So there I was, driving my family from south London to visit my parents-in-law in Essex this Saturday, and we had my iPhone plugged into the car stereo – every family member getting two song choices, that’s how we played it. After some JLS and Michael Jackson, one twin said his toy eagle cuddly toy, along for the ride, wanted a song. (He’s eight, but he’s going through a bit of a positive attachment phase, the eagle has become particularly important, and that’s all to the good, so welcome along, Feagle.)
I said there might be Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Bird of Prey’ on the thing, but my wife, scrolling through the listings, said it wasn’t. She read out the nearest options – ‘Bird Stealing Bread’, ‘Birdland’, Neil Young’s ‘Birds’. How about those, she asked?
Yes, play those, came the order from the back. Play those for Feagle.
Well, driving round the M25 in a Renault Scenic is never going to be the best environment for listening to Iron & Wine’s delicate Americana (how does he do that with his voice?), but then Patti Smith came on, those first tentative piano chords and Smith’s matter-of-fact spoken word intro, dipping its toes in punk sentimentality, and immediately I knew something was going to happen.
We passed into the Dartford Tunnel and I found I was gripping the steering wheel tight, focusing on the lights of the car in front. The lyrics, once she starts singing, becoming increasingly distorted, as if someone’s forcing the words through her head, using her as a loudhailer set to maximum distortion – “I am not human” – until they give up half their meaning. This is the kind of music that perfectly fits a car stereo environment. It comes at you like meat, slabs of it, bouncing off the metal frame of the machine, you’re trapped and you can’t escape it, like being caught in waves full of roiling sand. By the time we came out of the tunnel into Essex, it was building to the powerhouse crescendo, Smith clearly channelling something witchy, troll-like, chthonic, stubbing herself on her own words – “like like like Mohammed Boxer” – and I was driving with my face half-averted from the road, watching the flat autumn Essex fields, physically holding back tears.
Obviously, music can get to you at odd times.
Was going through the tunnel part of it? Was it the fact that I was travelling into Essex, county of my childhood, country of birds and farms and no doubt red tractors, and so of my own parents, who however had moved to Wales ten years ago?
Was it about parenthood? The song has a dead father, and a son, his face “lit up with such naked joy.” Perhaps, but if the song was ambushing me, then I’d seen what I’d walked into as soon as it started. I knew, as soon as it started, that this song was catching me at the perfect moment of my… what? vulnerability? receptivity? And why? It had been an ordinary morning. I’d spoken to my parents on the phone recently. There were no signs I was going through any kind of low-level mid-life crisis.
The album the song is from, Horses, is an important one for me, as for many people. I probably still have the original cassette somewhere. I listened to a lot of music as a kid, but it was all either new stuff heard on the radio, or The Beatles, which was the only pop music my parents owned. (I’ve always considered The Beatles rather like the Bible and Shakespeare on Desert Island Discs: they’re a given, hors discours, even, and as such hardly worth discussing.)
Horses might have been one of the first albums I bought specifically following lines of influence back from contemporary bands I liked to the stuff that inspired them. (I’d never even considered, in contrast, that anyone had ever been influenced by The Beatles. It would be like being influenced by air, or water.) It was through that album, in part, that I learned about the possibility of art existing outside of time, and not necessarily speaking directly to the people in the particular moment it was made, but to people for whom it was not made, like me. It was Horses that made me look at ‘my’ pop music – the music made for me, that I felt I owned, was mine by right of my existence in a particular time, in a particular place – with a harsher critical eye. Perhaps it wasn’t enough that it spoke to me, now, at the moment it was made. Perhaps it would have to face a reckoning beyond those contingent conditions.
But it is about fathers and sons, too. Although big into books, my parents had never been into pop music, and what I got from pop music was not something I felt I could communicate to them. A pop song about a dead father thus carries its own freight of tragic irony. (Ian Bostridge singing ‘I Will Go With My Father A-Plowing’, with its own farm setting, perhaps I could share with him – especially for its list of birds, my father being a walker and a birdwatcher, if not a farmer.)
My father’s not dead, and he’s unlikely to leave me a little farm in New England, but he has given me a feeling for Essex fields – the turned clay stretched in vanishing lines towards the horizon and scattered with a thousand lapwings, perhaps, birds you never see anymore – though of course I never knew that sensitivity was growing in me at the time, because I was too busy listening to Patti Smith, inching my way back, with growing confidence, into the exotic crags and gorges of art and creativity.
And now, as these things go, I’m a father – and although it’s the parents dying on you that brings you to a certain critical pitch of existence (what’s that line by Martin Amis, something about finding yourself suddenly at the front of queue?) being in the lucky position of having both children and parents has its own weirdness. It’s like being caught in a hall of mirrors, surrounded on all sides by visions of what you were and what you will be. You’re falling unavoidably towards a future you can see etched on your father’s face, and, at the same time, as if you’re all tied together like mountain climbers, you’re dragging your own sons after you, to take your place in the middle ground.
So, because of the importance that music has, or has had, for me, my children spend less time tramping across fields and nature reserves, and more time listening to music. (Not a direct correlation, but still, you get me.) They have their JLS and their Michael Jackson, and that’s all on the iPhone for car journeys, and they have They Might Be Giants, and some lovely covers of Woody Guthrie kids songs, and they know a certain amount of Beatles, some Kinks, Madness, Flaming Lips, White Stripes… all those classic kids groups. Patti Smith, though, that I’d never force on them.
Yet now here I was, driving, arms not shaking exactly, but certainly internally vibrating, out of the Dartford Tunnel, finding myself in the throes of some kind of emotional rubdown, in that way music has of working on you like sandpaper, rubbing you raw. And the music, with its strange, warped spine of alien guitar, and with the hugely, beautifully and in the end incredibly ordinary and necessary pounding piano chords under it, and Patti Smith dragging out her words like they’re her intestines that are being dragged out – “We are not humaaaaaaaaaa” – until the statement becomes at once undeniably true and absolutely its own contradiction (nothing more human than denying your humanity, nothing more hopeful than singing the blues).
And the reason I’m nearly crying is because I daren’t look round and see what effect this music is having on my children. It’s too soon, of course: they’re into JLS and Jacko, and you can’t rush these things, but I think I’m crying because I would give anything to know what was going through their minds, and bodies, in that moment, on an ordinary Saturday morning car journey, as they heard Patti Smith working herself up into her shamanistic frenzy – “I won’t give up, don’t let me give up.”
Does this music have the same effect (might it one day have the same effect) on them as on me? Is there a gene for getting all torn up over Patti Smith? Or will I have to drum it into them? Or, most bathetically of all, am I going to respond to their Patti Smith moment, when it comes, as my father responded to mine – in such a way as they’ll think their music means nothing to me, because I just haven’t got that kind of connectivity in me?
Art – with music, naturally, as human artistry’s pinnacle and consummation – is the great connector, but the connection is momentary, and uncertain, and in the end you find it connects you to yourself, alone. That’s what Patti Smith was singing about, in 1975, and that’s the response she produced in me, 35 years later. And I would trade my cassette of Horses, just now, to see a flock of lapwings in an Essex field.
“We like Birdland.”