You shouldn’t listen to Josh Tillman if it’s winter

I

At a bar they were playing a song that I hadn’t heard for years.

You know the day destroys the night.  The night divides the day.

It was 1991 when I sat on the steps of the Regent Cinema One after seeing The Doors and felt like I’d seen a vision of Jesus.  “That,” I’d thought, “is who I want to be.”

Morrison was a brilliant lyricist.  In the music that surrounds them, with his voice, the words are beautiful, and cryptic and alive.

The plan to be Jim Morrison did not pan out.  Any plan to be someone other than yourself is, perhaps, doomed from the outset as success would look like being someone else; someone who already existed.

Anyway, when I got to the end of my Doors obsession I had concluded – thanks to reading the drummer’s autobiography – that Jim was probably a deeply unhappy and destructive person to be around.

II

Then there’s the problem of time.

I found it hard to recover from reading that there is no centre, that the earth is rotating and orbiting a sun that itself orbits another centre, which orbits another centre, and so on and on, each orbit taking durations that increasingly defy the mind’s capacity to understand.  Never mind the centre will not hold.  We don’t know where it even is.  The centre.

I’ll tell you about the heartache and the loss of god

Time, Carlo Rovelli tells me, has no unity, no direction, no present.  Etcetera.  I don’t understand physics.  I never will.  I do understand though that the way our minds work has little to do with the idea of times as linear.  Words, songs, tastes – they are emblems that when touched by the mind – take us suddenly elsewhere, folding now back on then or nowhere.  We are never here.

III

I worry about Josh Tillman.

I tend not to read interviews with “the artist” but the words of his latest album suggest a man unravelling in a hotel.  Quite a lot of I Love You, Honeybear was funny.  Something that is not true of Pure Comedy or God’s Favorite Customer.  I suppose that this is the connection my mind made between Jim Morrison and Josh Tillman.

The material that The Doors released after Jim’s death – An American Prayer – is half beautiful, and half dark, and terrifying.  As Jim comes out of Roadhouse Blues and talks to the audience you can hear the sycophantic audience responding to his invitations, before the whole slumps into a chaos of howls and derision.

I remember when I was reading the end of the drummer’s autobiography hearing a lot of the songs again and feeling terrified by them.  Partly because I was still drawn to those songs despite the darkness that seemed to be lashing around underneath them.

Like a carcass left out in the heat

This love is bursting out of me.

IV

The leaves on the trees outside the window at the front of the house are beautiful in the morning sun.  Against the blue winter sky.  In the back garden the magnolia is finally bare now, and I am sweeping up the leaves out the lawn and piling them in papery heaps into the big rubbish bag I will drive to the tip.

The moon is a curl of a thing.  The start of a new year.

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
I sometimes think I’m on the verge of understanding existence.  It is something to do with circles, clocks and Bach.  I am almost sure.  In the universe with no centre, with each part in orbit about another part, and with each form in the business of being born and dying – another cycle – there must be some meaning?  The bud and fall of the tree leaf, and the tide, the hand on of life from mother to child, and the slow swing of the milky way about its axis.  Fifty trillion moving parts across time in durations not measurable performing perhaps one rotation entire from big bang to big collapse: one inhale and exhale.
V
Can we resolve the past?
Lurking jaws, joints of time.
I was sitting on the bus yesterday with Rosamund going to her ballet class and I saw the clouds moving swiftly, unspooling across the sky.
It’s something to do with that.  Dancing.  To music.  The bus moving.  The clouds.  The earth.  Josh. Jim.  Your inhalation.  I’m 45.  You’re 7 and as cute as a button.

 

The Associates (2/2)

Billy

I

There’s a 1983 NME article on Billy Mackenzie with the title: Spoilt Brat, Silly Prat Or Visionary Genius? To which the answer would be: yes.

It’s written by Don Watson who seems to capture Billy in one paragraph:

Throughout Billy’s career there’s always been the implication that he’s the boy who never grew up, a 12 year-old Dorian Gray, maintaining the enthusiasm and irresponsibility of a child. He can be insufferably brattish or charming and candid, and like a child he can never decide whether he wants attention or wants to be left alone. It seems he picked up stardom as a toy to amuse himself for awhile, and slung it aside when he tired of it. [1]

Mind you, NME had been on to Billy three years earlier:

There is a concealed suaveness about him. In his eyes a hint that he’s humouring the rest of us. [2]

In 1983 Billy was two years away from getting his next album released, Perhaps.

