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
Home | Contact

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.


August 2019

Cedric-brief return
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-08-19 18:33:54+02:00

I ran into Cedric again, this time doing a ‘percussion’ overdub on a keyboard at Falconer's; still with that feel and instinct he carves his own path. Blissfully funky, lost in a rapture and rap with himself; in the mid-stream of music as it flows through and around him his fingers dance on the instrument, with a multitude of sampled percussion sounds his fingers add the missing parts. The music becomes whole. I want to kiss him in his beauty. His skin, a luminescent coal, shines in the harsh and naked bulb light of Falconer’s second and cheaper studio; animated and liquid he glides through the keys.

We hugged and made respectful and reproachful noises at each other.

“Sounds great... ...where have you been all these years.. ...what are you working on now?’

He smiled and laughed and danced a little as his drums played back, and told me nothing of the time that had passed, but I knew that sometimes it had been less than kind; and I found the resilience hard to swallow.

‘You really don’t feel it do you; the pain of losing?’ I wanted to ask, disbelieving.

You don’t show it, I think, but I wonder what goes on in those silent moments, when alone in your room you listen to a final disc and then file it away in its sleeve. As you turn away you see once again that your recordings languish in a separate box, awaiting addresses to which you can send them. Your rejection slips are there too, carefully piled in anticipation of the day when you will be able to exhume them and laugh, saying ‘but I was so low then, look at me now’... ...but tonight that moment is yet to come. Now they stare accusingly, an indictment of all you haven’t done, the measure of everything you are not. You are not wanted, they say: invalid, irrelevant, out of time, out of touch, baby. I too know that moment, and cannot believe that when you arrive there, it treats you any differently.

Why should it? I believe the gulf of loneliness opens for you too, with the knowledge that your beautiful work is still not for the belonging in this world. You are alone with it. But then again, you are so imbued with the spirit of a music that you know is ‘true’, and as you showed me so often in the long ago youth-man past, bitterness is not your creed. You know your hand should have been better, ‘but in this world you cannot choose these things’ you tell me. Wait though: Your next project you say? I should just wait and see? Ah, you crack; this last boast reveals your desperation and sadness, your are human after all; only an angel can submit a healthy heart to the blade, then continue on unwounded.

I used to fantasise that you would change your name, meet a well known DJ walking on Clapham Common and become a star, but not no more….

NYC 1996

Kennington (part 1)
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-08-16 14:40:49+02:00

The light rises, expands, and envelops, a synaesthetic moment sent from Africa. It sings, and takes rest in my soul. It steams from the speakers and becomes the room, and the room now becomes music, and the music is Africa, and Africa is everywhere and anywhere, and sings from the very first time that humanity sang, but it also sings with the voice of now, and the voice of Islam, and the voice of African soil, where humanity first became more than mere sentience. But the sound is digital stereo designed in Tokyo, and the album recorded in Paris, the middle of Europe, the gateway of ‘new’ Africa.

This room is mine, and it is in Kennington. I have found my way back. Inexorably, home has called, and with a slow, dragging step, I have returned. In the beginning I resisted: first staying in Notting Hill, and then Camden, in a squat originally ‘found’ by Finn, before his name came up on the Council House waiting list (marriage and a child, combined with years of semi-legal residence in the borough did the trick). There I was within earshot of the dawn-chorus at London Zoo, the roof leaked rain-water onto my sleeping bag, and the junkie who occupied the room below always looked likely to steal my clothes. The situation was definitely temporary.

Camden Town Tube station contained the Northern Line that dropped towards South London. Within it, destination boards winked and explained that the next train to Kennington left in one minute. Hesitantly, I went to visit friends who had recently moved there. They were not South Londoners by birth or even upbringing; they had migrated from Kent. I knew them from Berlin days, and at one point they had even followed me to New York for a few weeks. A room was available in their shared flat, and to my simultaneous relief and horror, they offered it to me. Cheap, close to the Centre, and near the tube station. Gratefully, nervously, I accepted. South London had reclaimed its own.

