|Put on your high-heel sneakers (or your carpet slippers) and join a tour of the Black Rooms with their shuttered windows, of the Green Rooms and the adjoining stages. |
Meet the man on the stage, flanked by Hamlet and Heisenberg, uncertain of what was and what will be, but quite assured that he cannot keep time: Peter Hammill.
The critical toolbox & the associative palette are used in roughly equal measures, leaving scholarly glyphs as well as poetic graffiti down Hammill's passage of time.
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This book does not contain The Answers. That's because the songs do not.
To ask for the definitive meaning of a rock song is akin to demanding the definitive meaning of a rock formation. Naturally there have been laws of nature and/or forces of intent at work in their creation, but the result touches us in vastly different ways: what is plain old FeS2 to the chemist is fool's gold to the fool, and what the microscope shows us as a perfectly formed scintillating quartzite crystal can, to the naked eye, be just a grain of sand.Grains of sand come together here, in the sandcastle spaces and the times traced by wandering dunes: The sight is pleasant, and there may be the odd message from Archimedes left in the sand, but it is always worth remembering that the words are all just pictures that the next wave wipes away -
...Hammill began showing interest in the roots of this movement, listening to blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf at the same time as discovering the intelligent, intellectual folk songs written by the likes of Bob Dylan. Almost automatically and at first unnoticed by his surroundings, he acquired a guitar and started setting music to his poems, at first caught up in the traditional blues and folk schemes ("I started writing pathetic 12 bar blues - 15, at Public School, what wonderful qualifications!" ) but soon graduating to more original forms. The lack of tutoring, outside attention or even a peer group of fellow upstart songwriters led to the early expression of an idiosyncratic style both in words and music. In Hammill's own self-deprecating words, "I wrote what I considered to be pop songs, and they came out a bit weird".
Having failed to get into either Oxford or Cambridge, Hammill spent a six-month stint as a computer programmer for IBM in London before enrolling, in 1967, on a newly established course at the University of Manchester. Titled "Liberal Studies In Science", the course subsumed such diverse subjects as nuclear physics, sociology, physiology, mathematics and philosophy, an attractive concept for a young man equally attracted by, and adept at, the mathematical and the philosophical side of thought. He did not last long however, and though rumour has it that it was the sight of a twitching frog in a physiology class, waiting to be dismembered by a more than slightly queasy Hammill, it is altogether more likely that it was another phenomenon that led him to devote full-time attention to it: the foundation of his first band...
...The second, and longest, subsection of the song is entitled The Mental Ferule, and it is the title alone that already serves to establish the contents, a ferule being the ruler or cane used by old schoolmasters to discipline and punish pupils. A mental ferule evokes the underlying concepts of control, rigidity and terror, as well as possible after-effects of childhood experiences of these. And the suspicion is confirmed: in two large, positively house-sized blocks of verse, entirely unrhymed but set to a driving staccato that eschews regular time signatures in favour of following the lyric one syllable per note, the hard facts of two past mental habitations are outlined. It is evident that the two 'houses' treated in these verses are to be read as frames of mind since nobody would actually give his address as either a glass house or a cathedral, but this barely deserves mentioning as it is patent to even the casual listener.
The "houses composed of glass, where every movement is charted"), despite containing an atmosphere of absolute supervision, are remembered as pervaded by a sense of security which is gone now, as the "monitor screens are dark, and I can't tell if silent eyes are there). The supervised world of childhood, under the watchful eyes of the parents, and with easy rules to follow, has ceased to exist as the lyrical I has moved out of the glass house the very moment he left his parents' house. Unused to determining his own directions, the young self is left to his own devices, and his chief device is expressly named here too: "My words are spiders upon the page, they spin out faith, hope and reason". It is by writing that the lyrical I (who we can assume to be a fairly literal representation of the young songwriter Hammill here) attempts to establish the Ariadne thread of meaning that can lead him to clarity. Interestingly, the thread is equated here with "faith, hope and reason" rather than the more traditional triad of faith, hope and love, a fact which may hint at Hammill's Jesuit education which greatly valued reasoning, or at a lack of love experienced by the young man. At any rate, it is reason that he relies on to lead him out of the labyrinth of possibilities he finds himself cast into; and to make matters worse, this labyrinth also contains its very own Minotaur, the "faceless watcher [who]... informs me that I shall be expelled". Located underneath the floorboards, this entity is easily equated with the subconscious exacting its powers on the uncertain ego. Expulsion, as threatened by the "faceless watcher", takes on a more sinister meaning than it had back in the ego's school days: now, expulsion from the house would mean being driven out of one's mind quite literally...
