The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, August 17, 2003
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT

At the end of this week I will be off to Glasgow for the second August Bank Holiday weekend in a row, to visit my mother. Outwardly I generally moan about how I wish there were other, more exciting, sexier, life-affirming options for such holidays, but inwardly I rather enjoy being fussed over and attended to – in other words, a chance to be 14 again.

The main reason for visiting my mother this week is, of course, that a week tomorrow (Monday 25th August) will mark the second anniversary of Laura’s death, and I still do not trust myself to be alone on that day. Company, even the most elemental, is required. This is of particular importance when it comes to the fact that I am still questioning much of my previous life.

Parenthood – does it really fuck you up? Or does it just butter you up for a glittering, chimerical future which can never be obtained? The jury in my head remains out. But the question was again prompted by the recent BBC TV two-part docu-drama on the Brontës. A terrible thing it was too, crippled by unbelievably hammy narration from Patricia Routledge (the kind of middle class after-the-fact Customs barrier which has deterred so many from investigating 19th century literature) and generally overacted by Patrick Malahide and others in a manner more suited to 1975 schools programming. Of course, it reinforced the given Gaskell gospel on the glum family, namely three girls and one Lester Bangs prototype fatally fucked up by a solipsistic, ultra-Tory fire-and-brimstone merchant of a father, who, if he were not wishing to stick his knob into them, decided to make them so inward-looking and unsuitable for even the most menial of jobs in the “real” world that they were obliged to invent a fantasy world of shining, heroic, proto-Narnian aristocracy to compensate for the fact that they lived slap bang in the middle of the 19th century West Yorkshire equivalent of Easterhouse or the Stonebridge Park estate – for that was the reality of Haworth in the Industrial era. Despite the sterling efforts of Juliet Barker to plead that this was not, in so many words, the case – that Patrick Brontë did try to inculcate “liberal” values in his children – we are left with the fact that one could say as much about Larkin’s father, who pointed his son in the direction of Joyce, Hardy and Downbeat magazine. It doesn’t obscure the swastika in the Treasurer’s office of Coventry City Council, nor does it negate the truth that 19th century “liberal” values were roughly equivalent to, say, John Redwood’s values today. Thus did the hapless girls turn (or were turned) into Tory snobs because it was the nearest thing to rebellion they could imagine. Out of the Haworth milieu – in Brussels, even in London – they floundered. And it makes one wonder whether their writing was even that good, or whether – as with Thackeray – the superficial subversion in fact was an attempt to excuse the deeply reactionary sentiments simmering underneath.

The most dispiriting thing about the programme, though, was that it made Haworth Parsonage – shot from the usual sub-Third Man crooked camera angles – as alien to this viewer as Jupiter. And I am not entirely sure whether this is the fault of the programme’s clichés or whether this marks a systematic sea change in my own feelings and beliefs. Laura and I knew Haworth – and West Yorkshire – well, and many the time we marvelled, bewildered and stunned, at how the sisters, with their tiny feet, managed the walk from the Parsonage to Top Withens every morning before lunch, while we struggled to scramble up banks, perched unsteadily on narrow dirt tracks at the edges of treacherous precipices.

Haworth is a tourist attraction now, its acutely sloping streets reminding one of a postal sub-district of Lincoln in more mountainous surroundings. Keighley, the nearest railway station, is a reproduction antique adjacent to a severely rundown town. The three or four miles from Keighley to Haworth strive hard to be bucolic; council estates carefully hidden away from the main drag, but never quite escape the corner of one’s left eye. The perpetually locked doors of the Brontë Society headquarters – another cultural Customs barrier – sneer at passers-by.

From the Brontë docu-drama I could neither persuade nor force myself to engender any strong feelings about the Brontës or Haworth or the moors, one way or the other. Is that how it should be? Did I narrowly skirt the precipice of a comfortable and complacent future? Is it time to survey the whole Haworth/Brontë/Strachey/RAF/WWI world and just let go?