In many ways everything was as I remembered it. Behind our house was the ubiquitous Council estate, in fact one of many in which former school-friends, acquaintances and enemies had lived. I looked out for them as I walked down the Walworth Road, and through East Lane market, on a nostalgic, abhorrent, yet compelling walk. Here was the Aylesbury estate, a scene of endless throbbing threat, parties, sadness, desperation, disturbance, circumscription, stoicism. This grey and featureless complex had once been touted as an architectural showpiece city within a city. I’d worked here as a ‘music-worker-teacher-leader’ in ‘units’ that ‘treated’ criminal adolescents. You’ve been a naughty boy and next time we’ll put you away. This time you get to go to special school featuring smaller classes and specialists. Maybe they will sort you out. I walked past a place where I’d performed ten years earlier. I saw no-one I knew, everyone had moved away, or (hopefully) been imprisoned after their criminal tendencies had back-fired. What they get you on in the end, son? Grievous Bodily Harm? Taking and Driving Away?

South London; I don’t have a lot of love for you do I? Just a bitter pride because I’ve survived you. A question mark as to whether I want to know you again. This road we live on could be called beautiful: a terrace, small trees, hedgerows, roses. In the mid-morning mist of eleven ‘o’ clock a milkman walks from door to door, three pints here, two and a pot of cream there, slowly ambling in the direction of a verdant park, but it was only last night on the same pavement that I saw a man about my own age, swinging a golf club above his head screaming obscene threats as he ran after another. The pristine windows stared on, silent and unblinking. No light flashed on, no curtain stirred to reveal an indignant face to witness the scene. I passed quickly, taking another route to the corner shop that is fortified by dirty steel shutters and bullet-proof plexiglass, and the shouts receded behind.

However, life has been good lately. I’ve been working and playing a lot. I’ve regularly taken my bike across to to the Centre and home again, as days have been warm, nights cool and kind. When I’ve needed them the tube-trains have come and moved me to Camden, to Notting Hill, to Covent Garden, at speed. The streets on which I have exited are broad, and people have walked with the spring and arrogance that only London bequeaths. So I have walked that way too and remembered what it is I take with me everywhere I go: an insouciance and surety of touch that comes with being a denizen at the centre of the pop universe. London on a sunny day. Fuck you world, you can’t touch me. I am one of these, at one with this, I belong here, I make this place rock, I make it move, without me it’s poorer. The city has charm and I do too, with this inheritance I go anywhere and do anything...

Even as I scuttle nervously into my front-door, and slam the locks back in place, I still feel this, and take the glow into my rooms.

I get comfortable, and start to think. Thoughts have lives of their own, and when you are out your inner ones subside from your conscious mind. Getting out can be a way of vanquishing unimportant, but nagging thoughts. Important ones keep going though, quietly within, autonomous and lively. Sometimes when you return you find they’ve moved on, developed with no assistance from yourself. I think that’s why some people spend an inordinate amount of time out; they don’t like their thoughts. But I like mine, so I like getting home to them.

Besides, I’ve found new music, or rather, rediscovered things in music, and through it the potential of my music-making; and although it’s most definitely not London that created this sound (but arguably the London pop world has been part of it’s advent), it is here that I have found it. London, you bring me hope again, albeit in the creations and dreams of far-off places....

(To be Continued)

NYC 1998

Geoffrey Armes - 2020-08-08 16:36:38+02:00

As we talked outside, I watched the snow turning a trace of blue in the moonlight on the rooftops opposite. Eventually it was the freezing weather that drove us, past the thick curtain and the coat-check girls, until in the warmth of the main dance-floor I heard, or rather, truly felt House for the first time.

And a sound that gave permission to dissolve form in a way that hadn’t been granted in pop since the days of Jimi Hendrix or Can.

It was the beat that initially pulled you, a subtle skip that was the evolvement beyond Disco, an African element, Swing, something you just floated on, and it just kept going, and you could do anything over the top of it, and people were, or so it seemed for a moment. All those records: stirring, anthemic, ecstatic, endlessly optimistic and full of fierce determination. The singers sang with a new social and political awareness; the world shall be a better place! Ce Ce Rogers, Marshall Jefferson, Stirling Void were the names on these discs, and they were a thrilling combination of played and computer generated music, of equal intensity to the early Rap records; a poised balance of technology and human action.

I flew back to London full of ideas and enthusiasm, and set about making my own version.

