Thursday, June 20, 2013

In A Silent Way

I DON'T WANT to tell you where. It seems too private. Not that I have all that much to tell, only what I saw. Midafternoon, a warm sun, the wind whipping off the nearby ocean so blustery and fresh I am almost cold and warm at once.
And there I am ... running through a graveyard on the south coast of NSW. The cliffs fall away and the water heaves. As far as the eye can see, north or south, the coastline stretches into a salty mist until it disappears.
I'm plugged in to Miles Davis's In a Silent Way on my iPhone. I've had this record for years, but this is the first time I have really listened to it, and it's astounding. The way Davis plays: as if he is not quite in the music but above it, a great bird flying over a cool landscape.
It's the first track, Shh/Peaceful, that sucks me in - time 17:58, what would have been all of side one in the days of black vinyl. Oh, the pleasures of headphones and hi-tech mobility when it comes to our listening experience today. Hearing it makes me feel as if I, too, could fly, just like Davis's shining trumpet, serene and above it all.
I've come south and separated myself from home and family for a few weeks to work on a book project, a biography of another musician as it happens, Australian singer and songwriter Nick Cave.
Back where I've come from in Sydney, there's a tribute concert built around Cave's many great songs, with some fine artists performing, but I have an inkling Nicholas Edward Cave has already moved on from all that is being celebrated.
Last year, when we met, Cave spoke of Davis's On the Corner (1972), arguably the jazz master's most forward-looking, street-wise and darkly funky work. I can see how the fusions, fury and fun Davis was having at the turn of the 1970s - when the trumpeter began accelerating across the divide between jazz and rock 'n' roll, progressing from acoustic formations into electronic grooves, Afro-beats and Stockhausen-inspired cut-ups - has more recently informed Cave's sonic palette with his prog-rock blues band Grinderman.
Art is a hall of mirrors: connections, ambitions, echoes, heroes and their struggles. As Cave's biographer-to-be I am looking at not just his work but also everything that affects it: from Samuel Beckett's novels to German expressionist art, from Davis to King Crimson and David Bowie. What I seek is more than a study of the influences; it's the fuel that can lift me up to places where I don't just know something, I feel it by dint of the force of those same influences on me.
Of course I can get distracted and go in way too deep to be practical. And so it is that I end up exploring everything about how Davis electrified his sound, beginning with the crystal ambience of In a Silent Way (1969) and metastasising into Dark Magus (1974), a storming live show documenting what some perceived as the height of improvisory rock 'n' jazz madness. Somewhere in the middle of all that was the genre-defining fusion landmark, Bitches Brew (1970). And yet another dark spark, the September 18, 1970, death of Davis's friend Jimi Hendrix, the guitarist with whom the trumpeter had been hanging out and jamming during the late 60s. I wondered to myself, listening to it all: did Hendrix's death give Davis an added sense of purpose, a desire to fill the breach, seize the day? Davis would certainly not be the first man to discover that another's death sets you free, or demands a new freedom of you.
It's perhaps the biographer's lot to also discover that another's life can entrap you. To be someone's biographer is, in a sense, to try to live another's life in a matter of a few years. That's quite a compression chamber to dive into. I've been thinking lately I might never make it out of Cave's world and all that it involves, when Davis's In a Silent Way picks me up again. Raises me up high over the material, even over who I am. The way Davis plays his trumpet: cool but not cold, gliding not forced, great without trying too hard. It's an inspiration, yes it is. Done with such ease; in a spirit of ascent and release, as if Davis has let go of everything.
What I don't know is that it's the start of a recording era stimulated by heroin use. By 1975 Davis would forsake his journey in music for his overwhelming addiction. His old collaborator and friend, pianist and arranger Gil Evans, would be more circumspect in explaining Miles's retirement: "His organism is tired. And after all the music he's contributed for 35 years, he needs a rest." Rumours would persist across the next five years that he was fixing to die. But by 1981 Davis would step out of his own oblivion and go searching for new possibilities, brushing up against everyone from Prince to Public Image Ltd along the way.

