A HANDFUL OF ASHES extended notes
This post refers to the album at the following link:
DISCLAIMER. The following notes talk about several aspects of the album: The concepts behind it which inspired it; the creation of the music from a technical standpoint; the details of symbolism behind music and lyrics; and the arc of the concept, from start to finish.
These kinds of notes can make people uncomfortable. While intended to be informative, they can be perceived as pretentious, as an example of the composer trying to seem more intelligent or important than he is, as proof the music can't stand on its own without a bunch of mumbo jumbo to bolster it, and so on. So please note: IF YOU DON'T LIKE DETAILED EXPLANATORY NOTES FOR MUSIC, STOP READING NOW! Skip this and just listen to the music. That's fine by me. You won't hurt my feelings, I promise. If at some point you change your mind, come back and read 'em. No big deal. I don't feel the music, or the experience of it, is any less valid without these notes.They're here if you want 'em. End disclaimer.
Well not quite. This particular album requires more than the usual referrals to symbolism, is chock full of concepts most people would cross the street to avoid. There. Much better.
ORIGIN: While watching the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell show "The Power Of Myth", I listened as Moyers asked Campbell what he thought of the outpouring of sympathy over the death of John Lennon, and asked if Campbell thought he was a hero. Campbell answered that Lennon was definitely a hero, and that he thought the Beatles really connected with the public. Moyers then says: "Sometimes it seems to me we ought to feel pity for the hero instead of admiration. So many of them have sacrificed their own needs for others.
CAMPBELL: They all have.
MOYERS: And very often what they have accomplished is shattered by the inability of the followers to see.
CAMPBELL: Yes, you come out of the forest with gold and it turns to ashes. That's a well known fairy-tale motif."
This hit home with me, especially that last part- coming out of the forest, bringing back the gold, only to find that it's turned to ashes. On a personal level, it immediately reminded me of seemingly being led into music as my life's work by some higher intelligence, only to have nothing- or apparently nothing- occur.
I have covered the details of those events elsewhere. For the moment, we only need that basic premise, and I suppose for many, a suspension of disbelief. Let us treat it as real enough to influence my actions and leave it there, regardless of whatever the root cause ultimately was.
The album develops:
Returning to these events and their implications presented me with some problems. First, I did not want to make this an entirely personal story. The pattern it followed was true to a basic form of folkoric/metaphorical "hero's journey". This allowed me to keep the story personal, while enabling me to remove nearly all of the personal references. In this way, the emotions stayed real while the specifics all but disappeared. I felt this would make the album useful to the widest number of people, so that they could find themselves in it too. I would not have felt comfortable making the album strictly as a personal ego exercise, I would have shelved it.
The lyrics for the title track were written in 2006 during a period when I was in a greatly troubled state of mind. Say what you want, such states have been great for the arts! Not always great for the artists, however. The rather harsh line in the next-to-last verse comes from a recurring dream I had as a child, in which my family were religious monsters and I was some kind of royalty, who had somehow brought about the end of the world. I ran from all this through the streets, to find myself in an alley having a conversation with an old bum. He seemed to know me and verbally knocked me down to size, showing me or telling something horrible, which was always blocked out when I woke up right after, crying and terrified. His words right before were something along the lines of "You are nothing and no one". It was one of my earliest dreams and I had it frequently up to the age of 4. It happened one more time at age 9, and not again.
Not too long after the lyrics, I came up with the chords and melody for them. The chord changes were written above the appropriate syllables on a printed lyric sheet.I recorded a scratch version of just these parts as a means of remembering how I meant for it to go (since I don't read or write music notation).
And there it sat for a good few years, while first one and then another child was born, and raised to an age where I felt I could safely start concentrating some on my work again without detracting too much from their lives.
The lyrics for the rest of the album were written over that 8-year period. The music, in most cases, came after, primarily during recording. The album was actually recorded in sequence- A Handful Of Ashes, The Hook And The Point, Simple Answers, Laugh Gently, and finally At the End Of The Day.
"A Handful Of Ashes":
This starts off with a piano run, primarily single notes, introducing a main theme. The single notes have significance that can be explained later.
Stomping and banging a jingling cane onto the ground: the image of a fool with a story, perhaps like someone at Hyde park standing on a soapbox and ranting, or a carnival huckster inviting you to watch something obviously fake, despite his claims to the contrary. These two particular sounds were important enough to me that I built both the jingling cane (pictured with me on the cover), and a small wooden platform to stomp on, to get a resonant and authentic sound. Each took at least a day to make. But they were important to me, so I took the time and made them. They were used for maybe 30 seconds, tops.
