28. Dental Health

I need to have two wisdom teeth out. It’s not my fault. They just sit at the back of my mouth, not growing properly. Eventually they’ll go bad. I have to get rid of them. I was travelling basically constantly last year and it made it impossible to get them sorted. I did have a useful dentists appointment though – it made it clear that there is something I can do, if only to get them pulled. I tend to be fatalistic about health – that things I do to help myself will ultimately have no impact. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because I’ve got a lot of bad advice?

Mental health is an area people freely dispense bad advice in. Just cheer up! Get some exercises and drink a fruit drink and your bad times will fall away! Have you considered this herbal supplement? Visualise a bright, abundant meadow. People with much more severe challenges than I do get much worse advice than this from people with zero experience and no qualification. So I started wondering what it would look like if strangers started giving unsolicited and uninformed dental health advice. See what I did there? Change a single letter, and uninformed, unsolicited advice promising incredible restorative effects becomes obviously ridiculous to everyone. Drink a glass of piss every day! It will straighten your crooked canine. Rub grapes into the gum where a tooth was extracted, and the tooth will grow back! And so on.

Lyrically, the song forms a sort of an acrostic – the first word of each line from the first and second verse and chorus form the final verse. There’s not much to say about that except I find the final verse exceptionally satisfying:

Every time you promise
I do not believe
Your teeth grew back

I don’t think that
This helped one person
My mind came back

I wrote this using a music coding language called IXI lang – I’ll explain next week a bit more about what that is, but in the meantime I want to thank Emma Winston (aka Deerful), who helped me to learn the language, and inspired me to do it in the first place. Her music is great, download it immediately (after you’ve pre-ordered mine, obviously).

Next week, I make a song out of the first 700-something digits of Pi – until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here, and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

27. After All This Time

Nick Gill is a very talented person. By day, he’s a typesetter and printer, by night, a guitarist, composer, and playwright. I played in his band The Monroe Transfer, around ten years ago – a 7-piece post rock band featuring cello, double bass, violin, viola, drums, and two guitars (I played one of those guitars). Comparisons are odious, but they sounded a bit like Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You Black Emperor*. I really rate his playing and composition, and back then, we were talking about songwriting, and he he advised me “try to write a song in the style of someone you like – you don’t have to release it or even play it to anyone, and it probably won’t sound like what you’re trying to copy, but you’ll learn a lot”. I completely ignored this advice.

Until I wrote this song. Can you tell who I’m trying to copy? The dry, strummy acoustic guitar? The growly bass? The wailing lead guitar? If you can’t, it’s probably not you fault. It probably just proves the impossibility of trying to copy the Pixies. Although Jonny Greenwood famously said “The Pixies only made four albums” when asked why there was little to no guitar on Amnesiac, Radiohead’s fifth. The famous pre-chorus “chukka” from Creep is the less-famous pre-chorus chukka from verse two of I Bleed (“as breathing flows/my mind secedes”) and I claim my five pounds.

Lyrically, this was the closest to a stream of consciousness piece I’d written for a while. I was visiting Wolverhampton (the muthaland) and living in Islington, the latter of which felt very weird. I had never before lived in North London, so you can appreciate the culture shock.

Next week, I’ll be thinking about my dental health. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

*add your exclamation point wherever you fancy

26. Little Thing

I’ve written and sung and talked about mental health on this collection a few times – most obviously anxiety on “Obliterate, Annihilate” and depression on “Sensible List” – but I haven’t really talked about the ways I soothe some of those noisy voices. This song refers back to when my wife was in hospital and was pretty sick and I was very worried about her and the main way I coped with moment-to-moment fear was to read very nerdy fan wiki pages describing the operations of spacecraft, weapons and vehicles in the Aliens movies. I even did some cartoons where I took those films, and other movies, and decatastrophised them – where the loss of signal from the LV-426 colony was due to a downed transmitter, and colonists had seen “Carter Burke” in their email and assumed it was spam, so never traveled to the site of the Aliens; where Kane never stuck his face next to a pulsating alien egg; and so on. But second to second, if I was feeling panicky I occupied myself with the technical details and understanding how this fictional world slotted together. Therapist and podcaster Lily Sloane introduced me to the phrase “digital pacing” – the act of cycling between social media apps, spending a small amount of time on each before moving on to the next. I’d read about this as a symptom of stress and anxiety, but not given it a name before – but pacing around the internet without getting very far – or letting your brain sit down and have a nice rest – seemed apt.

