Sunday, 11 March 2018

Be Here Now

Q: The first ten years of rock songwriters were students of the music that came before – but from about 1970 on, all the new rockers knew was rock, maybe a little blues. What was lost?
From 1970 till now there’s been about 50 years, seems more like 50 million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones, group interests triumph over individual ones, poor people themselves have become a commodity. Musical influences too – they get swallowed up, get absorbed into newer things or they fall by the wayside. I don’t think you need to feel bummed out though, or that it’s out of your clutches – you can still find what you’re looking for if you follow the trail back. It could be right there where you left it – anything is possible. Trouble is, you can’t bring it back with you, you have to stay right there with it. I think that is what nostalgia is all about.
Bob Dylan in interview with Bill Flanagan
As the venerable joke has it: Nostalgia... It's not what it was. But then, nothing ever is what it used to be, is it? Personally, I've always tried to resist the impulse to dwell on the past, but advancing age seems to bring with it a tendency to reflect on your earlier selves and to construct something like a narrative out of the accidents and contingencies of a single life, your walk-on part in a cast of millions. It's especially easy to slip into when you were born at a propitious time and had some moderately colourful adventures in your youthful years. A bit of flattering lighting, and with the grim and forgettably routine bits edited out, and your little pleasures, interests, ups, downs, and sadnesses can seem significant. I was there! Well, of course you were, idiot; where else might you have been?

Recently, I've been reading A Hero for High Times by Ian Marchant, an account of the rise and fall of British counterculture, as embodied in the life of one man, Bob Rowberry, who actually does seem to have been present at or responsible for a surprising number of its key moments. The subject matter aside, I was also drawn to the book because Ian is based in Presteigne and Bob lives in a van in a wood near Llandegly, which, as regular readers will know, is the precise area of our annual Easter visit to mid-Wales, a pilgrimage we have been making for over 40 years now. In fact, we'll be heading up there in just a few weeks. Obviously, there's a lot of personal history embodied in those places for us now but, oddly, from the very beginning it had always seemed like a place where various pasts and roads-not-taken, personal and otherwise, were still hanging around, waiting to be revisited.

Which – contrary to Bob Dylan's quoted view above – is an illusion. The past is gone, and any remnants of it will have been changed utterly. I think I must have described before that fantasy that many of us seem to nurture, that somewhere there is a bar, or a café, or a common room where friends from our past are still sitting around, just like they always used to, into which we will one day stroll, after the passage of 30, 40, 50 years, and spend a pleasant evening catching up. So, how was your life? Except, these fantasy friends have had no lives, in your imagining, they have been in limbo, eternally frozen in time and waiting on your return, like the figures on Keats's Grecian urn.

I had a graphic demonstration of this recently. I have a very old friend from my schooldays, someone I've been exchanging emails with for some time, but whom I haven't actually met for something over 35 years. I was in London and walking through the South Bank when I heard someone call my name. I looked, but didn't know the luxuriantly-bearded geezer sitting on a wall eating a curry. When he called again, I walked over and demanded to know who he was and how it was he knew me. As you will have guessed, it turned out to be my very old friend; I simply couldn't recognise the fresh-faced lad I knew, the one whose features were still animating his emails in my mind, in the time-weathered figure in front of me. To be honest, I'm slightly amazed he recognised me; it's not as if I haven't changed a fair bit, too. It must have been the walk. The next day, I apologized by email for not having recognised him. Being the joker he is, he admitted it was very tempting to reply, "WTF are you talking about? I was never in London that day!"

It's probably a cliché, but true nonetheless, that all old people gradually become exiles, living further and further away from the country they knew in their younger days. Buildings and streets have come and gone; friends and relatives have vanished into the solipsism of age; they no longer even speak the language like natives. Time changes everything, and the face we see in the mirror is not the face we are remembered by. I'm beginning to suspect it's not even the face we think we see there. So, sorry, Bob, you're wrong: there is no trail back, and, to be honest, I'm very glad there isn't, or too many of us would be finding our way back there, and getting stuck in our personal limbo, clinging on to whatever precious dead things we think we left back there. No; as we used to say back then: be here now.

Shadow Factories


Zouk Delors said...

Check out the cymbalum in this:

Wonder what she looks like these days?

Mike C. said...

Argh, possibly one of the most annoying recordings ever from the Good Old Days, despite stiff competition from the likes of "Our House", "Bohemian Rhapsody", "American Pie", "Mull of Kintyre", and various other atrocities I have chosen to forget. It's very instructive to look at a chart from 68-72 to remember quite *why* the good stuff was good. Although doing so will bring back some awful TOTP-related memories...


Zouk Delors said...

It's timeless (actually a Russian song from the 1920's, translated in the early 60's)

"Besides the cymbalum, Hewson arranged instrumentation for one clarinet, two trumpets, one trombone, a banjo, guitar, bass, tuba, six violins, four cellos and drums"

Mike C. said...


If you say so... Seems pretty strict tempo to me.


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

an approximately contemporary photo of mary hopkin - taken by her daughter - can be seen at

as firesign theatre said, decades ago, about the future - "THIS is the future - you got to LIVE it, or LIVE WITH it"

not mentioned by them - the third inevitable alternative, facing us all, "get out of the way"

Mike C. said...

mistah charley,

Interesting -- she's clearly one of those women who look better as they get older.

I suspect I'm one of very few Brits who ever listened to Firesign Theatre: living proof that Americans DO do irony...