BETWEEN LIGHT AND NOWHERE
Space and Spectrality in Certain Pop Records
Pop Con 2019: “Only You and Your Ghost Will Know:
Music, Death, and Afterlife”
Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), Seattle, WA,
April 11, 2019
In 1961, in a review of a movie based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Pauline Kael wrote, “What is really beautiful about [it] is that almost everything is at the right distance”—and she emphasized “distance.”
In The Turn of the Screw itself, the governess who tells the tale describes the maddening, tantalizing refusal of the ghosts to present themselves for up-close examination: “They’re seen only across, as it were, and beyond—in strange places and on high places, the top of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the farther edge of pools; but there’s a deep design on either side, to shorten the distance and overcome the obstacle.” Either side, she says: you who see the ghost, and the ghost which sees you. Each of you desires contact, each of you beckons the other.
Many, maybe most, records announce themselves at once. Space and time are vaporized: the space is here, the time is now. I’m not talking about those records. I’m talking about records that are not events but are more like essences. Records that tell us that the real meaning of life is not what is before us, a thing we can hold or even touch, but rather a thing in the distance, which requires reaching, wandering, drifting. Drifting across and beyond, toward an image we barely recognize but must make out; an image forever ungraspable because it exists only in the distance—what one of the artists you’ll hear calls “the middle place between light and nowhere.”
Dion, “Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms),” 1968. There’s a ghost in this record—I’m convinced of that—and I often enjoy thinking that its name might be Peter Rugg. “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man” is, following “Rip Van Winkle,” the earliest of non-indigenous American legends—first published in 1824, the story of a man who, stuck forever in the year of the Boston Massacre, appears to travelers on the roads between Providence and Boston 50 years later, always just ahead of a violent storm, vowing to reach his home and, throughout time, failing to get there.
It stretches the text a bit to see this song as a modern version of the Peter Rugg legend (which the Kingston Trio’s “MTA Song” definitely was). But ghost records invite exactly that stretch: there’s a distance here, remember, a beckoning. This is a traveler who is not where he wants to be, may not even be where he is; who desires his lover, his safety, his home, but knows he’ll never reach them. Dion’s moan, flying so high above the music, so far beyond the words, makes feeling into meaning. The feeling is terror. The meaning is that he will never see his home, that he has no home, that he is the ghost.
An anonymous writer at a website called HistoryOfRock.com calls it “a timeless wonder of a song featuring an odd hypnotic rhythm and soft voices seductively rising and falling.” The same writer also calls it—unprovably, but I won’t fight it—“one of the more discussed recordings of all time.” Forget the sound for a second; the lyrics are strange enough: “No, the roses they won’t hurt you . . . No, the roses won’t tell your secrets.”
The Jaynetts, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses,” 1963. Where are these roses they sing of? In the central park of a modern city, or in the green hills of eighteenth-century Ireland, among the fairy people and talking animals? That’s worth wondering about. But what about the record—the whole thing—what does it do? It turns in a circle for approximately two minutes and 40 seconds, first materializing, then vanishing on the identical phrase: a phrase whose meaning lies less in its denoted objects than in the fact of its repetition, its implication of recurrence, something inescapable, unanswerable.
There’s a thing at the very center of our everyday lives that is sometimes called the uncanny. And at the center of that, Freud suggested, is the repetition compulsion—the need to look again, to speak and to hear again, to turn back again and again toward something irresolvable. The uncanny is a lifelong process of moving towards, peering into, going away, circling back—trying to dissolve that final distance between yourself and the ghost that pulls you. The roses won’t tell your secrets. They could. But they won’t. But they could.