“Where lies the hope for the future, and not in mere empty regret for the days which can never come again?”
(William Morris, “Art and Labour,” The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, ed. Eugene D Lemire. Detroit: 1969. Not a question as such, but turned into one by the present author)

BONE THUGS-N-HARMONY: EXORCISM AFTER DEATH
Few records, and fewer hip hop or R&B records, look death so clearly and consistently in the face, and yet so laconically, as E.1999 Eternal, the 1995 masterpiece by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Bone and DJ U-Neek managed to travel to further and darker cobwebs of worlds than even the Wu-Tang managed at their bleakest and most pitiless (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx). There are few starker openings to an album than “Da Introduction” which tyrannically chains Norman Whitfield to Lee Perry via The Dramatics (the rain sample from the latter’s “In The Rain” is the absolute leitmotif of this album, running through most of it). If only Whitfield had kept going and trusted his blacker instincts; the crossfire of slowed-down, backward vocals (Hendrix’s “Third Stone” wakes up in the ‘hood, waiting to be shot), cross-channel sirens, screaming guitars, trebly yells, coffin-nail beats – mewling insistently and creepily into “East 1999” with its children’s music box motif, a string synthesiser acting up for Thom Bell all by itself. Overseen by executive producer Eazy-E, who died before the album was released, this could also be the bleakest and most extreme NWA by-product, darker even than Dre. No Eminem-style “I’m only joking folks” asides here.

Foreseen here are the ragga stylings later to become familiar with T.O.K. (and which really ought to have been familiar from BDP’s Criminal Minded - “The Bridge Is Over,” etc.) and the Sprechtstimme of Nelly. But we must also remember that BTH hail from Cleveland. The title E.1999 Eternal relates to an intersection of two streets in the city – in other words, the “crossroads” – in other words, you die here – in other words, no 21st century shall you see – in other words, this record is the missing link between “Thriller!” by fellow Clevelanders Pere Ubu and Thriller by Michael Jackson.

- in other words, when they sing the words “I’m running, jumping” and the staccato, atonal piano chord is repeatedly hammered as per John Cale – in other words, it becomes superreal – in other words, Milligan and Sellers’ Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film -

In another, not necessarily better world (remember Jackie Brown), the music of “Crept When We Came” could be the Delfonics, as could the harmonies. But here the strings are synthetic and programmed for slaughter rather than salvation; or the spectre of slaughter which stalks every street when you cannot find an exit. “When I start pumpin’, that’s when you lay low.” It is so pitiless in its descent. As is “Down ’71 (The Getaway)” which is the missing link between Robert Forster in the apartment in Jackie Brown and NWA’s “Fuck Da Police.” But the breaks here are explosions, as though the judge’s gavel had been fitted with a detonator. Kill! Kill! Live! Down with ’71? Attica blues…not a better world. “Mr Bill Collector” – these harmonies are so yearning. But they are yearning just to blow the head off someone who doesn’t agree with them (“I didn’t mean to take his life, but the nigga tried to get away and run off with my ill”) (“They did not intend to take his life/He just pushed his luck a little too far that night” – Rod Stewart, “The Killing Of Georgie”).

“Budsmokers Only” tells us that they get high to make them so inward-looking and unsuitable for even the most menial of jobs in the “real” world that they are obliged to invent a fantasy world of shining, heroic, proto-John Woo deathocracy to compensate for the fact that they live slap bang in the middle of the late 20th century Midwest equivalent of the Stonebridge Park estate or Haworth. And what a beautiful descent into oblivion it sounds, too – underscored by Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons,” as if to ask: well, do you need any? It is of course the missing link between Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” and Pharrell Williams’ “Frontin’”.

the reality of greatness…

“Crossroad.”
The beating heart of this record, a threnody, a kaddish for the fallen who tripped themselves up. Voices/harmonies distorted beyond belief, falling into the tears of their own stoned sleep, because we focus and look at what happens when death becomes a reality because it ALWAYS is…Bone Thugs-N-Harmony mourn their own extinction.

Symmetry?

