Archive for March, 2009

Lessons

March 6, 2009

“Come in. Come in.”
The invitation hangs; undeclinable, but untempting.

“For one last supper that I will make you.”
A weariness pervades the air. A certain inevitable gloom tinges the melody.

It is a song that I have long held close to me. For me, it is not just the song itself, but the memories I associate with it. What a song means and what a song means to the person who appreciates it are not always one and the same. But, it is here where the beauty of music lies. Any listener’s take on a song is as valid as the song’s composer’s. It may hit you in a way that hadn’t been intended by its writer. Songs can be inseparable from where and when you heard them; more than the sum of their parts, I guess.

Written by Will Oldham, and released under the name of Palace Brothers, one of his many monikers, this song entitled ‘Come in’ and released on a hard-to-find EP, is, for me, one such song. To me, it is not just a song, but a play, a dialogue, a poem, a glimpse, a critique, a riddle, a glance, and a ticket.

“It is a small one for I am no cook”
Such pre-emptive apology as this bodes not well.

Offering us snippets of this final meal, the lyric leads us to a typically ambiguous lack of conclusion. Like eavesdropping on one half of a conversation, we are left to wonder about the other, the you, who, though present in the scene of the song, remains elusively silent.

I used to love this song. I heard it first back in the day when I knew how many albums I had. I had this one on a cassette that I copied from a friend who had copied it from his brother. I loved cassettes. You could throw them around, treat them like crap, and they were fine. And if they did get broken, it was generally the cassette player’s fault. And, in any case, when they did get chewed up, they could always be taken apart and repaired with tiny pieces of tape, and rewound on a pen by swinging it about like one of those clackers that fans used to bring to football matches in the black and white days.

I heard ‘Come in’ again recently, and I still loved it. The language feels slightly archaic, yet conversational, and this adds to its charm, and lends mystery to the scene. We are, I suppose, to read between the lines. It’s what’s not said that intrigues, more than what is.

However, not everyone accepts the invitation. I recall playing it to a group of students, years ago, in a small language school in China. It was my first ever teaching job. It was a beginners level English class in Shenyang, China. And I, noting that the lyrics were relatively simple, and the song was entirely in present simple tenses, thought the song would be understandable to my students. But, it was more than just a simple teaching aid. I treasured this track. And I had hoped that some might warm to the melancholy of the song, and appreciate its air of restraint. I had also presumed that the awful sentimental quality of music that my class seemed to enjoy with such delight was due only to the fact that they had not been exposed to the kind of music which held such sublime beauty and depth as the one which I was about to play them. I had expected they would be moved by the music, and brought to tears by its passion and loss which had been deftly camouflaged in images of the mundane.

“You have a long way where you are going”.
Perhaps it was these lines more than any of the others which held such resonance with my former self, and which still holds pangs for me now; the line remaining the same, but one’s understanding of it ever evolving.

I had envisioned them nodding knowingly when he sang, “I am happy. Yes I am happy”, a claim which is belied and betrayed by his breaking, mournful voice. I had imagined they would be absorbed by the unspoken subtext, which is left to the listener’s imagination alone; and that upon hearing, they would be overawed at the simplicity of such a subtle song, which is so laden with sadness; and that they would be brought to tears by the unexplained parting of the song’s characters, and their intertwined pasts, which are only barely alluded to; their humanity aroused by the covert tones of failure and bitterness, and the seemingly undramatic pictures that we glimpse therein; and that they would hold me aloft for introducing them to the gifted visionary that is Will Oldham; and that they would be uniformly in awe of the great man, and thank me for the thoughtfulness I had shown them by so bringing him into their lives.

“They are not family. They are not friends”.
Though this was true, I felt that we knew each other some, and I had hoped that music, over which I had formed many of my closest bonds, might have taken us that extra inch.

As the tape played on, and the bewilderment, discomfort, obvious dislike, and in some cases clear disgust, appeared on their faces, I grew increasingly less optimistic. They looked toward the tape-recorder wondering if it was broken, or if the batteries were dying, or if I had put on the wrong tape – some recording of my own I had made as a teenager – but no, I was playing the song I had chosen to play, and that squeaky, crackling voice was recorded like that, and okayed by the singer and producer, and what’s more: people, me included, apparently insisted they liked it, and thought it divine. The students read the words I had given them, and some of them even filled in the missing words as they heard them, but with their heads shaking in disapproval. They glanced around at each other in confusion, sharing whispered jokes and muffled laughter; the dismay at the sheer absurdity of what they were being forced to endure hanging in their eyes. One second short of three minutes, this chorusless song seemed to drag forever, as my initial excitement turned to despair, and on to embarrassment and a slowly rising shame for my sick and uncultured mind. I did not know what beauty was. Music was beautiful. It was a thing to be enjoyed. Music had nicely tuned pianos; demure, yet feisty pretties with angelic voices; and gelled-up, suit-wearing bad-boys, with slick moves; and melodies, melodies that you could sing along to if you liked; and lyrics which could be fathomed, and explained, and whose poetry was undeniable. I was the one who had so much to learn about beauty. I could learn much here, I was told. And there weren’t just upbeat disco tunes, but mournful ballads were plentiful too, for sensitive types such as I. Oh yes, I had much to learn.