Few folk songs have been recorded as often as “She Moved Through the Fair.” The modern lyrics were written by the Irish poet Padraic Colum, and the melody, by Herbert Hughes, was based on a fiddle air collected in Donegal in 1909. But some form of the song surely dates back to Medieval times, if not before. The best-known rock version was done in 1968 by Fairport Convention, and sung by Sandy Denny. The spectrality is in the sensual oneness of Denny’s voice with each of the other instruments: they converge at dramatic moments, only to float apart as new elements intertwine and recombine—every note, every bit of applied pressure a distinct thing, yet of a single atmosphere. The cymbals are a breeze over the heath. The guitar figures are bits of dead, fluttering reed. The thick bass notes are blood dripping from a tree stump. And Denny’s voice, a ghost contemplating ghosts, conjures these legendary images—not their bodies, faces, or even forms so much as their essence, their atmosphere. This is the weather of myth and legend, and like weather, you feel it on your very skin.
About 15 years ago, trolling the net for new and unusual versions of this song, I clicked a hyperlink and heard a woman singing “She Moved Through the Fair,” accompanied by a harp. The voice was crystalline, ethereally high. The rawness of the recording, too, was transfixing. It had been made in some open space, suggesting much overhead. But noise reduction had been applied, whittling the sound down to something phantasmal. It sounded, I’m not entirely embarrassed to say, like music made by an angel. Well, I’m an atheist, and needless to say, angels give me the creeps; so I sat there trembling, not quite believing. Backtracking from the link, I found a website devoted to a Toronto woman—a musician, archeologist, and artist named Menya Wolfe. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, she had begun one of the first online support groups for cancer patients. But the recordings I heard were made years before she got sick. As her husband Pete Bevin wrote, Menya “sang and played these pieces in 1990 for a friend who, ironically, was dying of breast cancer at the time.”
Indeed, there’s nothing foreshadowing about the recordings. They’re clear, sweet, and haunting, as only expressions can be that seem utterly innocent of tragedy, death, or loss. For that reason, they comprise something almost too painful to hear. They were made, Bevin wrote, on a boombox in Menya’s basement, and are “the only surviving recording of her work.”
In 1978, after years of erratic behavior brought on by manic depression and alcohol abuse, Sandy Denny fell down a flight of stairs, went into a coma, and eventually was taken off life support. She was 31 years old. After taking treatment for her cancer, an especially rare and inflammatory type, Menya Wolfe died on February 13, 2001, at the age of 36.
“Hope There’s Someone,” Antony & The Johnsons, 2005. From the album I Am a Bird Now, whose cover was a photograph of transgender superstar Candy Darling on her deathbed. Beginning as an intimate piano ballad, the recording takes on layers of terror and anticipation, as Antony’s voice nears a precipice of disconsolation. The music stretches sideways and expands upward in a swirling, echoing dissonance; as much as Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” it imparts eternity to a moment of transformation that seems endless. Then it settles back to a final voicing, a perishing sigh of contentment and understanding. In the end, there’s no distance at all: Antony has closed it, by going, or being taken, across and beyond, to meet his ghost. And he’s found, like Dion’s eternal traveler, that that ghost, that face on the other side of nowhere, is—his own.
You might not hear the ghost in any of these records. That’s fair: what each of us finds haunting is every bit as subjective as what makes us laugh or cry. If you see the spirit of your deceased loved one, and none of the other people in that room sees what you see, that, to me, is the definition of a figment of imagination. Which doesn’t mean you didn’t see it, any more than it means Peter Rugg isn’t trapped inside a Dion record, or that the Jaynetts weren’t in thrall to the uncanny that day in 1963. After all, “a figment of the imagination” is one perfectly acceptable definition of what a great record is.
The imagination lives in the sound of a record—its presences and absences, positive and negative spaces, all the separate wisps of death and life, experience and memory that drift through and around it. The imagination, when it finds those spaces and feels recognition, goes off on its own search, its languid pursuit of something—a feeling, an idea, a loss. We want to touch that thing, if only once, if only for a moment. But we never will. Not in any way that we can truly possess, that will lay our own ghosts to rest, or that will make us feel our search could ever find its ending.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Devin McKinney