I spent a lot of of time in my teens reading Warhammer 40,000 lore. For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40,000 (or WH40K) is a science fiction tabletop battle game set in the year 40,000AD. In this world, humankind is beset on all sides by interlopers and corrupting influences, which apparently means it has a sizeable contingent of racists and fascists that like it*. I didn’t see much evidence of that as a kid in Shropshire. I spent time reading the lore, painting the figurines very badly, and not playing very much, because it was faffy and complicated. I was a weird and solitary teenager, which is to say, a teenager, and I was more interested in reading about Space Marines and Chaos Gods and learning their rules of engagement and dress codes than interacting with a peer group whose rules of engagement and dress codes I did not seem to understand. My first contact with The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear is from the same era, and appears in Frank Herbert’s Dune books – it’s spoken inwardly by the Bene Gesserit, a cult of weird ninja nuns, to calm the nerves and allow clear thought and action. I can’t quite remember it right, but my version goes something like this:

I must not fear, fear is the mind-killer
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration
I will face my fear
I will permit it to pass over me and through me
And when it is gone, I will turn my inner eye on its path
Where the fear was, there will be nothing
Only I will remain

Dune is considered highly problematic nowadays. Herbert conceived it walking through the sand dunes of western Oregon, and envisaged a people in a desert holding a universally-craved asset who are freed from imperial oppression by a very well-bred white dude. When I frame it like that it sounds bad, right? Well, sure, but it does contain a very well-realised world, and reflections on how imperialists manipulate local belief systems to their own ends, and the dangers of fundamentalism, and imagines a fully-functional futuristic feudalistic society without computers. I’m not enough of a scholar to argue whether it’s self-aware enough to undermine its own White Messiah complex, or whether its imagination outweigh its problems, so you might well think it’s trash, or brilliant, or neither. Anyway, The Litany Against Fear is a useful takeaway if you want to pace around your own head for a bit.

(Look at that, I got to the end of the post without sharing my feelings about Ready Player One! Or talking about the sounds in this recording! Well, you can hear about those on the accompanying podcast.)

Next week, we visit the midlands. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here, and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

*doesn’t everything? I feel like you could jump into a Facebook group on meringue baking and there’d be some ethnonationalist who sees egg whites as a metaphor for racial purity. No grease! Not a speck of shell! Or the precious fluids are compromised! THE FOAM WILL NOT HOLD apart from the flecks at the corners of my mouth

25. I Only See The Moon

Language note: contains the M-bomb.

The Moon is the opposite of the Milky Way (the subject of the last song); you can only see the Milky Way at the right time of year, in a dark sky away from city lights, if it’s very clear and not rainy or cloudy, long after sunset. The Moon blasts through the sky like a blowtorch, obliterating almost any other celestial object – certainly the Milky Way, if not literally every star in the sky. When there’s a full moon in the middle of the night, I only see the moon.

This guy fucking loves the moon. He loves the moon so much that he’s created some fake vendetta against the earth’s oceans, claiming that the oceans’ strength comes largely from the influence of the moon, that they’d be sleepy and boring otherwise, and even making up shit that the oceans say about the moon – “[we] won’t let one little puddle be pushed around by that silver motherfucker”. He’s quick to disclaim “that’s how the oceans describe the moon – those aren’t my words, I love the moon!”. I think it’s the only time I’ve used the word “motherfucker” in a song, and I find the ardency of this guy’s pro-moon stanning absolutely hilarious and ridiculous. Is this what it’s like to be a Beyonce fan? Please do not tell me the answer.

