Posts Tagged ‘Elton John’
I Should Have Sent Roses
Sublime, poignant, elegiac: the first words to spring to mind when I think of this melody from the album The Union, by Elton John and Leon Russell. In Gurdjieff influenced terms, I would say that the person who wrote this had to be in a heightened state of emotional self-consciousness. He had to be present to the workings of his feeling centre to allow this lyrical and sensitive melody to emerge without constricting it. Some melodies owe more to moving centre, others owe more to emotional or intellectual centre, and some, such as this, are products of the higher emotional centre. But you can tell straight away that this was written from somewhere essential. (For an explanation of the centres, see Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, 133-5; and for “essence”, see 71-3.)
Leon Russell, who has produced some of the most lyrical melodies of the last fifty years (e.g. “This Masquerade” and “Superstar”), reaches new heights with this masterpiece. I would place it almost on a par with the melody of Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. And yet Leon Russell did not create it: no one but God can create. However, it is to Leon Russell’s credit that he could arrange the melody which arose from somewhere within his “common presence”. What happens in such work, and how we can recognize the operation are matters I shall address on another occasion.
While my response is, and must be subjective, I feel that the melody perfectly matches the lyrics by Bernie Taupin, which tell the story of a lost love from the point of view of the man who has lost. The boy knows that the girl has gone, and that he bears responsibility. When he was with her, he took her for granted. Ambivalently, he goes on to say both that he would treat her better now, and that she deserves someone more thoughtful. He addresses her with understanding and self-deprecation:
Are you standing outside?
Looking up at the sky, cursing a wandering star?
Well, if I were you, I’d throw rocks at the moon
And I’d say, “Damn you wherever you are!”
This is so apt that it’s almost humorous. A “wandering star” because, perhaps, he did not fit into his place in the order of things. Throwing stones at the moon, maybe because the moon is for lovers and lunatics: she being the lover and he the lunatic.
I don’t know where to start,
This cage round my heart locked up what I meant to say,
What I felt all along the way,
Just wondering how come I couldn’t take your breath away.
At various times we all feel something like this expression of mixed confidence, self-doubt and exasperation – at the same time that he believes she should have been overwhelmed by him, he confesses that he is confounded that she was not. Like Russell, we often feel that we have long wished to express something but that we could not, just could not, because of a sort of emotional tightness. It is as if we would choke were we to try and say it.
‘Cause I never sent roses. I never did enough.
I didn’t know how to love you, though I loved you so much.
And I should have sent roses when you crossed my mind,
For no other reason than the fact you were mine.
This is strange but true: we often feel that we love but do not know how to put that love into action. And of course, there are two errors: to think that an overt action is always needed, and to forget that actions are often needed. It is only people who are thinking philosophically who imagine that no action is needed. If you have read In Search of the Miraculous, it is fatal to take the idea that we “cannot do” in a formatory way to mean that we cannot therefore do anything at all.
Looking back on my life,
If fate should decide to let me do it all over again,
I’d build no more walls.
I’d stay true and recall the fragrance of you on the wind
This is the paradox which Ouspensky paints in unforgettable terms in The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. We make a mistake, we forget ourselves and our higher aims. Then we believe that if we had the opportunity again we would not fall into the same trap. But should the occasion arise again, we would make exactly the same error: we would forget at exactly the same place. And yet, there is a way to escape from the curse, and that is to remember oneself, hence the importance of Gurdjieff’s ideas and method to religions and religious systems.
The reference to fate is especially interesting to me, because it is a topic which is exercising me at the moment. Fate acts only upon essence, and this song, as I have said, is an essence-song. It is only when we are closer to essence that we can start to have any sense at all of what our destiny or fate is: that is, what it is that we are called to above and beyond the vicissitudes of life. If there is a “law of accident”, there is also a “law of destiny” which works itself out despite whatever other causal connections and chains may be playing themselves out and, I would suggest a “law of miracles” (see “Fate” at 80, “Law of Accident” at 115-6 and “miracle” at 144).
You’ll do better than me.
Someone who can see,
Right from the start give you all that you need
And I’ll slip away, knowing I’m half the man I should be.
There is genuine love here: for love seeks what is best for the beloved irrespective of the cost to oneself. Also, love brings impartiality, and the statement, “knowing I’m half the man I should be”, is a good impartial description of each one of us.
The topic of “lost loves” is a significant one: a person who never wonders about past friendships and romances and why they ended, to use a neutral term, is quite possibly incapable of reflection. I have published on this blog one of the most important pieces I ever transcribed from Mr Adie’s diaries, just on that topic. Bernie Taupin is also responsible for one of the most touching songs Elton John ever wrote, the much under-appreciated “I Feel like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”. And in each case, “Robert Ford” and “I Should Have Sent Roses”, Taupin was working with one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and each result has been a masterpiece.
And that brings me, briefly, to the topic of Leon Russell. There is no doubt of his uncanny talent at playing the piano and song writing. As I have already said, I feel that he produced some of the greatest songs of our time. For my money, his piano playing is better even than that of Elton John, and I am an Elton John fan. I remember, in the 70s, thinking that Leon Russell would go on to conquer the world, as they say. But then something happened. What? To an extent, perhaps, he sabotaged his own career. It was never the same with him after the 1975 album Will O’The Wisp. Then, Elton John enticed him to The Union in 2010 (Elton did not have to seduce very hard, it would appear), and Russell’s own account of the production of that album is found on “In the Hands of Angels”.
I have carefully praised the melody and the lyrics rather than the track. I feel that the production is too heavy. Very often, a beautiful melody is obscured by too much backing. If you do listen to this track, try and imaginatively screen out the brass. My own guess is that T-Bone Burnett sensed the beauty of the melody, and tried to raise it to prominence with the trumpets and trombones. But I don’t think it’s worked.
Still, while the arrangement is rather more heavy than I would like, it is extraordinary that after so long out of the public eye, this artist of astounding abilities would return and reveal so much about himself. I think that took strength: the sort of strength which this remarkable song reveals.
8 July 2012
JOSEPH AZIZE has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, ‘George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.
Bernie Taupin and Elton John
“It is on your own self-knowledge and experience that the knowledge and experience of everything else depend.”So spoke the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing more than 600 years ago, in what is the greatest work of mysticism in the English tongue known to me (see ch 43 of Clifton Wolters’ translation). As I said in the first Elton John blog, it is through knowledge of this life and our selves that we come to knowledge of a higher life and, once more, our selves. But, of course, our experience of our selves on that other level is quite different.
And so it is that I return to Elton John, because I sense that sometimes something sublime comes from beyond and can be felt through the songs Of all their work, perhaps John and Taupin touch the sublime most often on these songs of self-knowledge, such as “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”, “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “The Sweetest Addiction”.
Other than John Lennon, I can think of no other artistes of their era like Elton John and Bernie Taupin for excelling in what I might call “songs of self-knowledge” or perhaps “songs of reflective biography “. Certainly, I do not know of anyone else in popular music who has developed such a sustained corpus of work over a period of 30 years. I think that Taupin’s work is marked by an impartiality and even fearlessness as much as Lennon’s was. After all, Taupin is writing lyrics for another person to set to music and perform, and not just anyone, but Elton John.
Meditating on the Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy album led me to a discovery which really should have been apparent before, but had somehow escaped me. And that is that although we exclusively think of Taupin as someone who writes the words, he is in a very real way, a musician. His instrument just happens to be his words, an instrument few can master, and his great achievement is that he developed his art to the lofty degree where his words sing on the page with an unheard melody. Incidentally, much as I respect Dylan’s achievements, I don’t hear that much self-knowledge in his songs, although there is certainly tremendous insight and his lyrics often have the musicality I find in Taupin’s. But in the end, Dylan seems to me to hide behind his presentation, while John and Taupin reveal, and so whatever self-understanding he has remains in obscurity. Only outside of popular music, for example with Gerard Hopkins, do I find even more self-knowledge and musicality combined than I do in Taupin.
However, we must come back to this fundamentally important question of the search for self-knowledge. If one has been touched by the search, then the questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” always demand a response, although – and perhaps even because – they can never be answered once and for all. If we speak of self-knowledge, then because it is self-knowledge, we can take no one else’s word for it. Self-discovery is only possible because a higher part of us is impartial. When I see myself, the lower self becomes transparent to a higher part in myself, and that higher part operates under entirely different rules, and has different powers.
Even if I am alone in my room, yet all of my learning takes place within a socially-constructed world, and I am forever learning from and with others. It is not just that we can compare ourselves to others, find similarities and draw distinctions. Neither is it just that we can get good ideas, or follow other people’s methods. We can also, to an extent, recognize ourselves in others. This doesn’t mean seeing that the details of our loves are identical, although this can occur. More deeply, it means seeing the human condition beneath the accidental facts and biographical details; seeing that we all share in this common humanity, and that we make it what it is in all its inexhaustible variety.
