Friday, February 02, 2007

I Trawl the Megahertz

Today I want to write about a song.

Many of you know that one of my favorite bands is Prefab Sprout (sort of famous in England in the 80s, barely recognized here). They don't really exist anymore as a band but 4 years ago their lead singer Paddy Macaloon released a solo album called I Trawl the Megahertz. In the 22-minute title track, a female narrator speaks Paddy's words. She tells his life story, a story that is a little sad, a little funny, and - to me - infinitely meaningful and amazing. The piece begins:
I am telling myself the story of my life,
stranger than song or fiction.
We start with the joyful mysteries,
before the appearance of ether,
trying to capture the elusive:
the farm where the crippled horses heal,
the woods where autumn is reversed,
and the longing for bliss in the arms
of some beloved from the past.
And with a beginning like that, I'm hooked. Paddy's story continues - his absent father, his traveling search for meaning, his astute perceptions of the world around him. But ultimately there's a frustration in the story of his life:
Ever the dull alchemist.
I have before me all the necesary elements:
it is their combination that eludes me.
Forgive me ... I am sleepwalking.
When he wrote this song, Paddy Macaloon was 49 and suffering from both an unfortunate haircut and a temporary disease that caused him to be almost completely blind:

Repeat after me: happiness is only a habit.
I am listening to the face in the mirror
but I don't think I believe what she's telling me.
Her words are modern, but her eyes have been weeping
in gardens and grottoes since the Middle Ages.
This is the aftermath of fever.

And the grasping and missing that his disease has caused is apparent in almost every line. I love the sweeping imagery of the song. The images are uniquely European but entirely universal. Not only has he handed the narrative duties to a woman, but he chose a young American woman, Yvonne Conners, to read the story of his older male English life. This from a man who wrote and sang every one of his band's songs, a man who loved to be photographed as the embodiment of Prefab Sprout. This album, despite it being credited solely to Paddy Macaloon, doesn't feature his face on the cover:

By day and night, fancy electronic dishes
are trained on the heavens.

They are listening for smudged echoes

of the moment of creation.

They are listening for the ghost of a chance.

They may help us make sense of who we are

and where we came from;

and, as a compassionate side effect,

teach us that nothing is ever lost.

The transmissions from those fancy electronic dishes make an appropriate substitute for Paddy's face. If he can't see and can only hear, then the lines and swirls that send the radio voices to his ears are the most important thing in the world. And the fact that the transmissions come from up there - "in the heavens" - is the reason that nothing is ever lost. In other words, the universe is always here even when we - or a loved one or our sight - is not.

I won't give away the song's ending. The lyrics are here (just scroll down to the first song with lyrics) and an interview with McAloon is here. If you want to hear the song, just ask me to play it for me the next time you see me (assuming you have 22 minutes to spare).

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