“The Ambassadors is a distillation of the Renaissance. Everything is in it. On a table between Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, representatives of the French king in London, are emblems of exploration, learning and trade: a globe that shows Brazil, mathematical and time-telling instruments, music, a carpet – used as a tablecloth – imported from Turkey. The men are reserved, po-faced; they give little away. Behind them is a claustrophobic green curtain that presses the picture forward, slightly parted to reveal Christ on the cross. A distorted, at first baffling, black and white form smears itself in a disruptive oval across the painting; viewed from the right-hand side, it reveals itself as a human skull.

“’Vice versa, life is death.’ There have been many explanations of this deliberately confounding picture, but the simplest is offered by Erasmus. Life is death: all the material and intellectual and artistic energies of the Renaissance, recorded in this picture, all the politics – represented by the Ambassadors themselves – and the pastimes can switch in a second to their opposite: death. This Silenus invention is, historically, the literal truth of the painting. If we were to dig up these two men, skulls are about all we would find, if not mere dust. Holbein is pointing out the grim truth about all the historical images of ancient Romans that were revered in Renaissance Europe –

AT HENRY VIII’S HAMPTON COURT, TERRACOTTA PORTRAITS OF ROMAN EMPERORS REMIND US OF PAST GREATNESS.

But in truth, Holbein points out, the reality of greatness, in time, is a skull. Life is death.”
(Jonathan Jones, “The Monstrous And The Magnificent,” Guardian Weekend magazine, 16 August 2003.

Emphasis very deliberately provided by the present writer, to remind himself that some links in The Church Of Me have to be considerably more clearly signposted than others)

But Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, standing alone in the rain, pass the crossroads and turn the whole album into a symmetrical pattern. “Me Killa” they chant, at first tentatively, and then with decisive fuck-you-ness, distorting Little Peggy March into Dre knows what. Thereafter the record stumbles and feels its own way towards an afterlife…the grotesque utopia of “1st Of Tha Month” – the missing link between “Hey Jude” and Kelis’ Kaleidoscope (“Wake up, wake up, wake up/Cash your checks and get up/It’s tha 1st of tha month” – the missing link between The Sandpipers’ “Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls” and The Streets’ “All Got Our Runnins”). Then the extraordinary “Buddah Lovaz” – that is, worship of the “Buds” they are smoking, which unravels a very direct truth about post-Coltrane spiritual jazz, as if we couldn’t have guessed it anyway; slowly they stone themselves, their Osmond harmonies slip out of synch, slither through syllables. A lovely fucking mess, and then…”Die Die Die” – a chant which hardly exists, a threat which they cannot pull themselves together to enforce, they’re so blissed out – and then the chaos of “Mr Ouija 2” and “Mo’ Murda,” as demented as anything on the upcoming OutKast album, which unravels a very direct truth about post-Arthur Doyle ecstatic jazz, as if you couldn’t have heard it by the way…

…but is there a way back into life?

QUICK INTERMISSION – CAPPA

Gotta be quick ‘cos that’s how he talks Nottingham rap unknown since Stereo MCs but Cappa has much more on his plate newish record Spaz The World not Dizzee Rascal he needs to work a little less if he wants to be nevertheless brutal beats The P Brothers DJ Paul S and Ivory not sure about Apocalypse Now yet again on “Cirques des Clowns” but dammit “Speak” with guest MC Scor-Zay-Zee thrashes along like nothing since prime Blade no sample clearance here zeromoney so consequently more layered as good old ’86/87 rap was not a nod to ragga or garage but not a nod to Angus fucking Batey in Mojo this month either Christ Chuck D and Rakim watching each other top each other not a mention about Scott La Rock being shot dead don’t mention Schoolly-D a Golden Age which we will never see again because it’s all commercial now like Why? and Beans and the Neptunes and anyway I was 26 when The Chronic came out so by NME diktat that’s when music had to end but fuck if you feel it’s all over either keep it to yourself or if you write publicly that it’s been all over with music since 1968 or 1976 or 1992 or 1997 then really stick a 9mm in your mouth and blow your fucking head off your body because your life is over and you have fuck all to live for and you deny and sneer at the lives of others so terminate yourself and get out of our way that same Cecil Taylor elbow on upper register keyboard motif in “15-10” and I didn’t even mention how in the “Intro” Cappa proposes “I’ll slit my wrists so I can return to haunt you” and in “Speak” “I’ll make my family fortunes and marry Les Dennis’ bird” but nonetheless “Watership Down” is a wary lament “Learn To Be Strong” is budget Blueprint but damn good at it the mournful late-night slit-my-wrists-or-not mood of “Prevail” Nottingham town centre exploding on “I.D.S.T.” and I think of B S Johnson’s football writer in The Unfortunates coming to Nottingham and not remembering whether he had ever been there before though the place seemed instantly recognisable to him but this matters because Cappo says Nottingham matters which matters more than Madonna sneering “Nothing Really Matters” if such matters matter and it’s “Gloves Off” with Mr 45 to finish Brentford Nylons comes to Cabrini Green via the Wednesbury turnoff and just fucking buy it

