Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Lyrics: All Along The Watchtower

'All Along The Watchtower' was written and originally performed by Bob Dylan but more familiar versions are those by Jimi Hendrix and U2. I first heard the U2 version when I was fifteen years old. I loved the song but the lyrics always mystified me. They are sparse and have very little detail..., to the extent that I thought that there must be verses missing.

Roll on nineteen years. I am back from a holiday in Tenerife; a holiday that has really challenged the way I live my life and think about the world.

One of the things I lacked on Holiday was access to my music collection, so on Sunday I had an opportunity to put on some music and get a good dose. There is little I like more than laying back on my bed, blasting some music and pondering the meaning of life. I hadn't listened to Hendrix in a while and thought this might do the trick.

When Hendrix's version of 'All Along The Watchtower' came on, the experiences I had on holiday started to click with the lyrics and it all started to make sense.

First, I met lots of intelligent people working out there who did not want to be stuck back home in the rat race. This may surprise some people, for the common image of typical Spanish holiday resort is of idiots abroad who want nothing more than to drink and fornicate. While this element did exist, some people have to be given more credit.

Second, since I originally graduated back in 2000, I have been in two minds. Sometimes I wanted the security of a job. At other times, especially when things were really bad - I wanted to escape this. I have been to London (which is still highly recommended), went back to university to study for a MA and struggled to find a graduate level job. What I discovered is that none of this really matters. I have been half fooling myself for far too long.

The first verse hits the spot well:

"There must be somewhere out here, said the joker to the thief.
There is too much confusion. I can't get no relief.
Businessman they drink my wine. Ploughman dig my earth.
And all along the line, no one knows what it is worth."

This sums up so much how I have been feeling. There is the confusion and lack of direction, the disorientation and the loss of real value. The archetypical characters of the joker and the thief are those who live on the outside of society and so can look in with a critical eye.

Then the second verse:

"No need to get excited. The thief he kindly spoke.
There are many among us, who feel that life is but a joke.
but you and I we've been through that.
And that is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now.
The hour is getting late."

This verse is utterly brilliant. These two characters you would not normally expect to have access to 'truth' are those of the joker and the thief. The joker is someone who normally challenges everyday reality and most would assume that he tells an untruth to amuse 'normal' people. When really, the joker is in earnest - he does not see that life is a joke. The thief transgresses normal reality by not adhering to the normal values of society. This transgression brings into question the 'laws of the land.'

Then finally the conclusion:

"All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants too.
Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl,
two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl."

The final insight: the societal values that most of us hold dear also preserve vested interests. The notion of women coming and going may relate in part of Celine's 'Journey To The End of The Night', where a similar scene is painted. (I have read somewhere that Dylan was a big fan.)

AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!! What have I been doing with my life? Time to push on with the book and get it finished in the next two weeks. Whether it gets published or not..., it is time to give myself more time.

Monday, 26 October 2009

PR's in hell.

Public relations in hell is a tough job but it helps if you are a good looking and chatty individual who knows how to identify the buying signals. Hell looks something like Veronica's strip in Tenerife, where an army of people want to bring you into bars, strip joints and lighten your wallet by selling other tat.

This is naked capitalism, stripped of the 'respectable' sales of high street brands and corporate 'cleanliness'. There are presumably aspects of the business here that are illegal and such illegality helps reinforce the supposed moral high ground of the established order.

The difference, however, is not as great as it seems. When the first taxes were introduced a few thousand years ago, this would have seemed like nothing more than a protection racket. Yet we accept unquestionably the divine right of national governments to impose taxes to pay for hospitals, roads, a police service and standing army. This racket certainly has it's benefits but the activity has become naturalized. The question mark has vanished.

Whether such activity is deemed legal or illegal, does not get beyond the issue of how people live off the activities of each other. People will sell to each other the essentials of life, such as water and food. This is rarely gifted. People will also play on each other affections. As any good sales person will know, it is easier to sell to someone if that person actually likes you - no matter what the product being sold is.

