Geoff Smith and the fluid piano

My friend Geoff Smith from Brighton (see here for a review of the first album by his former group Attacco Decente, and here for a review of his early film soundtracks) has finally realized his ten-year dream of creating a microtonally fluid acoustic piano, an instrument that is set to revolutionize the way we think about and relate to the piano.

In memory of G.E., 1 February 1931–30 June 2003

Six years ago today, my mother flew away.

I just want to reproduce the text from the Book of Ecclesiastes that I read at her funeral. I first came across this text on Current 93’s “Hitler as Kalki” EP, at the end of which there is a recording of David Tibet’s father reading it.

“Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”

Michael Gira, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 21 November 2008

There seems to be an occasional series of concert reviews on this blog — see Leonard Cohen, Whitehouse and Einstürzende Neubauten — that mostly consist of Epiphanies-style reminiscences of my first awareness of the artist in question. This, though, is the one I’ve been waiting to write — how I fell in love with Swans, the most important group of my life.

I recall the time very well. I was at Sussex University in 1987, casting around for new music to love. I had outgrown the obsessions with Gary Numan and Pink Floyd that marked my teenage years, had taken quite happily to the subdued acoustic muse of Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega, but was undoubtedly in need of something more acute. Every week I would scour the pages of the NME — still then my main source of music news, although not for much longer — in search of wisdom and enlightenment. One week I read a review of Swans’ Children of God that was to change my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. I can’t remember who penned it, but this is how it concluded: “And it’s ugly, and it’s difficult, and it’s long and sometimes wearying, and peculiarly beautiful, and utterly essential.” Well, that was it for me. I had never heard a note of this music, had no great history of liking this kind of thing, but when I saw that Swans (not The Swans, as I quickly learned) were playing in Brighton soon, I bought a ticket straight away. I got the album the day after the concert, and I was hooked for life.

Over the next few years, I saw Swans live a few more times (at the Zap Club on the seafront, and in London at the Town & Country Club and the now defunct Kilburn National Ballroom), and bought each new record as it came out, enthralled by the beauty and power inherent in this music. The real turning point, however, came when I wrote a fan letter to the address printed on the cover of 1991’s White Light From The Mouth of Infinity. I expected to hear back, if at all, from some kind of management flunkey; what I certainly didn’t expect was to receive a long and detailed reply from singer and keyboard player Jarboe herself. This kindness and generosity continued over many years in her correspondence with me; in those pre-email days it was a genuine thrill when a letter postmarked Atlanta dropped through my letterbox.

The apex of my association with Swans came in 1997 when Michael Gira asked me to be the merchandise seller on their farewell tour of Europe. As one might imagine, this was an offer I mulled over for perhaps 1.5 seconds before accepting. It was the experience of a lifetime, with 30-odd concerts over six weeks in such widespread countries as France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria (yes, the Szene Wien), Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia, with the last ever Swans concert taking place in my then home town of London on 15 March 1997, in the rather dingy surroundings of the now defunct LA2. Out there somewhere, there’s a recording of that night in which Gira makes a between-songs announcement thanking me for my work on the tour. I don’t have a copy myself, so please get in touch if you do. Rather mind-bogglingly, those words were the last he ever spoke (as opposed to sang) from the stage as a member of Swans.

I have a tour-bus load of memories of those six weeks, the good, the bad and the ugly, but if it’s all the same to you I’m going to keep them to myself (with the exception of this rather facetious letter which I wrote to The Wire last year). I will say that it was by some measure the hardest work I’ve ever done; this was not a matter of a few T-shirts. There were shirts, books, CDs, records, tapes, badges, stickers and wooden boxes, all of which had to be loaded in and out, sold and accounted for in any number of currencies (no euros then!). I’m well aware, though, that I was slumming it compared to the Herculean nightly efforts of the band and the rest of the road crew. And if anyone reading this bought anything from the merch table on Swans’ last European tour, I hope you were happy with what you bought.

Fast forward eleven years and I’m at Porgy & Bess for a solo concert by Michael Gira. This form represents a distillation and finessing of everything I ever loved about Swans: the brimming rage, the barely controlled power and the passionate intensity. The lyrics, as ever, are extraordinary: visionary, convulsive flashes of elemental forces, drenched in deep colours hewn from the strings and wood of Gira’s guitar. And when he plays my favourite Swans song, the overwhelmingly bleak and nihilistic “God Damn The Sun,” as the encore, I think… well, at the very least, I’m in the right place tonight.

