One of the best measures of artists’ success comes through what we are willing to forgive them. Or at least, when you’re touched by genius, and you’re at the top of your game, you can do things that we would mock in lesser talents.
Charles Dickens can break nearly all of the accepted rules of good fiction. He can take you off on absurdly long digressions. He can introduce ridiculous coincidences. He can abandon characters for hundreds of pages, only to bring them back in order to allow them to bring about one of those daft coincidences. And, as a reader, you’ll just lap it up. More than that, you’ll ask for more. He does it with such style and energy and there are so many fireworks bursting from the pages that he can make you love almost anything. Likewise, James Joyce can write Ulysses: A retelling of The Odyssey set over one day in Dublin, with pages and pages devoted to the interior monologue of a man who is buying lemon-scented soap? It’s ridiculous. But also, it’s wonderful. Elsewhere, Picasso can make a bull head out of a bicycle seat and handle bars and it somehow make it seem the most noble and graceful rendition of the animal imaginable. David Bowie can sing lullabies about aliens and make them sound as profound as Plato’s Republic. And so, it goes on.
The mention of early 1970s David Bowie brings me to a related idea of mine. I’m certain that, in 1973, Bowie’s glam rock rivals, Roxy Music, were among the greatest geniuses on the planet. To understand just how good Roxy Music were in their early years, you have to listen to a track on their third album, Stranded, called ‘A Song For Europe’. After a glorious, melancholy-drenched couple of verses taking in such European touchstones as an ‘empty café’, ‘Notre Dame’, ‘oysters’ and a general longing for a lost past, sharp-dressing vocalist Bryan Ferry moves the scene to Venice, singing: ‘Through silken waters/My gondola glides/And…’ – wait for it! – ‘the bridge, it sighs’.
Written on the page, those lyrics look ridiculous. But on the record, they’re glorious. I defy you to listen to the song and not get caught up in it – especially when the drums thunder down immediately after that verse and Ferry launches into a despairing vibrato about break-ups and loss. And that isn’t even the half of it. Soon afterwards, there’s a verse in Latin. That’s right. Latin! And then Ferry roars on into French and by god I love it. It’s astonishing. That band could do anything.
And one of the things the band could do was fix an image of Europe in my head. I first heard ‘A Song for Europe’ when I was ten or eleven, growing up in a small farming village in the north of England. Stranded was one of the first records I discovered in my parent’s vinyl collection and it seemed like a portal to another world: The one where adults lived. It was a door you could step through into somewhere smarter, sharper and far more interesting. Somewhere, in other words, like Europe. A place of empty cafes, soulful longing and languages I didn’t understand. Things I’d have to travel and to study to get hold of. It promised adventure, stimulation, sophistication. And raging, howling sax solos. And Bryan Ferry’s arctic cool. I wanted to go there. I wanted to be a part of it.
I’ve felt the same about my continent ever since. But, of course, today I’m aware that this isn’t the only possible reaction. I know that the same things that excited me intimidated and annoyed a lot of people in the UK. There’s a big part of British society terrified of the notion that the French may be more sophisticated than they are, that the Italians more attractive and romantic, or that anywhere south of Bognor may be worth visiting. A Song for Europe, indeed.
The song has also taken on new meaning since the UK appears to be crashing out of the European Union. Now, when I listen to Ferry lament that there’s now ‘only sorrow’ and we have nothing left to share ‘but yesterdays’, it all feels sadder than ever. More so because Ferry himself has very different politics to my own. Given his vocal support for fox hunting and other right-wing perversions of the past, I worry he may even be a Brexit supporter. But as I listen to ‘A Song for Europe’ I can briefly feel that there’s as much that unites us as divides us. I can forgive it all.
Coughing Has Become Almost a Terrorist Act: A Conversation with Srečko Horvat
One of Europe's leading philosophers and co-founder of DiEM25 on Covid-19-related infodemic, living in “the Mediterranean as in once was”, the climate and ecological apocalypse and much more