Silence

Mark reflects on songwriting as the finishing touches are put on his upcoming album Slow Dawn.

Author:  Mark Seymour.

Date: 5 December 2019.

Original URL: https://markseymour.com.au/about

 

Article Text

There was a process. Two years of thought, copious reading, South Africa, the U.S, Ireland, scribbled notes, rough recordings into the iPhone, random band sessions that went even further back, long before the album was even an idea. In fact, we’d gotten used to jamming for the hell of it really, in random rehearsal rooms across Melbourne, so by the time Nick DiDia walked through the door we were well beyond conjecture, argument or discomfort.

Songs had either stood the test or they hadn’t.

Albums never land as expected. After Byron, I swear I will never take my shoes off in public again. But with all of that, there was something deeper at work that only really surfaced in the performance. A niggle that kept growing right up to the moment when the mixes erupted in Nick’s hands. A niggle that only the songs could address.

Why?

There was a suicide in the music community just before we went north. And the burden of human striving weighed heavily on me in that Central Coast chapel, surrounded by so much grace in the face of tragedy.

My mother died four years ago. I’ve been married for 25. My daughters have become smart, gifted women. I have a lot to be thankful for. I’ve pressed on with what I know, polishing the work, kneading, sifting, but still, shocking though it might sound, suicide has never surprised me when I’ve heard of it. Of course it’s terribly sad for those who are closest but we can never fully know each other, no matter how much we might like to speculate. And song writing is just that.

Speculation.

We are a dangerous species and there are reasons for everything.

To look outside yourself at a world you helped create, to try and see it as it really is, not as you wished it might be, can be a deeply enriching experience.

This album is crucial for me. It distils some very basic questions. Who am I? Is life worth living? Millions are asking these questions right now, in your lifetime and mine, across the planet we share.

I don’t pretend to have answers. I don’t believe in a higher purpose. I’m not sure I actually ‘believe’ in anything really. And yet some songs rise up and roar because they feel truthful even when they are built on a lie! Sometimes a lie has the truest ring. Believe me, I’ve lied a lot. To myself mostly.

I vividly remember the first time I sang in public and how powerful it felt. Then came the yearning to feel that power again, a search for the words that might bring it back. A yarn that would turn heads.

“Listen to this! This matters!”

The song.

It’s been decades and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this. Words matter. Language is thought made real. Without it we cannot relate, build communities or even love each other.

There are moments when we see ourselves as we truly are. They might feel random and chaotic at the time but they are wrought by the sum of every experience we’ve had right up to that moment and somehow, we know instantly in the midst of it, our lives are changing.

I vividly remember the time my mother kicked me under the table when I was 8. Or maybe 9.

Reason being I was told later, that loose talk would ‘upset your grandmother.’

‘Upset grandmother’ meant the old lady sitting up at the end of the dinner table would start panting, throw her head back, eyes rolling and almost fall off her chair right before your eyes. It was spectacular. A grown up lady totally losing it for no explicable reason. Everyone would stop eating. The roast went cold. All because you, or one of your siblings had said something ‘untoward’, whatever the hell that meant.

And it didn’t end there.

Dad, who’d grown up witnessing his mother’s ‘turns’ would descend into one himself, which could go on into the night, the sound of parents hissing at each other in the master bedroom. We’d lie there listening as the wind howled around the eaves of the mountain bungalow, quaking beneath the covers.

There’d be gloomy walks the next day. Little chats down at the end of the garden, Mum’s soulful murmurings into her husband’s ear, to help him get back on his pony while his mother went into the full bedroom retreat, intoning endless rosaries to assuage even the slightest possibility that she might not make it to heaven now, having borne witness to some dreadful comment a child had made in complete innocence.

But the innocence didn’t last.

What had I said? A phrase, a word? Something just slipped out. But then patterns emerged, as they do. I figured out what they were as all kids do who go looking for hypocrisy. Anything to do with God, sex, or defecation somehow rattled the cage.

It was great!

Take for example the sin of blasphemy. Saying the lord’s name in vain. What is that exactly? See, in our world it wasn’t simply a matter of saying ‘Jesus’ over a dropped fork, or forgetting to dip the brow when you were saying Grace. If you didn’t have a solid reason for saying ‘Jesus’ you just couldn’t say it at all right? End of story. Problem was, the goal posts kept moving. You couldn’t pin down when it was ok and when it wasn’t.

I remember years later working in the tax office, muttering ‘Jesus’ over a sales tax receipt and the bloke next to me stiffened.

“Excuse me”.

“Hey?”

“Excuse me.”

“What’s up?”

“You’ve just insulted a very good friend of mine.”

Fourteen years later and I still didn’t have blasphemy down. Idiot. I mumbled an apology and went for a piss.

See, at the tender age of eight your innocence is still supposed to be intact, which makes the error acceptable. But by the time I was twenty-two I was throwing ‘Jesus’ round like a dog’s dinner. I’d spent years experimenting with it. I mean let’s face it. ‘Jesus’ is a very cool word. It sounds great!

I just loved saying it so surely I could be forgiven for failing to recognize where the goal posts actually were right before I spat it out.

