The Hidden Magician: A Half-True, Semifictional Fable
By Hector Ramos-Ramos
I. The Half that's Half-True
Mark Hollis, a man who made his living by making music, "left" his listeners behind along with the earth he was departing. Do I mean he left us and it for good? Well, I'm no prophet, but I can't imagine his music will soon make its way to many mortal ears, which is lamentable, but natural. Nihil Sub Sole Novum. But now no more evasions; when I say he "left," I mean he dropped the world of the wearisome and the monotonous, the world the mainstream flows through unswervingly, and went off to a heaven of sorts, not the one which might wind up a saintly life, but one he made himself from nothing sturdier than strands of sound. He died to the world, though I hear he lives in London, albeit quietly.
But, let's return to the momentous exit and how it came to be. Setting: England in the late Eighties. A time after antiheroic punks had given way to an age we remember now for its forgotten gold and its undying, overexposed lead. Hollis began his gradual demise back when his name was masked behind a moniker. Talk Talk. But it was only a name now. The music Hollis was envisioning had nothing punchy about it and it didn't match the brand he'd picked for the sleek synth pop of the band's early years. Talk Talk was him and Tim Friese-Greene, his producer. They kept his label's (EMI) faith by reminding them of the old successes, old sounds the two privately vowed to never repeat: the madding-crowd-pleasers of an era they had no nostalgia for. Secretly, surreptitiously, they took the cash advance they'd been given by EMI and burned it as an offering for the muse who minds the melody-headed: Euterpe. Unexpectedly, she materialized before Friese-Greene and Hollis at a kebab place. She clapped her hands together and suddenly, the musicians who had been quietly cutting up their lamb meat, found themselves in the country, in the company of living, breathing, hoofing sheep. Euterpe pointed a long elegant finger at a building on a hill with a bell tower and shouted to her fuddled companions in a cheeky tone "Onward, Christian soldiers!"
Friese-Greene, Hollis, and Euterpe retreated to an empty church chosen by the muse and worked ceaselessly, improvising in the sunlight and moonlight made polychrome by its stained-glass its windows. A dozen or so pilgrim performers came and went as they pleased to make something audible come of Friese-Greene and Hollis's holy tomfoolery. The surroundings elevated all involved to a point far past Parnassus; even Euterpe, unredeemed pagan though she was, got to feeling especially ethereal. Her mood moved her to play a little ditty on her keyboard which she immediately made grander plans for. She coaxed Friese-Greene and Hollis into convincing EMI to serve a second helping of sterling and that allowed them to hire a kids'choir from the Chelmsford Cathedral. They recorded the newly expanded version of the muse's tune, called "I Believe in You," and Euterpe thought it was a work worthy of her sister Polyhymnia's name. Friese-Green and Hollis were similarly stirred, feeling like embers crackling in a holy fire, though they knew no god worth worshipping but sound itself.
The result of their determined devotion was Spirit of Eden, a suite of sorts, a loose, baggy collection songs set free of all pop's strictures and shackles. Baroque and heaven-longing as a Bach cantata, mystical and hermetic like A Love Supreme or Albert Ayler's howling, to Hollis and his friend, Friese-Greene, it seemed like Euterpe had in Eden midwifed a new sort of sacred music through them, making them the inheritors of Handel's harmonium and Pharoah Sanders' sax. They asked Euterpe how she'd done it. How had she made them channel all those crazed luftmenschen they loved to listen to? Euterpe shrugged and said simply "Don't look at me." She confessed she suspected even her own "I Believe in You" had traveled to her from another plane. The three of them shifted their gaze up at a big circular window above the altar of their lodgings. Though Hollis and Friese-Greene thought themselves thoroughly modern men who believed Art and Science had long deposed the popes and preachers of the past and Euterpe had little time for gods who didn't have an unquenchable appetite for scandal, sex, or ambrosia, all seriously and simultaneously entertained the possibility that maybe their inspiration had come from a source even more miraculous than a muse's mind and heart. They exchanged glances, but refused to temper with words the powerful mood that embraced them. Then, wary the skies might soon close over them and their well of divinely provided fuel consequently dry up, Frieze-Green, Hollis, and Euterpe set to preparing the next batch of Talk Talk songs, and, while they worked, they made sure to keep three pairs of ears cocked cloudward in case a word of guidance were to fall on them from above.