SO THERE I AM in a graveyard on the south coast, In a Silent Way pouring through me, filling me with new resolve and energy. Time to go back to the little shack I am renting and set to work writing again. As I turn and run puffing up the hill - gasping with purpose - I notice a woman lying on the grass, using a long stone beam that runs along the ground for her pillow. These terrazzo beams are where the engraved memorial plaques are set to mark the remains of the cremated.
There are fresh flowers beside the woman, and what looks like a picnic basket. She has been there a while and will be there some time yet. She is right at the back of the cemetery, and there are no other plaques imprinted yet along the rest of the beam where she has her head. She is gesturing and talking to someone I can't see.
It becomes obvious to me this woman is lying beside her dead husband for the day. Some lines from a Cave song called Jesus of the Moon pop into my mind as I look at her, then glance away, as if something in me knows I should never have looked at all:
Well, I kept thinking about what the weatherman said
/ And if the voices of the living can be heard by the dead
/ Well, the day is gonna come when we find out / And in some kinda way I take a little comfort from that (now and then)
I  have always had a thing for graveyards. Visiting them; writing about them. I guess I do take a little comfort in them. I have to ask myself why.
It's impossible not to feel the pull of tragedy and grief, of course, along with the humbling clarity of lives that appear to have been well lived. Perhaps there's an existential clarity in those extremes that is worth being reminded of.
A good graveyard song always gets to me, that's for sure: the devilish humour and childish superstitions of Tom Waits's Whistlin' Past the Graveyard ("Whistlin' past the graveyard/ steppin' on a crack"); the ecstatic sadness of the Smiths' Cemetry Gates ("So we go inside and we gravely read the stones/ all those people, all those lives/ where are they now?").
Here, today, I find myself moved as always by the simple invocations and resorts to the Bible, to prayer and verse. And by the even simpler summaries of a person's life and work: doctor, nan, brother, teacher, mother, daughter, trade unionist, father, beloved and loved. "Forever in our hearts", "sleeping peacefully", "sadly missed" are the primary and most repeated words in this place. Peace, memory, God, love: these are the precipitate wisdom of the generations.
The Catholic section, the Anglican area, the buried, the cremated: death is social as well as devastatingly intimate for family and friends; it has its own communities, rituals and burial processes, even its own class systems and real estate that tell you something of the surrounding world.
Graveyards often map a town's history, too: a plague of influenza, a mining accident, a fishing village wounded by wild weather. You bear witness to the life of a particular place within the events scored into the stone and the plaques. Certain graveyards seem to stop in time altogether, a measure of a town growing old and declining.
Always it's the small stories that emerge. Totems of affection among the fresh and wilted flowers: a large green crystal, a faded blue fishing lure, a ceramic light-house, a toy horse, a VB stubby (unopened), a baby's rattle ... I notice a grave and see that a child has been buried there, dead at 4 1/2 months. Then, just one year later, the father, wounded in battle. It could be to do with Afghanistan, but it's World War I and France that have taken him.
The grave is old and the writing ready to fade, the words already on their way to becoming Braille as I touch their meaning.
Losing your daughter and your husband within a year of each other: how much grief can one life take? And how did you live afterwards, nameless wife and mother? And where and with whom were you buried? There's no answer. But for a moment I am inside the world of another.
In this way the gravestones continuously remind me of Ernest Hemingway's insight that a very little can say a lot - and his famous, if apocryphal, example of a short story done in just six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

I CAN REMEMBER being taken to country graveyards from a very young age, to visit an obscure great-aunt's plot, to see other country relatives who meant nothing to me amid the overgrown, crackle-dry summer grass. But probably my most significant visit was when my family went on drives from Newcastle up into the Hunter Valley, and on a few occasions my grandparents made us stop over at the East Maitland Cemetery.
Here lay the early 20th-century boxing champion Les Darcy, who had died in the US on May 24, 1917, at 21. Because I was partly brought up by my grandparents, I was given a high regard for Don Bradman, Darcy and Phar Lap as three of the greatest sporting stories to emerge in Australia.
Only the Bradman machine ran counter to the general passion for romantic tragedy in every heroic tale I heard, from Gallipoli to Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills and, yes, Darcy and Phar Lap too. A thread that seems very Australian to me, a flame, a dream, a premature end.
Now, apparently, Darcy's coffin lies broken and his family vault flooded with mud. Yet a small public outcry across the valley about this state of affairs shows that the boy-hero Darcy is not forgotten completely, at least not by the locals.
One might turn to it being a matter of historic import or, more crassly, tourism in any argument about the costly restoration of his grave. But there is a deeper psychic tissue ingrained in our concerns for how the dead rest, a feeling that we owe them something.
To be honest, it was just a bunch of stories floating above my head until my grandfather died when I was nine. It was then that the ritual of visiting a grave became much more significant. Cleaning the grit from the black marble, replacing the dead flowers, kissing his photo. Speaking to him. Until, of course, I visited less and less, said even less. Forgot even who I was speaking to.
Now my grandmother lies beside him in the same grave. And once every blue moon I will go there - if I can find the spot - and think about them, as well as the boy I used to be and how I left that world behind.
It seems like Mars to me and it is hard to remember much of it, so foreign is the feeling. Yet I know I lived there on that world with them. And maybe that's why the aptly named Sandgate Cemetery, set just outside of my home town of Newcastle, stays in my mind, flat as an old sheet drying in the sun.
As a teenager I would be startled by Nicolas Roeg's science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). I loved it but my friends thought it was stupid. They didn't understand the visions that the alien, Thomas Jerome (played by a red-haired David Bowie), has of his old planet dying from lack of water. Jerome is on a mission to ship water back to his planet, but he becomes enmeshed in the corruptions of life on Earth - money, power, sex, alcohol - and he fails.
Thanks to the release of Low a year later, and Bowie's continuing insect-thin alien paleness, not to mention the funereal and aloof, hyper-modern pop he had begun making as a result of his stay in Berlin, it felt as if the singer had moved into some post-apocalyptic space from where he viewed us all.
He was seductive, strange, bleak, other-worldly, romantic, the most important popular music artist of his day. I'd look at him on the cover of Low, remember him in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and envision a man in the reddened, atomic nowhere of a dead world.
Well, I can't tell you how thrilling that was. I knew something of what it was to be like him. I was 17 and I was an alien, too, and I was ready to leave my dying planet for another.

