In The Daubigny Chapel
Mice are in the organ loft. I can hear
their scratch and scatter, tiny scraps
of moss on the move across the bones
of their ancestors. July sun shimmers
the riches of the windows. And down
on the south aisle floor, sprawling like
a scrubbing penitent, your golden hair
across your face, you lift the brass
up through the paper, inch by inch.
We are in the blissful moment, you
and I. Light and time reiterate
and the motes of dust stand still.
You look so young, so beautiful that
I barely hear a voice that says,
small but clear, ‘You want. Not need,
but want. Know this now and then
down the long noise of the years.'
As we move deeper into the 21st century there can be few across the span of generations whose lives have not been, or are not now, touched by a broad musical genre whose pan-cultural influence has been an integral part of our lives ever since Philip Larkin's identification of the year 1963 as its prima causa. The advent of The Beatles and their darker alter egos The Rolling Stones ensured that none should easily evade the social declassification, the stylistic innovation, the sexual liberation and the powerful notion that anyone can dance that so swiftly followed. Nearly 50 years on, only advances in technology have modified to any degree the original template: still the guitar is the weapon of choice and still it is the man who wields it with a will who is the warrior hero.
Since the potency of rock-and-roll derives from its synthesis of lyric, melody and instrumental delivery, attempts in fiction to cast a net of words over the process have, in general, delivered little more than arid analysis or histrionic reportage. As far as I'm aware, poetry has, by and large, left the territory unexplored. So my desire to try to write a sequence of poems about an individual musician's experience of the suffocation of creative endeavour by the payload of commercial and cultural overlay that is so much a part of the phenomenon seems ill-advised, even a tad arrogant – so many having failed thus far.
Bright Star, Big Sky
Johnny walks the wire tonight.
The walls expand; oxygen pops
in his blood; mercury climbs behind
his eyes. He curls his language out
across the lights to another riptide
congregation. Sweat is the sacrament,
tears the benediction, communion the key.
Johnny is anonymous. Chrysalis days . . .
Johnny One-Note, tangled up in dreams and visions.
('Moonstruck waster!' That’s what his father says.
'An education being pissed away'.) Slung across
a stranger’s bed, he wakes into noonday light:
60 watts and flickering, filtered through
a bedsit shade. She’s done her best, he sees,
on student pickings: strung a map of Tuscany
across the kind of wallpaper that no-one ever buys
(it grows on loneliness, like fungus). She’s standing,
back turned, by the sink and brewing tea.
She’s wearing bare brown legs and Johnny’s shirt.
Turning, she grins the grin that would have hung out
the moon to dry last night, drunk or sober.
He grins back. Under a pile of dirty clothes,
an old guitar. He lifts it out, leans back
and tunes to open G:
I gotta mojo hands . . .
Johnny on a scout hut stage . . .
Gerry’s daughter’s 9th birthday and Johnny’s depping
with Les Paxton’s covers' band. 'Do we know
The Birdy Song? Darlin’, of course we do. We wrote it!'
Clicking in a beat of four on his sticks, Les shouts,
'Key of G!' and in they go. Johnny watches the time
go limping round the wall-clock face while kids in
Cinderella lace and Batman blue careen around the floor
like phosphorous. A 20-minute break, a fag and a can
of Foster’s. 'This is a piece of piss', the singer says.
'Fifty quid a man for sleepwalking through horseshit.
Stick with us, mate. Beats rehearsing in your father’s
garage!' Johnny sighs and shrugs the Gibson back
around his shoulders. Just another 30 minutes ‘til
the folded fivers, then time enough for pie and chips,
another can of Foster’s and an early night. Johnny clangs
eight bars of John Lee Hooker bang into the middle of
a disco set and grins like a kid as the engine skips a beat:
Let that boy boogie-woogie. It’s in him
and it’s got to come out . . .
Johnny is a sudden Baptist, washed in the blood . . .
Lifted out of moil and toil by his gift of rapture,
a sanctified sinner in his bliss, dancing his art
before those first great gatherings, between
such humble walls, within such unconsidered streets.
But faces tip and spin like moons in moving water
and everyone’s a stranger, born again inside this
roomful of blues. Curling the notes like lemon peel
across the darkness, Johnny jigs and reels between
drum riser and a bassman on the nod. He snarls
like a jackal, cries like a child and a kind of wisdom
leaks like steam through the architecture
of the song: old shadows, smoke over fields, green
leaves in the river, someone else’s dream cut free
and floating like a cotton boll, blown by a shower
of notes through time and into the here and now.
Under strip lights, lost amongst the coiled leads
and boxed guitars, Johnny, cross-legged, smiling
like a Buddha, presses the last few acid drops
out of a sweated fretboard:
Play the blues with a feeling, I know the blues
are here to stay . . .