THE NEPTUNES: YOU CAN’T CLONE THIS

You thought – or were made to think – that they were finished, had run into cliché, had exhausted their cycle. A Neptunes Presents album? The Clones? Surely tempting cynicism far too far? Because you know they were so 2001 and anyway Goldfrapp and the Rapture are on this season and besides
FUCK YOUR SHIT he screamed with renewed life - 18 tracks, an intro and 17 songs by 16 different artists, with at least 15 possible futures of pop. This album - The Neptunes Present The Clones, rightly described by Westwood as “the hottest album on the streets,” shows the Neptunes to be so fucking far ahead of everybody else’s game that it’s laughable. A Pillows And Prayers for the 21st century. At least 50% of the contents of Now 58. Including Busta Rhymes’ brilliantly minimalist “Light Your Ass On Fire” with its Mr Magoo “hmm”s. When the bass finally kicks in halfway through the song. Clipse’s “Blaze Of Glory” with its swooning MBV synths blueprinting a path for pop to walk

(essential truth masquerading as an interlude between interludes: and this is why it is important to resist the easy conclusion that it’s all over. It is indeed true that, armed with a spare £11, I would advise you to forego Broadcast’s HAHA Sound - the desperation of those capital letters! – in favour of the United States Of America album, which does it all sexier and profounder and better, without the beyond-irritating disinclined, flat, please-hit-me vocals of Trish Keenan. And if you want John Barry-esque harpsichords, you should invest in some John Barry compilations before blowing the bank for Broadcast - Themeology on Sony which covers the known routes, despite blokey Jonathan Ross sleevenotes, and Lounge Legends on German Polygram which goes down Barry’s darker alleys, containing the other two parts of the Persuaders cimbalom/synth bass triptych, the themes from Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries and The Adventurer, not to mention the only CD in existence on which you can purchase the full six minutes of Donna Summer’s “Down Deep Inside.” But, were you standing in a street surrounded by record shops right this second, you should purchase The Neptunes Present The Clones before considering, or doing, anything else. That, readers, is the difference)

There’s the lunatic Ludacris hijacked by a Sousa marching band trapped in a honey jar on “It Wasn’t Us” (“Bankruptcy? – it wasn’t us!”). And there’s a song for the most endless of summers – Pharrell Williams’ own “Frontin’,” which sounds vaguely like a demo for Timberlake, but actually just fucking listen to these blissfully angular guitars and synths. Luxuriate in all that space. For the second time this year, Jay-Z spectates actively on one of the singles of the year. It’s the missing link between Bobby Goldsboro’s “Hello Summertime” and Prefab Sprout’s “Hey Manhattan” with Nas’ “The World Is Yours” as the only possible best man.

Oh, damn it, why can’t Pop Idol come up with something as effortlessly adventurous and mainstream as Vanessa Marquez’ “Good Girl”? Listen how the benign Kelly Clarkson pop is slowly and gradually turned into something with many more corners and much more unexpected. Kraftwerk’s Tour De France Soundtracks with Debbie Gibson on vocals. And all Vanessa wants is your love.

