Monday, 19 May 2008

PORTISHEAD: Magic Doors


“And yet the tales we tell are not of bodies but of hearts and minds and souls”
(Simon Barnes)

If you happened to be on the outskirts of Wimbledon Village on this grey, drizzly Saturday mid-morning just past, you would have glimpsed a nondescript-looking middle-aged man ambling along the dully wet pavement, slightly hunched up against the weather but otherwise unconcerned. I like these wanders around obscure parts of the city, even though this slightly too clean to be true village doesn’t really feel like London , despite the occasional skyline glimpse through the steeply-angled bushes. The village hall is scrubbed perhaps too perfectly, the good-natured haggling in the ironmonger’s a tad too scripted, and the general premise of remoteness is ruined by the occasional streaking car, but overall it’s not an unpleasant place and a nicer walk than, say, any given stretch of the Harrow Road.

I also like these walks because hardly anyone does west or southwest London psychogeography – all the names which matter are circulating around the dwindling anti-paradise of the East, getting the last blood out of each paving stone before the Olympics come and render it into a new emptiness – and the only leylines I’m really seeking are emotional ones. As with that surprisingly lush, hidden part of Tooting – the golf range which runs round the back of what used to be Springfield Hospital – there is the feeling of deliberate shelter from a markedly less lush world outside. Eventually I arrive at a bus stop, and there’s that increasingly rare of sights, a single-decker non-bendy hopper bus, but its doors are open and the driver is patiently waiting for a passenger to finish smoking. The ladies on the bus – for they are nearly all ladies – are chitchatting as Saturday morning housewives are wont to do.

Then, just before he makes to leave, the driver drawls a sort of uber-Cockney reproach to the smoker; something about his having to leave the doors wide open and stop the bus for the smoke to clear. The smoker duly apologises, but it’s all a bit mechanical, as though they were obliged to act out this routine to pacify the invisible Health and Safety Executive. The bus departs and I alight at the markedly less placid concourse of Wimbledon Station itself, with its tacky Centre Court shopping centre façade. A quick skirt past the standard chain nightmare parade of shops, however, and onto the Broadway where quiet once more reigns; we silent throng of charity shop regulars, searching through the dust to find yet more unexpected miracles, the nearly imperceptible nod to other recognised travellers, the quest to reclaim something, heaven only knows what, non-living, unloved and abandoned, knowing full well that if I go out specifically to look for something I will never find it; jettison ambition, go with the slow flow and find whatever happens to be waiting.

Thankfully, however, I am no longer non-living, unloved or abandoned, and I now visit these places for a different reason. I don’t think I will ever forget the old man I once encountered in a charity shop in Streatham, no more than three or four years ago, pawing through and carefully examining cassettes and regularly bursting into tears; he had just lost his wife, the council were giving him grief about his home (I knew all this because he was conversing with the shop assistant) and he was desperately trying to piece together whatever fragments he could encounter to call his life “life” again. I recognised his quest immediately but was wise enough not to intrude with words of attempted empathy that he would at best have regarded as condescending, and at worst as the most grievous of insults.

No, I don’t want to go back to being that sort of person again. These days, whenever I buy things out of charity shops, it’s for things which are likely to brighten up our own home, mostly music and books, but anything else that may catch my eye and would be likely to catch hers, and I enjoy the experience far more than purchasing the latest off-the-peg produce from immense, impersonal department stores or chains. This is an aesthetic and moral rather than an economic response. I can buy any number of identikit lamps from the local Habitat but only one of the curiously coloured lamps I might view cowering behind some Mills and Boon paperbacks. My stubborn wee Clyde tugboat of resistance has yet to exhaust its supply of puff.

No need to go into intense detail about Saturday’s haul – and note that word “haul”’; there is the same end-of-day warm satisfaction that I’m told the huntin’ shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’ crowd derive from a day’s worth of meaningful activity, though without actually taking any animal’s life in doing so – which encompassed everything from an obscure 2000 Paolo Conte album which I hadn’t heard of before (half the record is sung by others, and the songs he sings are largely in English) via the Residents and Peter and Caspar Brötzmann to a Harry Secombe 2CD best-of (The Gold Collection) which I bought because my wife is keen to hear his version of “This Is My Song,” which came second to Pet Clark’s rendition in the early 1967 charts. And why not? The noble Seagoon deserves to be as much a part of 1967, that most expansive of years, as anyone else. And I said I wasn’t going to go into intense detail. Well, there were many others.

I don’t know how much charity shop browsing Portishead have collectively done over the years but I imagine there’s been a lot of it (at the time of Dummy, for instance, Johnnie Ray’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” had not been commercially available for some years and was the kind of record you could only really hope to find as a battered old Oxfam seven-inch); a lot of meticulous, agonised piecing together of elements with the purpose of telling a tale (or telling tales, for those who think Portishead are somehow having us on). As with the Shortwave Set, though, they’ve moved on from simply sampling their bargain findings and now furnish soundscapes which are entirely their own, albeit still clearly influenced by whatever they’ve been listening to that week, or month, or year (because it has been eleven years, near enough). But always to tell a tale, or in the case of Third, to spend the record’s 49 or so minutes spinning out a single tale, or the tale of a single soul.

Note how the music on Third has gradually solidified over the course of its journey, that things initially vague and indistinct are now being pulled into sharp focus. It’s the same tale she’s been telling all along – “I can’t deny what I’ve become/I’m just emotionally undone/…I can’t be someone else” – but the music is now visceral, a pummelling, distended 1987 Def Jam beat full of discordant, stumbling cowbells over which electric piano, hurdy gurdy and her Leslie cabinet voice combine for a raga of rage, a melody line which sounds eerily familiar (“The Sun Always Shines On TV” perhaps?) but twisted and kicked back into a bloody 1968 and regularly punctuated by stentorian, nation-sized deep piano plangencies (“I’ve been losing myself/My desire I can’t have/No reason am I for”).

Eventually all is brought to a head by an epileptic, echoplexed, overblowing baritone sax which is a clear homage to 1970-period John Surman but is actually being blown by Will Gregory (who was working on and off with Portishead before Goldfrapp, the duo, came into existence). Yet she continues to struggle her way towards the way out; the song begins with a dead test card monotone TV closedown whine and ends with the same note droned far more softly on a string synthesiser, a bridge towards the place where all of this is leading us, out towards whatever life remains – although when we reach there we should cast an eye back towards another, now nearly forgotten record which actually helped invent all of this, with the active participation of at least one of these souls now under such acrid self-scrutiny.