Is it Possible to Rediscover Something for the First Time?

Africa, Happiness, Music, Paul Simon, Rhythm of the Saints, roots music, tribal

Thirty years ago, give or take a month or two, a not so obvious child was born. (N.B. From the off, let me steer you away from fixating on an actual human birth, for a blog on the wonder of childbirth this is not. Figures of speech loom large in my writing, so apologies if you like your writing served on dry toast with a great dollop of literality. Oops! I did it again, smearing words on bread, which cannot be done, unless you’re making alphabet soup, in which case you can choke your own words, especially if the soup contains croutons.)

Well I’m accustomed to a smooth ride,

Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite

Anyway, back to the point. This not-so-obvious child was born in a New York recording studio thirty summers ago before the world junked out on the digital dope. The idea behind this multi-instrumental reproductive birth pang – no less the title track of the album – was that the child was obvious, and therefore should not be denied (could not resist a metatextual reference, so bear with me). But, trouble was, this birth went unheralded. No magi. No manger. Unlike the first born; yeah, that one with the South African mbaqanga rhythms and Ladysmith Black Mambaso a capella backing vocals, and for which everyone from Houston to Harare had heard of, recorded not five years before, this gift from our dancing God slipped into the world without slipping into my auditory canal for, oh, the next, uh, 30 years.

I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more,

I don’t expect to sleep through the night

The ‘Obvious Child’, track one of Paul Simon’s much anticipated follow-up to Graceland, that renaissance masterpiece from the little Jewish guy (I’m reliably informed he’s actually Jewish on his dad’s side, which doesn’t strictly qualify him) best known for writing whimsical folk songs about being in a grim northern English railway station pining for America, or about the pulp-faced wreckage of a boxer standing in a clearing on an equally grim New York street. Simon’s masterpiece part II should have registered first time round. But it didn’t. Not with me, at any rate. He titled this Graceland infant brother from another mother Rhythm of the Saints. The Boxer it was not. But Rhythm of the Saints was a lot like watching Muhammed Ali bounce around the ring in his pomp. In short, Paul Simon’s extended musical journey into African roots is pure, unbridled joy captured in a musical jar. Fireflies lighting up Brazilian drums and picking West African strings. The album might be about to turn thirty but when music is as timeless as this who gives a tinker’s cuss how old it is.

Some people say a lie’s a lie’s a lie,

But I say why

Rhythm of the Saints should’ve nailed it on release, but it didn’t. Hardly did it flop either, but neither did it electrify the music scene quite like its illustrious forebear. This much I know because I was nineteen and bonkers about music in 1991, and I don’t remember anything drowning out the sound of Nirvana’s Nevermind at the time. If Paul Simon wanted a shot at redemption on 1986’s Graceland, he certainly got it five years later with Rhythm of the Saints. Made with so much music multilateralism in mind that if you teamed up Kofi Annan with the entire line-up of the WOMAD festival you’d still fall short. And yet, the album wasn’t quite as percussive in the wave effect of critical acclaim as it ought to have been. Nowhere near that of a predecessor that, one could argue, whacked the first nail in the coffin of Apartheid. Maybe the curse of Graceland. After all, Elvis himself fell foul to it.

Why deny the obvious child?

Why deny the obvious child?

I’m fixing to shout to the rooftops about this black opal of a album, buried as it is still close enough to the surface to be easily mined. I won’t bore you with the particulars of my life, nor of a chequered year that’s been about as much song and dance as the long trudge to the gallows. But i will say that salvation doesn’t have to come wrapped in Jesus’ tunic. Paul Simon saved my life this year. Summarily, I dedicate this season of light to him. Or maybe this rapturous album transcends the man, leaving the listener making supplications to the creation over the creator. Track 3, The Coast, is one stubborn son of a female dog. Like unrequited love, its warm tones, its hypnotic melody, and its swinging hotspot rhythms squat in the heart long after the mind deems it sensible to evict them. Much as I try to ignore what is fast becoming musical recitation’s answer to Tourette’s Syndrome, day or night I cannot stop listening to it. When the ensemble builds like a human tower – Bahian percussion beneath Cameroonian guitar strings beneath Simon’s pitch perfect voice – my ageing body starts slithering in a whiplash motion. For a moment the hands of time turn back and i feel like a young buck lubricated at the seams.

