How do you feel about cultural comfort food? About the ‘guilty pleasure’? As they’re commonly used, the terms connote a certain uncoolness, that the culture isn’t ‘difficult’ or capable of providing long-term sustenance. Have you been consuming more of such things in 2020? If so, let’s strip the guilt away, first of all. There are better things to probe your conscience about than marathon rewatches of Bake-Off. If the book you’re reading is good comfort food, then hooray for that book – it provided you with comfort. Well done, book.
I’d hoped to be sharing music with you now, or sooner, but for prosaic tech reasons, that’s impossible. (My 10-year-old Mac is, I think, a zombie. So a new computer is needed before work on my album can continue, and, well, I’ve been away and then uprooting from Bristol to the Devon coast so am still combing the reviews to ensure I end up with an investment rather than a costly bauble.) Thus! I will share with you the things that have given me pleasure, but no guilt; that have yielded feelings of comfort while life’s been in boxes.
P.S. on comfort food: I’ve been so well-behaved and resisted extending the metaphor. But Uber Eats just emailed me with the subject line ‘Don’t fancy cooking Michael?’ and the missing comma tickled me.
BBC iPlayer – Imagine… 2020: This House Is Full of Music
Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a bit of a superstar. You have every reason to be envious of such a skilled cellist, even before you realise he’s an MBE born in 1999. Get over it. Here we see him make music at home in Nottingham during lockdown – the remarkable thing is that he’s doing so along with his six siblings, each gifted on at least one stringed instrument, each gracious and unique. We get Chopin nocturnes, arrangements of songs from Bob Marley to Fiddler on the Roof, and no ruddy Elgar… and it’s one of the most sheerly joyful things I’ve watched recently.
It’s a puzzle, of a sort that’s most fun if you don’t try to crack it. It’s somehow a sitcom, in which our main characters’ relationships stay unchanged. There will be some insufferable rich people and lovely art-deco set dressing, and Hastings will at some point say “Good Lord”. It is a great comfort to watch this incarnation of the Belgian detective, although there are on average two murders per episode. Largely because Agatha Christie could write, and David Suchet is reliably fantastic at bringing this conceited gourmand to life, with the dramatic clout to make his scripts a hymn to deductive reasoning, and sometimes to give the whole thing a moral centre.
To choose my episode, I often use this handy overview of the entire series, taking care to skim the descriptions (which can contain the odd spoiler). The ratings are a bit idiosyncratic, but give you a general idea.
Reading is a Superpower
Not strictly limited to comfort reading, we now turn to book recommendations. Since March my concentration levels have been more fickle than normal: I can’t wolf down Woolf or pour myself into memoirs like I once did. So I will here defer to a more voracious reader, Tom Carlisle. His weekly newsletter Reading is a Superpower will, on each delivery to your inbox, clue you up on three books you might not have come across. It’s a great and personal way to slightly expand the old literary horizons, while you might be finding yourself unable to explore freely in your favourite bookshop. If that sounds good, why not subscribe to the newsletter here?
‘Angel from Montgomery’, as recorded by Bonnie Raitt
“And I ain’t done nothing
since I woke up today”
Currently, I want music to live up to ideals. I don’t mean the song I’m looking for has to be idealistic, or to express ethical concerns in its songwriting. Rather that the artefact that is ‘the song’ could, at a certain time and in a certain light, be mistaken for the Platonic ideal of a song. Here, for example, is a musical introduction. It shows me the key the song will be centred in, and the mellow acoustic guitar and round-sounding bass play something happy. A few hundredths of a second out of time with each other – better than amateurs could manage when they start playing cold, just enough of a discrepancy to make things sound nicely human.
What I could say without invoking Platonism, is that this song is giving me exactly what I want. And that in a year of uncertainty, as I arrive in an unfamiliar town that’s now my long-term home, knowing that the Home Office and United States ICE are doing a very good impersonation of the taloned fingers of Hell, that is enough for a song to be delivering.
A daubing of pedal steel, then the voice – so soulful, when I first heard it played from several rooms away, I thought it could be Janis gone to conservatoire, or some lost blue-eyed legend. Listen to Bonnie Raitt. A young woman (this was back in 1974) playing the part of one considerably older, singing about wondering where your life has gone to. The germane image that came to its writer’s mind, though one that doesn’t appear in the lyric itself, is of someone doing the washing up, feeling distinctly unremarkable, distinctly middle-aged, and wishing for a moment of escape.
“When I was a young girl
Well, I had me a cowboy”
Her laugh carries that second line downwards in pitch, sailing through the scale and moving down the frequencies. All speech, all vocal sound is melodic, after all – each sound you make consists of musical material, just not necessarily musical material replicable on a piano. The raised inflection at the end of a question you ask, for example, might lift the pitch of your sentence (hovering on average around the E above middle C) by a few semitones (to somewhere between the G and G sharp, say. But because it most likely occupies the spaces in between, the black and white notes on a keyboard couldn’t reproduce that sentence. Unless you speak like a character in an opera, in those dialogue-y bits between arias).
Bonnie Raitt, of course, doesn’t need to go into such matters. Instead she shyly tucks the line into sotto voce, as if the character’s reminiscence has trace elements of regret. But no, it’s certainly laughter – if these six words are directed at the “young girl” she once was, they’re not remonstrance so much as gentle jealousy. That once, youth was a protective amulet that freed the wearer to be quite blemishlessly unwise. “He wasn’t much to look at…”
Then the chorus returns. Oh, that backing vocal – those aren’t the harmonies they teach you in church. Folk or country. It’s imperfect too, but my, do you miss it when it’s not there (as in this live rendition) – the voices occasionally end up on the same note, sometimes he stays put while her melody’s in motion. But this falling short of flawlessness makes it perfect. It might’ve been recorded by two people in the same room at the same time. Do you remember that? When multiple singers could share the same microphone without a care. And there’s a string section this time. “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery…”
The person who wrote this lyric, of longed-for transcendence embedded in the life of the USA’s southern states, who originally sang it in the character of a housewife, was John Prine. He was about 24, too, when he wrote it, hoping that this observational character study would go down well with audiences. Maybe a more daring gender-jump than was expected. But you can see how relatable it was to those assembled for leisure in that room:
“How the hell can a person go to work in the morning,
Come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”
Prine was the musician’s musician – it was to his records that Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash would turn if they needed solace or challenge to make better work. He died this year of complications caused by Covid-19. He thought his character could do with a supernatural visitation. (Forgive the apparent non-sequitur, but Hank Williams’ career kicked off in Montgomery, Alabama, therefore so did an entire genre. Prine has acknowledged that the specific geographical reference of the song came from that fact, if subconsciously.) And even if the apparition were to arrive wearing a Stetson – well, maybe that would be just what our song’s subject needed. Does comfort need to come from the heavenly realm? If it can be granted in forms wearing such uncool things as rhinestones, or it comes embedded in a particular culture with that culture’s untranslatable trappings, maybe it’s still something that can be called ‘good’, in the full-cream sense of that word. Who’s to say it didn’t come from heaven anyway?
Of course, at certain other times, in certain different lights, ‘Angel from Montgomery’ could be mistaken for just another song.