The essential self may be approximately described in words, and we can even figure out some things about ourselves with our intellects, but it’s only discovered through feeling, and, of course, there are levels of feeling and hence of self-knowledge. But affirmation of the goodness of life is a feeling impulse which will bring impartiality. This entails seeing myself without undue self-appreciation or self-hatred. Full and complete impartiality, however, is a function of the essential self, the soul. The soul brings something trans-personal in self-knowledge, an awareness of a call, a memory of something always just forgotten.
When I speak of songs of self-knowledge I am not speaking of narcissism. “My Way” is narcissistic and self-congratulatory, but as we shall see, the music I’m discussing is not. It is not spiritual, either, and yet it isn’t divorced from the spirit. Perhaps the first striking feature of these “songs of self-knowledge” is their quantity: John and Taupin entered the field in a convincing way with 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and updated this tour de force on 2006’s The Captain and the Kid. These were albums completely devoted to reflection on their own history as artistes. In addition, there are many songs of this genre on The Fox, Made in England, Songs from the West Coast, and Peachtree Road. The theme clearly means a great deal to them, and has meant more as they grow older, having both more material and more leisure for reflection. To really understand what I am writing about, you will need to hear the music, beginning with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which for my money (and I’m not alone in this) is their greatest achievement, surpassing even the magnificent Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In the discussion, I’ll be referring to the tracks as they were on the record, five tracks on each of its two sides. We shall see why a little later.
The first track, the title track, is a good example of Elton John’s originality: it sounds like no song you’ve ever heard before. Until the chorus, it has no almost melody, although it has a sound and a rhythm, and the effect of the song seems perhaps even stronger for all that. You know that this song was not produced in a hit factory, because small clusters of words are broken into islands of sense by a jagged phrasing and oddly placed emphasis: “Captain Fan-tastic … raised and regimented … hardly a hero … Just someone his mother might know.” This works, partly, I think, because he’s telling a story, and an achingly beautiful tune like that of “Your Song” might distract from the narrative, while the strength of the lyrics is quite sufficient to hold our attention and interest. “Raised and regimented”: it is hard to imagine that any three less assuming words could be found to say so much about what in a later song they would describe as a “repressed” youth.
Elton, of course, is Captain Fantastic, while Taupin is the Brown Dirt Cowboy, turning brown in his ‘saddle’ even as the precocious Captain inhabits the stimulating but artificial city. They are painted not quite as opposites, but as contrasts united by a common aspiration for the “honey the hive could be holding”. In a wonderful expression, their pursuit of their art takes them “from the end of the world to your town”. After all, wherever they are seems to them to be the end of the world, while wherever you are, and no matter how small a target, they are infallibly delivered to you through the electronic media. And yet, for them, their careers have been a ‘long and lonely climb’, which they also describe as walking on a wire and as ‘stepping in the ring’.
In an artistic touch of considerable finesse, these two characters, our hosts in this autobiography-for-two, are distinguished by their food. The Captain has cornflakes and tea with sugar: the Cowboy eats “sweet chocolate biscuits, and red rosy apples in summer”. Later in the song, when they are struggling to establish themselves in their chosen careers, they share the same food, “cheap easy meals”, which as Taupin wryly notes, “are hardly a home on the range”. I am fairly certain that readers will be able to point me to many examples of autobiography rock, hitherto unknown to me. And I’m quite sure that some of these will prove to be considerable achievements. But I’ll be very surprised if any of these use simple references to differences in diet with anything like the symbolic force that Taupin does.
There is a lot of history in these lines: one couplet juxtaposes the ‘City Slick Captain’ with the ‘still green and growing’ Cowboy. Then we’re told of “weak winged young sparrows that starve in the winter” and “broken young children on the wheels of the winners”. The Captain and the Kid must have seen a lot of callousness and even bastardry. The lyrics for a song called “Dogs in the Kitchen” were printed with the lyrics, although the song is not on the album, if it was ever recorded. The sentiments seem so raw that if Elton did them justice, the product may not have been a palatable release for the average record company. The very first line is: “All our innocence gave way to lust”. And that was the sweetener:
Poor boys fight to stay alive …
Uncage us, we’re restless, snarled the dogs in the kitchen.
Howling in the heatwave, riding all the bitchin’ ladies.
Who got the first bite in on the greasy bone?
… the vultures belch in their swivel chairs,
And the vampires all wear ties.
It is unnerving to think of writers being likened to greasy bones and quarrelled over by cannibalistic entrepreneurs. This gives us a gritty perspective on the title track, where Elton sings: “We’ve thrown in the towel too many times, our for the count when we’re down”. This is why I say that this is fundamentally a universe apart, and two dimensions deeper than Sinatra’s “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again …”.
However, even the most powerful missiles need to be launched and guided, and it’s the music which delivers these words. The real magic, for me, is in the combination. To start with, the simplicity of the title track is like innocence made audible. Then, at about 1’ 46” when Elton begins to sing about the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the music picks up. Steady country and western strumming effortlessly evokes an air of ‘childhood at home’ feel, but becomes ‘rockier’ as the song proceeds. This musical development naturally bridges the twin worlds of town and country, the passage from youth to adolescence, the fall from fruit to fat, and the journey from the idyllic woods to wherever we are. The important connection, of course, is between John and Taupin: “hand in hand went music and the rhyme”. One of the odd things is that while Elton is the city-slicker and is significantly called ‘the Captain’, he was, in some ways more vulnerable and innocent than Taupin: one has the feeling that the Cowboy was canny enough for the two of them. This masterly track nicely sets the stage, and introduces its heroes to the challenging world at the same time as it introduces them to us.
The very next track is the knowing “Tower of Babel”. Its first sounds are as ominous and resonant as two tolls on an undertaker’s bell: “Snow – cement – “ and we are immediately submerged in a world of barely speakable cynicism:
Were the darlings on the sideline
Dreaming up such cherished lies
To whisper in your ears before you die?
As with the title track, Taupin is not saying that their early years were tough. He is saying that they were facing starvation, and even the prospect of death. There is not much here about knowing yourself, but knowledge is demonstrated. Too often, we lie to ourselves about the past: we paint it in pictures either too black or too white. In each case we’re really trying to project an image of ourselves (“I understand and forgive all”, or the opposite). But there is no honesty without fearlessness. If someone was a bastard, why not say so? Here, someone has learned a lesson and tells the truth, let the chips fall where they may. Had he said it in those words, it would have sounded indulgent. But Taupin just tells it as it was, so we can take it or leave it. Then we’re into the chorus:
It’s party time for the guys in the Tower of Babel
Sodom meet Gomorrah, Cain meet Abel. …
Watch them dig their graves,
‘Cos Jesus don’t save the guys in the Tower of Babel.
The Biblical terms add a surprising solemnity, and universalise the experience of these two young men. Taupin will open his bible again, for example, on “Just like Noah’s Ark”, from The Captain and the Kid. It’s funny how often non-believers quote the Bible and appeal to Jesus and salvation. It’s also an odd image because the point of the Tower is that it was never completed. The ‘Babel’ here is both the ‘Babylon’ of John’s Apocalypse, the city of the harlot and unspeakable sin, and the Tower which is cast down and has became a symbol of false pride and arrogance. And it also fits the skyscrapers where the captains of industry lurk as if it were designed for them. So, even if it’s a rather anomalous metaphor, it’s nonetheless evocative and multi-dimensional. The crudity of their money-chase is underscored by the fact that, as even more than with the title track, there is no tuneful melodic line : it is as if the omen-like intensity of the words breaks their symphonic chains. But that changes at the chorus “It’s party time for the guys in the Tower of Babel. Sodom meet Gomorrah! Cain, meet Abel!”
So “Babel” is one raw and fiery song. The significance of its first black statement, the stark single word ‘Snow’, is obvious. The second verse opens with the knell of two words ‘Junk – Angel’, and takes us down beneath the floorboards into the company of cockroaches, where the dealers in the basement are “filling your prescription for a brand new heart attack”.
On track three, the tone softens with the beguilingly musical: “Bitter Fingers”. It opens in the voice of an entertainer addressing the songwriters:
I’m going on the circuit, doing all the pubs,
And I really need a song, boys, to stir those workers up,
And get their wives to sing it with me …
It isn’t that the entertainer is insincere, he’s just selfish, insensitive and second-rate. He’s been deeply dyed in the industry. After two bouncing verses of this blarney, the gears crunch, and Elton snarls:
It’s hard to write a song with bitter fingers,
So much to prove, so few to tell you why.
Those old die-hards in Denmark Street start laughing
At the keyboard player’s hollow haunted eyes …
No more long days hocking hunks of garbage.
Bitter fingers never swung on swinging stars.
