THE SPACE BETWEEN THE NOTES: A TRIBUTE TO THE LATE MARK HOLLIS

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.

COLIN

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.

JC adds…….

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:-

mp3 : Talk Talk – After The Flood (from Laughing Stock, 1991)
mp3 : Mark Hollis – A Life (1895-1915) (from Mark Hollis, 1998)

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.

JC

19 thoughts on “THE SPACE BETWEEN THE NOTES: A TRIBUTE TO THE LATE MARK HOLLIS

  1. There’s something profoundly distasteful about co-opting the term ‘grieving’ for the loss of someone you didn’t know, who didn’t know you, and who wasn’t part of your life in any material sense. I’ve been shocked at the way this poster has breezily inserted himself into online conversation with people who lived and worked with Mr Hollis and for whom his death this week has been the kind of loss that only people who are truly bereaved, in the real sense of the word, can understand. Enjoying art or music doesn’t confer the right to equate your sorrow when someone dies with the pain of those for whom the loss is real. It’s mawkish and self-serving.

  2. Beautiful, thoughtful writing. Lots of unanswerable questions about a respected and enigmatic man I might have payed more attention to. Thank you.

  3. Beautifully written. I always hoped for more but recognised the perfection of the fact that his one solo lp ends with a period of silence.
    I think part of the personal sadness is that his music grew up with me from the teenage today through to the maturing happiness is easy and the maturity and wisdom of new grass . 64 is way too young but it brings a realisation triggered by Bowie that each year now a hero will be gone

  4. As Talk Talk walked out onto the pop stage in the early 80s I wasn’t at all impressed. I thought it an ok band. A band that with 3 singles “Mirror Man” “Talk Talk” and “Today” ‘fitted’ well with the music of the time.

    On the release of the LP Colour of Spring I was even less impressed. I just couldn’t seem to connect with it. It seemed remarkably slow and sparse. A friend, however, loved Talk Talk and particularly Colour of Spring and it was played and played and played – in the days when bright young things did this type of thing.

    I began to ‘not mind’ the LP, then I quite enjoyed it and then I moved onto loving it. It sat quite outside anything else of its time and I’m delighted that my friend binge-listened; pummelling me into submission in the process.

    It’s an LP that is always with me. It’s currently on my ipod – crumbs, it’ll not be long until I’m having to explain what an ipod is.

    Over 5 studios LPs Talk Talk entered the pop spotlight with youthful, arrogant swagger and left it as revered musicians that were not afraid to take risks in a hostile music business. The journey from The Party’s Over to Laughing Stock is just the best first-class journey you could ever wish to take. Of course, the music of Mark Hollis did not end there …

    It seems in recent years more and more musicians that I admire have shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s a sign of my age and the fragility of humans – admired or otherwise.

    Mark Hollis was a truly gifted musician and a man who shone a great deal of light into my life. I thank him wholeheartedly for that enduring gift.

    I thought it pertinent to add the comment below in regard to a previous post.

    Loss, to me, is a profundly personal emotion. Each of us can react quite differently when we experience loss through death. I would argue that each of us should be allowed the space and time to explore, and potentially resolve our feelings in regard to that loss. I have grieved for the loss of those that I did not know personally; artists/bands who impacted upon me musically or who helped shape my life through their music and lyrics. I couldn’t claim to know them, or love them, but I knew I’d miss them, hence loss and grieving. I doubt the previous poster was in any equating himself with family and friends but merely noting that as a fan, to him, Mark Hollis will be missed.

  5. I’m really commenting on the behaviour of the writer on other platforms this week, although I do find this blog post equally absurd. Why we need to know the designer of the author’s jacket, or read of his disdain for his colleagues who failed to recognise Sketches of Spain at an event they were attending for entirely different reasons… well, it’s hard to read this post as about anything but the author’s own vanity.

  6. Thank you Colin, I haven’t read many articles, pieces, obituaries of Mark Hollis that gave me pause or had an effect that came close to the feelings that his passing has had on me. Thank you for your prose. Thank you for sharing your impressions and reaction.
    One of the greatest things Mark Hollis showed me, as an artist and some level of a public figure, was that he was very much in touch with his world, his responsibilities and his art.
    Talk Talk and Mark Hollis will always be a band/man that attracted musical fables to their process, their music, their lives. These legends help people draw lines around the things they don’t really understand or can’t explain. They make for interesting reads, sometimes, or they just have the effect of keeping the conversation alive.
    I take issue with the perspective that fellow comments contributor adventuresinhighereducationquality has that you were “inserting” your own feelings of loss or sorrow with those of his close friends or loved ones. When you have musical/artistic/popular culture heroes or icons, and they have made an impact on your life, or merely your sense of aural or visual pleasure for a good portion of your life, it makes perfect sense that you would feel emptiness, sadness, a void or loss.

  7. “When you have musical/artistic/popular culture heroes or icons, and they have made an impact on your life, or merely your sense of aural or visual pleasure for a good portion of your life, it makes perfect sense that you would feel emptiness, sadness, a void or loss.”

    I entirely agree. But to consider cancelling an important work event, or to tell people that actually knew Mr Hollis that you’re “in tears” for days on end… a little much, don’t you think? Also, the truly bereaved tend not to be quite so concerned with the designer of their chosen outfit, or whether anyone else has noticed their special pop grieving badge.

  8. This music blog is treasured by its readers, contributors and commenters. In this close-knit friendship we respect the views expressed by the writers of all posts and replies. It is not a forum to troll writers, particularly guest contributors, for perceived “behavior” on other unidentified “platforms” at any given time. As can be seen by the majority of the replies to this post, the readers share and appreciate the sentiments expressed by the writer. When that is not the case, readers simply refrain from commenting. Replies meant to target and insult any writer are neither necessary nor welcome. This is particularly so when the subject in question is the death of a musician whose music was important and inspirational to many members of this community.

  9. One might argue that it is the very fact that there *has* been a death, of a real person, that makes criticism (not “trolling”) both valid and urgent. Sadness is a proper emotion for such an event, “grieving” is most emphatically not. I will of course refrain from further comment.

  10. Please….if you have a beef with Colin, then take it up with him direct. Just because he chooses to express his grief in a way that you find distasteful doesnt mean you’re right and he’s wrong.

  11. A fitting tribute to someone who clearly had a profound impact on you, Colin.

    The Colour Of Spring is one of my favourite albums of all-time and I’d only been sharing it with my youngest son the previous week as we were driving somewhere. It’s obviously been on again since.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.