When You Can't Stay Here
360 · 20 December 01
The best rock band ever was formed in 1982, in and between Dunfermline and London, by an exile from one of the best punk bands nobody is currently imitating, a childhood friend of his who needed a way out of the dockyards, and a couple session players their label rep hooked them up with whom they eventually talked into staying. They had a bad name, but plenty of well-respected bands have had worse. They made one of the greatest debut albums of all time, a record as musically anthemic as it is emotionally harrowing, with an unmistakable sonic quirk that was as integral to their initial success as it was probably inimical to their critical longevity. Their second album was even better. By the third album they were starting to sound a little boxed-in, so the fourth one was an almost complete reinvention, spare, open, elegant and wistful. But their commercial fortunes had been on a steady decline since their lucky breakthrough, the style-change alienated a large contingent of their fans and eventually lost them their US record-deal, and that was the end of the Eighties. They made four more albums during the Nineties, with continued home support, but never really impinged on American mass-consciousness again. The rare media mentions here now usually refer to them as an "Eighties rock band". By the end of the Nineties, in fact, the band finally was beginning to unravel. The lead singer admitted to alcoholism and disappeared briefly. A 2000 tour was billed as the last, and although the band was only officially done touring, future studio recordings didn't seem very likely either. The bass player quit, just in case it turned out there was something to quit from. The lead singer's rehab didn't seem to be working as well as it needed to, and he botched some appearances and then eventually disappeared again. This time he stayed gone a little longer, long enough that people began to worry. They were right to worry.
The band was called Big Country. They were my favorite band for more or less all of their existence and the bulk of mine. They were the best rock band there has ever been, and normally I say that with caveats and apologies, but tonight I'm not in the mood. They were the best rock band ever, and if you don't agree with me, I don't want to hear about it. Stuart Adamson was the leader and the singer. His personal problems were news to me when they started coming to light, and by celebrity standards never seemed especially remarkable. He moved to Nashville a few years ago, and his new project had just released an airy, poised first record. He may have run out of energy for Big Country, but he didn't seem to be anywhere near running out of energy for music. He disappeared in early November. His manager seemed alarmed that he wasn't answering his cell phone, but I figured that, at worst, he'd checked into a tranquil Arizona detox clinic and neglected to bring a battery charger.
And maybe that is how it started. Maybe he spent a productive month regaining control, checked out sober and ready to rejoin his life, and was standing in the security line for his flight back to Nashville when he suddenly decided he couldn't face returning. Maybe he got all the way back to Nashville, got out of the cab in front of his own house, and then had his soul fail him. Or maybe it was actually freedom that killed him. Maybe the pressures and tensions of the band, alcoholism and depression were the forces that had held him together, and the treatment that released him from them released him from everything. We don't know what happened, and unless there's a letter in transit somewhere, we probably never will. But apparently something broke, or finished. On Sunday, 16 December 2001, having somehow ended up in Hawaii, the forty-three-year-old maybe-former leader of the best rock band ever hung himself in a hotel room.
The story reached the news on Monday morning, and the news reached me as I checked email one more time before leaving the house. My Monday work schedule was a nightmare, with meetings booked solid from my arrival to my departure, but every time I ducked back into my office on the way from one to the next, there were more emails offering their condolences, and I careened through the day on a surreal mixture of adrenaline, emptiness and connection. Friends wrote, long-time readers wrote, total strangers wrote. I don't know if I ever successfully badgered anybody who didn't like Big Country into changing their mind, but apparently my stories about what they meant to me resonated anyway. In writing about Big Country, over and over, stubbornly refusing to pretend that my favorite band was anybody cooler, I was inevitably writing about the sensation of investing in music, and about the experience of loving a band, any band, whatever band you see in place of Big Country in those moments when you see your love in mine. And it works the other way, too, of course: some of you came because Big Country were also your favorite band and maybe in the end I was their staunchest public defender, and stayed to see what else I would do with that love.