And of course - we all need to make a living. The blame should not always be placed on the shoulders of individuals. Narratives of legality make us focus on the actions of particular individuals and sometimes people do have to be brought to account. Still, the over all framework of how we live with each other is generally ignored.

Call me an idealist. The one thing that I yearn for in life is to find evidence of unconditional love. This I would describe as a gift given freely without expectation of any return.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


When the media talk about depression, more often than not they will focus upon the individual. They will talk about depression as an illness and will include within this discussion the array of treatments available - such as drugs and various therapies.

Such thinking is politically biased. By placing the responsibility for recovery on the individual, treatments already pre-suppose a judgement about the very nature of depression.

I have never suffered from sever forms of depression - I have never seriously contemplated taking my own life for instance. In such circumstances, outside intervention may be justified. (Already one is working within a standard set of criteria. How much can one argue that 'honour suicides' in ancient Japanese culture be a result of depression?)

Like most people, I have often suffered mild depression. Thinking about how this has arisen enlightens falsities within the standard debates on mental illness.

When I get 'depressed' - this normally happens when certain circumstances conspire to make me powerless. In work, were power structures are rigorously imposed, the injustices of being treated in various ways can get me down.

So say, for instance, a silly rule is imposed on the workforce generally. Imagine that employees are only allowed to go to the toilet once outside of allocated breaks on any given day. At first glance, this may seem reasonable. Your employer is paying you for your time and does not expect to be paying while you are on the brick reading a newspaper.

But then consider, why such a rule has to be formalized in such a way. Have a few 'bad apples' ruined it for everyone? Why then not deal with the individuals concerned? Why impose order onto the whole workforce in such a way?

I would argue that such a formal approach helps the workforce self-regulate. Managers, if they are any good as managers, actually want to do very little hands on management. Better to delegate this responsibility collectively and have the workforce stay compliant through self-regulation.

So why does all this get me down? Such rules remind me of my powerlessness within these circumstances. My self-worth is effected because I am not being treated as an individual but as a number when I operate within theses structures. I am only treated as an individual when I deviate, when I break a rule and then I am taken to account.

Depression, as a medical category, is a way of treating deviant behaviour. Not only should one remain and operate within the rules of the workplace, one should also remain happy and cheerful - especially in sales type roles! It is not enough to have compliant behaviours, one should also have compliant thoughts and complaint moods.

It is actually okay to be down sometimes. It is part of a range of human emotions that are necessary to function in a healthy way. Recognizing when one is depressed can also help identify ones own priorities and values in life. It is part of the inner voice that can be contrary to the wider pressures within the environment.

I like to try and imagine a Wittgenstein or Einstein in my circumstances to see how they might have coped. They would have suffered greatly I am sure. Not that I can be compared to such people..., but it helps illustrate my point.

I am a unique individual who will not take sole responsibility for any depression I suffer - especially when that depression is understood within the context of a deviant or abnormal mode of being within the world.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Tenerife Holiday

This Friday I fly off to Tenerife for a holiday in the sun, just as the winter kicks in. It has been five and a half years since I was last there. I will have seven nights to relax, party and forget about my normal everyday concerns.

One of the amazing things about this island is its geology. When you fly in, the first image is of this sheer black rock that shoots out of the sea. It hardly seems inhabitable. Then when you land and get through customs, climb onto your tour bus and have a moment to relax - you notice how the surface is like a moonscape.

A sense of being alien remains when you arrive at your resort. The PR's, with their aggressive sales style, constantly want to lull you into one of their bars. The tourist economy isn't quite natural and resolves around the consumption of huge volumes of drink and food, timeshares and the seedier industries of human desperation.

Because it has been so long since I was last there, the impressions I get will be very raw. I will try to find a computer cafe, so that I can record some of my experiences each day.

Roll on Friday...

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

New Music

Over recent weeks, there has been two great albums released by bands who where about when I was really starting to love music in a big way: Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains.

