Friday, July 20, 2007

Marillion & Fish & genre: personal connections

Since I've been focussing my interest mostly on fiction, I've lost touch with most modern rock music. So while I read fiction so fresh it's unpublished (although that for a few of these stories should change), I increasingly play old music.

While I'm mostly a heavy metal maniac, I also like progressive rock (although it hasn't been exactly 'progressive' for -- say -- the last twenty years), and last week I found myself digging up old Marillion CDs. The old ones, when Fish was the singer.

Those who know the old Marillion will have their own favourites:

  • Script for a Jester's Tear: the debut where I especially like "He Knows, You Know"and "Forgotten Sons";
  • Fugazi: my second favourite album with the razor-sharp "Assassing", the superbly dramatic "Incubus", and the biting and insightful title track "Fugazi";
  • Misplaced Childhood: with the breakthrough hit "Kayleigh" (and atypically one of the songs from that album I still like best), it's Marillion's most acclaimed album;
  • Clutching at Straws: Fish's swan song with Marillion. Contrary to popular opinion, this is easily my favourite Marillion album.
With me, it goes like this: I put Clutching at Straws in the CD player, and with most songs gooseflesh occurs. Almost every time.

So I put in the previous three albums (my CD can hold 7 CDs), and time and again they just don't give me the emotional and intellectual catharsis of Clutching at Straws. Fugazi comes closest: "Assassing" is always nice and sharp, "Incubus" a piece of performance art, and "Fugazi" a cutting insight in Thatcherite England. Script for a Jester's Tear is OK, but not much more than that. For some reason, Childhood's End never quite works for me: I play it, trying it once more, only to find that indeed it's missing something. So shoot me, but while I appreciate the quality of the music, I just don't connect.

For me, Clutching at Straws' got it. In spades: this is Fish at his most desperate, but also at his most poetic, at his most insightful. And here Steve Rothery plays every guitar solo as if it's his last (of course it wasn't, but it sure sounds like it): pouring emotion in every bloody note. The rest of the band is in fine form, and the production is superb.

What it comes down to for the rest of the band is to provide the basis for the two stars to shine: Steve Rothery and Fish. During the recording (and subsequent tour) of Clutching at Straws, Fish had had it: the pressure of success, instant celebrity and the unrelenting tour schedule (I suspect that was the most important part) had taken their toll, and he was all but about to call it a day.

It shines through in almost every song of the album, but most particularly on "That Time of the Night", "Going Under" and "Sugar Mice". In retrospect, it's as if the rest of the band -- and especially Rothery -- realised this would be the last album with Fish, and (subconsciously) acted on it: delivering a near flawless performance, and Steve Rothery playing like the (poetic) devil chasing him.

Fish was at the end of his rope, and while I didn't see Marillion on the Clutching at Straws tour, a good friend of me told me that live Fish was only a shadow of his former self. Quite possibly he might have peaked (is that why they call it a swan song?) during the recording of Clutching at Straws.

There are some lesser songs on the album: "Just for the Record" is a filler, and I'm not quite enthusiastic about "Going Under" and "Torch Song", either (while I do understand their necessity and inclusion, as they're both confession songs, as well. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself).

But the beginning (first three songs) and ending (last three songs) take Marillion to soaring heights. "Hotel Hobbies" sets the tone: Fish in the next indistinguishable hotel on an endless tour, deperately trying to avoid going to the bar, writing lyrics in his room. Poignant observations in poetic lyrics, signalling the confessions to come. The build-up of the song is superb, foreshadowing the shape of things to come.

"Warm Wet Circles" is the first masterpiece: a deceptively calm start, with a true-to-life depiction of modern life, dissecting it to the bone. This is the 'assessing/assassin' poet Fish at the top of his game, not analysing his people because he's superior to them, but beause he's one of them, because he understands them as he is like them (1). A confession, as he realises these people mirror him. As Fish's insights get closer to the heart, the music's passion increases, especially Rothery's guitar providing a perfect counterpoint for Fish's poignant vocals.

