I spend a lot of my free time by myself in my living room. I play records. I drink cheap gin. I dance around. I play with my cat. It’s fun. Come on by some time. I’ll make you a Jenkins and soda and play you a bunch of stuff you may or may not know and may or may not want to actually hear.
I’ve been in a good groove lately. I’ve got some favorites I really can crank again and again without disappointment. John Kay’s “To Be Alive.” Little Richard’s “Lucille.” “Too Many Docile Minds” by the Sir Douglas Quintet. “Cross Country” by Legend. Almost any song that Sandy Denny sings. But one thing I’ve found myself listening to more often than anything on these golden afternoons is Crispy Ambulance’s Live on a Hot August Night 12”. There are certain things I know about the record. It’s on the famed Factory label. It’s produced by the famed Martin Hannett . Other than that, all I know is that until I actually found a copy it was my most requested record when spending time at Scott Foust and Karla Borecky’s house, which must be reaching into the many hundreds of nights at this point.
The b-side is a great song called “Concorde Square.” It’s punchy and it’s full of heartfelt, funny spite and romance. I love spite and romance in music. Here we have a weak-sounding guy yelling “The time will come to make you see!” over and over followed by a blissful, droning wall of sound much longer than the “song” itself, punctuated by the occasional piano riff or clanging guitar. Not the most marketable music in the world, but I love it. But I write about the b-side first because it is the a-side that gets Old Uncle Matty’s panties in a bunch.
“The Presence” is really where it’s at. It gets me going in a way nothing else does. It reminds me why I like music. It reminds me why I ever liked playing bass, which I don’t “actually” know how to do. I damn near give myself whiplash every time I have it on. I bound around the room, thunderously shaking my head and smiling at imaginary bandmates as I try so very hard to remember each individual variation in a seemingly simple bassline. Whoever the bassist is (I don’t really care) does the only trick I ever learned. He plays the same thing an octave higher every once in a while, and holy crow! If that doesn’t inspire confidence in whatever bass playing I used to do. When I hear this guy do it, I actually hear a momentary skyrocketing of drama, a cry in the dark, a yell in the night. Everything I ever wanted.
The song swirls, it floats, it pounds, but it doesn’t really exist. That’s what’s so fucking romantic about it. You try and grab it but it’s a butterfly just out of reach. “You’ve no cause to stand for anymore,” whoever-he-is sings. “I can hear you breathing/ I know you’re there/ You can hear me breathing/ You know I’m there/ I’m always there.” What on earth could he really be talking about? There’s something afoot here that we listeners are not privy to, there are secrets being told that we cannot access, we are left wondering what happens behind the closed doors of the song. It is this quality that puts us most in touch with the longing in the singer’s voice. A line like “there’s no sense in trying/ it changes nothing” is so pathetic in its own way that it becomes more believable. Emotions, those squirrely bastards, are not always reliable, and even more rarely are they indicative of the people we are as a whole. They are simply snapshots of our various aspects. Is “love” an emotion? Who the fuck knows? Who the fuck cares?
The lyrics manage to be so personal that they become political. “Snatched from your grasp/the cause you stood for/is no more.” Politics, that most revolting of theaters, is restored to its romantic potential in this song. The way politics play themselves out in real life is so boring and childish and predictable that I can’t pay attention any more. I know who I will vote for years before they run for President or any other goddam thing. But what we don’t know is where our relationships with other people will take us. We are so very much not the architects of our own destiny in this regard, we can only make feeble attempts to organize our own attitudes. Life itself is so disordered and so beautifully and terrifyingly unpredictable that we must simply cast ourselves out into it, swimming aimlessly, bouncing like pinballs off of every situation, groping in the dark like children finding their way out of their bedrooms and into the light. Whoever the singer is (I still don’t care) captures this ineffability perfectly. There is no real “scenario” laid out in the song, but the scene it calls up for me is really very vivid and specific.
For whatever reason I picture a dream I had many years ago. Right around when I first discovered the song, in fact. I was in a strange city I’d never seen and I was by myself. I knew, and everyone else did too, that the world was about to end. Or at least human life, that most blatantly ridiculous part of the world. I wandered the streets and saw plenty of cafes and taverns full of people. No one was panicking but everyone was mournful. It was a very beautiful dream. I walked into a bar and got a drink. I drank it and left. I found another bar, an open-air café thing, and I saw a beautiful girl I knew from many years before. We spoke, and it was vaguely romantic but we did not kiss. We acknowledged the gravity of the situation, and we drank white wine and waited.
At the very moment when my dream self sat down to drink wine, I was awakened by a phone call. It was my friend Josh calling me from Germany. He was there on vacation and had just left a bell-maker’s shop. He wanted to tell me all about it. The small building had been full of magnificent bells, all different shapes and sizes and tones, and all hand-crafted. He had bought a small bell with a beautiful sound, a memento, a token of his time in the shop. He then started gushing to me about Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, which I’d given to him before his trip. He could hardly contain himself as he blubbered on about how inspiring he found Miller’s zest for life, his hunger for experience, his carefree attitude. I barely got a word in. I was too busy processing the fact that in one reality I’d been experiencing the end of the world, and when jolted into the next I was saved by a strange combination of the magic of bell-making, Henry Miller’s enthusiasms, and my friend’s overwhelming desire to share these things with me. It was an almost painfully beautiful experience, the likes of which we only get to know now and again in this life. But it was real and it happened to me and I still think about it all the time.
And that is what this Crispy Ambulance record makes me think of, for whatever reason. It’s become a talisman for me. I don’t want to know any more about the band because it might somehow shake the magic loose from the record. Even setting this to paper I open myself to the possibility of knowledge I don’t actually want. I shake my head around and sing along and I bask in the glorious spite and droning and I can feel the sense of loss in the songs and I can imagine myself into them and I live there and I dwell there and every goddam time I play this record I feel these things and that is why I don’t care who’s actually in the band and that is why I don’t really care about seeking out their other records and that is why I don’t think I’d like to hear it at parties and that is why I will never sell it and if I lose everything in a house fire it’s probably the first record I’ll buy back. I’ll never hear it without feeling myself dance around my living room in the afternoon picturing the way I’d want to feel as the world crumbled all around me and this whole miserable human comedy came to an end. And tonight, live on this July night, I don’t need causes and I don’t need revenge and I need simply to feel my own bones and the beating of my own heart and I need the knowledge that love, whatever it is, actually does exist and if it does it’s a bigger concept than “God” ever was and it helps us see each other in ways we’d never dreamed of and it pushes us not to be “better” necessarily, but more open, more alive, more jealous, more spiteful, more accepting, more inquisitive, more in awe, more at home in our own ludicrous skins.
Anybody we know could wake up dead tomorrow. It’s a fact. It’s fine. It doesn’t really bother me that much. By my fuck, care about people while they’re here. And tell them that you care about them.
So thanks, Crispy Ambulance, whoever the fuck you are.