Scorched Earth, Four Years On

Four years ago, I was living in Dublin. It was the winter of ’06 coming into ’07, and it was bitterly cold. Well — it doesn’t really get bitterly cold in Ireland. What happens is, it gets sort of cold and really damp, which makes the cold feel much worse than it really is.

Winters are pretty tough for me. I’ve never been a winter person. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of light or the lack or warmth, or the combination of the two, but it gets grim and feeling like it’ll never end. The damp winds blow right through all the layers of clothes and my big navy P-coat and my longjohns, and all I can think of doing is curling up by an open fire and sleeping until the snowdrops and crocuses pop up their little heads to announce with a chorus of whispering the arrival of spring.

But, of course, come hell, high water, weather or winter, everybody’s got to put their shoulders to the wheel. Luckily for me, the wheel was spinning in Dalkey, south of Dublin City on the bay that was once referred to as “The British Bay of Naples”. Now, I’ve never been to Naples or its bay, and Ireland isn’t part of Britain anymore, but I think I get the gist. You would, too, if you saw Dalkey: they’ve got one of the best vistas in all the-world-that’s-known-to-me.

Down at Bullock harbour, you can visit the seals, who always pop their noses up hoping that a friendly reveller will throw them something by way of comestibles. Up the road was Vico Road, one of the most beautiful agglomeration of extravagant housing a person could hope to see without being stared at strangely for being there. It’s a rich area, but I get the feeling that because it’s so nice to look at, nobody there really blames you for gawping.

If you follow that road, you can get yourself to Killiney Hill, a place where you could imagine fairy tales taking place — if you ever read that kind of thing when you were a kid like I did. Standing on top of Killiney Hill looking North, you can see all of Dublin Bay in all its crystalline cerulean glory. If you look west, the city spreads out before you, full of promise and grit and sob-stories and laughter.

It’s the kind of place I could never afford to live if J. hadn’t invited A. and me to stay for a few months to write and rehearse music together. Her parents live in a converted church that was always warm, unlike my cold little place in town with big, draughty windows (I loved the light but not the draughts) which I could never afford to heat properly. What a windfall!

It was in this warm little den of musical contentment that I hunkered down from January until March in an attempt to take myself seriously as a musician. I’d been at it for about four years already, gigging, busking, making friends, playing in other people’s bands, starting bands, losing bands, getting some session work here and there — but feeling, after all, like a bit of a fuck-up, like all the music I’d written so far was crap. The more I worked at the practical side of things, the less I seemed to get inspired to write music. It was all so — blah.

Panic gripped me: what if I was finished as a songwriter — finished before I’d even got started?

J. assured me if I just let it happen, it would. Time away from the norm, with nothing to do but play music all day would do the trick, she thought. A. agreed, and promptly locked himself in a room for three months to create a multi-lingual musical Parthenon, only emerging bleary-eyed for quick cups of tea or the occasional snack.

I tried to put the panic aside and work. Lots of ideas came, but they were shit, frankly! I’d start on something and drop it before it even developed — because I could tell it was rubbish. Nevertheless, I came up with hundreds of ideas, some of which found their way into songs I still play. But it’s not easy keeping busy while waiting for inspiration at the same time.

For rent payment and sustenance, I worked one day a week in an organic market in Dalkey village, earning both wages and groceries in the process. I did some busking and gigging to make the other ends meet. When you get good at living frugally, it’s nothing like a sacrifice — it feels good, you feel lean, lithe and living.

January came and went. The days were dark and dreary, and the weather was especially drab and biting. Taking long walks along the seaside helped, and so did J.’s company (and A.’s too, but like I said, he was mostly locked away, working on his magnum opus). I had two or three good ideas on the burner, but couldn’t seem to get them off the ground, or anything like a coherent song.

At beginning of February, I took a trip to the UK to visit my father. He wasn’t doing too well. We went to a pub somewhere in Surrey, where most everything is the same as everything else, a big cacophony of bland inoffensiveness. He’d been living there for almost 15 years, driving a mini-cab. We ordered drinks at the bar, me an ale, and he a lager. “I hate the way the English drink ale — why is it never cold?” he complained. Then he answered himself: “Because they’re greedy and they don’t want to pay to refrigerate it.”

We sat down and he heaved a long sigh. He struggled through some pleasantries then burst into tears. “I can’t take it anymore — I’m sorry.” I tried to comfort him, but he covered his face with one hand, the other locked tightly around his torso. “I want to kill myself.”

Now, my father and I have never been too close. Neither of us is easy to get along with, and I imagine orneriness doesn’t improve with age. All the same, I’ve a soft spot for people who have the guts to crumble in front of another person. It’s not alway weakness, sometimes it’s courage. Sometimes, when things are desperate, what else can you do?

