Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Story Of Creation

Twelve and a half minutes. That's how long.

Twelve and a half minutes.

One song.

The time it took to turn my life around.

It wasn't until the mid-nineties that I truely discovered Dexy's Midnight Runners. I'd been a bit young to get 'Geno', stuck in a Bowie fixation around the time of their second coming, and too busy trying to survive university when they emerged, re-invented, for their third studio album in 1985.

I stumbled upon them, more by chance than design, at a time in my life when things were just drifting, in 1994. I'd immersed myself in music and made three startling discoveries:

One: There was more to Stevie Wonder than 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' and 'Happy Birthday'. Becoming familiar with his back catalogue, 'Songs In The Key Of Life' and 'Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants' in particular, was a revelation.

Two: The Beach Boys wrote songs different than the throw-away romps of 'Surfing USA' and 'Fun, Fun, Fun'. Brian Wilson's songwriting, I found, had produced some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking records I'd ever heard. 'God Only Knows', 'The Warmth Of The Sun', Surf's Up'. Genius.

Three: The three albums made by Dexy's Midnight Runners - records that had passed me by - were incredible. More than incredible. Unbelievable.

I'd 'borrowed' a copy of the first album, 'Searching For The Young Soul Rebels' on a visit to Our Kid's digs in Nottingham. The sleeve notes had enthralled me and the music hadn't fallen short. The abrasive and uplifting soul of 'Dance Stance', 'Geno' and 'There, There My Dear' was nothing short of electrifying.

I'd come across a vinyl copy of their second album, 'Too Rye Ay', at an indoor car boot market in Cleethorpes. After taking the first incarnation of Dexy's to its self-destructive conclusion, Kevin Rowland, the poetic pugilist who's energy, extremism and presence was central to each of the Runners' line-ups, had stolen an idea from a former band-mate, put together a new band and adopted Plan B. The woolly hats and donkey jackets had been replaced by dirty dungarees and dishevelment. The horns had been supplemented with violins. The musicians had become The Celtic Soul Brothers. The success of 'Come On Eileen' propelled Dexy's into a sphere of adoration undreamed of, and, it appears, totally unwanted. Go beyond your preconceptions of 'Come On Eileen' as a perennial wedding reception favourite, and it's impossible to deny that  the 'Too Rye Ay' album is anything short of a landmark. Rowland, typically, had been unimpressed. 'It was rubbish,' he said later. 'It wasn't leading anywhere. I could just make money - so what? I have to have self-respect.'

The third album, 'Don't Stand Me Down', was already in my record collection. Our Kid had bought it on its release, and although he'd enthused at the time, I'd never really gotten to listen to it properly. Really listen. When I  finally got round to it, I played nothing else on my stereo for more than a month.

Released in 1985, 'Don't Stand Me Down' had been the very epitome of 'the long awaited, much anticipated next album.' Rumours had spread that it was the most expensive album ever recorded, that two hundred hours of tape were piled up as Rowland strove for perfection. The music world waited with bated breath.

When it arrived, 'Don't Stand Me Down' knocked everyone sidewards. In the heyday of 80's excess, with Culture Club and Sigue Sigue Sputnik at their zenith, Dexy's new look was conservative in the extreme. Clean-cut, mature and dressed in preppy Ivy League attire, Kevin Rowland, Billy Adams and Helen O' Hara, the three key members of this new incarnation, stared impassively from the cover of the album, giving no indication of what lay inside. There would be no single. No promotion. The record would stand alone on its own merits.

A 45-minute record containing just seven songs, 'Don't Stand Me Down' is a bold, passionate, brave record. At various times, Rowland swoons with love, confesses, accuses, curses and rages with frustration. Throughout the album, he enters into coversational asides with Billy Adams, often displaying his worries and doubt. The music and songwriting, however, display anything but. Here is a record that mirrors Rowland's ego. It's volatile and vivacious. It's frantic and profound. It's utterly majestic.

Of course, as is always the case, coming after the more populist sensibilities of 'Too Rye Ay', 'Don't Stand Me Down' was a disaster. It bombed. Kevin Rowland's masterplan went horribly wrong. Dexy's carreer never fully recovered. In believing, in 'burning', Rowland had over-estimated the public's and critics' ability to believe with him.

'I own records that have the power to make me cry. Records to be by or with - truely precious possessions,' Rowland had said once. 'It is the ambition of the Midnight Runners to make records of this value.'

