through the smoke and clutter of talk until re-energised they clamber back, carried on the approving yelps of the crowd. Little Rick walked up on the stand one of the nights that Cedric and I were there. We wanted to be up there with him.

We organised our own jam, in a Nissan hut owned by the Council that was dedicated to ‘youth activities’. Marck came, glowering out from his black beard, coaxing endless melody from his horn and I marveled that he wasn’t already a star. When not blowing he was busy at the keyboard analysing, defining and rewriting everybody else’s parts. The ‘real’ keyboard player was a kid who was leaving for Berklee, the jazz school in North America. He and Marck talked in a rarefied zone as equals, whilst I fiddled with the tuning of my guitar. Then Cedric came, Cedric who knew the least of chords, extensions, odd metred time signatures and the like, but played sweet solos with his eyes screwed shut and his tongue lolling out, forcing notes into places they had no business being. He was very assertive too, stepping out as often as possible with flurries and clusters of sound, and I receded further in the face of him, and hated it.

‘Why can’t I just close my eyes and lay it all out as the only thing in the world worth doing--as he does?’ I wondered.

I didn’t see Cedric for a while after, although I did see Marck as he and I played on some demos together, down in Ashford at some ‘famous’ producer’s country house. At least, he was famous enough to have a swimming pool in the back garden in which I exhausted myself at lunch time, thereby ruining my performance on the later takes. Marck got drunk, but somehow as always, his playing remained steady.

__

The bass guitar in many ways defines the sound of the seventies, as the guitar did for the sixties. The instrument gathered reputation throughout the decade. Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius had fostered respectability for the instrument as a ‘real axe’; one worthy of the attention of a virtuoso. The influential Steel Pulse were able to bring a militant, ‘bottom-heavy’, ‘sound system’ sensibility into the wider public eye. Sting wielded the bass as a rock symbol in the way that only the guitar had been until then. Funk, and the slap of disco, were ubiquitous throughout the period.

Public Image Limited, grounded by the dub influenced sound of Jah Wobble, were big. From the first muezzin like cries and the dark rumbling bottom end of the eponymous debut single it was clear that out of the interactive ritual of abuse that typified any good Punk performance in the late seventies, music was beginning to appear, music that conveyed varied and complex emotions. Texture abounded, and although there was terrible power and aggression about the whole project, you were invited, even seduced in, rather than bludgeoned.

Not wishing to be left out, I picked up the bass again, the instrument I had started with at school, as well as continuing as a guitarist. Coincident with the arrival of recordings by the likes of Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots in my house (and the sound of the Police on the radio) Cedric began to visit more often, and now he was playing reggae. ’But this is “musical” reggae--major 7 chords, unison lines, chord breaks,’ he said, when I teased him about his earlier reluctance to draw on the genre. ‘British reggae’. It was a sensible choice really, the only viable alternative to Punk.

NYC 1997


Piano Dream
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-09-11 00:37:56+02:00

A couple of nights back I dreamt that an acquaintance (to whom in actuality I gave a fairly decent piece of recording equipment before leaving NYC the last time) came to visit, bringing a piano for me..... a piano with a couple of stuck keys, but an extraordinarily intimate and delicate touch, and a candlelight burning within. Before I sat and touched the piano I had thought not to keep it, but loving where it was placed in my room, and the feel of playing it I decided to keep it for deeply personal moments, away from work. Then my acquaintance asked me for advice about lyric writing, and I replied with three points. A good lyric had to one, be truthful, two, hone in in an exaggerated manner on some detail somewhere, and three at some point have a brilliant metaphor. In my dream I had concrete examples of all three, but of course I have forgotten now. The stuff of dreams…..

Berlin February 27, 2013


Kennington 2 - NYC to London
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-09-03 22:30:06+02:00

Outside my room, London has reverted into one of its New York phases. A few years ago, during the earlier part of the decade, the heyday of Thatcher and Reagan, the ‘hip’ section of the city was solidly determined in its English identity, and deeply anti-American in its imagery. American speech was rigorously eschewed in favour of newly acquired working class accents and polished rhyming slang. American music was ‘shit’, although to the chagrin of the hip and wannabes, Bruce Springsteen could sell out Wembley for nights on end. But it was to Dingwalls that I came in 1984 to hear Finn play, with a band called ‘Siberia’ or ‘Polar’ or somesuch, and Finn was good: warm, sweaty, and raucous, as indeed was Keith, the lead singer. Finn afterwards was opaque. ‘Performin is a job innit,’ was his flat retort, when I suggested that he had done it rather well. Keith however sat elsewhere, and when I commented on his obvious charisma, Finn suggested that I should tell him myself. ‘He’s been feeling a bit down about things lately’.

I approached, opened my mouth to speak, and tried to remember to purge any newly-acquired Americanisms from my language. But even so, I found myself saying it, not once but twice, the very word that I had promised myself not to say. Yeah, Keith maan, great maan, really, great.... Keith shuffled and awkwardly thanked me and somebody else laughed and I overheard one girl sneer to another, Didja hear that...? I had done it. I had uttered American Hippy speak.