Whenever the opportunity arose I collated the riffs and sequences that best fit the sound I had in my head. When ready I would wend up to my friend Reynard Falconers’s studios, and the ideas would transfer to the computer, and to tape. Luckily, I had a sympathetic engineer. Andy Falconer was willing to work long and energetic hours before breaking to the old working men's café where we would consume vast quantities of beans, eggs, toast, before staggering back for more work, or when exhausted beyond all repair, towards home to sleep the day away. The sound took shape, a peculiar hybrid, stamped with my particulars: a thick voiced straining white vocal, a springy stomp for rhythm, quietly chinking and riffing guitars. It was not House, it never would be, it was something uniquely different, pop, lush, epic, ethnic, diffuse, difficult. I wanted to take the integrity of the early House sound and make pop music of it.

I returned to New York, and sought a label or producer, walking the downtown streets. After evening sleep, exhausted from playing dance classes, or attending meetings, I would head out, to the circus. Here, in the halls and caves of Manhattan, I would dance for hours, alone or with friend, following the route from club to café to after hours club, seeing the right people, and sometimes being seen. I would slouch around DJ booths, and watch the coming and going, the handshakes, the hugs, the kisses. Promises and intents were proclaimed across the din, or whispered intimately, sex, money, deals. Here I met F, producer and DJ, and he agreed to take on my project.

Word of this got around the scene that congregates around F and for a while I was granted a kind of ‘guest’ status, so I too kissed and hugged and shook hands. I was perceived (I perceived myself) as a potential Sting or Bono type figure, within the House framework, and as such an important personage. Bridges were being built too. I fancied myself as something of an ambassador for the developing ‘rave’ culture. When back in England I would take the reverse path and tell stories of New York club life whilst frequenting the growing scene in London. Already though, the shadows were lengthening on the ‘innocent’ days of the scene. There was money to be made.

In the studio carefully laid creations of earlier sessions were wiped off the tape, leaving space for F to do his thing. It was painful, this dismemberment of the result of some months projection of emotion and self-hood into instruments and microphones. Where once I was active and authoritative I became passive. The single that was to be my ambassador evolved into someone else’s creation. Still, it was for the greater good I reasoned, a better ‘product,’ and bank balance. As I was paying the bills.

Some of the work was good, some wasn’t. He changed the bass sound, and rewrote the drums yet somehow took away the individual character of the tune, leaving the record in a much less distinctive place.

The relationship slowly unraveled.

He would ask me to stop in at his studio apartment in the East Village, before heading to the club he was playing that night. I would sit in his small living room, and eventually he would appear with a sweet smile and a svelte, black dressing-gown, saying something like, ‘Great shirt,’, whilst caressing my shoulder. Shifting uneasily, I would steer the conversation away from my appearance, toward our project. Frowning, he would move away, saying something like, “I’ve got lots of ideas for that, a whole new direction”. I would feel like I had just failed a test. I admired him, and the whole milieu that he was a part of, but had no wish to consummate my involvement. If my music wasn’t going to ‘make it’ on its own recognisance so be it.

Drained by travel, studio costs, and the lack of any real income while I concentrated on transatlantic gallivanting and creativity, I lost the initiative. The moment passed and the project died half-realised, with little prospect of resuscitation. The music industry continued on, without my collaboration with F. We still say hello and hug effusively in the local supermarket when we meet. Even star DJ’s have to stock the fridge.

Back in London... ...and making that House music... ...ker, boom boom boom, chicker boom, I’ll house you, yeh!, I’ll house you, yeh!, aaaaoooooh, yeh boom booom booom, sssssssssssssssssssssschk, chk, chk, chk, unnchikka, unnchik, unnchik, BOOM! boom, boom,

at ‘High on Hope’ (how that jacket came back to visit again), the club in Camden by the lock, the one that used to be Dingwalls, where Finn played so often in the early eighties, and now tonight, Black-Market Frankly is dee-jaying,
yeh he can mix, and Norman Jay has all those records man, it don’t matter if he can mix or no, cos he got them Sounds, know what I mean,
and there’s Ray all stringy pale dancing his spastic joy under the groove, and we’re talking talking talking, because we’re gonna make records and stuff innit,

that’ll really work because we know why we’re here and we’re not faking no not this time,
and didja meet Devonne? she’s over from New York, singer? no, just dancing, clubbing, and look at this energy cos there’s nothing like this in New York now, except maybe at those parties in Brooklyn we used to go to, now it’s tired there, man, but... yeh, yo Tony! easy now, you goin’ down Choice on Monday?
I, can’t think that far ahead, but tomorrow I’ll be down Brixton so I’ll go the Fridge....