I had to cite those last two lines if not just for the alliteration. Although it is the first track on side two, I shall deal here with “Meal Ticket”. It covers something of the same ground as “Tower of Babel” and “Bitter Fingers”, but this time, it directly reveals what “Fingers” had only implied: that the songwriters could themselves be mercenary. I take it that, in the very first line, Elton is aggressively addressing music industry power brokers:
I can hound you if I need to,
Sip your brandy from a crystal shoe …
While the others climb reaching dizzy heights,
The world’s in front of me in black and white:
I’m on the bottom line, I’m on the bottom line.
… While the Diamond Jims
And the Kings Road pimps
Breathe heavy in their brand new clothes.
So here are both sides: the boys’ desperation, and the cynical, selfish parasitism which has driven them where they never thought to go. We’re now removed from the innocence of the title track by a margin that can be crossed but not measured:
And I gotta get a meal ticket.
To survive you need a meal ticket,
To stay alive you need a meal ticket.
Feel no pain, no pain; no regret, no regret.
When the line’s been signed you’re someone else.
I took this song out of turn because these last three songs, like “Dogs in the Kitchen”, deal directly with an important issue: how we relate to being abused. Here the abuse is bloodsucking by professionals in suits and ties, but in life we find countless other examples. The starting point is to see it for what it is. Of course we have been taught to love our enemies, but this does not mean to pretend that they are not your enemies or have not harmed you. One can aspire to say “Forgive them for they know not what they do”, although to be candid, one can know that but yet be incapable of feeling anything which corresponds to it. As the late George Adie said, that sentiment is the ultimate in impartiality. We are still learning to be impartial for short moments. The ultimate is not yet within grasp, though we must not give up on that account.
What I like about these three songs, indeed, what I respect, is that Taupin states his disgust in all its bare ugliness without excuse, apology or evasion. He does not indulge in hatred, he just paints what he saw and felt. It isn’t pretty, but it is arresting. It has, to my mind, something of the quality of some of Tennessee Williams’ work, which is noteworthy, because Taupin mentions him at least twice, on “Lies” from Made in England, and on “Old Sixty Seven” from The Captain and the Kid. Of course, Taupin was attracted to Williams’ work because of a pre-existing similarity of disposition, just as Lennon was. You could, perhaps, call it a thirst for the truth, accepting that someone may be hurt. And I have to add here that I just don’t believe people who urge ‘love’ as if it were as accessible to the heart as money to the hand. This is one area where Taupin has never, from what I can presently recall, slipped in syrup. Even on an early piece like “Border Song” on the Elton John album, he is aware that the love which ends enmities must be sweated and prayed for. Perhaps I shall come to that in a future article. For now, we have the powerful and almost transcendent close of side one: “Tell me when the Whistle Blows” and “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”.
“Whistle Blows” is a story of the country boy going back home for a visit: “And I still feel the need of your apron strings once in a while”. The London railway is seedy, and he himself feels like “a black sheep going home”. Yet, he’s drawn back, and wonders whether the “street kids (will) remember”, whether he can still play pool like he used to, and whether “this country kid (has) still got his soul”. I hear something big in the music, rather as if Elton John also related to it, although it’s really Bernie’s story. What I hear in it, and in its inspired string arrangement, is “moving on to the moment of truth”, if I can put it that way. Has he changed? Who is he now? How will others, his family and his peers receive him? What it comes down to, perhaps, is this: has he been true to himself?
Perhaps questioning yourself is always the first step to seeing yourself, and thus to self-knowledge. This song is Taupin’s record of questioning himself. Great as this song is, it’s greatest value perhaps, is to set the stage and open the curtain for what may be the strongest song this duo ever produced: “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”. On the record, this track closes side 1 with the closure of a red curtain at intermission; and these two tracks are balanced by the last two tracks on side 2, which reprise them in a different emotional key. If “Whistle Blows” is a story of going back home, “Someone” is the same story, but in tragic-triumphant tones, of returning home, to light from darkness. Just quickly, the loss of the two-side album has not only spelled the effective end of the art of record covers, but has robbed the artiste and their audience of the dramatic opportunity to close one side and open another. This is why the record is different from, and superior to the CD.
The piano and cymbals of “Someone Saved my Life Tonight” take us to a world far from that the black sheep waiting at the station, however near it may be in miles: “When I think of those East End lights, muggy nights, curtains drawn in the little room downstairs.”It is not innocent, and its stolid respectability is barely skin deep. The woman Elton almost married is hardly painted in flattering terms: “Prima donna, lord, you really should have been there; sitting like a princess perched in her electric chair”. He gets drunk so that he can’t hear her, and his friends are as legless as he is. We know that this is all true, and that to escape a marriage he felt he could not disavow, he tried to gas himself, but was saved by Long John Baldry. This is the song of the man who came through:
And someone saved my life tonight, sugar bear.
… You nearly had me roped and tied,
Altar bound, hypnotised.
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear,
You’re a butterfly, and butterflies are free to fly,
Fly away, high away … bye, bye!
The lyrics are almost stunning in places: “A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams. … Just a pawn outplayed by a dominating queen. … Saved in time, thank God my music’s still alive.”
This last line is the key to the album, that music equals life. Yet, as we shall see, there’s more. There is an odd kind of contemplative interlude, where he says “I would have walked head on into the deep end of the river”, almost as if he is somewhere above his body, watching it move. The same disembodied calm possesses the line “They’re coming in the morning with a truck to take me home”, the line which formally links this to “Whistle Blows”. Then the music swells until it is would be too intense to bear but for the band’s masterly restraint: “Someone saved my life tonight, so save your strength and run the field you play alone”.
Bear in mind that this is the man whom Bernie Taupin calls ‘The Captain’. And after Taupin wrote him these lyrics, he set them to music of singular potency and sang them. Somewhere or other, I came across that when it was being recorded, Gus Dudgeon asked Elton to put more emotion into his voice, until Davey Johnstone told him to let up: “he’s singing about an attempted suicide”, or words to that effect. That the Captain should submit himself to the ordeal is significant. It had a life purpose, it was written and recorded for a purpose, for fulfilment, not for money.
This is one of those songs where I feel that although the spirit is never mentioned, yet the music bears within itself something of the sublime. In the first blog, I wrote: “I call the ‘sublime’ that precious, subtle feeling of myself as if on the cusp of touching the mystery of eternity. It is the life of what Gurdjieff called the “higher emotional centre”, and its music is, as it were, music delivered through the flesh, but heard by the ears of the soul. … For example, when I listen, with quiet attention, to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” or “Funeral for a Friend”, I feel that there is something majestic swelling in and above the music, which calls me on and upwards.” And I’m not alone in that.
Now, as mentioned, side two opens with the visceral “Meal Ticket”, but from there, the mood of the record changes. Track two is the startlingly original “Better Off Dead”. Driven by the piano, Elton sounds almost derring-do. If a song were to be written for the Scarlet Pimpernel, this could be it. It’s early morning in the grimy city, people are being arrested as the fag end of the night plays itself out: there’s vandalism, and there’s trouble. And yet, here is life! As in “Someone Saved”, music and life are linked:
‘Cause the steam’s in the boiler, the coal’s in the fire!
If you ask how I am, then I’ll just say ‘inspired’!
If the thorn of the rose is the fire in your side,
Then you’re better off dead and you haven’t yet died.
Life is acknowledged, accepted and affirmed with its thorns and all. The means to affirmation is the music, or to be more precise, the feeling of self which comes through their music. This feeling comes through clearly and warmly on the next track: “Writing”:
Inspiration for navigation of our new found craft.
… Will the things we wrote today sound as good tomorrow?
Will we still be writing in approaching years?
… Don’t disturb us if you hear us trying
To instigate the structure of another line or two,
‘Cause writing’s lightin’ up,
And I like life enough to see it through.
I don’t think the music of this song is particularly wonderful, but it’s pleasant, and it allows one a nice breathing space between the precocity of “Better Off Dead” and the symphonic triumph of “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”, which really form one sustained statement. Here, the love we all happen to fall for is their music. Now not everyone writes music, but music here is a symbol of realising one’s potential, and love for what we have made of ourselves.
This is, I think, the manifesto of the album, if it has one. If the music is alive (not prostituted to the highest bidder), if it is your music, and you are true to yourself, everything life sends you can be accepted. We have seen how the preceding songs have provided the material of this ‘manifesto’, and it all comes together now on “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”
The song opens with some simple descending piano lines. It’s as if someone has walked into the room. Then Elton starts singing, describing the two of them, late at night on a subway station, tired and aching, but believing that “it’s all worth it, we all fall in love sometimes”. Accidentally or not, Elton’s accent falls equally on the three words “all – worth – it”. Exactly what it conveys, beyond the intuition that ‘it’ is something special, is hard to say; yet I feel meaning in it. Now comes the romance:
Full moon’s bright, starlight filled the evening,
We wrote it, and I played it,
It’s so strange this feeling.
Naive notions that were childish,
Simple tunes that tried to hide it.
When it comes, we all fall in love sometime.
