Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Past is Alive: lost civilisations

The title to this post is a quote from Mayhem's great Pagan Fears. It's also a fact, in a way; the past is alive in each of us in a philosophical as well as literal way; and in the things people leave behind them and our reponses to those things. Which is 
essentially a long-winded way of linking things that have nothing much in common except that I got them for Christmas; but in fact looking at it more closely, there is a link of sorts, albeit a tenuous one.

Taking a few things almost at random, the link that came to mind was not only that they were all the products of human beings, but that they all represent ways of life that no longer exist, or that have changed almost beyond recognition. As a non-misanthrope (at least 94% of the time), the things people leave behind elicit an emotional response of one kind or another; an empty landscape is beautiful, but there is something special about stumbling unexpectedly upon a standing stone or war memorials, or cairn or even old initials carved in a tree, or indeed this statue, in the middle of nowhere;

 These objects represent the lives and worlds of people you will never know, times that will never return and that can probably never be fully understood in the casual way we understand our own time.

ANYWAY, this will be chronological as it seems simplest, even though Switzerland in 1983 (later) is now as gone as Mississippi in 1929. Unless that is, you subscribe to a non-linear understanding of time.

As good a place to start as any, Charley Patton's music documents not just one vanished world, but several, so:

Complete Recordings 1929-1934 by Charley Patton (5CD box set, JSP Records)

 The recordings the great Charley Patton made fall on either side of the (to us) dividing line of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 which heralded the Great Depression; but they also demonstrate that, although it no doubt had serious repercussions for the rural south, there was little the Depression could do to immediately worsen the situation of the African American population living in and around the cotton plantations and poor farms of Mississippi.

Even in his earliest recordings, Patton’s songs are full of references to local events and people (there’s a nice article here: and his concerns are – as his listeners mostly would have been - local too. Many of his songs are full of enigmatic references to people, places and things, sometimes (as in Tom Rushen Blues, documenting the singer’s tempestuous relationship with Tom Rushing, then sheriff of Mergold, Mississippi) fairly easy to decipher, but sometimes impenetrable but hugely evocative.

The Wall Street Crash was probably news on the Dockery Farms plantation (outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi) where Patton had been raised, but it was almost certainly not as immediately pressing as had been the great Boll Weevil infestation that devastated cotton plantations across the southern states of the USA through the early years of the 20th century, commemorated in (among many other places) Patton’s Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues (recorded in June 1929) which mythologises the spread of the weevils in a rueful, semi-humorous way:
Well, I saw the bo weevil, Lord, a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordie/The next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there/Bo weevil left Texas, Lord, he bid me "fare ye well", Lordie/(Where you goin' now?)I'm goin' down the Mississippi, gonna give Louisiana hell

In the month of the great Wall Street Crash (which took place in late October 1929), Patton was recording a two-part song which had more immediate local and personal significance; ‘High Water Everywhere’ parts 1 & 2, commemorating the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which Patton – an eye-witness to the flood - gives an almost biblical apocalyptic quality:


lord, the whole round country, man, is overflowed /You know I can't stay here, I'll go where it's high, boy/I would go to the hilly country, but, they got me barred /Now, look-a here now at Leland river was risin' high/Look-a here boys around Leland tell me, river was raisin' high/Boy, it's risin' over there

 The consequences of disasters like the great flood and the weevil epidemic were inseparable from those of the Depression itself; a vast, poverty-stricken population for whom escape was only possible through the exactly the kinds of things Patton was singing about; alcohol (still illegal in this period, hence the sheriffs like Rushing who pop up throughout Patton’s work) or becoming part of the large itinerant population then wandering the country looking for work.

Despite his much-documented loathing for work, Patton identified closely with these roaming figures and his most evocative (and to modern ears almost sepia-toned) songs such as Jim Lee Blues pt 1 (also recorded the same month as the Crash) and Some Summer Day (from his first post-Crash recording session in June 1930) have lyrics which reflect the instability of a life on the road and are sharply relevant to the events then happening (or about to happen) to thousands of displaced people across America; but they are also full of the railroads, riverboats and  mysterious individuals that had probably been a part of his work since long before they were put down on wax.
World War Two, the civil rights movement, advances in technology, music and just the passing of time itself have made Patton’s recorded work (and indeed the one photograph of the man himself, above) seem incredibly distant; but the recordings bring that lost world vividly back; its bitterness made bittersweet by the art which preserves it.

Far less distant chronologically, but even remote in other ways is the way of life and death preserved in Soviet Ghosts by Rebecca Litchfield

(I don’t want to steal her images without permission, but there is a great selection of them here:

Soviet Ghosts is a collection of photographs by Rebecca Litchfield of the decaying remains of neglected buildings and monuments of the Soviet empire that accumulated across Eastern Europe and Russia for a large part of the twentieth century.

The photographer travelled through fourteen countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Russia itself, capturing powerful images of the schools, youth camps, hospitals, sports centres, conference halls and prisons that were once central to the daily lives of thousands of people but are now rotting, empty and often open to the elements.