And now I guess I do have to do something else with it, or at least explain to myself why not. I was sorry when George Harrison died, but it wasn't his doing, and I wasn't a Beatles fan, so I couldn't say it affected me personally. I was hurt when Kurt Cobain shot himself, but mourning for Kurt was a public ritual in which I couldn't pretend that I had any meaningful responsibility, and I was far more angry than sad anyway. But if I was one of Big Country's and Stuart's most passionate champions during their life, then I owe it to them, to me, and to you who have so patiently listened, to now also try to speak their death. I probably have two dozen disorganized, fragmentary and probably contradictory farewells in mind, but the pile of Stuart's records I hadn't gotten around to writing about yet is eleven high, so I guess that might as well be the number. Farewell, then, Stuart Adamson, who may have been the closest stranger to the center of my being; I will remember you in all of these ways:
Big Country: Under Cover
Big Country was my favorite band. If you've been reading this column for a while, of course, you know I'm phrasing that a little coyly. Big Country was my favorite band for many, many years, but I retired them and the rest of my original set of favorites at the end of the Nineties, and in two years since I haven't added anybody but Tori Amos to the new list. But if aging football players can get traded back to their old team for a day in order to retire in the uniform to which they rightfully belong, then I can bring Big Country out of retirement for a night in order to say goodbye to them the way I lived with them. And if in a sense Tori has taken their place in my life, this is succession, not supersession. In fact, I will go one step further: Big Country had to come first. If I hadn't spent ten years with Big Country, I wouldn't have been ready for Tori, and it would not have worked the other way around. It is clear to me in retrospect that Big Country were the core around which I constructed my conviction that music is the thing humans do best. I had favorites before them, a series in which the top spot changed hands quickly and frequently, but Big Country were the band that erased the line between my music and my self. Everything I think of as part of my adult life with music, from the way I collect it to the way I think about it to the compulsion to write about it, derives in one way or another from my experience with Big Country. If I had to assign my transition from casual music fan to music believer to a single point in time, it would be the moment, standing in VVV records in Dallas, that I came to an unfamiliar cover in the Big Country bin and simultaneously discovered the concepts of twelve-inch singles, region-limited releases, alternate mixes and non-album b-sides. Big Country taught me that music supports obsession, in both the logistical and emotional senses (and I'm not sure I could say in which order). Yes, I know, it might be that I was destined to believe that one way or another, and without Big Country I would have found somebody else from which to think I'd learned the same lessons. But I didn't, and although I acknowledge the possibility intellectually, my heart knows no life other than the one I've led, and can't imagine having led it this way without Big Country.
Big Country never made a real covers album, to go with Tori's Strange Little Girls, but with some prodding and assistance from their manager, Ian Grant, who seems to have revived Track Records just to have somewhere to re-release old Big Country material, Bruce Watson cobbled together this revisionist collection out of old b-sides and other assorted tapes. Big Country would not be too near the top of my covers-band ranking, and piling up sixteen of their covers tends to remind me why. Their only two essential covers, I think, are of Roxy Music's "Prairie Rose" and Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears", and both of those are available elsewhere. My favorite later-period cover, of Lou Reed's "Vicious", was already a bonus track on the US edition of Why the Long Face. But their version of "Honky Tonk Woman" is harder to come by, and provides an instructive contrast with "King of Emotion", which they intended to be their equivalent. And three of these, naturally, were previously unavailable: a 1993 version of Alice Cooper's "Teenage Lament" lends the song an engaging twang that makes me wonder why they opted at the time to release "I'm Eighteen" as their Cooper cover instead; a deadpan clomp through CCR's "Down on the Corner", from the same sessions, suggests another whole lineage for the band's aesthetic; and a frayed monophonic 1997 recording of the Scottish ode "Killiekrankie" may be as close as Big Country ever came to replicating Runrig's knack for injecting rock drive into traditional material, as opposed to vice versa. And if I don't feel as strongly about any of the others (Neil Young, Canned Heat, BÖC, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, Eddy Grant, the Rolling Stones), they're certainly interesting enough to be worth rescuing from the oblivion of old CD-singles.