The fool begins his story: "I have been on a journey, I have come back to tell"....and the basic idea is stated. A journey that leads to a treasure of nothing.
The vocals, for the vast majority of the album, are dry- no reverb or effects of any kind. This was on purpose. I wanted it to be like you were sitting in the room with me, close enough to be sort of uncomfortable with the intimacy and immediacy and reality of it. I got this idea at a poetry reading David McIntire did back at BeBop Records in the '80s. He did it without a mic (not necessary for a solo poet in such a small venue), but also got right up close to you as he talked. I realized, despite him being a good friend, that the intimacy of the performance made me squirm a bit. Right away I started asking myself why, because it didn't really make sense to me. What seemed to be the truth to me, then and now, is that intimacy has become uncomfortable. We need reverb or room ambience added back in or some such crap in order not to be creeped out by the close presence of another human being. We have learned to need distance, even with those close to us. Now, maybe all of this was in my head. Maybe no one else is disturbed by this. But I was, and that's why the vocals sound the way they do. And not just the vocals, but the drums, and many other instruments too. The more immediate and raw it sounded, the happier I was going to be. This came to be a feature of most of the work I've done since.
Sidebar: a trip down Big Myth lane
Why the grandiosity of the concept? You need ego to do this kind of work, at least to an extent. But when you get, for lack of a better way to put it, a calling, you expect big things. There are many interpretations of what "big" might mean. When you're young and hungry for fame and fortune, especially raised in a place and time where little else has any serious credibility as success, that's what it means. Or bigger. I was not surprised to find out David Koresh was a failed rock star, for example. When people speak of being transformed from the inside by such experiences, the impatient young person says, yeah that's nice, that's really cool sure, but we all know that's not really big. JFK is big. Hitler was big. The Beatles and Elvis are big. Jesus and Satan are big, and when they come back to duke it out, with Jesus and the Antichrist going at it, that'll be the show to end all shows. If we're not talking mythical, what are we talking about? If it's not big, it's bullshit, it's lip service that sounds pretty and doesn't bring much but some smiles and nods from people who think they know things. I want to be on top, known by everyone, talked about for generations, for thousands of years, I want the world to move for me, even if just long enough for people to say I did it, and to remember it.
Dangerous thinking, eh? That's how monsters are made. And saints, and prophets. Sometimes I'm not entirely sure there's a difference.
So coming back down from those heady delusional heights, to something that resembles rational thought, takes a lot of work. It takes the will to even do it at all. Religious ecstacy, like many drugs, is euphoric, and makes you want to stay right there. Come back, to what? Look, I was called! I'm special, I'm chosen! Eh....yes and no.
The sperm that gets through to the egg might be said to have been "chosen". Probably inaccurate, but we can say it. Even if accurate, what can we infer? Destiny? Sure, but how many kids are born each day? Do they all grow up to make huge changes in the world? Everyone makes ripples in the big web of life, the butterfly effect and all that. But we can once again pay lip service to the uniqueness and ability to change the world, if we pretty it up and talk about little things adding up to big things. When you want to be something big, that's not what we're talking about. Not if you're convinced you have a destiny, in capital letters.
The world, with you in the center of it, then takes on a certain massiveness, an epic quality. All about YOU.
Of course, the truth is going to be closer to what you would expect if you weren't out of your head: you're a regular person who's had an unusual experience (or several, or many); but your shit stinks like everybody else's, and you need to get back down to earth and get on with things.
Now then, why have I taken this detour down Big Myth lane? What has this got to do with music? That's a complex story, but I'll sum it up as succinctly as I can. Things like "big dreams", or "visions"- things that come into your head and change your life- communicate in metaphors. They're not literal, and can be seriously difficult to interpret. Mine certainly was. And prior to this, I'd already had a feeling of "specialness", owing to supposedly unusual circumstances surrounding my birth, and the level of my recovery from what was then considered a very dangerous birth defect. Examined carefully, all of that falls apart, and I just got lucky. Combine that with a few misunderstandings, and I was raised with both the specter of death over my shoulder, and the sense of myself as somehow miraculous. Neither were true, but I didn't know it.
However, I had no interest in becoming a musician, and so this "vision dream" had to be referring to something else, and in fact becoming a musician didn't even enter my mind. I spent a year or so trying to figure out what things meant, without finding much that felt definite; until I found the broken guitar, and had a sense that "this was it". I didn't see how that could be the case, at the time, but a series of what seemed to be unusual events moved things forward; and I ended up moving away from my original goal of filmmaking, into the previously unthinkable territory of music-making.