Johnny is a buccaneer ashore . . .
Swinging down from the bus with hours to spare;
logistics in the car park for the crew: the amps,
flight-cases, drugs and booze. For the band,
some time to kill on High Street, Anytown. A cloud
of silver frames them here on land. The static
crackles; ozone tints the atmosphere. Heads turn
as they hit the bars. The girls who speculate (always
the one who stares you down, unsmiling, certain).
Guys who smoulder, hunched and lary – somebody
walking and talking the dream, so close, so near
the penumbra. They sniff the air, the moth-dust
hanging, breathing a draft of the other side. Johnny
watches the world through smoke – fag on, shades down.
Believe the dream, the voices say. You’re John
the Conqueroo with your tombstone hand and
your graveyard mind. A jukebox anthem chimes and
Johnny’s fingers close around the tune. He grins
and shuffles to the rhythm, chewing out the words:
I’m a man, I spell M-A-N . . .
Johnny stranded on dry land, the cod philosopher . . .
Too many lights and all too bright. Some girl who’s
seen it all gets busy with a powder brush. (Another
laid six lines of powder like a fateful hexagram
along the bar in Hospitality). Three fingers semaphore
a backwards countdown and the camera light blinks red.
Johnny is locked inside 8 million televisions. Every word
is sound turned into light; each syllable, however slurred
or hesitant, a bubble from the fount of truth. He muses:
it’s a pronouncement. He wonders: it’s a proposition.
His inquisitor – all permatan and silver toupee – grins
like the smiler with the knife and, with the world
as witness, slices Johnny paper-thin like Parma ham.
And Johnny, skinned and pinned to the electric wall,
his sorry truths and petty lies still drying under
a studio sun, hides behind his National Steel
and sings the blues:
All the friends I ever had are gone . . .
Johnny as Christ self-crucified . . .
Ecce homo hanging high above the crowd, a Breughel skull
chinning his shoulder. This is the fable of blue veins,
the night sweats, needles and the damage done. No
bolt holes, cavities or accommodating shadows here
in the feasting hall. He’s stripped and pinioned,
spatchcocked like a gamebird and we’re diners at
the banquet. So it is, as ever, at the end of that crooked
path: from adrenaline dream, through days and nights
in which he ran his fingers raw and every inhalation fed
the shower of notes he blew before him, until under
months of a neon sun and a sulphur moon to slip and slide,
peep and hide while the music turned to dust and vapour.
And then one morning just like all the rest, in a white room
a long way from home, Johnny picks one-fingered
at a keyboard: minor C, a steady climb, a two-bar rest,
and four notes down and then a hand-span resolution
wide across the major chord. Da capo then a steady
climb, a two-bar rest and four notes down and then
two hands, settling like wings across the octaves.
Dark outside when Johnny pushes back the chair.
Stars shining silver in a chain. A silence all around
the world. He sleeps and in his dreams that night,
a breve, a semi-breve, a minim, crotchet, quaver, semi-
quaver, linked and shining like a chain of stars. And,
when he wakes into the light, he spans the keyboard,
strides the short walk back towards the crossroads:
I got the key to the highway and I’m billed out
and bound to go. I’m gonna leave here runnin’
‘cause walkin’ is most too slow . . .
Johnny as willing phantom . . .
Even now in age he walks his private pastures like
a man pacing out his own shape in the ground.
He whistles up the dog and climbs the path towards
the Dower House. Security trips the switch: lights
burst against the dark like flowers. Ambushed
by their blooming, Johnny ducks, combat weary from
the paparazzi wars. He punches in the code, pushes
at the Tudor door. An owl hoots in the spinney.
Johnny turns, breathes deep and smiles into the night.
Later, in his room of blues, he reaches down the Gibson
and brushes out 12 bars, unplugged, whispered,
razor-thin, a chanted chorus over and again:
It’s a long lane that’s got no end; it’s a bad wind
that never changes . . .
Initially wooed by the First World War poets and then seduced by the Beats, Dick Jones has been exploring the vast territories in between since the age of fifteen. Work has been published in a number of magazines, print and online, including Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, Poetry Ireland Review, Qarrtsiluni, Westwords, MiPOesias, Three Candles, Other Poetry, Rattlesnake and Ouroboros Review. In 2010 Dick received a Pushcart nomination for his poem Sea Of Stars, and his first collection, Ancient Lights, is published by Phoenicia Publishing and is available from them or via Amazon. Dick also has a blog which can be found here.
As daily occupation he does the school run, the shopping and the cleaning, while his partner earns the money. And for fun and modest profit he plays bass guitar and percussion in a blues roots-and-shoots trio.