Unreedemable Steven Brown

/ by Vladimir Arsenić

In the year 1991. the world I had known until then simply crushed. The war started in former Yugoslavia, and everything changed. The implications of that historical event are still felt not only by us, the 22 milion people that inhabited that part of the planet, but by the whole Europe. Still, in the same year Steven Brown of Tuxedomoon recorded his masterpies Half out. The album is devoted to the things past, just as Proust’s masterpiece, and is kind of racapitulation of Brown’s life and career up to that moment. The album contains nine songs, and for the most of the time I thought that the opening one Decade with memorable lyrics: „I was lamenting the passing of the eighties, the decade I had claimed for mine, so much happened, in a way it was my whole life, until now, so I thought“ is simply the best. But since not long ago, as I, myself, grew older, I rediscovered a pearl named significantly San Francisco, and it has since became one of my all time favourites, if not the most important song ever, at least for me. It signifies everything that interest me not only in songwriting and poetry, but in literature in general.

The content of the song is rather simple. The so-called lyrical subject, or the narrator of the song is sitting all alone somewhere in Brussels and is looking through the window, and then, all of a sudden, it appears that he is in the town of his youth, San Francisco, and everything seems to melt, to interlap. Belgium skies are juxtaposed on San Francisco fog, Chaussée d’Ixelles transforms into the Market street, and the general feeling of nostalgia is ever present. The dominant colour is grey, the feeling is that of moist and fog, but the song is not a sad one, but rather, up to that point, kind of comforting. The key words of the the whole piece are obviously „My mind became a lighthouse“ and by saying that one can imagine the omnipotence and omnipresence of the self, of time, of the past, present and future melted into one. As in famous Eliots verses from Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable

The general movement of the song is from outside to inside, from appearances to apparitions, from senses to thoughts. It starts with the piano notes tuned up with very soft Brown’s barritone. The song mixes up singing and reciting, since everything here is in its double, everything is twofold. The rhythm of the song is somehow broken, after every tap of the overaccented rhythm machine comes a short pause, and then a very strong bass line which has melodic potential. The theme sketched through piano and voice along with the theme of remeberance takes us upwards to a break, to the moment in which begins one of the most beautiful solos on saxophone performed by Brown himself. And after the last sonorous note of the passage, the songs changes almost completely, and we are thrown in the middle of the stream of consciousness.

If there ever was a great master of sampling, than it has to be Brown. But sampling is not accidental, it has very ideological context. Somehow it turns out that the song is divided into two almost equal parts by their length, the first one being conscious, and/or wake, and/or visual, the other the opposite, subconscious, dreamlike, and auditive. As if the listener crosses from the individual mind to a collective one, or as if he is thrown into something that reminds me of Lacanian Real, at least it is similarly threatening.

We hear voices: female and male. And the female one raises the question: „Are they recording us?“ which is probably the most important questions of our time, the era of invaded privacy. Then the guy starts explaining his time spent in the hospital. One can not hear precisely what they are talking about, everything is blurred, overloaded with other voices and sounds, with the musical theme everpresent. But still some of the words are very clear, and they are very important: „very scary“, „had no job“, and „I never did any drugs“, as if they are answering to a police officer who is questioning them. Or, another thing comes to mind, the I of the song is lying on a couch in front of the analyst and the words are just springing as free associations. No matter what is closer to the Browns imaginary intention, it is obvious that the remembrance from the first part of the song has its own dangers, and not everything is so naive and nostalgic.

The first part of the sampling ends with the repetition of the first line of the song, sung by Brown: „I was sitting all alone and...“ just to assure us that we are still in the same frame. Then the sampling continues with completely changed melody and rhythm and we are listening to an Italian aria, which slowly turns into another male voice in which the words are almost unrecognizable, except the word „masculine“, and then all simply fades away, and the song ends. It seems that the I of the song got tired, or fell asleep, or he had closed the window.

Starting as a kind of innocent melting pot, juxtaposition that we are all experience in life, the song turns and twists, from the almost childhoodlike remembering of the places one lived in, to the exposing oneself to something far more dangerous, even threatening. It turns out that the song is about the vulnerability of the indivdiual amidst the collective, or the world, or the interaction. It continues the last lines of the song Decade in which Brown states „Now that the commies are gone, they’re after the artists and the gays“. And the question who are they really is the one we should be asking ourselves, while listening to these two great pieces of songwriting.

Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal e-novine.com and booksa.hr. He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum, pescanik.net, proletter.org. He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into albanian and slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC.