18. Harp Lie

Content note: medical shit.

Helen got sick pretty fast; first she had a cold, then she had tonsillitis and we went to the doctors on Monday and he gave her some antibiotics, and then on Tuesday night Helen woke me up because her neck had swelled up and I told her she probably had swollen glands and she should let me sleep and then on Wednesday we took her to the ER and they admitted her and put her on IV antibiotics and steroids and then on Saturday night they decided to operate to drain the abcess that had formed, and at twenty to midnight her surgeon called me to say that she’d be put in a “medically induced coma” to help her recover, she would probably be awake by Wednesday, and that was good news because I’d spent the previous two hours saying to myself “She probably won’t die. She probably won’t die” over and over. I was right in that there was very little chance that she would die, but if you’re having that conversation with yourself it’s because there is more chance someone could die than, say, crossing the road, or eating an oyster, or something.

The doctor could have chosen a better phrase than “medically induced coma”; it’s not reassuring, and, as it turns out, Helen was somewhat awake the following morning. She had a tube down her throat and was heavily medicated so wrote on a little whiteboard and asked “will I speak again?” which was just about the most heartbreaking thing I’d ever seen. (Spoiler: Yes, she would.) Every 15 minutes she would fall asleep, and the sedatives would mean she would forget to breathe, and the artificial breathing machine would puff some air into her lungs and she’d get wake up upset and try to figure out where she was and what was happening and then when she’d done that she’d ask how long she’d been sleeping for and I’d say “like 5 minutes” and she’d roll her eyes because it was boring and uncomfortable and painful and then we’d rinse and repeat.

The days progressively got better. They reduced her meds so she could stay awake for longer and could breathe by herself. They let her have tea and an icy pole*. My days were monotonous – wake, visit hospital, have a fancy Hobart brunch, visit hospital again, go to our hotel room, put on a movie, email family and friends with updates, worry, go to sleep. I had nothing to talk about, and neither did she, because she was immobile in ICU. One day, I told her about a Thai martial arts film in which a monk had to battle a gang who had stolen his village’s elephant in order to blow up the presidents of two fictional countries. She told me “not to tell her about the plots of martial arts films”. It was all I had.

I think Harp Lie is a term Starlee Kine termed, or at least popularised. “A lie that’s big enough to be interesting but small enough to pass inspection”. Edgy winter goff art festival Dark Mofo was happening in the deep Hobart midwinter, and walked past the neon inverted crosses and the flamethrowers and the parade floats on the way to the hospital every day.

Next week, cause for celebration!

*this term, along with “too easy”, are bits of Australian lingo that helped me get through the week

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 1st, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1

17. The Mountains Look Like Scotland

I have seen atoms with my own eyes. At least, I’ve seen a device (a Tunneling Electron Microscope, or TEM) which fires a beam of electrons down into a material, the electrons pass through the material and are scattered, and the electronics detects the electrons and reconstructs a cross-section of the material you’ve put in there. TEMs take up a large room, and the one I used during my doctorate was in the basement of the Materials department in Oxford, and cost millions of pounds. I was looking at samples of carbon nanotubes, tiny tubes made of carbon, a bit like buckyballs – C60, one of the natural forms (allotropes) of carbon. Carbon nanotubes have what’s called delocalised pi orbitals – meaning electrons wander around the whole length of the nanotube, which can be micrometers long, and make it blurry – so it’s hard to see individual atoms, which are closer to a nanometer in size – one thousand times smaller. But sometimes the nanotubes had crystals or atoms in them, and then you could see individual atoms. Individual atoms!*

I tend to take a fairly sceptical view of physics – physics is a really really really accurate model we use to understand physical reality – but if you believe physics explains everything we see, you run into problems when you start talking about consciousness and free will and things like that. So my attitude as a young man had always been – to paraphrase Terry Gilliam – “it’s only a model”. But I saw them! Atoms! With my own eyes! Or at least, I saw the reconstruction of what we thought the patterns made on a detector meant when we thought we were accelerating electrons at a sample in what we thought was a vacuum. I started to wonder whether that made a me a weird truther, like people who had seen ghosts or the shroud of Turin or been cured by Saints’ bones.

And so this is my most travelogue-y song to date – refracted through these contrasting views of reality:

  1. Everything is made of atoms. Atoms are real. They are the same everywhere I go.
  2. Forms are almost infinitely variable. Physical objects are almost infinitely complex – no mountain is the same as any other mountain, they’re different in trillions of ways.
  3. Forms vary over time. You can never visit the same mountain twice. Human beings completely replace their cells every nine years.
  4. Every thing I see bears the past echoes of my experience; every mountain is superimposed with the image of every mountain I’ve seen before.
  5. Everywhere does look a bit like Scotland.