After a few more years of trying to put my head back together, and nearly succeeding, I still believed that such a strong signal, strong enough to change the course of my life, had to mean success. Why else would I have had it?
To me, success, as mentioned previously, could only be considered as such if you got big, or at very least were able to make a decent living at it. As time went on, and efforts yielding nothing of the kind, I found myself becoming very frustrated, angry at the universe, wondering what the hell happened. And here we are, back at the song.
AND NOW BACK TO THE SONG
The main body of the song starts; it is dusk.
"Now I'm older and cautious": looking back on the events that led to this point; the journey and what was learned, and the rude awakening that you've got ashes instead of gold for your trouble.
There are lots of vocals, both for the purpose of harmony, and standing in for all of the people you had to be to get to this point, all of them tired, disillusioned, and pissed off.
The music that follows represents those feelings and ideas, and again, everything it took to get there, including things bigger than one person. There's still a kind of epic and cosmic cloud hanging over everything.
It's now about 10 p.m.
A rush of frightening things, suddenly ending in the start of the jazz/fusion section: depression gives way to anxiety, fears of circling the drain, of being used by larger than human forces for everyone's betterment but your own, fear of succumbing to delusion and sliding into insanity, of being lost without a trace to show you were even here, meanwhile your head doesn't really function well enough for most everyday things because you're lost in some kind of mental vortex... (eat that, Bulwer-Lytton)....
Anxiety crashes back to earth, as it always does, giving way to exhaustion, and quiet contemplation of the very same things, but from a calmer perspective. Not a happier perspective; more like a resigned one.
This proves to be true as the lyrics come back in: there's an acceptance of things as they are, or at least as they seem to be, which is at a very low point. Ego has been vanquished because the proof is there:
"you are nothing and no one, you've been outside for years/there is no point pretending you mean anything here"
And royalty falls, no different than the low man, and as Spike Milligan said, "All men are cremated equal."
"The Hook And The Point"
It is midnight.
A procession of monstrosities loudly passes. Bizarre creatures: some are only parts, moving on their own, others are stitched together in sometimes crude, sometimes elaborate ways. Hybrid creatures, pieces where symmetry was forced, or imagined, and then forced.
These are the cobbled-together pieces of beliefs, philosophies, and ideas used to make the intrusion of the unknown palatable. They're held together with hope, necessity, ego, blind faith, and rationalized bullshit. Without them, "the hero" wouldn't have even made it this far. But having arrived here, they can be seen a bit more clearly, and they're not what they at first might have seemed.
"Why lead me here and not deliver?" If this was real in any sense, was it a trick? Have I been discarded? Have I been following nothing but delusion all this time? I know what I experienced, but am I right to continue thinking there was anything to it at all? Maybe it was about something else, and this was just a way to get me to learn some things along the way- "Maybe that was the hook, but it wasn't the point."
Trying to desperately to hang on to something, some reason to believe this wasn't all for nothing. "Things may still mean something after all." And then there is a crash, as things fall apart. A bell tolls, as though something has died.
It is morning, around 8 a.m.
We are in the garage of an old mechanic. We have had to be towed, when the vehicle of our beliefs finally fell to pieces. We are in a kind of limbo, where we can't go back the way we came, have no idea where we're going, and don't know what to do about it. When asked if "the fix" for this will take long, the mechanic replies: "Well, it's hard to say. You'll have to have a period of contemplation...that can take overnight to.....40 years."
"Well", says the old man, barely chuckling, "you can always walk." Translation: there's no easy way out of here.
And here we come to the paradox of "answers". The "simple answers" of minimalist philosphies are both true and false. Crowley once pointed out that any philosophy can be argued to the point where it refutes itself. Having seen this myself, I agree. This does not mean there is no truth available from them; but it does imply a relativity, a need for context, an open mind, a rejection of the kind of rigidity that forces black and white, yes-and-no answers on things which are in a perpetual state of flux and ambiguity. Taoism works well here, because it refers to things always in process.
How the music ties in to all this:
First we have the customer and the mechanic, and right away we know the album has changed. The dialogue seems to have nothing to do with what preceded it, and has a comedic tinge. And then the music comes in and seems like a joke as well, because instead of complexity, we have something that sounds more like a library of congress folk music track. But the lyrics are still about the same kind of things, only...simply presented, folksy. It doesn't jibe with what came before it, it's jarring, it's odd.
