Published in SelfMade Zine, Feb 2018
A ‘spring tide’ or neap tide occurs shortly after a new or full moon, when solar alignment with the earth’s moon exerts extreme gravitational forces upon our oceans and seas. Its nomenclature has nothing to do with the seasons, perhaps instead stemming from the German ‘springen’, meaning ‘to leap’.
One chilly late-Autumn afternoon, a seal is swimming in a great slab of water off the south Dublin shore. The mondo wave looms like a tri-storey airport terminal in a hurricane or a metro streetscape hoist to the precarious by shifting plate tectonics. A mottled mink sky blusters gob on an inclement sea; those semi-opaque, snot-green to cygnet-grey colours typical of cold Irish water. Goblin lights lurk in the aquatic penumbra, a city block of water threatens to engulf the entire bathing platform, and this seal pooters about offshore, blithely unbothered.
Where am I? I’m standing in thrall to it all, at the top of a ramp, invoking a saint’s intervention.
Let me explain.
Let me write you a screen treatment.
It is 2007. When the worldwide economy crashes, it does so with the intensity and drama of a tsunami. The tail-end lashing our island receives is pretty damn catastrophic but the next few scenes cover several years where the extent of the damage is slowly and horribly realised. The economic austerity that follows is more like being repeatedly trundled by a steam train. This is the Union Pacific Big Boy of global recessions and ten years on we will still be feeling the effects of its rollovers, despite successive government administrations and changes in ministerial personnel. Ten years later the country’s housing crisis will be widely declared a national emergency.
Cut forward to 2010. I am one of a mass of public servants marching on the Dáil, as salaries are slashed, stealth taxes introduced, services vitiated, working hours increased and staff hire embargoed. Working folk are still being brutally squeezed for the deficit caused by disaster-gambling in the banking and corporate sectors. The hedge funders have pissed poison pesticides onto the hedgerows… and the arable land and the pastures… and the allotments and kitchen gardens… even dousing the windowsill herb-boxes out in the boonies. The cupboards are bare.
Throughout this time I follow the thwarted attempt to halt the Corrib Gas Project by the Shell-to-Sea campaigners in Mayo and the subsequent trials and internment of the “Rossport Five”(cutaways to the headlines of newspapers I am seen reading).
Cut to 2011. I am living in Monkstown on the south Dublin coast and join local protests against a proposal by Providence Resources to drill for oil in the Kish Basin (off nearby Dalkey Island). This is the set-up for a climactic scene in which the archangel Michael appears to me on a windy October day in front of the Forty Foot swimming hole.
I saw me a great cleansing.
I saw me a wave that seemed biblical and lo did I surf it (in triplet-form).
“I said bring on the salty battalions Like old King Canut in reverse And I saw how the forces of nature show our limitations and ultimate worth
If I was a believer…”
ONE HAND CLAPPING
All of this is to illustrate the circuitous way my brain works when it comes to the writing of songs and maybe implant a few cats-eyes on the roads between seeming non-sequiturs. I can hear what you’re thinking and yes, it really IS the synaptic super-highway through the semiotic universe (you cunning linguist, you).
Actually, being no language expert, neuroscientist or any mark of psycho-analyst, I have no idea what IT is but I’m certain of one thing – if your brains makes connections like these, you should be writing more than binary code and sales reports. (Are you writing sales reports? Stop it immediately!)
The above screen treatment was an interesting exercise in providing context for a lyric, something sadly lacking in today’s blip-fast streaming culture. Words are all about context of course – a single linguistic component has terrifically elastic powers (take “solution”, a word I need only capitalise to place in a grave historical frame).
But I didn’t come here to psychobabble about semantics. I set out to riff on the unpredictability of inspirations sources, a freak wave by way of example, and ended up writing the five-year potted history of a song. Not for entertainment purposes, but because this was the singular route to the nub of the process… this is how the thing got writ.
I’ve only scratched at the five years previous to a finished recording – a captured one-off interpretation. I omitted the secondary story montage, where the band spends years finessing the arrangement of that song in an array of grotty rehearsal rooms (with amplifiers) and various domestic settings (without). Oh and all of their individual back stories (tertiary flashback sequences) – the pained acquisition of their axe, kit and ivories skills from childhood through pimply adolescence to today.
See, now it’s expanding from a short film into a mini-series and that’s just one song.
I SECOND THAT EMOJI
Then it struck me as an effective proclamation of value – this synopsis of one song’s gestation. Since I’m writing for ‘Self-Made’, since we’re talking about artists operating in unsupported practice and trying to maintain belief in their work whilst struggling to sustain themselves, I AM talking about the value of artistic works generally. I AM speaking of the value of songwriting and storytelling specifically. And yes, I’m referring to the merits of instinct-driven production and years of practical dedication by the exponents of such craft.
But to illuminate another kind of value, I’ll share with you a trade secret. Artists, generally, don’t make work for themselves. They make it for, well, everyone else.