The melody is simple, and has a subtle sway which comes more to the fore in the chorus: “Did we, didn’t we, should we, could we …”. The evocation of close-of-day fatigue married with the discovery of the wonders of their “newfound craft”, is as accomplished as it is – to my best knowledge – unique. In a funny way, such is the achievement of this song that there I have very little to say about it. To my ear, at least, these songs of self-knowledge are amongst the greatest songs of the last hundred years, and “We All Fall” is perhaps the jewel in the crown. It segues straight into “Curtains”, once more, a strikingly original song in melody, lyrics and format. Like the total track, it practically has no tunefulness, and yet, as chimes softly toll, its slowly paced incantation gives the lyrics an almost oracular status:
I used to know this old scarecrow,
He was my song, my joy and sorrow.
Cast alone between the furrows
Of a field no longer sown by anyone.
As with the previous song, there are no illusions that everything they wrote was brilliant. Yet, the old scarecrow is not disowned, and in one concise phrase we have a generous spectrum of feeling: “He was my song, my joy and sorrow”. The next words are given poignancy by the bells which have been unobtrusively sounding:
I held a dandelion that said the time had come,
To leave upon the wind, never to return,
When summer burned the earth again.
Cultivate the freshest flower
This garden ever grew.
In between these branches
I once wrote such childish words for you.
We have seen these motifs above, the country imagery, and the naivety of some of their earliest songs. But the themes are now drawn together and bring a coherent, almost convincing power, as Taupin refigures them. We have come now from summers in the saddle to summers which will never be repeated, from aspiration to achieving. Yes, the lyrics were naive:
But that’s okay, there’s treasure children always seek to find,
And just like us, you must have had A Once Upon A Time.
This is an important insight: we can punish ourselves for the mistakes of childhood and adolescence, but we were learning and, we can punish ourselves beyond any sane reason for our ignorance. This understanding is allowed its full weight by the evenly chanted spell which Elton John casts. Finally, there is a lengthy “outro” in which Elton and the vocalists compete in bursts of “o-o-o-o-o” and “lum-de-dum-de-day-do” while the drums rumble and the bells ring. No wonder Elton John’s output went into a slump after this. Where else could he go? If it is a law that every force has an equal and opposite reaction, then the law applies to output (which makes me think of how the Beatle’s greatest triumphs, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper were followed by the mediocre Magical Mystery Tour, and the splendid John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine by the barely listenable Some Time in New York City).
Captains Fantastic is the most perfectly executed concept album I have ever heard, forming a satisfying thematically unified whole. I mean that it makes a better album because, being integrated, it leaves one with a sense of the whole which rounds out any uneven spots along the way. It’s as if the weak points are effaced by the strengths, because after the title track, no song is beginning from zero point. There is a building, an accumulation, and it’s all gathered and harvested in the almost spectacularly brilliant “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”, two limbs of one musical statement.
More than I can recall in popular music, John and Taupin demonstrate the continuity between childhood and adulthood, acknowledge it, and understand that with the development there come also lawful changes. It is an album of metamorphosis. Although it’s never stated, there is something of the story of the Ugly Duckling here about Elton John: the nerd who grows up to reveal a soul of heroic steel.
The album is a statement of metamorphosis: the album cover, the work of Alan Aldridge and Harry Willcock, but conceived by Taupin, I believe, evokes a world of chimeras, unearthly combinations and familiar monstrosities. Once again, I have reason to mourn the passing of the album cover. Perhaps if CDs could be released within record sleeves? It is a manifesto of metamorphosis, because the message is that only if you are true to yourself and do not compromise on the music inside you (whatever form that music takes) can you realise your potential. This message is rather more explicitly developed on The Captain and the Kid, so I’m fortunate to have the advantage of hearing that music in my head as I consider this one.
While Captain Fantastic is about the lives of John and Taupin, it is also of almost universal relevance: it deals with ambition, love of life, sacrifice, great sadness, triumph, realism, creation, manipulation, excess, generosity of spirit, perseverance, and human existence. Ultimately, everyone can relate to its forceful artistic statement that life is worth living, despite the pain. And the statement is put all the more powerfully for not being put directly. If you let the music in, the enlightenment rises upon you, in all its splendour, and lives inside your feeling. Considering Captain Fantastic from that perspective, it’s clear why it is, at least in conception, superior to Yellow Brick Road.
But that’s not all. When I said that the message is that life is worth living, despite the pain, I think that there’s something else implied. And that is that you have to make it worth living. I would say that an aim is needed, and in Gurdjieff’s terms, this would be an aim to discover and develop your essential individuality. In Taupin’s terms, speaking about Elton and himself, it was the development of their musicianship. When he said “thank God my music’s still alive”, what was his highest gratitude for: himself or his muse? And yet, perhaps the two come down to the same thing.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
Joseph Azize Page
Al Stewart 2008
Part One: Review and Restatement …
In my previous blog on Al Stewart, I took this inexplicably under-rated artist as the occasion to write about music as a possible intersection of time and eternity. I said that through the measured time of music, something beyond time could be invoked. I would add now that because measured or rhythmic time is not the time in which we live, music is already a displacement of the ordinary. The question is: will it provide something new at the same level, at a lower level (which much of it is) or at a higher level? It goes without saying that little music, just enough to moisten the tip of the sparrow’s beak, is above the level of ordinary life.
Ordinary existence isn’t knowingly lived for an aim: it is subsisting, it is passing our days. Very rarely do we live with a sense of purpose. We don’t sufficiently relate our days to our lifetimes to charge either with meaning. We don’t penetrate into the larger meaning or significance of our lives, being absorbed in the details, and in daily demands. As Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. Our lives occur to us almost chaotically: only the narrative of our physical existences lends them continuity. Providence affords a default purpose of existence: to marry and have children. But this doesn’t at all satisfy everyone, while people seek different things from their families, while others seek for more in addition to family life.
The age is desperately hungry. Music has been put to the service of the entertainment industry, but music also provides a favourable opportunity to sustain feeling, order and even reflection, if only for a brief period. Songs and even entire albums can be intense slices of life with enhanced significance. Neither does the imposition of order and rhythm mean that surprises or dis-order must be excluded: e.g. “Strawberry Fields Forever” where the breaks in regular rhythm and production are part of the message, or Stewart’s “Nostradamus” where the discombobulation effectively marks change in the narrative.
Music makes for concentration and intensity. As mental, emotional and physical beings, we find a focus in its distilled experience. Listening or dancing, we’re only subliminally aware of the passage of time. With recorded music, one can select the mood, bringing another influence into one’s emotional life, at any time.
By contrast, in life our emotions transmogrify with bizarre swiftness. Music can induce or at least support a particular emotion, providing a cradle for a profound sustained experience. Even if a poignant song holds one in its sway for a few minutes, that is remarkable, that is a grace. Take the unearthly serenity of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. It is more than merely another good love song. For just over four minutes, a magic is masterfully conjured, and held – intensely – in a pure state.
In that previous blog, I also cited Plato’s teaching that time is the moving image of eternity, and observed that humanity was created in the image of God. This dual truth provides another clue: the making of images is a sacred occupation. God and eternity are engaged in it. So too, on a lesser scale, is the artist, at least potentially. Just as one can sometimes glimpse a muted beam from God behind certain human manifestations, perhaps an expression on a face, or a certain action, so one can sometimes sense something eternal behind manifestations in time. If the artist themselves has touched something transcendental, their possibility of allowing that to come through in their music is so much greater.
Music rarely realizes its almost mystical potential: and if it did, one could not listen to it for very long. While many musicians can turn out a fair dance tune, or a sentimental ditty, very few can do what Stewart does, and perhaps no one else actually has to the same extent. By reference to his Year of the Cat album, I explored how he expresses the sense of being present to change in and around us, a subtle feeling of “me-here-now-and-in-history”. It isn’t that no one else has ever sung history, but no one has done it so often and well as to practically make it their domain. In our impoverished feeling lives, we’re often blind to this feeling of “me-here-now-and-in-history”. And yet, it nourishes many phenomena with which we are familiar: nostalgia, patriotism of a certain kind, the wistful attachment to the scenes of our childhood, and the poignant sadness at seeing those sites demolished.
I also showed that whether he was aware of it or not, some of Stewart’s work can be understood as referring, even obliquely, perhaps, to the concept of recurrence.
Recurrence says that when we die, our lives begin once more, and that they do so perhaps very many times if not endlessly. Ouspensky’s idea was that our time (note that I stress “our” time) is our life: we live this life again not in the future but in its very own time. Time, taken as a whole, not just as our individual life-times, has a first dimension: punctiliar time, that is, this very moment. It has a second dimension: linear time, the past and the future. At death our souls continue in this linear dimension of time. However, if recurrence takes place, then it occurs along the planar third or spherical dimension of time. To Omar Khayyam’s confusion, the pen of life, having written its story, returns to trace out the same tale again. To us, the page is blank, but that’s only an illusion. On this theory, the tendencies of the “previous” life are present. Sometimes one dimly remembers that one has lived certain moments before, or just as significantly, that this time this experience, this adventure, is new.
