Only Words Remain: The Day My Music Died
As the song-sheet of history shows, singers are silenced in curious ways. Some, like Jeff Buckley, fall from boats, while others fall down sets of stairs, Fritz Wunderlich-style. Then there are those who, like me, simply fall sick.
Mind you, it wasn’t the pox that bottled me up: it was something my medico said.
The visit started normally enough, with the doctor peering into my mouth and declaring I had a cold. But then the bombshell dropped. Giving my tender tonsils one last lingering look, she uttered two weighty words. ‘Unusual architecture,’ she said.
‘It’s crowded in there,’ she added, by way of explanation, and with that our explosive encounter was over. I was left feeling lousy but enlightened: something suddenly made sense. I knew now why I sucked as a singer.
I’d been reminded of my vocal unloveliness while listening to a home recording a few days before. Revolted, as always, by my unrefined nasal whine, I pictured myself as a poor man’s Bob Dylan, all spit and no polish. The image was awful.
What had I been thinking when I’d first let my cords loose almost thirty years ago? That practice makes perfect, of course. That I could train my voice to sound so much better.
By inadvertently alerting me to my not-so-super inner structure, the doctor had cured me of my musical illusions. Clearly, the inside of my bonce wasn’t built for beauty. Nascent sounds need headspace: room to grow in richness and roundness; time to mature into a loftier kind of chamber music, a harmony of the sphere.
Anatomy, I decided, is destiny, so I sang no more.
. . . . .
Mine was a musical journey of discovery and self-delusion, a thirty-year odyssey encompassing shifting styles, identities and instruments, none of which I ever mastered or made my own. I played around but was never any good.
It started back in high school when, bored with maths, a mate and I conjured up the Stumpjump Ploughers, a sham country band whose singles – ‘River Full of Beer’ and ‘The Barnyard Blues’ – took our senior year by storm.
Emboldened by success, I moved on to the mouth trumpet. Jamming with cool cats in classrooms, I tried – and failed – to jazz up the campus.
Real trumpet soon followed, and I was quick to perfect a faulty technique. My signature sound – a kind of wavering bray – was captured on Foolhardy Adventures, an album produced by a real musician, my brother, which featured the playing of an unreal musician, my sister.
Musicianship, it seems, does not travel in threes.
Not-so-grand piano came next, and for a time I saw myself as Horowitz reborn. Alas, I was simply horriblowitz, despite my bumbling best efforts. Once, while ‘working’ at a boarding school, I made a desperate Liszt-like pact with the devil, whose short-lived support inspired me to write a wicked piano part for one of my brother’s best songs.
For a full five minutes I felt truly divine.
The guitar brought me back to earth; on its fretful board my fumbling fingers were never at home. And yet even I could string together a few basic chords, a fact that encouraged me to become a singer-songwriter of sorts.
I devised my debut offering, Climbing Falling Trees, in the early 1990s. It opened with ‘You’ll Get Hurt’, the first song I ever wrote and the only one to feature this head-turning refrain:
The time to look
Is the time to look the other way
Rounding out the almost-album was ‘Taking Care’, a song that serves up some of my tastiest lines.
There’s air enough for smoke rings and a last breath
He holds his nose and tries to live a slow death
Butter to hide the knife
Bread to burn his toast
Surely it’s here somewhere
Honey cut the other loaf
Impressed by my early efforts, I shelved plans for my symphonic masterwork, War Machine. Instead I practised playing my two songs right through, something I could rarely do.
History shows that my first album failed to get off the ground: those trees just kept on falling. And although I tried not to let the fiasco affect me, I was tongue-tied for a time. My voice returned in ’98, when I wrote a four-legged number known as ‘Hard Easy Chair’.
Just room in these boxes, a little despair
There’s a box in this room, but no hard easy chair
E7 to C7, if you don’t mind.
As the new millennium broke, I got bitten again by the song-writing bug. I’d moved to a small island and was feeling bigger and bolder. As if to prove the point, I dabbled in punk, forming Osterberg’s Angels one day before disbanding it the next.
Punk ain’t dead
It’s just got nothin’ to wear
Locked in the bathroom
Spikin’ its hair
Seeking something more serious, I then dreamed up an indie outfit called Ready Reckoner, whose first full-length offering I christened Nothin’ Adds Up.
Nothin’ adds up the way it should
But that don’t mean that nothin’ ain’t good
This almost-album featured three cracking tracks: ‘Solitary Confinement’, ‘Clocks Without Hands’ and ‘Just a Potato’. Another corker, ‘Truer Than the Truth’, cut to the core:
There is no mystery
Without false clues
The lies you tell about yourself
Are truer than the truth
And, yes, that was an FM7 chord in there.
Like all good lemons, I had a side project or three on the back-burner.
I used to think faith
Would set me free
That if I believed in God
He’d believe in Me
Bombadier blossomed briefly in 2015. ‘Interstellar Cinderella’, a song from the band’s one and only almost-album, Electrocutie, was fit for glory.
Home at midnight
Out all day
Across the Milky Way
Doubts, however, had begun to creep in.
We’re all stars in the making
With hearts made for breaking
The harder we try
The harder we’re faking
Finally, the deadweight of my delusions became too much to bear, and I caught a cold. I called in the doctor, who, as we’ve seen, dealt the deathblow to my musical dreams.
Happily, I only ever gave two performances, one at the outset, the other at the end.
In 1989, the Stumpjump Ploughers appeared in a busking competition. I played the lagerphone and we won best comic act. My last public showing took place in a church. Afterwards I was praised for the way I masked my mistakes.
Shadows, life disappearing
Substance swept away
Echoes, double dying
Silence here to stay
Although this wasn’t the song I sang as my last – I attempted another number instead – I wish now that it had been, if only because it seems so prescient.
For, as a real singer-songwriter, Peter Allen, sang,
All that’s left of the singer’s
All that’s left of the song
Of the sounds I made only words remain.
2 thoughts on “Only Words Remain: The Day My Music Died”
September 29, 2018 at 12:39 am
“a poor man’s Bob Dylan” … it seems you’re much more
September 29, 2018 at 8:12 am
You’re too kind, Tony – for reading and replying.
Some would say, of course, that Dylan himself is a poor man’s Bob Dylan, but that’s by the by…
Whatever my musical worth, I’ll certainly miss the alchemy of song-writing, the special wonder that comes with conjuring up ‘poetry with wings’. But I won’t miss the frustration of not being able to sing my songs into full flight.
You write beautifully in your blog that you’ve always seen your songs as the evidence of your life, rather than as the life itself. Very wise! Alas, I’ve tried to live through my ‘art’ and in doing so I’ve diminished it.
So it goes!
Keep on embracing the ache, Tony, in your own special way.