We do it because it just comes out – we’re made that way and we can’t unmake ourselves. But we compulsively fiddle the elements while obsessing the whole, pushing our boundaries and abilities, battling lassitude, occasional despair, performance anxiety, financial worry, daily distractions, the rigor mortis of routine and the systole and diastole of self-worth, all in order to invite and compel audiences. We do it for community. This is the apotheosis of artistic value that comes from us sharing our stories. And it only exists where our stories have listeners.
An artist without an audience is a flattened palm striking empty air – a city without its twin, Saint Paul without Minneapolis. Sure, we can try to provide community for each other, but a scene needs to be celebrated by more than itself. Perhaps we need to collectivise somehow in seeking external approbation. Thing is, there’s really no precedent or correlative anywhere else in the world for the proportionate numbers making music in Ireland. It’s a national habit that occasionally feels like a curse. Something got into the DNA circuitry and well, wired me to think the way I’ve inexpertly outlined above.
Over Christmas I spoke to a number of people who are living or have travelled extensively abroad, as well as a few souls who have settled here from the US, Spain and elsewhere, and those conversations confirmed something I hitherto suspected – that we are a freakishly musical nation. It matters not a jot how you personally rate individual musicians or groups – this is something we do with unparalleled gusto and compulsion. We’re mad for the music, so we are, and a great slew of outsiders are mad for the music we make, but unfortunately, for lack of connective thought or collective promotion, they only get to hear a small and distortedly narrow percentage of it. What exactly we should do about that is as yet unclear to me. But it seems like a helluva missed shot for Team Ireland in the Olympic Marketing Marathon.
CHEW BEFORE YOU SWALLOW
Remember that Slow Food Movement that was zeitgeisty a while back? Well it’s not such a hot topic these days but I do think its tenets have filtered into the public conscience in small and tangible ways. And I’m not talking about fanciful menus in pop-up restaurants or hyperbolic supermarket branding. More and more people I know are making their own breads, pickles, vinegars, cheeses, etc. More people are making the effort to re-learn these skills and probably saving some money into the bargain.
So, I think we need a Slow Culture Movement – especially here, in Ireland, where we produce so much of the damn stuff. Maybe a Slow Art Movement as subset (although we should probably avoid further divisions – a Slow Music Movement sounds like prohibition on anything over 90bpm). Art isn’t built in a day… or a minute… or the nanosecond it takes for someone to hit SHARE or the like button, so it should be afforded time in its reception.
When I was making demo tapes with bandmates back in the 90’s, it was common knowledge that A&R people had the attention spans of toddlers (for anyone born after 1995 this stands for “Artists and Repertoire” – record label scouts). In fairness, most major labels were inundated with submissions of wildly varying quality, so it must have been a feat to get through even a representative few. The job of fielding this task fell to the A&R scout as first point of contact for the company. Sometimes the briskness of their attitude could come across as cocky and dismissive (often it actually was), but the job also required a flair for chummy sales patter, since they had to charm the chosen few into the company showroom. I met a couple of the London ones – they were bit like Del Boy crossed with an uppity PA.
Anyway, a lot of wonderful material must have remained unfinished and unheard in those days, before the prospect of doing-it-yourself was so achievable. Seems to me that the modern streaming model, where everything is available to ‘users’ at all times, is turning listeners into A&R people – but with significantly less personal investment, since it’s not as if their jobs are at stake. For a tenner a month, they can take it or leave it – be occasional home DJs and play with the musical mood lighting.
QUIET PLEASE, WE’RE READING
The internet is an extraordinary repository of information but social media is like a sports bar in the middle of a library (as an aside, when did it become ok for people to talk at normal volume in libraries?). As some wisecracker once said, opinions are like assholes – everybody’s got one. And if everyone is shouting, nobody can hear. Sometimes it feels as if we’re losing the art of listening.
There’s a scene in a Mighty Boosh episode (Series 1) where Zooniverse owner, Bob Fossil, played by Rich Fulcher, reacts to a phone-call with histrionic angst, only to hang up and immediately begin nonchalantly whistling through his teeth. That, to me, is social media. It is glancing, mercurial, dynamic, broad as it is shallow, but it doesn’t promote deliberate and repeated engagement or seduce into absorption, which is what stories require. All of which brings me back, in a way, to where I began – with a tale.
Last night I started reading a library book I borrowed – George Monbiot’s “Out of the Wreckage” – and it seemed prescient that I picked it up when I did. It’s a clarion call for new socio-political narratives where the old ones have failed us. I have more to say about the importance of artists in the construction of new narratives and about the role of storytelling in social agency (through movement, words, music and other human means) – its powers to draw us together, to soothe and provoke, its license to howl and to heal.
But since this unruly article is already overlong, I’ll leave you with two quotes from Monbiot to ponder.
“Stories are the means by which we navigate the world.”
“The only thing that can displace a story is a story.”1
- Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. Monbiot, George. Verso 2017.