This song never fails to give me gooseflesh.

And it seemlessly blends into "That Time of the Night". This is Fish on the confession chair: it doesn't get much more honest than that: straight from the heart, although Fish does that without a single cliché (or if he does reinventing each and every one of them). Despair showing through, and with Fish acknowledging it, and letting it, together with Rothery's phenomenal chops, lead him to a climax -- pouring out his heart -- and a sort of catharsis.


"So if you ask me where do I go from here, my next destination isn't even that clear" Fish asks in "That Time of the Night", and explores that question further in "White Russian", which indeed begins (and often repeats) "Where do we go from here". Obviously, the focus has shifted from Fish personally to the world (and the UK) at large, although that distinction is not always clear. The song is both a testament to indifference and a confession that he (and we all) are guilty of it. Here's a man who knows he should stand up and fight, but has lost the balls to do it, and implies that we all have the same problem. Another masterpiece of music and lyrics.

"Incommunicado" is fun, but a bit too self-consciously self-deprecating after the brilliant "White Russian". That this one became another hit was an irony in itself.

Then (I know I ignored three songs here, but I said I thought those the weakest) we get to the finale: the threesome of "Slainthe Mhath", "Sugar Mice", and "The Last Straw".

As it is, "Slainthe Mhath" repeats and recycles both "That Time of the Night" and "White Russian", although here Fish doesn't lay the blame squarely with himself (and thus onto us), but on other, more evil people. Fish the passionate observer has become a bit cynical here, but I suspect it's something -- yes, the cynical attitude -- that he had to get out of his system, as well.

But he's back to full personal disclosure in "Sugar Mice", which in an interview he calls his favourite song on his favourite album. Here he apologises for his behaviour, on a very personal level, and takes responsibility. He comes clear.

And after he's come clear personally on "Sugar Mice", he ask the world at large to come clear on "The Last Straw", even if it's hopeless. This is Fish at his most desperate, and Rothery with his most poignant guitar solo. Awesome. Breathtaking. Cathartic.

Some of you might wonder why I like a gloomy album so much: am I not supposed to be one of the champions of the optimistic, forward-looking? Well, to me, Clutching at Straws is a catharsis: I wallow in its despair, because it's phenomenally beautiful despair. I go through it, and then come out recharged: I've vented/went through my feelings of despair, and overcame them. Learned that I should rise above them, and try to move forward. And that gets us to genre stuff: horror, fantasy, sf (and maybe even literature).

Now, if I may generalise greatly (and I do realise that there are huge amounts of exceptions to this, but bear with me as I forward my argument, c.q. feeling), one might distinguish the separate genres by sensibility. Of course, this makes the distinctions highly subjective, and quite a few of you will passionately disagree, but -- as is often the case -- this tells more about me than about the genres. So let's go out on a limb.

Horror might be viewed --as James Van Pelt muses on his blog -- as the the acknowledgement that life/existence/the Universe (fill in your own synonym) is basically hostile. Roughly speaking (and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a horror aficionado), horror is the literature that deals with that realisation (or, at least, good horror).

Taken a step further one might even say that all literature is about death. My good friend Des Lewis (with whom I disagree a lot, making him such an interesting discussion partner) proclaims this, calling in 'the ominous imagination'.*

In that light, a huge part of both fantasy and SF might be seen as repressing that fear of death: escapism. Roughly speaking, again, one could see the majority as a denial of death: no matter how imaginative, spectacular, or dazzling the victory of life over death: it is only temporary. Delaying -- and thus denying -- the inevitable.

So -- in a magical metaphysical melancholic moment mixing metaphors with an alliterative élan -- let's call horror the acknowledging genre , let's call fantasy the emotive genre, and SF the intellectual genre (yeah, huge generalisations. Allow me to get to the point).

Back to rock'n'roll, there's this guy called Henry Rollins (ex-Black Flag, now Rollins Band) who has experienced intense depression just like Derek William Dick (Fish). But, as he says in one of his songs: "Suicide? I'm not the type." Neither am I. Neither is, I propose, Fish.