Anyway, however ridiculous, he really does like the moon. I like it too, I’d just like it more if it didn’t drown out the stars. I think I was probably thinking a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sun Whose Rays are all ablaze”*. G&S are probably associated most with twiddly twee songs like “I Am The Very Model of A Modern Major General” and “Here’s A Pretty State of Things”; “The Sun Whose Rays…” is a bona fide ballad, and unusual in the portion of their oevre I’ve heard. If you’ve seen the movie “Brick”, you will have heard a spoken word version of the first part of this song. My dad is a big fan of G&S, which is how I heard the song, and think it’s really beautiful; it’s first verse is dedicated to the sun, and the second verse, to the moon, culminating in the defiant:

But, prey, make no mistake
We are not shy
We’re very wide awake
The moon and I

I suspect this song will eventually sink beneath the waves of history; it’s from The Mikado, a British Victorian-era opera set in Japan and… not unproblematic in 2019. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” seems to have outlived its parent musical, so maybe “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” will too.

The man in this song doesn’t aspire to be the moon, or to mimic it; he hopes to do no more than convince people how great the moon is, and talk shit about the ocean. Who amongst etc etc.

Next week, we reach out for the (/a) good book. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

*The other obvious touchstone is Joel Veitch’s “We Like The Moon” and it’s only marginally more silly than this song.

23b. Intermission & 24. Remarks Upon Seeing The Milky Way With The Naked Eye

The Southern Hemisphere affords some incredible views of the Milky Way, and, while Australia wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, the way that it stretches directly overhead from horizon to horizon in the winter months was new to me. It was utterly inspiring and humbling and all that jazz. The clouds of dust obscuring the centre of the galaxy, and how we were all created from similar bits of dust floating around – it’s hard not to see the Milky Way above our heads as the literal birth canal of existence. And it does…. sort of… look like a massive space vagina. The Space Vagina. I’m not embarrassed to say it. Carl Sagan called it “the backbone of the night”, but he. Was. A. Coward!

I would like to say that I was able to find out more about the historical (and prehistorical) antecedents of this idea – The Milky Way being the vagina of human existence – but, while googling “space vagina Milky Way” leads to more SFW hits than you’d expect, they’re mostly webpages in the authorial voice of a stoned kid at Frank Zappa concert rather than, say, academic works on myth and folklore. And I really struggled to convey the concept of “space vagina” lyrically without it sounding… well, like a stoned kid at a Frank Zappa concert. At the time I came up with the idea, I was crossing the Bass Strait – the stretch of ocean between Tasmania and Melbourne bay – and I started thinking about how, far from land, seeing the Milky Way overhead and the dark ocean all around must have been mind-blowing to mariners of 100, or 200, or 20,000 years ago. I was travelling on a well-lit overnight ferry; I was mostly watching 80s Australian music videos below decks, so my spiritual journey was different in nature. I’m neither a sailor, nor a captain, Richie Valens.

You can hear a lot more about the music on the accompanying podcast episode; the music from the Intermission and intro to “Remarks…” came from a commission to write the theme song for the 90 Minutes or Less Film Festival Podcast, set up by a couple of friends of mine; I repurposed the music for this, accurate organ sounds for 1920s Cinema Wurlitzers and Ennio Morricone guitars and all. And of course I repurposed The Boss’ title, “The Darkness At The Edge of Town”, for the chorus refrain, “the darkness above the centre of town” – in this case, the Milky Way. I hadn’t heard his song before I wrote this one, but I really liked the title – I think I’d mentally elided it with HP Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space”, a short story in which a meteor crashes on the edge of a farm in rural New England, and starts to corrupt and drive mad everything in its orbit. That isn’t what the Bruce Springsteen song is about, unfortunately.

Next week, in keeping with our celestial theme, we hear from a guy who really likes the moon. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here and pre-order the album here.

23. Hey Friends, I’m Blowing Into Town!

Immediately after I took Miriam Toews’* name in vain, I regretted it. She’s the Canadian author who wrote All My Puny Sorrows, and more recently, Women Talking. She writes about Mennonites, and mental health, and feminism, and is a really wonderful writer. She has mastered an authorial style that, when Margaret Atwood uses similar voices and techniques, I find vague and rhetorical and passive-didactic, and when Miriam Toews does it, it seems genuinely questioning, and playful, and curious. I saw her do a reading in Crystal Palace’s The Bookseller Crow bookshop several years ago, and she was humble and utterly charming.

