|"Pan e Capra" statue from the house of Julius Caesar's father-in-law in Herculaneum.|
We will live together for the Pan within
I've never been a fan of a band before. Not in the diehard sense of moving heaven and earth to get to a gig and singing along, almost word perfect, to every song and comparing line-ups with days gone by while the bloke standing next to me is saying to his mate, "The Waterboys? I don't think I even know one song of theirs." To which his mate replies: "The Whole of the Moon." "Oh, yeah," says the bloke.
Well, it happened to me last night, under a not-quite-whole moon. Last night, I was simultaneously 21 years old (the year I missed the Waterboys' Leeds University gig in the same summer as the Tiananmen democracy movement) and 46 3/4. The creaking bones and the weight of the years fell away, and I danced non-stop. It was like getting laid, only deeper.
Don't get me wrong: I have always liked the band. Always had a couple of their albums. But when I was at an age when most people are going to gigs, I was either being corralled into playing classical and choral music by my school, being carted off to some really excellent classical concerts, or chasing boys who weren't interested and evading those who were. Later on, I was spending my hard-earned currency on plane tickets, either in the service of potential work, or a fragmented and compulsive love-life.
I didn't get to a gig, as opposed to a classical concert, until my late twenties. I went to see Bob Dylan in Hong Kong. He was enormously disappointing, which didn't much fuel my interest in going to see any of the other icons of my music collection, which was already smaller than other people's, and nearly always derived from theirs. I would usually copy or buy what they had, if I liked it.
But the music I bought when I was relatively young, which includes, by the way, U2 Live at Red Rocks (first album, bought independently at 16) Echo & the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain (16, bought independently with first pay-cheque) and the Fisherman's Blues and This is the Sea (copied from a house-mate at 20, bought on CD at 23), has stayed with me, and I took it seriously even then, despite being raised in an environment that looked down its nose at anything that wasn't classical or jazz.
This is the music that got under my skin, and still does; it had a quality that permeated my unconscious life. For me, it wasn't a case of being into something crap when you're a kid, then later expanding your taste and becoming more mature. The music I liked best when I was young matured along with me. The real magic happens when you put that process next to a band and its leader who are themselves constantly in flux and constantly deepening.
Back then, I thought the worlds the music brought were 'out there'; that they were in America, or Liverpool, or Ireland. Or perhaps owed their existence to a certain lifestyle. Like a lot of other people, I saw my music collection as the soundtrack to my life (which, of course, was a movie starring me). It wasn't until I got to my 30s, and my life started to look a lot less movie-like, that I realised that these are inner worlds, and that they're at once widely shared and utterly personal. That's what the best music does; it opens up the realities under the skin and between the ears and makes room in the soul for other lands and times.
There's a lot of confusion and fragmentation in outer life, and a lot of stuff that's simply boring, dull or trashy. Then there's nature. Midas was given donkey's ears for preferring the pipes of the nature god Pan to the lyre of Apollo (the god of "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise!" Incidentally, his lyre was invented by Hermes, who advised him not to practise too much, saying that the lyre "abhors toilsome drudgery."). But in some cultures, past and present, including British and Chinese ones, the relationship to nature is culture (see photo). And in modern life, one of the the best places to plug into the energies of Pan and Dionysus (if you don't happen to have an obliging yet wraggle-taggle lover with a candlelit tent at the ready) is a Waterboys gig.
|The Moon and the Stage: waiting for the Waterboys at Cropredy 2014|
I didn't go to the Waterboys gig because I happened to be at Cropredy. I knew I had to go to Cropredy because the Waterboys were playing. This may seem strange, but I had never been to one of their gigs before.
It was a really large, and very mixed crowd (mixed in the sense that not all were fans). The men were standing alert, as if they'd stumbled on a hare in a clearing among trees. But it was the women who were called movement, to life, by this music, and particularly to Steve Wickham's fiddle-playing. He was Dionysus that night; his call was to the maenad soul in men and seemed to have a magical link, like the red shoes in that fairy-tale, to the bodies of the women.
The effect on me was sudden and profound. It was as if some band had got up on stage with a telepathic link to my inner soundtrack, and started playing what they thought I'd like to hear, like a sort of psychometric jukebox.
They were playing MY songs! These songs don't just exist in my memory, or my CD collection, or my hard drive. They exist in my blood. I can put them on play without any kind of playback device, and they'll just play all day, if I want them to, albeit faintly and somewhat in the background.
It wasn't until I was laughing at the growling sound Steve made on the black electric fiddle to replace the sax on 'A Girl Called Johnny', the aforementioned bloke-next-to-me turned to me and said "Did I hear that right? A Girl? Called Johnny?" and I replied, "Yes, that's right," while still dancing, did I realise what I had become.
I didn't notice this process of interiorisation (AKA the portal to fandom) happening. I don't remember even learning Mike Scott's name until running across a Guardian article a few years ago, although there was a guy in uni who definitely looked like him and definitely played on this fact by wearing a hat and a long coat. When I did learn it, I had him down alongside Ian Anderson and Mac whatshisname from the Bunnymen in the "genius with a band attached" category. I started to find out more only a couple of years ago because, while I was downloading like mad/recovering from a break-up, iTunes started showing me more and more music that I'd missed because I was out of the country when it was first released, and I started Googling it all to find out the context. I read his book, which was a relief, because it's a story of stuff coming together, and we need more stories like that.
I now know that the Waterboys' records--the way they're recorded and mixed--underlie a lot of my assumptions about how music should sound. Someone once said that the spaces between the notes are the most important thing in music. But in recorded music, sometimes it's the space between the instruments or voices that counts. Those are the sorts of assumptions about sound that I've taken unconsciously into myself. Me and my ex -- yeah, him!-- used to say that a lot of British music from the 80s has the sea in it. Of course. This is the sea: the inwardness of sound.
It's not just about memory, for me, either. The Pan in this music put heart into my path towards becoming a pagan and a druid. I didn't have a hugely successful love life as a young person to look back on, and I had relationships with people not from my culture, so the music never became a couple thing. It was always mine alone. And those spaces in the music made me want to inhabit similar spaces. I started going to sessions, because I heard the sound-spaces of a session; the background noise of bars and talk and clinking glasses on the Fisherman's Blues album, and I wanted to know where music like that happened. I knew I wanted to be part of such spaces; to add my music to sounds like that.
Now that I've been going to sessions for years, I can see that the Waterboys are like the best session you ever went to, but one that has been going on for decades. A lot of bands who are older but still performing complain that no-one wants to hear their new stuff, but clamour for the same old hits. I don't think the Waterboys have that same sense of discord with their own fan-base because they treat their own music in much the same way that a trad player treats trad tunes. They've long since abandoned the notion that you can recreate some sort of original version. Instead, it's more like a session in which mostly Waterboys songs are played, though not exclusively, and in which half the players are veterans of the band, and the other half brilliant guest musicians.
In such an atmosphere, the 'same old' songs never sound the same, and there's always room for silliness and getting out of hand, for ageing and peering over one's glasses, and no-one cares if they play a tune over and over, because someone will come in with a line out of nowhere that's nothing like the recording but every bit as sweet. And you are as much a presence as the band. And you dance. Last night was a delicious whirlwind of trust, and mayhem, and Pan, and fantasy, and I hope it never stops.
Luisetta Mudie is a writer, independent film-maker, an enthusiastic player of whistles and maker of tunes and soundtracks.
Follow her on Twitter @greenflametree or on
Under the skin: my journey to belated music
fandom by Luisetta Mudie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.hyacinthgirl.blogspot.com.