The dee-jay worked under a huge tapestry hanging, that proclaimed 'Temple: One Love.' The booth was a small praesidium, surrounded by a low wall, in which were placed the turntables, tape recorders and all important mix consoles from which the evening's entertainment was manifested. I pushed through the crowd. A dry ice machine started to discharge plumes of white smoke into the already opaque atmosphere. The dee-jay segued effortlessly, from a dreamily pulsating record, into a more up front number, propelled by a Black man's voice:

'Some day we got to rise, Got to get wise, Got to prise a better way, It must happen, and today, Before the world just fades away...'

At first it seemed too general to have any potency, but the lyric took on an immense energy when framed within the emergency of the voice, and the elegant scaffold of the percussion and bass. The crowd on the dance floor seemed to think so too, judging by the frenzy that the music was lifting out of them. I felt a wave of excitement pass through my body, as if imbibing the energy by osmosis. ]

A dark, rumbling bass spread itself over the people dancing, oozing into every corner of the room. The sound cut to a girl's scream, one of ecstasy, not panic, then back to the darkness, only now her song was sliding over the top, in breathless, truncated, phrases.

The crowd liked it. Some directed their approval towards the booth, with gestures or hand claps. With fanatical concentration others drove themselves to bigger, faster, more complex dance steps. One boy, his face exhibiting a sublime peace, was somehow moving his torso in what looked like a thousand gyrating segments. Others were doing a strangely awkward, almost robotic dance, their arms flailing the air like animated scarecrows.

The piece on the turntable was coming to an end. The dee-jay cued another. The new record pushed its rude rhythm into the crowd.

The best moments in Dance Music are the wildly appropriate non-sequiturs, mixed into all the unexpectedly right places. Organised anarchy.

Ah, House, you crept into me, immobilising so much of my taste for anything else, your insidious rhythm, your pulse in my blood, your textures floating like Buddha’s clouds, ‘close your eyes, close, dream, let the bass lift...,’ the moan of your singers, all sweet despair echoed through a distorted prism, voices raised in sonic architecture of impossible dimensions, immured in citadels of hi hat, razed by samples barely pinned into shape by your one hundred and twenty beats per minute. Even when you became too much, and I ran to Holland to escape you, needing the quiet of the polder lands, I slipped out to a club, and a couple of record shops...

House seduces: narrative is maintained, but it’s the skippy framework of a journey into itself, as one seamless texture segues into another, the voices disembodied, the perspective disoriented; it’s the narrative of Kundera or Garcia-Marquez, a limpid examination of a theme from all possible angles. From the get go it was about destroying ‘ Form’ in the traditional sense beloved of New-Wave and post-Punk orthodoxy. The tyranny of the three minute song structure. Blown away at last, and along came whole new revelations of textural landscape. Soul met Psychedelic Rock met Electronic Collage. In a mainstream form. Even when personality reared its head (House Divas and the like), the imperative of the Dance Floor kicked back in a roar of groove.

“A ‘funky beat’ over which one can put anything:”

Those moments when hands raised, a strange unity would infect the crowd, and many would fuse into one, with the universe present in the single dancer’s footstep. As quickly as it came the moment would leave, and dissipate into the oceanic dance floor. It’s like walking up Ladbroke Grove during the Notting Hill Carnival, when there’s a sudden humbling of self before the on-rushing common purpose, an involuntary communality that sweeps all before it. This is the stuff of fascist rallies, as well as churches. A crowd, in abandonment, is dangerous; who or what is driving it? There is catharsis here, but if much of the pop/rock-music culture of this century, has been about a drive towards individuation, freedom, and self-expression, then what are these moments about?

NYC 1997

Anita Baker:
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-08-08 14:45:06+02:00

Baby, I believe in this honey brown love you spread on the world, still. I believed ever since I first wrote about you, on the plane (you know how it is when you are suspended between worlds, momentarily lightened of the loads of national and cultural modality), a place where I had clarity of distance. In some strange epiphany, I wrote that you could sing everything, that you could sing the dog shit in the gutter, and the sound would be that of all the Blues in the world, the sound of all the people who ever journeyed from Goreé to Georgia to Chicago and back, the sound of a Blues in a battered white mansion in London. In other words, anything you sang would become beauty, and I would shiver. Ever since then I have been drunk on you. You taught me solace, that is, how Soul music is solace. How Soul is healing music, and how even in these crazy diffused (dissipated?) and corporate marketing product driven days, something still comes through a voice like yours. What else can I say? I was there, you were too, and it was a difficult moment made easy, over and over. Like when I finally got to hear ‘Giving you the best I got’ on a rainy night in London, and I played it again and again, rocking in the arm of your voice that seems to extend out and on and around every moment. Sometimes it’s so difficult to know that you can only epitomise a moment, however long it may last, before the world reasserts itself as sovereign in my life. Why can’t I live in your voice forever?

