Sunday, June 24, 2007

Two Slightly Distorted Guitars: An Exercise in Time Travel

What was it that led me, this afternoon, as I dusted and swept and vacuumed up the builders' dust, to play Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells at top volume? I'd bought this CD a few months ago, in the middle of the summer of radiotherapy, as part of Joel's musical education, and I remember then lying on the couch in nostalgic rapture at its melodrama. Even though I knew it was coming, I was still blown away by Vivian Stanshall's sonorous voice as the Master of Ceremonies announcing the instruments, from the proud "Mandolin" to the enigmatic "Two Slightly Distorted Guitars" and then finally the triumphant "Tubular Bells". At the time I was struck by the music's affinities with things like Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Ravel's Bolero, or even Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf; as the instruments each made their distinctive entrance.

Today, though, this music has done different work for me, of a slightly odd kind. I had actually been planning to blog, today, about the winter solstice just gone. It has been the year's midnight, though not St Lucie's day, and after several days of low-lying cloud, today dawned crisp and blue. The birds along the creek this morning (blue wrens, willy wagtails, bellbirds, honey-eaters, cormorants, ducks of various kinds, and also the bright blue kingfisher I saw yesterday) have been making as if it were spring, and I was going to blog about the odd seasonal effect of seeing baby cormorants — small, pink, and grey, but with that distinctive head movement back and forwards — in the middle of winter. Whose day is it, if not Lucy's? Philip hasn't updated his journal so I can't tell yet, and that's the nicest way I know to find out, so I'm not going to google it...*

But instead of thinking about the seasons, I'm thinking about the years; and in particular, 1973, the year Mike Oldfield cut this first version of Tubular Bells, to become Virgin Records' first production. At this time I was living in London with my family, attending Barking Abbey Comprehensive School, studying for my O-levels. Yes folks, an Essex girl at heart (thanks to DW for this reference!). I remember being intrigued every time I entered one of my friends' houses and stepped into their tiny kitchens (small by our luxurious Australian standards): there was always chocolate or sweets lying around. To my shame, I can also remember taking a long time to realise that the people who lived in small council flats weren't just living there temporarily... It was the era of speckled, textured wallpaper; coarse shetland wool jumpers; the heyday of Steeleye Span and Genesis; and we were given the day off school to watch Princess Anne's wedding. Because I was exotically Australian, I got to hang out with some of the older A-level students (did we call them the lower 6th? quite possibly), and I remember being invited to someone's flat to listen to Tubular Bells when it first came out. I bought my own copy and played and played it.

This music has been sampled over and over, for the Exorcist, for Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope and some other track recently I can't recall. Oldfield didn't seem able to leave it alone, either. If you look it up on the iTunes library, it's worse than trying to sort out the manuscripts and versions of Piers Plowman.

As I listened today I thought about those small apartments as I cleaned up our comfortable house. I thought about Liz at Spinning Tumor who has just had to sell her house to pay for cancer treatment, and the difference that a half-way reasonable national health care system makes.

It's been a weekend where I haven't worked much, in line with my new resolution. So I read (pace P's Cat) one of the stories in Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver's new MUP Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction, drawn to William Hay's "An Australian Rip Van Winkle" (after Carolyn Dinshaw's paper on the original story and medieval temporalities at NCS last year) and thought about the gothic haunting of the Australian landscape, and the relation between the medieval and the gothic, and the various translations of time and space that structure both those modes, in this hemisphere, and the other.

This afternoon it clouded over again, but we headed off on our bikes to ride along the Merri and then the Yarra, past ghostly river gums and steep cliffs, down to Dights Falls, where I remembered that last summer, about the time I bought my CD, a girl had been killed and left by this junction of the two rivers, not far from where Joel was playing cricket with the under 12s. There were still a few flowers and memorials left at the spot, and all I could think of was Raymond Carver's "So Much Water", Jindabyne, and Paul Kelly's "Everything's Turning to White" - another example of cultural translatio from the US to Australia? We then rode past the "Protectorate Station" where William Thomas in 1843 used to distribute rations and teach school and religious classes to Aboriginal people. For a brief history of this park and some old photographs, go here.