At least Cradle Mountain in Tasmania does, where we were, hanging out at a Tasmanian devil Sanctuary and watching them eat wallaby tail. Iceland looks a bit like Scotland. Montana looks a lot like a big version of Snowdonia. Petaluma County looks a lot like rural England.

Next week, things took a turn and I had to start finding creative ways to lie.

*there’s a wonderful video somewhere from a Japanese group that captured images of a pair of Lanthanum atoms tumbling inside a nanotube. Tumbling! But it’s over 15 years old and I can’t find it.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 1st, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1

15. Fragile

It’s a cliche to imagine bullies as weak; to me it’s not especially important whether people doing harm are “secretly weak” or just as strong as they claim to be and just sadists. But it is galling when people who have had every advantage in life like to portray themselves as “tough guys” and portray the people who are ignored, victimised, disenfranchised and generally given shit every day of their lives as weak. I doubt the “tough guys” could walk a metre in their shoes.

In a real sense we’re all weak. Temperature is a statistical concept, really – it refers to the distrubution of energy in a system, and you can freak out it out and do weird stuff like create negative temperature*, so it’s hard to say what the range of temperatures in the universe “naturally” is. But I read that some stars can reach a temperature of 300 million Kelvin** – 300 million degrees above absolute zero. The universe gets pretty close to absolute zero in places. And the human body has a working range of about +/- 5C ***. If the body is over 42C, you’re dying, if it’s under 32C, you’re dying. It seemed a weird coincidence I was in the US, a country of about 300 million people, and a country that loves kicking its weakest in the groin on a regular basis, and not keen on people that deviate by more than millionth of a percent from the norm.

So we have an extended metaphor where you live on a street of 300 million people, but only your 5 closest neighbours don’t want to kill you. And this song is very much addressed to the tough guys – in the grand scheme of things, you’re very very lucky the universe hasn’t killed you yet, and rather than making it difficult for the other people who are also very very lucky to be alive, you might pull your head out of your arse and help them out a little.

There are a few songs in this collection that can safely be filed under “obvious sentiment which could bear to be said a bit more often”, and this is probably one of them.

I laid down the guitar in San Francisco at the start of May and didn’t get the lyrics recorded for two or three weeks. The drum part came in late – when I revisited the demos in 2019 – because it was kind of flat without it. This song took a long time to write because I was learning music (written by Sean Real of Little Teeth/99% Invisible) for the Radiotopia tour, and then playing on the Radiotopia tour. Being in the band usually meant getting up at 8am to get on a bus, arriving in a town at 1pm and getting to the soundcheck at 2pm, sound checking till show time, playing the show and then going to bed. Not to complain, because the crew were working 20 hour days and sleeping in the tourbus and crazy shit like that. I got craft services and a hotel – it was very rock and roll. Playing with the Radiotopia Tour Band – Sean, Dannie and Ash (aka Little Teeth and friends) – was one of the best musical experiences of my life. They are wonderful people and I feel truly privileged to have gatecrashed their band.

Next week I was terrible jet lagged in Sydney and had an existential meltdown that I processed through the medium of Robocop.

*in slightly contrived systems

** backed up by this paper, which annoying quotes temperatures in keV (kilo electron-volts, a unit of energy) and not Kelvin. The conversion rate to Kelvin is about 12 million K per keV, and the paper quotes the temperature as 25 keV, so 300 million Kelvin is about right.

**or 5K, which is the same

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 8th, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1

14. The Day After Yesterday

My wife tells me I should write science fiction. I’ve done science fact before, in life and music, but I think I would be crap at writing science fiction. Nevertheless, this is my first fully science-fiction-short-story-song.

We were in Oahu, Hawaii, just arrived from Osaka; flying over the pacific in that direction means that you cross the international date line; I took off at 11pm on April 25th, flew for ten hours, and landed just after noon on April 25th, 11 hours before I took off. I found this pretty irresistible and started to think about a story of a time traveller who can travel one day into the past. I’m not sure how many times they can do it, but the song implies more than once, and more than once for the same day – but not further than one day. I had in mind that this might be due to some Lovecraftian effect – H P Lovecraft sited his Cthulhian city of R’lyeh close to the Pole of Isolation (“close to the Pole of Nothing Is Here”), the point on the planet furthest from land, which is in the South Pacific, not a million miles from where I’d been*. Point Nemo is also where they send autonomous spacecraft to die, so maybe that has something to do with this limited form of time travel.

A young man (the “I” of the story) meets an old man in a bar who can travel one day into the past; they fight, and the old man goes back in time to repeat the incident, hoping for a more cordial outcome; the second time**, the younger man learns the old man’s trick, and they fight again; this time, the younger man goes back, but the older man has evaded him, and they never meet again. And while the older man had become frustrated and bitter with the limitations and complications of his gift, the younger man seemed happy about how it had allowed him to make different decisions and get a bit wiser. There is a bit of a sense of his fraying at the edges though. Did that story make sense to you from the song? I feel like I had to pack in a lot of detail and it’s hard in a small number of verses, music is usually better at conveying emotion or metaphor than complex plotting.