So it is with wry amusement, as well as fear, that a couple of years later I step out of Flip’s house in Stockwell to be accosted by trendy teenagers calling, ‘Yo, wassup maan, lend me some bread for smokes, YO!’, their language an extreme parody of New York street talk. Their hats are backward, their sneakers are for basketball, and their jackets are baggy and imported. Ludicrous appearance not withstanding, this particular group can get nasty, and I think about legging it up the alleyway, but as I don’t have to come back there regularly and make a habit of it, I stop and give them a couple of pounds. They leer at me a minute and attempt to pat down my pockets for the wallet, but I spin away, and put a serious look on my face.

‘Yo, don’t back off from me man,’ the main guy threatens, a skinny-faced pale kid of about sixteen, but he doesn’t push it further. They sprint towards the shops. After they turn the corner I hurry in the other direction, past the tube station that beckons me into Central London, the London of Soho and Covent Garden, past the comprehensive school where other kids are milling outside kicking footballs and comparing knives and 12” record collections, back to Kennington. The shock hits me when I arrive, and I have to sit down for a few minutes before the shaking stops.

I am going to the nightclub RAW this evening, with Jenny. She wants to see what’s being done for dance steps these days. When we get there she says, ‘I feels old, these kids are so young’, but when the music is playing I feel timeless. Perhaps I look ridiculous, but she’s happy to be with me, and there is no way she looks out of place. But then for me, she is timeless.

RAW is a sweat box dance floor, the sound system crude and large with a rugged harsh pumping midrange, you feel the attack of the kick in your chest rather than the ooze of the bass in your whole torso, but it’s good, the floor is rammed and the vibe peaceful, and perhaps a little flirtatious. I get shivery when records name check Brooklyn or Manhattan locations, as in a peculiar way I feel far from home, away from the familiar. I am like an expatriate delving into a local scene that is attempting to construct a facsimile of something I know well. Part of me is away from home. RAW could never be in New York, details of body language and large plastic pint-glasses of brown beer create a different vibe. Also, I have never seen such a combination of, well, uptown and downtown, in New York. RAW is an apt name for this particular gathering of the tribes. Still, it is New York styled, so I am wearing bicycle shorts and braces, and, oh yeah, a pair of hi-top basketball sneakers. Over by the bar I spot a man who is obviously a body builder, and as our eyes meet we smile and nod, it seems congruent with the geniality of the night. A few years earlier, his kind of overly glowing health was unacceptable as a ‘look’ on the scene, better wan, gaunt even, certainly skinny and marginally unhealthy. He passes me later and pulls on my braces, letting them ping back on my chest, saying, ‘yeh, safe look man’ or some argot laden compliment I couldn’t quite catch. London and its fashions...

Later that evening, back in my rooms, Jenny puts the radio on and hears that King Tubby, the producer and dub mix-master has been shot to death in Jamaica. We are both quite crumbled by the news. It’s something to do with the era he represents for us, the memory of back in South London school or Laban days, before either of us had really done anything. I hadn’t thought about King Tubby for years, but when the station started playing the old dubs in tribute, I recognised the sounds immediately.

The August sun is peaking. and it's time for the Notting Hill Carnival, which is an opportunity to get reacquainted with the Sound-System, something I would very much like, given the events of earlier this year in Jamaica. When you leave the main parade route you’ll find them, DJ’s, dancers, technicians, assorted hanger’s on, all circling huge speakers. The sound of bass and drums competes for every crossroads, every venerable Victorian terrace. Most likely it is reggae, or some bastardised descendant, dub, ragga, or Hip-Hop perhaps, that pours from the stacked boxes. I wander and look for a corner of deep, bass-heavy dub, one that is a throwback, an echo full of back in the days.

The ‘Selector’ cues another disc and guitars fade in and out of focus, twisting and writhing under the torture of phase and slider effects. Voices disembody and float senseless in the reverb laden sky, soaring above mountains of drums, and the ricochet of sidestick on snare. The rhythm stops. The rhythm starts and dancers bounce and twist, while away on the side an ancient Rasta nods his head in calm agreement. There is comfort in the unsteady perspective and the steady rocking rhythm, as if hearing in some inchoate and blurred manner through amniotic fluid the measured step of the mother, and the song of the world that awaits. The ‘Selector’ grabs the mic and starts to declaim in the tones of black London some message or another; the voice is the cadence of a Jamaican waterfall, each word is light dancing a complex course on a mosaic pathway that winds between water, plants, and windows open to the Caribbean breeze... dusty roads in the midday sun... and now, back in the English gloaming, cloudy between dark terraces once white now dirty city grey I look up and, climbing from a window onto the already packed veranda above the milling procession she smiles her greeting to Carnival. I wave as the ‘one drop’ beat explodes into a smoky melee of voices and chants, until emerges a shout, trapped in an echo chamber; ‘conquer conquer conquer...’ until the rhythm lopes again, and I leave, pushing towards Powys Square where there will be other systems, stages, dancers, and... somosas, because I am suddenly very hungry.

