Dear Stranger – your seven types of alienation seem reasonable. I haven’t been able to think of any others; will let you know when I do. What has occurred to me recently, however, is that people like us—alienated people—might have a positive function as the existential scapegoats of society.
Agnus Dei: the Scapegoat, by James Tissot
The idea came to me during a weekend spent struggling with some familiar demons. I was bemoaning the fact that my religious and sheltered childhood had hard-wired me to believe, as a default position, that the spiritual is more real than (and superior to) the material. This is the core assumption of most poets, lunatics, romantics and religious fanatics. I never had the financial resources, social support network or mental deficiency that would allow me to indulge such fancies, of course; I had to make my own way in the world and take it on in all its gross materialism.
But my upbringing disqualified me from any meaningful worldly success—the kind that results in complete, or at least sufficient, financial independence. That was the cause of my anger and depression. I felt, as I often do, that my parents had entered me in the School egg-and-spoon race and then, just before the starting gun, decided to amputate one of my legs. There are many, many people worse off than me, of course, but this is the way in which, and the extent to which, I feel frustrated with my lot.
And I am not alone. There are so many of us. We are almost a discrete social class, but most of the time we are barely visible. When we are noticed, we are usually dismissed as fringe-dwellers.
So, let’s take a step back and look at this from a broader perspective—not my subjective point of view alone, but that of a disinterested observer assessing society in the round.
Let’s assume that this observer subscribes to your Alienation Theory of History and sees our society and its existential discontents as the consequence, ultimately, of the human crisis that occurred when the hunter-gatherer lifestyle gradually gave way to settled, urban life. Society now, with the materialistically adept in charge and the spiritually adept forever on the back foot, might look like the logical outcome of such an historical evolution. In real time, with the toing and froing between these opposite poles possibly resembling a sort of Hegelian dialectic, this society might even appear to be (from the outside) a self-compensating system.
I find this idea rather interesting. What if our agonising and writing about the human condition is not just the private malady we’ve always considered it to be, but also the way in which society makes up for its materialistic excesses, even if this arrangement isn’t officially recognised and those who are perpetrating the excesses don’t give a fig about us?
Perhaps, like the scapegoats of the Old Testament, our role is to atone for the sins of others? We suffer to make up for the fact that they don’t.
There are dangers implicit in this idea, of course: we should be wary of developing a Messiah complex. But it’s positive in the sense that it gives us some social context and provides a link between us and those who, in their preoccupation with material concerns, are oblivious to us and the wider meaning of their lives.
One of the characteristics of the Old Wave that sets it apart from the rest of contemporary music is the depth and breadth of life experience behind the songs. That is exemplified nowhere better than on Steve Banks’ album, Ordinary Man*.
It’s Banks’ first album, but it captures a lifetime of highs and lows he’s experienced as a businessman, family man and—by no means least—a phenomenally talented singer, songwriter, guitarist and live performer.
These three quite distinct themes find expression in a fusion of blues, rock and soul which feels and sounds completely natural rather than conceptually driven.
Partly this is because of the extent to which Banks has absorbed and integrated these styles in his highly personal approach to musical self-expression. In the album’s flawless execution, it’s also a reflection of the close working relationship between Banks and his producer Jeff Burstin, former lead guitarist with the Black Sorrows and Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons.
Burstin—as his current work with Melbourne-based The Hornets attests—is a blues man through and through, and it’s the blues sensibility that helps to give the album its overall unity. The blues is quite rightly respected here as the Old Testament of modern popular music, but a willingness to infuse it with a contemporary feel makes its influence timeless rather than dated, and comes close to giving the album a classic quality.
Double trouble: Burstin (L) and Banks live in Byron Bay
There are no duff tracks and all stand tall, some very much so. The first, “The Way That It Is”, is what used to be known as a breezy little opener. It kicks off with a nail-it-down-tight drum intro followed by a brass riff that adds a touch of big-band swing which not only manages to avoid overwhelming the punchy compactness of the song but also complements Banks’ smoky vocal perfectly. It’s a classic tale of man chases woman and gets caught in his own trap (“I was in need of inspiration/She took me from behind…”) and introduces the relationships theme in a positive light.
