From a rainy Spring day…

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Here in the North East of England it has been a lot colder these last few days, and today it has just started to rain! I took this photograph during the last of the heavy snow falls we have had around here since the turn of the year. I know to some this might not look like particularly heavy snow fall but it was heavy enough, highlighting everything and filling the most mundane objects with a pristine light.

Jackson Browne and the lure of nostalgia

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Jackson Browne and the lure of nostalgia

Recently one of my friends sent me a montage of photographs taken sometime (I think!) in the 1970’s and these images sent me into a reverie – and a couple of glasses of red wine! – the photos also reminded me of the opening line to one of Jackson Browne’s songs called ‘Fountain of Sorrow’. The line is “looking through some photographs” and the song mixes nostalgia and sadness with the sort of world weary optimism that Browne excels in.

Revisiting that song and the album it comes from (‘Late for the Sky’ made in 1974) sent me hurtling into the cardboard box that contains the vinyl that couldn’t fit on the shelf with the record player. So far I’ve revisited several albums by Randy Newman and the gracious subtlety of ‘Late’ took me on to another of Browne’s songs; you won’t find ‘The Fuse’ on any of the ‘best of’ collections that bear his name (two to my knowledge 1997’s ‘The Next Voice You Hear’ and 2004’s ‘The Very Best of Jackson Browne’ curated by the man himself), but it is arguably one of the very best songs he has written……with the possible exception of ‘Sky Blue and Black’!! ‘The Fuse’ comes from The Pretender album and many of the tracks feature Browne’s rhythm section. Messrs Danny Korchmar (guitar), Lee Sklar (bass) Craig Doerge (keyboards) and Russ Kunkel (drums) actually became known as The Section (according to wiki they were also known as the mellow mafia) and made several albums under their own name. Together their instrumental prowess belies that title and ‘The Fuse’ is a powerful demonstration of their sympathy and chops.

The lyric shows how the political and the personal were coming together in Browne’s writing and the final verse is a passionate cry for justice highlighted by David Lindley’s soaring slide guitar. These days all of his output is on your favourite streaming service, just look past his ‘greatest hits’ and listen to ‘The Fuse’; “through every dead and living thing time runs like a fuse, and the fuse is burning and the world is turning……

Revisiting music that you loved is not only an exercise in nostalgia – I have come to believe that although for example Jackson Browne’s music has always been important to me age and experience has produced a new and a deeper appreciation of these songs. But nostalgia is a fascinating word, a compound of Greek words for ‘home’ and ‘pain’ (like neur algia) reminding me that any trip back into the past not only brings a fresh perspective but also the pain of realising that time has moved on and you are not who you were. This may seem like a minor point but the temptation not to grow up is a real one and can be a male preoccupation. This is why nostalgia can be a lure, the desire to live in the past (halcyon days!) is very strong. It would be wonderful if you could have the insight that maturity brings and the naivete of earlier life. Maybe in these difficult days we need both maturity and naivete, but the mature view is often hard won because of the journey we have made.

Sometimes music does not age well but sometimes an old song or one that has been to use that awful cliche the soundtrack to your life (!) suddenly sneaks up on you loaded with new significance, like Jackson singing ‘The Fuse’, or ‘Sky Blue and Black’, or Frank Sinatra or Kurt Elling singing just about anything! All that is needed is the room and the ears.

Another favourite place –

Another favourite place –

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Long before it stood in for The Iron Islands in the HBO behemoth ‘Game of Thrones’ the small harbour of Ballintoy was famous for nothing more than its beautiful view of the sea and a lovely little tea shop where tea and cake could be taken in peace. However since the filming and the appearance of the interpretation board featuring the actor Alfie Allen in his role as Theon Greyjoy in GoT the place has often been inacessible – we once tried to park there three times for one of our usual summer walks! We were also interviewed by someone from the tourist department of Northern Ireland on the impact the filming and the attendant brouhaha had on the countryside and coastline. There’s the rub, whilst it is great that Northern Ireland has become the go to place for film companies (some of the scenes in the recent BBC adaptation of the ‘sensation novel’ ‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins were filmed at Murlough Bay and at Florencecourt), there is a price to pay in terms of erosion and ‘footfall’ (but then the Giant’s Causeway has been there for millennia and will still be there when all the tourists have gone!). Perhaps that is just the way it is – we love these places and want to visit them, changing them as we do (but not too much!) – in the meantime there are the rocks and the sky and the beautiful, beautiful sea!!

(Thinking outside) Pandora’s Box.

(Thinking outside) Pandora’s Box.

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The phrase ‘opening Pandora’s Box’ (or opening a ‘can of worms – how many worms could you fit in a can?) is often used as an expression for unleashing unforeseen and dangerous circumstance. Sometimes when I find myself looking at the world I am sure that the old legend has some real meaning. I find a familiar litany in the media these days; it usually begins with the word Trump and inevitably includes the Middle East or Russia. Jerusalem (on ancient maps the navel of the world) is also there as the setting for a strange cocktail of biblical theology and geopolitical maneuvers. Some right wing Christians in America see what is happening in the Middle East today as proof that their particular reading of the bible is the correct one. It is very easy to think that the world is going to tell in a handcart but it was ever thus, these days we just know more about it, and as someone once said there will always be “wars and rumours of wars”. The news cycle is relentless and the business of reading a quality newspaper can easily convince you that good news is thin on the ground. I am reminded of the efforts of a BBC reporter to focus only on good news, surely in defiance of the old journalistic saw “if it bleeds it leads”. Yet even the most pessimistic would have to admit that alongside all the death and destruction there is hope and light.