I also know very little about Mennonites (I know a little more thanks to Miriam Toews). In 2014, I was on a road trip in the north of Montana, and visiting Kootenai Falls I came across a group of women who were modestly- (and rather old-fashionedly-) dressed, who I thought were taking part in some sort of re-enactment. Of a picnic. At a waterfall. I’m not very bright, but luckily bright enough not to ask them if they were part of a Picnic Re-enactment Group**. I’m pretty sure now that they were Mennonites on a day out. I didn’t know that at the time, because in the UK, Mennonites are not well-known – we’ve heard of the Amish, but that’s about as close as we get.

Miriam Toews writes very well about Mennonites. She’s not exactly an unalloyed fan, but she does show the strength and fun-ness of Mennonites, both men and women – especially in Women Talking, which I hadn’t read when I used Mennonites as a punchline for a group of people who don’t know how to have fun. For the record, they are probably a lot more fun than I am, and my idea of fun is to read a book by Miriam Toews, which is hellafun.

Toews aside, I have a lot of fondness for “Hey Friends, I’m Blowing Into Town” – I wanted to do my own version of “The Boys are Back in Town” refracted through the lens of my being the most boring friend in the world. I did live in a converted church for ten years, despite not being an Anchorite; I do like watching Naked and Afraid; I do love the idea of my arrival heralding a cacophonous anticlimax. Musically I was going for a showtune, but I don’t listen to shows***.

Next week, I stare directly into the Milky Way until it swallows my soul. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here and pre-order the album here.

*pronounced “Taves” – as I do in the song

**is that a thing? I’d love to form a local chapter

***and the show hasn’t been written for it yet, to steal one of Nina Simone’s best lines

22. Snowmelt

The first few days of Helen’s hospitalisation were frightening and very stressful. The following three weeks were worrying – why wasn’t she getting better faster? Why was there still an infection? But after the initial period in ICU, this was a low level buzz rather than a howling gale. Every day I got up and walked to the hospital; every day I walked past the starfish*, curled up on the uneven floor of the Hobart bay like gnarly Simpsons hands, and past the Aurora Australis – the bright, cheerful, MASSIVE orange icebreaker that the Australian Antarctic survey uses, and which is moored in Hobart harbour over their winter. They were my pals on what became a grim and repetitive trudge.

Then one day, I got up and took a slightly different route, and it was late July, and the sunshine struck the snow at the top of Kunanyi, the mountain which overlooks Hobart. ‘Kunanyi’ is one of the few words left known of the language of the indigenous Tasmanian population, because they were largely wiped out by a combination of (probably mostly accidental) disease and (probably mostly deliberate) genocide; I didn’t know that at the time, I just called it “Mount Wellington” even thought I knew that was a fucking ignorant thing to do and there was probably some history I was avoiding learning about. Generally, I had a pretty rosy picture of Tasmania, because let’s be honest, it is a stunningly beautiful place; it was only weeks later that I watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette and learned about the way it treated gay people, even very recently; and a year later, around the time the Tasmania-set Nightingale was released, I learned about the more recent history of Port Arthur. Tasmania is very, very beautiful, but it has some very, very heavy shit very, very close to the surface.

Even if I didn’t know Kunanyi’s name, seeing the sun shine on the snow at the same time as it shone on my face felt like a moment of Spring. When you’re constantly dealing with minor storms, ones that come out of nowhere and knock you over, you have strategies for lashing your shit down and making sure your windows don’t break. So when a real storm comes, you know pretty much what to do; you lash your shit down and board your windows up and try not to die. But it’s tiring to do that again and again; and it’s even more tiring when a real storm is trying to pull your roof off; and it’s nice to have a little sun on your face.

So this is for the Aurora Australis, soon to be decommissioned; for Kunanyi, one of the last landmarks of a decimated and mistreated people; and for the Spring.

Next week, I’m blowing into town! So gird yourself. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here and pre-order the album at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3. You can find Year of The Bird Volumes 1 and 2 at your favourite online music purchasing place, or Bandcamp.

*or seastars, if you prefer