Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Signal Point

At 0730 I walked out of my door to begin a four day jaunt across England, and felt a rush of joy at the splendid weather, and at my lack of encumbrance. I just had a light backpack, most of it filled with a rolled-up hoodie. "... We walked off to look for America..."

We enjoy playing at poverty. But actually, my joyful lightness was down to expenditure. I had the blessing of someone else paying my travel costs, so I was taking the train. (The cost of train travel in the UK is prohibitive.) I'm staying with friends, so I'm relying on their generosity in the way of  food, towels and raingear, should this lovely weather change. Thanks to the powers of the smartphone, I don't feel compelled to lug around a library of physical books. Once I would have wanted a camera and a laptop, but now.... Even my tickets are weightless electronic entities. I do feel a bit jittery about leaving my guitar behind, but in other respects I really have everything.

Paul and Kathy, I'm sure, would have had a guitar with them, but the song mentions only a minimum of luggage: cigarettes, a raincoat, a magazine. It allows ... it even encourages ... the idea that its protagonists are fairly poor.

I've been learning the song, which is a most beautiful construction (and has stretched my guitar technique). The song had come back into my mind when I heard an extract (a Paul Simon solo rendition) on a recent edition of The Verb, Radio 3's weekly poetry show. The theme of the show was the word America and its imaginative connotations. Ian McMillan and his guests enthused about Simon's artistry and about the song's evocation of space and distance: "The moon rose over an open field..."

Only one of the guests was unwilling to collude in this love-feast, the personable Terrance Hayes, chuckling and politely embarrassed, but nonetheless devastating. He said he couldn't really focus on the song without thinking about the rare and strange circumstances in which he would ever encounter a song of that kind. It just wasn't part of his world. I forget the exact terms he used to characterize its audience, and I might be embroidering, but the implications seemed clear: the song was a fantasy for an earnest, dreamy, self-absorbed, predominantly white and middle class student audience. The song evoked hobo tropes (such as a paucity of possessions, and using low-cost modes of transport), but it had little to do with the experience of those many working people who have had no choice but to uproot and travel across that broad nation in search of a bare livelihood. I think Terrance Hayes' embarrassed chuckle meant more than that, too, but this was what I took away.

The focus on primary audience isn't wholly fair. Paul Simon's songs have engaged so many different audiences worldwide, and have spoken to so many individual circumstances. The vacuity of the pursuit imaged by "counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike", though it's touched so lightly, still poses an urgent and angry question fifty years on.

But still, a primary audience is unquestionably a big part of what any pop artefact comes to mean. And after all, the luxury of acknowledging that personal emptiness ("I'm empty and aching and I don't know why") might have operated in ways to actually counter social change; by exculpating the morally sensitive individual and venting the pressure of discomfort into the empty air.

The Golden Shovel

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight

Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We

watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.

He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,

how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we

got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.

II. 1991

Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal

afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we

know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-

ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-

ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we

go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-

ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-

ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We

push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.

While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,

we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-

eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.


A poem by Terrance Hayes, riffing off Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "We Real Cool".

So there's no recycling capability for the main waste item on station platforms. Even though recycling of plastic-bonded cardboard has existed for years and is offered by many (most?) councils. And even though you can make single-use cups without plastic, as the Coffee #1 chain do. Time for the railway companies to step up!

Leeds City Council shows how it should be done

Discounts on factory-farmed meat for W.H. Smith customers

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At 8:21 am, Blogger Billy Mills said...

Interesting piece. It's a great song, but not every great piece of art can speak to everyone, that's just how it is.


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