A GUEST POSTING by COMRADE COLIN
“Sketches of Spain is a beautiful artistic endeavour. It took two dates to complete, with basically the same orchestra as the two previous large group sessions. Miles is playing slowly, methodically, and, for the first time, using extensively bent notes. Also, for the first time, the orchestration, with its colours streaming like a series of rainbows, definitely telling a story, seems to be what Miles primarily wants. Although he and the orchestra are almost antiphonal, it is a true dialogue, as between a preacher and his congregation.”
Bill Cole (1974) Miles Davis: A Musical Biography, William Morrow and Company Inc: New York, pp 87-88.
Rob Young (interviewer): “Are you delivering gospel or apocalypse? Good news or bad?”
Mark Hollis: “I dunno… don’t know the answer to that one. I think I’m done.”
James Marsh, Chris Roberts and Toby Benjamin (2012) Spirit of Talk Talk Rocket 88: London, p192.
Grief is a very curious bedfellow. At times it can evade us when most expected, such as the sudden death of a close friend or a family member. At other times grief will cross the road, stare at us, and shout obscenities in our face, so close up that we can’t ignore it. That these emotions can spill out and come undone for people we’ve never even met is a most peculiar thing. But it happens. All the time. Tears will flow.
There had been Bowie of course, there had also been (the artist formerly known as) Prince. We recall the reactions to these deaths and many more in 2016. It was a year and a half for our idols departing. But we accepted it, naturally, in terms of the ‘rich legacy’ and ‘cultural influence’ left behind. Posterity would redeem, value, recognise. The enigmatic adjectives were produced and refashioned. Bowie’s death, in particular, was a meticulous example of how to exit stage left with a certain vision and a plan. What a performance it was.
In contrast to…
And, so it was on Monday 25th February, 2019. News of Mark Hollis and his cruel sudden passing, at the not-quite-there statutory retirement age of 64, started to ripple across the world in a sequence of zeros and ones. A close friend, knowing my interest, messaged me via Twitter alerting me. His source had been a statement via Twitter from Matt Johnson of The The.
But was it true? How could it be? What? How? When? Where?
We held out, many of us, searching for ‘verified’ and ‘confirmed’ news. We refused to believe it unless a direct statement from the Hollis family was forthcoming. And sadly, via Twitter again, the toxic Town Crier of the digital age, it did arrive, via Mark’s cousin-in-law Professor Anthony Costello of University College London. Anthony referred to his relative, “RIP Mark Hollis”, as “an indefinable musical icon” and, of course, a great dad. Then, over the next few hours and days, several music journalists and staff writers and (pop) cultural commentators tried to do exactly this. But how to define and categorise someone, and their music, who just couldn’t be placed? Someone who was “indefinable’? Why would you even try?
So, I will not do this. I refuse. And more pragmatically, I simply can’t. So many words have already been written about what Hollis achieved before he ‘retired from the music industry’ in his early forties (apropos, ‘how to disappear completely’). This is the popular narrative and central discourse. This is what we have been told. Except, as we all know, it simply isn’t true. Hollis kept his hand in with music, he still played all the time according to Tim Friese-Greene, he just did so quietly, without fanfare, and outside of a studio. There was a degree of silence that was only broken when the mood struck. For example, he co-produced and arranged music for significant others (Anja Garbarek, 2001), he played and co-wrote for other bands (Unkle, 1998). Similarly, he added his ‘Piano’ contribution to the ‘AV 1’ album by former producer Phil Brown and his partner Dave Allinson (1998), as well as writing and performing a short, original piece of music entitled ‘ARB Section 1’ for the TV series Boss (2012). The music continued, it never actually ended.
But all this you know. He did not ‘retire’, he just preferred a degree of relative quiet, anonymity, family life, privacy and some further ‘space between the notes’. And, given what he had so brutally endured through the mid-80’s height of the EMI Talk Talk years – as an example, just watch some of the white-knuckle interviews and ‘live’ comedic playback performances from mainly European music shows during 1984-1986 – you can understand why Hollis and company just wanted to be immersed in a studio cocoon like Wessex. Yes, perhaps true, we can speak of the Talk Talk ‘transformative metamorphosis’ or some such; a story of ‘Europop emergence’, ‘post-rock ascendancy’ and then a ‘near-silent exit’ via the solo recording. But what good does this do? And is it even true? I am unsure, and I think I always will be. Even imaginary compilation albums seem a bit meaningless right now.