II. The Semifictional Bit
Two years after Eden, Euterpe, Friese-Greene, and Hollis recorded another album, Laughing Stock, a saintly sequel. Like Eden, it had not been recorded or written, but awaited like a vision, and also like Eden, it converted only a handful of critics and cognoscenti. Their new label, Polydor didn't mind much it that Hollis and Friese-Greene couldn't turn a profit. They understood the whole holy fool thing better than EMI, who had fired them for torching company money and delivering the record that had vaporized their fan base. Hollis had tried to explain to his bosses that artistic triumph trumps quantifiable failure, but his story about Euterpe and the mysterious intervention of a formless force couldn't patch the holes in EMI's pockets so he was bid scram post-haste. But, Polydor, Polydor was the place for him, a house to live in, to feel at home in. Still, the label wanted to see something in the way of material, and this regardless of whether or not angels or any other sort of celestial intermediary brought to Hollis the goods he eventually had to hand his employer. Hollis tried to explain that destiny had dealt him a rather rotten deck. Euterpe had decided to use a casual dining encounter for her own dramatic purposes, clapping her hands and vanishing as Friese-Greene and he chatted over kebabs at the mucky eatery where they'd first met her, leaving the two Talk-Talkers dumbfounded. Friese-Greene became inconsolable. Truth is, he'd been mooning over Euterpe for a while and the muse knowingly fired his crush with will-she nill-she coquetting. He said he'd try to go it alone, and moved to Heligoland, a German archipelago, to find the solitude, the me-time that would allow him to craft music capable of romancing flighty Euterpe. Hollis questioned his friend's rashness, which only moved Friese-Greene to accuse him of being as lovesick as he was, making them irreconcilable rivals. His muse gone and his collaborator doubly struck by Cupid's arrow and heartburn ignited by unwarranted jealousy, Hollis had been left without a card to play: his pack of alternatives had been emptied by the same Fates who'd leveled his future with their own . But, surely Polydor, Polydor would understand.
And they did, too! Now it was 1998. About seven years had gone by since Talk Talk's last triumph. Polydor wanted results. Polydorus, the honcho perched atop the label, wanted to hear Hollis's work before anybody else. He was mild enough for an ex-Trojan warrior, though he still harbored enmity for Achilles, the hero who had relieved him of his duties with a spearing, though he did recognize, that the mythic superstar had really revitalized his career, making possible the man's postmortem move to the music biz and a fate far better than a bit-part in Greek lore. So, Polydorus listened to Hollis's new album, simply titled Mark Hollis and the two sat down for a Q&A:
Polydorus: This thing's quiet; I mean, your old work, with Talk Talk, had its moments of near-muteness, utter serenity, but this, this is... well.
Hollis: Right, boss, I know; it's much more than just muted. I think it explores "quietness" more fully. You see, here's the thing: this is art with no idols. All those I once worshipped, Euterpe, Philotes, goddess of friendship, that vague Spirit that permeates the last two Talk Talks, well, they were all worth more than gold to me (just ask EMI, they'll agree), but it was all pyrite... and I the worshipful fool.
P: You speak in the roundabout way of a crone or an oracle. I don't much like it. It's all Greek to me and reminds me too much of a past I'm (to use an American vulgarism) over, if you will. Anywho, let's unpack what you're hinting at: before, your records had their meditative moments, but the meditation could give way to transcendence, now, with all gods dead etc., there's no epiphany at the end of the day?
H: Oh, there is, there is... the only true epiphany: there's nothing beyond. If you notice, there's a lot of meandering on the record. A song like "the Gift," which kinda rolls along like a careless carriage, percussion present, but unsteady, woodwinds swelling, then hiding, then reappearing, or like "Daily Planet" which sounds like a walk, dervish-dizzy, through a dimly lit sidestreet, with occasional flickers of light, and bright harmonica-flourishes, is an example of the purposeful vagabonding feeling I wanted. Of course, there's transcendence, even the uplifting kind, but the real bright spots, aren't like the grasping for meaning you hear in the first track, "The Colour of Spring," though that has its own effect, sometimes a disorienting one, what with the piano and the wailing, they're embedded in, dependent on the meditative moments, which I should way, I let just "live" now, more than I would have on previous records, where everything was always moving, with a telos (sorry, forgot, no Greek), a purpose, to a culminating moment of fruition, so dramatic potential was taken, directed, obliquely, but certainly, to its logical conclusion...
P: There's none of that, here... no "easy" predictable finishes.
H: No, there're some false instances of it, on "Watershed" for example, where the percussion makes a sort of queasy march, the woodwinds, the dirgelike guitar, you're expecting something genuinely funereal or a big triumphal crash to wipe away the uncertainty, but the uncertainty is central. Even, on "A Life (1895-1915)" which is about a WWI casualty... the title leads you to expect something terrible, the inexorable conquest of death over mortality, clear condemnation of violence, but a life, any life, isn't like that, reducible to one principle, one tone: there's a lot of uneventful time spent in trenches. There's a lot of mustard gas. And shells are going off, too, but that's not an end to it... it's complicated.
P: "Such suffering, Few certain... " That's a lyric which struck me. Again, I'm loath to remember Troy, the killing, Achilles, how he gutted me, but it's true, you know, that there's no clarity in the fog of war... even the immediacy of the pain, the suffering is filtered through the confusion.
H: Right, that's how it is... perception implies uncertainty, nothing is placed on your lap as it is, nothing is lapped up except with the tongue.
P: You're back to Sphinxing, but I think I get it.
H: Right, getting it is not getting it...
Hollis and Polydorus kept on like this til night overcame the daylight. Their joint-ruminations on art, life, and perception got more scattered and further muddled after the arrival of wine to the conversation, but the one thing they kept repeating, sometimes in jest, sometimes with a ponderous seriousness was Hollis's maxim about getting it being the same as not getting it.
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