And Now The Present Bristles With Difficulty

(Or “The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”) 

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My father will always remember being at the Dargaville Racing Club on the day the President got shot in the head. The way he tells it the news broke over the loudspeakers and echoed around the grandstand. The echoes slowly dissipated into silence, and out of the silence slowly emerged the kind of chatter that doesn’t so much want to communicate as simply put an end to the silence.

Thirty-one years later my father had settled in Auckland with his wife and three children. I was sixteen years old and reaching the end of my secondary education – a dayboy at Sacred Heart College where Dad had boarded many years earlier. I was at school on a Sunday for the annual fair when I heard some news that I would come to remember in the same way Dad always remembered that day at the racetrack. News forever framed by where I was, and who I was with, when I heard it.

My friends and I had strayed from the school fair and its attendant raffles, stalls, preserves, hand-me-down clothing, and adults. We were sitting on an empty field behind the squash courts. A boy named Matt tells the rest of us what he’d heard on the car radio as his father drove him to the fair. “He didn’t even wait till I got to see him play,” snickers Matt, deadpan beyond his years and devoid of sympathy. No loudspeakers. No echo. News that didn’t so much break as just fall in your lap. An odd way for an epiphany to land. And I do mean epiphany. The first compact disc I had ever paid money for was Nevermind and this was my first rock and roll suicide.

“The guy put a bullet in his brain,” Dad said as he drove me home that afternoon, his voice full of indignation and devoid of sympathy. It pissed me off because I couldn’t see what I can see now. The line between sympathy and empathy for a rock and roll suicide could be thin for an impressionable teenager. My father hoped that he could thicken that line up a little if he put enough indignation in his voice. He was trying to protect me.

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If I’m being fair then I should probably give a good portion of the credit for me still being here to my father, but sometimes I like to think the actual reason I’m still here is that I have an equally clear memory of another musical epiphany – one of less cause for fatherly concern. I had not only left school by this point, but had completed an arts degree. Predictably enough, I was now working the retail trade. I had a day job at Borders Books and Music.

I will always remember being at my workmates flat in Grey Lynn when I first heard a band called the Mountain Goats. Matt (a different Matt) and I were drinking Sapporo, a beer I have never paid money for since, and he was spinning me records he thought I needed to hear. Of all the music he played me that night it was the Mountain Goats that hit me the hardest – in the gut, in the heart and in the head all at once. At work the next day, being deeply in thrall to that have-to-have-it-now music collector tendency that certain of my friends and I now call “the sickness”, I ordered two of their albums through the notoriously slow Borders Special Orders service (which I was in sole charge of for a number of the eighteen months that my retail career lasted.) One was called Sweden and the other was Full Force Galesburg. When they finally arrived both albums boasted liner notes as lyrically rich and brimming over with illustrious energy as the songs themselves. Whoever was behind this stuff was not a rocker – was not a star. There was no photo of the singer and he was even apologetic about putting his name beside the copyright symbol. Amidst the poetic prose and actually-fun-to-read album credits of the Galesburg notes there was a quote from the prison diary of Ho Chi Minh.

I am a straightforward man, with no crime on my conscience,
But I was accused of being a spy for China.
So life, you see, is never a very smooth business,
And now the present bristles with difficulty.

And now the present bristles with difficulty. I loved how that sounded.

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Full Force Galesburg is an album riddled with urgency. The singer seems to be in a hurry to get the words out whilst he still has time left on earth

I try and tell you secrets ’til my face turns blue
I am not getting through to you

Suspicion and uncertainty are the engines it runs on.

Breath rising and falling, expansion and contraction
Why’d you tell me this, were you looking for my reaction?

Which seems a little rich coming from this album given it doesn’t always know how straight it wants to be with you itself.

Most of June I spent in jail again
I don’t mean jail exactly

The natural world threatens to bear down on these songs, or at least, that’s how the natural world is perceived – as a threat.

You were lying in the moonlight outside in the grass
When I heard an animal voice somewhere in the dark
And I saw a wing shadow pass

And, with the singer’s old-fashioned preference for perfect rhymes keeping all these images as entwined with each other, as shoulder-to-shoulder as possible, the natural world threatens to bear down on his memories.

I thought a little while about you
The sky was a petrifying blue

This album often feels trapped in a state of perpetual astonishment, unable to let its gaze linger on any one image or idea for too long.

 Squirrels climbing trees in bloom
Soft yellow light spilling into the room
My favorite records, my favorite books
The people i loved, the people i almost loved
Light beckoning, wind whistling
Hey hey hey hey

As beautiful a pile up of imagery as this is, I can’t help but see beneath it a little of what used to be called dread but is now called anxiety. Or to be more charitable, one form of self-protection in a world that is never quite what it seems is to never allow oneself to point in the same direction for too long. After all, the less time you focus on one thing the less chance it has to disappoint you. Furthermore, the least agitated and most thematically focused song on this album, a song about a snow owl suddenly appearing on a branch outside the singer’s window, ends with a confounded perception.