“Or am I silly for saying such things?”
It can only be concluded that I was.

And I did learn something valuable that day; as a teacher, and as a person. And, I try, though I don’t always succeed, to bear them in mind as much as one can. I learned this; do not presume your taste to be superior to those of others, or your experience of art to be any more meaningful or deep, by reason of its obscurity. And secondly, if you decide to play a song to your students in an English language class, play Mariah Carey.

Echoes

March 2, 2009

Here comes Azusa with her handbag in the crook of her arm. I’m not in the mood for this. I’ve just learned that some prick has just cost me 500 quid. I hadn’t managed to get anyone to move into the room I’d been staying in in Dublin, but my flat-mate had eventually found a guy who moved in. Trouble was; he never paid the deposit which should have come to me. Then, this new guy’s friend moved in, and they proceeded to wreck the gaff, having mad mid-week parties and what not. So, pretty soon, everyone I knew who had lived in that apartment had left, and I still hadn’t got the money that I was owed. So, here I was, stuck in Japan, on the other arse of the earth, cursing these unknown French cunts, swearing vain oaths of vengeance to any unfortunate who happened to cross my path.

Otherwise, Japan had been great, with the exception of the ever-looming question that hovers ominously over every EFL-ers head, namely, “What am I actually doing with my life?”

Anyway, here comes Azusa with her handbag in the crook of her arm and I’m not in the mood for such unjustified upbeatness. I brace myself.

“Hello. Hello.” she says.

She would make a fantastic London PC I think to myself. I can even picture her wearing the bobby hat. If British policemen were a bit more like Azusa, the nation might have a lot fewer social problems.

“How are you?” I ask.
“Good, good, good” she replies.

She’s gotten rid of her old habit of saying every word two times, and replaced it by saying every word three times instead.

”You’ve dyed your hair” I say.

She answers by widening her eyes and the muscles of her face tighten – the universal expression of ‘I haven’t understood what you said’.
“You’ve changed the colour of your hair” I say.
“Yes, yes, yes” she says, “I’m looking for a job”.
“Azusa, that doesn’t make any sense” I say.
“Yes, yes, yes” she says as though I have just completely agreed with her and was just as convinced by her reasoning as she obviously is.
“I want job, so I change my hair.”
“Okay” I say with a slightly elongated ‘kay’.
“Are you going to Enoshima?” she asks.
“Of course” I say, “all the teachers have to go”
“Me too. Me too. Enoshima. Enoshima”.
She only said it twice. Interesting. Maybe she only says one syllable words three times, and those with two or more syllables she says twice. Perhaps there is method in her madness. She laughs. Why? I wonder. Why not? I suppose.

“Well, I like your new dark hair” I add. “If I were an employer, I’d give you a job in a second”.
Her eyes widen again. “You have a company?”
“No, no. If I had one” I say with a stress on the ‘if’.
“Oh, oh, oh”
The lobby is filling up. I see Tom’s EC is breaking up slowly. So is Brendan’s. They both look like they know what there doing, even if Brendan is demeaning our entire profession by sitting on a giant multicolored testicle. That pre-class genktivity vibe is in the air, before all the students go to their respective rooms and become suitably terrified and uncomfortable.
“I haven’t seen you for a while” I say.
“Yes, yes, yes” she says as though I have just complimented her. “very busy, very busy”.

So there is a kind of pattern to her repetitive way of speaking.

“Are you coming to school tomorrow?” I ask.
”Yes, yes, yes. I come tomorrow”.

I ask her in Japanese if she is a serious student.

“Hai. Majime, majime” she replies.

So, it’s not only English; she does it in her own language as well. She is a riddle. But, maybe, maybe a decipherable one. Maybe she is a riddle which cannot be understood logically, but one so indefinable that it leads to enlightenment.

And once again she smiles. She smiles this massive smile that only Azusa can smile. Positivity bursts from her teeth. Optimism emanates from her lips. Her wide-for-Japanese eyes dances like little pixies.

“Ok, I have to go and teach”, I say. “See you later”
“Yes, yes, yes. Me too. Me too” she says.

‘No, you’re a student and I’m a teacher’, I think to myself, but hestitate before speaking. My eyebrows pull down and I look at her inquisitively asking her using facial expression if that’s what she really meant to say, but she just beams back broadly, and it is then that I really realize that she does have to go and teach. She has to go and spread the word of Azusa, spread the word of her weird and wonderful world, infuse the earth with her unphasable positivity. She has much more to teach than I or anyone ever could. She hurries out, taking those tiny steps she takes. Her feet move at a ridiculously fast speed compared to the distance that they cover. If she fully utilized her energy she would be out of the building in ten seconds. But then again, the energy that flows through her is infinite and she doesn’t have to worry about conserving it, or wasting it, like most people have to. There she goes. There goes Azusa with her handbag in the crook of her arm, and I am once again certain that life is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and that this world is a ‘good, good, good’, ‘place, place, place’.