But hey, I get it now. The bloke just didn’t want to hear the name of his good friend mentioned in the tax office on King St.

Fair cop.

And there were all the other ‘dirty’ words of course. Like ‘cunt’ or ‘fuck’ which, back in the days of incense and altar boys, wrought physical retribution that was truly awful, often delayed until sunset for maximum effect.

The strap. One on each hand.

But see, you would have had to be a total moron to go there deliberately, given there were so many lesser words that rattled the family cage just as well, without the sting of the lash!

And there lay the really fun stuff.

Over time it turned into a kind of emotional blood sport. There merely had to be an anatomical reference, right? Words that doctors might use, like ‘vagina’, ‘penis’, ‘sex’, ‘cock’, ‘tit’, ‘period’, ‘semen’. I could go on. Anything relating to the nether regions could trigger absolute mayhem or a sort of deadening effect. It was hilarious. A triple whammy. You got to say bad stuff, which felt god-like to start with, then you got to witness your grandmother, or Dad, come unstuck, which was also great, and then to top it all off, there was no direct physical retribution to deal with afterwards.

I mean you could hardly bring out the hard leather over a word like ‘vagina’ surely?

‘What? I said vagina. I get the strap me for that? When half the people here have got one?’

Well, actually…

In fact, the word ‘vagina’ could be said with great dignity and calm if you did it under your breath. Maybe not in St. Patrick’s Cathedral but hey, I actually did that once. I was twelve I think. Just to see what would happen. Nobody heard of course. Certainly God didn’t, given I’m still here. Strapping fit.

Actually, to her credit, my grandmother had a way round the anatomy which was sort of cute, when the little boys needed to go for a piss outside on the lemon tree. Your cock was your ‘joey possum’, your ‘John Thomas’, or more practically, your ‘apparatus’. For the girls it was their ‘water works.’ Although of course, the girls weren’t allowed to give the lemons a spray…

Because they were girls.

With all this jousting over words though, by the time I hit the roaring twenties, when all the normal stuff started, which I won’t go into, I decided in retrospect that for the first two decades of my life there had been a concerted attempt to shut down an entire world of language and self-expression. And who were the culprits? My parents of course. But there was religion as well and with all due respect to my parents, they were as much victims of that as I was. And of course there was historical stuff I’d read about. The banning of words, stories, book burning. It was all the same thing to me. In fact everyone was in on it. It was a global conspiracy.

So, there was a lot to sort out by then, right? But instead of shutting the fuck up like Pavlov’s Dog, I figured if you went around saying really insulting shit because it was truthful and then handle the punch that followed, you were ahead. I’d walk away bloody and proud but people just thought I was an idiot.

Song writing proved to be a much less painful. When people hear music they tend to ‘disarm’ which means you can sneak stuff in that you just can’t get away with in normal conversation.

It’s not just words that matter. Using them truthfully matters even more.

See, the thing is, in order to feel safe, human beings need to believe that what they think is true is also right which is why they are easily offended if you say something that undermines that assumption.

But the problem is, truth and fact are not the same things. The truth itself isn’t objective. It is merely a point of arrival, albeit compelling and powerful. It’s still relative. What is truthful in one age can prove to be a tissue of lies in the next.

Still, people will believe in something long past the point of no return, when facts have blown it right out of the water, especially if they believe it collectively, which is where the ‘elephant in the room’ comes in. Governments know this. Deliberate misinformation has been an effective tool of power for thousands of years.

Ignoring the elephant is easy. You just don’t ‘mention the war’ right? When there’s conflicting truth, silence will prevail.

But not forever.

The truth will wriggle up to the surface one way or another. People find stuff out and eventually get it even if there’s carnage along the way.

Climate change is a good example.

My grandmother believed in ‘hell.’ It was so real to her that if a child blasphemed at the dinner table, there was every possibility we were all doomed simply for having heard the word at the wrong time, which was a terrible thing for her when you consider the suffering she must’ve endured her whole life, for the sake of a belief.

People say ‘God is Truth’, but at risk of offending, God isn’t necessarily fact either. Get my drift?

In 2017 I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and there along the length of a vast brick wall was the complete list of every piece of legislation that was ever passed by the South African government to try and keep the regime afloat. And boy, they went hard at it. From 1948 to 1994 there were hundreds of bills passed into law to try and stop black people from simply ‘moving around.’

Seeing the sheer scale of the effort listed like that, you had to wonder why the penny didn’t drop sooner. You can’t ignore capital forever. Black workers had to feed their children so they followed the money. Migration simply couldn’t be stopped.

‘Hey guys! Come on. This just isn’t working the way it’s supposed to’.

But see, apartheid wasn’t just a practical solution. It was God’s law, which meant the constraints on free thought, let alone speech, had to be that much heavier, to the point of death as it turned out.

All eyes on Hong Kong.

Capital and God often clash. Justice does not necessarily prevail. Democratic outcomes are often based on a lie. These are all uncomfortable truths.

But truth itself always arrives in one form or another, sometimes too late.

The difference between your truth and mine is the very reason to speak out though.

Because silence is death.

 

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