Thought I saw a mouse kicking in your beak
It was only a skeleton

And so it is with love.

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These songs hang on to dear life for dear life – if by life you mean love, and if by love you mean an inability to let the past become the past.

I, I wanna follow you all the way down this time
I want to see what it is you’re going down for
I, I want you more than I want anything
I want you the way you were

To the point where the present is rendered a place of exile.

This is an empty country, and I am the king
And I should not be allowed to touch anything

Despite all his yearning for an old love to be the way it was, one gets the impression that the singer actually found “the way it was” pretty darn unlivable.

I used to love you so much that I was sure it would kill me

With its sun-struck, awe-struck lyrics about the inability of people to bear it when those ancient, sweet, bitter feelings well up inside of them; with its acoustic guitar that does admittedly get strummed, but also gets the shit beaten out of it; with its cassette deck wheel grind as interminable as the indifference of nature, Full Force Galesburg is the sound of someone striving to stay in the moment, even though the moment is long gone.

On the day that I become so forgetful
That all of this melts away
I will burn all the calendars that counted the years down
To such a worthless day

Many songs in this world arise from the sadness of remembered happiness. Not quite so many from the madness of remembered bliss.

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I’ve been back in Auckland for some years after a three-and-a-half year sojourn in Dunedin. I’m older than my father was when I was born but I don’t yet have a wife or children. I am not yet settled down. I’m in the basement of the central city library working a different-but-the-same day job. I’m trying not to sneeze. Setting aside books that people have requested for loan. Taking out my lack of sleep on many an anonymous library patron whose choice of reading material I am finding decidedly wanting for decidedly wanting reasons. I’m winding my way through the nine-twenties when I glimpse the words prison diary on a slim, faded book spine.

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Sometime in 1940 a Vietnamese revolutionary leader changed his name to Ho Chi Mihn. Nguyen Sinh Cung’s new name combined the common Vietnamese surname ‘Ho’ with a given name that means “he who has been enlightened.” His Prison Diary collects the poems he wrote whilst in captivity in China for 18 months from August 1942. So as to not attract the suspicion of his jailers, he wrote his poems exclusively in their language.

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The Prison Diary alluded to in the liner notes of my most played to death album of 2000 exhales a long sigh. It watches quietly as the sun travels behind the roof, and the shadows cast by the prison bars slowly, soundlessly, shift across the cell. Perhaps because it has few other choices, the Diary knows well the art of making do.

For prisoners, there is no alcohol or flowers,
But the night is so lovely, how can we celebrate it?
I go to the air-hole and stare up at the moon,
And through the air-hole the moon smiles at the poet. 

Even when the poet is dragging a ball and chain long miles during a transfer to another prison, this quietly optimistic, philosophical tone remains.

Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs,
All over the mountain I hear the song of birds,
And the forest is filled with the perfume of spring-flowers.
Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these,
Which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?

The diary has that sense of paradox often found in the perennial wisdom literature of the East.

Having climbed over steep mountains and high peaks,
how should I expect on the plains to meet greater danger?
In the mountains, I met the tiger and come (sic) out unscathed:
On the plains, I encountered men, and was thrown into prison.

Its irony is the naturally occurring cosmological irony of the real world.

Outside the jail, people who gamble are arrested,
But once inside the jail, they can gamble just as they like.

The poet exudes humility, spending more consecutive lines feeling sympathy for the working conditions of the road menders he passes en route to a new prison than he ever does on his own plight. On occasion he is able to disappear himself and his prison out of a poem entirely.

Wearily to the wood the birds fly seeking rest.
Across the empty sky a lonely cloud is drifting.
Far away in a mountain village, a young girl grinds out maize.

This is not to imply that the poems repress hard feelings. They allow themselves to mourn the lack of a reason for what has happened, but they never reach for that reason. They give vent to anger and sorrow, but not in a self-perpetuating manner. Like the album, the diary asks questions. Unlike the album, it doesn’t demand answers. These questions are for the most part rhetorical – spoken so as to be released.

Free spirits haunting the sky of liberty,
Do you know your own kind are languishing in prison? 

The setting may be exotic to most readers but the poems point to a possible answer for ageless, worldwide questions. How does one remain hopeful in the midst of sorrow and solitude without reaching for hope? How does one preserve precious things without getting precious? The poems manage to bear their own introspection because they are not so naïve as to think that patience is merely a virtue. They know that patience is a state of mind. Even to call it “perseverance” seems to inflect it with a little too much calculated drama – a little too much reaching – because those times when the poet is having to try, when he is giving vent to anger, are the times when one feels he is leaving himself most vulnerable.

Habit. Repetition. These are the tools of escape. Waiting on the other side of the bars is a still mind.

Without the cold and desolation of winter
There could not be the warmth and splendour of spring.
Calamity has tempered and hardened me
And turned my mind to steel.