To illustrate this, I told the story of Socrates and Apollo. Socrates heads due west from Athens, never having to swerve an inch thanks to the wings Apollo has lent him. It would seem to Socrates that he is moving due forward in a straight line across a plane. But “the flatness of the planet is a trick of the eye”. Socrates eventually finds himself in Athens once more. So too, the “arrow of time” maybe travels in a circle.
But time is not simply circular, according to Gurdjieff, it is solid and spherical. Although we are unaware, it possesses a third dimension. I offered the metaphor of each moment of time as a traffic-intersection with roads forever branching off. While we continue to drive ahead in time, and to look forward, we are wearing blinkers. We do not see that at each moment we are also driving down one of those roads which has opened up perpendicular to our forward safari, and that the perpendicular roads run into eternity. Orage said: “To be aware of this simultaneity is called solid Time, or the third dimension of Time.” On the theory, and I stress that it is only a theory, occasional intimations of solid time are what we know as “déjà vu”. They may, perhaps, also be behind the sort of experience Wordsworth recalls in “Tintern Abbey”.
According to Gurdjieff, the concept of reincarnation (e.g. in Hinduism and Buddhism) is only an approximation to the truth, and the truth is better expressed by recurrence. Gurdjieff had some interesting things to say about karma, but this is not the place to expound them. Yet, Gurdjieff told Ouspensky, who told Nicoll (without whom we would not have known this) that in recurrence the executioner becomes the executed. This suggests something similar to karma, and while that may be so, it also suggests to me that, in theory, the cycle of recurrence is a function of a change in places in the law of three (see George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia).
That is, if there is anything in my speculation, then the large forces to which our lives have been subject, change places in the ‘next’ life, and excepting this dance of influences, each life would be an identical rerun of the one ‘before’. But they are not identical: Ouspensky said that there are two types of lives, descending and ascending. Suicides, criminals and such are descending . Eventually, suggested Ouspensky, they cease to be reborn. The path of conscious development is ascending and offers more choice in the ‘next’ recurrence. Orage is known to have said that in his next life he intended to remember to go to America earlier in his career. Yet, it is not the aim of the Gurdjieff system to escape from recurrence, or at least not its stated aim, even if that is a desirable consequence of becoming more conscious. Rather, Gurdjieff’s system is concentrated on this life: if one looks after that, all the rest will look after itself. Yet, it must be emphasized, as a matter of theory, it is identical to Christianity: the only realistic aim in life is to prepare the soul for eternity.
But of course, the blog also said a good deal about some of Stewart’s music. By the end of it, I had, I hoped, written enough about Year of the Cat to make you want to listen to that and to much more of Stewart’s work. In this blog, I shall write about another of his albums. I shall need to write a third Stewart blog to do justice to A Beach Full of Shells and some of his other masterpieces, such as “Modern Times” and the sublime, elegiac “Down in the Cellars”.
Part Two: Al Stewart’s Famous Last Words (1993)
In 1993, Famous Last Words was released. Like Year of the Cat, it makes a satisfying whole. As with Lennon’s songs from 1980, you feel that a youth has realised his promise, and put down sturdy roots, producing music just as enjoyable as the early gems, but deeper, as massive as the later Beethoven, in its own way. To me, it’s one of the best popular albums of the last fifty years. I’d even say that it is superior to any single album produced by Dylan, although in terms of modern popular music Dylan is unquestionably a more significant artist than Stewart. I might add that while I would not put Stewart, as an artist, in the same category as Lennon, or as a melodist, with Elton John, I enjoy his work vastly more than that produced by any number of over-rated entertainers such as the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Michael Jackson or Rod Stewart.
Stewart’s first words on Famous Last Words are:
I feel as volatile as the weather
Over fields of Scottish heather
The night before Halloween.
And his final words are:
Night rolls in, gone is the wind,
Fireflies dancing in your eyes,
And now you’re holy again.
Oh, night rolls in, oh, night rolls in.
Oh, night rolls in, oh, night rolls in.
So, appropriately for an album named Famous Last Words, in memoriam Peter Wood (who came up with the piano riff for “Year of the Cat”), it opens and closes with the night, but in both cases, nights such as few artists have ever presented so successfully. The opening words come from “Feel Like”, a song which I would described as “charged”. Stewart continues:
This is the day when all of my feelings changed,
This is the day when all of my life to now seemed oh so strange.
You know I feel like a bird of a different feather,
A trail that runs forever through a forest of evergreens.
This track should be taken with “Genie on a Table Top”, which could be dubbed “Feel Like: Part Two”. Powered by a Hammond Organ, the lyrics are vivid, cinematic, and simply brilliant:
… There was a hint of syncopation coming from the sidewalk and the street.
There was a glint of scintillation hanging over everyone you’d meet
And it makes me feel okay
Like a big yellow tractor going mowing through a field of hay,
Like a genie on a table top surfing through the month of May.
I saw a world in the window of a knick-knack shop,
And I tossed it in the air.
… There was a rush of animation bubbling about inside my soul,
There was a rin-tin tabulation coming: it was so hard to control,
And it makes me feel okay:
Like a pig with a bucket full of truffles in a French café,
Like Louis Armstrong playing trumpet on the judgment day,
Like a flying-boat captain with an amethyst lake below,
Like a winner of a marathon rolling in a field of snow,
Like a figure-skating gigolo looking for a heart to steal,
Like a simulated orgasm suddenly becoming real,
Like a big yellow tractor going mowing through a field of hay,
Like a genie on a table top surfing through the month of May.
Stewart inimitably describes how it feels to be raised in exaltation. In “Feel Like”, he has remarked, correctly from the point of Gurdjieff’s psychological ideas, that a change in the entire person comes about when the feelings have become engaged. As he states, his life now seems strange. We have superficial and ephemeral emotions in response to external stimuli, but the first real feeling is “self-feeling”. It is that feeling which is in direct contact with the real I, “essence” (see my blogs “Behind Real I Lies God” and “The Sixth Sun”). Once feeling has been awoken, the balance of one’s life suddenly seems different because it was lived in a different state of consciousness, and under the domination of personality. As Gurdjieff said, personality lives in time, but essence is in eternity. This offers some context for the line about the shop window: it is reminiscent of Blake’s “eternity in a grain of sand”, not just in terms of sentiment, but because both Blake and Stewart are writing under the influence of essence.
Perhaps I am making too much of what is only a bunch of words thrown together for the purposes of the record industry? It could be, but I doubt it, for three reasons.
First, consistency. Stewart’s lyrics are consistently deep, unlike, say Neil Diamond’s, where depth is the exception to a prevailing sentimentality. Unlike most modern lyricists, Stewart does not need to take refuge in cleverness, even if he sometimes does, such as in “Song on the Radio”. Lennon penetratingly remarked that Dylan was deliberately opaque so as to be “secure in his hipness”. Stewart, I would say, is (usually) secure in his ability.
Second, Stewart’s two “feel-like” songs have a certain individuality. Many have sung that they feel “alright”, “good”, or “so good”. Novelty can pose as individuality, e.g. Bowie contriving to be “unpredictable”. But individuality can come from something deeper, the essential I. As Gurdjieff remarked, personality always reacts the same way, essence never. There is no clear clean litmus test to differentiate the two, and they can be mixed: to me, in some of Bowie’s earlier material such as “Bewlay Brothers” and “Rock and Roll Suicide”, together with the glitz and show business, I hear something of the real person. In “Feel Like” and “Genie”, rightly or wrongly, I fancy that I hear the genuine article, presented with his accustomed artistic prowess.
The third pointer to the truth of Stewart’s art is that he is aware not only of his feelings but of larger reality. He describes bodily sensations in such a way that one must assume that an original experience prompted it, and he is aware of himself in the world (he feels like a trail which runs forever through a forest of evergreens).
So there is awareness of basic corporeal reality, but if that were all there were, it would be unexceptional. This body of work offers refinement and reflection. By refinement, I mean that for artistic effect elements of reality are heightened, while others are excluded. Consider the autumnal mellowness of “Don’t Forget Me”:
The sun is going down across the great unknown.
Lights come on inside the towers made of stone.
A muffled drum plays out of sight and all alone – Summer is over.
… It’s a never ending show, faces come and go like a river.
You’re a rainbow wrapped in grey, shake the dust away …
But don’t forget me, don’t forget me now …
The melody, the arrangement, and the saxophone all conspire to illuminate the words. Once more, the hearer cannot imagine these words with any other tune, or vice versa. It is another example of Stewart’s uncanny ability to conjure up a sense of himself as conscious to the passing of time. It is not just the memory of the old days which makes for this poignant sense. By itself, that brings only nostalgia. It is the fact that one is present to the recollections the past.
