Left Behind Desire

I can’t rip the mask from my face

It’s funny how we say things through art that we might not admit to ourselves otherwise.

Came so far
Toward the stars
On fire,

I sang in “Light Traveller”, the last song I wrote in Australia before leaving for England in April and the song which gave my project — the work of 2–4 years or more — its name. Then I faltered. This was the last stanza of the song — the punchline — and I couldn’t find a rhyme, at least not one that spoke to me. Until finally, from impatience as much as anything, I wrote:

Turned to find
I’d left behind
Desire
To get higher

I let it sit, worried that maybe it didn’t represent me — after all, I still had desire, didn’t I? Still thirsted to “get higher”, closer to that goal of stardom I’d craved for almost 30 years. But the whole song had something semi-mythic about it, as if I was describing a simplified/alternate me:

I came to light a traveller
I knew I would not stay
I learned to be an actor
Cos travelling never pays

In a way, the song was demonstrating its own fiction, since after all it was the self-described work of an actor. Nonetheless it seemed deep, deeper than any song I’d written maybe, or more fully-realised, and at moments in its three-verse structure I felt it fully, felt its truth —

I’d like to ask forgiveness
But I can’t rip the mask from my face

— even if it seemed to describe a crisis that had passed some years back. But what did I know? Turns out I had — I really had — “left behind desire”, and this song, which had arisen from a stunned exhaustion during one of my periodic recording “retreats” at my Dad’s house when he was overseas, was a last hurrah of sorts, a coda. It was telling me, I think, that it’s time to stop acting: I’m not a rockstar and never will be. Maybe, the days of rockstars are over. And who knows, maybe I’m glad of it, or I should be.

Maybe none of this makes much sense without more context. For one thing, then, music is exhausting me, at least in the form in which I’ve been practising it for the past 2–3 years. I’m not a natural engineer and never wanted to be: all I ever wanted was to write and play music, and to have it recorded; I never imagined I would be the one to record it, or that I’d end up sitting at a desk with a mouse in my hand to do so. I’m a desk jockey! And while if I was also jamming, performing and jumping around on stage from time to time that would be all right, since my other main activity is writing prose I am basically wasting away.

I did my best. Since 2001 I’ve had an album and related EPs (the songs I came to group under the heading Shadow History) waiting for a studio. When I got my Tascam 8-track in 2003 I imagined it might serve the purpose, but I didn’t rush into it, since I wanted to learn my craft before I risked those songs, knowing that a songwriter can become sickened with a song and that recording is, or can be, a lengthy task, especially when you’re flying blind. So I generated other songs — specific “made for the Tascam” songs; songs that “used the studio as an instrument” (in the Eno tradition), so that I could test the scope of that instrument. After all, Shadow History had grown up free of constraints, of practicalities, the work of someone with no band and zero immediate ambition who therefore could conceive of anything, whereas my Tascam projects (COQ and Cottage Industry) were written to the limitations.

Well, by the time I bought a secondhand MacBook and audio interface in 2015, I was ready to compromise — a little. Really, what became Light Traveller’s “Same Stars Shine” was what spurred me on: four songs (one a Bowie cover, recorded just prior to his death) which I’d been tinkering with since soon after I’d met my wife and moved to Byron Shire in 2012, songs I thought might suit a minimal pallette, if I could get some kind of recording rig. At that stage the Tascam was sick, with a failed hard-drive. I fixed it, demoed the songs in less-than-ideal fashion, and — at my wife’s urging — bought the MacBook. A steep learning-curve followed. Along the way, inspired, I recorded the bones of an album (Light Traveller’s Falcon Falling), hoping I wasn’t “wasting” my performances on a substandard set-up. And, to my own surprise, as I became more confident and proficient, I recorded Shadow History (just the bones of it, of course, but it’s all there, after a fashion).

Meanwhile I migrated 40–50 old songs from the Tascam to the MacBook and worked on them too, both at home and in the country. No wonder my writing stalled! I wrote one story, the occasional book review, my journal. I tried, unsuccessfully, to finish a book of stories stemming from 15–20 years back. The point is, I caned myself. I’m exhausted. And I’m not even sure I captured my best singing and playing, since for the most part I wasn’t playing music but producing it; I’d stop producing to do some quick playing, then go back to producing. It was maddening.

It’s telling, I think, that this whole revelation — this recognition that I’ve “left behind desire” — was set in motion earlier this week when I threw out my shoulder after a long day of computer-work at the British Library. (See last entry: “Give Up Singing?”) At first, I didn’t see a broader significance in this; I just thought, okay, I need to get fitter, I’m not young anymore. But something arose in my heart, I think, in the following days: first, a familiar sense of uselessness, of pressure to “legitimise” myself, ideally by earning an income through art; but once I’d processed that old ache it went further, till almost despite myself I doubted aloud my musical output and recoiled in pain when my wife, at least partly, joined in doubting. Not to blame my wife in any way— I mean, it’s kind of pathetic that her criticism hit me so hard, given we hardly even share the same musical tastes at times. It illustrates how alone I am, and the dangers of my not interacting with an audience. And it shows what a fantasy my musical identity is, if it can be so undermined by the opinion of one person. But worst of all, I fear, it shows me in pretty much constant fear of humiliation: “What if I’m no good?!”

The poet Rilke, I seem to recall, wrote of certain people whose longing goes ahead of them, repelling intimacy, because others are scared such longing might swallow them. Is that me? Do I yearn so much to move people through music that I frighten them off? And is it only coincidence that what I worked on at the library the other day was music-promotion, preparing for the release of “Same Stars Shine”? Let’s just say I didn’t have much enthusiasm for that task — in fact, the thought of acting the salesman, as always, embarrasses me.

Before I left Australia I crammed in a last two weeks in the country. I rushed to finish everything associated with Light Traveller, knowing how hard it can be to revisit a project. To mix the album, I knew, was too ambitious, but I recorded enough raw material (enough guitars, bass and vocals) to mix it here in England if I felt inspired to. I don’t. And by the time I do, am I really going to want to promote it? It pains me to say it, but Light Traveller may be over before it’s even begun.

(Handwritten June 23rd 2017)

Café Oto, Dalston
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