And yet religion tells us that this world is going to destruction anyway, and sometimes makes its own particularly violent contribution! Yet writing this world off is no option for the believer (or for any fully functioning human!) because at this present moment it is the only place we have to live so working to bring hope and peace is a profoundly sacramental act. Hope for heaven (whatever that means) can only really be understood as we pledge ourselves to work for peace and justice here and now. The old adage that religion is “pie in the sky when you die” is an insult to those who suffer and a denial of (in my tradition) the Prince of Peace.

The story of Pandora’s Box is what a previous generation may have called a cautionary tale; curiosity unleashing all sorts of horrors on the world but the last thing to leave the box was hope. Hope tangled up with all the bad stuff, like the wheat and the tares, as the hymn writer tells us “together sown unto joy and sorrow grown”. Actually that old Harvest hymns contains an important truth, the whole verse goes like this;

“We ourselves are God’s own field,
Fruit unto his praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown
Unto joy or sorrow grown;
First the blade and then the ear,
Then the full corn shall appear;
Grant, O harvest Lord, that we
Wholesome grain and pure may be”.

To be bringers of hope is hard work, in the words of Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn you have to “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight”, or like Jacob in that old story you have to wrestle with the stranger by the river to receive the costly blessing. Imagine Pandora watching the consequences of her curiosity visited in the world and then discovering that at least the gods had left something behind. The afterthought that just might save us, hope. Or as the sage of Kensington, the great Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote “Hope means expectancy when things are other wise hopeless”.

(Thanks to the Revd. Donald Briddock for the box – a gift from another land).

One of my favourite places-

One of my favourite places-

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This photograph was taken on Portstewart Strand in Northern Ireland. It is really a study in contrasts, on the day I took this the weather was slightly overcast but pleasant. However, on the May 7th Bank Holiday that followed the weather was very warm and the strand was so crowded you could hardly move – cars were parked so close to one another they were almost piled up on top of one another. Depending on your taste for crowds this can be a mixed blessing, but the upside is that it helps the National Trust who own and maintain this beautiful strand – given the tides and seasons it has not really changed in the thirty odd years that I have visited it. It really is a beautiful place whatever the weather! When I walk along it I am often reminded of the words written by Isaac Watts;

“Lord, how thy wonders are displayed/ Where’er I turn my eye/ If I survey the ground I tread/ Or gaze upon the sky”.

Thanks be to God for the place, the company on my walk and the moment!

From one place to another….

From one place to another….

In a recent television advert for a kitchen fitting company I heard a song called ‘If You Leave Me Now’ – this is of course a song by Chicago, a song which for me marked the nadir of one of my favourite bands, a soft rock confection that charted well but was, for me, light years away from the bluesy, no – nonsense horn inflected music they played when they started at the end of the 1960’s (was it really that long ago?). Hearing the song on the advert gave me pause for thought about the commodification of music and it took me back to Chicago’s first album (before they had to drop the ‘Transit Authority’ from their name) and its scorching exploration of what became known as ‘jazz fusion’; I have in mind particularly the final track on the album ‘Liberation’ and the way that the horns and Danny Seraphine’s drumming give way to Terry Kath’s extended guitar solo – it is 14 minutes of powerful rock played with the suppleness and improvisational power of jazz – buy the album if you don’t have it already, or listen to it on your chosen stream, it may not help to sell kitchens but it will brighten your day!

I have already written in this space about my abiding fascination with ‘jazz fusion’ – for me the records that I listened to in the 1970’s by Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea, Billy Cobham (and many others) provided my way into the classic, acoustic types of jazz. I still find it fascinating that many of the musicians who ‘plugged in’ then eventually found their way back to acoustic jazz, and some, as I have already written (in the post ‘Music, music, music’) have found their way back into it with a renewed vision. Although some find an almost mechanistic feel in jazz fusion, and a plethora of notes played far too fast, I have always found the muscularity and improvisational power here quite attractive – and if you look carefully (or listen carefully!) there is a subtlety there too. That post also found me writing about a peculiarly English brand of jazz rock, or fusion, and I was reminded of this on re – discovering two recordings by the drummer Bill Bruford. One is a compilation of the first incarnation of his ‘Earthworks’ group, called ‘Heavenly Bodies’ (my copy is Virgin Records 1997) – it is a record fizzing with energy with the propulsive power of Bruford’s drums (it sits well with Yes, King Crimson and Genesis as well as owing a great debt to Max Roach and Dave Brubeck’s drummer, the great Joe Morello) and the horns of Django Bates and Iain Ballamy. It also reminds me of Ian Carr’s Nucleus with its very English mix of eccentricity and craftsmanship. The second is a recording that Bruford made with bassist Eddie Gomez and multi – instrumentalist Ralph Towner at the end of the 1990’s. ‘If Summer Had Its Ghosts’ (Summerfold Records 1997) is a series of tone poems with Towner on piano and electronics alongside his signature twelve string acoustic guitar. Picking out individual tracks is invidious but the title track and the Latin themed ‘The Ballad of Vilcabamba’, as well as Bruford’s drum feature ‘Some Other Time’ (based around a solo feature for Joe Morello) are real highlights. And discovering Ralph Towner’s facility as a pianist was a real revelation for me.

There you go, you never know where watching television adverts or thinking about the commodification of music will take you!!

Mose Allison and Randy Newman; Sages and Satires.