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“We all have our prisons,” a film buff friend of mine named David, whom I also worked with at Borders, once said to me. He was trying to impress upon me the universal quality of one of his favourite films – Robert Bresson’s 
A Man Escaped. When thinking on why the Prison Diary speaks to me as a fellow human rather than an exotic stranger I can’t help but think of that Bresson film, which as it happens is set in 1943 – the same year Ho Chi Minh got out of prison.

By virtue of its lack of dramatic dialogue, its lack of conventional “action” scenes, and the recurring use of a quote of its own (a musical quote – the Kyrie from Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor), Bresson’s film begins to transcend the physical prison on the screen if you allow it to. Let yourself fall in with the film’s rhythms and your expectations as a viewer will start to evolve. You will stop reaching for things that aren’t there. Bresson leaves so much narrative space free in his films that your own life is allowed to fill it. Like a genie returning to the bottle. Now it is your own reflection you see on the screen. The bars of the cell are those things holding you back from what you swore nothing would ever hold you back from. Like the diary, it speaks for the plights of the mind and the spirit, which are the same plight, in a world that would keep turning without you.

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Striving not to struggle – the struggle not to strive. Where these two temptations meet. A line between them as thin as the line between sympathy and empathy. That is where these works of art exist. Their differences come from the ways in which they choose to cope with being there. The Diary knows this. So does the film. The album doesn’t want to.

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Until I had read the Prison Diary I always assumed that Full Force Galesburg was aligning itself with the diaries hardships. “I too bristle with difficulty” it seemed to insinuate. I was wrong. That quote was put there because Ho Chi Minh’s poetic tone, and thus his way of life in the midst of hardship, was one to aspire to.

Eight years and five albums on from Full Force Galesburg the Mountain Goats wrote some songs whose subject matter stretched way back beyond the beginning of the band and deep into their own uncomfortable past. On The Sunset Tree the singer finally let himself sing of a prison he’d learnt something of as a child – the prison of domestic violence.  Gone was the wheel grind, gone was the furious hammering on the resonator, and gone was any sense of needing to cover ones poetic tracks. Whereas the Galesburg liner notes declare its songs to be about what made one particular intimate moment “either possible or inevitable, depending on how you look at it,” The Sunset Tree simply states its songs to have been “Made possible by my stepfather.” The agitation and nervous energy of the past is not entirely dispensed with, but the balance has shifted. It had to. This time around the way of life exemplified in the prison diary was not to be merely aspired to if the singer was to going to survive birthing these songs.

(“This is a hard song for John to play” speaks the singer, before performing the song Lion’s Teeth on a solo-acoustic, boom box-recorded, available-on-tour-only, alternative version of The Sunset Tree entitled Come, Come to the Sunset Tree.)

I wonder if the singer remembers where he was when he heard the news that I did on that empty school field on the day of the school fair. Either way, he felt compelled to give voice to the event on The Sunset Tree. On a song that tells us as calmly as possible that love not only creates but also destroys, a song in which he disappears himself from the narrative, the singer alludes to my first rock and roll suicide with the gentle acceptance found in the most grounded of the prison diary poems, and with what I imagine to be a certain amount of unspoken empathy for the subject of these four lines and his heavily documented childhood.

And way out in Seattle, young Kurt Cobain
Snuck out to the greenhouse, put a bullet in his brain
Snakes in the grass beneath our feet, rain in the clouds above
Some moments last forever, but some flair out with love, love, love.

The final song on the album allows itself to recall the occasional sense of companionship that could still exist between the singer and the man who made the album possible. They would sometimes go to the racetrack together. Nature doesn’t bear down on this song the way it did on songs eight years before. Here it is a slowly emerging solace rather than a dazzling threat.

We parked behind the paddock, cracking asphalt underfoot
And coming up through the cracks
Pale green things
Pale green things

The singer’s memories no longer seem to possess him so much as to be in his possession.

My sister called at 3 a.m. just last December
She told me that you’d died at last, at last
And that morning at the racetrack was one thing I remembered
I turned it over in my mind, like a living Chinese finger trap

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I also remember hearing Carl Craig that night at Matt’ flat. I remember hearing Beat Happening and quite possibly the Get Up Kids. I remember boxes of poetry and I remember Matt saying he had once been very serious about becoming a poet. I remember the wooden floors. I remember the crush I instantly developed on one of his flatmates when her enigmatic presence hovered briefly at Matt’s bedroom door to say hello before floating down the hallway. Or was that the next time I visited. I don’t remember. I remember finally being a little under the influence of Sapporo and dialling a taxi to come and take me home, and I remember how the sound of the voice on the other end of the phone was not as loud as Matt’s. He had suddenly run down the hallway to catch me before it was too late.

“Simon! You can’t leave yet! I’ve just realised I haven’t played you Half Japanese!”

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Reciting verses has not been one of my habits,
But now in prison what else have I to do?
These captive days I’ll spend in writing poems,
And, singing these, bring nearer the day of freedom.