NYC 1996

Return of the Mack 1996
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-07-29 00:13:23+02:00

He swings back into London, all svelte leather and success; he has his white label pre-release 12” for all his youth to hear.

Yet she has moved on...

I can smell those dank under the railway arches where we used to dance...

He chews on his words in the time honoured soul singer fashion over silly infectious poppy groove and ‘urban’ scratching, ‘jazzy’ piano and guitars, and oh, studio trickery: processed vocals drape like a candy floss pad through the whole piece...

This is pop construction and I am caught on the seventh floor again, in a slew of memories, both of situations like that implied (that I choose to infer), and of days and nights making (this is the right word for the piecing together of samples and loops and bass playing and piano groove) throw-away music like this. Music that makes me want to return to the dance-floor, to the everlasting night of sweat and sound, pressed close to warm bodies, maybe alone, maybe with a special friend, maybe,

‘You lied to me...,’ intones the singer.

’It’s too much like Bobby Brown,’ I can hear Jenny snort derisively, from thousands of miles away.

‘You used to like Bobby Brown!’

‘Me? Never! And this record is foolish!’.

She’s right of course, yet it encapsulates so much. From sexual sub-text, love and ambition, to images of the Diaspora (this constant shuttle between continents), from days in South London to nights in clubs everywhere, to questions about just what might inspire love after all, for even with all the ‘success’ he’s brought to town, she in the video doesn’t respond. So it’s both the fantasy: the boast, the cars, the gold, the Concorde, and the caveat: in the last scene on the one way system, the cars stream out and away from London, away from her....

link Video - Return of the Mack 1996

Sumizu in Tokyo
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-07-18 00:33:38+02:00

Tokyo - 1992

It was in Tokyo that I first discovered the virtues of the Smiths, in the car of my friend Chio. As we left the hotel on Meiji Dorii she pressed ‘play’ on the cassette deck. I gazed out of the window at the steaming streets and pretty people walking slowly by. We were heading for ‘her’ park (Harumi), along the inevitably jammed streets; past the moated and reclusive Imperial palace; through the seductive elegance of the Ginza, and the endlessly simonised megalopolis, all viewed from the cool of our car interior. Then on, through industry and harbours, to a small refuge of green facing the water. As she drove she played me The Smiths, but a tune I didn’t recognise. The only other time I had heard them was in London, again driving, this time the Old Kent Road, the docklands district of Bermondsey coursing away to my left. There the music had seemed unrelentingly grey, like the sky that lowered itself onto the squat and hundred year old sooted buildings. In the chromium heat of a Tokyo summer it slowly began to appeal. The sound rolled around the car. I leaned back and day dreamed, secure with my friend, comfortable for a moment.

“Who’s this?”

“ Sumizu”

“ What?”

“ You know--they’re from your country--Sumizu”

The singer pleaded his story as the guitar screamed and shook its circular way around and back again; carrying a load of rainy and sorrowful songs set in a peculiar ad-mixture of sixties pop, seventies glam-rock and Irish folk tradition. Lyrical guitar lines and melismatic vocalising, intertwined with a poignantly layered dissonance.

Then I got it.

“The Smiths!”

Once back in New York, after the painful and final goodbyes and futile promises that we would meet again, soon, I procured copies of The Smith’s music for myself. Living on Saint Marks Place, that counter cultural strip of a market place at the entrance to the East Village, made it easy. Down the stairs from my apartment and into the record store in the adjoining building, to have a chat with Mike, who worked the afternoons and was an ardent fan of all the new underground bands; who had introduced me to quite a few things over time.

A funny thing about New York is the kind of isolation that one can get into when living there, a parochial feeling that the world begins and ends at the border of Manhattan. During the eighties I got caught by this too. Unlike London or Tokyo, where the media positively bombard one with the doings of everywhere else the world, in New York you really have to work at finding out about anything. It’s only too easy to get lazy, to sink into the morass of one’s own activities, problems, and pleasures. Hence my late arrival at the table of The Smiths....