The last thread in this network of music and time was the episode of the British TV drama "Life on Mars" we watched. We missed the first few, but the premise seems to be that a policeman is injured and falls into a coma, but in his mind he is transported back to Manchester in 1973. In this episode, a man who worked as a caretaker in the newspaper building had taken the journalists hostage: a quick search of his small council flat showed he had medievalist delusions of heroism and chivalry: like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, someone said.

Is this what happens when I give myself the day off from the computer? that threads and allusions, times and seasons come out to play like this?

Where were you in 1973? Or, for the young paduans who don't go back this far, what music *does* take you back like this?

*Update: June 21 was St Aloysius's day. Not that I expect the Christian year to map onto the seasonal one; in fact it's interesting to see how it doesn't, particularly. Or at least, not in this hemisphere.

12 comments:

Philip said...

It's still the festival of St. John the Baptist here, Stephanie - I'll be off to mass soon for the local congregation's patronal feast before, um, jumping into the Seine.

This was a beautiful post.

Ampersand Duck said...

I remember where I was in 1973, but not what I was doing (youngster). However, I did spend part of the weekend listening to my vinyl of Tubular Bells, so SNAP! I'm undecided about buying it on CD -- turning it over is such a ritual.

Life on Mars is excellent. It's the first cop drama I've watched for years; I lost my taste for them through overkill. I don't understand our obsession with crime and death, but I like this twisty tale.

Lovely post, thanks.

Elsewhere007 said...

Crikey -- Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells , that's a blast from the past!

I remember TB mainly because a friend's boyfriend forced (yes, that's the only appropriate word) it on our shared household and then again on my C21st celebrations, in the way of male music monopolisation. I probably still have a casette copy of the album somewhere.

In 1973 I would have been in second grade, in Miss Clinche's class, probably huddled around a gas heater.

ThirdCat said...

In 1973, Tubular Bells was my mother's. My musical memories from that time are all like that. Let it Be was a favourite. And Leonard Cohen of course. Goodness knows what that might have done to my young brain.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Philip: great, I've now got the link for the solstice and for the day you read. I'm always going to be half a day ahead of you, of course.

&Duck: SNAP!! thou art the woman!! (also, know what you mean about the TV violence. I barely made it through the first episode of the Sopranos, and couldn't persist with it because I was always expecting someone's head to be blown off, even though I could see it was fabulous in lots of other ways)

Elsewhere: yeah, and it's hard to take just a little sound bite of it, too. It's a real "sit down and listen to my music" kind of thing. I see Oldfield was 19 when he recorded it.

Stephanie Trigg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pavlov's Cat said...

"Is this what happens when I give myself the day off from the computer? that threads and allusions, times and seasons come out to play like this?"

Yes.

Gorgeous post.

I love that Hay story. Have they put John Lang's 'Music A Terror' in?

Stephanie Trigg said...

No. Lang is given "The Ghost Upon the Rail". Some of the stories are classics, like Praed's "Bunyip" and Clarke's "The Mystery of Major Molineux"; others less familiar, to me at least. Lawson, Fortune, Baynton, Gaunt and Prichard all get a guernsey, and it's great to see so much of this stuff in print.

Another conjunction: Raymond Carver first published that story in 1977, only four years off my year...

Philip said...

Regarding your update, Stephanie -

St. Aloysius is the patron of young people as well as those who suffer from HIV, so going back in time on his feast day wasn't so hagiographically out of tempo...

Suse said...

In 1973 I was in Grade 4, a class in which I learnt my times tables and how to play chess but not much else.

Lovely lovely post.

Suse said...

Oh! I tell a lie. I also learnt how to spin, both on a spindle and a spinning wheel.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Spinning is way cool: I'm impressed...

Another update, too: I was interviewed by Coast FM (Sunshine Coast ABC radio) on Thursday about the blog and the essay that had been syndicated in the Brisbane Times; and the excellent Trevor Jackson played the last movement of Tubular Bells as the musical interlude halfway through the interview. Wonderful!