Thursday, November 29, 2007

What Presence


Edwyn Collins in his studio by Henri Kyriacous


‘I’m learning to sing again’, Edwyn Collins tells a devoted full house of fans in the bijou Arts Theatre in London on Sunday night. This isn’t some crass pronouncement from a maturity-free Aimless Wino type celebrity with metaphors where morals should be. No, Edwyn had literally forgotten how to sing and walk and talk too. In February 2005 he suffered two brain haemorrhages, triggering a massive stroke. Nearly three years later, the resolutely clenched fist on the end of his motionless right arm testifies to the brutality of the assault on this man’s body.

I knew Edwyn slightly in the early 80s when we used to hang around with the Postcard crowd. Mr T knows him better since he’s much more adept at both hanging around and keeping in touch. Edwyn’s illness began just six months after Michael Donaghy died of a brain haemorrhage. I was in Michael’s poetry class and knew him neither long nor well but I’d been to his 50th birthday dinner just months before. It was a shocking thing. I knew how serious this was for Edwyn and had followed his progress on the website, where his wife and manager Grace had been posting regular updates.

Mr T got us tickets for this intimate gig, one of a series Edwyn has been doing to promote his album, Home Again. The last time I saw Edwyn was in September 2001 when he and Roddy Frame did an acoustic gig together at Festival Hall in London. They alternated songs and played a couple together. It was chaos. I wrote this in my diary,

Both were very rusty and three times songs completely broke down because they’d forgotten them and had to abandon them. Edwyn did it twice and Roddy once. Unbelievable. Is the art of performance dying?

In typical Pants fashion, I then went on to predict the crumbling of the civilised world. It hasn’t quite come to that, I admit, but at the time I judged I’d a right to expect that at a sit-down concert in Festival Hall, the people on stage could at least get through a whole song. If it had been at Dingwall’s I would simply have gone to the bar for the duration and ended the evening in a much happier state of mind.

They clearly hadn’t rehearsed. Roddy Frame could play the dictionary without rehearsing. Edwyn was obviously the subversive in this scenario. Twice he’d restarted a song only to get to the same place he’d capsized the first time. He shrugged. He collapsed into fits of his celebrated hacking hyena laugh. He looked to an increasingly exasperated Roddy to pick up the pieces. It rattled Roddy so much he folded too. The unthinkable happened. Roddy Frame had an unexpected encounter with fallibility. Backstage, Roddy sat scowling while Edwyn dismissed the fiasco as ‘a bit of fun’.

Cut to the present day. Despite the experience of seeing Michael Donaghy in an open casket, felled by this condition, I haven’t prepared myself fully for how Edwyn might be. Knowing that Roddy Frame is playing with him, I joke to Mr T ‘Well it can’t be any worse than last time.’ I’m actually expecting him to be playing the guitar.

It’s a tiny theatre and we’re very close to the stage, in a side seat, perched like birds of prey. Edwyn propels himself out of the wings opposite us with considerable effort, his left side willing his disconsolate right side forward. I quietly vomit tears. For the first few minutes I shuffle through a library of redundant emotions, looking for a suitable match as Edwyn begins, falteringly, to sing.

Edwyn delivers a blinding fifty minute set where he makes not a single error excepting the occasional moment of dysphrasia, another legacy of the stroke. He’s had to learn all his songs again, from scratch. He has the lyrics in front of him, on a lectern. The dysphrasia produces a classic Mondegreen. He introduces a song he calls Wrong Track Mind. (When I buy the wonderful Home Again next day I’m briefly disappointed to learn the tune’s called One Track Mind). Edwyn hasn’t lost his instinct for piloting. He constantly subdues the audience’s expectations with rehearsed phrases that remind us he’s still a work in reconstruction. ‘I’m getting there’, he tells us, ‘slowly’.

Roddy Frame is the second-best guitar player in Britain (after David Gilmour obviously). He has a tuneful but not quite distinctive enough singing voice and, for reasons no one can fathom, has never written a particularly memorable song (except Somewhere in My Heart which is recallable for all the wrong reasons – tonight a member of the audience only half-jokingly implores him not to play it). It seems as if Roddy knows too much and is just too careful about getting it right. Edwyn, on the other hand is the Mozartian lout with a hotline to the zeitgeist.

What Roddy’s done best for years is make everyone else sound good. He couldn’t honour his old friend more. It’s not until tonight I realise what genius timing he has. The band powers into Girl Like You. Roddy manages to simultaneously give Edwyn the beafy support he needs to carry his big hit and build breathless anticipation for that killer riff over two choruses, without creating any semblance of conflict. It’s remarkable. Mr T and I briefly visit backstage. I tell Roddy I like what he’s done with Girl Like You. He shrugs and says, ‘I had fun with it’. Edwyn doesn’t recognise me at all, unsurprisingly. He pauses over Mr T’s face and says, ‘you’re that Australian guy, aren’t you?’