Pearl Jam's offering, Backspacer, is an immediate rush at thirty eight minutes long. Most of the songs are punk-pop, everything being stripped bare until what is left are little diamonds at the bottom of the music miners pan. The songs are also genuinely happy, which as a bit if a surprise at first. What this band have done really well in the past are dark, moody pieces that one wants to get lost in- so that the real pain of the outside world is displaced for a few moments by the soothing effect of an imagined pain. Not that the pain is such songs were purely imaginary - they may have been real enough for the writers themselves - but the audience normally grapples with art and music in a different way than the artist.

One big plus for this album is how there is a single thread running through it. When I checked the credits, I noticed that Eddie Vedder had written all the lyrics. This consistency hasn't happened in a long time. Other band members are great lyricists - but the over all effect with many contributers, is that those albums don't work as a mood piece. Instead, those offerings become a bit jumpy and wacky, which can be fun if your feeling listless- but not if your wanting to get lost.

Backspacer does contain two songs that relieve the musical punk-pop, with acoustic numbers that are very much of an ilk with Eddie Vedder's solo album Into The Wild. This is a reminder of Eddie's potential as a solo artist which perversely gives him greater control over his band, making Pearl Jam more focused and driven.

Black Gives Way to Blue is a broodier album. Despite the new vocalist, many of the trade mark Alice In Chains habits are still there. The vocal melodies, down tuned riffing plus the intelligent and emotional lyrics. The title track, which arrives as the last song, really got me. It's an album about continuing on- after the death of a loved one. It is an album about how the deceased has had an irreplaceable influence on who you are as an individual. It is an album that both celebrates and mourns.

The Black Gives Way To Blue album is not as 'instant' as Backspacer - but it is one that will continue to intrigue me for many years to come. Despite how much I love the Pearl Jam effort, I am not so sure how much I will be loving it in five years time.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Kelly Joe Phelps: Musical Contortionist

When I discovered that Kelly Joe Phelps was playing in Newtownards I was really surprised. Here is an internationally renowned artist coming to play a little hall, in a little town, in a little country. It was a pleasant surprise though - a few years ago I had bought one of his albums and loved how his vocal melodies tied together his finger-picking, acoustic licking, sonic mosaics. I readily agreed to go along with a friend.

After two very decent opening acts, Kelly Joe Phelps was introduced by the compare but took a moment to appear. Was he really here or was this some kind of facade to get his fans to attend a gathering that would otherwise be empty? But sure enough, a couple of minutes later, a smallish man seemed to hobble along the front of the stage before taking a seat. A long hovering microphone pointed in his direction, though he didn't seem to notice.

As he started picking his guitar, his body writhed into all kinds of different shapes. It was as if the control and precision he displayed on his instrument was compensation for his lack of control over his other bodily movements. He hunched over the guitar, his head jotted out like a chicken, then he howled like a wolf as a particularly enjoyable sequence of notes was ran through. He also seemed to be lost in a world of his own.

He showed little interest in his audience. You could tell straight away what music meant to this man. It was a way of exercising control over a life that probably lacked control. My friend looked at me, as if to wonder if the artist wasn't quite normal. I mentioned to my friend that he had found his zone.

With Kelly Joe Phelps, his genius is subtle. The bluesy guitar notes underscored vocal melodies that seem to have more in common with Irish Ballads. Still, it worked amazingly well. If he were a cook, he would be the sort of man who would serve up chocolate with potatoes- but make it work.

After the gig, my friend mentioned that he preferred the second support act, an Australian called Owen Campbell. It was true that Campbell created more crowd interaction and had a greater presence on stage. He told stories between songs and made his segment extremely enjoyable. Phelps in my book was the master though. He took his guitar, sang his songs and vanished into the night wench he came. A ghost of a man, there was something magical that happened during this apparition. Sometimes it requires belief before you can acknowledge the existence of spirits.