Friday, July 1, 2011

Gillian Welch

July, 2011: Towards the end of July, I was feeling on'ry.  I used to think that word meant 'horny', but now I think it means "grr".  I don't know whether to blame my on'ritude on a certain long-cherished man-dream that fell flat on its face about that time (Mumma, if you ever read this, that's a reference to the ostriches, or was it the alpacas?), or, a more likely cause, my novel - after eight years of writing and rewriting it, I was feeling like a prisoner doing a sentence of an indefinite number of years, and for a crime I knew not what.  During the week, as I wrote, I fantasised about having a weekend of unfettered freedom, unfettered solitude.  On Friday night, I cooked four sausages and an extra lot of tofu-and-vegies, and gathered together some bottles of water, a sleeping bag and my tucker-bag, threw in some matches, and a bit of toilet paper for a taste of luxury.  Helen dropped me and my bike (Debbie's bike) at my grandparents' old place.  "I should move out there, where the sky is open wide, and my grandmother's buried on a lonely hillside."  I didn't bring my guitar, as I didn't trust myself to concurrently ride bicycle and carry guitar.  This was the only night in about eight years when I haven't had a guitar at hand.  
I had prepared myself for this deprivation by cram-learning the new Gillian Welch song that had just begun to obsess me - HARD TIMES, from her new album 'The Harrow And The Harvest'.  Being on'ry, or perhaps the true description of my state of mind would be "fragile, with depression threatening", I clung to this song as if it were a torch (the torch that I had decided not to bring).  I sang it over and over, as I rootled through my grandparents' house in search of the least rat-pooey-pissy bedding and cooking utensils, and I sang it as I loaded myself up and walked over the hill, across the paddock, across the first creek.  I made a little camp for myself, choosing a spot least likely to be a thoroughfare for the wild horses or the kangaroos, as I didn't want to be trampled on while in my sleeping bag.  I went for a walk in the bush.  I sat in the limb of a tree, near where my grandmother had been buried (but no longer), watching the little birds and the last of the sunlight, and singing: "When the day got long, as it does about now, I'd hear him singing to his mule as he ploughed."  I think the actual lyric is "singing to his mule-cow", but as that animal is unknown to me, I had to alter it.  I sang, "Singing, 'Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more!'"  
It was a strangely scary, exhilarating experience, sleeping by myself in that bush I've known all my life.  I felt myself "fall through layers of fear" - that's how it felt.  It was an experience that was either going to kill or cure me.  The light faded.  I thought, "Night's coming!"  I wanted it to hurry up and come, to get it over with, but of course it came in its own sweet time.  Somehow, it was like life ending.  I still (a month later) don't understand.  I lit a fire, and spent the evening moving away from the smoke, putting on another branch, staring, listening, uneasy, restless, excited, despairing, but starting to feel calmer.  I heard the screaming woman bird (AKA the barking owl), which I was rather dreading.  But, for a woman with her throat cut, she was moving very fast.  And in the distance, another woman with her throat cut returned her ghastly call.  I also heard a couple of those great subterranean "booms"; the next day, my uncle told me these are known as 'desert noises', and were heard long before industrialisation.  I lay in my sleeping-bag within a sleeping-bag - it is cold in mid-winter in the central-west - and watched the stars slowly slide over the world.  I'd never quite realised how friendly stars are.
I sang HARD TIMES as I cycled along the dirt roads the next day, my thirty-seventh birthday.  I'm connected to that country by little threads of blood and of passed-down recollections.  "But that Camptown man, he doesn't plough no more.  I see him walking down to the cigarette store.  Guess he lost that knack, he forgot that song, woke up one morning and that mule was gone."  I don't want to forget that song! - that simple happiness, that simple way of easing a heavy heart.  And I want to develop that knack - of fending for myself - while there are still people alive who can teach it to me.  "See, it's a mean old world, heavy and mean.  That big machine is just picking up steam [she sings "speed"].  We're supping on tears, supping on wine [well, not teetotaller me], I'll get to heaven in my own sweet time."  It took Gillian Welch eight years to make a new album, due to, according to her, "Quality control."  It makes me love her all the more that she didn't play along with the 'two-to-three years between albums' schedule.  Quality-of-life control, perhaps.

Here's a live track of Gillian and David Rawlings singing HARD TIMES: