Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Memory and the unconscious

Not that long ago, I went to see Nick Lowe play, at Cambridge Corn Exchange — a one-night stand with a three-piece band.


It must be nearly forty years since I first saw him play, at Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall or maybe Southborough Royal Victoria Hall. He’s better now. Much. His clothes are better, too. Pastel frilly shirts never really suited his hawk-like frame.

The unconscious?

For one of the encores, he sung The Beast In Me, alone. To most, it’s a Johnny Cash song — or what passed for Tony Soprano’s theme song. But it was written for Cash by Nick — who, the man in black said, was his favourite ex-son-in-law.

That night in Cambridge, Nick sang it with such echoic meaning that the audience did what audiences tend to do when their hearts have been powerfully opened and operated on — nothing. When he finished, there was that rare, silent moment in which everyone draws themselves out of the emotional world they’ve just been through. Only then does the performer breathe and the audience applaud.

Later, I thought about the song and its lyrics . . .

‘The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day and by night, rants and rages at the stars.
God help, the beast in me . . .
They’ve seen him out dressed in my clothes,
Patently unclear whether it’s New York or New Year.

And I thought two things. One, it’s a song about the unconscious, the id, if you like, that bit of our brains that’s been around a little longer than manners and fine writing — but is still hanging around down there in our well, somewhere far below the cortical line. Two, that’s why Nick’s version so got to us all. Whatever the beast in him — and reliable sources attest to his historical propensity for beastliness — it’s in all of us, too.

Memory and the unconscious?

If you’d asked me about Nick a couple of weeks ago, I’d have made a point of pointing out that he was one of the only two famous people to have been to my school. The other was Bob Woolmer the cricketer.

Then, on the train to Cambridge, I read my old friend Will Birch’s book on pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island. And I remembered that Nick didn’t go to my school.

It’s true that I knew Nick a bit when I was a teenager. He and his then band, Kippington Lodge were, in the parlance of the day, getting it together in a cottage in the hills of East Sussex. Me and my friend Steve would visit them. They’d smoke our dope and steal our girlfriends. The usual fair exchange between teenage boys and half-successful musicians a few years their senior.

Nick didn’t go to my school, though. That was Brinsley Schwarz — the guitarist, that is, not the band that took his name. I guess, my unconscious must have swapped Lowe for Schwarz, figuring out that it was a more impressive thing to chalk up on my internal CV. Not just a beast in me, then, but a beast with aspirations.

Next up White wine, olives, cheap cider and the narcissism of small difference

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