THERE'S A BLEAKNESS in my mind, to Sandgate Cemetery that has not deterred me from visiting other graveyards since, or from finding far more peaceful possibilities in those visits. I'm not running from the end, I guess; I am trying to become familiar with it.
I'm not leaving anywhere; I'm trying to get back home.
Which is much more like Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth than I understood as a teenager. As in his album Low, it is not the disintegration that is romantic; it's the search for integration that brings nobility to the aloneness.
His song Be My Wife is a telling example of that:
"Sometimes you get so lonely/ Sometimes you get nowhere/ I've lived all over the world/ I've left every place/ Please be mine/ Share my life/ Stay with me/ Be my wife..."
Yet, of course, his daring move to make all of side two of Low a set of instrumentals in collaboration with Brian Eno would sound like a funeral rite, like music for a European graveyard. It is not just people who die, whole worlds and cultures do as well. He'd break up with his wife, he'd push on alone.
AT this cliff-top graveyard on the coast, it occurs to me that my name need not even be on a cross or tombstone when I go, that I'd prefer it marked down that I loved my partner and my children, and that their names might be written there in stone as if I were still loving them long after I had gone, as if I were still writing to them and speaking to them.
This conversation between the dead and the living is something that matters greatly to me. As I revisit this coastal graveyard I will start to notice other visitors speaking to the stones and the flowers and the wind. A man arrives towing a small caravan. He has obviously come a long way to pay his respects. Another man, in his late 40s, astride a bicycle, stands for a long time before a very large tombstone. After he is gone I walk up to it and see it is for a boy who died aged 20 in 1987. A story takes shape in my mind and I suspect the man on the bicycle to be the boy's brother, now a middle-aged man.
It is early morning and I have taken to tuning in to Davis on my iPhone and going for a jog through the graveyard and down a dirt stairwell to the beach, before climbing a hill and heading back to where I am staying. The path demands just a little more of me than I am easily capable of. I think to myself: I am getting older and I need to get healthier.
As I head down into the graveyard, I go over to the corner where I had seen the woman resting her head on the terrazzo stone beam. There I find not a picnic basket left behind, as I had thought from a distance, but a collection of toys and offerings. It was not her husband she was lying with, it was her daughter.
Small enamel blocks with butterflies imprinted on them decorate the head of the memorial plaque. One of the butterflies has the word "BELIEVE" on it. There's a large toy ladybird in a small pot of flowers. A few tiny, multicoloured windmills are planted in the ground. They seem to half spin one way, then turn the other way in a brilliant, decisive flutter for a while.
As I look around I see quite a few of these windmills here and there throughout the graveyard, ebbing and flowing with the breeze. A lot of children seem to be here. The grave of a boy who died after only six days of life in 1939 is not that far away. There is a fresh sunflower in front of it in a gaily-painted spotted pot, a gift. Who would leave something like that for a stranger nearly 100 years on? I guess the hearts of people are bigger than we can ever know. Elsewhere for Christmas there is tinsel tied to crosses and gifts of all kinds.
The morning sun is shining on the water so brightly I can barely look out to sea. It is as if someone spilled a jar of blazing honey all the way to the horizon. Am I headed into the light, I wonder - is that where death waits for me too? But I see I have it wrong, and that I am not following this trail of light, it is being poured towards me by the sun. Poured back to the here and now where life and love are to be found.
And with tiny toy windmills turning and the graveyard alive to the sounds of the ocean breaking and the breeze blowing I start to run again. Turning the music up on my iPhone. Making my journey home in a silent way.

- Mark Mordue

* First published as ‘Me and Miles Davis, in a silent way’ in The Australian, December 31st 2011