All this, naturally, brings me back to Miles Davis and Sketches of Spain (1960). Since the news of Mark’s untimely death I’ve been playing this album constantly, and reading about its recording. I am actually playing it again now as I sit and type this out at the kitchen table; it is casually drifting through from the living room where my record player stays. Anyway, I think this mild obsession, again, with Davies is, in part, due to reading an interview some time ago where Hollis discusses the influence of both this album, as well as the earlier Davis/Evans recording of Porgy and Bess (1959), on the sessions for his 1998 self-titled album. The quotation given at the top of this page, taken from the Bill Cole (1974) book, struck me as being the kind of thing we could say about Hollis… the invocation of ‘colours and rainbows’, an unsubtle comparison with ‘a preacher and his congregation’. But we won’t. I just think it’s apt to note that what Cole said about Davis we could say about Hollis. If we chose to. We might even guess that Hollis would appreciate that association. Then again, knowing his humour and modesty, perhaps not. He’d just laugh and dismiss the notion out of hand.
Quite possibly, instead, it is better to conclude with the final words spoken by Hollis himself to interviewer Rob Young at the close of an essay and conversation that was originally published by The Wire (#167, 1998): “I think I’m done”, Hollis remarked, before making his move to leave Young alone. To be fair, it was a rather glib and facile question about whether the album was delivering the gospel or warnings of apocalypse. Wouldn’t you also not quite know what to say to that kind of question and just leave?
So, just as we accepted Hollis’s supposed ‘retirement’ twenty odd years ago from the music industry, we must now accept a new kind of silence. Indeed, this seems to the defined word of choice for many ‘in remembrance’ type articles right now. And it does ring true, to an extent. But then again, you can listen to that seventy-five second malfunctioning variophon solo from ‘After the Flood’ or the stark Hollis call and ‘lift’ of “Nature’s son” from the track ‘Inheritance’, at the one minute and forty-four second mark. Then you realise that there was also a gloriously multi-faceted – spontaneous but spliced together – noise happening. It’s evident that people were listening and noticed this.
In the end, you realise, there is no ‘return to Eden’, we truly never know what day is going to pick us, as Mark Kozelek pointedly sings on ‘Duk Koo Kim’ “…out of the air, out of nowhere”. Instead, we can only recognise and value the space between the notes that we play or don’t play. We can choose to wear our grief on our sleeves, as an open border, relational kind of coping strategy, or we can just go about our (intimate) daily lives whilst playing over and over again that sequence, live, when ‘Mirror Man’ becomes ‘Does Caroline Know?’. It is glorious, as you know, your heart skips a beats and you feel a sharp intake of breath.
But what happens after the music stops? We continue. We remember, in our own way. Indeed, the following day, after the news of Mark’s death on February 26th, 2019, I was down to chair an event for a third-sector organisation which I am a Board member of, at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. I had thought, at 4am, about feigning illness, or rather, admitting I wasn’t coping too well, and cancelling my involvement. However, I decided against this. It was too late. Instead, I arranged for ‘Sketches of Spain’ to be played during registration and coffee. No one recognised it (I asked delegates this question in my opening remarks, everyone looked nonplussed). Further, I wore my ‘The Colour of Spring’ pin badge on the lapel of my grey Jasper Conran corduroy jacket. No one recognised it, in conversations over lunch, no one said a word. But at least I tried to make a connection, physically, with a kindred spirit that day. I reached out.
Enough, enough now; simply embrace the space between the notes.
PS : After penning the above words, Colin asked that I draw attention to this, a near 8-minute long Eden rehearsal cassette that has been placed on Souncloud by Tim Friese-Greene as his tribute to his late colleague.
I had to tease these words out of Comrade Colin. He’s been hit every bit as hard by the death of Mark Hollis as those who were the biggest fans of Bowie and Prince back in 2016….in the ten years and more that I’ve known him, he has never stopped trying to convince me that Hollis was a visionary genius. I felt that him penning a tribute, in his own unique style, would help with the grieving process.
His original piece didn’t come with any songs, but after a think about it, he has suggested these:-
I’ve posted this today in place of the usual Monday Morning, Coming Down piece which has been held over for a week. Thanks for dropping by today.