You can keep that flame burning

Life ought never to lose its capacity to surprise or to inspire. This post is inspired by words from Johnny Marr and DJ Food.

What is your most formative influence? What song, book, record, piece of art (etc) sparked the original fire in you?

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“What you take from a song, a band, an artist, a photograph, an album cover, an exhibition can really inspire you for the rest of your life. And you can keep that flame burning. It can define you and it can inspire you and it can form you, and in my case, I can’t imagine a time when I’m not drawing from them.”

This is Johnny Marr, speaking in the latest episode of Stephen Coates’s consistently excellent, consistently fascinating podcast The Bureau of Lost Culture. Their conversation touches on how many of Marr’s early influences shaped and continue to shape Marr as a person and as an artist: mod clothing, girl groups like the Shirelles, countercultural authors like JG Ballard and Colin Wilson – the list goes on.

The things that speak to you when you are at your most receptive can inspire you not just at that stage, but throughout your life. No matter what path you find yourself on, no matter where life takes you.

If you are lucky, your life will take you down paths that you cannot dream of when you are young. Life ought never to lose its capacity to surprise or to inspire.

Coates mentions to Marr that the latter’s life has always been about keeping moving. This is borne out in fine style throughout Marr’s excellent autobiography, Set the Boy Free – from its title onwards. I particularly love the passages that speak most directly to the importance of movement, when a midlife Marr is taken by the inspiration to take up long distance running, and never looks back.

Shine like the sun

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This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot – and listening – back to a formative influence from what feels like a lifetime ago. Catching up on recent posts from DJ Food’s excellent blog (his “online scrapbook”) I was surprised to learn that Check Your Head – an endlessly creative, endlessly inspiring Beastie Boys album – recently hit its 30th anniversary. I can remember first hearing this album like it was yesterday (or earlier today).

“This album has such bittersweet memories for me”, writes DJ Food:

“I listened to it constantly throughout the summer of ’92 on a tape recorded from someone at college. I was ridiculously poor and had recently split from my long term girlfriend at the end of the second year of Camberwell college. I moved into a house share in East Dulwich where I met Mario Aguera and Lou Carroll and they helped save my sanity.”

Check Your Head provided an endless flame of inspiration:

“I would troop about the streets of south London looking for a summer job in newsagent windows with Check Your Head on my Walkman until the batteries ran out. It was a low point in my life for sure but this album helped me through it and things all came good from starting again in that house. Sometimes you have to rip it up and start again and what better soundtrack than this record? A perfect balance of sample-heavy rap tracks but with a new live band edge in the mix. They were so cool as well, playing basketball and skating in their own studio, running a label, putting out a magazine and clothing line. Ah, the 90’s…”

Can relate. I bought Check Your Head on cassette at the time of its release in 1992. I too listened to it endlessly throughout what was – looking back on it – perhaps not the highest point of my life. I was a broke, hungry and painfully shy student at the time. The rich seam of roughly sketched, wildly diverse and endlessly colourful, life-affirming music on Check Your Head was exactly what I needed to hear at that time.* It opened up new musical and creative pathways for me. The Beastie Boys took inspiration from all genres of music. Mash up sitars with hip hop and crudely sample Bob Dylan so that he sings the final line of a song about food?** Why not! I never have tired and never will tire of this music. It surprised me and inspired me. It helped me through until things started to come good. It continues to help me today. It surprises and inspires me now.

It showed me and continues to show me that life need not be set in stone Things can change. Things can get better. As one of the songs on this record puts it:

“Lighten up right now/ Shine like the sun.”

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The stars that shine

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You wouldn’t want your (well, I can’t speak for you, gentle reader, so perhaps I should say that I wouldn’t want my) path through life to be set in stone. If you are very fortunate indeed, life will never lose its capacity to surprise and to inspire you.

Marr’s conversation with Coates closes with some more words that I find inspiring (if not surprising, given the delightful spirit of the person speaking them). This is the host’s final question to Marr:

“Do you have the sense that there’s going to be more signposts that point towards some destination that you’re not quite sure what it is?”

Marr replies:

“The moment you stop being open to that, it will stop happening. It’s a balance between keeping one foot on the ground, but also being open to these moments. I’d hate to have got this far in my life as a person, and then have decided that I was going to shut myself off to what Colin Wilson calls ‘peak experience’.”

I love these words. Life ought never to lose its capacity to surprise or to inspire. Life at its best abounds with new signposts, new inspirations – often when you least expect them.

I love the endless capacity of music to surprise and to inspire me. Just this past week, I’ve found joyous inspiration in three pieces of music I’d never heard before.

First, Moon Duo’s Planet Caravan breathes new and unexpected life into a Black Sabbath song that I’ve been listening to most of my life.***

Second, I’ve suddenly found myself in love with the music of Siouxsie and the Banshees (having barely paid any attention to them before).**** Dazzle – from the album Hyaena – is my favourite song in the world right now. It speaks of and to “the stars that shine/ and the stars that shrink”.

Third, Kendrick Lamar’s incredible The Heart Part 5. Dropped on an unsuspecting world at the start of this week, with a truly eye-popping deepfake-filled video, which should not distract from what is a virtuoso hip hop song.

The stars that shine. They are always there to guide you or to show you unexpected, uncharted paths. They are there to surprise and to inspire you.

You can keep that flame burning.

May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.

Candle

FOOTNOTES

I wrote a lot more about the Beastie Boys – including my unwitting encounter of the Yauch kind in Soho Square – in my 2016 post #7songs: Beasties, beer spraying and Saṃsāra.

** I almost feel like I’m spoiler-ing the Beastie Boys song Finger Lickin’ Good by talking about the wonderful – yet arguably also rather crude – way they splice in a line from Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, from Bob Dylan’s immortal Highway 61 Revisited album.

*** The original version of Planet Caravan – from Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album – is a gentle psychedelic blues-y jazz-y song that you might never have expected from them.

**** I was set on this pathway by chancing upon Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette. I fortuitously channel-hopped into this wonderful film via a scene in which Siouxsie’s Hong Kong Garden provides a  deliberately anachronistic soundtrack to an 18th Century Versailles masked ball. I’ve been exploring their music, ever since.

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