In September, I was in hospital for the treatment of a condition that made itself evident to me only in late August. I am long out of hospital. I am having the best care and treatment anyone could have. I am recovering. Low’s ‘2-Step’, in particular the part sung by Mimi Parker, who I just learned died last night, November 5th, was critical to my recovery and to my knowing that I would recover. Her singing signalled to me that a potential devastating consequence of a new-onset illness, a consequence for which I was trying to but could not conceivably brace myself, was not going to happen. I am not a crier but in my single room, when she sang, I wept.
It’s hard to describe exactly what my core symptom was that required hospital admission, but it was musical. Of course it was.
Let me try.
What I experienced was something that you could call musical déjà vu. Déjà entendu? My B in Leaving Cert French is unsure. I found myself on three occasions in six days thinking that I was remembering a song that was just out of reach, but I was not. I would realise five minutes later that what I had glimpsed as a tune or a lyric was not one at all. This was odd and it taught me something that I hadn’t been consciously aware of, which is that my musical memory constantly reaches out to adhere itself to a song relevant to what’s happening.
It’s not just a memory function, either. It uses a lot of my cognitive power because it is at my core. My sense is that songs have been so important to me since I gave up religion in 1987 (the year of The Joshua Tree and just before Green) and that it is music that I worship. Music provides my commandments. Just—ten thousand commandments. What was unusual about these symptoms was that my mind was reaching out to adhere itself to a song that wasn’t a song. This is why I call it musical déjà vu. You know how you are sure that you’ve done this thing before, until minutes later you are sure that you have not. Same, but for songs.
It is easy to think of examples now that I know this happens. My cousin the other day asked that if I saw a woman we both know, I would say hello. Bob Dylan’s ‘If You Say Her Say Hello’, from Blood on the Tracks, arrived unbidden and unfortunately for my kids got stuck on Tidal in the kitchen with me hollering along. When I wrote “to my knowing” in the first paragraph, my mind started singing ‘The Not Knowing’, which closes the first Tindersticks album. In Naas this afternoon it bucketed down as we left the bookshop. At the time, I silently sang the riff to The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, but now, having mentioned Blood on the Tracks, I have to hear ‘Buckets of Rain’. I was reading through this piece with my wife Sharon when she used the term “anchor” to describe the role that a song has for me and not un-telepathically we both conjured Björk and we laughed.
So this seems all like good fun and sure, yes it is. But there’s more to it and there are so many songs that are deeply meaningful in a way that is hard to describe. There are songs that I have attached myself to, or they have attached themselves to me, or both.
Only after I first experienced this symptom did I notice how often I have written about songs teaching me how to live. In fact, dating my music-based decisions to 1987 is dating them too late. I wanted to be a priest when I was ten in 1984 but at eleven, under the influence of Live Aid, I decided to become a doctor. I titled a piece last year about The Weather Station Guiding Lights and I wrote in a 2020 piece about BC Camplight the following: I still use songs like BC Camplight’s to remind me to try to be a better human and to continue to teach me how to do it. It’s crazy that I still rely on songs like this. I’m not far off fifty years old. I meet a lot of people and I’ve had a lot of experiences. I still need reminders?
I met my friend Dr Killian O’Rourke in hospital a couple of days after admission and we talked through this. We looked at simple things like ‘Open House’ from Songs for Drella. Killian and I wrote a paper together once and because I was first author we joked that I was Lou Reed and he was John Cale. I’m nothing like Andy Warhol—I don’t like Brillo that much, for instance—but I long since latched on to this ‘Open House’ lyric or it latched on to me: “It’s a Czechoslovakian custom my mother passed on to me / Give people little presents so they remember me”. Anyone who’s had me bring or send something since 1990 owes The Velvets.
Then Killian and I talked about bitterness. I am incapable of bitterness. Now, I am an inordinately lucky person. Bitterness would be mostly comical. Still, at the time we were having this conversation I’d been landed in hospital with a near future of deep uncertainty and potential calamity. People including me were worried. But I couldn’t locate any bitterness. This is for two musical reasons. One is Mark Eitzel’s ‘Bitterness’, from The Invisible Man, and one is Prefab Sprout’s ‘Life of Surprises’, from Protest Songs.
In ‘Bitterness’, Eitzel sings “Bitterness poisons the soul”, and that’s it. In the context of American Music Club’s oeuvre and Eitzel’s solo output, this statement carries huge weight. The first song I ever heard by Mark Eitzel was ‘Why Won’t You Stay’, which opens 1991’s Everclear, a tender exhaling account of finding a friend who died by suicide, which is something I did ten years later. My friend owned vinyl Low albums that I inherited, including Secret Name, which I still have and which hosts ‘2-Step’. Eitzel’s songs are full of trauma and and he has never been sheltered. If he rules out bitterness as a response to life events, then that needs to be taken very seriously.