“Money”, is a soulful lament about materialism (“You talk about money like you’ve had some for a while/You talk about money like it’s going out of style”) which is complemented neatly by the next track, “Like Robbie Says”, a tribute to The Band’s former guitarist, now solo artist, Robbie Robertson. It’s a laid back country rock number which nicely captures The Band’s feel for Americana with a plea to free the spirit from the shackles of the social media age.
“Throw Me a Bone” combines great Stax brass with funky guitar to tell an all-too-familiar tale of a man trying to redeem himself in the eyes of a woman (“I’ve been walking, stalking the night/Trying to think of ways and means of making this right”) but it’s the next track, “Millie’s Song”, that really takes the relationships theme into Old Wave territory. It’s a beautiful tribute to Banks’ daughter, written for her 21st birthday, that could bring a tear to the eye of any proud parent. Not the least of its strengths is the killer line: “You had me at the ultrasound”.
The relationships theme takes a dark turn with “I Wonder How You Sleep”, payback for a business relationship sabotaged by betrayal—a pain made all the worse by the fact that the relationship had been based on close personal friendship (“The mistake I made was trusting you with my life and family/ I gave you all that I could give, you repaid me ruthlessly”). Expletives are two a penny on albums these days, but the one used here is heartfelt and almost chilling in its effect.
The title of “Me, Innit” betrays Banks’ Mancunian roots and the track is probably the most reflective on the album, looking back on a successful life but wondering how much of that success was the result of personal authenticity and how much the result of an ability to bluff others. It’s a brave song, laying open Banks’ insecurities for all to see.
“Gotta Get My Balls Back” is also highly personal. I have it on good authority that the song references a dark period in Banks’ life which involved, by Old Wave standards, some pretty serious substance abuse—a liking for herbal tea and gluten-free bread. I’m pleased to report that, after a stern talking-to by said Millie, our man is now back on the beer and chip butties. Driven along by Burstin’s aggressive 12-bar walking blues, it’s a great track for harmonica players to vamp along to.
The fun continues with “Fitzroy Rag”, one of several tracks co-written by Banks and Burstin, and a colourful homage to one of Melbourne’s more famous suburbs, not far from where the album was recorded.
Easily one of the album’s highlights is the title track, “Ordinary Man”, a deeply affecting elegy for a dearly loved brother. It’s one of those rare works of art where any attempt at criticism feels like an act of trespass, so I’ll restrict my comments to referencing The Band again and comparing the song to “It Makes No Difference”, written by Robbie Robertson and sung, heart-rendingly, by Rick Danko.
Both these songs, for my money, stand apart for emotional depth and delivery. The fact that more than 40 years separate them says a lot not only about the rare quality of Banks’ writing and singing, but also the extent to which he has absorbed and continues a great musical tradition.
The two final tracks—the bluesy “Give You My Mind” and the evocative sixties-style surf instrumental (complete with theremin) “Castaway”—round out the album to a very satisfying conclusion.
Available on iTunes and highly recommended.
*Full disclosure: Banks has a history of collaboration with Universal Stranger’s songwriter-in-residence, Rody. For more on the Old Wave, click here.
Rody – you asked me to expand on my ideas about Genesis, as discussed during our well lubricated lunch with Ms Drysdale some weeks ago. As you will recall, they’re more about Adam and Eve and the Fall than any other part of the book. They’re not particularly well informed or thought through, so consider them not so much as opinions but more as speculations to which I would welcome your intelligent and critical response.
Firstly, let me make clear that I, like you, do not take the Bible literally or believe in the supernatural. I do regard the Bible, however, as important source literature, not only for understanding key aspects of Western history, but also for helpful insights into the human condition. Like all great literature, it’s a repository of profound psychological truths.
Insights into the human condition (Alltime 10s, YouTube)
My starting point in thinking about this subject is to remind myself of the historical perspective. As my favourite historian J. M. Roberts points out, humans have existed more than 20 times longer than the civilisations they have created (indeed, as the picture below reminds us, not all of today’s humans are “civilised”). That alone is a clue to understanding much about the human condition: civilisation occurs relatively recently in our development, and we’re still getting the hang of it. In this I subscribe to the Stranger’s Alienation Theory of History: that alienation has been a permanent structural feature of settled societies since they began, its origin traceable back to the Neolithic and the emergence of agrarianism alongside the established hunter-gatherer mode of existence—a major divergence in the human lifestyle, and a new and more polarising cause of social and cultural estrangement. (This is all theory, remember.)
