I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread- Yeats, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’

This shouldn’t take long.

Records of the Year, that would be one frame. I’ve had this track for nigh on twelve months now, since the last days of 2001, and still I walk back into its beguilements over and over. I’d like to try to write down why. But strictly, this is a belated response to a request, a generous commission I knew I could only fulfil by straying from the beaten track. Possibly some precious few folk would genuinely like to know more about Eva Marie Saint and the price of medicine. I sure would. What follows won’t help on those scores.

I’ve written enough about him before – a few thousand narrative words, years ago in spring, trying to connect my sense of his world to my sense of mine; then so many public gauntlets laid down on his behalf, when he’d never make such claims for himself save, surely, in his own head. (Hard to believe he never spends laborious minutes measuring himself against his own canon, Dylan, Simon, Cohen, Reed – but perhaps I underestimate the humility of middle age. Still, this is a man – and the mind reels with affectionate disbelief as I type – who once told Simon Reynolds – Simon Reynolds! – that his major contribution to the history of songwriting was the adjectival use of the proper name. ‘Beat-up’? ‘Grace Kelly’. Admiration is compelled for a man who says such a thing to such an interlocutor.)

Parentheses aside, the point is that I may have little left to say about him – which thought if true might make me pause at how the fires of language can consume what we love. Yet here at least is something unsaid: one aural image, one brief stretch of sound that lingers on thinking of him. It has escaped summation: it’s part of no capacious biography, nor of the slack second-hand notions that most memories hold of the man. It’s on the edge: outside ‘songwriting’, beyond words; past the limits, so closely drawn, of most people’s interest in him; heteronomous to the received idea. But it’s him all right, and it moves me and calls me back as much as any ‘new’ music in these last years.

I guess he’s always liked keyboards, as some of the flourishes of the 1980s could show; still this one is an unexpected, eerie way to start a ‘primarily acoustic’ track. It’s insolvent as epic beginnings should be, melting into the track proper. And it’s a way of waiting: of pacing up and down for a few seconds, making us anticipate the delayed clarity that the guitars bring. Loosely picked and strummed, that casual fashion that holds a song, keeps it going, but still offers detail. We are in the world of roots: of that sprawling sense that takes in memories of country (twang, attitude) and folk (technique, earnestness), however little you really know those modes.

Technique: because you hear him play this, you know it’s him, building up those layers of guitar, plotting their trellis of interaction, and thus showing, deliberately or not, what he can do. He’s not bad these days, you have to say. There’s a pop idea: shy demonstrations of talent, rather than proud prances of worthlessness. Attitude: because seconds in, with no words to guide us, we must be responding somehow, reading this track, looking for bearings: and I think I hear an attitude, of quiet defiance – no, that’s too aggressive: of lonesomeness, cowboy dreams, riverside hikes; survival, above all, but survival alone (one man, presumably, is playing all those guitars). I’m still here, the music says: but it’s tough these days. (That sounds a mere pose, but at some level, beyond the record, I guess it’s real.) What this record has to burn, or to drown, is melancholy. High as the interesting skies and their carpets of skimming cloud patterns; low as the ground, the forest floor, the pine needles, the lake’s dark depths.

Landscape? That’s an illusion, but it shows what nine letters can do. ‘Prufrock’ drew that scatter of words into a field of force, an apparent character; the title here summons the five chords, the three or four guitars and background noises, into a shape. Or several, associated ideas, scapes that feel analogous in the corner of the mind’s eye, and needn’t be looked at too closely. The trees, stretching ahead like the giant redwoods on Endor. The towns of slow lives, cars on icy roads, Carver fishermen. The failure that makes a man retreat to these margins: upstate, out of the city; off the highway; for the people don’t buy my records like they did, and that was a long time ago. Now I’m up here, waiting, knitting this thing together, thinking of building a cabin yonder, waiting for the thaw.

He plays it twice: or maybe the two takes are stitched from one, the guitars lacing in different orders each time. There’s an arpeggio of exquisite simplicity or complexity, which patterns the same notes and different notes together in a cycle that goes round and round; but it’s not just circular like some four-chord doowop hit, for each time through the phrase, a different chord is leading the way, and you have to play the same sequence of open notes over and over before the underlying structure has cycled back to where you started. He must have been proud of that; I couldn’t have come up with it.

Then there’s the third (third?) guitar: louder, sharper than the others, doubling the phrasing of the second, but sweeping through it with the assurance of a riff proper, sliding down one string and up another rather than hanging everything in a tangle of simultaneously sounding strings. It comes to override the rest, to take its place in the centre and sound a sadness on a scale the others can’t reach, allowed to resonate further than anything else here. Phrases like this – four notes will do – feel eloquent: you want to find a way to say they’re talking. But that doesn’t really describe it: voiceless, beyond words. That’s more to the point. Maybe eloquence is just another echo, from the one word we’re given.

He started amid the glow of that strange light in a clearing, like Yeats’ purple noon in ‘Innisfree’ (that poem, come to think of it, might be as good an analogy as any for this track); both times, naturally, he fades out, the guitars catching on each other like cotton or cagouls on brambles. Fades out, depending which path you pick, to the rest of what he has to say, to clear a ground for words; or to real silence at last. Best leave it here, where the map runs out and we can’t hear the song for the fade of those open chords, wise and weary yet wide awake. Best to know when more words are the last thing we need.

written by The Pinefox, December 2002