It’s possible, I suppose, that a song can be about something, but the song doesn’t have to be that thing. This song, for instance, Take a Little Walk: It’s a song about a lifelong fear of the dark, about a night I spent in the woods behind our farm in an attempt to quell that fear when I was about 30. It made it onto a recording called Surgery in 1996 and then it sort of refused to be performed until it began a concert broadcast/recording I did for the CBC in 2007 calledPleasure & Relief: A Live Concert Recording, this version with a string arrangement. Eight years later, Stephen Jenkinson reluctantly peeled the cellophane from a copy of that recording, put the disc in a crappy boom box, pressed play, heard the string prelude, then the song. All the Songs of Love is an account of what happened for him next.
The first tour we did together in 2015 was to be our last. We had no designs on a long-term thing, and he said as much from every stage as we went along. An old theatre in Austin, Texas, is the first time he performed All The Songs of Love, though that’s not what he called it. It came out of his mouth as he was introducing me midway through the night, and it completely caught me off guard. Maybe him, too. On that old stage my song took on a new life, transubstantiated into a meditation on dying, leaving only the appearances of the original song intact.
The song for me now is both these things: my account of taking …a little walk through them fields Gonna carry me gently for my heart to heal Gonna find me a demon in a dark, dark wood You can’t come with me, though I wish you could.
and Stephen’s poetic response to that chorus, which to him was the sound of how, on bended knee, with knitted brow, you can approach that little pile of regrets that mark you, the altar of stones which is the ending of days.
As it happens from time to time, we head down a path towards something we are certain of only to arrive uncertain of who we are, where we landed, and why we left our locked-down inevitability in the first place. This is the 60 Second Answers to me.
The whole thing was my idea, meant to be quick, artful, honest, and immediate— just SJ and I in the stale air of Dead Starling studio. On the cusp of releasing two new recordings, it was a creative response making peace with the internet’s demand for content (a reality if you set up shop on the thing). It was part potshot at the short attention span of internet culture and part experiment to see what would happen if we clamped a ridiculous time limit on addressing big questions of a personal nature. And privately, it was going to be a place I could flex a new-found/hard-won conviction that I “knew a thing or two”, the byproduct of a truce with my otherwise unmoored mind while I was mixing DARK ROADS and ROUGH GODS in the late summer.
It backfired. It became painfully obvious—even as the first round of questions were being shot— that I was not who I thought I was, not capable of what I thought I was, didn’t know what I thought I knew. I wasn’t prepared for the storm in the eye of the question, and the videos are a record of a man slowly coming to terms with a panic that obliterates. The other man in the videos –SJ– has the unenviable task of repeatedly watching that sun come up on the man, the dawning of understanding “there are a lot of things we are not going to get to be”.
At 56 years old, I’m coming to recognize the consequence of knowing and the despair of not knowing. This is a weighty thing in a time where that despair can easily become a wildfire. The fuel is uninhibited access to that kind of ‘information’ that is mostly opinion, parading as fact. Neither of those is a story. And that’s what we’re yearning for, I think: stories. Not certainties. And they’re in short supply. Right now the story includes me developing the skill of being gracefully uncertain of things, making friends with NOT knowing.
There’s the storm in the eye of the question. And it might be that NOT knowing is the calm in the eye of that storm.
Note: Don wrote a song called “The Dangers of Travel” that I sang on The Henrys’ recording “Quiet Industry”. A beautiful song that has nothing to do with the following, except for the title, which I stole.
This travelling thing is not for the faint of heart.
There are the usual uncertainties of the road (food, lodging, language) and those can be challenging enough. But I have been learning these last few years that the heart also has to be able and ready to be broken by the beauty of the land, some of the people you meet there, and by the stories of the place.
Cases in point…
Broken by People
Meet Gudjon. His name translates to English as “God Man”. He was born and raised in the north of Iceland on a farm on the edge of the Norwegian Sea…the very edge. He is a talented painter, carver, stone mason, builder, farmer, fisherman, singer, blacksmith, leather worker, and specializes in the restoration of ancient Viking buildings (he has 2 “practice houses” he built in a field behind his house…along with a handful of other buildings and a Viking boat). He studies runic writing. He tends to his herb gardens.
