Man of Constant Solace

There wasn’t much my parents were sure about, back in the day. I was a child of the 1970s and experimentation was key. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ were social constructs, money-making was passé, and polyamory was the new frontier. Anything could happen and probably did.

There was only one thing my parents believed in – one firm truth – and that was the mystery and power of music. My parents worshipped music like Baptists worship God. Their tastes were far-reaching, and sometimes in great opposition, but they were united in their fanaticism and the continuity of their praise. Whole pockets of my childhood were marked by obsessive listening. The summer of Tim Buckley. The winter of the Velvet Underground. Limitless years of Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen for hope. Neil Young for despair. And when things got tough, small snippets of Judy Garland, and constant late night reruns of a desperate sounding John Lennon. My parents used music to soothe their pains and express their troubles, and there were times when I was a child when it hurt just to step inside the chapel.

Bob and Bruce

Having grown up in such a faith it is hard to view these musicians as anything but religious icons. And not only that, as known entities. I attended my first Bob Dylan concert at three months old, and have seen the man perform almost every time he’s been here since. Even though he was up on stage and I was in the audience, he’s one of the most stable adult presences in my life. Sticking with me from childhood into adulthood. Enigmatic, eccentric, bamboozling, but ever-present. An endless reservoir of wisdom and strangeness. His now craggy face is more familiar to me than many of the adults I grew up with, his startling nasally voice a constant in an increasingly disjointed world. Is there a term for this kind of relationship? Because ‘fan’ really doesn’t seem to cut it.

As many of us know, there isn’t much Bob Dylan hasn’t sung about. Most pressing questions have been addressed somewhere along the way, and if they haven’t – there’s plenty of time left … right?

The forlorn realisation that a seventy-something year old man cannot go on producing music indefinitely brings me to the issue of mortality. Of finiteness. Of watching these icons slowly lose some of their capabilities. I recently saw BB King perform to a large audience and was distressed by his immobility and confusion. Helped into a chair in the middle of the stage, in some songs he stopped in the middle, lost in a sort of reverie, and in others he just played a riff here and there, like a sad faded version of his younger effervescent self. My brother, a musician by trade, remarked with gentle melancholy – “They will all eventually die. And who will we look up to? Who will sustain us?” And it got me to thinking about religion and worship. About how it begins, and what it means. I don’t pray to Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen to save my soul, but maybe I could? If faith is about belief and love, nourishment and sustenance, about living with joy and despair – then perhaps there are no better idols than musicians to see us through.

Legend has it that as a young man Bob Dylan hitchhiked across America to visit his hero Woody Guthrie who was dying in hospital, to sing him a song. Later he recorded a poem entitled Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie which ended with the lines:

You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in the Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Now, it’s only my opinion, I may be right or wrong, but I think when BB finally passes over, he’ll be there too. His smile wide, infused with peace and joy, he’ll be strumming his beloved guitar Lucille – with all the others – in the Grand Canyon at sundown.

First published in March 2012 in the Big Issue #402.  

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Back Inn Time

In the 1970s my parents were serious about backpacking, so serious that despite having four kids under ten, they were still ready to take on South East Asia. I was two, my brother six months old. This was before easy access to disposable nappies. Think about it. In the photos my mother stares calmly at the camera, long hippie hair, a cranky baby on each hip, the slums of Malaysia at her back, but she is smiling.

Tokyo

At six and eight my brother and I were considered big enough to carry our own backpacks. Japan was the next destination. My father had taken the two older girls the year before, and now it was our turn. Mum’s campaign against passive smoking had finally won out, and Dad spent half the plane trip puffing unhappily on his cigarette down the back of the plane. The plan on arrival was to get straight out of Tokyo, and into the mountains. My parents were on the hunt for traditional Japanese Inns. My father’s first priority was to wake up in Arashyama, a sleepy scenic town with a multitude of temples on the outskirts of Kyoto. Spurred on by his romantic sensibilities, we began the six-hour train and bus trip across country.

Theoretically my brother and I could carry our packs, but once we entered the crowded subway the weight on our backs made us topple down the steep stairs at an alarming speed. “Grab them, they’re going to go over,” my mother screeched, frantically grasping for the loops on our packs. We were out of control, bouncing down the stairs in leaps and bounds. At the bottom our knees gave way, and my brother and I crumpled down together on the concrete. We sat wide-eyed and waiting for rescue, our oversized bags pinning us to the ground. From then on negotiating the subway became a team effort. Like puppies on leashes, my parents grabbed our bags at the top of the stairs. “Got them? Holding tight?” They’d double check, and then we’d all bounce down together.

When we finally reached the Inn in Arashyama, exhausted and hungry, we were ushered through the immaculate Japanese garden by an elderly couple not much bigger than eight year old me. In the doorway began a bewildering array of bows. My brother and I did our best to keep up. Kids were clearly rare on the traditional inn circuit; the couple were excited to see us. They had soft creased faces and big smiles, but no English. Our room was simple. Tatami matting on the floor, rice paper doors, futons in the cupboards rolled out later for sleeping. The old woman signalled that we should kneel on the floor, and her husband brought in a small table, and a gas cooker. We watched as the woman carefully prepared our dinner, talking softly to us in Japanese. My brother, big-eyed and still slightly babyish, was the main attraction. While she cooked the old woman reached out a hand to softly pinch his cheek and touch his shiny blonde hair. He stayed still and quiet, as though hoping to camouflage himself against the tatami. When dinner was ready the woman broke an egg over the meat and stirred it about with her chopsticks. Sukiyaki. Motioning to my brother to open his mouth, she popped a slimy morsel between his lips like he was a baby bird.

Eikando temple - Kyoto

For the next hour, my brother did not refuse to open his mouth once. My parents and I were given our own small bowls, but the old woman continued to feed my brother with her chopsticks, patting his head and shyly laughing behind her hand. When all the food was gone she and her husband packed up the gas cooker and table, and backed out of the rice paper doors, bowing as they went. We all turned to look at my brother, my parents visibly proud of his magnificent effort to do as the Romans do. It was a moment to savour. He was a six-year-old traveller partaking of the exotic flavours of the big wide world, saying yes to every new experience that came his way. A true adventurer. I saw the admiration in my parent’s faces, and just for that second I wished it was me. I wished I’d been the baby bird. My brother looked back at us one by one, solemn-faced and wise-seeming, and then without warning he vomited all over the tatami.

First published in get lost magazine, September 2009

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