...Contemporaneous to Last Frame, and similar in its shortness, The Wave is a favourite of Hammill's, and has even been performed a number of times at recent poetry readings, without its musical setting. It is thus legal to assume that the words here contain the essence of what is said in themselves, and that the lyric is particularly dear to its author.
Indeed, it is the subject of writing, and reading, that dominates the lyric; however, it is not the author doing the writing, but the wave which "hits the beach, writing words on the sand", words which are by nature blurred, short-lived and immediately related only to their moment of creation, certainly not able to support a framework of eternal meanings that "to the academic man... could be the answer". A word of warning to the author of this present book of course , but even more so to the figures populating the shoreline of the lyric, "unhappily imperfect". The double meaning of the word 'imperfect' can by now be taken for granted from Hammill, and so the people on the shore are not merely imperfect in the sense of not being divine creatures (such as are anticipated in the much earlier Childlike Faith In Childhood's End), but also unhappy with the imperfect, the past tense. The image is one of regretful beachcombers living in a distant past while completely overlooking the implications of life as laid out at their feet by the waves, which obliterate the message of each previous one and set out an extremely present-orientated life, where past waves are not even traceable in their imprints any more, and future ones are not yet perceptible on the horizon.
The identity of the beachcombers is also clearly established now: "unhappily imperfect, when we should be happy just to breathe [italics mine]". The breath is of course a parallel to the image of the wave: similar not only in the respective noises of ocean waves and breaths, both are circular, ever-repeating movements that allow neither for a past (who, apart from the most suffering of asthmatics, remembers past breaths?) nor for a future to be visualised, but exist simply and purely in a single-layer Now, one wave at a time, one breath at a time. We however, the tense beachcombers, manage to turn even the present tense into something that is "so present, tense" in our quest for eternal truths that can be fixed to last beyond the moment: "we want it sure, it don't make sense". The result of this is plainly not an eternal truth, but merely a shortness of breath, as "with each bated breath" the lines get shorter, and the wave's rolling rhythm stutters into a short, angrily determined beat of frustration. The breath is not even long enough for words of more than one syllable, resulting in the chopped enunciation that even shortens 'doesn't make sense' into a frustrated 'don't make sense'...
...As had been the case in A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers , the single word "fall" shatters a relatively calm musical atmosphere and launches the piece into a maelstrom of sound aptly titled iii. The Twelve. A twelve-tone theme in 12/8 time dances erratically across the ocean of possibilities, illustrating the fact that there is no judgement made yet: the Twelve, the jury, are still "out upon the matter", and sympathetic too, as they find it hard to admit that the human proclivity for planning, in the end, has no influence on the course of things. All application of wit eventually does not matter "one whit", and the emphasis is here no longer on the mere extent of planning ahead, but on the "time we spend planning", the life wasted on vain thought.
The observing I is privy to the plot, as he hears the considerations of the jury in their "out" place, but he is just as uncertain of a sentence or moral evaluation of this human folly; despite trying to grasp both sides methodically (and thus think ahead to a decision!), he cannot convince himself of an acquittal, nor any sentence at all. This attempt at thinking ahead, like all the others, is subject to going awry without prior notice, as does the verse at this point; with a trailing extra line ("what's going on?"), the monologue breaks off to make way for layered voices again, a multi-faceted perspective beyond the observer's view, expressing cryptic meanings of the number 12. A closer look, however, reveals these images as connected with time and the dilemma of free will/the possibility of planning at all.
The "twelve signs of the zodiac" open the case: representing long timezones (all twelve signs together make up a year) as well as an assumed predestination by birth sign, they hint at hidden influences beyond human control. Next, "twelve hours to face" make up the clock face, the shorter timezone of half a day, also the time to be faced before a given date, a time during which anything can happen. "The twelve disciples all aquiver" invokes the picture of the men in the garden of Gethsemane, tremblingly facing the unforeseen, which had however been fated and anticipated by Jesus himself. The "twelve arrows" that "strike a twelve-tone case" are an associative continuation from the word "aquiver/a quiver", portraying each of the disciples' future plans as an arrow shot into time, much like the spears along the train line in Traintime. The arrows, however, manage no more than to strike a twelve-tone case, a dissonant melody where all notes are of the same value, where there is no base note to strive for, and the end cannot be determined by listening. The projection of the arrow, like the twelve-tone melody, is effectively point-less!