Why did I do this?
When your impossible constructs fall apart, built painstakingly from many pieces gathered over your lifetime, you're stuck. You don't know where you're going, but you can't start over completely, and you can't go back the way you came. You're left surrounded by those who don't know and don't want to know. That was the case before, but the arcane nature of it made it all seem special. It's not that special any more. You still have what you know, but you're stuck in Hooterville with Mr. Haney and Eb. Or are you?
You try to think it through in this setting, but it seems to mean everything and nothing all at once, it balances out to zero.
And now the music goes to the strange and the confused. Time to think through this and take stock and make sense enough to act.
How the hell do I get out of here? I asks meself.
Try simple answers, I sez.
Simple? I don't know nothin' 'bout simple. I'm a complex sensitive artist type.
Maybe, I sez. But you didn't know nothin' about that other stuff before you started either. You're stuck here and you've got to try something or stay here, which to you is nowhere. I know us, and we can't do it. So what are we gonna do?
OK, I sez, though I don't know nothin' about 'em it's time to learn. I can't do complexity no more, mine's broken and I can't ride it anymore anyway. I could just walk away from all this, but who am I kidding, no I can't. Simple answers it is.
And the song portion resumes, this time embellished. Also, one line is changed, or augmented, from the first time through. It had said, "Watch as all points cancel all other points", which is nihilism talking- nothing means anything. But the second time around, the voice on the other side of the speakers says "Watch as each point cancels its opposite point"- not ready to give up nihilism yet, and this point isn't much better- but it's a start.
Late afternoon through closing: bar hours.
This is the punchline of the album. If there is one bit of practical advice to be taken away, it's here. You may think all this is weird and funny. You may have wandered down some bizarre paths in your life. You may have gone on some long journey to find yourself, and meaning, and come back only to find that you were there all along, what you were looking for was always with you, and the treasure was in the journey. It seems to make the entire trip silly. Maybe you should have known better. Shrug your shoulders, laugh, and move on. And maybe, you really did learn something. Meanwhile, if you're outside of this and want to judge, be careful...laugh gently. What you need to know may not be as weird as my journey, but you may need it just as badly, maybe more. The truth you need could be right under your nose too, and you may have been unable to see it for a long time. Maybe you still don't. This could easily happen to you.
And the music?
I wanted it to be anti-prog, and something like a Rolling Stones song came to mind. There's a sort of partying feeling about it. Simple, straightforward, pub humor. Small Faces came to mind too. So that's what I did. This continues to take the album in the direction of simple and basic but this time with more vitality and power, self humor and acceptance. I sometimes with I had made it longer, but the brevity of it continues the point, so I accept it.
"At The End Of The Day"
This is an epilogue. It's very late at night, everyone but you is asleep.
So, we've had the punchline. But after the return party, when we're through laughing at and justifying ourselves, what's left? Where do we go?
When you've finished with putting trophies and ends at top of your needs pyramid, you see something else: you need the basics, and the rest will fall into place, or at least be easier to get. For some people, this means having kids and living a "normal" life (which like all stereotypes, exists as a statistical abstraction rather than anything concrete). I tell you, honestly, that I came out of the whole thing with no answers to questions outside of this, and I'll I've got are ways to keep going. And with the bringing of new people into the world...the cycle continues. Every life represents some kind of quest. Maybe you just need to find a way to survive and get through. Maybe you need something more. Maybe you'll actually find something that works for you; many people find religion. That didn't work for me, but it works for many. Meanwhile, life goes on.
Musically, it's as simple as its concept. Piano and vocal. The vocal was recorded as a note to keep track of the melody; I had a chest cold and partial laryngitis at the time. But the tired quality of it appealed to me and matched the lyric, I thought, so I kept it. As for the piano, it stays completely simple until the lyric ends. Then it multiplies and branches out like a geneology, until the numbers overwhelm the sense you can make of it. It becomes too much to take in clearly. And then that fades down to a very simple exit, which winds down slowly- the personal view- and ends on one note. That note is important and there for a reason. It's the individual point of view. Even if everyone takes their own journey, that's just it- we all take our journeys, our experiences, our point of view, alone. And when we leave, we take it all with us. We make our single note, and fade. This may sound very sad, but it's only meant to be bittersweet, because that's what I think it is. We're here, we go "ding!", and we're gone. That's just how it is. But there's beauty to it, and in the end, there's a feeling that it's OK.