In my review of Peter Hammill’s last Austrian concert in 2010 I speculated that Hammill’s work “seems to be heading ever closer towards notions of ending and mortality” and that his airing of many seldom performed older songs was linked to the notion of “looking back over his life’s work”. I was accused in some quarters of an inappropriate morbidity, but Hammill’s October 2012 journal entry confirms that I was spot on: “a serious point about doing so many songs is that as and when I’m done with playing then all these songs will be stilled… the time of these songs’ lives is finite and we’re now evidently quite a long way down it.”
In any event, this was another starkly beautiful solo concert from the driven, unstoppable Hammill. It was lovely to see him at Porgy & Bess, my favourite venue in Vienna and a place that (despite the staff wandering around serving drinks the whole time) always manages to create an atmosphere of quiet absorption in the performance. Such an atmosphere is entirely appropriate to Hammill’s songs, which demand – and amply repay – the close attention of the listener from start to finish.
What’s more, Peter dwelt explicitly on the subject of death in a bleak diptych towards the end of the set, as “Friday Afternoon” led into the rarely performed “Not For Keith”, Hammill’s elegy for early VdGG bass player Keith Ellis. In unusually talkative mood, Hammill explained that he had been carrying the lyric sheet to the latter song around with him on tour for some time, but had only just found the chords for it earlier that same day while seated at the venue’s Fazioli grand piano (with which he seemed very impressed). The sombre, reflective mood cast by these songs had been there from the beginning, with setlist regulars such as “Don’t Tell Me” and “Shingle Song” standing shoulder-to-shoulder with rarely heard gems like “Slender Threads” and “His Best Girl” (sung partly in German, as per the Offensichtlich Goldfisch album). Yet words like sombre and reflective, germane as they are, don’t come anywhere near capturing the totality of what Hammill does. In the vast, breathtakingly powerful range of his voice, the angry tone clusters of his piano, the anti-folk hammering of his acoustic guitar and the convulsive urgency of his texts, Hammill gives the audience a privileged glimpse into a worldview shot through with desperation and rage, grasping all the while at immutable but elusive qualities of beauty and rapture.
But it’s as well not to get too hung up on reductive interpretations of Hammill’s work. In my own twenty-plus years of trying to come to terms with what Hammill is about, I’ve kept returning to Wallace Stevens’ “not ideas about the thing but the thing itself”, to the conviction that Hammill’s songs, rather than expressing states of being, actually are those states of being themselves. In listening to Hammill, we are confronted with a vision of the world both piercingly original and unbearably truthful. As Stevens put it:
That scrawny [not, it must be said, a word that could ever be used to describe Hammill’s voice] cry — it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.