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

Monday, July 23, 2007

“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway thereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out”
(Thomas Hardy, “I Looked Up From My Writing”)

Angeleno singer/songwriter Elvis Perkins isn’t the Sun Records tribute act his name might suggest, but if there is a connection to be had it is with the other Elvis’ “Blue Moon” in which Presley draws his mourning out into extended, wracked cries which supersede and transcend any notion of “words” needed to signify emotion (this “Blue Moon” may even have been another unwitting precedent to Alvin sitting in his room). In the above poem Hardy writes of the moon as a woman, gazing down on his protagonist who is mourning over a son lost in battle, but her gaze is one of reproach and barely concealed suspicion that Hardy’s writer would be the first to raise a gun at some unspecified crisis stage in the future. Graves’ White Goddess we would probably do best not to visit at this moment.

Elvis Perkins’ name and other crucial details are best explained by the fact that his father was the actor Anthony Perkins – that sprightly, tensed-up coil of suppressed gayness which ensured that he owned Norman Bates, but that no one else could touch him. Note his exquisite graces when speaking with Marion Crane over the table; his extreme shyness interacting with his natural sense of good manners. But his would-be feminine status can only be protected by the most extreme of means; Crane awakens something in Bates whose awakening he knows will destroy him – if this scenario seems far-fetched, consider the last days of Kenneth Williams as spelt out with graphic pain in his Diaries; living with and taking meticulous care of his ageing mother who is only just hanging onto life, tormented by his own pain, both physical and psychological, the horrible consequences of a lifetime spent puritanically denying his urges towards love and companionship, both physical and spiritual; the request to visitors to use the public toilet across the road from Euston Square tube station (the apartment block in which both lived has now been demolished, which I find eerily fitting, like the car finally admitting to be sunk fully into that swamp) – so to preserve his fealty to a mother who no longer exists except when he wants her to, and thus preserve his own perilous existence, he has to kill the threat, stamp it out in the shower. Orson Welles took this tetchy purism of Perkins’ and stretched it and him out even more agonisingly by casting him as Joseph K in his film of Kafka’s The Trial, setting his self-denial against the triple challenge of Jeanne Moreau (reclining patiently on his bed), Elsa Martinelli and Romy Schneider with her webbed hand.

Perkins was bisexual and didn’t go out of his way to deny or bury it; he died on 12 September 1992 from complications arising from Aids, when Elvis would have been sixteen. Elvis’ mother was the photographer Berry Berenson, and she died on the day before what would have been the ninth anniversary of her husband’s passing – she was one of the passengers.

Despite repeated assurances from Perkins that the songs on his debut album Ash Wednesday do not necessarily relate to the personal circumstances in his life it is impossible from both content and delivery not to think of the album, from its title downwards (the day after, ash, ash, all is ash), as anything other than what may well be the most moving musical reaction to that full stop to Western civilisation likely to be heard. His approach is acoustic, organic melancholy; one block down from Sufjan Stevens and a voice which owes something to both Thom Yorke and Rufus Wainwright, but especially to the former (as if “Fitter, Happier” were a tape found in the shattered ruins of one of the scorched cockpits).

The record is 50 minutes of detailed emotional examination of what happens when the world you knew, the people who defined it for you, suddenly disappears and somehow stops existing. As readers need no reminding, my response to the event was a deepened numbness since my “Ash Wednesday” was Sunday 26 August 2001. But of course I can identify with the feeling of being abruptly lost, marooned, confused. In those first few weeks it was clear how much Laura had shielded me, and it is also a truth that August 2001 represented the first occasion in my life when I felt entirely alone. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I would walk out into the street, into the world, and it looked like the same street and an identical world but I could not recognise it at all; now it was alien, threatening, incompatible, a ghastly practical joke of a Xerox of the world which had been pasted up overnight on the Saturday. I knew it was not the same world. But I had to work out ways to live in it, if I were to live.

So “While You Were Sleeping” opens quietly, Perkins’ voice a bereft, vibrato-free monotone. In it he speaks of all the things which have happened since his mother “fell asleep” – “the babies grew, the stars shined and the shadows moved” – and as the song patiently builds up his voice becomes gradually more agonised and restless; he creeps into the dark kitchen at night, finds nothing, he turns the “crowded” of “my mind’s too crowded” into a multisyllabic muezzin wail, the “me” of “you and me” seems to vaporise into hopeless dust. As the hitherto restrained arrangement starts to break forth, with trumpet, musical saw and fingered bottle rim, Perkins’ thoughts become starker (“And I’ve made a death suit for life/For my father’s ill-widowed wife”) before he collapses on the “smoke” of the line “When you reached for your plume of smoke” and turns it into an elongated scream as he becomes the Ian Curtis of “Dead Souls,” savagely wanting unanswerable answers – “Were you falling? Were you flying? And were you calling out?…or were you dying?” His closing “uh oh”s and “oh no”s seem like the last scrabbled utterances of someone exhausted of breathing.

“All The Night Without Love”’s misleading fiddle-led jauntiness disguises a lament for a world gone to waste, seeking salvation in “drive-thru’ orders,” “the magnetic athletic insole” and “Got milk?”; once they caused each other’s “cells to shimmer,” and now their lives are loveless. “May Day” with its excitable choir and its Laurie Anderson “1…2…3…4” intro skilfully bridges socialist revolution commemoration with the “mayday” cry for help against a president who “gargles out a hymn in the funny fish voice way” and who needs “your quiet empire where forgetful Persians roam.”