Big Country: Rarities II
Big Country were hardly the first band to have an enormous semi-novelty hit very early in their career, and then spend the rest of their days sinking slowly back into obscurity, but they went about it in rather paradigmatic fashion, and this too was a critical component of my life with them. They were rock stars when I discovered them, because when I was that age, if they hadn't been rock stars I wouldn't have known about them. They had videos in which they puttered around desolate Highlands on little ATVs, and MTV played them. But when MTV and Big Country parted ways, I went with Big Country. I was raised on radio as much as anybody, and Big Country were instrumental in weaning me off mainstream media as my primary source of music exposure, and in conclusively separating popular success and critical acclaim from personal worth, in my mind. Even following them in the UK wouldn't have been the same; every person who said "Big Country? They're still around?" to me, over the years, fueled my resolve to search for all the other great bands that were getting ignored somewhere. And with every new one I found, I became more sure that the effort is necessary. Big Country fueled my belief that you cannot live a meaningful life with music passively, and by extension that you cannot live a meaningful life passively, period.
The first Rarities collection brought all of Big Country's classic b-sides into the digital realm, and this second volume, drawn mostly from later CD-singles, necessarily hasn't the same urgency. But those singles, too, are long out of print, and if I did somehow win you over to the cause recently, you would have to waste a lot of eBay time tracking them down. Sadly, Rarities II was not compiled with anything like the same attention to detail as the first set. The packaging is embarrassingly amateurish (down to the misspelling of Stuart's side-project, which at the time was called "Blue Healer", not "Blue Heeler"). The two b-sides from this period that I consider among the band's finest moments, the pounding "Never Take Your Place" and the seething "Hardly a Mountain", are both listed on the back, but the track labeled "Hardly a Mountain" is actually "Can You See the Winter", another song from the same twelve-inch single, and by leaving out "Hardly a Mountain" and that single's third b-side, "Golden Boy Loves Golden Girl", this compilation fails on what I would have deemed its highest priority, porting those three vinyl-only songs to CD for posterity. The excuse, I guess, is that they did dredge up a few more songs that hadn't even made it that far before. "Lone Star" squalls and sparkles winningly. "I Feel Fine" is jumpy and Steve Harley-ish. "Christmas Island" is an intriguing throwback, with (as was often the case with Big Country's demos) fragments of things that would show up later in other finished songs. A 1993 outtake, "Soul on Fire", might have been perfect as one of the Eddi Reader duets on Driving to Damascus. "Secret Angel Man" is exactly as throwaway as the title sounds. "The Long Road" sounds like an abortive attempt to put lyrics onto some instrumental ideas left over from Restless Natives. "You Want Me to Go", on which substitute drummer Chris Smith gamely attempts to pull off a Brzezicki-style hi-hat patter, is a desperate plea to Mark to come back. And there's one track I guarantee you will want to skip on every listen after the first, if not sooner.
Big Country: One in a Million
While I appreciate the condolences, both the "I'm sorry for your loss" notes and the "I'm sorry for our loss" ones, there's something wrong with condolence as the sentiment. Big Country were incredibly important in my life, but I did not know Stuart. We were introduced once, after a show I contrived to be in London for, but it wasn't a meaningful personal interaction in either direction. My repeated offers to write liner notes for Big Country reissues were ignored (I'd have offered to do graphic design and proofreading for them, too, if I'd known these later ones were going to look so bad), and I don't know if Stuart ever read anything I wrote about him. Nor were his songs the sort that invite the audience into the narrator's dilemmas. I'm sorry he died, and sorry that there's now not even a remote chance that Big Country will ever make more music, but I was resigned to that already, and I'm not convinced there's a compelling reason to treat his death as an event in my personal life. His music was his role in my life, and his death, in itself, doesn't revoke the records or their effects. People die. I still think we're better at making music than dying, but dying is the one thing everybody eventually manages, so I can see the counter-argument. I suspect I believe that genuine grief is the prerogative of the people whose lives were changed by the fact of his death, by the difference between his presence and his absence, and those of us whose lives are only changed by the knowledge of his death, and who, absent "news", would have gone years between contacts before thinking anything was amiss, have little right to appropriate it. I have no wish to reenact, in any kind of miniature, the nauseating spectacle that surrounded Princess Diana's death. If Stuart had taken the noose off and said "I will not kill myself, but I will never write or play music ever again", the effect on me would be essentially identical, and grief would hardly have been my response. A great story does not become less great by ending. Arguably the opposite.