But I didn’t know what to say, and it kind of caught me out that if my own father didn’t know how to pull himself up out of the doldrums, what chance did I have? It was kind of depressing. I tried to formulate some positive sentences, but just ended up commiserating. He wanted a boost, all I could do was silently agree: “Yep, it’s a hard old world, alright!”

I freely admit, a selfish thought crossed my mind at this moment, for which I’ve never completed forgiven myself: I thought, “Is this me in the future? No more songs left, driving a taxi, crying into my beer, asking my own progeny what to do about my feelings of utter despair?” The poor guy, all I could do was mutter stock comforts, which, in my experience, just make stark the gap between yourself and the world from whence you feel cut off.

That night, I stayed over at my most talented friends’ house in a London suburb. The bunch of them had this band and a house where they all lived and played music, and they were just about making a living from their music. People love their music, as they should, because it’s amazing. They’re all so bloody talented that it can be intimidating at the best of times, and after my father’s desperate outburst, on top of the writer’s block, it was both wonderful and dreadful to see them.

I watched them jamming in their living room with a mix of longing and awe. How the hell do people get so good? What’s more, how can they be so NICE, too? I felt like a nothing — even worse than nothing, a bitter nothing, like a bad smell in a nice room.

W., the most talented one of the unbelievably talented bunch, jammed a guitar in my hand and said, “give us a song!” I couldn’t have felt less like playing at that moment. My whole body recoiled from the very thought of having to subject myself to my peers’ completely friendly, non-judging, terribly talented and crushingly enthusiastic appraisal. I sat down with her guitar and practically winced. I could feel my heart trying to crawl back into itself.

And then, I croaked out a sound. It just came out. It was practically inaudible, and my fingers barely brushed the coarse surface of the steel strings, but it came out alright. The whole rest of me was crushing itself backwards, trying to slink away, and this little melody came out like a shy little thing suddenly revealed. It was basically the bit that became the chorus of “Scorched Earth”.

I played it over and over. Even when I got back to Dalkey, I’d sit in my bedroom for hours, playing this little bit over and over. “Why don’t you come out / and see the savage world / through my window?” I don’t even know what I’m talking about. Who am I even asking?

February in Dalkey produced more agony and less music. Every time I got totally frustrated and felt like “that’s it, I’m finished”, I played that little bit about the “savage world” — and I kind of felt better. The cold days bit less hard, the damp seemed to stop somewhere at my longjohns, and the sea air smelled faintly invigorating.

On the second day of March, it came time to leave Dalkey and commit myself once again to the cold confines of my draughty flat. Luckily, the weather was beautiful. Undeniably spring. At long last, the sky was blue and the air was mild.

I had lots and lots of stuff with me. The journey took about 40 minutes on the DART (the Dublin commuter train) and I sat staring out the window as seaside town after seaside town whizzed past, and the bay chucked itself against the side of walls people had erected to separate themselves from Nature’s jolly but persistent disobedience. Nature’s jolly but persistent disobedience seemed pointedly welcome at that moment.

BANG! The first verse and verse melody to “Scorched Earth” came to me in a flash, all at once, without warning — and I didn’t have a pen or paper on me. I had to walk a mile and a half with all my bags and instruments hanging all over me, and the warm weather made a mockery of my longjohns and P-coat, which served to create tropical micro-climates in the nooks and crannies of my struggling body.

I lugged my load desperately down the Grand Canal towards Rathmines, where I prayed I’d reach a writing implement before the inspiration evaporated into thin air, leaving me nothing more than sweaty and songless in a “savage world”, looking and feeling like a twat.

Tumbling through the door, extricating myself from my worldly possessions like so many anchors and chains, I threw myself at my typewriter and knocked out “Scorched Earth” in about 15 minutes. I guess the dam just broke. I guess J. was right: you can’t push it, you’ve just got to make sure you’ve got a pencil and paper when the inspiration comes around, because it may come around while you’re on a train.

Four years to the day, I still think “Scorched Earth” is one of the best things I’ve ever written (though I do say so myself), maybe because I still associate it with that feeling of release, like a good cry when you’ve been holding it in for a long time and you just can’t hold it in anymore.

Listen to or download “Scorched Earth”

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Scorched Earth, Four Years On

  1. somanywings

    Scorched Earth is the only song i listen to when i’m tired and broken and need a friend. It’s never failed to make me smile.

  2. i’ve always loved “scorched earth.”

    love you, ben!

  3. i always have my mind occupied on some project or other! one of these times, i’ll take some time out of my head and get to doing some holidaying or something!

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