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Monday, 8 August 2011

Songs in the key of Griff: You Are The Everything

As with my last 'Songs in the key of Griff' piece, which you can read 'here', this one is prompted by one of Gordon's blog entries; in this case his latest piece, in which he wrote about his moment of epiphany during our recent trip to Portencross.
Our trip to Portencross was, as Gordon has correctly recalled, something of a turning-point for us all, and I came to that realisation on the Sunday evening following when Gordon texted me to, more or less, ask after my 'spiritual' well-being. Now, I've known Gordon for a great many years and during all this time he has been a convinced, even aggressive, atheist, so this line of enquiry was unexpected to say the least. It seems, however, that the beauty of Portencross had stirred something deep within him that he felt the need to acknowledge in an, at least quasi-, spiritual way.

Now I must confess at this point, that I started my own long, slow march down from the fixed position of atheism a couple of years ago. It's fair to say that, like many people who are interested in the arts, especially poetry and music, I recognise and appreciate the sublime when I see/hear it and I suppose that I've always been susceptible to some form of 'spiritual' aspect to existence. Strangely, however, it was my continued study of physics that finally did for my atheism when I began to suspect that the reality that the science could describe was an approximation of something more profound and, crucially, more mysterious. In short, the deeper I went into the physics the more I began to see parallels with mystic explanations of the fundamental nature of reality, such as Taoism.

Now, this recognition of the relevance of mysticism didn't really frighten me, as I have long been an enthusiast of the Romantic era poets, particularly Blake and Wordsworth. These two, with their insistence on the pursuit of communion with an ultimate reality or spiritual truth through intuition and instinct and, in paticular, through the direct experience of Nature, have inspired hill-walkers the world over to look a little deeper; and I suppose I had more and more began to see the world refracted through the lens of their insight. And, in doing so, I began to intuitively experience, fleetingly and superficially, the sort of transcendence that Wordsworth describes so well in 'Lines Written In early Spring', 'The Tables Turned' or 'Tintern Abbey'. When I took myself out (as I increasingly did) onto the hills, lochs and moors of Scotland I began to hope for moments like these; moments of supreme well-being and contentedness. As Wordsworth puts it:

‘That serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, -
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep powers of joy,
We see into the life of things.’

OK, I hope you don't think that I've gone all 'new-age' on you here, and I'm certainly not about to convert to any of the big 'axis' religions (Islam, Judaism, Christianity) but, I've got to say that sometimes, like that day at Portencross, I feel that there is a deeper or more fundamental state of existence beneath the observable, day-to-day world of phenomena, and that in fact the ordinary world is superficial or epiphenomenal. Who knows? Perhaps, as time goes, on I'll get crazier still and begin to see visions like William Blake. Maybe I'll have the full-blown 'Auguries of Innocence' experience?:

'To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.'

If I do, then I'll be in good company because the song I want to write about tonight is a song that acknowledges the sorts of experience that I've so far mentioned. And, more than that, the lyric is written in an oblique and implied manner that catches perfectly the nature of the feelings conveyed in the song. So, what's the song? It is 'You Are The Everything' by R.E.M. This is track 3 from REM's greatest album, 1988's 'Green',and I can still recall my eager purchase of that record on the day of its release. After hurrying home to slap it on the turntable I listened without interruption or conversation to the entire work and, to this day, it remains one of my best loved and most evocative records. But for me, the greatest track of all, on an album of great tracks, is 'You Are The Everything'. The music is wonderful, of course, and marked a turning point for R.E.M. away from rock to a folkier sound. In fact, 'You Are The Everything' marks the first use of the mandolin on any R.E.M. recording. But it was the lyric that really struck me; this is stream of consciousness poetry that's so irrational it makes the most sense of anything you've ever heard. This is how we think before we form our feelings into sentences. It's an existential masterpiece that instantly transports the listener back to their own childhood and somehow provides some kind of solace.

So how does it tie in to our Portencross trip? Well, it's because the song, like the trip, takes us into the world of the mystic. Much like poetry (or lyrics), the words of mystics are often idiosyncratic and esoteric. They can seem confusing and opaque, simultaneously over-simplified and full of subtle meanings hidden from the unenlightened. To the mystic, however, they are pragmatic statements, without subtext or weight; simple obvious truths of experience. One of the more famous lines from the Tao Te Ching, for instance, reads:

'My words are very easy to know, and very easy to practice;
but there is no one in the world who is able to know and able to practice them.'

And now, here are the lyrics to 'You Are The Everything', a song that evokes such strong feelings in so many people but which ostensibly makes no sense:

Sometimes I feel like I can't even sing
I'm very scared for this world,
I'm very scared for me,
Eviscerate your memory,
Here's a scene, you're in the back seat laying down,
The windows wrap around to the sound,
of the travel and the engine.
All you hear is time stand still in travel,
You feel such peace and absolute,
The stillness still that doesn't end but slowly drifts into sleep,
The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen,
And they're there for you,
For you alone, you are the everything.

I think about this world a lot,
and I cry, and I've seen the films and the eyes,
But I'm in this kitchen,
Everything is beautiful and she is so beautiful,
She is so young and old.
I look at her and I see the beauty of the light of music,
The voices talking somewhere in the house
late spring,
and you're drifting off to sleep,
with your teeth in your mouth.
You are here with me, you are here with me,
You have been here and you are everything.

Perfect! Beautiful! Now here's the song (unfortunately only available live):

No free download of this, I'm afraid, as I suspect we'd have Warner Bros. on our asses if we did. However, I hate to send you away empty handed. So, in lieu of a song, here's a link to Wordsworth's complete poetical works, and Blake's fantastic online archive of illustrations, prose and poetry too can be found 'here'. Also, below are links to three good and freely downloadable translations of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.

The Tolbert McCarroll translation

Peter Merel's interpolation

and, The sometimes illuminating, sometimes amusing, ultra-modern Ron Hogan translation



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