One in a Million is another dubious assembly, this time of acoustic versions from various sources. Big Country got pretty good at this gimmick over the years, but I'm pretty sure I'd take the electric version in every pairwise comparison, so seventeen acoustic versions in a row (especially when so many of them have drum-parts played entirely on nerve-jabbing bongos) just tends to make me irritable and want to put on one of the records with the real songs. The only highlights, for me, are a couple unreleased songs tacked on near the end (a sputtering "Daystar" and a country-ish "I'm On This Train") that don't qualify as "acoustic" unless the drum-machine they used on them operates under some very different principles than the ones I'm familiar with.
Big Country: Greatest 12" Hits
I've realized, in wading through so much archival stuff at once in an assessing frame of mind, something I would no doubt have denied bitterly up until now. As much as I love the second half of Big Country's career, and as many lessons as I think it taught that the first half did not, the first half is the half that matters. In an important sense, Big Country were an Eighties band. The Crossing, Steeltown and Peace in Our Time are individually irreplaceable, and The Seer is necessary for the transition from Steeltown to Peace in Our Time to make sense. Any one of the second four albums, on the other hand, could be deleted without diminishing the catalog significantly. Any two, probably. Arguably any one of The Buffalo Skinners, Why the Long Face and Driving to Damascus could stand in for all three plus No Place Like Home without sacrificing anything qualitative. And lessons temporarily aside, how much would we lose by discarding all four? Very little of the band's best music. There is no shame in that.
By far the most satisfying of this muddled batch, for me, is this single-minded collection of extended versions from early twelve-inch singles, a better companion to Rarities than Rarities II since Rarities and Greatest 12" Hits between them account for very nearly all the non-album material from the first half of the band's career. Except for the 1990 single "Save Me", all these versions date from 1983 through 1986, which comfortably predates the invention of the techno dance remix, and we are thus spared, hopefully permanently, the pain of hearing any of Big Country's obdurately organic songs perverted by Junior Vasquez or Norman Cook. Every one of these versions sounds unmistakably like the song it is, just twice as long. "Wonderland" and "Where the Rose Is Sown" are my two favorite old-style remixes of all time.
Big Country: www.bigcountry.co.uk
This farewell is not just mine. Big Country made it through most of their life without a web site, but the site has been central in organizing and evangelizing the last few years, and clearly serves as a forum for coping with Stuart's death. It has also brought people to me, and so, as some of the more plaintive emails have reminded me, I have other people's grief to express along with my own. I may be able to convince myself that grief is not exactly right, but if I couldn't convince curious skeptics to buy Big Country albums, I have even less hope of convincing people who loved Big Country that Stuart's suicide is not a profound tragedy. Nor, turning this equation around, ought it to be our responsibility, those of us who supported Stuart so passionately for so long, to save ourselves from despair one by one. Stuart knew we were out here, and thus had to know what killing himself would do to us, collectively. He weighed the pain he would cause against the pain he would escape, and according to some private calculus, death beat life. Or he preferred our pain to his. We don't know what his pain was, and it's too late for an argument even if we did, so we're left with a confusion of responses: loss, obviously; regret, that our love wasn't enough to sustain him, and guilt that maybe it would have been if we'd tried harder to spread it; anger at his selfishness; sympathy for what must have been his pain; empathy, maybe; moral queasiness, perhaps, if it seems like this one death may have touched us in a way that thousands upon thousands, in New York or El Salvador or Afghanistan, didn't quite (or maybe, in the other direction, like some of our own family members didn't); frustration, because no explanation is available; horror; fear, panic, paralysis; anger again; grief again; resentment for coworkers, laughing obliviously; alienation from anybody who doesn't understand how much this means to us; grim morbidity; an inability to listen to Stuart's voice, or to listen to anything other than Stuart's voice; loneliness; hope, in our collective response. We say all these things for you, Stuart, or more accurately, for ourselves. You left your music behind for us, and you also left behind all the people your music saved and elevated and changed. We will have to be enough for ourselves.
