' I've lost the power I had to distinguish between what to ignite and what to extinguish' – Rowland S. Howard

Category: Rock Music

‘A Life that I was living In some Cracked Rear View’: Songs of Experience

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Dylan Thomas ‘Fern Hill’

‘Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.’
George Orwell

“And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
William Blake

As the title suggests, this post is a sequel to the one I wrote recently on ‘Songs of Innocence.’ So here are ten songs which deal with one way or another with the often bitter and disillusioning experiences which accompany the passage of time and the path to maturity. For all of us, life generally grows in complexity as we age and the balance of light and shade in it tends to lean more towards the latter. It may be, however, that these sufferings which we all have to go through ultimately lead to some kind of maturity…

The first part of the title of today’s post comes from this song:

1. John Hiatt, ‘Learning How To Love You’:

2. Phil Ochs, ‘Rehearsals for Retirement’:

3. Smog, ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’

4. Jim White, ‘Chase the Dark Away’;

5. Rowland S. Howard, ‘Ave Maria’

6. Iris De Ment, ‘No Time to Cry”

7. Steve Earle, ‘Goodbye’

8. Bob Dylan, ‘Things Have Changed’:

9. Mary Gauthier, ‘I Drink’

10. Paul Clayton, ‘All The Good Times Are O’er’
Sample here – http://www.folkways.si.edu/paul-clayton/dulcimer-songs-and-solos/american-folk/music/album/smithsonian

Albums Old, Borrowed and Blue

In this post, would like draw attention to three albums I have been listening to a good deal recently.
The first is Adrian Borland’s great album, Last Days of The Rain Machine. This album is a collection of acoustic demo recordings that he made between 1994 and 1998. He is best known, perhaps, as the lead singer in the excellent post-punk band, The Sound (more about them in a later post), but this album is markedly different from his earlier work. It has a stark beauty about it which for me, at least, is reminiscent of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon.’ There is also a sense of bleakness about the cd, but this is relieved by the beauty and the poetic quality of many of the songs on it.
A few highlights:

1. ‘Walking in the Opposite Direction”;

2. Inbetween Dreams

3. Running Very Low on Highs

The second cd is Ali Farka Toure/Toumani Diabete’s beautifully mellow album, ‘Ali and Toumani’. Went to see Toumani in concert recently and bought this cd there. Great to hear two master craftsmen like these playing together so beautifully. Some of the best work that these two superb musicians have done.

A few outstanding tracks:

1. Sabu Yerkoy

2. Sina Mory

The final album for today is Bonnie Prince Billy’s excellent ‘Master and Everyone’ cd. Again, a rather low key and muted collection of songs, but these are so layered that their real excellence only becomes apparent after repeated listening. Here is the title track:


Ideal voices we have greatly loved,
of those that death has taken, or of those
that are, for us, lost, even as are the dead.

At times we hear them talking in our dreams;
at times in thought they echo through the brain.

And, with the sound of them, awhile recur
sounds from the first poetry of our lives, —
like music, on still nights, far off, that wanes.


Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

Thomas Hardy

Losing a close family member recently (a parent, in fact) led me to think about how rock music in general has dealt with such subjects and with the complex web of grief, regrets, childhood memories and associations that goes with it. For much of my life, music has been a crucial therapeutic tool in crises situations and this has especially true in relation to the cluster of deaths which have occurred within my family circle in the past decade.

My personal view is that (unlike as is the case with classical, country or folk music) rock music – which began as a genre for young people – has tended to shy away from this area. There are some honourable exceptions to this rule which I will get to below. – most of which deal with the deaths of close contemporaries/friends rather than directly with the passing away of a close relative.

The first of these is Lou Reed’s classic cd, Magic and Loss, which I have played repeatedly in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of four family members in recent years. For me, the album is another indication of the acute insight, honesty and bravery, which were the hallmark of Reed’s musical career. A full concert performance of this masterpiece can be found here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c28TXKnCANw).

Like this particular song so much, I want it played at my own funeral:

The next honourable exception I would point to is Robert Forster’s fine album, The Evangelist. Written not long after the sudden and unexpected death of his songwriting partner, Grant McLennan, on it Forster writes in a far more personal and revealing way than he had done during his time with the great Australian band, The Go-Betweens. For me, the most moving song on the record, however, is this one:

More to follow…