Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fred Eaglesmith

Dec 2009: I was on the Bell’s Line Of Road (if there is a more beautifully-named road, I’d like to know it) with my mother today, driving back from a blessedly* rainy Christmas in the Cowra district (*blessed by the clouds). As we drove through mist and apple farms, hearing the occasional bell-bird, I put on Fred Eaglesmith’s new-ish album, ‘Tinderbox’. I didn’t like it much when I first heard it – his voice was too much of a tuneless, Tom Waits growl, and the production was rackety and messy. But out of respect for Fred, I persevered, and the ideas behind the album – to me, it’s a ‘concept album’ – made themselves apparent. Only a very experienced songwriter could, coming the full circle, write such simple songs. At first I thought he’d done an album of traditional, gospel-leaning covers; I was very surprised, on checking the liner notes, that he’d pretty much written all of them. There was only one that had the Eaglesmith hallmarks: ‘Quietly’ sets up a vivid scene of a woman rising from her lover’s bed, quietly getting dressed, quietly shedding a couple of tears, quietly kissing him, quietly walking out the door; and then comes the Eaglesmith volta, where we realise that the man has been awake the whole time, and is worn out by her rather self-absorbed tragicality (just as we, the listener, is, too), and has decided to let her go. I love the whole album, but the final song, ‘WHEN’, is the one I learnt on the piano. The refrain, “If not now, when?”, is repeated several times to make up the chorus. There are two very spare verses, the first being, in entirety: “Not yesterday, no-oo, not tomorrow, wo-oe, not a minute ahead, not a minute behind.” Its simplicity provokes a songwriter like me to slap herself on the head and say, “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that before Fred did?” Every time a longing gets too much for me, I sit at the piano, play ‘WHEN’ a few times, and have nothing more to add. It’s a prayer, offered up – in my case – to the clouds.

Just to add a slightly relevant (if the concept behind ‘Tinderbox’ could be summed up as ‘faith’) footnote: this sceptic-atheist had an experience a few days before Christmas that has completely re-converted me to Santa Claus. The Toxteth Road Miracle occurred while I was walking home and saw on the footpath a plastic bag that looked as though it had been ripped open, snuffled through, then pissed on by a dog. In among the old T-shirts spilling out, I chanced to spot a floral print. “It looks like beautiful, 1950s silk, but it must be some phony, polyester reproduction,” I thought. Nevertheless, I bent down to investigate. Pinching a corner between finger and thumb, I dragged out the garment. It WAS beautiful, 1950s silk! - a little blouse, handmade, that (once washed) turned out to fit me perfectly. If that’s not proof, then you’re hard to satisfy!