In the Clutching at Straws album Fish dredges the depths of his soul, desperately looks for some smidgen of meaning, and mostly comes up empty.

And still he decides to live on.

Yes, after the tour he quit the band: he'd had enough. But after recovering he comes back solo (and so do Marillion after Fish). Arguably, neither of them quite reach the heights separately that they did together, both artistically and commercially. But Fish did move on.

And that's how I experience Clutching at Straws: a journey into darkness, a trek through despair. I've had such moments of despair, but, like Henry Rollins, I'm just not the suicidal type. So I move on.

Let's put my cards on the table: I know I'm going to die (even though I surreptitiously hope that Ray Kurzweil is right and we'll all be uploaded in the upcoming singularity, I'm not exactly betting on it). I'm an atheist, so I believe that death is really the end. And I don't see any meaning to live (not even '42'...;-), apart from the meaning you yourself put into it.

And that, my friends, is where I put science fiction. Horror (and possibly most of literary fiction) might be saying: life is shit, pointless, and will never get any better. Fantasy might be sticking its fingers in its ears, saying: "na-na-naah: I can't hear you!" while it immerses itself in the next escapist fantasy: elaborate, intricate, startingly beautiful and dazzling, but basically being in denial (true for a lot of SF as well, I know). Then there's the rational science fiction, acknowledging that the Universe might be devoid of meaning, and that life is a freak occurance in a near-infinite ocean of emptiness. However, after acknowledging that, it also acknowledges the beauty of existence (Blindsight author Peter Watts might say that this esthetic interpretation/appreciation is an effect of another freak occurrance called consciousness), and tries to look for the cause of that beauty. SF explores, and, as its understanding of the working of the cosmos increases, it experiences a deeper sense of wonder.

Not the sense of wonder from a spiritual or religion transcendental experience: that is basically getting something for nothing, getting the answers without understanding them, and akin to a high from drugs: intense, mind-blowing, but empty and addictive. Every time you need more to experience the same high, until its effectiveness goes down the drain, and you're a wreck.

But the sense of wonder of -- as Richard Feynman called it -- finding things out. Something that sharpens your intellect, not weakens it. Something that expands the mind, not blows it. Something that might be just as addictive, but develops your brain, not deteriorates it. Something that makes you chase new horizons, not wallow in limitations. Something that turns you into an eternal learner, makes you see both the strangest and simplest things in a new light, and might even give meaning to your life: you can explore.

Explore this Universe: it can be cold and mostly empty, but also strange and beautiful. You will -- most probably -- die, but before you do you can add to the understanding of life, the Universe, and everything. You can temporarily transcend death, but unlike a fiery mayfly, now you can pass the torch of knowledge to the next generation, to humanity, to sentient life at large.

And maybe life cannot escape death, entropy, and the heat death/the big crunch/the big rip (take your pick) in the end. But we're not going down without a fight, and have great fun in the process.

And that's what SF is to me: defiance in the face of doom, with a smile on my face, and my mind alight with sense of wonder.


* = I don't fully agree. With the same impunity I could say that all literature is about jealousy, and interpret anything anybody has written in that light, no matter how inapproriate. Or instead of 'death', or 'jealousy', use 'love', 'hate', 'fear' or some other broad emotion.

(1) Such lyrics make me cry out, simultaneoulsy, in despair, envy and awe: despair because I can't be so good, envy because somebody else is so good, and finally awe because it is so awfully good. The second emotion is fleeting, and evaporates quickly. The third one stays, and the first one makes me try harder in the increasingly rare times that I write myself.

(2) What is it with Scots and writing? While most Scottish people I know are fine, especially once you get to know them, the majority isn't more gifted than other people. But once in a while a Scot crops up and totally blows me away: Fish aka Derek William Dick, Marion Arnott, and Hal Duncan. So I've decided to drink more scottish single malts.