There’s something about Edwyn Collins’s demeanour that tells you he accepts unquestioningly who he is now, a man interrupted. That takes staggering courage. The album Home Again, which you must immediately go out and buy, not only contains a treasure of beautiful songs, but a selection of lovely drawings of wildlife. Just as he’s learned to walk, talk and sing again, Edwyn’s learned to draw left-handed. He tells Pete Paphides on this Times Online podcast which you must immediately download and listen to, ‘I like animals and birds’. I guess that sums up the Collins philosophy. He’s a mountain-because-it’s-there kind of guy.

And elegant, still so very, very elegant.

29 comments:

Dame Honoria Glossop said...

I think Edwyn Collins is great & have been following his recovery with interest. I hope he carries on recovering & producing great music. There's a review on Times Online as well.

Also it has a personal interest for me because I'm a 'bleeder' too & had to learn to walk again. Bits of me still keep forgetting .......

That's so pants said...

Hi Your Dameship

I'm sure Edwyn will continue to recover in every way. I think he and Roddy working together is a gift - for both of them.

xxx

Pants

Ario said...

Reading this was very heart-wrenching. It's good to hear Edwyn Collins is on the up again.

A moving tribute. What presence. And what writing indeed.

CD will be duly purchased this weekend, Ms Pants.

That's so pants said...

Hi Ario

You'll love it - it's a great record.

xxx

Pants

NMJ said...

hey pants, i loved this post, thank you for describing it all so well, i would love to have been at this event... shocking that edwyn collins suffered brain injury like this. i always associate him with orange juice, of course... am big roddy frame fan too - aztec camera were huge when were undergraduates. i will get edwyn's new album asap.x

That's so pants said...

Hi NMJ. Thanks. You didn't happen to catch Aztec Camera at Barrowlands in 1984 did you? Band of Pants played first on the bill that night.

xxx

Pants

THE PERIODIC ENGLISHMAN said...

A "Mozartian lout with a hotline to the zeitgeist"? He "accepts unquestioningly who he is now, a man interrupted"?

I understand that this post should be all about the guy in question, Pantaloon, but you're a hideously good writer and have the gift of tone. This is perfectly touching, never maudlin, just as good as can be.

I don't actually know who you're talking about, but you make me want to. Beautiful, Ms P.

Kind regards etc....

TPE

NMJ said...

pants, i was trying to remember earlier if i had seen them or if it is wishful thinking. i did see quite a few bands at barrowlands in early mid 80s, ha, maybe we crossed paths . . .x

That's so pants said...

Mr PE!

How lovely to hear from you. Thanks. There is plenty of Edwyn on YouTube if you'd like a taste before you march yourself down to HMV and purchase Home Again.

Hi NMJ

It wouldn't be the first time.

xxx

Pants

NMJ said...

hey pants, that would indeed be delightfully spooky if we had crossed paths in ilford AND barrowlands . . . (btw, may i address pony? pony, i can hardly believe you don't know who edwyn collins is!) x

That's so pants said...

Hi NMJ

Indeed. Be my guest. I can't believe it either? Why is he pony?

xxx

Pants

THE PERIODIC ENGLISHMAN said...

Why is he called Pony? Why is he called Pony? Pants, you do realise I'm still here, don't you? I can hear you talking over me. Sheesh. Give a horse a complex, why don't you.

NMJ, hello. I was actually slightly embarrassed after I left my comment, because I hadn't properly taken in the stuff that you had said to Pantaloony about the band Orange Juice. I've actually heard of them - they're a Scottish band, aren't they? - and so by default, I suppose, I must have heard of Edwyn Collins. There is certainly something slightly familiar in his rather sweet looking face. I'm not really very good with names, I'm afraid, and still don't know the difference - if, indeed, there is any - between Pat Kane and Lloyd Cole. This is what you're up against.

Hey McPants, I'll go and do the Youtube thing, thanks. It's brilliant that it's possible to go and do such a thing so effortlessly, isn't it? The nearest HMV, however, is over forty miles away.

Okay, I'll get my shoes on.

Kind regards and happy things to both of you,

TPE

That's so pants said...

Mr PE

For the shoeless, there is Amazon.

Enjoy.

Pants

phil said...

Hi Pants. Just checking in as I have been off air most of the week. I have no idea who these people are that you've written about, but tonight the ABC had a follow-up program to its Operatunity event a couple of years ago - essentially Idol for opera. The wife of a friend of mine went in it and altho' she got knocked out before the final 100, she said it was the most wonderful experience.