And all Nelly wants is you back. “If,” a completely unannounced new cut from the Herre-man, is wonderful in its self-enclosed lamenting. So much colour coexisting with all this adventure! (Anticon just need that little more colour – that’s the difference) Here’s Rosco P Coldchain with “Hot” turning the reassurance of Indeep’s “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life” into something far more minimalist and troubling. You might be following trouble down the drain if you’re not careful.

Didn’t we just want Snoop Dogg to work with the Neptunes? Actually, while writing this I’m reminding myself of just how bloody well Doggystyle has endured over the last decade. Actually, just before writing this I was reminding myself of just how big a hit Justin Warfield’s “Fisherman’s Grotto” should/could have been, so that people don’t scratch their heads at Mojo’s Roots Of Hip Hop compilation and wonder what Blood Sweat & Tears’ “Lucretia MacEvil” is doing on there. ANYWAY, Snoop is back here with “It Blows My Mind,” and by God it does…he has finally mutated into George Clinton, as we always knew he would. The cornices (Doric and Ionic), the smoothly obtuse angles of this song – who else is doing this right now? And so effortlessly?

What perhaps they shouldn’t do, of course, is rock, unless they’re N.E.R.D. or Fam-Lay. Not quite sure what the two central straight rock tracks on this compilation – Spymob’s “Half-Steering…” and The High Speed Scene’s “Fuck It Spend” – are doing here, as they appear to have nothing to do with the Neptunes. But apparently this all comes from a proposed film soundtrack, so doubtless there are reasons. Even so, by virtue of its immaculate surroundings, “Half-Steering…” still manages to sound 100000000000 times more convincing and filled with life than just about any “rock” music of which I can currently think. Including those one-hit-wonders The Rapture. But when N.E.R.D. “rock,” as they do on “Loser,” we are talking about the “rock” of Nyro or Rundgren or Becker and Godley and Creme and Fagen (i.e. “rock” as something to cling to or fuck to as opposed to an empty simulacrum of jaded masculinity).

And the song, which itself is called “Rock N’ Roll,” by new signings Fam-Lay, may well be the most quietly radical track on this record. Extending and stretching the innate and learned creativity of hip hop and R&B to such an organic extent that samples are no longer necessary. Dislocating and inviting at the same time, Fam-Lay may well unleash the most unexpectedly compulsive debut album since Music In A Doll’s House by Family (to which latter of course it is umbilically attached).

Ragga! Put Sean Paul to bed for Chrissakes! Bring back Supercat! “The Don Of Dons (Put De Ting Pon Dem)” featuring Supercat and Jadakiss is phenomenal; an accordion cut-up and fractured beneath the boomkat bass and delivery, Astor Piazolla abducted to Virginia Beach, with Clifton Chenier and Keith Hudson as the midwives.

Clipse are all over this compilation (and people are still only just getting “Grindin’”) and their “Hot Damn” will be the track which opens CD2 of Now 58. Not to be outdone, here’s N.O.R.E. outdoing everyone (and who woulda thunk it?) with the Get Smart theme gone walkies of “Put ‘Em Up,” sampled horns blaring away in a corner; Don Ellis and his Orchestra locked in the pilot’s cabin.

But for extremes of extremity you’d find it hard to trump the beyond insane “Pop Shit” by Dirt McGirt – a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – and should settle simply for immersing yourself in the loops, sirens and wobbly warlocks which this track, and Mr McGirt himself, has to offer. Contrast with I’m Mad, Me, the new chart-topping album by The Coral, or You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry, No Honestly, I Get In A Right Royal State, the forthcoming album by The Vines, or, Look They’ve Got “Grievous Angel” For Three Quid, the final album by The Thrills, which latter of course provide no link whatsoever between any other pieces of music whose titles or lyrics contain the word “Thriller.” This is berserk, this is Joe Meek being prodded awake by an Uzi (“I’m a Woolworths shotgun man myself”), this is madness (not, God preserve us, Madness), and, yep, this is now.

And I haven’t even mentioned the concluding “Popular Thug” by new romantic couple Kelis and Nas. What do you mean you ruled her out? What do you mean you ruled the Neptunes out? At the moment the Neptunes just rule, as Horn did in 1983, as Perry did in 1973, as Meek did in 1963, as Van Gelder did in 1953. They rule. OK?