Leonard Cohen, Minnewaterpark, Bruges, Belgium, 10 July 2008

I can’t remember how I first got into Leonard Cohen, but I do recollect buying my first album by him. It was Songs from a Room, an original orange label copy on CBS, for £2 at Wax Factor in Brighton, during my second year at university (which puts it at 1987). What spurred me into buying it remains a mystery to me; I must have heard his name mentioned somewhere and had my interest piqued. It could well have been an interview with Suzanne Vega, of whom I was a great admirer at the time; she namechecked him in many of her early interviews. In any event, Songs from a Room quickly became a firm favourite with me by virtue of its mournful lassitude and air of extreme, willed introspection.

As is my way with many artists I discover for the first time, I quickly immersed myself in as much of Cohen’s back catalogue as I could lay my hands on. My first move in that direction, however, was a clear false start. Hoping for more of the melancholy, wintry sound I had found so appealing in Songs from a Room, I got Death of a Ladies’ Man and was distinctly underwhelmed by its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production – the responsibility, I later learned, of Phil Spector. Things got back on track with Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs of Love and Hate, but when the first album of new Cohen songs came out since I became a fan – 1988’s I’m Your Man – it too sounded overproduced, with the dated synthesisers and drum machines sitting uneasily among the fallen majesty of that voice. The lyrics, meanwhile, were thin gruel after the exalted and rapturous imagery of a set like 1984’s Various Positions.  Cohen described his then new style of writing (with reference to “I Can’t Forget”, but it applies to the whole album apart from “Take This Waltz”) as “that limpid kind of language that doesn’t twist your arm at all…a dead, flat language.”

All of that said, Leonard Cohen has been a very important and much loved figure to me ever since, and the three Royal Albert Hall concerts I saw him perform (one in 1988 and two in 1993) were indescribably moving affairs. At one of the 1993 concerts I even engineered the obtaining of Cohen’s autograph, albeit without going anywhere near the man. I went to the Albert Hall with a pile of rare Cohen hardbacks in my bag, determined to get them signed. As an experienced autograph hunter, I knew the form. After the gig was never a good idea. There were record company parties, schmoozing to be done… it was also quite possible that the artist would leave the building quietly by a side exit. I knew that before the gig was my only chance. I also knew that it was unlikely that I would get to meet Leonard myself. That didn’t matter, as long as I got my books signed. So I would need help.

I also knew the best place to go.  With a good while still to go before the concert started, I stationed myself, not by the stage door outside the venue, but by an artists-only entrance inside. Within a few minutes, one of Cohen’s musicians – a tall guy with glasses, I believe it was the drummer Steve Meador – passed me on the way in. I stopped him and chatted briefly to him; he was (as far as I could tell) not pissed off to be accosted in this way. (Maybe he was just being polite.) I showed him the books; he was impressed. I asked him politely if he would mind taking them to Leonard and getting them signed; he said he would see what he could do. He went inside with the books. A few minutes later, he emerged again. Each of the books was now inscribed with Leonard’s unmistakable signature, making me a very happy Cohen fan indeed.

Apart from his non-performing appearance at the Barbican last year (he also sat through the whole of Philip Glass’s Music In Twelve Parts the following day, which is more than can be said for some), that was the last time I saw Cohen until last Thursday in Bruges.  If it hadn’t been for his well-publicised financial troubles, it’s unlikely he would ever have taken to the stage again. But I’m very glad he did, for this was a concert with an overwhelming emotional presence at its core. We waited two hours in intermittent rain outside, a worthwhile wait indeed since it meant we were able to stand right at the front – an unexpected bonus that made the concert doubly enjoyable.

Leonard Cohen songs are like mansions – huge, elegant and perfectly constructed, with vast tracts of space for the visitor to explore. They are songs that, alone, justify the popular song as an artistic form. Moving far beyond the singer-songwriter trope, Cohen’s music is a highly appealing form of central European folk, with clouds of acoustic and percussive invention augmented by achingly perfect vocal harmonies and touches of countryish electric and pedal steel guitar. It’s tasteful, yes, but it’s also possessed of an enormous emotional impact. And the words, even those that are “dead and flat” on the page, resonate with an elemental, often overtly erotic charge.

I could certainly have done without some of the hokier aspects of the performance, such as the frequent and completely unnecessary introductions of the other musicians in the band. But every time the 73-year-old called time on a song and flashed one of his beautifully open and sincere smiles, one’s awareness of all the slickness and the choreography fell away and one was left with the knowledge of witnessing a performance of extraordinary charm, lyricism and grace.

Esbjörn Svensson 1964-2008

Just a quick note to mourn the passing of Swedish jazz pianist Esbjörn Svensson, who has died at the appallingly young age of 44. I saw EST twice, once at the Barbican in London and once at the Dome in Brighton. They were awesomely strong both times, with Svensson’s piledriving piano leading the jazz trio into wholly unexpected and joyful places.

Svensson did a huge amount to bring jazz to a younger and wider audience, using the framework of the rock concert to make jazz sound fresh, raw and accessible. His trio were pretty damn unique, and he has left us far too soon.