We interrupt our normal service to reflect on a personal project. Please switch channel if the thought of a middle-aged non-musician playing the guitar raises issues for you.
Sometime just after my last birthday a year ago I stumbled upon an Oulipo-style challenge, through which to channel my guitar-playing and song-writing habits, both of which are primarily private ones, rather than public or professional in the way of my poetry. Instead of just noodling away, I would try and make 55 pieces, each lasting 55 seconds, whilst I was 55. (I turn 56 this week.) I’d record them on my laptop using Garageband and share on Soundcloud via an altered-ego, Longarmstapler. (Name chosen as a longarmstapler was my first tool of cultural production when I started a poetry magazine.) Bit of everyday creativity, I thought, no pressure, purely relaxation. Rough and simple off-cuts, not hand-woven rugs.
I’m not sure I ever thought ‘that will be fun’ exactly: if I want fun these days I sit down and sing Iris Dement, Dolly and George Jones songs until I’m too blue to carry on. But I did think it would provide a bit of focus and impetus to share them online, just in case the tides should put them in people’s paths.
I mainly simply wanted to make something, the way people who whittle might, purely for its own sake, and I know I’m no good with my hands. I had no musical ulterior motive apart from an excuse to play the guitar, though I have rarely needed an excuse to do that. I had no ambitions other than to make things, probably mainly loops, that pleased me, even it were for tiny things.
I did hope it might give me some writing momentum, as I have found writing to go with music a useful stimulus, and still harbour some small desire to add to my pile of unpublished poems till they reach the ‘Could be another book’ stage of fermentation. I was also interested to see at what point I stopped, and how close to the 55 that might be, given my long-established habit of tricking myself into creativity by this kind of arbitrary subterfuge. This has actually worked, by the way, with some poetry by myself and other upcomers like DH Lawrence and Kenneth Patchen finding its way into the pieces.
Well, my pension statement gets another year closer to its hilarity-induced hernia this week, and I’m pleased if somewhat puzzled that today I actually did reach #55, despite losing a few weeks to illness and a finger wound during lockdown. What did I get from the experience?
Well, I was certainly reminded of the yin and yang of the creative process. The pleasure of playing, practicing and finding new things, ideas and fragments that come from nowhere and grow, of trying to get things right, then better; of finding hours have gone by in close attention, and that whatever worries and fretfulness I had carried into my room had evaporated. The frustration of not getting it right, of the hardness of making anything. The application of effort to something that others might think ephemeral, fragile, or worse. How having ideas leads to having more ideas, about all sorts of things, and in all parts of life.
During the pandemic that kicks in around #17 – #14 was a homage to one of my guitar heroes, Andy Gill of Gang of Four, who is now thought to have perhaps been an early victim of Covid-19 – having something else to think about that was not that, or family, or work has been helpful to my equilibrium. Paying attention is a powerful tool. I’m not even sure it matters to what. Music is in many ways similar to the consolation cooking provides for me, the main difference being that whilst I find it impossible to remain angry or anxious with a large knife in my hand and vegetables to prepare, a guitar will let me wrestle feelings more viscerally but doesn’t always rid me of them.
The pieces are in a frankly nonsensical range of attempted styles, and lack the coherence a serious musical project would need. It’s whatever I felt like at the time. Sometimes I wanted to be PJ Harvey, sometimes Gillian Welch. At Xmas I fancy-dressed as John Fahey, lord forgive me. Sometimes noisier than others, sometimes quieter. You can probably tell what I was listening to around the time of each piece.
A few people who know about singing said some nice things about my voice which made me more confident as the project went on about sharing some actual songs, albeit short ones. (My favourite comparisons: ‘John Martyn meets the Fall’, ‘Country Durutti’ and ‘Crazy Horse meets the Go-Betweens’.) Though I wasn’t sharing things so lots of people would listen to them, it was gratifying and encouraging to get that feedback, and it reminded me of the hardness of the road proper artists who do this seriously travel in pursuit of people’s attention. (At times most of my ‘listens’ were from Ukrainian bots…) I suspect there’ve been some people wondering why I was embarrassing myself, but hey ho. Just watch this space for the Formerly Red Haired Strangers when this pandemic world fades away and see how I can offend against good taste.
I recorded the last one, #55 yesterday. It contains a tiny private musical joke which only copyright made me hint at. Listening to the whole sequence, it feels a bit like a shadow diary of the last year. Certainly some of the lyrics recently reflect lockdown moods and landscapes. Doing something creative every day can do that for you.
Mainly I take away some sense of a- & be-musement at how time can be passed, like someone looking up from a sketchbook and realising it’s nearly dark, and then turning the big light on and drawing some more.
You can, should be so inclined, or simply wanted to make me happy, have a listen here: https://soundcloud.com/longarmstapler/sets/55-seconds
This is a selection for people who like vocals in songs: https://soundcloud.com/longarmstapler/sets/55-second-songs
And this is one if you prefer the ambient and instrumental: https://soundcloud.com/longarmstapler/sets/55-seconds-ambient
If I had to pick a favourite right now it’s probably #46, one of the cheats that lasts 3 minutes and 55 seconds.
Back to the usual cultural stuff soon, I promise, with a blog brewing about the new book ‘Culture is Bad For You’. Some might feel what I’ve just said is evidence of that too, but I’d disagree: ambient (grand)dad rock ain’t noise pollution!