It doesn't often happen to me. It did when I first listened to Captain Beefheart's 'Strictly Personal', the intense feeling of something unique, at once a primitive voice of desert and swamp and then strangely, but almost always, married to lyrics which come from dreams, nightmares or outer space.
It did another time when I heard Kevin Coyne's song 'Turpentine', so out of time with the many oh-so-sensitive whining hippies who appeared on the 'Old Grey Whistle Test'. Here was a punk before it even happened, a bluesman with Derby accent who sang his pained and angry cry from the view of a boy who was a total nihilist.
Coyne was an outsider and revelation much like another singer-songwriter whose sounds I fell for at first hearing, Tom Waits. Living in W. Germany we'd go over the border to the Netherlands for music and tobacco (small cigars I smoked then). I also crossed the border imaginatively into the world of Waits, of bars and characters and the loneliness of being in a strange land : 'Tom Traubert's Blues' had all of these and more, with its remaking of 'Waltzing Matilda'.
Others I've grown to love, especially Dylan and Cohen, whose voices grated initially. How could they claim to be singers? I was so wrong and made up for my poor judgement by soaking up all their work later, though I mostly sang Cohen to myself around the house and there was a particular pub in Aber where Saturday nights were singalong and 'Bird On The Wire' was my favourite. For Dylan, I had to stand as my wife played piano and follow his intricate words.
Music has been so exciting of late. I have become intrigued by the lyrics of Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, at a time when few bands are not at all adventurous with words and likewise the peculiar phrasing and rhythmic impulses of Welsh band The Joy Formidable, whose lyrics sometimes remind me of the work of Peter Finch. I'm not sure if they'd count him as an influence though!
However, real love at first sound came from one of the finest albums this century without any doubt. It's an album which has swum and flown in my brain from first listening: full of birds and foam, of nymphs and dolphins.
I was uncertain about downloading The Waterboys' 'An Appointment With Mr Yeats' at first. The title seemed a bit awkward and Richard Curtis almost put me off. Yes, the Richard Curtis of all those famous romcoms which lacked the 'com' and had a lot of predictable 'rom'! It wasn't the fact that Curtis mildly criticised this album ( saying that he much preferred Mike Scott's own words) that made me wary; it was more the fact that if Curtis eulogized The Waterboys then maybe I should take stock of my great admiration.
One listen on youtube to their version of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' was enough to persuade though. Here was a bold, bluesy rendition of the poem, which should conventionally have been treated as a simple acoustic lament. This prepared me for the rest.
So much of what Scott and his bassist do with the poems isn't what you'd expect, yet there are still echoes of the very best of their music through the years, even the resounding piano chords from that classic, 'The Whole of the Moon'.
The music is taken to another level by their desire to do justice to Yeats' words and Scott's voice is even more passionate than on recent cds. He sings with such an emotional power throughout, that each word is given weight and I can only compare to early Cohen for anything like this. Thus the word 'mad' has such a quivering quality in 'Mad As The Mist and Snow',
while 'grave' in 'September 1913' is deep and doomy and 'copulate' at the end of 'News For The Delphic Oracle' is intoned with such lasciviousness.
In an age of endless singer-songwriters who moan in the inevitable First Person about the end of love affairs and little else, what price songs about the 'Four Ages of Man' or the myth of Niamh and Oisin? Interestingly, Scott chooses to alter the ending of the 'Four Ages of Man' and stop with 'at stroke of midnight'. There is no 'God wins' at all and it actually makes the poem more mysterious. I'm not sure if this is a later version of the manuscript or not.
I have never cried so much over an album and different songs affected me the more I listened. The first was 'Sweet Dancer', an example of the band's more folk-rock side, though Katie Kim's dueting vocals have more than a hint of alt. country style. Most of the album is definitely closer to the 'rock 'n' roll' Scott claimed on one tv interview.
'Sweet Dancer' doesn't work so well on the page and reads as rather slight. However, Scott and the Boys bring it to another dimension altogether with Wickham's winged and wheeling violin, the subtle harmonies and , above all, the way the refrain of 'sweet dancer' is sung over and over. It's such a visual poem and the flute at the end leaves with a sense of the girl ( seen as 'mad' by men in the house) drawing pictures with her movements on the lawn.
This album has so much variety of interpretation, from the chanting , leaping opening of 'The Hosting of the Shee' to the incantatory 'Let The Earth Bear Witness' with its musing on mortality.
It make me want to revisit my Waterboys' cds and also to re-read the work of W.B. Yeats. I have never been a fan of all his poetry and the later tendency to 'gyres' left me cold, but individual poems moved me considerably. Some, like 'Leda and The Swan' aren't featured on the album; others, like 'An Irish Airman Forsees His Death' are.
If you've never listened to The Waterboys before ( apart from that single) , then lend this an ear.......or two! Rock on, Billy Yeats! It might just be that Scott & Yeats are the best songwriting combo since Becker and Fagen ( who are they?.........another story!).
I make no excuses for digging up an old one for this occasion. The title refers to ' the autograph tree' in Coole Park and Yeats' house at Thor Ballylee. Yeats' friend, author and translator Douglas Hyde, signed his name ACA on the tree i.e. Gaelic for 'the most beautiful branch'.
The tree & the tower
There's a wide spread of petticoat
August auburn on the outside,
green facing in, where we hide
in that 'sensuality of the shade'
Yeats marked so delicately.
The first to initial that smooth
parchment of the copper beech.
Augusta Gregory in autumn
widowed in buffed red-brown :
WBY losing its clarity to time.
Weathering and the admiring palms
have rubbed so many autographs,
obscuring Hyde, An Craoibhinn Aoibhinn
his Gaelic name of the knife
and others queried or forgotten.
The tower remains, its gyring stairs
up to the stars, the ghosts of Normans
who built to oversee, while Coole
has long been left to fester down,
for uneasy spirits we're waiting on.
Over the tower's roof a sword in the east,
under the laefy dome we trace
a constellation of friends made myth ;
under the bridge blown in rebellion
the stream translates script-reflections.