Using this idea as a lens through which to read Genesis, the story can be interpreted as a symbolic account of this primeval disruption (with which, surely, our own highly disrupted age can find some sympathy). Adam and Eve are foragers in a pristine environment which, I’m tempted to think, might be a poetic evocation of the landscapes left by the retreating Ice Ages, as remembered in the oral traditions of stories handed down since prehistory (I tend to get a little carried away on points like this, so please be patient). There’s a (no doubt tenuous) school of thought that suggests one of the drivers of agrarian settlement was the discovery of the pleasures to be derived from ingesting fermented fruit, and the application of this discovery to religious rituals. The Genesis story links the Fall to a change of consciousness in Adam and Eve, which occurred after they ate the forbidden fruit; perhaps that change of consciousness is analogous to that which occurs after drinking too much alcohol! Again, this is fanciful speculation on my part, but I note that a recurring theme for Roberts is the extent to which human history – or at least the story of human development – is the story of our changing (or growing) consciousness. According to Genesis, a change in consciousness caused humanity’s downfall.
Changed consciousness (Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise)
On this reading, the Fall represents the loss of human connection with the natural environment because of the growth of settled communities and the challenge they represented to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in terms of territorial claims, religious beliefs and cultural values. It’s worth noting in this context that Genesis was written, according to Wikipedia, “either just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, and the Priestly final edition was made late in the Exilic period soon after”. For the Jews in exile, the tale might have been a way of rationalising and “owning” their alienation in a great foreign city. Like the 40 years in the wilderness, the experience was formative: some important identifying characteristics of Jewish culture, such as the observance of the Sabbath, were established during this period.
Adam and Eve left Eden and went to the land of Nod—a Hebrew word for “wandering” or “wander”. They became the eternal outsiders – the first Universal Strangers, perhaps?
Anyway, you say that your model for the relationship between metaphysics and practical philosophy is pluralistic, but that it can provide a coherent perspective on life. How? You don’t explain. If this model is supposed to add up to something coherent, then surely all the individual components must fit together somehow—and yet, by your own admission, they don’t.
Maybe spend less time on the silly name calling and more time thinking things through?
Dear R and S, I’ve been scratching my head over that last post. What’s going on? It’s a bit artsy-fartsy to say the least, and I notice the About page has gone the same way. I know we’re trying to draw Esse into public debate but I’m not sure this is the right way to do it. One of the things I like about this blog is that it’s usually pretty down to earth, but you blokes are beginning to sound as though you’re feeling yourselves up. Keep it real (or, as we used to say, fair dinkum)! We’re supposed to be bush philosophers, not woosey left-bank intellectuals.
PS Please don’t address me as “Liz” in future correspondence.
It wasn’t that long ago that I reviewed Nigel Philip Davies’ album Songs from a River and here we are, writing about him again already. The reason: his new video release, “Mr Tangerine Man”, which lampoons the aspirations of one clearly unsuitable candidate for the most powerful political position in the world.
It’s not the only such parody on YouTube – we’ve found two others – but it’s the hardest-hitting, in our view, although we might be a bit biased: the lyrics for this version were written (or, more accurately, re-crafted) by our very own songwriter-in-residence, Rody.
At least it supports my thesis, elaborated at some length in the album review, that there’s an “Old Wave” of 60-something singer-songwriters out there who are drawing on the influences of their youth to create songs that pack a punch and reflect the reality of these times, as seen through the lens of age and experience.
OK, the headline is click bait, but I reckon it’s justified because, if I’m right, this could well be one of the most important stories you will read all year.
Last night Elizabeth (one of Australia’s best financial journalists) and I were having a drink at the Kittyhawk in Sydney, when it suddenly dawned on us: the REAL reason that Donald Trump is running for US President.
He’s long the Mexican peso!
True, this is no more than a theory, but it seems to be the only logical explanation as to why he’s running for President while at the same time apparently doing everything he can, through his behaviour and utterances, to lose the election.
Because if (when) he loses, he’s going to make one big stinking pile of money.
