How We Know How We Listen (with apologies to The Thermals)






My father told me an apocryphal story about Neil Young which I have never forgotten. He was making a recording on his ranch and had set up two enormous stadium size speakers equipped with stereo sound, one of which was in his house, the other in his barn. Neil then proceeded to row out to the middle of his lake, requested that the music started blasting out, stood up in the boat and  shouted out the  instructions, “More House,” or “More Barn,” until he got the mix he was looking for. Neil Young is a man who knows how to listen to music and his tireless quest to achieve the perfect sound continues. (Incidentally, he is correct in his assertion that vinyl recordings are warmer than digital ones).

I have been in Paris the last few weeks avoiding the taunts of the English and their dreams of reconquering the Empire through the Olympic games. But it was whilst I was staying in my father’s apartment that I began to think about how we actually experience music and how those experiences may change. For me the only true way of consuming music, indeed any art form, is through complete immersion. If I read a book, I have to be by myself in absolute silence for the magic to take hold. If I am watching a film, it should be in the cinema – at home there are too many distractions but in the cinema you are a prisoner. And if I want to properly listen to music then I have to put headphones on and shut the world away. Music should not be a passive activity, something you have on in the background as you are doing something else. That concept has got me into trouble on more than one occasion when music meant to be in the background in a bar or restaurant has become more important than the conversation I am having.

And so it was that I was in my father’s kitchen cooking dinner for him and my two sisters accompanied by music I know like the back of my hand, music that wouldn’t make me lose concentration and  fuck up the dinner. I thought that Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ with its crystalline, splintered shards of guitar and Verlaine’s strangulated yelp of a voice would be a suitably jagged accompaniment to my Lebanese deconstruction of a coq au vin. With the volume I play music at, I also knew it would meet the approval of my father who was sat in the living room reading Liberation. Thus the pair of us were consuming passively the tales of Venus de Milo and Little Johnny Jewel whilst concentrating on a ‘more important’ activity. However, coq au vin, once prepared, needs time to cook and so I decided to actively listen to something and chose The Thermals’ wonderful ‘Fuckin A’ CD – literate Pixie-like punk with the much underrated voice of Hutch Harris offering passionate responses to the war on terror and American intervention in Iraq. As the coq au vin simmered, I listened carefully to the opening two tracks trying to work out whether “We’re self-mending / We’re self-cleansing /Our slate is clean / Say what you mean /It’s our trip and we’re not listening” was self-referential or about America. The third track, ‘How We Know’, kicks in (“You spoon water like love and I will take it /If you can take it”) and my youngest sister, Madeleine, whirls dervishly through the kitchen like a speeding Natalie Merchant circa early 10,000 Maniacs. She grabs my arms, yanks me to my feet and we dance joyously united in the fervour of the music. I am no longer listening to the music but feeling the guitar riffs surge through my body, giving me strength, hope. The track ends and Madeleine and I stand and look at each other and laugh at the absurdity of two French Lebanese women throwing each other round a bourgeois kitchen in Paris to the sound of The Thermals. My eldest sister, Therese, ever the barrister,  walks into the kitchen and sits down on a chair. She doesn’t say a word but lights a cigarette and cooly and dispassionately watches Madeleine and myself dance together. The music means nothing to her. To her it is noise, not music, something to be endured in my presence. My father shouts in from the next room demanding to know what the cacophony is. Madeleine explains she is dancing with me. “No not that cacophony,” he says. “The cacophony that Charlotte is playing.” I tell him it is The Thermals and then he says, “That is the best cacophony I have listened to in a while.”

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One Response to How We Know How We Listen (with apologies to The Thermals)

  1. Lizzie

    Love it, you reaffirm why I rarely get to read, can’t watch a film at home and the reason why when I recommend music to friends always follow it with, be sure to listen to it with headphones.


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