One final word of recommendation: records like The Neptunes Present The Clones are one reason why I don’t jump into the water.

ENVOI
Tuesday 11 September 2000
A couple in their mid-thirties sit in the comfortably warm sun in the huge garden at the rear of Hampton Court. They are happy. Everything else seems a galaxy away. It was just under two years since he had cheated death. She had less than a year to live. And at the time, neither of these latter two facts mattered at all. Freeze-frame the image in your mind’s eye and work forward from there. Then it might all come into focus again.

Thursday 6 September 2001
Four years to the day after the funeral of Diana, former Princess of Wales, who died prematurely at the age of 36. This particular funeral does its job. Of course it is a watered-down, 12 certificate, sanitised version of her we are commemorating. Older members of her family would not understand. But then that is all which is needed for this purpose. A good ceremony which doesn’t offend or embarrass anyone. He, however, has a different purpose, and pledges that the Laura he knew will not fade from history, will be commemorated in as best a way he can manage. On that afternoon, fortified by two bottles of straight Victory Gin, he is not yet quite sure how to achieve this, but knows that some way of celebrating and immortalising the Laura he knew is vital, so that when he himself dies, that Laura will not die with him, but live on.

A suggested soundtrack
I’ve not previously written at all about Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour Of Bewilderbeast, but it was one of Laura’s last favourite records and commemorates the ups and downs of love in an entertaining, funny and musically adventurous way. Listening to it now – which is obviously difficult – I’m struck by how much of the record is written from the perspective of someone who’s already bereaved, even though in Damon Gough’s case this is clearly untrue. The bucolic “The Shining” contains words such as: “Now I’ve fallen in deep, slow silent sleep, it’s killing me, I’m dying.” The almost imperceptible pause in “Magic In The Air” after the words “And if you should lose me…” and the song’s inevitable and entirely irresistible shift into Taja Sevelle’s “Love Is Contagious.” The very long pause after the song has ended. The Monochrome Set guitars of “Camping Next To Water” belie imagery which could soundtrack the images of David Sylvian on the sleeve of Blemish: “But there’s no use in feeling/All the things I’m feeling/There’s no one here to feel with me.” The sardonic Carla Bley brass improv which lifts “Say It Again.” And, at the point where the track, and his life, appear to be falling apart, satisfactory closure is achieved with a song entitled, unironically, “Epitaph” – an epitaph of doubt, of jealousy, an embracing of love and life. “I hope you never die.” And his partner joins in to sing along with him on what sounds like a cassette recording in their front room. It’s hard for me to listen to this without wanting to jump into the water. And for these reasons I cannot say that I can bring myself to listen to this record other than very occasional occasions. But I would suggest that if you were looking to understand exactly what Laura and I had as a couple, as the greatest of all double acts, you could start by listening to this hour of music.

closer to closure?
But just as he is about to step into the water, he notices that he is not alone, that numerous others have unexpectedly appeared on the bank. There is the woman from Belgium who commands him not to go in. There is the trombonist who stands at the rear, benignly smiling, not needing to say anything, knowing that ultimately that he won’t go in. He is strong enough to make that decision for himself. Nearby, a guitarist and a journalist take his hand. Behind him, there are other writers, some of whom he idolises, and readers of his own writing. A friend from Oxford stands slightly at a distance from the others but smiles at him fondly anyway. In reality none of them needs to say a single word. He knows that they are there. Because, above and beyond anyone and anything else, he stops himself from jumping into the water. The Church Of Me is, amongst many other things, a complete, unabridged record of all the thoughts which go through his mind during the few minutes while he is standing on that riverbank.

Suggested reading
The Church Of Me will be taking a break for the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, you could do worse than read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News From Nowhere, ideally not in that order. When I return we will consider more deeply the question of what exactly is defined by a missing link.

Last words
“Doesn’t?
It?
Feel?
Good?
To?
Stay?
Alive?”
(Gene Clark, “Some Misunderstanding,” from the album No Other, Asylum, 1974)


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