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At this to-be-or-not-to-be moment in human civilisation, we can free the people with music

At this to-be-or-not-to-be moment in human civilisation, we can free the people with music
'A poet and a punk' - front pages of newspapers on the day of the passing of Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of the Irish folk-punk band, The Pogues. (Image: Sourced from social media posts)

The death of a great musician triggers something that, with few exceptions, rarely accompanies the death of politicians or other public figures. Real grief, that is.

The death of Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of the Irish folk-punk band, The Pogues, was hopefully the last passing in 2023 of a number of great musicians who have left us this year. In addition to MacGowan, went Sinead O’Connor and before that Tina Turner, each of them truly iconic.

As news of their deaths broke, the wave of mixed emotions — grief, celebration, nostalgia, love, honour — that followed was a spectacle in itself. It cut across continents, ages, class, religion and race. Facebook and Instagram filled up with photos, videos of old performances, quotes and dedications. It’s clear that the death of a great musician triggers something that, with few exceptions, rarely accompanies the death of politicians or other public figures. 

Real grief, that is.

(Image: Sourced from Tom Waits’ social media posts)

Music, and musicians, touch us somewhere … deeply. While they are alive we live vicariously alongside their often couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitudes, their anger, their joy at life; we share their tragedies, their defiance, their refusal to abide by social norms. 

Shane MacGowan, music

Shane MacGowan attends The Meteor Ireland Music Awards 2006, the annual radio station awards recognising the best-selling artists of the previous year, at The Point Theatre on February 2, 2006 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo: ShowBizIreland / Getty Images)

We envy the way they trailblaze resistance: Sinead tearing up a picture of the Pope, later singing Bob Marley’s song “War” in response to a hostile audience; Bob Dylan turning to his band and telling them to “play fucking loud” after an audience member was heard shouting out “traitor” because of his shift from folk to electric; MacGowan perpetually pissed, able to turn alcoholism and other addictions into an art form, but not romanticise it; Tina, black, triumphant, exuberant, a politico-sexual.

Sinead O'Connor

Irish singer Sinead O’Connor sings in concert on 18 January, 2003 at The Point Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo: Getty Images)

Staying alive

What is it about music that moves us and what does it tell us about ourselves? 

In his latest book, Faith, Hope and Carnage, Nick Cave, a non-conforming musician par excellence, says of music that “it’s one of the last remaining places, beyond raw nature, that people can feel awed by something happening in real-time, the reverence, the wonder.”

(Image: Wikipedia)

Speaking in particular of his live performances, he speaks of feeling a communal sense of awe developing between band and audience: “to be held by an artist at the crucial moment of expression — to be awed, second by second, at the way a piece of music unfolds, to be held on the edge of tears by the drama of it all, and to be, as an audience member, an essential participant in the drama itself”.  

Read my review of Faith, Hope and Carnage: Art, beauty, death: Reflections on Nick Cave’s new book 

Talking about the power of music … 2023 was a big year for anniversaries of albums that changed the world. 

It was the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (a prophetic album if ever there was one), of Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire (with the famous picture of Bob smoking a huge spliff as its cover) and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

By chance this year I watched a wonderful documentary series titled 1971, The Year That Music Changed Everything on Apple TV. It’s a fascinating, eight-episode series that looks at how, in one year alone — 1971 — diverse genres of music all reflected and refracted the splintering of the social contract (or sorts) and the end of the post-war boom and consensus in developed countries that had followed the second world war: the fight against racism, the fight to be seen and heard, to expand categories of gender. 

In 1971 we see music in all its revolutionary glory:

  • Music as a weather vane detecting and then shaping changing social attitudes.
  • Music as a form of prophesy and warning of the mess capitalism is getting us into.
  • Music as biting social and political commentary, able to deploy the language of the streets after it has ceased to be the language of political society.
  • Music as solidarity and community, a language that hasn’t been bastardised by cliche, platitude and hypocrisy.