Except for that moment on the Old Kent road I have never heard the band in England and wonder if in some way it would change my feeling about their music if I was to do so. When I listen to them I am engaged with the part that looks back with an edgy and wary nostalgia to times that were--and are--gladly left behind. I suspect that if I went back to the reality underlying those memories, the band's commentary would prove too sour, too close an evocation of reality.

So it’s not surprising that somehow I was available to the sound in Tokyo in a way that I hadn’t been in New York or London, because Tokyo is pop culture play land, and for me, the visiting artist, the honoured guest, it is definitely removed from the exigency of ‘real’ life. In a hotel room in the late eighties I watched television ‘punks’, dressed as perfect replicas of their seventies London brethren flail through the motions and attitudes of despair and anger; in the early nineties it was designer Rappers and Rastas posing in Harajuku and Shibuya, and the groomed population buying CD’s from all over the world in Wave, the beautiful multi-story music store in Roppongi. In many ways Japan represented a sanitised and safe version of England for me, and in some ways this country is far more similar to England than say, the United States or Germany are. Chio concurred. After studying mime in England she traveled to New York to dance, as she felt that she had ‘never left home’ in England. Too many similarities. Gleefully we sat down and enumerated, and eventually came up with this:

‘Japan and Britain are islands,

Traditionally vigilant of predatory continental empires yet not successfully invaded subjugated or dominated for many hundreds of years at a time.

There is a love of green and much piety on the question of gardens in these most urbanised of lands, whose soils, although fertile and water washed, require tillage and toil; being loathe to give up their gifts.

There is love of gadgets too.

Our crooked teeth get locked around sweet foods rather more often than is good for them.

And telephone cards (prepaid and slid through the phone-box itself) are quite the norm.

Left side driving and expensive taxis monopolise the late night city transit of sodden passengers at the appointed hour (there are regimented times for debauchery). Not here the slow and steady round the clock consumption of alcohol that is possible in say, Berlin, but instead an evening rush to pubs and bars, that only adumbrates the second rush of the night: the stagger for the last train.

Fads, fashion, and the conspicuous consumption of information (an overflow of disposable ideas disappearing into the vortex of the next day’s intellectual shopping list) dominate as trains run everywhere through swathes of green banked cuttings over shingled sleepers and revetment buildings.

Traditionally eldest sons inherit family holdings, that is the law of primogeniture.

So that the the youngest shall go forth in adventure and rejoice in sad songs as they sup beer....’

One redolent evening, as the night closed off another humid day she came to the realisation that this time she had returned to stay. On the railway station platform near Yoyogi park she hugged me (an unusually demonstrative action for a Japanese woman in a public setting), for no apparent reason, except nostalgia, fear, and the knowledge of the end. As yet she could not see that this too, was a beginning. We sat in the dark, and cried in secret, and as we did so, she handselled her old life onto my shoulders. Slowly her grip on me, the last connection to that existence, slackened. Once I was gone she wrote for a while, told me of her work, her creative ventures, her boyfriend. Soon however, the letters stopped, and she disappeared completely, lost in the ever running engine of Tokyo. I had been a last link to another life, another hope, another place of being. I mourned the loss, as I receded back into New York existence.

The comfort of the Smiths for her was the comfort of me, or rather that which I had represented: another life, beyond the constraints of Japan; wandering in strange lands, playing with the freedom of not belonging, of transience, of procrastinating the final return. For me this comfort began with nostalgia for Tokyo and the moments I had known there. Inevitably though the sound of British working class ennui and the rain sweeping the ‘humdrum towns’ of England, began to engage a more recondite place within me; that which is still adolescent. For a long time I took a guilty, sneaky pleasure in a music that seemed at times snidey, full of sneers and resentment, with an ill-will that evoked the same in my heart. A visit with the Smiths, or Morrissey in his solo incarnation is still a visit with dark corners. There is a curious strength in it though, to identify with a peculiarly British experience that leaves one defiant, bouncy even, able to take on the world, or the street at least, from any angle. It’s a very material force in a way: the same kind of buzz that you get from having new boots and a designer jacket, and just the right weapon to cradle in the pocket.

And then there’s this fascination with those who are ‘physically capable’, the uneasy voice of one born to the street, who sensibly left it behind, who never partook in those values yet has the nagging doubt that perhaps that only thing that ever mattered was this: the ability to handle oneself in a fight.

