I remember vividly the very first moment I listened to Gavin Bryars‘ composition and recording of ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. There is something truly profound about this 25:27 minutes long recording. Today I know that it has influenced me into developing myself as an artist and musician as it has shifted me to further exploring the stillness and soul that you find in music.
It was about four years ago. I was in the kitchen preparing a supper and just changed my radio to BBC 3. There was almost nothing to hear so I needed to turn the volume up. There was only one voice singing and no instruments; a thin, crackling and fragile male singer chanting just one line in endless repetition. Some strings and brass appeared from the ether, gradually overlaying the stanza. The layers of sounds carried me away. All sorts of images moved in front of my eyes; I saw an endless sky with rays of light shining through distant clouds. The clouds gave way to warm lights falling into a wide-open sea. That sort of images kept appearing in my mind. The voice sang a religious line: ‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, this one thing I know, for he loves me so’. The words kept sinking in. I came to realize that this was just one short voice recording, repeated in endless loops. The layers of strings and brass changed he colouring of the stanza profoundly; the same voice that just sounded fragile and anxious now appeared deeply soulful and optimistic. I could hear a whole life story in this short voice recording. Strings gently glided along the chanting, opening one grand room after another, into which I was flying with the music. The longer the recording carried on the lighter I felt, making place for a deep sense of serenity. The song gradually faded out and I was there sitting in silence.
I went on to find out about this musician. I found Gavin Bryars Ensemble, a 25:57 recording, in different versions released and first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 1972. Gavin Bryars is a modern composer and artist. He was working with another artist on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant & Castle and Waterloo. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song, as Bryars described “sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads.” (Read the full article on Wikipedia) One, who actually was not alcoholic, sang a religious song. Bryars found this recording on unused filming material. The singing was in tune with his piano and he also realised that the first section of the song formed a perfect loop. He eventually decided to add an orchestral arrangement around this loop. The homeless person, his name unknown, passed away before Byrars could play the recording to him.
The composition not only made me aware what music can convey. It also reminded me about the grace that is in everyone when you look only close enough.
(The photography I took in Malta last year, facing the sea from the island southwards)
One day I went for a stroll in Soho and got into a side path called St Anne’s Court in London. It’s a connection between Dean Street and Wardour Street filled with sandwich shops, bars, cafes, a bakery, a hair dresser, a DIY store. Flowers were hanging from lamp posts and soft lights fell onto the usually busy crowds. In front of a big blue door a small crowd was gathering. I overheard a guy saying something about the first four track machine in the UK and the Beatles having recorded there. He also mentioned a list hung up into the door window so people can see who else recorded there.
The next time I had a chance I looked at the list. The Beatles recorded there Hey Jude, The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers, David Bowie The Space Oddity, Lou Reed Take a Look at the Wild Side, Elton John Saturday’s Night Alright, Carly Simon You’re So Vain and Queen The Bohemian Rhapsody. When you look up The Trident Studios you will find out that many more artists recorded there. It was one of the most vibrant recording studios in the late 60ies and early 70ies in the UK. There must be something special about a music studio that facilitated the recording of so many wonderful artists and songs.
The one song on the list that moved me the most was George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” recorded in January 1970. I had the melody immediately on my mind as I walked on. “My sweet Lord … my sweet Lord”. I remembered when I heard the song as a child the first time on the radio. We were all in the car coming home from a family weekend break. I always loved listening to the radio on journeys with my eyes wandering over the passing landscape. There is so much movement in “My Sweet Lord”. The rhythm of the acoustic guitars are uplifting and George Harrison sings wonderfully as he takes you onto a journey to God: “Oh Lord, I want to feel you”. The choir sets in “Halleluja”, voices like angels. “Halleluja”. Soon it interchanges with “Hare Krishna”. Peace is something you can feel anywhere on the world no matter in what settings you were born.
At home I listened to the song again. I felt deep serenity and gratitude. This is what music can do.
The lights are dimmed. Four musicians enter the stage in a small bar called the Kerosin in Augsburg, Germany. Orange and red light spots travel like satellites through the dark room, reflections from a disco ball hanging nearby the stage. You cannot figure out the musicians, dark silhouettes moving on the stage. The back wall is covered with worn out silver curtain fringes. Instruments are plugged in with cracking noises. Everyone is waiting, a surreal moment of silence. I make out the last musician entering the stage. He is all in black, only his pale face is visible. He looks sick. He seems to wait for something. After a few seconds he mumbles “shit”. Then he plugs in the guitar and starts to play. The first strums of his guitar sounds loud and wonderful. Then the whole band sets-in, fully igniting like a rocket going off. The musicians are totally on fire. It is loud, way too loud. The air soon gets hot and tight. The drummer keeps gasping for breath, working hard through the songs. The second guitar player is ferociously haunting dark spirits with his electric guitar. The female base player is blasting drones through the beats. And Jeffrey Lee Pierce sings. What a voice. What a beautiful voice shines through the haze.
Only through this gig I have found Jeffrey Lee Pierce. I am not sure I would have got into The Gun Club in any other way. All their acclaimed first records are very explosive and unique and yet they lack something that I saw on the gig. Through the live performance I became a fan of The Gun Club for some time, a band many consider to be one of the most interesting bands of the 80ies. They are Los Angeles punk interwoven with American blues and country, a voodoo like sound full of blasting energy. I listened a lot to the album Miami. On this Jeffrey Lee Pearce voice is staggering yet heart breaking. He sings as if ridden by the devil, and often he sings beyond the tunes, flying off to a different place with no direction. Miami is masterful yet dark, unsolved.
My fascination for The Gun Club was for their dark and anger ridden side. I don’t have this fascination anymore. Maybe these were wrong reasons to like The Gun Club. I used to select music when it expressed enough pain or melancholy. Now I think differently. I know that looking at shadows is important, but without a glimpse of resolution or light it is meaningless to me.
There is one song by The Gun Club that keeps me moving until today. It is Lucky Jim, the first song of The Gun Club’s last album released in 1993 and the name of the tour that brought them to the Kerosin in 1994 (a few years Jeffrey Lee Pierce sadly passed away, aged only 37 from a brain hemorrhage).
In the song Lucky Jim radiates a special light. Something I saw in the gig. It is in Jeffrey Lee Pierce voice, one of the greatest I have ever heard.
(A fan uploaded the 1968 documentary “Salesman” by Albert and David Maysles to this song)
Every time I walk from my home to Elephant & Caste in London I pass by Elliot’s Row. The road sign is mounted up on a solid brick wall, completely on its own with surrounding bricks washed with dirt and smut. The road connects to another road, or a bus station, or a college nearby. There is a row of Victorian houses. Opposite are some backyards of grey buildings with no faces. The road always makes me stop. Elliott’s Row it says. The Ballad of Big Nothing it sings. A Rose Parade was here. It is a place Between the Bars. Where you Say Yes. Either Or.
Elliott Smith‘s album Either Or has been my home for some time and very influential to my music. I can relate to every second, every hush in his voice, every picking and chord flickering from his acoustic guitar, and the deep soul in his songs. Not perfectly produced, not with many instrumentation, but speaking to your heart.
Some of Elliott Smith’s songs on Either Or are melancholic. But this is only one side of his music. There is a strong uplifting side as well. Maybe less obvious. One that will make you want to embrace life.
I feel that light and darkness are tied together in his music. One does not exist without the other. When he sings I either hear deeply rooted sadness. Or I hear optimism and pure enjoyment. Either Or.
There is a beautiful old car parking. It is ready to go to Angeles. It’s Elliott’s Row. I walk on, grateful.
(A fan made this video for the Elliott Smith’s Angeles)