Four Lessons

I’m on my difficult fifth album. Looking back through this here blog, I’m struck by how long this most recent creative gap is. It’s now just shy of 2 years since I released Ecce Mono, and of the songs therein, around a quarter were well over a year old by the time of its release. Moreover, one of them was based on a keyboard part I first wrote maybe 15 years ago? So recently I’ve had to ask myself the question: “Has my well finally run dry?”

So it’s lead to a bit of a self talk. 

Lesson 1: Still here after all these years

It’s pretty easily to become disconsolate over such things. To set yourself against artists who churn out an album every two years for decade upon decade, whilst still finding time to deliver lectures about this or that at the UN, and tour the universe more or less constantly, all while going through a divorce. And so on.

But as my mind has started to clear a bit over recent months I’ve started to get some perspective on things. I’ve long lectured people that the key to finding self worth isn’t to look up at the stars and wonder why you’re not among their firmament, it’s to look at the ground, and be grateful you’re not merely being trampled on.

Look down. Not up.

The fact is that almost everyone I knew who was on the music scene during my ‘peak’ years of the 90s has given up. There are the odd hold-outs, such as the fabulous Scaramanga Six (who we played with a couple of times back in the day) who are still ploughing the furrow, but mostly their names have passed into dust. From the people I know directly, probably most of them haven’t so much as picked up an instrument in fifteen years now.

In short: they’ve given up. I haven’t.

Lesson 2: Life is What Happens When You’re BusY Making Other Plans

Yeah. It’s kind of trite. But more or less everything I do I do on my own. I don’t have a band around me to provide drums and bass and add extra spice to the creative stew. I don’t have a manager booking me gigs. Or a team looking after my health.  Or any of the doodads and whatnots that go into people who make a genuine living from music.

So that means my musical life is entirely dependent on Other Life Things That May Be Happening At Any Given Point.

So in the last year, I’ve had:

  • Nearly the destruction of my marriage (which would have been my fault)
  • The discovery that I’m permanently brain damaged
  • The discovery that I am, as we speak, afflicted by a second brain tumour
  • Accepted how very very unhappy I was running my own business
  • Shut the business down
  • Got a job
  • Had three separate lots of counselling from three very different perspectives to adjust to this new livelihood
  • Made the decision to go onto anti-depressants
  • Made the decision to come off the anti-depressants
  • Made the decision to try new anti-depressants
  • &c
  • Joined two bands, left one of them

Now most of this is the routine grist to the mill of life. But there’s a lot here that’s really fucked me over from a mental health perspective, so the fact that I’ve produced anything at all is probably something I should focus on more than the things I haven’t managed to do.

Surviving the last 18 months has been a feat all of its own, and it’s still not two years since my last album. I’ve made 4.5 albums in the last 4 years – which is 1.5 more than The Killers have, with all their in-built advantages.

Lesson 3: Well, Actually…

..I’ve just been totting up my unreleased stuff and guess what: there’s pretty much an album’s worth there, despite everything. It’s a wildly uncohesive body of work, but so what? Who decided that art made by one artists had to have a connective tissue to every other work of art in their corpus?

In fact, the reason I find so many contemporary music acts so tedious is because they are so unadventurous: whether that’s because of record company commercial diktat or lack of musical zest is impossible to say, but in a world of infinite possibility I’ll never understand why bands release records with 12 songs that are all pretty much at the same end of the sonic swimming pool. Hate to bring them up again, but the wonder of The Beatles or Queen is that any given album is full of whiplash jolts from simpering acoustic ballads, to rock and roll pastiche, to oddball psychic exploration, to stadium anthem to quirky blues.

I don’t have that level of talent or musical nous, there is very little that a song like Closing Time has in common with One More Drink – much less Peter Was a Lorry Driver.

And so, tallying things up, I’ve got the quota of 12 songs I set myself for an album. And of those, 8 are pretty much complete, 2 need minor tweaks, and 2 just need a better recording.

So really: If I can’t manage that by the end of the year I deserve to be hurled into the canal in a sack loaded with bricks.

Lesson 4: You’re Out There, Baby

I may have been ditched by the Diesel Trees (which is fair enough: I was only ever the singer, and deep down every songwriter wants to sing their own songs) but I’m still in two live acts: The Plastic Beatles, where I am the world’s fattest ‘John’ and The Cadavers – a much-needed and loved acoustic side project.

And that’s meant an additional psychic overload of learning lyrics, chords, structures and guitar parts for knocking on for 80 extra songs. Plus weekly rehearsals, and a couple of gigs a month. All of which is psychic overhead of its own that leaves less room for writing, recording and polishing up new material of my own. I’m slightly exaggerating, because many of these songs I’ve known for years, but still: it all takes its toll on the brain.

Sick to Death

Been a while hasn’t it? Suffice to say that 2021 has not been the easiest of rides thus far. And you may pick up some of that general vibe from the lyrics and, indeed, the mordant pacing of the song. At the time of writing I’m waiting for my good friend Den to do a guitar solo, because I did one and it was awful. Anyway, boil the kettle while you listen to it and then we can sit down and have a good old natter.

Lyrics

I’m tired of taking pills and waking up before the sun
I count the hours, one by one
I’m up here with the fucking morons on TV
And how come they all look like me?

I’ve had a bellyful of tea and sympathy,
I’m fucking sick to death of my own company,
The scales tell tales of woe – and secret calories,
In case it isn’t clear
Sometimes I wish I wasn’t here

It’s alright – I’ll be back tomorrow
It’s alright – I’ll be back tomorrow
It’s alright – I’ll be back tomorrow
Just you wait and see…

I’ve had enough of good advice from well-meaning friends,
It never, ever ever ever ever ends,
They say that words are cheap – but is that really true?
Cos I’ve got a bob or two,
And nothing much to do tonight…

It’s alright – I’ll be back tomorrow
It’s alright – I’ll be back tomorrow
It’s alright – I’ll be back tomorrow

I’m sick and tired of singing this song

Thoughts

In case you missed it, I’ve been diagnosed with a recurrence of a brain tumour that I had removed a decade ago. And that discovery came on the back of a miserable start to the year which saw me moving out of the family home to live back in a spare room at my mum and dad’s. I’m back home now, and trying to rebuild my life – but it’s a lot of work: pills. Therapy. Fall outs. Tears. Arguments. Big things.

From that unhappy wellspring came the lyrics to this song, that originally began life as a gentle country blues but as these things do, grew as I added layers to it. In fact, it was so very mordant in fact, that I rewrote the chorus with a big, uplifting melody and sentiment just to even things out. And, it’s true: I will be back tomorrow. As will all of us who carry on through our days with our secret emotional pain.

After completing it for the main part, I suddenly remembered a thing I wrote when I was about 17 or 18 – just a recurring guitar figure. When I first played it all those years ago, my drummer at the time was sat at a piano and played a descending figure in what I later figured out was 5/4 time. The unresolved, restless feel of this has stuck with me for nigh on thirty years, and now it’s finally found a home as a sort of coda.

Anyway, the rest you can figure out for yourself. I’m unhappy, and this is an unhappy song.

Now let’s never talk of it again.