“Moon Woman II” ties in directly with my opening remarks, a gorgeous canter of a ballad constructed as a forlorn dialogue between the sun, admiring the moon (“It’s lovely how it hits the deck/Making shadows of the trees”) and the loneliness of the moon herself (“I’m cold as a stone/And it’s dark in the night/And I’m up here all alone”). Although “my shadow hungers for you,” the two can of course never meet, and so they continue their doomed separate duet – “Does anybody love you?” Perkins asks, over and over, at the song’s close. “It’s Only Me” (no relation to the Rob Dougan song) indeed finds Elvis alone with his guitar, musing about his life – the winter and white of his youth, the wasted sunshine of his adolescence (“I grew it in the shade/Where the sun couldn’t shine,” “Roses bloomed/Out of thin air/And music rose from down the buried stairs”), the heartbreaking key changes as he thinks about the heartbreak of now (“There’s someone on my mind/Who I don’t see/I close my eyes to disappear/Into the fields of stars between my ears”), his voice cracking to the point of irreversible pain. “Emile’s Vietnam In The Sky” swoons between recollections of French blooms of several natures (“The Cocteau is covered in butter”) but even the final entry of Becky Stark on backing vocals cannot dissuade him from his central question “But do you ever wonder where you go when you die?”

Then it is time for “Ash Wednesday” the song, the record’s emotional centrepiece, a terrifyingly bleak elegy of unrestrained mourning worthy of comparison with Lennon’s “Mother” (or Lennon’s “My Mother’s Dead” at the other end of that album which is about twenty trillion times scarier than his primal screaming, since he just sings it, intones it anyway, in a voice beyond numbness, perhaps beyond even this world, to the tune of “Three Blind Mice” on a field recording which appears to be broadcast live from the afterlife). Perkins’ crumble on the word “memory” sets him off, and his 98-syllable rendering of the title, over and over, in varying degrees of hoarseness, grief and candour, with its chant of “no soldier no lover no father no mother,” seems only bearable to listen to by virtue of the astringent comments of Antoine Silverman’s superb violin, Perkins’ personal about as personal as anybody could dare to get on a record – “A black and white of the bride and the groom/Will bring me to my knees/With the colourised bad dream/That takes its place on/Ash Wednesday”; it is almost too much as Perkins begs for us to share and understand his grief – “So each day is Ash Wednesday…ALL THIS LIFE is Ash Wednesday”…to bring that inevitable third Elvis into the picture, this is a Costello forcibly stripped of everything except his untrammelled rage, and that template, that portal, that escape hatch, which persists in its existence, but never before used or expressed like this…

Towards the end Perkins draws stifling, claustrophobic parallels between the World Trade Centre wreckage (“The fires all around/It’s the ending of the drought”) and the reactions of the survivors, now lowering their volume to one of quiet and deep grieving: “And we are ready now/For teargas clouds/On my mind/Come on, fill the house/Finally and weep/For its king and queen sleep/Both now in the arms of/Ash Wednesday.” In the end, it may be one of those performances too intense to stand repeated plays…but it must be listened to at least once.

“The Night & The Liquor” plays sombre games with its self-induced clouds of smoke to the accompaniment of what sounds like a modified Irish folk tune, but in time joined by questioning piano chords and a Robert Wyatt-ish organ; he imagines his mother singing him a lullaby (“Go to sleep baby”) and cannot face up to the fact that she is not coming back (“No I won’t come back baby”). His shattered mumbles outnumber his comprehensible syllables. On “It’s A Sad World After All” he duets with singer Ariana Lenarsky, while Janeen Rae Heller’s musical saw hovers mournfully over them like an untouchable angel, asking again to share his grief – “Follow the sound to the table underground/There will be plenty of tears going round/And I will be happy for you to stay with me/’Til tomorrow can become today” – but knowing that once he’s alone again he will disintegrate (“But when you leave, my powders and my teas/Will speak their heads off to me”).

“Sleep Sandwich” is a fulsomely orchestrated love song of sorts, featuring muted trumpet, trombone, tympani, glockenspiel and vibes, in which Perkins (sounding a little like Bernard Sumner) dreams about “last night” and its “science fiction movie with you and me/You in your velvet space helmet/Me in my rainball hat” with its entreaties of “You’ll be great, you’ll be a star/Someday everyone will know who you are” which may represent an old dream of his parents’ youth, though note the double-edged couplet of “May you climb high into the sky/May ratings rise” and the subtle acidity of “You write the Bible and I’ll read it off my eyelids.” As the arrangement turns increasingly distorted and stormy – the dream atomising back into uncomfortable reality – Perkins allows them, whoever they may be, to remain happy in the dream.

And before there can be any “moving on” there has to be the remembering, and then the grieving, and thus “Good Friday,” a hymn in everything including name, closes this record of mourning with its harmonium drone, Sunday school piano, Ariana’s harmonies, Antoine’s violin, Heller’s saw (has the musical saw ever been used so creatively on a record of this kind?). Perkins sings stately: “I’ll give you my body/And I’ll grieve your prayer/No one will harm you/Inside this song/We will be safe here as/The light is low.” Gradually, slowly, he learns to begin to let go: “Get out of your body/Let go of your blood/That falls on the secret/And colours the flood,” but the grief remains, for now not quite resolved (“No, this life is Ash Wednesday,” run his closing thoughts, “It’s Ash Wednesday forever approaches Good Friday”), not even by the closing high saw figure as souls ascend to heaven; it is not I think coincidental that both melody and performance very closely echo the Blue Nile’s “Easter Parade.” What remains for him now is to work out his own resurrection; he has not the energy to attempt it now, but neither is he ruling it out. His Ash Wednesday becomes The Church Of Them, and the beginning of the way back to find the way forward.

“Where in wild-winged crowds
Blown birds show their whiteness
Up against the lightness
Of the clammy clouds;

“By the random river
Pushing to the sea,
Under bents that quiver.
There shall rest we”
(Thomas Hardy, “Epeisodia”)

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