This set interleaves the tracks from two EPs sold only through the web site in 1998 and 1999, and adds three more rough demos from earlier, none of which would be effective commercials for the first-generation digital gear used to record them. The original thrill of hearing material in progress no longer applies, of course. But maybe now what you need, most of all, is to be reminded what it sounded like back when progress was still possible.
Big Country: Nashville Sessions
Although in theory I grant any artist the right to decide how long a story they decide to tell, which means nobody has any responsibility to keep making records for me one day longer than they want to, in practice I abhor retreat. I hated it when Mark quit, I hated it when the band quit touring, I hate it that Stuart moved away, I hate it that Big Country didn't stay together, making records against any resistance they could ever encounter, until meteors or arthritis or a train wreck finally shut them down. I hate it that J.D. Salinger doesn't write, and Scott Miller claims he's done with the Loud Family. You have the right to stop, but you have the responsibility to waive it and keep trying, because you can't know what you still might accomplish. The world provides all the variety and chaos anybody would need; what we ask from individual people is unshakable devotion to whatever it is only they can do. A hero never surrenders, and maybe this makes heroes kind of unbearable, but that's why we have so many, and remote controls to switch them on and off.
Nashville Sessions is another web-site release, a quick no-ado crash through four new songs and two old ones, intended to be used as ersatz radio sessions whenever the band themselves couldn't make it. I don't know if it was ever broadcast as such. The new songs hadn't grown apart from their album selves enough to be very interesting, yet, and the slightly unsteady version of "Look Away" leaves me wondering why a radio station wouldn't rather just play the existing records, but the other old one is a radiantly spare "Chance". I'm not sure I could ever hear "Chance" too many times, anyway, but tonight the heartbroken chorus is more beautiful than ever, and the idea that playing it could constitute promotion is so brave and hopeless that I temporarily stop believing that the end could be real. Anybody who could sing "I never felt so low" so many thousands of times and still sound like they've survived it ought to be able to live forever.
Big Country: Peace Concert (Live in East Berlin, 1988)
Stuart was wont to insist that Big Country did not espouse any particular overriding ideology, but even under the narrowest interpretations of "ideology" I think he was underestimating himself, and surely no band with "Flame of the West", "Republican Party Reptile", "The Selling of America" and "The President Slipped and Fell" in their canon can claim political innocence with a straight face. What he meant, I think, is that Big Country's songs were not ideological in motivation. They were almost invariably about personal struggles, and sometimes personal struggles have political consequences, but mostly they do not. Put the other way, sometimes politics has personal implications, but mostly it does not. Stuart's songs rarely strayed into ideology because real human problems rarely reach ideological stature. Big Country were one of rock's greatest champions of underdog courage and routine strength.
This live recording comes from only a few months before the 1989 show documented on the 1995 BBC Live in Concert album, and shares the same disconcerting and badly dated presence of keyboardist Josh Phillips (the blurting synth stabs on "Look Away" are particularly startling and unwelcome, and the ghost-falsetto patch Phillips tries to slip in where Kate Bush's voice was on the original of "The Seer" makes me livid). Although the liner notes mention that the band played several Peace in Our Time songs at the show, this disc omits them all, leaving a rather bizarre document of Peace in Our Time-era concert arrangements of exclusively pre-Peace in Our Time songs, which it's hard to believe is precisely what anybody wanted. It is also, as best I can recall, the only album I own with a typo on the spine.