The thick brown voice of Manchester: those panting nondescript inner-cities, suburbs and council estates, Gateshead, Dulwich, Redland, Bermondsey, all those schools running out of hopes, all hopes long ruined. ...and if there was any point in my going to school, that school. was there anything good there? That I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without that hideous...? Still embedded like an axe in my chest for ever, school, that school, those estates, those children... ...those guitar intervals, dissonant ninths and clustered harmonics, sing of those places, places, places.... surely as that Crystal Palace Football Club shirt (I have hidden in my cupboard) is a reminder of times best forgotten.

The Smiths seem to go well with beer. It’s all that maudlin self pity, if you let it wash up inside. Listen to the accent on the word ‘inside’ in the song ‘Unlovable’ as Morrissey struggles with his place in the world. He’s very good at translating this struggle for the rest of us. So when we go there we recognise it instantly.

B Tribe: Suave (1995)
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-07-09 22:45:47+02:00

I awake to the melody of gulls circling the beaches that overlook the Southern sea, swathed in the warm wind that gusts at the olive green and spiked vegetation. The wind is chording, harmonising it’s own tunes, or so I believe for a moment, but then I realise other work is coming through, that of people, their stringed instrument sounds lazily meld with the surf and cricket-loud sand; following a rasgueado strum. Shimmering in the heat the gypsy girl is the first to walk over the dunes, in jewelled sandals picking her way carefully, and she sings as she does so. She passes close, so close that I can see the moisture on her midriff and observe the texture in the embroidery of her blouse, and moved from within I extend my hand, but she passes on, through me, or I through her, I am not sure which it is. As she passes I join the chorus of her song, and it seems as if she hears this, for a frown pauses momentarily on her face, and her voice cracks, with a muttered aside. Then, from my vantage point above the waves I see the the gypsy guitarists; now I understand that rasgueado, sensual they sing too, over slowed beats ‘celli glower, and shakers held in brown hands glisten with wet sand. I would stir to join the throng, sing even, but cannot, logged with feeling I can only be still and watch, listen. At one point the harmony lifts me involuntarily to a sitting position, but even that returns to its point of origin; and I with it, fade to the ground, helpless once more. So it is, the song and the sand, until the dancers come, and at last I too can move, turning at first slow, almost like tableaux vivant, minor to major mode and back again, but then they move off in procession, and I stumble behind, following on their last footprints. I travel, as does everything else under that spell, up through the ancient and parched country to an Arabic citadel, and through the portcullised arch of the city wall to the courtyards within. Sun baked and basking, in this city something of the quiet of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan still resides, although the Ummah has long ago left. Now a male voice rises, claims all griefs to be his own, shouldering the year that has passed, and the girl dances in the dusty streets with him. As the truncated and austere beats continue, the singers fall silent, a dub breakdown in hiatus of another beginning.

At last, the rasgueado salute, at the start of another journey and the multitude of the town pour from their houses to play to the parched plains and, look! now the fields bear flowers; the gypsy song has rung in the season, as the guitarists circling cast sound to every horizon, like seed....

The light of the soul is the light of life and that light is love.... she says, suddenly standing in front of me.

I feel you,

she says.


I answer,

who so calmly sneak behind?

She is insouciant, and skips ahead ,

and teases,

oh yes,

I feel you,

and laughs, and works, all in one gesture as she sings the land free.

Once the southern sun descends, fire extinguished by the far off horizon she returns to town, her task done for the day. In the window boxes of the street are new flowers from the fecund fields, around the corners and alleyways the gypsies play on, but she is silent now, listening to their ancient melody; she dances away, smiling, and disappears into her house,

Through the ornate grill work on the window frame I can see her, she hums softly to a small child cradled in her arms, but this is for me too, I who perch and rest on a stone bank, who would cry if I could, because here in this village I have seen reason to hope, because here people live for each other it seems, just a little...

as night falls she takes a small bird in her hand, and hears the drummers marching away down the street the gypsies play guitar by a campfire

when they converge the bird

will fly again... she holds her hands up, and the moonlight glistens on her suddenly revealed bracelets as the sleeves fall back and the bird rises, the flutter of wings and the whirl of guitar strum all coursing on the wind beneath the stars

you’ll be back next year, she tells me, and the village recedes away, the moon looms larger and the clouds scud over the bright ocean. I wheel back towards the mountain horizon where I must be as she sings again her blessing, and her spell, and I know I will return....