A Drover By Trade

Armed with a trusty, tolerant rhythm section (Stu Harwood: drums; Tom Healy:bass), the type of hunger for gigs that not having performed in a few months cultivates, and hopefully not too much ill-judged stage banter, I’ll be heading south for a few dates with fellow Auckland-based band Paquin in early July. (Incidentally, Paquin is the music project of the aforementioned Tom Healy, also feat. Mister Harwood on drums, but a decidedly different musical beast from my own).

I have discovered far too many great poems for my own good lately, and I can’t resist sharing a few. They are all far older than me (apart from that last link – who says I only read dead white males?).
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Hey, I was thinking the other day: imagine if someone wrote a poem in 2012, and it wasn’t set to beats or music, and it had no b.s video,  and it still went viral !

Anyway. . . . aside from glutting out on great writers, I’ve spent the last month or so reminding myself how one goes about finishing a song. It’s now blindingly clear to me why Nick Cave tries to “never stop”. Starting really is the hardest part- but what satisfaction would there be if it was always as effortless as we seem to remember it was? (Yes- there is this tendency to forget just how long it took to finish something once it’s actually done and dusted. This type of faulty recollection tends to start occurring about the same time the work is finally released, and interview questions elicit such suspicious answers as “That song just kind of happened.”) I think a few helpful little trails of memory have finally emerged. Contrary to the literary focus of this post, listen out for the new instrumental track, tentatively titled “I am far too superstitious to offer up any tentative titles”, at upcoming gigs.

A few words of music criticism  (ok, let’s just say ‘some thoughts’) I wanted to offer on a song I’ve spent a bit of quality time with of late: Drover by Bill Callahan.

“The real people went away
But I’ll find a better word someday
Leaving only me and my dreams
My cattle and a resonator”

This  bewildering set of lines and images in the first verse, that seemed on first listen only tenuously linked at best,  bore all the hallmarks of what tends to make a great metaphor in song. It refuses to conform to any kind of easy symbolic blueprint, but aided and abetted by the music it evokes something for you.  You feel it inside you but it vanishes when you try to pin it down or talk about it. Or God Forbid, write about it. So you end up just spinning the record again. And again. And again. The strange thing is that Drover grew less elusive, yet all the more intriguing, when it suddenly struck me that the writer had quite possibly written a song about songwriting.

I’ll admit it was an interview  I read that influenced my perception of the song.  Callahan begged off the notion that his music had become more “outward looking,” saying  of the song in question: “The cattle in that song are things inside you, so I suppose it’s about corralling the emotions.” I never like it when you need to read an interview to pick up on what the writer was bloody-well on about,  but having developed imminent faith in Mister C. over the years, I went back to the song assuming I’d missed something, and I found this:

“For I am in the end a drover
A drover by trade
 

I won’t say my jaw dropped, but some kind of equivalent occurred in my mind. What we were dealing with here, it now seemed to me, was a slow-unfurling  homeric simile about the psychic ups and downs of practicing songcraft  (Ok so if we’re being sticklers then technically we’re talking about a metaphor in this case, but you get where I’m headed with this). It was now fully plausible to read “resonator” from the opening lines quoted above as guitar. Callahan has employed this form of writing before – most notably in All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast (with its great opening lines: “The leafless tree looked like a brain/The birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me”).

 

In Drover  the writer imbues the process of navigating and sifting through ones thoughts and emotions (“this wild country” as he calls it) for the sake of the song with all the tension and drama of a psychological thriller. The process can hurt you:

“It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind”

isolate you:

“The real people went away”

leaving you sweet f. all with which to console yourself:

“But I’ll find a better word”

It can disorientate you, even to the point of the past and present blurring:

“And when my cattle turns on me
I was knocked back flat”

But the challenge, the thrill of the chase if we’re being really honest, is why one bothers at all:

“And anything less, anything less
Makes me feel like I’m wasting my time”

Lots of Bill Callahan’s work has utilised the type of images (the river, the well, the wheel) that eastern religious tomes are steeped in (which of course means by default imagery that western religious tomes are steeped in, but that’s a whole other discussion/way to freak out the fundamentalists), and when the band drops out after the first chorus, leaving nothing but slow-decaying tremulous guitar fuzz and a lone fiddle, he intones a couplet whose philosophy, the idea of disarming ones most troubling thoughts by disowning them, is decidedly taoist :

“But the pain and frustration, is not mine
It belongs to the cattle, through the valley”

The song spends most of its time in slow-build mode, occasionally coming as close as you’ll ever get to a traditional musical climax in Callahan’s music, but never quite erupting (well, I’m presuming you don’t count “lively flute, bird-like, enters the mix at 4 mins 16 secs” as erupting). Whether it be a fade out into nothing but guitar feedback, or a fade back in via an eerie percussive clock-tick, it’s always with the same sense of creeping inevitability. The singer offers a steadfast declaration of strength in the midst of the minds tyranny, in the midst of one such almost-climax:

“When my cattle turns on me
I am a drover, double fold”

It’s breathtakingly understated, and all the more defiant for it. The thing is you can have it many ways with this song. It should be fairly obvious how self-serving my own take on it is (though I will defend it to the death dear reader!)  For my interpretation to be water-tight one has to read “a drover by trade” as autobiographical, and we all know what thin ice that contention will always be walking on.  Now look here – I always get this twinge (let’s call it the “I think you might be a wee bit full of shit” twinge)  when a songwriter starts harping on about “ambiguity” and “leaving it up to the listener to decide.”  It’s not that these notions aren’t valid. It’s just that most of the writers who trot out such tired defence mechanisms when asked about meaning don’t seem to have much of anything to say. But:  the multitude of possible interpretations is real in the case of this song, and it is borne of the writer’s poetic sensitivity to every word he is singing.  For me it’s this constant sensitivity merging with hard-won, unflinching emotional cognition that makes Bill Callahan one of the more rewarding artists to be following through the valleys and many, many peaks of his chosen trade.  A song like this reminds one why the time it must have taken to finish the damn thing might just be worth the frustration.