One big stinking pile
It’s also true that, for this theory to stack up, you have to make some pretty big assumptions – for example, that Trump is not the douche bag he appears to be, and that he’s running for sound (if opportunistic) business and financial reasons and not (or not just) because he’s a narcissistic, power-hungry, attention-seeking sociopath.
The theory is based on the fact that, as a number of financial commentators are pointing out, Trump’s standing in the US opinion polls is inversely correlated to the peso’s value against the US dollar. In other words, every time Trump seems to be gaining in the polls, the peso weakens relative to the dollar and vice-versa, as this chart shows:
There are two reasons for this, one general, the other specific: the general reason is that Trump, if elected, would be (based on his policy rhetoric to date) a much more protectionist President than his recent predecessors. This will be a negative for the US’s trading partners, especially vulnerable ones like Mexico.
The specific reason is that Trump has threatened to build a wall between the US and its southern neighbour – and that, if it were ever to become a reality, would be a BIG negative for Mexico. Of course, the threat is probably no more than preposterous blather, designed purely to drum up populist support. But preposterous blather or not, it adds to the downward pressure on the peso every time Trump gets a good run in the polls.
So let’s assume that Trump has structured his whole tilt at the White House as a USD/MXN play (stay with me here) and is using the peso’s current weakness to line his pockets with the currency. All he needs is a couple more lame-brain debates with Hillary and a few more snipes at Alicia Machado for his polling to tank and the peso to rise and, hey presto, he’s in the money.
Depending on how big his position is, his payoff when he finally (we hope) loses on November 8 could be in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. The Art of the Deal, all right. Thank you and good night, America.
Of course, this is all pure speculation, but it should be enough to motivate some US investigative journalists (if there are any left) to take a look (please?). At the very least, sensible US voters should be demanding that Trump publish not only his tax returns, but his foreign currency holdings, too.
One of the good (and bad) things about the internet and social media is the opportunity they’ve created for writers, artists and others to share their work with the rest of the world. Of course the quality of the output varies hugely, but that’s OK: the task of sorting the gems from the dross is a reasonable imposition on the audience given the massive choice now at its disposal.
What makes the job more rewarding than it otherwise might be is that it’s pretty much unmediated by the arts industry. The online world creates a near-level playing field between undiscovered and established talent. As far as music is concerned, pretty much anyone with a guitar, a webcam and a story to tell can find an audience—small, perhaps, but no less emotionally satisfying for that.
The music of your baby-boomer youth isn’t the music of yesterday; it’s being made fresh and new every day now by the Old Wave. Enjoy it while you can.
And no less important, either, for those of us who believe that democracy benefits from a strong popular culture, and that pop culture becomes stronger in direct proportion to the narrowness of the gap between the artist and his/her audience.
From this perspective alone, the technological revolution, in this reviewer’s opinion, has been a force for social and political good.
What about its cultural impact? Pretty mixed, as noted above. The dross is too obvious and ubiquitous to require much comment; the gems, by definition, are rare, and their value is not always apparent at first sight.
Songs from a River, the latest solo album by Nigel Phillip Davies, is one of the gems.
Yes, I could have said that in the first paragraph, instead of waffling on about the internet. But I think the waffle is justified as it provides some context and, when it comes to Davies and other artists of his ilk, context provides a helpful introduction to content.
Davies was born at the tail end of the baby-boom generation and grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the decades regarded by boomers (and even some of their children) as the golden age of popular music. The legacy of that age in terms of singer-songwriters can be summarised in a handful of iconic names such as Dylan, Cohen, Lennon and McCartney.
Nigel Philip Davies, locked out again…
The age came and went, musical styles changed,but the legacy endures. Davies draws on that legacy in his own approach to the dual craft of writing and performing songs. Far from being stuck in the past, however, his songs reflect a contemporary reality that doesn’t get much air time in the mass-market popular music of today or, indeed, any period.
It’s the reality of the ageing of the boomer generation: the generation that invented youth culture, now coming to terms with its own mortality.
To be fair to Davies, that is not how he portrays himself. His songs are raw, personal and immediate, with no spokesman-for-a-generation type pretentions or any sense of being consciously part of a tradition facing some sort of mid- or late-life crisis. They stand on their own as originals, in a way that validates and reaffirms the continuing relevance of the influences he’s absorbed.