Another aspect of Stewart’s art is his interest in history. More than anyone else, he can take scenes from history and bring them alive. The result is not always magnificent. For example, I was not terribly fond of Between the Wars, although it had its moments. Sometimes he reaches for a greatness which narrowly escapes, as on “Man for all Seasons” from Time Passages. In that case, I think the problem was the musical construction of the song: despite the excellent subject matter, the melody does not weave a spell: it just does not feel like a smooth, organic piece. At almost six minutes, it sounds like two songs stitched together by good production.
On this album, “Peter on the White Sea” is a well-told tale from the life of Peter the Great of Russia, but the music just doesn’t, at least to my ear, quite rise to the occasion. It tells the story of how the Tsar and others took a boat onto the White Sea. They were struck by a storm, and even the mariners thought they were lost. But he persevered all night, and as the day broke in calm, they came into harbour by a monastery, ringing its bells in greeting. It is good, maybe even very good, but somehow not compelling.
More successful, perhaps because of Tori Amos’ melody, is “Charlotte Corday”. That gruesome identity assassinated Jean-Paul Marat at the precocious age of 24, in 1793. The murder is perhaps the best known instance of French Revolutionary politicide, partly because Marat was slain while bathing to mitigate a chronic dermatological problem, partly because the knife-plunging killer was a beautiful young aristocrat, and partly because each of them (de Corday and the butchered Marat) were depicted in rivetting, almost journalistic artworks. Stewart draws a spare sketch of a furtive apparition in a long black dress, fetched as a step on the stairs or as a shadow in the candlelight (every devotee of G.M. Hopkins knows that ‘fetching’ is an old term for ‘seeing’ an apparition). Stewart suggests a soul wandering under purgatorial licence, and fading before dawn:
Just what it is that brings her here no man alive could say,
See her for a moment, then she looks away,
The ghost of Charlotte Corday.
Stars in the window like a panoply covering everything, a river of light
… All at once there’s someone there that only you can see,
Seeking the forgiveness that will set her free.
The wind has taken away the words she wanted to say,
The sky now turning to grey, the dawn is turning away
The ghost of Charlotte Corday.
The piece is atmospheric, and memorable. In particular, the line commencing with “Stars” is worthy of mention, brilliantly evoking through the Milky Way the wonder of the spectral appearance. That the line isn’t linearly related to the balance of the song makes it, if anything, even more potent. It is quite an impressive accomplishment: while Stewart’s history-exploring tendency is given full rein, he creates an effective ghost story. In other words, he brings history directly into the present.
This relating of history to the contemporary is of course something Stewart has attempted very many times, either by way of placing sketches from diverse times side by side, as in “Manuscript” and “Somewhere in England”, or by reflection, as in “Palace of Versailles” from Time Passages. In that interesting song, Stewart sings of the French Revolution, warning “Marat, your days are numbered!”, later to comment that “the ghost of revolution still prowls the Paris streets …”. In a way, “Corday” is the successor to “Versailles”: two songs of Revolutionary outrages spawning restless spirits.
And that is an opportune point at which to introduce the spell-binding “Necromancer”, for if there is a supernatural rush on this album, so to speak, “Necromancer” is it. My only quibble with the arrangement is the introduction and the middle eight. My guess is that Stewart came up with the verses first, but was left with a rather short song. Impressed by the verses, as anyone would have been, he decided to lengthen it with the “additions”. I may be wrong, but despite the relation of the introduction to the close, the introduction and middle eight do sound to me inorganic. However, the reuse of the opening at the close is effective. That said, the song is still extraordinary.
` Oh the sweet addiction of forbidden fruit,
Oh the strange affliction that has taken root.
Oh the hidden cancer, cancer of the soul.
Oh the necromancer inside us all.
One can sense, even from these first four lines, the mantic power of the words. The rhythm and melody uncannily complement them to produce an incantation of hypnotic power.
I have never seen this many people gathered in one place together.
… Caught up in the fury and euphoria they say will last forever …
Oh the pretty candle, oh the pretty flame,
Come fly into the night with us and feel the same.
Oh the sweet surrender, oh the solemn vow,
Leave your own identity and join us now.
I believe that I have been through this before,
And I can still remember,
Maybe a past life, I just can’t tell.
The faces and the uniforms have changed
Yet there’s something so familiar,
Am I still under that same old spell?
Is Stewart referring to reincarnation, to recurrence, or is he unsure?
Oh the love of darkness, oh the vampire’s kiss,
Have mercy on a people who would dream like this … like this.
Stewart does not identify the setting or the people concerned. At one point he warns “you don’t want to know”. Are they contemporary? The gruesome vision would suit a Satanist coven and a ritual for shape changing, perhaps into ravens or owls. However, I think that Hitler is his necromancer, because of the references to a people, their numbers, uniforms, the dream that it will last forever, the addictive quality of the fury and euphoria, the loss of personal identity in something bigger, and the bizarre attraction. Perhaps Stewart was impressed by “The Triumph of the Will”.
But we cannot be sure. Sometimes such as on “Modern Times”, he teasingly creates a fictional encounter which seems to have the ring of truth about it. Perhaps he has done so here. A necromancer raises the dead, and Stewart does this: he did it for Peter the Great and Charlotte Corday on this same album. He is forever assuming identities from the past. In other words, his necromancy is, I think, strictly artistic. This extraordinary piece leads us directly to the “Hipposong”, the penultimate song on the album.
As a piece of music, I am not fond of the “Hipposong”. But, like “Necromancer”, it mentions reincarnation. The singer superciliously dismissed the plaints of the suffering hippopotamus. The last line of the song is the punchline: the haughty narrator himself comes back as a “large hippopotamus”. Instant Karma, so to speak, has got him.
But if the “Hipposong” is slight (just under two minutes), the album as a whole is dominated by the epic “Trains”, running for just over eight minutes, yet making a satisfying whole, as well integrated and tight as any two and a half minute song. I think of this piece as a classic: the past is enchanted by the glow of memory, spirited into the present by magic lantern, and then the line between past and present is peeled away.
In the sapling years of the post war world, in an English market town,
I do believe we travelled in schoolboy blue, the cap upon the crown.
Books on knee, our faces pressed against the dusty railway carriage panes
As all our lives went rolling on the clicking wheels of trains.
The school years passed like eternity, and at last were left behind.
And it seemed the city was calling me to see what I might find.
Almost grown, I stood before horizons made of dreams …
Trains, all our lives were a whistle stop affair, no ties or chains.
Throwing words like fireworks in the air, not much remains.
A photograph in your memory through the coloured lens of time.
All our lives were just a smudge of smoke against the sky.
The evocation of boyhood is simple, brief and all the more poignant for the barely perceptible restraint. The use of the alliterative “smudge of smoke” (once “puff of smoke”) is both accurate and poetical. The reference to those early years passing like eternity is very true, and there is a reason for it, which I return to in part 3. The song tells the story of the spread of railways through to the early 20th century, with slight vocal backing on the euphonious phrase “on the day they buried Jean Juarez” for an effective impetus:
On the day they buried Jean Juarez, World War One broke free.
Like an angry river overflowing its banks impatiently.
While mile on mile, soldiers filled the railway stations …
Of the soldiers, he sings “All their lives were just a smudge of smoke against the sky.” He swiftly moves on to the 1930s, “the nightmare years, then came the same thing over again, mad as the moon which watches over the plains”. Now appear trains of a type he’s never seen before: the trains which take the doomed to concentration camps, riding “to death along the clicking wheels of trains”. Rather grimly, their lives, too, are “just a smudge of smoke against the sky”.
Now forty years have come and gone …
And I ride the Amtrak from New York City to Philadelphia,
And there’s a man to bring you food and drink …
But I can’t tell if it’s them or if it’s only me,
But I believe when they look outside, they don’t see.
Over there, beyond the trees,
It seems that I can just make out the stained fields of Poland
Calling out to all the passing trains.
Trains, I suppose that there’s nothing in this life remains the same.
Everything is governed by losses and the gains.
Still sometimes I get caught up in the past, I can’t say why.
All our lives are just a smudge of smoke, or just a breath of wind against the sky.
Stewart cannot say why he gets caught up in the past: we all do, although few so reflectively as he does. I would venture that the reason is the one given at the very open of my last Stewart blog: “(God) also puts eternity in their minds”, as Solomon said. Or another factor, which maybe comes down to much the same thing, is that we are our past. (As Mr Adie said, “Repairing the past is the whole of our work because we are the past, and here we are, dead things,” quoted in “The Sixth Sun: Part One”). Our sense of passing is heightened by comparison with what abides, the way when a close one dies, we wonder why they should die while everything else survives. “Trains” has both change and continuity: the historical train system and by the jeweller-like setting of memories in the piece. I think “Trains” is an extraordinary achievement, yet not the greatest on this album. That honour, to my mind, belongs to “Night Rolls In”, a song with the simple dignity if not grandeur of “Mull of Kintyre”. The lyrics are short and simple:
Night rolls in, gone is the wind,
Fireflies dancing in your eyes,
Now you’re holy again.