As the title suggests, there’s something extremely haunting about these images; the remains of heroic, ideological murals give the same impression as the more familiar and older tumuli, standing stones, cairns and war memorials that are found across the world, but there is often an added sense of poignancy here because it so often feels like the people who used these places have just left; the youth camps are strewn with books, posters, banners, sports equipment or even shoes. In hospitals, laboratories or theatres equipment has been left as it was, seats are stacked neatly or scattered across rooms as if in the aftermath of a hurricane. In the case of the abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripyat, lying within the danger zone surrounding Chernobyl power station, all of this is even more intense; homes were abandoned hurriedly, with all but the bare minimum of belongings being left behind. And for the most part nobody, even thieves, has returned. TV sets sit in front of mouldy couches, toys lie abandoned in living rooms. As with the state buildings in Russia, schools in Bulgaria, military bases in Latvia and monuments all over the former Soviet Union, the feel is partly haunting because unlike Stonehenge or the pyramids, nothing is really very old; children were being schooled in the Young Pioneer Camps when I was born; the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986. Bizarre.

picture © Rebecca Litchfield

In the same period that millions of people were living the lives prescribed for them by the government of the USSR, the late Robert Fuest was attempting, with mixed results, to film Michael Moorcock’s stylised, very 1960s sci-fi (ish) novel The Final Programme, resulting in The Final Programme (dir Robert Fuest, 1973)

Although Fuest’s film was released in the early 70s, it’s infused with the spirit of the mid 60s pop art/swinging London scene that was the background to Moorcock’s novel. Although the film is confused and not exactly focussed or dynamic, it has a charismatic central performance by the sadly underrated Jon Finch as dandified millionaire genius scientist playboy Jerry Cornelius, who casually buys tanks, missiles and napalm for undisclosed purposes and generally fails to get excited by anything.
Finch exudes a kind of blasé charm best captured in the immortal exchange when a minor character discovers that Cornelius’ refrigerator is full of chocolate biscuits:

man: you like chocolate biscuits then?
Jerry: (with feeling, for once) ‘oh yeah’
Not a masterpiece, but stylish, humorous, apocalyptic, philosophical, semi-psychedelic, camp sci-fi action movies don’t come along very often, so it has a certain rarity value as well as a great period atmosphere.

Of a similar vintage are the amazing records that make up Saigon Rock & Soul (Sublime Frequencies Records 2012) 
This 17 songs on this compilation were recorded between 1968 and 1974; that is, while the Vietnam War was taking place. The assimilation of western pop music in Vietnam followed much the same pattern as in Japan and elsewhere in Asia; in the early 60s the sound of the electric guitar in the twangy form of The Ventures and The Shadows had captured the youth of the country, to be superceded thereafter by the influence of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, soul music etc.

During the war, the occupation of troops from the US meant that local musicians were more than ever influenced by western music and the songs here include funk, soul and heavy acid rock. The musicians favoured (or at least ended up with, due to limited recording facilities) heavily fuzzed guitars (sometimes with excellent watery wah-wah effects), funky bass and reverb-laden vocals.

The songs are very much products of their time, and were made with little thought of posterity, but what sets them apart from superficially similar-sounding records from elsewhere are the very specific-to-their-time-and-place subjects; Carol Kim’s James Brown influenced  Cái Trâm Em Cài (Your Hair Clip), about a hairclip made from shrapnel by her soldier boyfriend in the trenches, L Thu singing about lovers separated by war, and the almost folk-ballad like treatments subjects like jealousy, which invariably feature young soldiers their protagonists and patriotism as a (sometimes negative) theme.

It’s amazing that such seemingly ephemeral music should not only have survived the extreme situation that gave rise to it, but that it should be so good; moments like the saxophone solo being played over the squelching, gritty wah guitar on Phương Tâm’s Đêm Huyn Diu (Magical Night) or the sinister, almost Goblin-like intro to L Thu’s Starfish have a unique atmosphere and feel.

Less alien (to me) in its milieu but barely less of a vanished way of life is documented in the superb Only Death is Real by Thomas Gabriel Fischer and Martin Eric Ain.

Although the story of Fischer’s chaotic and deprived childhood more than adequately explains the intense morbidity of his vision and the anguished quality of the music he produced as the songwriter and driving force behind Hellhammer, it’s the less personal aspect that earns the book its place here.
Forming a metal band (or any kind of band) in rural Switzerland (or rural anywhere) in the early 80s was a vastly different undertaking from doing the same thing in the internet age, and there’s something moving about the long-haired teenagers trying to forge their own identity amidst the mundane streets of Switzerland, their hand-made banners and hand-drawn logos. It may seem a stretch, but Hellhammer’s Triumph of Death; a feral cry of desolation and anguish, calling from the middle of nowhere to anyone who would listen, with its trappings; black & white photos of alienated youths posing with the makeup, spikes, studs and bullet belts isn’t really so different from Pony Blues, recorded in 1929, the discontented bellowing of a man with little to lose and not much to his name except for the guitar he poses with, in the only known image he has left behind him.

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