He was generous with tales of his family and generous with his praise of the previous evening’s concert. A language barrier can purify intent in the back-and-forth of trying to communicate. Of my singing, he said “Takes me on a journey here,” tapping his fingers to his chest.
Emotions were hijacked saying farewell when I realized how much I liked this guy I had only known for 36 hours or so (this kind of raid on trying to be cool is happening more and mo re). As we hugged goodbye, the heart cracked open a bit. Sure, the fracture was to allow admission of one more, but a break is a break and there is scar tissue now, the kind that occurs when you find and then have to leave a kindred spirit.
And God Man was not the only one. There was Helgi the filmmaker who stumbled across us in the north and followed us for a day. There was the Lord of the Manor of Trefacwyn, with whom we spent some magical days in Pembrokeshire, Wales. And there was the Old Caretaker of the Reykholt Hall who bonded with the band for a few hours as we set up, played, tore down and loaded out, embracing me warmly and then bowing to us all from the loading dock as we got into the van and, catching and holding my eye, tipping his hat to me before closing the loading dock doors. I wear no hat, so the best I could do was to blow him a kiss, which he smiled at and accepted as he disappeared. Another kindred spirit, another co-conspirator, another older song and dance man.
Broken by Stories
This Mongolian ger was a long dreamed of thing of our host in Iceland, Elin. We spent a day there, our little band accompanied by Gudjon and a filmmaker from Sweden who had taken a shining to us at our concert the night before, and we cooked a meal, and walked the coast. As of this moment, the ger sits on land that is becoming the flash point in a long battle against foreign interests (Canadian lead) aiming to build a large scale hydro electric dam in the area. 270 square miles of affected area, the large scale flooding of vast lands, the end of three major rivers and hundreds of waterfalls, annihilating the flora and fauna that have been there since before memory, and changing the landscape in the way that only humans have had the hubris to do. As I write this, the engines of the big machines have just been fired up in the little village we left yesterday, the machinery preparing the road for bigger machinery to come, and some of the locals are weighing out the consequences of lying down in front of them.
The heart breaks.
Broken by Place
At the most unsuspecting moments, the land itself steals away the breath along with any certainties of how beautiful “home” is. You’d have to have no pulse to be unmoved by the scenery offered up through the window of the van. The visual hits keep coming, again and again and again, until you start to feel exhausted by awe, the impulse to capture things on your phone finally numbed, and the van gets quiet because there are no more exclamations left in anyones’s belly, no more air in the lungs.
Such beauty can easily cause the heart to ache. And when the moment comes to turn away, to put all that beauty at your back to journey home, the heart breaks. Happened to us in Scotland, happened to us in Wales, happened to us in Iceland.
I will consider myself to be a very fortunate man indeed if my heart keeps breaking like this.
Ian Mackenzie—or “Two Tone” or “Sport Coat” or “ Two Fiddy” as I call him—shows us a little behind the scenes stuff and explains how he came to understand why he wanted to create a film that documented the Nights of Grief & Mystery. He was there as close to the beginning as a person with a camera could possibly have been.
Here’s what I learned in Árneshreppur this morning: the word “saunter” has its’ roots in the words “sanctity, sanity, sanitation (ie.respectful cleanliness)” and “terra”. In a nut shell, Holy Ground.
So, to saunter is to proceed as if one is walking on holy ground, taking time, watching where you step, altering the course when need be…walking WITH the place you are, not ON it. From a distance, this can look aimless. Not so.
It’s the more artful approach to any kind of getting from Point A to Point B…and takes into account the territory you are travelling through and the inhabitants of that territory…be that on land, in your thoughts, or in a performance.
Tonight in this village at North 66° 3’ 4.6002” West 21° 32’ 55.5864” we will be doing exactly that.