Oh, night rolls in, oh, night rolls in.
It’s like a dream of a long time ago,
A footprint lost in the snow,
That covers the ground where we summered our lives,
Watching them grow from seeds that you sow,
But now the world in all its works and ways
Grays our novembering days.
The fire still glows that once was a rose a long time ago.
But the most powerful message is not actually in the words, but the music. It opens and closes with a calm, almost contemplative 20 second theme which, to my ear at least, conjures up visions of twilight as a fog, or a tide, quietly moves in. At the close, the same theme is repeated, but as the 20 seconds ends, an organ is heard, adding a religious if not devotional tone, and bringing the piece to an entirely satisfactory, and, I would say, a higher feeling of completion.
The word “rolls” nicely conveys the sense of advance, of the ineluctable but gradual movement of time. As I have shown by reference to Gurdjieff’s ideas, the great forgetting factor is indeed, just what Stewart refers to, “the world in all its works and ways”. Stewart’s art undoes the power of time: from the words “ It’s like a dream …” through to “The fire still glows that once was a rose a long time ago”, the music has more guts and power than something like “Eye of the Tiger”. Whereas “Mull” used bagpipes, “Night” evokes their spirit, the mix of poignancy and unquenchable determination.
And, indeed, the fire never goes out: the fire is the soul.
Part Three: Evoking the Timeless
In conclusion, with each of these song, it is not just the lyrics, although Stewart’s lyrics are, on the whole, amongst the very best in popular music, but also the way they blend with the music and arrangements. I have not covered the entire album: “Angel of Mercy”, is strong, perhaps Lennonesque in its acerbic clarity, while and track six, “Trespasser” is edgy. But they aren’t relevant to our study of this masterpiece.
Having been told at the outset that Stewart feels like “A trail that runs forever through a forest of evergreens”, and having feasted on a smorgasbord of history, a ghost and a necromancer, it is difficult not to feel that Stewart’s interest in history and reincarnation come together. Stewart seems to me to be aware of personal history (what has happened to Al Stewart born in the 1940s), the history of humanity (with which Al Stewart feels an extraordinarily deep empathy), and the history of the greater self (Al Stewart reborn at different points in history). The third of these is the thread on which the other pearls are strung.
When “Trains” says that early years pass like eternity, a fact noted many times, not least by Thomas Traherne, the reason is, I think correctly, indicated in Gurdjieff’s psychology. When we are born, he says, we are more in essence: personality has not yet formed. Essence being in eternity, the relationship is natural. But more than this, as children all of our faculties: organic and physical instinct, feeling and intellectual are closer together and to the higher faculties (see George Adie under “higher centres”). Also, they vibrate at a tremendously fast speed. As we grow up, they separate out more, they slow down, and the simplicity, interest and vibrancy of childhood is lost.
Because the child’s impressions both contain more of the whole person (all the faculties) and are so much faster, far more impressions are received at that time. This, for example, is how children manage to learn languages so quickly: they can intuit what words mean while we have to puzzle it out, and they absorb far more content than we do. We just receive the impression of what we’re thinking about, or of our latest obsession.
And this, in a way, is the great value of artists like Stewart. They receive fine and subtle impressions, express them, and transmit them. Because we listen to songs about the past, a sense of timelessness is created. By this magic, eternity is briefly evoked.
For those with a strong interest in the Gurdjieff ideas, and have read “The Sixth Sun”, if there are ascending and descending types of lives, this suggests that our deaths are always manifestations of the third or reconciling force. If death is “3” in the triads, then our lives taken as a whole are either 1, 2, 3 – what I have reasoned is the triad of creative art – or else 2, 1, 3, the triad of dismantling. I did not realise this when I started this blog, so to me it is an unlooked for and striking confirmation of what I wrote about triads there.
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book “The Phoenician Solar Theology” treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The third book, “George Mountford Adie” represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.
Joseph Azize Page
Al Stewart, Reincarnation and Recurrence: Part One
Joseph Azize(all quoted lyrics by Al Stewart)
“(God) also puts eternity in their minds …”, so spoke the esoteric Solomon, Ecclesiastes 3:11. And from the store of Al Stewart’s mind, intimations of eternity have been infused into some of his songs. Music, surely, is an ideal stage for such alchemy. It provides a rhythm and a tempo to mark time; and melody, performance and tone to colour, as it were, those few minutes which are consecrated to the song. And so the invocation of something beyond time comes to be expressed in time. This miracle is possible, for according to Plato and also to Gurdjieff (perhaps the greatest of the modern Platonists), time is the moving image of eternity (Timaios 37C). That line is frequently quoted, but it deserves to be pondered. It means, first, that time is in fact related to eternity. But more than this, it also means that time is related to eternity by the same mode as man is said to be related to God in Genesis 1:26 and 27.
Eternity itself “rests in unity”, it is beyond movement. But the realm of time is different: it is the world of multiplicity, change and passing (Timaios 37C-D, Beelzebub ch.XVI and Wellbeloved’s summary with correspondences to other passages in that book and the Bible, Astrology, pp.202-3). The quondam office of the church, as I remember it, told us the same thing: “Rerum deus tenax vigor immotus in te permanens”: “God of all the universe, maintaining, active, (yet) in yourself unmoved and always the same.” Indeed, one can actually sense change in and around oneself. The total sensing of oneself is sometimes called the sixth sense. I would say that this subtle feeling of “me-here-now in an ineffable relation to the flow of history” is part of the sixth sense. We are barely aware of this sixth sense, and very rarely of the specific feeling the “myself-in-relation-to-history”. But everyone has it, and some of us are more aware of it than others.
No other modern singer known to me expresses this subtle but transfixing feeling as well the under-rated Al Stewart. This sense of history is found in some stupendous songs, such as Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”, Kate Bush’s “A Coral Room”, ELP’s “The Sage” and Loreena McKennitt’s “The Old Ways”, to name but an eminent few. But no one in folk (or folk rock) has made the sixth sense his own as Al Stewart has.
Best known for “The Year of the Cat”, Stewart’s songs often evoke a poignant sense of the passage of time, and even of a sense of eternity (which are much the same thing, for each is a different form of timelessness). In my view, the very best of Stewart’s albums can at least be said to compare with the best rock and folk albums ever recorded, even if they are not of quite the same standard of say Sgt Pepper and Led Zeppelin IV. I refer here particularly to what I consider his finest albums: Year of the Cat, Famous Last Words and A Beach Full of Shells. Like Elton John, he had a period of apprenticeship, as it were, with its own unique graces. Elton John found stardom sooner and to a significantly greater degree; and both had their blaze of glory, followed by an autumnal twilight. But they have each seen a resurgence as deeper writers, even if their largest audiences were irrevocably left behind in the 1970s.
Although I have no evidence that Stewart has even heard of Gurdjieff or Ouspensky, let alone of the idea of recurrence, the ideas are widely available, and Robert Fripp is so close a friend that he attended Stewart’s wedding. As is often the case with art, intentionally or otherwise, Stewart’s words are often suggestive but not explicit. One of the interesting features of Stewart’s writing is how often ramifying ideas are found there. In the case of Stewart, as of someone like Lennon, or in poetry like Hopkins, the openness is often deliberate: it is a function of his artistic mastery. Interpretation, then, is subjective. But it is nonetheless valuable for that, and is sparked by the high quality of the product. In this blog, I shall simply pick my way through Year of the Cat, and then in the next blog, try and relate the themes set out here to other of Stewart’s songs. Year of the Cat is an excellent vehicle for this, as it is, considered as a whole, a lapidary depiction of Stewart’s approach, his strengths and his weaknesses.
The opening track is “Lord Grenville”, the story of a British captain who for no apparent good reason, in a suicidal manoeuvre, sailed his single ship towards a hostile Spanish navy some 53 vessels strong. The entire song has a sort of feel of late afternoon, as if one were on an English cliff, looking over the sea as rays from the setting sun strike paths across the water. As is so often the case with Stewart, there is something very English about the perspective, as he sings:
Go and tell Lord Grenville that the tide is on the turn.
It’s time to haul the anchor up and leave the land astern.
We’ll be gone before the dawn returns … like voices on the wind.
… Go and fetch the captain’s log and tear the pages out,
We’re on our way to nowhere now, can’t bring the helm about.
… Tell the ones we left home not to wait: we won’t be back again.
And come the day, you’ll hear them saying: “They’re throwing it all away”.
I would say that this is the sort of song Stewart’s voice is best for: reflective but not brooding, measured but not heavy. The melody suits the words so well that it is as if they could not be conceived separately. But the philosophical rub comes in these lines:
Our time is just a point along a line that runs forever with no end.
I never thought that we would come to find ourselves these rocks again.