And in remembering a road sign,

I am remembering a girl when I was young

Track 6 is She Moves On. Get this, apparently he pens it as a kind of paean to his ex-wife, Carrie Fisher. (Emoji with love hearts for eyeballs) Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, object of my adolescent fantasies sat statuesquely beside the debonair Jabba the Hut in an off-planetary bikini with hair plaited like a brunette Rapunzel. ‘When the road bends, when the song ends, She moves on.’ She certainly did. Sadly, it was onto acute bipolar disorder that she moved. But hey ho, unlike most who rest on their haunches, at least she moved. And if you ever listen to this number, so will you. In fact, maybe that’s the life force behind this work of art that can’t be hung in a gallery. Music is art providing someone’s playing it. When the music’s over…lights out. A song lives only for as long as it’s brought to life. Like any oral tradition that binds tribes into carriers of the flame, music is magic when multilingual. And on Rhythm of the Saints Simon performs an incantation on me unlike most other minstrels who try their damnedest to transcend the medium of sonic art.

The speeding planet burns

I’m used to that

My life’s so common it disappears

And sometimes even music

Cannot substitute for tears

It remains, perhaps, an ironic twist of lime in the caipirinha that the album’s closing track, The Rhythm of the Saints, ends with the lines printed above. And sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears. Is this a call to melancholy in the midst of joy? Can the two ever be truly rent apart when the greatest music makes symbiosis out of sounds and emotions. I have scribbled these thoughts down in the time it’s taken to listen to the album: twice (I took a break to sway my fidgety self to the those Pied Piper drumbeats). In the end, I do declare that these tears Paul Simon cannot hold back, even after composing this unforgettable musical oeuvre, have to be tears of pride that for a guy who made incredible folk songs with Art Garfunkel twenty years before, could go one better by bringing music back home to its birthplace of Africa. My own tears, for what it’s worth, are of relief that 2021 was rescued from ignominy by a little genius from New Jersey for whom the world didn’t quite appreciate when he was busy changing it with his Rhythm of the Saints.

True love sometimes has to round the block before it’s noticed. But nevertheless: how on Earth did I miss the carnival first time around?

(Nothing but) Flowers

apocalypse, botany, conservation, Coronavirus, Covid-19, crisis, development, earth, environment, ethics, forest, future, futurology, giant trees, Hippies, history, human development, Imagination, joni mitchell, Life, Lifestyle, lyrics, meditations, Music, Musings, natural philosophy, natural world, nature, pandemic, paradise found, paradise lost, People, Planet Earth, Political Culture, pop music, redwoods, Reflections, Society, talking heads, teleology, thoughts, trees, verse, Virus

Does art imitate life, or life art?

In days of Covid-19, when the sight of Piccadilly Circus derelict at 3pm could easily be mistaken for 3am midsummer in Murmansk with the sun already up (or more’s the point, having never actually gone down, situated as it is above the Arctic Circle), you know the face of the planet is a strange and beautiful – if deeply troubled – place in need of accounting for. To do that, what better way than to trove through the annals of music to find lyrics that somehow chime with our topsy-turvy vision of Twenty-Twenty.  

How pop music anticipated the short upside of the long lockdown.

Two classic numbers spring to mind as expressions of a world both blighted by the giant bovver boot of human success, and lifted from the dark shadow of its crushing conquest. To know them, we first need to know their context (both allude strongly to making/unmaking the world in our own human image) plus the order in which they arrived on the scene. 

The first song imagines paradise lost to human development and is really an ironic take on how when somewhere magical is discovered by the few it is soon descended upon by the many until that magic melts away before the axe, the pick, the shovel and the steamroller. Let’s face up, before the current pandemic, paradise was being lost at a rate of knots. Virgin lands were being deflowered faster than their chastity could stand. But this trend had a precedent. This was all laid out with depressing familiarity in the imagery conjured up in Joni Mitchell’s 1970 masterpiece, Big Yellow Taxi. She saw the tide changing even back then. Joni must’ve read Rachel Carson’s 1962 groundbreaker, Silent Spring. She, among the enlightened few, flocked to Laurel Canyon, in the hills outside L.A., when it was relatively untouched. By 1970 her lyrics were prescient enough to foreshadow an era when the faraway magic tree was starting to get laden with nest builders. In short, when the visionary few woke up to us killing the goose that laid the golden egg. 

She sings,

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot.

This was 1970. By then California’s redwoods had taken about as much pummelling as they could without going extinct in their native habitat. Federal protection would soon ensue to safeguard the remaining 5% of coastal redwoods left in the wild. Things were by no means great, ecologically-speaking. But the world contained far fewer people than today, and far more biodiversity in still unchecked corners of the globe. Joni saw the writing on the wall. For her, it was going to be ugly, but not without the delicious tang of irony.