I’m not sure I can really pull off John Frusciante-style guitar playing, but I have had a damn good go. Next week, I will launch into an extended metaphor about the vulnerability of the human body to cosmic extremes.

*actually, it seems to be a pretty long way from both Osaka and Honolulu, by definition at least 1,400 nautical miles from either. Google Maps doesn’t allow me to measure the distance to Point Nemo (?!?!??!)

**for the old man – at the start of the song, the young man has no idea they’d met -“It seemed unlikely he’d met me before”.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 8th, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1

13. Sensible List

Listen to the song before you read the post. It has spoilers.

I’m not fucking around.

I was walking around Tokyo listening to two podcasts I think are wonderful: Charles Adrian’s Muselings and Ross Sutherland’s Imaginary Advice. Charles is always incredibly open and raw about his life, experiences, emotions, and in the episode I was listening to, he talked about his mental health; I find it very inspiring, because I can feel so much shame and self-consciousness and self-indulgence in talking about myself. In the Imaginary Advice episode (a director’s commentary on his wonderful video piece, Stand By For Tape Backup), Ross talked about how making the project allowed him to realise he was depressed, and to talk about his depression; it’s something he’s alluded to elsewhere in the series, but here it was more boldly stated.

And I realised over all the years of writing miserable songs, of talking about how seriously we should take and make space for and support mental health, in RTing mental health discussions and causes – in talking elliptically about my own mental health, I’d never used the word depression. Although it was probably pretty obvious that I’d been depressed, and that I wasn’t a particularly small or exclusive club.

And three things struck me, almost simultaneously. Firstly, that my next song had to include the word “depression”, that would be the most important and only writing constraint. And secondly, that depression, you’re a needy fuck. After all these years of pain, you’re giving me shit – for not saying your name out loud? And then it dawned on me that, if this were a relationship, one that had existed over many many years, and I never once mentioned someone by name, and only talked about them publicly in the most oblique ways – that would be a big red flag for them. And there it was – a song written from the point of view of my depression, asking why I was gaslighting it and airbrushing it from my life.

Musically, it’s super simple but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. It’s groovy af. I hope you see why I didn’t want to spoiler the song; because you really should be on the side of the gaslit character singing the song (at least the verses) – at least until “my” voice arrives at the end to identify who that character is. Depression, you’re a needy fuck. Depression, you’re a hungry dog.

Next week, I find a way to time travel, but only for short periods.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 8th, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1

12. The Empire Strikes Back

Around the corner from where we were staying in Kyoto was a small antiques-y shop, and in the window was a bus sign from the area of Shropshire I grew up in: Oakengates, Telford Town Centre, St Georges, Hadley, Leegomery, Dawley, Wellington. It was really, really, weird. I started reflecting on how obscure Shropshire towns must sound exciting and exotic to Japanese antiques shoppers – or maybe they were there for ex-pats wanting to be reminded of… Shropshire? Seriously, most people in England can’t tell you where Shropshire is.

It made me think about where I grew up, and how I ‘d a conscious decision to not stay there, and how trapped I had felt as a young person, which are all pretty familiar feelings for lots of people, I guess. The thing is, I feel guilt having that kind of resentment towards a place that was safe and pleasant, in a part of the country where my family still live (they’ve moved a bit away). I never resented my family for living in a place that they had made their home, but I feel guilty about the intensity of my reaction; this is me processing these conflicts.

The base tracks of this are samples – bird song at Uno, the ferry port across from Naoshima, the beautiful art island which is like a living version of Jonathan Blow’s Witness; the “nightingale floors” which squeak and sing as you walk on them in Kyoto castle; and the sound of an automated mini-waffle maker in Nishiki Market, Kyoto’s most popular food street. The vocal was recorded on a train held at the station in Toyama. This was right in the middle of the Windrush Scandal, when the UK government was revealed to be deporting people who had entered the UK on the Empire Windrush in 1948*, an emblem of Britain’s supposedly positive and open attitudes to immigration, especially for those from the Commonwealth. I’m always slightly surprised when the British public doesn’t seem to give a toss for years about bad treatment, detainment, demonisation and deportation of migrants, but suddenly The Windrush is a sacrosanct point of entry and even the gammons lose their shit**. To use a term Nikesh Shukla coined, perhaps these are the Good Immigrants we keep hearing about.

I suppose what these strands have in common is leaving your place of birth and making a new life, and how different that is for different people. The title “The Empire Strikes Back” seemed apt, and the end of the song even has a nice Star Wars reference for you fellow nerds.

Next week, I’m confronted by a partner about why I am intent on keeping our relationship a secret.

*and subsequently

**I’m not sure the gammons did lose their shit. But even they couldn’t go against public opinion and declare this A Good Thing.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-2 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 8th, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1