Is the troubadour saying that although our lives seem to be single days in a year of infinity, yet we find that day again … and perhaps yet again? In Stewart’s own take on the last line, he is referring to England, having recently been in the USA where he now resides (see generally Neville Judd’s Al Stewart and also the remastered album with Judd’s notes and Stewart speaking of the songs on the final track.) But the two interpretations are not necessarily inconsistent, and Stewart may of course feel some diffidence in speaking about a concept which few people have heard of.
To most listeners, the lines might conjure up the notion of our lives as points which either (1) stretch into infinity (the standard idea of survival after death), or (2) into chains of reincarnation. But it is also possible to recall (3) the eternity of recurrence. And these options are not exclusive. It is the third concept which is the most interesting, and which, whether Stewart intended it or not, is an available inference. What then, is recurrence?
At its simplest, recurrence is the idea that when we die, we live our lives once more, beginning with our conception as we were conceived in this life, living as we have lived this life, and dying once more as we will, and so on, many times, perhaps endlessly. Nietzsche had an idea of eternal recurrence, but it was a folly. He conceived the notion, probably based on a misunderstanding of classical ideas, that we would live this life again at some point in the future. Ouspensky’s idea of recurrence, however, is that we live this life again not in the future but in its very own time. Ouspensky sometimes described this as a sort of circle of time, but one can speak of it as if someone had drawn a circle and then traced his pencil back over the same circle.
To Ouspensky, “our time is our life”. When we die, the solar system continues, and it is in that time that we have the continuing life of the soul and the “higher bodies”. But for the whole ensemble which comprises us, soul and all, there is no more time. Time has more than one dimension, although we do not know it. When we die our souls or higher bodies continue in the linear or second dimension of time, but recurrence takes place along the planar or third dimension of time. And there may be further dimensions, too.
Each moment of time is a sort of traffic-intersection. We have come down one road, and are at an intersection. Roads branch off while the road continues ahead. We proceed directly ahead, but the perpendicular roads still subsist, the moment in time is extended sideways into infinity. Each instant eternally subsists, but we cannot look down those streets, even as they open up on either flank as we drive down the main road. We just do not see them as they spin off from our passage. And then, when we reach the end of our road, we are at the beginning again.
It is difficult to conceive how we can be reborn when our individual lives end. It is difficult, but it is not impossible. Let us suppose that Socrates sets off westward from Athens, in a straight line. Whenever he encounters water, a mountain range, or any impediment to travel, Apollo lends him wings, and he continues westwards, never straying from his path. It would seem to him, as it does to us whenever we travel, that he is always moving in a straight line, and yet he is not. The flatness of the planet is a trick of the eye. The end result of Socrates’ relentless movement in a straight line is that he finds himself in Athens once more. The same thing, Ouspensky said, happens to us in time. Time is not flat: it is three dimensional, at least.
This has an interesting corollary, it suggests to me that each person is an individual cosmos. The solar system in which we lived was here before us and it will be here after us. But if we bear our own time in ourselves, we are individual worlds which have participated in a sort of galactic ballet of individual worlds, each with their own time, just as the planets have their individual orbits, and periods of day and night.
To return to “Lord Grenville”. There is an oddity about this song. It was Grenville who sailed into oblivion, but the song is addressed to some third party to take a message to him: “Go and tell Lord Grenville that the tide is on the turn …”. This little trick, whether intentional or not, appropriates Grenville’s journey into darkness for the speaker, thus generalizing it. So there is an intimation of recurrence here. The sixth sense, “myself-in-relation-to-history” is found here, too, but more so in the next song on Year of the Cat, the tremendous “On the Border”.
The fishing boats go out across the evening water
Smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish border.
The wind whips up the waves so loud,
The ghost moon sails among the clouds, turns the rifles into silver
On the border.
… In the village where I grew up nothing seems the same,
Still you never see the change from day to day.
No one notices the customs slip away.
Late last night the rain was knocking on my window,
I moved across the darkened room and in the lamp glow,
I thought I saw down in the streets, the spirit of the century
Telling us that we’re all standing
On the border.
In the islands where I grew up nothing seems the same
It’s just the patterns that remain, an empty shell.
But there’s a strangeness in the air you feel too well.
The musical delivery is of the same elevated standard as the lyrics. I don’t think any further comment is needed. Note, however, the artful use of sea and moon imagery, and a “ghost moon” to boot. The concept of the border is deepened by being presented first as a border in space and then as a border in time. The high room from where the singer sees, in a prophetic manner, the spirit of the centuries is lit by “lamp glow”. The refrains each speak of the unnoticeable incremental changes made through the passage of time. And then the reference to the patterns immediately points us to a deeper level, for things can appear the same although the are different: streets bear the same names, the school is still there, but the street is different, the school is not what it was, and so on.
I am not particularly fond of the next three songs. Stewart is a good craftsman. He can turn out handy songs at need. But then they might feel like products, and unfortunately, he seems to me to do this on “Sand in your Shoes” and “If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave it.” I am not so sure of “Midas Shadow”. It has an excellent line (“Conquistador in search of gold for all the jackdaw reasons …”) and the music is fine, but it is not of anything like the standard of the first two songs, or of side two.
The second side opens with the exquisite “Flying Sorcery”. The inspired acoustic guitar work perfectly complements the lyrics:
With your photographs of Kitty Hawk and the bi-planes on the wall,
You were always Amy Johnson from the time that you were small.
No school-room kept you grounded while your thoughts could get away.
You were taking off in Tiger Moths,
Your wings against the brush strokes of the day.
Are you there? On the tarmac with the winter in your hair.
By the empty hangar walls you stop and stare … Oh, are you there?
… Are you there? In your jacket with the grease stain and the tear?
… The sun comes up on Icarus as the night birds sail away,
Lights the maps and diagrams that Leonardo makes.
You can see Faith, Hope and Charity as they bank above the fields.
You can join the flying circus, you can feel the morning air against your wheels.
The frequent question, “are you there”, and the evocative description of the young woman pilot, all conspire to place her in a timeless world. The music conjures a sense of these old planes soaring in joy, and then the magnificent lines about the illumination of Icarus and the three theological virtues (are these four planes, or stars, both or neither?) could almost move on to a backward somersault, they spring so lightly from the speakers. The very names, Icarus, Faith, Hope and Charity are magical.
The next track, “Broadway Hotel”, has a certain “thusness” about it, the tale of a wealthy woman who lives in a hotel, and finds love in an unexpected manner, but the two most powerful tracks on this side follow. Track three is “One Stage Before”.
It seems to me I’ve been upon this stage before
And juggled away the night for the same old crowd.
These harlequins you see with me, they too have held the floor
As here once again they strut and they fret their hour.
I see those half-familiar faces in the second row,
Ghostlike, with the footlights in their eyes,
But where or when we met like this last time,
I just don’t know.
It’s like a chord that rings and never dies … for infinity.
And now these figures in the wings, with all their restless tunes,
Are waiting around for someone to call their names.
They walk the backstage corridors and prowl the dressing rooms,
And vanish to specks of light in the picture frames.
But did they move upon the stage a thousand years ago,
In some play in Paris or Madrid,
And was I there among them then, in some travelling show,
And is it all still locked inside my head … for infinity.
And some of you are harmonies to all the notes I play;
Although we may not meet, still you know me well.
While others talk in secret keys and transpose all I say,
And nothing I do or try can get through the spell.
So one more time, we’ll dim the lights and ring the curtain up,
And play again like all the times before,
But far behind the music you can almost hear the sounds
Of laughter like the waves upon the shores … of infinity.
The song is sung in a sort of folk rock manner, but after the last call of “infinity”, a coruscating guitar solo brings intensity, aurally conveying the sound of waves upon the shore … The references to reincarnation are clear enough. But this idea that each action rings a note which sounds for infinity is really properly speaking more consistent with recurrence. It is the traffic-intersection of every moment in time as it branches into the second dimension of time. The idea is repeated in the last two lines: the infinity which Stewart evokes is not only the endless cycle of reincarnation, it is also the presence of the “eternal now”.
The final song on the album is the famous “Year of the Cat”, a song so good, I think it fair to say, that it was effectively recycled with new lyrics as “Time Passages”, Stewart’s next hit. The opening lines of “Cat” are splendid. Although he was apparently speaking of North Africa, the way that Stewart does this is significant:
On a morning from a Bogart movie,
In a country where they turned back time,
You go strolling through the crowd
Like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime.
The lady who appears is a strange fey creature: “… her eyes shine like the moon on the sea.” The reference to the moon and the water is reminiscent of “On the Border”. The story is a sort of adventure in an eddy of time and place, an appropriate ending for a record, which heard as a whole, leaves one with the sense of having been playing with time.
There is much to say in the next blog. I want to deal with some of Ouspensky’s ideas from A New Model of the Universe, with the concept of recurrence in one life, and with other of Stewart’s unique corpus, and especially his late brilliant masterpieces, Famous Last Words and A Beach Full of Shells. I shall try and bring the ideas together.
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book “The Phoenician Solar Theology” treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The third book, “George Mountford Adie” represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.