Friday, 18 July 2008

THE BROTHERS JOHNSON: Strawberry Letter 23

Another 1977 which I’m not sure has still been properly understood; another hot summer, NME front covers about punk but also about Zen and sunglasses, my dad yelling at me to get the hell out into the street and the sunshine - in both situations, you learn to keep yourself to yourself – wandering circuitously around the village as though it were the world, searching in vain for familiar faces from school, realising they were absent, off into their own, or their families’, world, unresolvable crushes. Dreams of hearing a kiss from a lover…was this really 1977?

Was it really 1977 (that knowing chuckle of “is it cool? Is it cool?”), with the carousel gliding from channel to channel, fading out, and then…harpsichords and words which sounded ten years old but also an endless spaciousness of rhythm, bass, drums and guitar all playing distant triple ping pong on the planet Venus, and then a Rundgren “Hello, my love” with references to red magic satin, west purple shower bells and tea in the garden – but, as in “Flowers In The Rain” by the Move, the real rain is endless. Not that this lover cares; orange birds, green-clad river cousins, blue flowers and cherry clouds, and always the music you’ll never be able to hear on an iPod; the world as it thrives and breathes despite everything we throw at it.

Because he’s with his Other, he’s empathically free, as the curtains of the song slowly draw even more open to reveal the drift of the glide, over the sea (even then I was dubious that I’d find salvation in my home village); he has this letter scented with strawberries (“Strawberry letter 22” to which letter 23 is a euphorically pink reply), and after every fancied colour imagery of 1967 has decorated his path he abandons the need for words altogether, the harpsichord tinkling the main melody and deep but lush “oooooooohhhhhhh”s speakers of kite drifting happily around the lover’s mauve field with a sudden burst of floridity as guitar erupts from the sea in a kettle of idealised ecstasy, echoing its external rotation into and of itself before drums signal a return to the placidly plaid dream.

As the song itself advises, playgrounds will laugh, and no doubt they would have done if I’d tried to explain this unforeseen magic in any “realistic” consideration of 1977’s music – you learn to keep such things to yourself – and Quincy ’s expert deployment of echo and space was a path he’d been patiently pursuing for at least the previous fifteen years. Only later, in a different century and nearing the end of a different life, did I hear the original on Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information, recorded in 1971; an extraordinary bedroom tape of an indie-soul-God knows what fusion album which would long since have been worshipped had it been early Beck or Ariel Pink (and without the advantage of subsequent technology), and its procedurals are different (beyond rudimentary drum machines – but then, 1971!) but its aims the same. And now I’m able to talk about the magic and the associated pattern. I no longer need to keep anything to myself.