The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982

In Writing

David Toop reaches the end of the road

March 2012

A public resignation from David Toop. This article was originally published in The Wire 166 (December 1997).

Developing slowly over months, if not years, the creepy inexorability of having nothing whatsoever to say in a regular column is a particularly miserable feeling. I often begin columns by admitting I have nothing to say, then discover that there are, after all, thoughts to unburden. But when there's nothing, really nothing, and only the symbolic shadow of a Bernardian Coach and Horses offering scant refuge for the literally thoughtless or periodically unwell, then the trick of computer desktop graphics becomes excessively poignant. The crafty illusion of Microsoft's blank page blots content from the empty mind even less efficiently than a white sheet of 100 gramme paper floating under a poised pen. At least a pen may drip.

To be honest, it's a sour time of year for those of us who have developed an indifference to contemporary music. For starters, there are the end-of-year lists to negotiate. How do I admit to magazines either ruthlessly fashionable or culturally conscientious that my film awareness of the past ten months has been handicapped by a fiasco of didn't-quite-make-it expeditions to films finally watched on hired video in disrupted stages over a period of two or three days, the actual incidence of cinema visits to adult films (and when I say 'adult' I mean Lost Highway as opposed to The Railway Children) being overwhelmed by obligatory viewing of child- (if not moron-) oriented stuff such as Bean? I'm not complaining, or not too much, you understand; it's just that magazines, not to mention you, the reader, don't wish to know.

When it comes to choosing the best albums of 1997, music being the supposed case in point on this progressively less blank page, I've listened to virtually nothing this month, other than the Toru Takemitsu film soundtrack album released by Nonesuch. It's not new material. The composer is dead. I already own half the tracks on other CDs. It's already been reviewed, admirably and positively, in this magazine. As for the films represented on this compilation, the first one I saw, probably Woman In The Dunes, was in some exploitation cinema that has almost certainly been replaced by a branch of Body Shop; even the last one I saw, the intoxicating Rikyu, was broadcast on television in a year that seems like a faint memory from another lifetime, since so much has happened in the intervening period. So it's not exactly cutting edge then, is it?

The problem is, it is.

I guess there were years of column writing during the 80s that felt as utterly thrill-free as this one. I can't remember. There always seemed to be hiphop or House or Acid to enliven an otherwise grotesque vista. Retrospectively, even a group like A Flock Of Seagulls had a purpose in the creator's master plan, if only to serve as a funny line in a Tarantino film.

In a similar way, the deadly experience of writing from absolute zero delivers revelations of its own. For instance, I just realised that the painful swollen digit on my right hand is a consequence of writing one third of a new book with said digit cramped in a talon formation, possibly from reading too much Edgar Allan Poe. A week of swimming in the Aegean Sea last week and the thing began to be almost useable. Now I'm back to writing, head full of sawdust, and I notice the repetitive strain injury position of my fingers.

So writing is bad for your health; everybody knows that. But to come back to my theme, which seems to be a letter of public resignation, mixed in with one of those epistles of despair provoked by calendar years in which music is a purgatorial zone of worthless concerts, horrible CDs and shoddy journalism... to come back to that theme, or attempt a return, I guess the best you can say is that your awareness of fine qualities in music becomes acute.

Anybody who has drowned their readers in electronica/prog drum 'n' bass hyperbole during the past year should listen to Takemitsu's Rikyu, or Woman In The Dunes, simply in order to acquire a benchmark of what's possible in the world. Similarly, The Stanley Brothers' recordings reissued on John Fahey's Revenant label are a smack in the mouth for anybody who thinks Weller rock is more than a bunch of self-conscious gestures

I'm not a big fan of bluegrass, but these early tracks by The Stanley Brothers, made in the late 1940s/early 1950s, are the devil's work, crazy with energy and weird for the evocative bluntness of their doomed narratives. "As I walked in the wayside tavern, the smell of drink was in the air" is the opening line of "The Girl Behind The Bar". Nothing special about those words on the page, yet sung in The Stanley Brothers' high harmonies, they create an extraordinary sense of high expectation flooded with dread. They are songs about living and dying, as brutal as that.

Of course, this is dangerous territory. Music can answer those needs without seeming to do so. There is excessive use of the rear view mirror as it is, without some bleeding heart columnist like me inflating their temporary angst into a puff for heritage art. But that, after all, is the essence of column writing: inflating a moment's thought, or absence of thought, into a theory. Once you can't be bothered with the absurdity, then stop.

So that's it then. I'm outta here, if not forever, then for a long lie down in a metaphorical dark room lacking in music transmission technology. Being a critic is a terrific method for killing your love of art. I like to be taken by surprise, hearing music I love in an unexpected place at an unexpected time and loving it all over again (like The O'Jays last night in a pizza restaurant, or Takemitsu's score for Kurosawa's Ran that I watched on an old tape when I got home, or the Dick Dale title sequence track in Pulp Fiction, shown on TV at an absolutely crucial moment in Ran's final battle scene but demanding attention nonetheless). Most of all, I like the idea of having to say absolutely nothing afterwards. As Toru Takemitsu wrote: "There, confronting it, I resolved to face that silence as long as I can endure it."

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