SONGS ARE THE BEST PEOPLE
— The first songs I knew, got into, remembered without trying were all culled from the few audio cassettes my father owned that resided between the wheelhouse of his fishing boat, The Marie Glen Valena, and the glove compartment of our Ford Falcon. The combination of a moving vehicle and the right (frequently wrong) song was like extra company, the neutral family member no one disagreed with. All those albums: Tom Waits, The Heart of Saturday Night; The Eagles Greatest Hits; AC/DC’s Back in Black and Dire Straits, Love Over Gold, are time machines for me, with individual songs containing ‘adult’ emotions and narratives that I’ve only just caught up with. My brothers and I knew from The Eagles, for example, that “city girls just seem to find out early, how to open doors with just a smile” long before we had any real reference for the words city or girls.
My grandparents only listened to opera and classical music, and generally only in the afternoons when they rested or in the car when running errands. I’d be talking with my brother, asking questions, and my grandfather would say, “Ricky, do you like music? You like good music right?” and I’d say, “Yeah, I like music,” and he’d get this stupid grin and say “Well shut up then!” This exchange happened every other day.
The morning I received the news that he’d died, I just went back to bed broken and played Simon Joyner’s Songs for the New Year over and over. It seemed like the only record I owned that was melancholy enough to keep me company, keep me as miserable as I wanted to be, and help me get out all the water before I had to face anyone. Listening now it seems more optimistic lyrically – the words just happen to be moored to music that keeps them down. It’s as if the recording itself, after failing to rise, has conceded to staying in bed for the day.
I’d like to lie down on the ocean
And clear the city from my lungs
Sometimes it rains while I’m drifting
But then I’m dried off by the sun
When something’s done you need a song. When I worked for my brother Lobster fishing, he would blast the music across the deck from the wheelhouse only after the last pots had been collected/baited and returned to the sea, and it was time to stream home. By that time the tapes were long gone and it was all radio. I’d hose down the deck mats and stack all the gear away neatly at breakneck speed for the reward of extracting myself out of my oilskins and boots, so I could sit up in the wheelhouse with the hum of the engine and radio hits tempered by the summer glare and the knowledge that the rest of the day was mine to burn. So I loved the radio, forgave the obnoxious morning banter between songs, allowed it to soothe the morning’s exhaustion and fill the remote silence in the cabin between Pierre and I. One morning the song Zombie by The Cranberries came on, the volume escalating, and I turned back from the deck to see my brother at the wheel banging his head back and forth out of time…the hilarious movements of a reformed metal head adrift with responsibility.
What’s in your head, in your head?
Zombie, zombie, zombie
I’m not even sure if it’s okay to listen to the Arcade Fire as a contemporary adult, but my wife started this tradition years back – of washing them through our speakers to mark the end of a struggle with a particular painting, or celebrate the completion of a group of work for an exhibition. Occasionally the ritual is applied to my studio accomplishments also, and yes, sometimes there is dancing. Of late The Fire has been replaced with Phoenix’s new album, in an attempt to bring summer nearer. But generally anything with an overtly triumphant tone, an uncomfortable uplifting feeling works.
People say that your dreams
are the only things that save ya.
Come on baby in our dreams,
we can live on misbehaviour.
Back when I was reaching out, feeling out the prospect of this perfectly serviceable friendship turning into something more romantic, I reverted back to the mix tape (actually a mix cd) as messenger. In a bold move I threw everything into that pot, everything short of ‘I just called to say….’ After all I didn’t write the songs and couldn’t be held accountable for them giving the wrong impression were the message not reciprocated. Winter by the Rolling Stones from the album Goat’s Head Soup was the first track on the compilation, and it was also repeated at the end of the mix. Call it maximum glitch, or the Tonight’s the Night approach*. At the time every line seemed an appropriate reconstitution of my own desires. Enduring winter in London was killing me. There’s a real longing in Jagger’s delivery that comes from the exhaustion of being without – waiting for the seasonal obstacle to pass in anticipation of a new cycle, a new someone to occur. I could never decide if the words were ‘sometimes I wanna wrap my cord around you’ or ‘coat around you’ (I’m now pretty sure it’s coat); in any case ‘sometimes I wanna head to California, sometimes I wanna keep you warm, warm, warm’ follows, the point being you had to be right beside someone in order to provide that kind of warmth. I never owned up to purposefully repeating the song, dodging the subject until the magic of the mix had taken hold and the confession could become part of a more permanent (LA) story.
And I hope it’s sure gonna be a long hot summer,
and a lot of love will be burning bright.
Some records arrive at the right moment both personally and collectively. At the time of writing I’ve been searching for some resolution to seemingly irreconcilable conflicts within my family, and the whole time Bill Callahan’s latest album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle has been guiding me through. A prisoner of my car stereo, I return to my car, turn the ignition over and the album is automatically there, “you again” I think. Calm and direct, it has managed to keep me floating above the weirdness, perhaps because the album seems to be a personal evaluation/evolution of sorts, Callahan singing back to himself from a distance, leaving me thinking in the space between his well chosen words. I’ve also been reading Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Rousseau, and finding parallels with Callahan’s guarded and clever message – a message that’s always seemed so independent from the necessity of peers and the charms of conventional communication. It asks as many questions as it makes statements and in doing so activates the listener as participant, as accessory to the production. For me it holds a unique currency within the Smog archive. There’s something more inclusive in the tone this time around, a frankness to the lyrics promoting a simple wisdom without leaning too heavily on irony to remain intact. The personal played plural.
I used to be darker, then I got lighter,
then I got dark again
* Alternate versions of the song Tonight’s the Night, open and end Neil Young’s album of the same title released in 1975.
Los Angeles, April 2009
Ricky Swallow is an Australian born artist living and working in Los Angeles. His detailed sculptures and installations explore the inexorable passage of time, and the enduring nature of objects. Swallow represented Australia in the 2005 Venice Biennale, and has recently participated in exhibitions at PS1, New York, The Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, Yokohama Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.