Big Country: Live at Wolverhampton Civic Hall
But no matter how odd the setting or constraints, the case for Big Country being the best rock band ever was always easiest to make when they took the stage. They were my favorite band forever, but I only saw them play three times. The first show was in Dallas, on their first US tour; they knew so few songs they played "In a Big Country" twice, and it threw the place into a frenzy both times. The second time was a legendary/notorious mid-afternoon gig on a barge afloat in an artificial lagoon behind the Cambridgeside Galleria shopping mall, across the street from where I worked at the time. If there is a worse environment for an immersive rock concert than a lagoon with thirty feet of fetid water between the audience and the band, in cloudy daylight, with punishing slap-back coming off the glass mall facade into which the band was forced to play, I've never seen it, but I still get chills walking through that space years later. The third show was in London on my first visit there, a trip scheduled in complete ignorance of their tour schedule, and the experience of seeing them play for a rapturous British crowd was tantamount to a religious pilgrimage. Big anthems are what big concert venues are most straightforwardly suited for, but to me the most astonishing moments in Big Country's shows were never the "One Great Thing"s or "Look Away"s, they were the more restrained songs, most of all the "Chance" and "Harvest Home" audience sing-alongs, Bruce's little chirps on "Wonderland", or anything from the second half of Steeltown. "In a Big Country" and "Look Away" (and later "Seven Waves" and "We're Not in Kansas" and "God's Great Mistake") set the world in motion, and then the smaller songs stood in the middle and let it spin around them. I have never felt closer to having the indoors turned inside out to become the night sky.
And so I make an exception to my usual policy against live-album profusion, and keep buying these throw-away self-bootlegs. This one is from the tour for The Buffalo Skinners, and not only adds to my "Wonderland" collection, but builds to an especially cathartic "We're Not in Kansas" finale.
Big Country: Keep on Truckin'
Big Country knew as well as anybody the predicament the decade split in their catalog had put them in, and it is to their enormous credit, I think, that they always made sure the current material held up in concert alongside the classics. Even Come Up Screaming, their grand farewell, resisted the temptation to rely entirely on known favorites. The reasons that the last four records cannot be discarded, no matter how much you believe the first four obviate the need for them musically, all have to do with perseverance and self-belief. If Peace in Our Time was a derailment, then No Place Like Home was the train bumping across open fields to try to meet up with the tracks at the next bend. The Buffalo Skinners was a fuck-you to anybody who thought Peace in Our Time and No Place Like Home meant Big Country were done. Why the Long Face proved the band didn't have to stay angry to stay focused. Driving to Damascus suggested they might still have had a dozen records left in them. The first four records might have sufficed, and that's why the last four make me almost as happy just by existing. Getting lost is harmless, and harder than it sounds; letting yourself become paralyzed out of fear that you'll never find this spot again is far more common, and far more dangerous.
Keep on Truckin' is the most ineptly named and packaged of this series so far, without so much as a release or recording date. But it came out this year, and from the No Place Like Home-heavy selection we can date the show to 1991 or 1992. The live versions of "Republican Party Reptile", "Beautiful People" and "The Hostage Speaks" just reinforce my feeling that those are some of the band's weakest songs, and both "We're Not in Kansas" and "Ships" are identifiably their No Place Like Home models instead of the more expansive The Buffalo Skinners upgrades, but "King of Emotion" is nice, there is one more version each of "Chance" and "Wonderland", and in the middle there's a effortless "Winter Sky" that's worth the whole hour by itself.
The Raphaels: Supernatural
But here's the hard question, for me: how does Stuart's alcoholism and suicide color everything that went before? I divested myself from Guided by Voices when Robert Pollard merely got divorced (to oversimplify), and I don't remember the last time I felt like hearing a Nirvana record, so shouldn't I now go back and reject everything that Stuart has soured by killing himself? I am severely, perhaps congenitally, unsympathetic to self-destructiveness. I cannot abide smoking or drug abuse (hell, drug use), and I tolerate drunkenness only by making a concerted effort, if at all. A particularly unsympathetic part of me figures that if you don't like yourself enough to take the most rudimentary precautions to preserve your own life, why would I ever want to become attached to your survival? Big Country made "stay alive" into a slogan, and to have Stuart violate so basic a directive hurts a lot. His situation differs from Pollard's and Cobain's in one incredibly important aspect, though: his suicide was not cast as part of his art. Kurt had become a personality artist, so far that his suicide now feels to me like the only artistically viable conclusion to In Utero. Pollard traded a personal life for music. Stuart seems to have ended his life as a private act. Big Country were already defunct, and on Stuart's terms, so there was nothing for suicide to accomplish there. The new band was breezy and uncomplicated, producing music I'd have thought you'd only make if you were no longer expecting to battle demons on a daily basis. Stuart spent five weeks and several thousand miles separating himself from the people he was about to hurt. Once he'd decided he no longer wanted to be alive, he went about his death in a fairly compassionate manner. No rivers had to be dragged to find his body, no relatives had to discover him dead. He didn't leave a note, but even that might be a kindness. His depression was toxic, and the safest way to dispose of it was to take it with him into the grave. I have chosen to believe that his death was not a rejection of the themes of his music, but rather that music was a pitched battle against death that he won for twenty-five triumphant years, three bands, twelve studio albums and innumerable moments of enduring hope. Kurt only lasted four years and three albums. Kurt was twenty-seven, Stuart was forty-three; forty-three is still much too young, but old enough for death to have been an intelligently reasoned decision. I'm pretty sure living on into amiably doddering old age would have been a better ending to Stuart's story, but this death doesn't need to undo any of his life's work. "Rest in peace", we say, and Stuart has earned his peace; it is not our place to dictate when he gets to rest in it.
Mind you, that doesn't mean I have to like his farewell album. Supernatural is not music to keep a soul alive in the face of great pain, and maybe that means Stuart had already chosen his end. The Raphaels were Stuart's duo with veteran Nashville songwriter Marcus Hummon, as if he needed songwriting help of any sort, much less this, and in the context of Stuart's death it feels to me horribly like the few lucid days a cancer patient gets when they stop the treatments and go home to die. A few more sunny afternoons not rendered garish by hospital walls. The sounds of your own neighbors' kids playing. A last few records, now that you don't have to hear them through a drug haze. And the people who love you have to make a decision: do they come to say goodbye, and watch you disappear, or do they give you your exit in dignity, and remember who you were?
Skids: The Absolute Game
So I don't think I'll listen to the Raphaels again. Supernatural is death music to me now, in a year when the last thing I need is more contemplation of death. The gift the end of a record gives us, and so too the end of a career or a life, is the opportunity to go back to the beginning again. Whatever my mixed feelings about the questionable logic, overlapping scopes and sloppy production values of Ian Grant's Big Country vault-clearing projects, Track Records' reissue of The Absolute Game, the third Skids album and the last one before Stuart's departure, is diligent, unadorned but faultless. "Three down, five to go", Richard Jobson wrote at the end of the credits. Skids lasted only four, Jobson's subsequent band The Armoury Show only one. Big Country made their eight. And for this length of this album, tonight, even that once again hasn't happened yet. For a few minutes it's 1980, and Stuart, Richard, Russell Webb and Mike Baillie are still yelping through these intricate, spiky, twittering songs. Bruce is stacking shipping cartons, Tony and Mark are playing on Pete Townshend's Empty Glass. I am in my bedroom memorizing "Used to Bad News" by Boston for a lip-sync contest in Drama class. The blue and green carpet in my room is indestructible, and nobody I love will ever die.
And then it's 2001 again, a year we desperately need to be over, and the music is the same but I am not. I am old enough to start noticing the effects. All my grandparents are dead. The leader of my favorite band is dead. Two of my favorite writers are dead, and one of the others hasn't published a book since 1963. We too will vanish, whether in flames or our sleep or capitulation. But not what we've made, not what we've done, not who we've been. Let this be our wake for Stuart Adamson, then, or for whomever you lost this year: remember, first for just one day and then for all the others, that our time here is brief. Mean what you are. Do nothing that can be undone, and live or die with the consequences. Live in such a way that if you tell people to stay alive, and then die nevertheless, they will know that what you and they believed together was stronger and truer than anything that merely happened.