With 'Don't Stand Me Down', Rowland believed he had done this. An overwhelming majority begged to differ.

By the time I got round to discovering the album in the middle of the nineties, time had been kind. Clearly ahead of its time, critics had re-evaluated. There was now talk of it being 'a lost gem', 'a much-neglected masterpiece', or, indeed, 'the greatest record ever made.' And it was inevitable that one song kept getting mentioned. The centre-piece of the album. Dexy's magnum opus. Twelve and a half minutes long.

'This Is What She's Like'.

It's 8pm. I've been at work since 5.30 am. I lock the shutter doors to the factory, secure the metal gates to the yard and drag myself into the van. In the four years since the fire, that crazy night when I gave away a life that was absolutely full of not much, things have been better. That's without doubt. The new business has survived start-up, Whirlwind's arrived to join Lightning, and I'm enjoying more time at home. But things, though, just aren't quite right. I'm gradually falling into my old trap of working too many hours, keeping things to myself, jumping into dark holes. There's a gnawing inside me. Is that what you'd call it? A feeling I can't put my finger on. I've got a perfect family, a nice house, a vintage VW bus, a successful business. What's wrong with me? There's nothing wrong. But there is!

I'd been over to Our Kid's new place - a little caravan on a big site in Skeggy - at the weekend, and while he'd mashed a cuppa, I'd spotted a CD he'd bought from the local music emporium. Dexy's Midnight Runners, 'Don't Stand Me Down - The Director's Cut'. Having not listened to it for years, I blagged him to let me borrow it.

As I pull out of the Industrial Estate, I push the disc into the CD player and jump it on to track 2.

'This Is What She's Like'.

Two people are talking. Desultory small talk. Kevin and Billy.

'All right Bill?' says Kevin.

'All right,' Billy replies.

And on it goes for a minute or two. No music, just voices.

'Where've you been?'

'Been down Bearwood.'

'Seen anyone down there?'

Mundane chat between two mates.

After a while, Billy gets to the point. There's something he wants to know. That girl - you know the one - That Girl, and he croons the question, 'What's she like?'

Kevin thinks for a moment. He's trying to find the words. It's difficult. How do you verbalise That Feeling?

He has a go anyway. 'Well, you know the type of people who put creases in their old Levis?' he starts.


' The kind that use expressions like 'tongue-in-cheek' and 'send-up'?'

'Indeed I do.'

'I don't like those people,' Kevin spits out, 'May I state here and now.' I can't stand people like that. That's not her. That's not what she's like. That's everything she's not.

Billy's not quite getting it. The music has joined us now - stomping fiddles, bass guitar.

Kevin tries again. 'Let me put it another way.'

'Yeah, please do.'

'Well, you know how the English upper classes are thick and ignorant?' he goes on, 'And you've seen the scum from Notting Hill and Moseley they call the CND?'

'Sure,' says Billy.

'They describe nice things as 'wonderful', says Kevin. 'She would never say that. She's totally different in every way.'

Billy's still not getting it. 'What's she like?' he keeps pressing.

'In time. In time,' Kevin keeps repeating, until everything's too much and he just can't help himself. 'I would like to express myself at this point,' he tells Billy, and the song escalates into transcendence with Kevin 'la la li la'ing like there's no tomorrow.

In time, he manages to come back down, but now Billy's getting the gist.

Kevin continues. 'Bill, you know the newly-wealthy peasants with their home bars and hi-fis? They use words like 'fabulous' and 'super' in each sentence. Well I don't like those scumbags - may I be clear on this point?'

These are all the things she is NOT.

'But what's she like?' Billy keeps asking.

Finally, Kevin knows that mere words can't do it. He decides that not only will he tell us what she's like, but he'll make it clear. He'll present a picture. LISTEN CLOSE.

The music stops.

A crisp violin starts playing, and then the horns kick in. Already it's the greatest single moment of any record I know. And that's before Kevin starts singing. When he does, your heart levitates (in the video Rowland does ,literally, at this point.) We've all had That Feeling. This is how it sounds.

Chris Roberts, in The Melody Maker's give-away 'Forbidden Pleasures' booklet, describes it perfectly: 'Now, of course, WHAT SHE'S LIKE, after all, is articulated, not through words, but through a wailing and howling and crooning that brings the paint off the walls to reveal hidden Michaelangelo's.'

