I Turn Out the Lights and Listen to the Pain
Rotorua, New Zealand (Aotearoa)
There is a place I go, a not necessarily pleasant place but it is, all the same, necessary that I go there. It’s also, ironically enough, a place of solace. It’s not a beach, a forest, a mountain, or a lake, even though they are places I love. It’s not a physical location, it’s a place in my head. And, having a brain tumour has made it easier to go there, this place I disappear to. An enveloping shroud, a closing in before an opening up. I have attempted to describe in the past this feeling, of turning out the lights and listening to the pain, although I may have stolen it from someone – Beethoven, Dylan, Orwell – I’m not sure.
I can’t find anywhere the attribution, although I can easily imagine Beethoven saying as much as he chopped the legs off his piano so that he could feel his composition’s vibration on the floor. He was, by this point, profoundly deaf. Consider this, we would not have the 9th Symphony had Beethoven not acknowledged this pain, walked towards it and been prepared to endure, live with it for just that moment in time. I could also imagine George Orwell listening to the pain in his small room on the island of Jura, his tuberculosis slowly killing him, knowing that it was and trying to finish the great work that was tormenting him. Because of it we have 1984.
My first problem is that I am a writer, my second problem is that I haven’t been able to talk myself out of it. Whilst I don’t always subscribe to Orwell’s “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness,” – it’s more, for me, these days, a joyful expression of who I am, I do appreciate what George was trying to say. To be a writer, one has to feel comfortable going to these places, they are places of solitude, dark emotional corners, sometimes metaphorically dark, often figuratively so but always with a clear, sunlit exit. One can not be a writer unless one feels at ease there but they can also be troubling places, where the only ticket out is to confront the very thing that led you there in the first place, to deal with it, take its name and smack it’s bottom on the way out. At the very least we know where the exit is.
It’s partly driven by a determination, being daily bombarded with evil, cowardice and arrogance, to find some light, a solution, even if it’s only for myself, as a part of this trying to make sense of the world of conflict that artists live with. Certainly having a brain tumour strips you of any remnant of arrogance you may have had and certainly too, many of the people I’ve met on this road represent the antithesis of evil and cowardice. It’s not my own pain that I’m listening to, it’s the pain I see, hear and feel around me, which may but usually does not, include my own. It could just be the faceless, voiceless children who have no one to speak for them, or something else that makes the silence sound like thunder. One’s own pain provides the entree, it pays for the season ticket, into this place. Most importantly, when I go to this place, it’s important that I feel safe there, for although it may be a place of pain, it’s also a place of safety. It’s not a contradiction, merely a juxtaposition.
Last week we celebrated our wedding anniversary and my wife, irrepressible as ever, decided that she wanted to buy me something special, something specific, she had her eye on it and needed to be quick about it. It was a limited release “Official Bootleg,” Bootleg #14 if you please, of a Bob Dylan recording, of reputedly (not that it matters) the greatest break-up record of all time – Blood on the Tracks, from 1975. These out-takes, or off-cuts, were never released, mainly because the songs, the record company surmised, contained too much pain, so Dylan, not accustomed to be being talked into anything, turned around and recorded a more radio friendly, commercially palatable version.
That record did well commercially and of course was critically acclaimed but it was missing Dylan’s real intent, that of communicating the pain he had heard with the lights out, dealing with the break up of his marriage, although naturally, he denies it. In the sanctioned version, he spoke for himself only but in the Bootleg it’s for everybody in pain. The contrast is stark, so much so that had it not been there’d have been no need to revisit it. One can detect some of this pain as one listens closely enough to the 1975 release but these discarded recordings push the pain out, they don’t hold it in.
The music on the 1975 record was sweet, robust and tight – ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ is a jaunty double four time swing that is over before you know it, which, in my newly acquired version, is hesitant, turning into a two-four time stumble that appears to witness someone making it up as he goes, not sure what to say next. ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ goes from someone proclaiming, full of energy and authority, to someone world weary and alone, standing on a street corner, late at night, on his own, rain drenching his clothes as he leans against the light pole, asking the question “what is going on here?” He can be heard on one of the takes that wasn’t working out “this is tricky, you have to keep five or six things going all at the same time, just like life,” [then laughs].