And, because none of the issues that musicians and poets have railed against for centuries have been resolved, those three-minute bursts of anger/energy/joy/philosophy endure, sometimes given new life and relevance by the viral power of social media. It seems The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” is about to hit no 1 in the UK charts. It already has in Ireland. But in addition, think of Barry McGuire’s 1960s anti-war song, “Eve of Destruction”, reinvented and recorded as an anthem warning about the climate crisis by Anneli Kamfer

Think of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, or his 1971 song “Gimme Some Truth”:

I’ve had enough of reading things

By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians

All I want is the truth, now

Just give me some truth, now

We know the feeling, John.

‘This is no fun’ — Johnny Rotten

Where does this raw power come from? 

John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten lead rasper of the Sex Pistols, is still alive. His performances as a Sex Pistol epitomised defiance. Despite his later life as a stockbroker, watch what lights up when he dies. He titled his autobiography, “Anger is an Energy”, also a refrain in the Public Image Limited (PIL) song “Rise”. 

The power of music is not some brand wizardry or the product of money. Significantly many great musicians start out poor, or at best middle class, many are self-taught (watch how the Sex Pistols came into being in the great mini-series Pistol), come from marginalised or oppressed groups (Bob, Peter, Bunny and all the Rastas of Jamaica), are sexually, gender and generally non-conforming. 

Yes, here’s the rub. Music’s power is in the authenticity of its people, usually humans who are not captured, who defy convention, and for whom music is a means for expressing discontent and rejection and performance is a glimpse of another world and way. 

And that’s why it moves us. 

John Lydon of Public Image Ltd, music

John Lydon of Public Image Ltd performs on the Other Stage during day 4 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on 29 June, 2013 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo: Ian Gavan / Getty Images)

In an inchoate and hard to articulate way it goes to the heart of what we are and what we are prevented from being: “As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small / by giving you no time / instead of it all,” wrote John Lennon.

Which led me back to Bob Marley, what music means, and what it can do to help humanity at this to-be-or-not-to-be moment in human civilisation. Watching Shane MacGowan’s funeral, and the crowds of people lining the streets of Dublin, reminded me of Marley’s and the people lining the roads between Kingston and Nine Mile during his burial

Marley’s last album (released after he died) is aptly titled Confrontation. It has a rebel song titled “Trench Town” (a different song from “Trench Town Rock”), which sounds like it comes from early in his catalogue. 

In it Bob describes how, whilst washing his dreads in a river, “there I vision through the seas of oppression, oh whoa, don’t make my life a prison”. 

In a kind of Keatsian reverie Marley starts by asking: “Can we free the people with music?” 

But, soon “We free the people with music” becomes the song’s insistent and repeated refrain rather than a question. We can free the people with music! We do use music to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery! 

When you think about Marley’s catalogue of songs, with anthems like “Redemption Song” and “Get up, Stand Up!”, you start to understand that that was his musical mission: to free the people with music.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley (1945 – 1981) performs in the late 1970s. (Photo: Express Newspapers / Getty Images)

And so for all the rest of this universal tribe of troubadours. I could go on and on. The examples and lyrics to support them are endless. And they continue into every age. Think of the prophets of now: Kendrick Lamar, Kae Tempest, Beyonce … adopting very different styles and genres, but still driving social commentary and catalysing change. Holding us to our base emotions and complex feelings as we risk succumbing to the polarising binaries of social media.

All the world’s their stage. And that’s why they move us. Millions of us still yearn for freedom — material, spiritual, expressive — and the lives of artists and their music best capture this yearning. 

RIP Shane. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Beezy Bailey says:

    May I suggest that this freedom through music be extended through all art forms ? Certainly as a painter/sculptor/performance artist I’m inspired by pollack ,Picasso, Bacon , Bourgeois, Abamovich to name a few and the boundaries they pushed and new horizons they revealed in their free pursuit of human expression. And I’m sure that the same can be said of the great writers poets film makers and dancers .

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