It's an estatic, uplifting moment. Sublime. Beautiful.

Billy's got the drift now, and with this knowledge, the band is uncaged. 'You want this to go on forever,' states Roberts in the same piece, 'and it damn near does.'

There's a patch of grass on the road-side opposite our house where I always park the van. I'm pulling up there as the song finishes. I engage the handbrake. Turn off the engine and switch off the headlights. Then I skip the CD back to the start of the track and listen again. And again.

Tam comes out from the house after a while and walks over to the van where I'm sat in the dark with the stereo up.

'You ok?' she goes, 'What you doing?'

'Note,' I reply, ' Just listening to something.'

When the track finishes again, I know I can't stay here all night. I sit in silence. I knew after that first twelve and a half minutes, but just needed to check. After the next two plays, I'm sure.

I was wrong. This gnawing feeling I've had. That's not what it is. I know now, and I know what to do.

This feeling I've got. It's 'burning'.


I've talked about Keep On Burning before. Rowland and The Cappucino Kid had been central in its development. But somehow I'd fallen into a trap. I'd become content. I was starting to become like everyone else.

The 'burning' feeling gives you no choice. If you ignore it, it just won't go away. The 'burning' feeling gives you one option. Create.

The 'burning' feeling had pushed Kevin Rowland to inspiring heights in the creation of his music. He'd fed upon it, used it to strive forwards, follow his inner convictions and make art that was stunning, ground-breaking.

I knew where my 'art' lay. I was certain where my creativity could be best expressed. After a decade or more of only jogging sporadically, there was only one thing I could do. I would become a runner again.

Every run is an act of creation. Some of them are true works of art. I can sit with an OS map in front of me, link footpaths, lanes and bridleways to create a challenging long distance route. I can leave the shelter of the car in a rain-swept Lake District lay-by and take to the mountains, joining summits or exploring valleys in a day-long frenzy of endurance improvisation. The final result is the same - a work of art that has no material structure but weighs heavy in enjoyment, adventure and lasting memories.

In the quest to lead a life of fulfillment it's essential to be creative. In the four years since I resumed running seriously, The Art of Empty Miling has gone a long way to appeasing that 'burning' feeling.  But I've made a conscious effort to be more creative, full-stop. It's not hard. Try writing. A half-day spent composing a blog entry isn't time wasted. The end result is a piece of art that, ultimately, means nothing, but maybe - just maybe - might touch someone in a way that provokes thought, debate, further investigation or simply puts a smile on their face.

Do things differently. Sleep on the other side of the bed occasionally. If you always eat meat, try a vegetarian meal. Lose your watch for a day. Find ways of recycling stuff you no longer want. Turn your back on faceless multi-nationals for a while and spend your money in a local shop , or on gear made by a company with a conscience, or a funky start-up business . Every one of these will make your life more interesting, more rewarding, and that's what creativity is all about.

Whilst it's not hard to live a creative life, it also may not be easy. After 'Don't Stand Me Down', Kevin Rowland's creative path led him to cocaine addiction and then redemption. In the late nineties he signed a major deal with Creation Records and returned with an album of covers of songs that had literally kept him alive. Given this second chance, you might have guessed a fairytale ending. Rowland decided to radically change his image once more. His new wardrobe included a short, white dress, white stockings and court shoes. A Glastonbury performance ended in him being pelted with bottles of piss. His album, 'My Beauty', is reported to have sold less than 100 copies, and almost single-handedly brought about the demise of the Creation label. 

I doubt that Kevin would have minded too much. He still believed. He had his self-respect. Maybe some day, everyone would 'catch up', just as they had done with 'Don't Stand Me Down'.

He's been quiet of late. Just one song 'It's ok Johanna' , has surfaced on the internet, and it's brutal in its honesty and mesmerising in its beauty.

There are rumours of a Dexy's reunion in 2012. Some talk of a fourth studio album. I simply can't wait.

There's a quote from Alan Alda that I read somewhere. He says simply:

'The creative is the place where no-one else has ever been. You have to leave your city of comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover is yourself.'

It's this place I'll be heading for as I slip on my trainers in the morning and set off on my next running adventure. Ready and excited to be creating a new work of art.

Maybe you'll be doing the same - leaving the city and heading for the wilderness?

If so, I'll see you there.

1 comment:

  1. I have no words to describe how much I love this post. Amazing & inspiring.