They took all the trees
Put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em.

The rapid human (& by extension commercial) development of Southern California, and in particular Laurel Canyon, was cause for concern, even then. It was in every sense yet another paradise in the process of being lost. You didn’t have to go back to Milton in the 1600’s to realise this. Nor even to the loss of Eden in the Old Testament. In fact, it was happening all around her and her hippie acolytes. So much so that she saw fit to pen the words to one of the great songs of popular music.

Hey, farmer, farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees.

The birds needed their trees, but the trees were being shipped to the museum. And the bees needed the flowers to pollinate, but the flowers were sprayed with deadly insecticide. And so, the modern narrative was written. The context was nature’s loss for human gain, albeit temporary. The story of us was bittersweet. Our rampaging success came at a cost to everything that was hitherto worth living for. The garden of Eden was once again imperilled, and didn’t Joni express it every bit as well as a biblical prophet.

The second classic number from 1988, Talking Heads’ (Nothing but) Flowers, also laments loss – yes, those buckled blades of grass under the giant bovver boot of human progress that Joni decries – but this time in a different way. Human development for Joni amounted to stealing the pristine from under her nose as Laurel Canyon fills up with infrastructure that follows in the wake of other dream-seekers like herself. Where she accuses her fellow pioneers of stripping away at the fabric of pure nature in their onrush to exist in a state untouched by civilisation (in other words, by radical actions involving having to degrade nature so they could live it, which defeats the whole point of conservation), (Nothing But) Flowers laments the loss of what we brought to the world by changing it from natural to synthetic. The lyrics deliver a shot from the bows that, contrary to the selfish act of taking from nature to become more natural, mother nature (triggered by events untold in the Talking Heads song) has now reclaimed all things natural from her wayward child. His message is clear: we didn’t gain anything in losing our hold on the world. Roads without cars might well feel like a pleasant dream when cars on roads are all that is. But when all the cars are gone and the road is uprooted? Is that not just as lamentable as a world sans les animaux? Beware what you wish for is a sentiment that rattles through each verse.  

From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Whereas Joni’s brand new parking lot paved paradise, Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne sings,

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis.

His parking lot has become overgrown in the absence of cars by the creeping dominion of natural regrowth. We have, in essence, gone full circle. However, this oasis is not all it is cracked up to be. Byrne soon tires of this state of nature, dreaming instead of,

 …cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies.  

One would be forgiven for thinking that where

…There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers…

can only be good. But no. Byrne proves to be no such primitivist. He wants his Dairy Queen, Honky Tonk and 7-Eleven back. Joni saw real estate supplanting the wild fields and trees, a town sprung up where once there were flowers. Byrne envisions the opposite.

This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Disabusing us of this idyllic state of post-civilisation, catching rattlesnakes for dinner is not a tempting prospect once civilisation has collapsed. In a nod to the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, David Byrne sees savagery as the state of nature. Thus, sovereignty has to be restored lest we descend into the the very thing we’ve tried to get way from throughout our painful history. For Joni Mitchell, the romanticism is straight out of a Gaugin painting of Tahitian women. Noble savagery, all swished with colour. For David Byrne, this post-apocalyptic bloom might as well be algal. For Joni, the optimal state of existence is what you might term prelapsarian, that is to say, straight from the Garden of Eden before the flood. Humans are the harbingers of apocalypse for her. Everything they do to commodify their world ends up being worse than the purity of what it replaced.

As Byrne sings toward the end verses:

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries.

Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

Both these splendid tunes are musical museum pieces for good reason. You or I couldn’t sit down and write them in an afternoon. But in spite of their substantive differences, both numbers are really just two sides of the same coin. Both deal with before and after. Both lament loss. Both pivot around this idea of the aftermath of a profound transition felt by everyone. In this regard, one can thread them to the current state of lockdown being experienced around the world. As has become all too apparent that everyone is feeling a different vibe to the recent halting of practically all human activity in the face of a deadly virus, we may well ask: is it time for a prequel to these songs? This time, in lieu of loss, the unnamed songwriter can wax lyrical about how we unpaved paradise, took down a parking lot. Of how we took all the museums, put them in a massive tree. Or, this was going to be real estate, but it was decided the best buildings are trees. Or, please leave me stranded here, I could get used to this lockdown. 

Leave something for the birds and the bees. Leave something for us and those of us to come.