The urge to put some sort of historical context around him is entirely this reviewer’s, and I do it to emphasise one important fact: Davies, unlike so many of the other older artists on YouTube and elsewhere, is not trying belatedly to fulfil the unrealised musical aspirations of his youth. He’s doing what he’s doing because it’s part of what and who he is now.
This fact alone accounts for much of the freshness and authenticity of his output.
And it’s not just Davies. There are other relatively little-known, mature and talented artists out there—such as singers/songwriters/musicians Steve Banks (Australia) and Ian Black (US), to name just two—who are putting to work the musical influences they have spent a lifetime imbibing, and combining them with a depth of personal experience (adolescent tribulations, sure, but also love, marriage, parenthood, divorce, bereavement—you name it) to create music which is both timeless and new, and satisfyingly rich in its emotional depth and honesty.
This is what, for a better descriptor, I call “real music”. It’s not the exclusive domain of certain gifted late-middle-aged men or women who’ve reached a stage of life where they are free to devote more time to their creative passions, but it’s fair to say that Davies and others like him are making a distinctive contribution to the effort to create and preserve music which is distinguished by an integrity almost alien to what typically passes as popular music in the cultural mainstream.
I might go further and say that Davies and his peers at the grey-haired end of the real music spectrum constitute an “old wave”—a sort of counterpoint in time and stage-of-life perspective to the new wave that quickly evolved out of the punk scene of the late 1970s and 1980s.
So that’s the context for Songs from a River; what about the content?
No Sense of Redemption
The cover art sets the tone: a photograph dominated front and centre by the glassy stillness of a river which reflects a row of buildings—they look like apartment blocks, but betray no sign of human occupation—that diminishes into the distant twilight like a (yes, OK) fading melody, and a melancholy one at that. It’s an image of suspense as much as peacefulness, held together by the calmness of the water and the tension of knowing that the calmness can only be temporary. The whole composition is just one breath of wind away, a single ripple, from collapse.
It’s the perfect visual metaphor for the sense of fragility that runs through many of Davies’s lyrics—the fragility not only of relationships, hopes and dreams but also, more broadly, human morality—and the feeling of alienation (symbolised by the blank exteriors of those buildings) that defines his emotional landscape.
The songs fall roughly into two groups thematically—personal relationships and social comment. The former tend to be melancholic, the latter angry. A common thread between them is the struggle of an individual to make some headway, or even just stand his ground, in a capricious and unjust world where he is engaged in an unequal struggle with the complexities of relationships, the cynicism and self-interest of the political class and his own personal faults and weaknesses.
Many are linked too by a recurring imagery of alcohol and drug abuse and barely suppressed violence—a reflection, possibly, of the hard grind of post-industrial life in Davies’s native South Wales. The effect can be oppressive, but it also adds depth and complexity to the experiences that Davies describes. The first song on the album, Oh, Marianne, No!, is one of several about lost love but there’s nothing romantic about it, despite what the plaintive chorus might suggest. It hits you between the eyes with the sense of a mind collapsing under the weight of a nightmare:
Well I’m High on nostalgia and dead in my tracks
I need medication to help me relax
I’m running on empty but I’ll fight to the last
And I can’t find my colours to nail to the mast
And the first shall be last and the last will be lost
As we count down the hours and we add up the cost
And I’m seeking salvation in a little white lie
And jumping off cliffs in the hope I can fly
And that’s just the first verse. When the second verse gets to The band has stopped playing and they’re closing the bar/We’re chasing the moon but we never get far, you feel that you’re in Tom Waits territory but without the sense, never far below the surface in Waits, that redemption might still be possible.
The next two songs, All This Time and Shadows in the Dark, explore the same thematic territory with more lyrical simplicity. They also plough the same furrow musically, with acoustic guitars and keyboards/synthetic strings (Davies on both) doing the heavy lifting, so the Latin feel of Be My Friend Tonight—a seduction song with a deceptively innocent pop sensibility—offers some pleasant and judiciously timed variety.