Idiot Wind, full of rage and fury in the originally released iteration, “People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act, Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts, Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at, I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me any better than that” turns into a lament, full of regret, Pathos oozing out of every pore. It’s uncomfortable listening if you’re not ready for it but more recognisable. Connected, not detached. The music is not in the least depressing, if I wanted to feel depressed I’d go and read Jean-Paul Satre. I really would need to talk to someone.
My favourite song from the catalogue, Shelter from the Storm, “And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured, I’ll aways do my best for her, on that I give my word, in a world of steel eyed death and men, who are trying to keep warm, “Come in” she said “I’ll give ya, Shelter from the Storm” is delivered as if he’s asking “Do you get it yet?” I mention this because, sitting down listening to this six hours worth of recording, yes, Mahler’s ‘Ring Cycle’ has competition, does provide hope, it’s in the confrontation, the realisation that facing up to something provides a way out that provides new energy for continuing on.
As much as I have enjoyed listening to the 1975 recording over the years, this has opened my mind further to the idea that embracing the pain openly and giving it the space it requires to find its expression, has something to be said for it, that whilst we don’t want to bore people or burden them with our pain, admitting to it gets us started on the road to healing, getting under the skin of the facade and ripping the scab off. I don’t want this sort of music all the time, of course I don’t, there is always ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ or Harry Connick Jnr. However, this speaks to my spirit in such a way that says “things will be okay,” that embracing pain is not forever but it may be a doorway out and through.
I see hope in all the pain, because facing it shouts a refusal to turn a blind eye to it and proclaiming “I’m going to try and do something about it and although It may not work out the way I like or think I need to do it to show, if nothing else, that I know that I need to do it.” I’ve found that it is one of the best ways to deal with my own pain, that is, to celebrate others, laugh with them, this celebration is made easier because I have entered the dark room and walked out laughing. I can much more easily emerge from that dark place where my crucible of creativity resides into something fresh and renewing. I more easily appreciate others, I don’t dwell in the dark place because I know it’s a place I can visit and walk out from whenever I want to, without having to dwell there and without it leaving scars, albeit a place that will always be there, it’s just part of the buy in.
I do apologise if I have duped you into something you were not quite ready for, my spirit is alive to the beauty surrounding me while seeing at the same time the pain therein. The beauty mainly is in the people, the hope they provide but also in every sense, things of beauty, the ocean, in looking each morning at a woman who defines what it is to be beautiful, and in seeing beauty in people with no more an agenda than having a desire to be kind, knowing that sometimes people exhibit this extraordinary kindness as they push through their own pain. I listen to Colin Hay sing My, My, My, it’s a Beautiful World, I smile as he delivers the song with all the wit of a man who has nailed something I can one day aspire to. My guess is that he has been able to come to this as a result of confronting, entering and walking out of his own dark place.
Sometimes, having a brain tumour and going through the recovery, the maintenance and treatment of it, can lend itself to the morose and to self pity but it doesn’t have to, not when you can see and hear the pain of those who care, knowing they can hear something that you can’t. It can, perversely, open up a new world full of a joy that had hitherto been a mystery, the staring down that leads to a looking up. Or, as I tried to explain recently to a fellow traveller who was lamenting the loss of their old life, by suggesting to them that they don’t necessarily want their old life back (why would you?), that instead they’re building a new one. I think I can say with a relative degree of safety that I’ve been into and back out of that dark place, it needn’t scare us, as long as we have good people to be there with us. I have many of those types around, we all have someone like it, prepared to walk with us.
All I have to do now is mine the creativity I pretend I have and come up with something poetic for my wife, as an anniversary gift. And it doesn’t cost me anything other than everything I have. Then maybe I’ll compile a More Blood on the Tracks playlist and remake the original.