II

Opinion is divided on Perhaps (1985).  It has been panned and fawned over.  The dark pomp is beginning to slip out of The Associates sound, but the shadowy twist is still there even without Alan Rankine who left at the end of 1982 frustrated with Billy’s unwillingness to tour.  I think it is a good album.  The Associates last album really.   Anxiety is certainly still there.  The first single – Those First Impressions –  has the same gloss of Party Fears Two, and the same unhappiness.

So convinced / Of my fall / That I fell / For feeling small.

And Waiting For the Loveboat performs the same emotional sleight of hand,

I said I love you
You said you know
That isn’t true
I said I want to

Billy liked a line break that shifted the meaning, or opened an unexpected angle.  That opening pair – I said I love you / You said you know – gets undercut twice, from you know, to you know that isn’t true, to the admission of its truth in the witty (or sad) I want to.  That is crisp, clever writing.

Billy was probably both honest and disingenuous about his writing; saying it came from somewhere, and that it both meant nothing and something.

“I just don’t know where I get the words from. When I first started writing words that was how I wrote…I didn’t understand it, and I never analysed it. I thought, ‘Well, if that’s coming from me, that’s OK’. I always know what it means even though I can’t explain it.”

“The lyrics are laced with humour, but they are usually about disillusionment, an emotion I’ve experienced a lot!” [2]

Disillusionment then.

III

“My background is that I’m more interested in individuals and if I’ve got an affection towards them, then I don’t really see hang-ups or boundaries coming into things.  So if you’re honest and you like either sex, if you’re comfortable with that, that’s ok….  It’s what’s behind someone’s gender that appeals to me.” [3]

I think they missed something, NME, in their articles about Billy.  It might have seemed like Billy was humouring people, and winding people up, but it also seems he was mostly humouring himself, and his contradictions.  By the mid 80s the disillusionment he said he felt must have been, at least in part, directed at himself.

He was eager to escape Dundee and happy there.  He found the entertainment business alluring and grotesque.  He was a beautiful performer who never seemed to feel at ease live.  His grandiose studio aspirations were part of his style and his self-sabotage.  He flirted with a kind of blurred sexuality but was probably diffident at best about the whole business of love outside his family and closest friends.

Billy was, as Alan Rankine recently opined, “on a sliding scale, about 90 per cent gay”…  At the same time, there were, said Rankine, occasions which emphasised Billy’s refusal to be categorised, sexually or otherwise.  “His sexual orientation seemed to change after Sulk,” says Steve Sutherland. “When I first met him, he had a girlfriend. After that, there was no question that he was homosexual.” [4]

No question?  I’m wary of what people make of a certain kind of man’s masculinity.  Bowie once said he was a closeted heterosexual.  True?  Not true?  Yes.

IV

After listening to, and watching, and reading about Mackenzie with all the hot feverish intensity my obsessions always follow, I have to step back and wonder why I find Billy and The Associates so compelling.

First there is the music.  From Boys Keep Swinging to the end of Perhaps I find it either thrilling or, towards the end, intriguing.  A dark, sharp-edged cabaret sunken in anxiety or preening on the dance floor.  It is all a delicious thing to hold in the ear and mull over in the mind, and the words – which at first seem a collage of nonsense – do seem, after all, to amount to something, to almost, but not quite, offer some kind of insight into the singer.

And second, there is the singer who is attractive for all of the reasons I have already tried to describe, but in who I specifically recognise two qualities I have in myself: an attraction to the idea of an exhilarating escape through art, and an awareness that your own personal qualities will lead to self sabotage and periods of grim despair.

Billy’s lows seem to have been well-hidden, but when they came they must have throttled him fast.  His suicide was a final sidestep that flat-footed everyone around him.*  I suppose that the act pointed to the inner life he must have almost permanently concealed.

Pointed to but did not explain.

What do you feel about Billy Mackenzie?

Sometimes he’s OK and sometimes he’s horrible. But he has a lot of manners

Is he a lucky bastard?

Always has been. Jammy….  I just hope it continues. And the songs, they just come. They just happen. Anytime. Any place. And I’m really good at it, basically. [5]


* Although, tragedy dogged the family.  After Billy’s death came the death of two brothers (an overdose, a house fire) and a sister (fell from a balcony).

[1] Don Watson, Spoilt Brat, Silly Prat Or Visionary Genius?: Billy Mackenzie (NME, 27 September 1983)

[2] Paul Morley, Associates: Boys Keep Scoring (NME, 27 September 1980)

[3] Garry Mulholland interview in Time Out, 1996 – in Tom Doyle, The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie (Polygon, 2011)

[4] Paul Lester, The Bizarre Life And Lonely Death Of Billy Mackenzie (Uncut, 1997)

[5] Paul Morley, Disassociate! The Associates (NME, 9 October 1982)