With She Has Gone we’re back to the lost love theme, but what a song this is: while the lyrics come close in one or two places to being a bit more poetical than I’d like, the overall effect is to distil the pathos into something genuinely moving—haunting, even, thanks to some effective reverb on Davies’s vocal. Ultimately, the lyrics more than deliver, as these examples suggest:
She brought calm, sweet release,
She gave the only thing I needed, she gave me peace…
A selfless love is hard to bear,
A selfish love is hard to share…
I wish her joy…
As she walks from my love’s shadow to the light.
In Reaper Man, Davies gets into prophetic mode, channelling post-1966 Dylan with an up-tempo, rocky preview of nuclear holocaust. The lost love theme is never far away, however, and I Miss You returns to it. Once again, Davies writes about personal relationships in a way that goes beyond the merely personal and captures the moral, ethical and even existential dimensions of love (The fading page, the burning rage, the years that disappear/The love of youth, the loss of truth, so many things I fear). Not the least of the song’s strengths are its killer chorus—something of a speciality with Davies—and a middle eight that dives unexpectedly and unsettlingly into a minor key.
Back to the political again with Achilles, a survey of late 20th and early 21st century warfare as seen through the eyes of the immortal Greek hero. Another killer chorus:
I feel just like Achilles upon the fields of Troy
While others see the hero, the hero knows the boy
I’m stranded in a foreign land hopeless and alone
Although I know I’ll die for love, the love is not my own
When, in the last verse, the chorus is modified and transplanted into the mind of a 9/11 victim at the moment of death, Davies makes you feel as though you’re standing in the Illyrian fields, too.
After that, it’s a relief to get back to the lost love theme with Crying Shame, a very satisfyingly realised song in which Davies acknowledges his own contribution to the relationship’s failure.
Street Song—about a drug dealer—is an interesting departure in that Davies takes a poem written in the 1960s by British poet Thom Gunn and almost completely remakes it, adding two verses about two characters he’s invented, Rudy and Susie, and updating Gunn’s drug references with honourable mentions for coke and crystal meth.
Back to lost love with The Search, which is something of a showstopper and one of my favourites with (true to form) an ear-worm chorus. Shades of Cinema Show by Genesis here, in the light and chiming guitar intro and some of the vocal refrains.
And then Unfinished Business, a toe-tapping upbeat country number which is easily the album’s most commercial track. If Davies doesn’t push this like mad on to US and Australian country music radio stations, he’s missing a trick. It’s the perfect package, with words and music working seamlessly together, topped off by some very tasteful and insanely hummable pedal steel guitar by the man himself.
With the final track, Have You Ever Been Lost?, Davies seems to be reaching for a big finish which, to my mind, doesn’t quite work. If it’s a failure, it’s an interesting one, hinting at musical directions he might take in the future. While it might not provide the sort of climax Davies appears to have been aiming for, it’s not an anti-climax and does nothing to detract from the album’s overall impact.
Where to Next?
If Have You Ever Been Lost? is evidence of Davies’s creative ambition, it would be interesting to see how he pursues it. Songs from a River suggests he has the talent and expertise to push the boundaries (as does his background as a session musician in the 1970s for the likes of Van Der Graaf Generator, as a jazz musician and, currently, as front man for bad-boy Welsh folk band Moongazer). No doubt, like all independent artists, his development will continue to be shaped by relatively limited resources. In Songs from a River, they play as a strength rather than a weakness: the homely production values bring to mind fond memories of the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock—another, if somewhat downplayed, aspect of Davies’s musical heritage.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Davies, though, will be to define his audience. While he and Moongazer have a strong following in South Wales based on live gigs and being recognisably part of the local culture, how will they develop their music and grow and diversify their audience without cutting themselves off from their roots and losing direction?
My guess is that the answer lies in communicating directly with the boomer generation and telling them something like this:
“Stop being nostalgic about the music of your youth and start listening to the Old Wave instead. Sure, John and George and Bowie and so many more are no longer with us, but there are plenty of boomer musicians out there who have been diligently cultivating their heritage all these years and are now easy to find online.
“They don’t cover the classis of the 1960s and 1970s—they write their own songs in that tradition, shaped by the realities of the early 21st century. The music of your youth isn’t the music of yesterday; it’s being made fresh and new every day now by the Old Wave. Enjoy it while you can.”