In ‘Life of Surprises’, Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith sing some of the most important words I’ve ever heard, that embedded and embroidered themselves into me in a way that incalculably improved my life. This was a long time ago—’Life of Surprises’ is on a mixtape that I made for Sharon just after we met in 2001. There was one daunting morning in hospital that I woke early, humming “Just say that you were happy, as happy would allow / And tell yourself that that will have to do for now”. There is then the core couplet that matches Eitzel’s lyric: “Never say you’re bitter, Jack / Bitter makes the worst things come back”.
The reason it was necessary for me to write this down and talk it through with Killian, asking him to write it down too, was that I feared I was about to lose this musical anchoring. I wanted in a week or two’s time, if things had changed, to have written down a relationship with songs that I would work to reattain.
During the conversation with Killian, I logically concluded that songs like ‘Bitterness’ and ‘Life Of Surprises’ are musical lassos that spread out from me without me knowing I’m throwing them, that wrap themselves around touchstones or longstones, and ground and steady me when I need them to, which is always. I feared that due to illness or treatment my musical centre would be disconnected from my autobiographical centre, so those lassos would not work. All the grounding and guidance I’ve acquired over the guts of forty years of listening to songs by so many brilliant and beautiful and wise people would be gone. That I would not be able to distinguish between lyrics that meant something and lyrics that were nothing. I don’t know how possible is it to empathise fully with this but I imagine many music lovers can. Imagine all the lessons, the emotional range and stability learned from songs, evaporating. How lost can one person be?
So I avoided meaningful music for a few days after admission.
Then, a week later, there was a point when I had to see what had happened. Symptoms were better, treatment was in place, and I have a playlist called Goosebumps on Tidal that aims to include all of the most emotionally significant songs in my life. I started the playlist in July after my Mum died and it keeps growing, to just over four hundred songs now. I thought: well, the only way to know if songs still mean as much as they did in July is to put on this playlist. If I get no goosebumps, then things have changed. I stuck on headphones and as casually as I could—as casually as the rabbit in your headlights off Unkle’s Psyence Fiction—I hit the shuffle button. Randomness felt important.
My phone played six songs. It did not take six songs to know I was alright. It took one.
The songs came on in this order: ‘2-Step’ by Low, ‘This Woman’s Work’ by Kate Bush, ‘Quiet Heart’ by The Go-Betweens, ‘Like a Song’ by U2, ‘The Waltz’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, and Aphex Twin’s ‘aisatsana’. All these meant something but it It was Mimi Parker’s singing on ‘2-Step’ that told me I was OK and that my mind and heart were intact.
It’s hard to convey what an enormous gift this was from Mimi Parker to me.
In a way, in fact, it was my anticipation of her singing when Alan Sparhawk started singing that did it. Alan opens ‘2-Step’ in his also beautiful voice and his contribution here is foundational. It’s like he is the first to get his chisel to the marble, but Mimi makes the Pietà. So as the song came on, I heard, for the two hundredth time, Alan sing “And the light, it burns your skin / In a language you don’t understand / It’s not that hard / It is not that hard”. My eyes began to burn. I was moved. I was intensely moved. And I thought: wait, this is not the peak. It felt like a peak. But it was base camp.
Mimi joins Alan soon and then she takes the lead vocal such that the song’s summit is when she sings “2-Step / Around the room / Kneel down on white / 2-step around the room / Kneel down on white”. Her voice, its solidity and its intensity and its quivering, is just so enriching. Listening to Alan opening the song, I felt my heart already full, like my lassos reminded me Morrissey’s was in 1994, and I thought: wait—if Mimi’s singing moves me more than Alan’s does, and it always has, and if my heart is already overflowing, then, how does that work? Where does this emotion go?
The answer was, that is when weeping begins, and it soon did. It was not as gentle as that of George’s guitar and it lasted five songs, to the end of ‘The Waltz’, which is itself eight minutes long. ‘The Waltz’ is one that ties me to Sharon, having been second choice after ‘City Sickness’ for opening song at our wedding disco, so it was completely weep-worthy.
A half hour of weeping is deeply unfamiliar to me but it was not distressing. These were tears of relief and joy, then quiet calm. ‘aisatsana’ in effect held my hand and led me out of this emotional turbulence so I could rest. I stopped the phone at that point.
I don’t quite know how to end this from here.
I am so terribly sorry to hear that Mimi Parker has passed away, just months after I saw her play live the only time I ever did, in April in Dublin. I wish I had sent this message to her while she was alive. I hope that Alan Sparhawk gets to read it when he is ready. Sharon and I wish him our most heartfelt condolences and I hope that my gratitude to him and his wife is obvious and well-explained. Low have taught, contained, sustained, nourished and elevated me for my entire post-adolescent life. They will continue to do this forever as will so much more music and I know this because of Mimi’s voice as experienced in hospital in September 2022.
I am so deeply, endlessly indebted.
May Mimi Parker rest in peace.