Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Edwyn Collins, Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 22nd August

He took to the stage, tall and thin in a dark suit, sporting a black walking stick. Leaned against a large amplifier which didn’t look like it was amplifying anything, but it was cooler than sitting on a stool. Within reach of his good, left hand a music stand with a book of lyrics, and in a semi-circle around him no fewer than three acoustic guitarists and a drummer with a set of congas. It was half past midnight on his 50th birthday, so really it was the 23rd. Later on there were be two rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’: one scheduled, after the last song of the encore, with a cake and candles brought on stage by his son William; one initiated by the audience, fond but less tuneful. The applause died down. He said, ‘“Falling and Laughing”. Now’. And there it was, interjected with mixing expostulations from Edwyn: ‘Up! Drums, up!’ God, I love ‘Falling and Laughing’. More even than ‘Poor Old Soul’, which followed, and with which he really hit his stride, his singing voice miraculously powerful and fluid, compared to his fragile speech. Not perfect, but when was it ever that? When was that ever the point?

In her book, Grace says that old friends took time to adjust to Edwyn after his stroke: second meetings were usually easier than first meetings. Marking the transition, I suppose, from thinking, ‘How he’s changed,’ to ‘Has he though?’ and ‘Upwards and onwards.’ Even as a fan, I remember being terribly upset, hearing him for the first time since his recovery on a Front Row in 2007. It was a good interview – with Grace’s help, he talked about his situation, his newly completed album (recorded before the stroke, of course). He sang a burst of ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’, a genuinely new song, which was a joy to hear. Coming to it cold, though, it was unbearably sad, hearing this once eloquent man struggle to put simple sentences together. Though it was not really the point that he was once eloquent, it was more that he once wrote ‘Falling and Laughing’ and ‘Louise Louise’ and ‘In A Nutshell’, and this could still happen to him. I wondered that if a ten minute radio interview was too much for me, what would a gig be like? That book, though. So generous, so practical. Disarmingly blunt, it snaps you out of it. ‘Suffering is ordinary’. Get used to that, and get on with enjoying this.

Talk about a greatest hits set. To my delight, it was weighted in favour of the glorious You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever / The Glasgow School era Orange Juice. As well as ‘Falling and Laughing’ and ‘Poor Old Soul’ were ‘Dying Day’, ‘Consolation Prize’ and even ‘Blue Boy’. From later on were ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘A Girl Like You’, and two songs from the Hope and Despair LP, which I have been coming around to recently and belatedly. The wall of acoustic guitars attacked them all with a verve which belied the homogeneous instrumentation (band intros were funny: ‘on guitar... on guitar... on guitar... and I am on... me’). It made me think of the video for ‘You’ll Never Know, My Love’: Edwyn in his studio, surrounded by a collection of guitars he can no longer play (there seem to be hundreds of them). Except that here, they were being played, he’d just got other people to do it for him.

The special guests were mixed, but mostly a blessing: the first of these, improbably called Romeo (from The Magic Numbers, apparently), took a verse and made it worse, his singing too precious by half. Malcolm Ross did a better job, on ‘Consolation Prize’: ‘He wore his fringe like Roger McGuinn’s’. The third guest, Ryan from The Cribs (again apparently – I don’t seem to have heard of anyone these days!), introduced ‘a brand new song – the three most exciting words in the English language’. Written by Ryan and Edwyn, it was about sleeplessness. As with ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’, wordplay had been replaced by something simpler, more direct. An obvious effect of Edwyn’s diminished language skills, but not a bad songwriting direction either. Then they did another new song.

‘A Girl Like You’ concluded the main set, pretty epic. He came out for the encore and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’, which was followed by a shout, ‘You’d better play “Breakfast Time” now!’ ‘I’m sorry,’ replied Edwyn. ‘It’s the dysphasia, you see.’ No unrehearsed songs. Generally his speech varied according to what he was doing: announcing songs, he was stilted, but responding to the audience he was more spontaneous and fluid. Someone shouted out indistinctly after Edwyn announced ‘One Track Mind’, and he made him repeat it. He had to ask a couple of times, but the man eventually explained that he’d thought he might mean the Heartbreakers’ song. ‘No, it’s my song,’ said Edwyn, firmly, to laughter. It doesn’t sound like much, but it showed he was in control, it was a nice moment.

After the ‘Breakfast Time’ comment he went into ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’: light, understated. ‘I will always be lucky in my life.’ What an amazing thing to sing. We’re lucky too, Edwyn.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Grace Maxwell – ‘Falling & Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins’

About halfway through reading it I wrote: ‘The Edwyn book has become less upsetting since his condition has stabilised (though this is relative to earlier chapters which are Very Upsetting Indeed). He still has MRSA to go, it is coming on, has caused the postponement of language / mobility therapy. I don’t know how much I’m actually enjoying it, but it is gripping. Far more in depth than the TV documentary, which only showed the latter stages of therapy, and triumphant goals achieved – rehearsals for a gig, climbing a large set of stone steps to a view of a tempestuous sea, “Leviathan” playing in the background. Grace does such a good job of conveying her shock, and the determination with which she counters it. There are moments when she expresses horror at what Edwyn has lost, but she never considers for a moment that he himself might be gone. It is as though she is dragging him back to the surface by sheer willpower – matched, she emphasises, by Edwyn’s own.’

I’m not sure how much I want to add to that. Looking back over the book for quotations it is upsetting all over again. But in the best sense. It disrupts and it re-affirms. At the end of the ‘Coping’ chapter, Grace notes how common their situation is, and that ‘we in the West have conspired to hide away from unpleasantness to hermetically seal it off from our perception of normal life.’ (p. 87). Our hero concurs:

Edwyn found his flow one day and said to me: ‘Suffering is ordinary. Suffering is the understanding.’

He knows too. (p. 89)

Though the situation is common, I don’t know about the reaction. S., who works with people who have brain injuries, says that the level to which he has recovered is ‘awesome’, it is not something she expected from her experience of similar cases. An unsympathetic doctor paints a gloomy picture:

any progress we see could plateau and finish at any time. As for his speech, his cognitive powers, well, not much going on there, I’m afraid.

David and I pass silent judgement on this charmer. (p. 102)

For him to be talking, walking, singing, drawing, performing, writing one of his best ever songs... it is incredible. Grace records with satisfaction that this plateau was never reached, that improvements continue. This book, like the Home Again album booklet, has Edwyn’s beautiful drawings of birds scattered throughout. It has the most perfect title, the most perfect cover. Nearly every page will make you cry, one way or another. Thank you, brave people, for sharing this.

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