We need more experiences.

That's so pants said...

Hi Phil

There is a wealth of Edwyn on YouTube if you're interested. I had a feeling that his worldwide hit, 1995's Girl Like You, made a reasonable dent in the charts in Australia but I could be wrong. We've had a version of Opperatunity here as well. I have a feeling a blind woman won it. I agree though, we should have more experiences. (Barney, will you shut the fuck up. I'm trying to blog here!)

xxx

Pants

Reading the Signs said...

Hi Pants,

I thought I hadn't heard of Edwyn Collins but then I looked at a couple of youtubes and realised I had and will now add some of his things to the list of music I am planning to download (special end of year project) so I have it on tap, so to speak, on my computer.

Son of Signs has put a comment up over at mine in response to yours.

Oh, and the Pony thing: I think I can throw some light on this. Mr. TPE once spilled the beans on my blog about having ridden a pony at his Steiner school, you see. And the rest is history. At least I think that's where it comes from (am I right Peripatetic Horseman?)

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs

Edwyn should be paying me commission!

Thanks for clearing up the pony business.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

I'm sorry, but that bloke looks like me.

Phil, the ABC also had a different program on it that afternoon. It included some of the same content, but was better, more revealing. And it showed the "winners" performing in Rigoletto, at the Sydney Opera house.
I don't have much interest in opera, and wouldn't normally watch a series like this, but I'm glad I did. It was stunning.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

Interesting point about the opera. I think the snobbery is in the reverence paid to particular performers and (although, not wholly) their technical power. Demand to see just a few performers in particular roles has driven the price up and rendered it almost unavailable to the general population. I've always been perfectly happy to see opera performed at my local theatre - the admittedly stunning and entirely appropriate Hackney Empire.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

Yes, and I think it's also the foreign language. And the big dress up to see a show.
And some of these famous opera stories are a bit silly, but you can't beat it for drama.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

As long as the opera is discreetly surtitled, I'm OK with the language. You don't need to dress up to go to the Hackney Empire either.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

The ABC's Rigoletto was subtitled, or I wouldn't have known what the hell was going on.
The ABC does its best work with things like this.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

I'm okay with translations. I saw a very good production of Don Giovanni in English once. The convention of surtitling with LED readout above the stage in live opera works well for me, provided it's discreet and concise.

xxx

Pants

Ann O'Dyne said...

(Disclaimer/claim to fame: I used to run a record shop which was the first place in Australia, and for a long time the only place, where Postcard Mute Factory 4AD records were available. We also sold 20,000 copies of Tubular Bells the year it came out and got separate shipments direct from the pressing plant and the printers, and paired them in our living room. Funny days.)

Pony?
I was assuming it meant he was hung like a horse

Human Central Processing Unit: the brain is an amazing thing and music is 'the seventh intelligence'.
I was reminded of dear Dudley Moore whose brain condition was not diagnosed until he had gained an undeserved reputation that was not the one of Musical genius that he deserved to be remembered by.

That's so pants said...

Hi Annie

Interesting and diverse points, all attesting to the smallness of the world (Barney - will you shut the fuck up!)

xxx

Pants

THE PERIODIC ENGLISHMAN said...

Hey Pantaloon, how are you doing? I hope you've managed to have a lovely Christmas and that the new year brings nothing but misery (for your writing, you understand - gives you an edge.)

Two things:

Signs is fibbing (she's like that).

Ann O'Dyne - you're wrong, sadly, but please, please keep thinking that about me. It helps make me feel better.

Righty-ho, Ms Pants, I'll be off. The main thing was the Happy Christmas thing (although I should point out that Phil's line - "we need more experiences" - had me nodding gleefully. Never a truer word, Pantaloony, never a truer word.)

Only good things to you, Ms P. Take it easy.

TPE

That's So Pants said...

Hi Mr P.E.

Thanks and keep in touch.

xxx

Pants

wheels said...

Hello Ms P
Grace here. Is Mr T Jeff? Wish we'd had a chance to talk more. I agree with your correspondents. You write beautifully. And accurately about the RFH show. Dear me.
I'll show this to him in the morning. Glad I found you.

Happy New Year to you.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Grace

Well, I'm well and truly rumbled now aren't I? Actually, I tossed up whether or not I should send you the link and asked GT if I should. His total silence on the subject suggested that I shouldn't, although I can't think why. Despite huge support from readers, I still tend to think that what I write is, well, mostly pants. Glad you liked it. Hope Edwyn does too.

xxx

Pants