NYC 1998


1985 Sting
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-08-30 22:26:10+02:00

Shortly after I first arrived in New York, ‘Every Breath You Take’ became the big hit; a bitter song of reclamation soon to be mangled by countless ‘cover’ singers in ‘singles’ bars on the Upper East side of Manhattan. People seem to think it a simpering love-ballad; it’s not, it’s cruel and about possession. I would watch C on the stand and wish to rush out and grab her, to bring her home and slam the door behind us, saying ‘you are mine, and nothing and nobody should share this’. However much ‘maturity’ you have gained over the years, still comes the irrational and fierce desire to possess and control…

There were other incongruities in how people heard the sound. ‘Those war yelps, are they African or something?‘, asked C, referring to Sting’s distinctive glossalalia on early hits. ‘Hmmm,‘ I mused, and eventually ventured, ‘maybe he got that from calypso?’. I didn’t have full confidence in my own theory, which was that they were the sounds of Newcastle school-playgrounds during Gordon Sumner’s childhood.

Lost in the rapture of the past I journeyed to the North of England again, in the minds eye. Writing them out: Newcastle, Durham, Tynemouth:

The voice of the Tyne
Pours into the cold seas
That bridge the Northern countries,

A boarding stage of brooding
Looks out from Tynemouth cemetery
At the grey waves,

Remember the ships that sailed there;
A brief day to sniff the air and stretch muscles against the bitter cold.

Someday, somewhere,
That sea will claim me,

I carry a restless spirit everywhere,
And watch the tides run in the southern harbour,
And the pubs where the sailors go when returned from Norway,

I pass out under old arches onto the snow and leave my footprints, soon to be covered, and stand on the graveyard peninsula and stare at the yellow crane bedecked pier that stretches from the yacht club to the deep and busy water a quarter mile distant. The town glows beneath the towering snow laden skies, docks are cartooned and minuscule: a coal barge pulls upstream to the bridges. Behind me Tynemouth has white seaside houses: standing stones that border the balustraded front. Lustrous yellow sand, black rock demarcates the white flecked sea-strand.

The weather numbs any reality but its own.

NYC 1999


Music is a Food
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-08-24 18:29:24+02:00

Music is a food, nutrition for the soul, nurture for the heart. And like food, it comes in varying levels of goodness. So, as with junk food, certain musics taste wonderful on imbibing, almost to the point of addiction very quickly; but they are actually not very good for you. Some may even contain toxins. Some musics provide a very quick and intense hit, but leave with an empty evacuated feeling, something un-satiated. Other musics may be initially more difficult to digest, although once a 'taste acquired,' something in you responds and acknowledges the nurture thus provided. The initial effort is rewarded. And last but not least whereas some musics may lead you to 'find yourself,' others very definitely are created in order for you to lose yourself. Just saying, nothing serious now. Early on a Saturday morning…..

Berlin 2020


The Conga Dream
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-08-24 12:59:21+02:00

I have been having issues with my right hand.

It was a dusty wooden storage room, recently unlocked. Summer’s end. I retrieved the Conga from the far corner where I’d left it in the Spring, and noted, barely surprised, that the head was split. It’s always a risk, leaving instruments in storage in relatively public spaces like studios or backstages, however securely supervised they seem to be. Sometimes one can rely on the Insurance to pay up, other times, well, you are on your own. In this case it would be, what, 40 Euro to repair, or I could attempt it myself. I squinted at the rim, and decided that knowing my own levels of mechanical (in)competence I’d be better off having a professional do it. A secondary but important factor was the question: had the drum warped. The summer had been ferociously hot and that room must have broiled. One could still feel the heat in the splintered pillars and dusty floor a month after the heatwave. This, and not vandalism was the source of the damage. The drum needed careful handling by a profi. Which, whom, where though?

I mused a couple of possibilities but then realised, of course, Olly. The guy I had bought it from. The guy who made his living healing and refurbishing old Congas and Djembes in his flat by Teltow. He’d do it well, with love and care, and could use the business in his one man operation. He’s a family to feed.

I got round to Olly’s yard and it was bigger than before, busier, bustling even. Professional yes, but with a new business feeling of edge. Who were these people, where was Olly? Oh he’ll be back soon, just wait. Well can I leave this Conga for him, he will know it. No no, one of our other guys can take it, but no, I wasn’t happy with that. I wanted Olly to look at it. Eventually he arrived, a little harassed, greeted me and then asked if I could wait for a few minutes.

What else could I do? I needed the Conga.

But at a certain moment, I realised, that it was okay not to have the Conga for a while, even play on the dry slappy dappy ping of the Bongo skin instead - it was all acceptable. I left the Conga, knowing I’d be back for it, it was well taken care of, and woke to play the Bongos.

And indeed, my intact Conga.

Berlin

August 2019