Welcome to that plea for all your unsuspected kin,
Travelling that lost nation road even now.
We are modern, we are homeless, and we are confused by freedom.
And so we’ve left them to themselves, or to each other, or to their god,
As we ourselves seem now to have been left.*
*From Invocation, by Stephen Jenkinson, from ROUGH GODS
You know the cliche: the songwriter hears a great line and mutters to no one, “Damn…wish I’d written that.” It’s a private moment, not a proud one. There aren’t many words or lyrics that I’ve wished I’ve written, not because there haven’t been a great many lines I wish I’d written (there have!), but because I understood early on that it was a waste of a good wish. Instead, I figured out how to get inspired….try to locate something in my own learning that gave me the same response as the thing I coveted…or at least aim at it.
We are modern, we are homeless, and we are confused by freedom is one of those coveted lines. I wish it was mine. I really do. It’s perceptive, elegant, simple, dead true, heartbreaking and comforting all at the same time. It’s a keen summation of the current world. The line explains a lot about why things are the way they are but doesn’t have to explain itself. It promises no change, offers no hope, is not yet another call to yet another toothless revolution. It’s a scathing indictment and as gentle and non-judgmental as a thing could be. On stage, making things up as we went along, I came to always wrap that line in something different from the rest of the Invocation. It became something we aimed at, that line did. A gathering point, and a turning point.
I’ve been absolutely wary of trying to turn any of SJ’s stuff into a song. The alchemy of “prose into song” is dangerous and there isn’t a word that has been written that can withstand any mishandling. When we decided to make an “echo” version of the Invocation for ROUGH GODS, we began with the idea of having it read by another voice. We tried me reading it, and I was awful. Then came the notion of having it intoned, and then, finally, sung. We first settled on Lisa reading and then the question: what if she sang it? I was resistant to the whole notion, but applied myself to the situation.
Wariness aside, I’d long privately thought that were I to try turn some of SJ’s text into song, I would aim at My Favourite Coveted Line so, naturally, it was the first thing to emerge as promising. Through twists and turns in different arrangements, it became what you hear …an R&B inflected lament to the way things are. All the other melodies that came to be for the other sections of The Exegesis owe their existence to the fact that this section made itself known to be worthy of the rest of the effort. Recording is rarely easy, in my experience, and Lisa and I had to try a few different approaches to the singing of all the sections in The Exegesis over the months, with Stephen chiming in from afar. When she sang this verse, though, we all knew it had found itself and no tinkering was needed, and the challenge became having everything else sound as at home with itself. I think we found our way through pretty well.
Having the coveted thing is rarely as satisfying as the coveting would promise. Be it a lyric, a haircut, a cool brown leather jacket from Germany that your producer was given by someone famous, or (and this is important) knowledge or wisdom from someone who maybe has seen more life than you: something earned is better. It will take you further and will be more valuable to those to whom you will eventually leave it. But the coveted thing might be something to aim at, a clue as to where to rummage around in your own life for something you’ve missed noticing. Careful, though: might not be what you expected. Or wanted. Or wished for. Another classic cliche.